“Don’t Think of An Elephant” by George Lakoff

Similar to the book by Jonathan Haidt, “The Righteous Mind”, Lakoff reminds us of the mistakes and dangers the Progressives are constantly making in their political strategies. As a linguist, the author focuses on how language, words, terms and certain expressions are significantly being used in the Conservative dialectic, and thereby allowing them to control the discourse in the political arena. On the other hand, the Progressives, a little late in grasping the power language can have in people’s choices, are struggling, unable to come up with their own linguistic frame.

Just like Haidt, Lakoff warns us once more of the ‘myth of the rational self-interest’. Voters do not vote rationally, after having listened carefully to both the candidates’ position and policies and assessing the pros and cons of such consequences in their lives. ‘Truth’ unfortunately, is not objective like we would believe so, but subjective, and people choose to understand and believe truths that fit their worldview. While it is important and necessary that politicians and presidential candidates clearly enunciate and suggest viable policies that they indeed plan to develop once they are in the government, it is just as important to ‘frame’ them in a way that voters can ‘identify’ themselves with such.

People are rarely concerned with facts. They tend to listen to certain ‘truths’ framed within the worldview they already hold.

Going back to the case of the Korean presidential elections, the idea of ‘identity’ has indeed played an essential role in defining the votes of those over 60 years old. The generation that had to live through the aftermath of the Korean War, through that hunger and starch poverty, cannot but feel gratitude to Candidate Park’s father’s accomplishments. Especially since many of them didn’t experience the other side of that coin, the torture and violation of human rights. Candidate Park represented something they could associate with, the ‘daughter of the people’ who had a tragic life, losing both her parents at such a young age and yet having the courage to stay strong. Especially as they saw their lives fade away, along with the struggles in their youth, only to realize that their children and grandchildren didn’t seem to care of their ordeal, it seemed as if Candidate Park was the only one who understood their hurt. The irrational comments she made at the Debate did not matter. It was that never-changing smile, that courage seemingly given by her father and that indomitable willingness that mattered.

According to the author, the Conservatives (or Republicans) in the States have long been developing the idea of a ‘strict father’ when it comes to the role of the government and what the nation represents for ordinary citizens. And once again, this idea is very much in accordance with what Haidt suggests in his book and how Conservatives perceive the same ideas differently from the Progressives. For instance, Conservatives will stress more on how each individual should have what he ‘deserves’, according to his effort, thus standing against the notion of the Progressives that anyone should have a right to social welfare, regardless of his individual efforts. Discipline and punishment constitute the core of the Republican party and the people in the government work well to fit these two notions in their language. For the Democrats, the country should be a ‘nurturing father’, one who focuses more on empathy and responsibility.

Unfortunately, the Progressives (or Democrats) have been unable to use ‘proactive’ politics. Overwhelmed by the tradition and history the Conservatives have at their advantage, they are busy blocking their attacks, and have thus become subject to ‘reactive’ politics. Instead of being the leaders in suggesting new policies and frames of their own, they are busy deterring the Conservatives position and only manage to come up with short-term strategies. To the eye of the voter, the Progressives thus appear weak and do not portray the image of a leader well. It is of course important to play defense, but you cannot concentrate your whole match on defense only. You also need a good offense strategy.

Take the issue of ‘gay marriage’. By strict definition, ‘marriage’ doesn’t necessarily imply restriction to heterosexual marriage. Conservatives are keen on keeping their individual freedom and having a small government. The fact that they would willingly have the government define who can marry whom therefore seems controversial. Progressives could focus on the notion of ‘individual freedom’ and ‘individual right’ when framing this issue. The ultimate reason for marriage is love and if two homosexual people love each other and decide to celebrate that love, then yes, they too believe in the ‘sanctity of marriage’. I hope that when this issue finally becomes something people can freely discuss and something they truly feel they should in Korea, the Progressives will learn a thing or two from the ordeal their counterpart in the US are currently having, and be able to deal with it a bit better.

Progressives need to reclaim the moral high ground – of the grand American tradition of freedom, fairness, human dignity and full equality under the law.

Moreover, Progressives need to ‘unite’ around values that represent the country, not be constantly the subject of mockery and criticism of the Conservatives that label them as ‘un-American’ (or ‘un-Korean’) or treacherous. The focus in this sentence being ‘unite’. Especially in Korea, the division among the Progressives is so complex and it seems, the only constant in what defines them, that it is difficult for the people to even follow their argument. Look at the Conservatives. The Saenuri Party, and that’s it. What about the so-called Progressives? They always have more than 4 parties – at least – and moreover, these parties change their names and their members at each election (municipal, regional, presidential).

Frame your ideas to appeal to a larger group of population, try to find what people tend to identify with and  present a pro-active (play offense) and united front. These are some of the advice one could draw from Lakoff’s arguments and hand out to all the Progressives out there.

All in all, Lakoff’s book is short, easy to read, and although it tends to be a bit repetitive at some parts and also quite similar to “The Righteous Mind” (and I’m also personally doubtful as to how much the idea of ’empathy’ can be applied on the international cooperation level), it is recommendable.


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