Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

Book and DVD "How Democrats and Progressives Can Win" by George Lakoff

Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at on November 4, 2004

During the 1988 presidential campaign, Republican partisans began employing an unusually skillful use of language and advertising technique. The Willie Horton ads, for example, used an old NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) technique of "Anchoring via Submodalities," linking Dukakis, at an unconscious level in the viewer’s mind, to Willie Horton by the use of color versus black-and-white footage, and background sound. After a few exposures to these psy-ops ads, people would "feel" Willie Horton when they "saw" Dukakis.

It was no accident. Toward the end of that campaign, I was presenting at an NLP conference in New York, and a colleague mentioned to me how the GOP had hired one of our mutual acquaintances to advise them on the tools of persuasion. "He’s gone over to the dark side," my friend said sadly.

NLP and similar psychological techniques are somewhat like the Force referred to in the Star Wars movies – they can be used to heal or they can be used to manipulate (within limits). They’re grounded in the sciences of linguistics and hypnosis, and were first identified and codified in the late 1960s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder.

I’d first learned NLP in the healing context in 1978, when I was the Executive Director of a residential treatment facility for severely emotionally disturbed and abused children, and found it a powerful therapeutic tool. I applied an NLP technique called "Reframing" to the issue of Attention Deficit Disorder, suggesting that kids with ADD were "hunters in a farmer’s world" instead of "defective," a concept endorsed by NLP co-founder Richard Bandler (who trained me) in a foreword he wrote for one of my books and written up in a TIME magazine cover story in 1993. I'd also spent about a decade teaching NLP and training NLP Practitioners.

At the same time NLP was being used for therapy and to enhance communications, the dark side of the force was getting aggressive. Newt Gingrich in particular -- skilled in these techniques -- was working with Republican leaders and conservatives in the media to frame the word "liberal" as something akin to "traitor," an effort that ultimately led to his infamous "secret" memo to GOP leaders titled "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control."

As FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) notes, Newt wrote, "Often we search hard for words to help us define our opponents. ... Apply these [words] to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.

"Decay... failure (fail)... collapse(ing)... deeper... crisis... urgent(cy)... destructive... destroy... sick... pathetic... lie... liberal... they/them... unionized bureaucracy... ‘compassion’ is not enough... betray... consequences... limit(s)... shallow... traitors... sensationalists...endanger... coercion... hypocrisy... radical... threaten... devour... waste... corruption... incompetent... permissive attitudes... destructive... impose... self-serving... greed... ideological... insecure... anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs... pessimistic... excuses... intolerant... stagnation... welfare... corrupt... selfish... insensitive... status quo... mandate(s)... taxes... spend(ing)... shame... disgrace... punish (poor...)... bizarre... cynicism... cheat... steal... abuse of power... machine... bosses... obsolete... criminal rights... red tape... patronage."

On the other hand, FAIR notes, Newt suggested that Republicans should also "memorize as many as possible" of the following "Positive Governing Words" to apply to any reference to Republicans or GOP efforts:

"Share... change... opportunity... legacy... challenge... control... truth... moral... courage... reform... prosperity... crusade... movement... children... family... debate... compete... active(ly)... we/us/our... candid(ly)... humane... pristine... provide... liberty... commitment... principle(d)... unique... duty... precious... premise... care(ing)... tough... listen... learn... help... lead... vision... success... empower(ment)... citizen... activist... mobilize... conflict... light... dream... freedom... peace... rights... pioneer... proud/pride... building... preserve... pro-(issue): flag, children, environment... reform... workfare... eliminate good-time in prison... strength... choice/choose... fair... protect... confident... incentive... hard work... initiative... common sense... passionate."

The result a decade of politicians and talk show hosts memorizing and parroting Newt’s word list is that, in much of the public’s mind, morality and patriotism are associated with conservatives while liberals are thought of in the terms described above.

And it's no coincidence that the most psychologically effective ad that the Bush campaign used in 2004 wasn't the wolf ad (that was #2) but one that had two specific NLP-based posthypnotic suggestions embedded into it, telling people that "in the quiet" and "when you're alone in the voting booth" that they "can't take the risk" of voting for Kerry. It looked like a simple check-list ad, but was saved for the last minute and played so heavily because it was so psychologically sophisticated and potent.

This is part of an overall attempt to manipulate, define, and "frame" the terms of discussion and debate in America. It’s a sophisticated and well-funded project, with roots in NLP and psychology. Groups from the GOP to the most well known right-wing think tanks to the White House have been systematically using it, and the average American has absorbed thousands of hours of its output over the past two decades.

Into this fray steps George Lakoff, professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. Like several of the early founders of NLP, Lakoff is a linguist, and today could easily be called one of our nation’s best. Although he doesn’t explicitly reference NLP in his book, it’s an excellent primer in several aspects of this technology.

Lakoff opens his book with discussions of the views of government that are held by conservatives and liberals ("strict father" versus "nurturing parent"), and points out how often debates are won by conservatives even before the discussion has begun because they were first to seize control of the language. Part of this, Lakoff notes, is the result of a genuine difference in worldviews, but a larger and more insidious part is an intentional effort by conservatives to frame the terms of national discourse.

For example, when discussion is held about "tax relief," two historic understandings of taxation are lost: that taxes are the cost of admission to a civil society, and that those who want to evade taxes yet still use public assets like fire and police protection are freeloaders. Instead, taxes are cast as something oppressive, from which we need relief.

Perhaps the most useful part of the book is the end -- although the book is best read straight through, so the concepts in the end are in context -- where Lakoff presents his own far more ethical and honest version of Newt’s famous word list. For example, where conservatives talk about "Strong Defense, Free Markets, Lower Taxes, Smaller Government, and Family Values," Lakoff recommends progressives reframe discussions into terms of "Stronger America, Broad Prosperity, Better Future, Effective Government, and Mutual Responsibility." He even titles his last chapter, "How to respond to conservatives," and it’s filled with sound and pithy advice.

The DVD, "How Democrats and Progressives Can Win," expands particularly on this final part of Lakoff's book. It's a straightforward tutorial by Lakoff himself, and goes through a series of specific issues -- abortion, taxes, same-sex marriage, and the like -- telling progressives how to perform verbal jujitsu on conservatives, taking their frames and turning them inside out. It's best watched after reading the book, as there's a lot of shorthand in the movie that makes much more sense when you've first read the book. While it makes several references specifically about how to defeat Bush in the election of '04 -- which is now over -- the information is more useful and relevant than ever.

"Don’t Think of an Elephant: know your values and frame the debate" by George Lakoff, and the DVD "How Democracy and Progressives Can Win" are vital tools for anybody interested in helping bring about a return to democracy in America. At 120 pages it’s a quick read, yet the concepts contained are so important -- and explained in such an accessible fashion -- that it will transform your ability to communicate progressive values and ideas.

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