Word Theft Means Getting Framed

According to common wisdom in neuroscience, about 98 percent of our thoughts are unconscious and automatic, carried out by the neural system. We believe we think freely, but we actually don’t very much.

The linguist Charles Fillmore said that all words are cognitively defined according to conceptual “frames” – structures we use to think and understand that are part of these neural circuits in our brains.

In politics, frames are not neutral; they reflect an underlying value system, says George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley. So, if you successfully frame a topic in public discourse, chances are good you’ll win the debate because you’ve convinced people to adopt your values by unconsciously changing their brains.

Successful politicians understand that values are more powerful than mere facts alone. Values give facts meaning. And when a word is defined by a values frame, the frame is activated and strengthened in our brains. This is one reason why President Obama has called former President Clinton “the explainer in chief.” He knows how to frame.

“The facts are crucial, but they need to be framed in moral terms to make moral sense and a moral impact,” Lakoff explains. The word “redistribution”- what the flow of wealth in our society should be – is a great example. “The major political framings reflect two different moral views of democracy itself,” says Professor Lakoff.

The liberal view of democracy is based on the idea that citizens care about other citizens and are willing to “redistribute” public resources that benefit everyone. That means roads and bridges, public education, hospitals, occupational safety, environmental protection, and food safety monitoring, among others.

Without these public resources, citizens cannot live reasonably well, businesses cannot run, and a market economy would be impossible. Under this view, notes Professor Lakoff, “the flow of wealth should guarantee the affordability of health care as a basic moral principle of democracy.” So if you have cancer and no health care, you are not free, and if you’re injured or sick and cannot maintain health, your life, liberty and happiness are in jeopardy.

Conservatives have a different view and have reframed economic terms to fit their values. They believe that democracy gives individuals the “liberty” to pursue their own interests without the government standing in their way or helping them very much. Their moral principle is individual responsibility, not social responsibility. Using public resources broadly takes away incentives for citizens to work and achieve for themselves.

The “redistribution” frame for conservatives means taking away money from hard-working Americans, who have earned and deserve it, and “redistributing” it to those who haven’t earned it and don’t deserve it. Under this conservative frame, using my money to pay for someone else is inherently unfair, and jeopardizes the democratic principal of individual freedom.

Now you see why “redistribution” is so loaded – one simple word that’s considered to be a good thing by some and a bad thing by others.

Here’s another example. In recent years, conservatives hit a home run by reducing the word “liberal” to “the L-word,” as if it was a curse. How? By masterfully framing so the original meaning is lost.

Stung, but not to be outdone, liberals quickly went back to a Teddy Roosevelt era word, calling themselves “progressives,” which inherently suggests that their opponents are backward and regressive.

For our purposes, who’s right and who’s wrong doesn’t matter because the point is about effective communications, a lesson for writers. It’s not just about words or facts. Writers must also learn about and consider framing their words within a context of values-if they want to get their audience’s neural circuits buzzing!