Doing the twist – how conservatives use language to their advantage

31 Mar

Elections are coming up here in Canada, and while I have to say I don’t even want to think about them and the uninspiring roster of choices we have – no different from any elections anywhere, really  — this does give me an opportunity to write about something I’ve had in mind for a while.

Typical of the hypocrisy we’ve come to expect from our PM, Stephen Harper, there has recently been exposed the contradiction between his condemnation of coalitions as a dangerous future in governance while he thought they were a great idea when he hoped to form one between the right-wing Reform Party and the Conservatives. It’s just one example of how, in the words of George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at Berkley, conservative politicians use language to dominate politics.

While conservative think tanks in the United States, says Lakoff, spend big bucks framing the public discourse in their favour, someone like Harper takes an innocent word and frames it not as an alliance, but as a conspiracy or devilish plot.

Lakoff is famous for his ideas on the centrality of metaphor to human thinking, political behaviour and society, as well as his concept of the “embodied mind.”

In an interview a few years ago, he gave a few examples of what he means. One was the phrase ‘tax relief;’ by combining a word that suggests the antidote to a painful affliction with the word ‘tax,’ it becomes a metaphor that frames the whole idea of taxes not as support for infrastructure everyone needs, but as something that causes suffering.

Lakoff also sees the difference progressive politicians and conservative ones as that between “the nurturing parent” and the “strict’ one. The former believes people are inherently good, while for the latter, “the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good.,” he says.

Nurturing, he adds, “involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible.” That means having a social safety net, civil liberties, universal education, and so on. For the right, these programs “‘spoil’ people by giving them things they haven’t earned and keeping them dependent,” he says. For them, “the good citizens are the disciplined ones – those who have already become wealthy or at least self-reliant – and those who are on the way.  … The government is there only to protect the nation, maintain order, administer justice (punishment), and to provide for the promotion and orderly conduct of business.”

So why doesn’t the positive message have more appeal to the public? To a large extent, says Lakoff, it’s because progressives don’t feel the need to use language in such a way as to frame those ideas. Conservative foundations, however, do and have spent a great deal of time and money defending the ‘strict father’ system itself.

Perhaps progressive thinkers simply believe that their more equitable ideas are just obvious. Yet by letting conservatives dictate the terms of national debate through the purposeful use of metaphors and language, they are almost always on the defensive.

In the case of Harper, I hope the contradiction in which he has enmeshed himself will have some kind of impact. The old tape of him defending the idea of coalitions has already been making the rounds on social media and on television. But the opposition needs to work harder at exposing more of the many other examples of his twisting the facts — pretending to be fiscally responsible while running up a huge deficit, defending the tax-payer while wasting vast amounts of our money on fighter planes, prisons and the disgraceful Summit of 2009, for example. And they probably need to do so by using the kind of language that resonates with average people, instead of falling onto one deadened cliché after another.


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