We've Been Framed: How Language Shapes Politics

Sunday, September 21, 2008
First Aired: 
Sunday, January 14, 2007

What Is It

Does the hijacking of words by political forces tell us something interesting about the nature of language and meaning?  Would liberals by some other name smell sweeter, or are they really tax-raising, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freaks?  Ken and John welcome back Philosophy Talk favorite Geoff Nunberg, author of The Way We Talk Now and Going Nucular, to explain the ABCs of "talking right."

Listening Notes

John and Ken begin the show by discussing the concept of frames and framing in language. Ken describes the history of framing in the study of artificial intelligence and how it has been developed in the philosophy of language. Words become associated with certain frames--for instance, suppose we hear there is a talk about free will by a certain philosopher, and someone asks: Is it an analytic or continental philosopher speaking? Depending on whether they come from an analytic or continental tradition they may associate those words with positive and negative connotations that don't arise from the words themselves, but from the framing of these words. Would you rather lose 48 pounds over 2 years or 2 pounds a month? The framing of the question can determine its answer!

Ken introduces Geoffrey Nunberg, fellow at Stanford and author of the recent book Talking Right. John begins by asking about language in general and what Geoff thinks of the evocative nature of words and frames and how these develop over time. What does the word appeasement mean to us? Not the dictionary meaning, but the real meaning that has developed since World War II in our political language? Geoff points out that some words, like appeasement, will have sustained associations with certain frames for a very long time. Ken discusses the nature of frames--are they universal and innate, or are they historically contingent? Geoff tries to steer away from the use of frames as a term because of the many "frames" that the word has come to possess.

John, Ken, and Geoff discuss whether or not there is a distinction between dictionary and literal meanings, whether not frames are a necessary evil in a linguistic society, and the nature of language use. Ken next moves the conversation into the contemporary political atmosphere, questioning whether there is something deep to learn from the fact that the right seems to be much more effective than the left at framing important issues. Geoff thinks there are two main components to the right's success: the creation of slick catch phrases like "No Child Left Behind" and the creation of an overarching narrative about the decent heartland and the traditional American spirit. Geoff thinks that too much attention is given to the former catch phrases and not enough to this very successful narrative strategy. John and Ken go on to discuss the symbols that everyday words like value, tradition, and elite have become.

John, Ken, and Geoff answer questions and lead discussions with callers about the different strategies of framing from the American right and left, whether framing distorts reality or whether it is the only reality to speak of, and what can be done to "take back" words that have been negatively framed--is it ever even possible? Are there some words which have been so framed by political or other interests that their real meaning has been completely lost? What is the point of dictionaries anyway? John and Ken discuss these questions and more before reluctantly moving their investigation to the blogosphere.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:33): Novella Carpenter speaks with George Lakoff, the influential cognitive scientist and linguist from UC Berkeley about George Bush's "Surge" vs. Vietnam's "Escalation" and how frames are created by the left and right in American Politics.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:25): Ian Shoales burns through George Orwell's life and works as the creator of some of the most important and powerful "frames" in the 20th century.