Don't Think of an Elephant
It's Not Denial

I loaned one of my copies of Don't Think of an Elephant (Chelsea Green Publishing) to a non-academic, Progressive friend, and her email two days later described the book in these words: "This is the most important book I've read in a decade." Absolutely. Lakoff's work with metaphor and language is some of the most important and valuable research going on in the area of cognitive science.

Purchase Don't Think of an Elephant and read it. Now!

I would call four of his books "Four of the most important books I've read in a decade."

But Don't Think of an Elephant is unique.
Dancing Badger
Lakoff's other books are weighty academic tomes not for the faint of heart or short of attention span. Don't Think of an Elephant, in contrast, is brief, readable, and immediately accessible to any thoughtful reader. How refreshing, that this little book serves as a great introduction to Lakoff's work and, most important, as an effective, essential guidebook to entering the political debate as the underdog Progressive.

Progressives are fighting a desperate battle with neoconservative fundamentalists in this country, and we are losing because we are not thinking clearly and not listening carefully. Lakoff offers a solution to both problems. Thinking clearly requires understanding our own rhetoric and vocabulary, and using language with precision that encompasses connotative accuracy as well as "facts." This is what Lakoff calls "framing," which is to say, choosing the frame of reference within which the discussion is to be held.

Lakoff's title presents the problem. As he explains, he begins his introductory cognitive science classes by telling his students, "Don't think of an elephant." "No one," he adds, "can do it."

This is not a dog.

Mentioning the elephant forces "thinking" about it. Progressives engage in political debate with frames of reference equivalent to "I want you to stop thinking about elephants." It will never, never work; it is self-defeating. Similarly, negation can actually defeat the intended effect: "I am not a crook." To visualize "not a crook," first we must visualize "a crook," and then, if you like, run an 'X' through it. in other words, a negation is two assertions: "'I am a crook' is not true." The speaker must suggest that he is a crook in order to say he isn't.

Two classic examples of framing illustrate Lakoff's argument: In a Sierra Club interview, Lakoff explains why "global warming" was a disastrous frame for Progressives to agree to: "We like to be warm," he observes. By accepting the frame of "warming," Progressives let neocons make a potential global disaster sound, well, nice. And learning their lesson, neocons were quick to adopt even more Orwellian vocabulary for such environmental disasters as the "Clear Skies" initiative. By using their language to discuss the problem, we reinforce the connotative message that undercuts our denoted concerns.

Another example, in which Progressive rhetoric has been successful, is the adoption of "pro-choice" as the counter to "pro-life." Being "pro-abortion," as neocons try to label us, is to favor something ugly and unpleasant. No one is "pro" abortion, except the back-alley butchers who made a living on it when legal abortion was an oxymoron. Most women who get abortions are not "pro-abortion"; it's like being "pro-root canal." Progressives want women to have the right to choose an abortion. neocons will insist (I have had this thrown at me in this very debate) that "pro-choice" is really deceptive and manipulative, because the "fact" is, Progressives are really "pro-abortion," but they know better than to say "pro-abortion," so they have this manipulative euphemism. One could as easily argue that "pro-life" is deceptive and manipulative, because forcing a fetus to term so it can starve in a third-world country is not "pro-life," it's "pro-poverty." And sure enough, in my arguments with neocons what has emerged quickly is that they are not exactly "pro-life," they are "pro-suffering for your indiscretions," even if the "suffering" is the birth of an unwanted child you cannot support. (A blustering conservative responded to an example I offered: "If she hasn't got sense enough to keep her pants on, she deserves to get pregnant!" I asked, "So, pregnancy is a form of punishment?")

Progressives are "pro-abortion," neocons are "pro-starvation": Not a productive discussion, and conceding that one is, actually, "pro" abortion is as absurd as a neocon conceding she is actually "pro" starvation. What Lakoff argues about Progressive rhetoric is that we, the reasonable, thoughtful Progressives, are too quick to "see the point" of neocon frames, to accept their negative shaping or our views, and, in the process of demonstrating our reasonableness, to lose the argument.

The neocons may have over-reached in their enthusiasm for Orwellisms, in late April of this year when they announced that the media was no longer to refer to the attempt to kill discussion in the Senate as "the nuclear option," because they had decided its name was "Constitutional option." Apparently they believe the 70% of the American people opposing the NUCLEAR OPTION are just upset by the name. If they are right, and if the media tucks its collective tail and goes along with this, we are in bigger trouble than we can imagine.

Fortunately a counterforce works against the neocon love of manipulative language, their chickenhawk fixation on macho posturing. So we get nasty little punks like Tom DeLay calling themselves "the Hammer," and the Republicans, in a fit of couch potato ferocity, calling the attack on debate a "nuclear option." It's no more "nuclear" than it's "Constitutional." And frankly, if someone announces to me that he's planning to "shag" his cute young secretary, I'm not going to let him call it "get to know her."

Conceding that one is a "fiscal conservative" is implicitly conceding that "liberals" are not "fiscally conservative." Just imagine the Progressive musing aloud to the effect that "Yes, I support abortions as one of--" "See? Another Liberal attempt to deceive." Then try to imagine the neocon accepting the equally reasonable Progressive, negative reframing of his point of view. It won't happen. There, in a nutshell, is the battle we are losing. Don't let them set the frames!

Lakoff does not argue that one frame is more accurate than another. There are, he insists, "many truths" rather than a "Truth." Progressives are pro-abortion, pro-life, pro-child, pro-dignity, and it may be true, as neocons insist, that making pregnancy less of a threat has weakened our society (I happen to think so). But the answer is not punitive pregnancy and Social Darwinism killing off unwanted babies. Set our own frames, and the debate is on level ground. Then we will win, because we, after all, are right. Frame things in a way that accurately reflects our views, and people will see that our views are like theirs, our values their values. Do not allow neocon framing to force us to talk about elephants. Ignore the elephants, or call them by their true names. Real "fiscal conservativism" spends money lavishly on aircraft carriers, and won't buy an inner-city school a math textbook.

Lakoff describes the uphill battle ahead. Fundamentalist thinking has been sharpened and tuned in intellectual think tanks for half a century, funded by billions of dollars in contributions from the wealthy and from the big businesses that benefit most from neocon victories. Neocons have invested in rhetoric and communication while Progressives were investing in medicine for children. Was investing in medicine for children bad? No, but it was short-sighted. While we kept a handful of children alive, the neocons seized control of our schools. Now they are teaching those children we fed and mended to hate us. That must change.

Progressives must recognize that although we cannot turn our backs on the humane values that drive our moral community, we cannot depend on "the truth" to keep us free or on the power of facts to persuade. Facts support; they do not convince.

Get Lakoff's books here:

Don't Think of an Elephant
A handbook for influencing the election.

Moral Politics
A longer and more comprehensive presentation of the ideas condensed in Elephant.

Metaphors We Live By
The foundation book, explaining metaphor and framing. A useful, common-sense book.

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things
The comprehensive (700 pp) presentation of Lakoff's cognitive approach. Heavy, heavy going.

More than Cool Reason
Application of Lakoff principles to poetry.

Philosophy in the Flesh
Application to Philosphy.

Where Mathematics Comes From
Approaching mathematics from a cognitive point of view.

Note: The application of what Lakoff calls "the embodied mind" to objectivist pursuits like symbolic logic, mathematics, philosophy, and "hard" science is the meat and bone of his body of work. He is trying to change the way we think about reality, and his way makes a lot of sense. "Framing" challenges the fundamental ideas held in the West about language, thinking, and reason.

For a taste of Lakoff's analysis at work, read his "reviews" of that Broadway blockbuster, the RNC. For other insightful and useful Progressive ideas, visit Lakoff's Rockridge Institute or AlterNet.

In nothing is Lakoff's evidence stronger than in his illumination of the bafflement Progressives feel when the poor vote to empower the rich. How can they do something so self-defeating? Read Lakoff; it's easy. Neocons recognized that the Protestant Ethic which its "strict Father" mind-set holds dear –demanding obedience, rewarding hard work, and punishing sloth– was a compelling construction for the entire economic spectrum. It describes both the self-congratulation of the well-off and the aspirations of the disadvantaged. It crosses religious boundaries, to be found in Islamic fundamentalists and devout atheists. As Lakoff points out, people trust their frames, not facts. By framing the neocon political agenda in the metaphors of Strict Father morality, neocons won the votes of people whom they find contemptible. Ugly, yes, but the truth. A truth that might make us free, because it also suggests a way to fight back.

Most of us, Lakoff observes, have both the Strict Father and Nurturing Parent (Progressive) model active in our lives. A Strict Father at home might a Nurturing Parent at work. A Nurturing Parent may only take a Strict Father view of recidivist criminals, or drug dealers, or pedophiles. Strict Father personal relationships do not demand Strict Father politics. Both men and women may have Strict Father models they apply successfully to their lives. By invoking the values of nurture, empathy, and responsibility as keys to our true political heritage, central values of our Founding Fathers, Progressives can counter the neocon values of obedience, fear, and punishment.

Don't Think of an Elephant provides four valuable tools: First, it is an excellent introduction to Lakoff's cognitive theory, which centers on metaphor and framing. This theory is the most coherent challenge to objectivist logic to come along in many decades (stronger and more coherent, I think, than fuzzy logic). Second, it provides a history and analysis of Progressive and neocon thinking that is illuminating; its foundation is the insight that Progressive thinking applies the ethical model of the nurturing parent to politics, whereas neocon thinking applies the patriarchal Strict Father model. Third, it provides arguments to counter the basic issues that divide the country, framed in ways that do not give neocons a head start. And finally, it concludes with a few simple slogans and watchwords carefully selected to counter the buzzwords so popular in neocon vocabularies.

The book is practical and inspiring. What better combination could one ask for? It can be read in one sitting. It will change the way you present your own politics and help you comprehend the apparent incoherence of neocon thinking. Get Don't Think of an Elephant if you are feeling baffled and helpless able the political situation in our endangered democracy. It will give you strength and a plan. You supply the courage and will.

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