A review by dee9401
Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives by George Lakoff


I just finished reading George Lakoff’s don’t think of an elephant: know your values and frame the debate. Published in 2004, it appears to be a collection of essays and thoughts he has pulled together over the years. Frankly, it could have been reduced to about a 30-40 page primer that might get a wider audience. However, at 119 pages, it’s a quick read.

The book is about frames, i.e. how we understand the world, how we know what we know. Frames control how we deal with new facts that are presented to us. If a fact agrees with the frame, it’s accepted. If a fact disagrees with the frame, in more cases than not, the fact will be discarded, regardless of whether it is true or not. According to Lakoff, frames rule our world.

His book is for progressives and goes a long way to de-vilefying conservatives and “red-state voters”. He notes that progressives can’t call people who voted for Bush as stupid or moronic. The frames they have developed, and that have been reinforced by 40 years of conservative communications, simply won’t allow these facts to overwhelm their worldview. Lakoff urges progressives to think in terms of ideas, frames, and moral values. Everyone has these and it’s a matter of framing progressive values and repeating them often to get our message across. It can’t be done overnight, and as he repeats often, “the truth will not set you free”. Facts by themselves are not sufficient. One of his best examples is the frame of “tax relief”. It just sounds good, doesn’t it? Relief. Relief is a good thing. Relief from what? Taxes. If it’s relief, then taxes must be bad. If progressives talk about tax relief and say that it isn’t any good or helps the wrong people, they’re still using the tax relief frame and are simply reinforcing the idea of relief. We need to talk about it differently. We need to talk about how government built the interstate system, how it created the internet, how cures and vaccines have been developed by the national health institutes. Paraphrasing Lakoff, your tax refund can’t pay to build a highway to drive to work.

One thing I’d like to mention is his differentiation of framing from spinning. He sees spin as manipulative use of a frame. However, I would argue that it’s spin, regardless of whether it’s for good or for manipulation. Speaking in frames is an attempt to manipulate, or change, an individual’s world view and how they process facts. We frame it one way in order to counter another frame. He says framing is good if we articulate frames we believe in and that we see as morally good. But, isn’t that what conservatives, and all groups, do? They believe in what they’re saying and use a frame that articulates that belief system. Propaganda, as Lakoff rightly points out, is something entirely different and bad. He defines it well by calling it the use of a frame that is known to be wrong and selling that frame for political or economic benefit of the purveyor.

To end on a high note, his last chapter on how to respond to conservatives is a must read. That chapter along with the introduction of frames and a few examples make this book worth a look, but it really should have been edited down to a few dozen pages.