Scientist or Partisan?
Lakoff does something throughout the book which he must think is very clever, but which is completely transparent to the reader, making for a truly cringe-worthy experience. Lakoff has two public personas: First, he is a scientist; and second, he is a partisan political advocate. He understands that when he speaks as a partisan, we the readers necessarily take what he says with a grain of salt; but when he speaks as a scientist, we are expected to accept his statements as objective truth. Throughout the book, he constantly switches back and forth between the two personas: He’ll speak for a paragraph or two as a liberal activist advising Democratic candidates and pundits, then he’ll take off that hat and put on the linguist hat to say something “official”; then switch back to his liberal hat, and so on. I guess the temptation was too great to resist abusing this dual role, because he makes a habit — a career, actually — of putting on his scientist hat and then making partisan statements, which he passes off as impartial facts. I can only imagine that he thinks he’s getting away with it, but the gambit is so glaringly obvious that it makes you almost embarrassed for the guy.
For example, right in the introduction he puts on his scientist hat and gives us a neutral and dispassionate summary of the liberal and conservative political visions, which he will refer back to repeatedly throughout the book. But the language he chooses to use reveals all: the definition of liberalism contains words like “caring,” “decent,” “moral” and “fair,” while the definition of conservatism contains phrases like “self-interest,” “no commitment,” “corporate interests,” and “sink or swim.”
Every page, every paragraph, every sentence in the entire book could be unpacked in a similar way, an unending pastiche of partisan linguistic bias masquerading as scientific or impartial verities.
Lakoff is also the reason why liberals and conservatives never seem to be able to communicate with each other. This frustrating problem is no accident, nor a natural result of differing ideologies simply not seeing eye to eye. Rather, it’s a conscious behavior explicitly recommended by Lakoff over the years, and one which he hammers home repeatedly in The Little Blue Book. Page 43 contains the book’s core message:
“Never use your opponent’s language….Never repeat ideas that you don’t believe in, even if you are arguing against them.”
So central is this notion to Lakoff’s thesis that his publicist sent out a list of “The 10 Most Important Things Democrats Should Know” with each review copy, and guess what comes in at #1:
“Don’t repeat conservative language or ideas, even when arguing against them.”
And many politicians, pundits and talking heads have taken Lakoff’s recommendation to heart. This is why conservatives and liberals can’t seem to have the simplest conversation: liberals intentionally refuse to address or even acknowledge what conservatives say. Since (as Lakoff notes) conservatives invariably frame their own statements within their own conservative “moral frames,” every time a conservative speaks, his liberal opponent will seemingly ignore what was said and instead come back with a reply literally out of left field.
Thus, he is the progenitor of and primary advocate for the main reason why liberalism fails to win the public debate: Because it never directly confronts, disproves or negates conservative notions — it simply ignores them.
A prime example of Lakoff’s ruinous recommendations can be seen in the debate over abortion, which never seems to get resolved despite a trillion words being expended on it every day. The “conservative frame,” to use Lakoff’s language, is that a fetus is a human being who has not yet been born; thus to “abort” the fetus is to kill it, which means a human being has been killed, which is tantamount to murder. In response to this frame, Lakoff recommends — a recommendation that liberals dutifully follow — that those on the left completely ignore the conservative argument, and instead “reframe” the issue with metaphors like “freedom of choice” and “women’s independence” and “reproductive rights.” All those positive words — “freedom,” “independence,” “rights” — recast the entire debate in a different light, allowing liberals to “win” the debate by not acknowledging that the opposing side has even made a statement.
And this is Lakoff’s fundamental flaw, which unfortunately exactly coincides with his fundamental thesis (in other words, his thesis doesn’t have an error — it is an error). By intentionally refusing to challenge, disprove, understand or even acknowledge the existence of the other side’s argument, you allow that argument to grow in strength and win converts.
This would not be true if the other side’s argument were inherently weak or fallacious, which I assume is at the root of Lakoff’s blunder; he must assume that conservatives don’t have valid arguments or positions, but rather nothing more than sneakily effective ways of misrepresenting erroneous or ridiculous beliefs. In Lakoff’s universe, you can extinguish such beliefs by ignoring them completely, thus depriving them of oxygen.
This strategy of Lakoff would work if two things were true: First, that the conservative position really and truly did not have a valid point behind it; and second, that the conservative position did not have enough of a platform to reach the general public. In order to prop up his thesis, Lakoff must pretend (and insist that all his readers also pretend) that the conservative position is beneath contempt, even beneath ridicule. That solves the first potential problem. But the second one is vexatious to the liberal; Lakoff and his ilk simply cannot stand the very fact that conservative ideas are even allowed to be enunciated in public. Giving conservatives a soapbox is dangerous, even if (as Lakoff presumes) conservative arguments are nothing but a pack of lies and psychological disorders; if lies and lunacies are repeated often enough and cleverly enough, then they can successfully win the hearts and minds of the general public.
Thus the need for The Little Blue Book. While one branch of the progressive movement (led by Media Matters, which Lakoff explicitly praises on page 40) does everything it can to silence all conservative opinion, the Lakoff branch simultaneously tries a different but complementary approach: to drown out conservatives with a nonstop continuous cacophony of liberal messaging “every hour of every day of every year,” as he puts it.
And this brings us back to our example: abortion. According to Lakoff, liberals should in no way challenge the claim that abortion is murder; in fact, they shouldn’t even acknowledge that such a claim is being made. (True to form, Lakoff himself never mentions this position in his discussion of abortion.) But here’s the problem for Lakoff: It’s a really really convincing argument. And it’s also a concept that every woman on some gut-instinct level knows is at a minimum somewhat true, if not entirely true. Of course a fetus is human or a near-human; the only valid question (one which Lakoff forbids even asking) is when does it acquire individual human rights? Conception; birth; or somewhere in the middle?
So the Lakoffites can yap about “freedom of choice” and “women’s independence” and “reproductive rights” all day long, yet the listener will think: But you aren’t addressing the fundamental question. Is it murder? “Stop thinking in those terms,” cries Lakoff. But the public can’t stop, because the idea of abortion as murder has already been stated, and the idea of fetus as human existed even long before the modern political debates. Even if there were no Republican party, no conservative movement, a great many people would still have moral compunctions about abortion, because the controversy is rooted in biological realities, and was not fabricated out of thin air by reactionary rabble-rousers.
And this same insuperable problem bedevils every aspect of Lakoff’s thesis: Most of the countervailing “conservative” arguments he seeks to suppress are rooted in inescapable economic, biological or physical reality that can’t be euphemized out of existence, no matter how hard you try. This brings us to the fundamental difference between “progressivism” and “conservatism”: Progressives and their various ideological brethren have a deep belief that human nature and human culture are “constructed,” that there is no biological determinism, that mankind is a blank slate, and that human nature and human culture can be molded at will whichever way we want, if we just put our minds to it and manipulate the language cleverly enough; by contrast, conservatives and their various ideological brethren believe (correctly) that human nature is “innate,” not fabricated, not random, and arises from genetic realities that willpower cannot dissolve, no matter how hard we try. Furthermore, much of the misery we’ve experienced in the last century comes from futile attempts to create utopian societies by denying the immutability of human nature and attempting to change it by force.
While Lakoff’s foolish insistence that liberals never repeat conservative frames means that conservative notions never get directly rebutted, this insistence backfires in other ways as well. Why? Because conservatives take the diametrically opposite strategy: They seize on every utterance that liberals make, and repeat their “frames” as loudly as possible to demonstrate how deceptive they are. So while liberals studiously avoid analyzing anything conservatives say, conservatives meanwhile are avidly dissecting every single thing liberals say. The end result is that conservatives, to their own satisfaction as least, successfully challenge and de-fang every liberal notion; but liberals never challenge or de-fang conservative notions, instead seeking to snuff them out with a lethal dose of Silent Treatment.
But it gets worse, because it is the very euphemisms and other ludicrous “conceptual metaphors” recommended by Lakoff which give conservatives so much grist for their mill. Every time a liberal talking head gets up and uncorks another howler in the Lakoff style, conservative fiskers and deconstructionists latch on and tear it to pieces, trumpeting it as further evidence of liberals’ cluelessness or mendacity. So not only does Lakoff recommend holding fire against conservative frames, the ammunition he saves only ends up being used against the liberals themselves.
And this man is considered their master strategist?