Conservative Discourse

Berkeley Professor George Lakoff is claiming to know the secret of conservatives’ recent electoral success. The reason, he opines, is simple:

By dictating the terms of national debate, conservatives have put progressives firmly on the defensive.

In other words, Lakoff claims that conservatives have used language to wheedle and nudge the American people into supporting them, their policies, and their candidates.

But this strikes me as facially absurd. After all, which side is more enamored of semantics — the Left or the Right? Which side created ludicrous neologisms in the pursuit of political correctness? Which side actually chastizes (baselessly, I might add) the other for supposed insensitivity to the power that words can have? The Left produces “African-American,” “life-partner,” and “differently-abled”… They institute speech codes on college campuses everywhere. If anyone seeks to set the terms of debate (and sometimes, I might add, through less than honest means), it’s liberals.

This argument is also a handy way for “enlightened progressives” to dismiss the success of ideas they abhor. It’s not on their merits, you see; it’s all attributable to the Right-wing’s masterful use of linguistic trickery.

That being said, Lakoff doesn’t strike me as entirely half-baked (heh, that’s a good one). His observations seem somewhat insightful — this is not a crackpot job like that report a few months ago on the psychological makeup of conservatives. For instance, he says this:

Language always comes with what is called “framing.” Every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework. If you have something like “revolt,” that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing. That’s a frame.

If you then add the word “voter” in front of “revolt,” you get a metaphorical meaning saying that the voters are the oppressed people, the governor is the oppressive ruler, that they have ousted him and this is a good thing and all things are good now. All of that comes up when you see a headline like “voter revolt” � something that most people read and never notice. But these things can be affected by reporters and very often, by the campaign people themselves.

A provocative thought — precisely the sort of thing that can be taken too far, but interesting. Now I wonder what he would find if he were to turn his lens to — say — The New York Times?

(Thanks to Todd for passing this along.)