The Language of Politics

19 September 2005

We had a fun show last week with Geoff Nunburg about the language of politics.   In a little bit,   I'll ruminate a bit more about the language of politics.

Since we're in the middle of the  pledge drive,   though,   I want a put in a brief   good word for KALW -- the innovative little station that could.   I really meant it  when I said on air that without the risk-taking and innovation that KALW brings to public radio, Philosophy Talk simply would not be happening.   I hate to say it - though it's probably  no secret -- but lots of public radio has turned really staid and highly risk averse.    KALW is an exception.   If you value risk-taking and innovation on the air,  you really should think about  giving  to this gem of a station.  They  really need you.   They  operate on a shoestring.  If you compare KALW's operating budget to a certain other public radio station that broadcasts out of San Francisco -- Bay Area folks,  you know which one I mean -- you'll be really amazed at the difference.   But for my money,  KALW beats that to remain nameless behemoth on the other side of town by a quite considerable margin when it comes to putting fresh and engaging stuff on the air.   Even if you don't live in the Bay Area, and listen to our archive over the Internet, think about giving to the station.   You can do so on-line here

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But back to the language of politics.

On the air, we didn't talk much about competing ways of "framing" the same issue.  George Lakoff has recently been arguing that the main reason that Democrats lose elections is that Republicans have been masters at framing the issues, while Democrats have not been.   We didn't get very deeply into this idea on the air.  Too bad, because Nunberg has some pretty interesting things to say  both about Lakoff's claims about framing in general and about Lakoff's particular suggestions about how certain issues might best be framed by the democrats.   

In one way, it seems to me right, maybe even trivially so,   that politics is bound to involve a lot of competition over ways of "framing"  a set of  policy choices.   There are two reasons for this -- one having to do with the nature of politics and the other having to do with just what we're doing when we're "framing" a set of issues.  Politics is about distributing benefits and burdens.  Somebody gets a benefit and somebody, possibly a distinct somebody,  has to bear  a burden.  That doesn't mean that  politics is necessarily a zero-sum game.  Sometimes we all win and sometimes we all lose. 

People  tend  to want to see their  benefits maximized and their  burdens diminished.  Lawrence Mitchell, who was our guest awhile back on our episode about corporations, described corporations as great "externalizing" engines.   I think he meant by that that  corporations are expert at pushing the social costs of what they do onto third parties.   Though corporations may be the most efficient and ruthless externalizers of all,  I don't think they're alone.   Indeed, we all want to push as much social costs as we can onto somebody else, while receiving as much social benefit as we possibly can.   Kant once held that  who "wills the end" necessarily "wills the means."   He seemed to think that willing the end without willing the means involves some kind of incoherence.   There may be something to Kant's thought, if we restrict ourselves just to ends that I must bring about tr

But what does this have to do with the war of the frames?  The answer, I think, is that   "framing" is really a matter of  representing, especially of representing in normatively laden terms.  When we frame the issues in competing ways we are, in effect, offering competing narratives about  who deserves to enjoy what benefits and  bear what burdens.   

I also think that  many of the narratives we tell ourselves are  thoroughly self-serving.  They represent us and ours as the deserving recipients of benefits and the undeserving recipients of burdens, while representing "the other"  as  the undeserving recipients of benefits and the deserving recipients of burdens.   A whole lot of politics involves a competition over normatively laden construals, I think.  And I suspect that often he who wins the battle over normative construal has gone a very long way toward winning the day. 

You might wonder whether there's an objective right and wrong in the battle over construals.   This is a tricky question.  Certainly, one can misconstrue and misrepresent all sorts of matters and one can do in service of some political agenda or other.  Take the so-called controversy over  natural selection vs  intelligent design. Every even marginally scientifically literate person knows,  or should know,  that  intelligent design is not a serious scientific hypothesis that  deserve to be taught in any science class anywhere.  But proponents of intelligent design in order to promote a certain anti-science, religiously inspired political agenda have "brilliantly" sought to "frame" intelligent design as a rival scientific hypothesis that deserves teaching along side natural selection and other naturalist mechanisms of evolution.   In this case,  we have a clear example of an attempt at framing that one might expect or at least may be  debunked merely by steadfastly drawing  public attention to the real scientific facts of the matter.  But even here that thought may be too hopeful.  The forces of darkness are so organized, determined, and entrenched in our political culture that they may win the battle over the construals despite the fact that the frame they seek to impose is a framework of misrepresentation and ignorance rather than truth and knowledge.   It is frightening that men who ought to know better -- Bill Frist, MD, to name just one  -- are now spouting this nonsense.

If it is politically difficult  to combat even an attempt at framing that rests on such  patent and pernicious falsehoods and misrepresentations what hope is there where the objective truth of the matter, if there is one,  is even harder to discern.  Indeed,  I have to admit that I tend to doubt that there are objective  facts of the matter about who  should pay what taxes, about when a fetus becomes a person deserving the protection of the law, and even about who is  entitled to "marry" whom?   What there are instead are competing normative frameworks that construe these matters in different terms and no external authority by which we may adjudicate which normative framework better gets at the truth of the matter.  To be sure,  our competing frameworks do sometimes give way to a more encompassing normative consensus.  This is what has happened at many moments of great social progress and enlightenment.  But there is no simple  recipe for making that happen. Certainly,  there is  no antecedent guarantee that it can be made to happen in every case.

So what does that mean about the language of politics?   Perhaps it means that political discourse will always suffer from a certain fragmentation and division.  Perhaps politics will always involve a battle of competing construals and frames.  We may be destined to often talk past and at each other, rather than to each other.   One can hope for a more deliberative politics in which we reason together about how to live our shared lives.  But that is really only a hope and one far from being realized at this particular moment in history.


Comments (1)

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Saturday, October 1, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

One thing we *can* resolutely say about when a fra

One thing we *can* resolutely say about when a frame should be rejected is this: if the wording of a frame implies ideas that are false, then that frame should be rejected.
Here's a loaded question that contains a political frame (one that Ken mentioned briefly on the show). Are you in favor of defense of marriage? To say no seems absurd, since marriage is a great thing worth defending. But the use of the phrase "defense of marriage" in the debate over gay marriage implies something that is clearly false--that people in favor of gay rights are somehow attacking marriage. But gays and their advocates aren't attacking anything except their own exclusion. Gay marriage would do nothing to stop people from getting married in a traditional fashion if they so desired.
So the phrase "defense of marriage" sneaks in a falsehood behind an inviting-sounding idea and thus manages to win far more proponents of a discriminatory position than that position deserves. How could you possibly oppose defending the wonderful institution of marriage?