Guest Blogger Paul Parker
In a previous post, I commented favorably on Kerry’s acceptance speech. Some others I have talked with, or listened to, were not nearly as impressed. One of the reasons is that they would still like more specifics from Kerry. How will he involve other countries in
That humans (and by implication, voters) are not always logical, consistent, or rational in their decision making was well established by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky a generation ago. As one example, this site quotes Kahneman saying, “people may drive across town to save $5 on a $15 calculator but not drive across town to save $5 on a $125 coat.” They argued people often make decisions using mental shortcuts, or heuristics, and their research also demonstrated that how a problem or choice was framed, or stated, affected the decisions that people make. It was this latter work that was acknowledged with the Nobel Prize in 2002 – and the 2003 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Psychology (note that blogger Rodger directs the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order).
Relevant to this discussion of rhetoric is their work in framing: their results show that framing mattered for people's choices, even though the alternatives were mathematically equivalent. Quoting the American Psychology Association press release on the Nobel Prize,
When Kahneman and Tversky asked people to hypothetically decide what procedure to take to cure a disease, most preferred a procedure that saved 80 percent of people to one that killed 20 percent.So the result is the same, but are you saving 80% or killing 20%?
Newt Gingrich has long understood the importance of framing, and he worked hard to develop phrases that the right could employ to effectively win an argument before it started. Why would sensible people want to vote for those “anti-family,” “anti-flag,” “tax and spend liberals?” I first ran across this GOPAC memo, Language, a Key Mechanism of Control, in Harpers in the early 1990s, but not through the beauty of the internet, you can find it many places.
This is the background for being pleased with Kerry's speech -- it might be short on specifics, and it might be more centrist than I would care for, but it was well-aimed, I felt. And the Democrats’ use of Republican phrases and themes pleased me. (this William Saletan article from Slate.com gives some more specific examples).
Among those who have made a career of arguing about the importance of framing for politics is Berkeley Linguistics Professor George Lakoff. Lakoff is associated with the Rockridge Institute, a think tank for helping the left think about how best to present their arguments. Or, in their own words, their program of Strategic Framing is“an effort to revitalize progressive discourse by reframing progressive policies in ways that speak to shared American values.”
Lakoff argues that conservatives have done quite nicely weaving an ideology through their policy positions – “The have successfully reframed issue after issue to make their language the language of everyday
For further reading / listening:
- U Chicago Press, the publisher of his Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (2e) added the essay Metaphors of Terror to its webpage shortly after 9/11. The essay is 14 pages.
- NPR Interview:
2/9/04. overlaps heavily with the American Prospect article.
- NPR Interview:
11/20/03: “The success of the conservative argument.”
- Talk of the Nation:
5/7/96: more of same, eight years ago. 7/23/04, and that web page notes he has a forthcoming book, “Don’t think of an Elephant: What every American should know about values and the framing wars.”