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Sunday, July 17, 2005

Mobilizing bias.....

This AM I found an email from friend Domonic linking to today's NY Times Magazine (free subs) article by Matt Bai on "The Framing Wars." This is a fairly balanced and detailed article on the post-election strategy adopted by the Democrats which, on the surface at least, is based on the work of academic linguist George Lakoff.

As Bai notes, the lessons of the Kerry defeat have been taken to heart by Democratic strategists, and they probably would be moving in the direction they are moving with or without the advice of Lakoff and other "metaphorists". But it seems convenient and politically useful to have some scholarly hook on which to hang the new approach, and Lakoff seems to have become a willing (and perhaps a bit self-promoting) vehicle for this change.

That said, I hope folks don't fall too hard for the "theory" underlying all this -- for while it makes sense and has utility, it is an empirically flawed analysis and can perhaps lead down unproductive and dangerous paths. It is based on assumptions about cultural passivity/malleability and the nature of the human mind that are far from new and perhaps too simplistic.

Political scientist E.E. Schattschneider several decades back highlighted the fact that politics involves the "mobilization of bias", but there is a problem in assuming that the key to victory (or at least change) is to engage more effectively in bias mobilization than the opposition. There is the danger, of course, that the mobilization might become more important than the message -- that winning over the opposition becomes more important than achieving one's moral purposes. Political cultures are not just there to be "shaped" -- they already contain a bias, one that more dynamic and complex than folks might realize. It is always easier to go "with the grain" of the bias rather than against, and it is too tempting to change one's message to suit the intended audience.

Then there is the problem of our understanding the workings of the human mind -- thinking of it as a bundle of metaphors and narratives located in something called the "mind" is problematic at best and can potentially result in strategies that raise real ethical issues (see the comments of Dennett). In the Bai article, for example Lakoff rejects the claim that what he is advocating is 'brainwashing,' but only because he is defining the term narrowly and technically. The more subtle term "re-framing" is used, as if to imply that the less coercive and covert approaches he advocates are less manipulative (and thus more ethically acceptable) than anything totalitarian movements and regimes might have used. It could be that our entire life is already "framed" and that all Lakoff is highlighting is that politics is a process of constant re-framing -- something the GOP realized early on and the Democrats are only now catching on to.... Don't know about you, but I find this awfully familiar and a bit scary....


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