Action Report #4: Facts Don’t Matter. Shift the Frame!

The Personal, the Political

The most important personal-political action I’ve taken in the past two weeks is to read George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the DebateLakoff, a cognitive scientist and linguist, has spent a lifetime studying how our brains construct meaning. Lakoff argues that progressive folks keep turning to facts to argue against the swelling conservative movement and facts don’t matter. What matters, what counts, is the mental-emotional-psychological frame a person has constructed into which she or he fits the facts. As we’ve seen, a fact takes the shape of any container where it’s placed.

Lakoff is clear: our essential work is to shift the frame. 

Shifting the Frame

In this highly readable book– NOT academic at all– Lakoff describes how each of us can work on shifting frames in our daily conversations. The most important thing to remember: this isn’t abut spin or manipulation. It’s about understanding one’s values and beliefs, and then constructing a frame that helps — possibly challenges– someone rethink or reimagine his or her own perspectives in light of the new frame. This has to happen in the media and in political arenas obviously, but few people I know are part of a think tank or media outlet. I, you, have the power to sway someone’s perspectives around the dinner table, at church, on Facebook, maybe in the grocery line. Enough of us doing this will eventually together swell into a wave.

It won’t happen overnight. Lakoff tells the story of what the conservative movement has done over the course of the past decades to shift public discourse towards conservative values; he argues that progressives have to work hard and fast to begin to articulate a progressive world view and the policies and legislation that would emerge from that.

The Conservative Frame

Lakoff shapes his perspective of the conservative frame around the metaphor of family and the values and world view associated with that. For the conservatives, it is a strict father model, based on a set of assumptions. Lakoff writes,

“The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right, therefore they have to be made good.

What is needed in this kind of world is a strong, strict father who can:

  • protect the family in the dangerous world,
  • support the family in the difficult world, and
  • teach his children right from wrong.

Success in a difficult world relies on developing the internal discipline to be moral and good. In the family, children are taught through punishment.  “a bad child is one who does not learn discipline, does not function morally, does not do what is right, and therefore is not disciplined enough to become prosperous. She cannot take care of herself and thus becomes dependent.”

Lakoff also talks about “the morality of self-interest,” a form of capitalism where, if everyone pursues their own profit, then the profit of all will be maximized “by the invisible hand– that is, by nature– just naturally. Go about pursuing your own profit, and you are helping everyone.” (my emphasis) Apply this to larger society and this means no government meddling.

Carry this into the area of social programs. Lakoff explains that, from the perspective of the strict father, if you give people what they have not earned, they will not develop discipline and will become dependent and thus immoral. But government budgeting is influenced by those who believe in, and fund, social programs. What is a conservative to do in that case?

Lakoff says that in the strict father frame, you simply reward the good people– “the ones whose prosperity reveals their discipline and hence their capacity for morality– with a tax cut, and make it big enough so that there is not quite enough money left for social programs.” And so, funding is slashed. For example, some of the cuts from the 2013 “sequester” included  the National Institutes of Health; Head Start; public housing support; special education; the Library of Congress, and many more.

The government institutions that fit the strict father sensibility protect, teach through punishment, and reward success. Hence, support for the military, homeland security, tax loopholes (especially for corporations).  In terms of foreign policy, it means prioritizing self-interest. In the metaphor of the strict father, the United States itself becomes the authoritarian father figure. It looks out for the nation’s best interests and is not afraid to use its power to forward those interests.

Lakoff describes the conservative frame as based on a moral hierarchy, ordered by God:

“God above man; man above nature; adults above children; Western culture above non-Western culture; our country above other countries.These are general conservative values. But the hierarchy goes on, and it explains the oppressive views of more radical conservatives: men above women, Christians above non-Christians, whites above nonwhites, straights above gays.

Suddenly I can begin to see the appeal of Donald Trump. As Lakoff says, it’s not like conservatives are evil, bad, stupid, whatever other characterization you might use. It’s that they frame the world differently. In order to push back effectively against the conservative agenda, we have to reframe our arguments.

Not facts. FRAMES.

CC0 Public Domain

The Progressive Moral System

The progressive family model centers on nurturance and care: “Empathy, responsibility for yourself and others, and a commitment to do your best not just for yourself, but for your family, your community, your country, your world,” Lakoff writes. The values associated with the nurturant parent model? Freedom, opportunity and prosperity, fairness, open communication, trust, and honesty. Community-building, service to the community, and cooperation in a community are all values. Moreover, Lakoff believes that these are traditional American values that have been swamped by conservative framing.What To Do– And NOT Do

The goal is to activate your worldview and moral system in the political decisions of others. 

Lakoff gives a multiplicity of examples. I highly, enthusiastically, recommend reading his book just to let those soak in. What follows is my take on some of his recommendations. He presents many more, in valuable detail.

DO recognize that there are different strains of progressive  and conservative thought. Lakoff says the idea is not to work on shifting a fellow progressive’s perspective to one more closely aligned with your own, but to engage with people who are willing to have a true dialogue.

DON’T use conservative language or terminology– it only activates and reinforces that frame. And, never answer a question framed from your opponent’s point of view.

DO draw on your own values that 1) reverberate to the ideals of our nation’s founding principles and 2) are visible in specifics of the other person’s life (or the lives of people they love).

DO think carefully about progressive values that frame your worldview. This is not about sound bites, but about discourse. In many cases, these conversations will be ongoing.

DON’T argue or get mad. The minute you do, you lose.

Lakoff boils his recommendations down to four:

  • show respect;
  • respond by reframing;
  • think and talk at the level of values;
  • say what you believe.

He writes,

“Don’t just read about these values here and nod. Get out and say them out loud. Discuss them wherever you can. Volunteer for campaigns that give you a chance to discuss these values loud and clear and out in public.”

I’ve made a lot of phone calls to congresspeople over the past two weeks. The deeper work has been reading and thinking about reframing, and preparing to have tough conversations in the spaces of everyday life.

I hope you’ll think about joining me.


Lakoff posts analyses of frame shifting on his website,






2 responses to “Action Report #4: Facts Don’t Matter. Shift the Frame!”

  1. Connie Knapp says:

    On The Media had George Lakoff on this week You can hear his taxonomy of Trump’s tweets here:
    Thanks for the book recommendation. It’s going right on my list!!

    • Karen says:

      I wondered if you’d be interested in the book. It has truly expanded mine. I look forward to hearing the OTM story. Love that show.

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