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George Lakoff: Thinking Points

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Lakoff, George. Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)

In a culture full of slogans and soundbites, how does a cognitive linguist like Lakoff differentiate his "thinking points" from the ubiquitous "talking points?"

Thinking points are the opposite of talking points, the opposite of slogans to parrot, funny bumper stickers, T-shirt mottos, and ad copy. Nothing wrong with them, but that is not what this handbook is about. (p. 151, Epilogue)

As in his previous works Moral Politics and Don't Think of an Elephant, Lakoff's "strict father" model is essentially a polite way of recognizing the authoritarian strain in modern conservatism. He writes that "Conservatives have worked hard to redefine our words--that is, change the frame associated with a word so that it fits the conservative worldview" and notes that:

In so doing, they have changed the meaning of some of our most important concepts [liberal, patriotism, rule of law, national security, family values, and life] and have stolen our language. (pp. 43-4)

Lakoff's work is substantive, not merely stylistic; he endeavors to change how we think about issues rather than simply which slogans we use to describe them. Such a task is somewhat beyond the reach of this important-but-concise book. In trying to replicate the success of the eminently readable Elephant, Lakoff's sketched-out ideas omit a few details that would have helped to make his points even more forcefully. For example, he missed an opportunity in this passage contrasting conservatives and liberals

Conservatives: [...] Courts have gone too far in letting criminals go free on "technicalities." [...] Liberals: [...] ...police and judges must respect the constitutional rights of all citizens. (p. 45)

to use these words from the great Justice William Brennan:

"Honestly, you in the media ought to be ashamed of yourselves to call the provisions and the guarantees of the Bill of Rights `technicalities.' They're not. They're very basic to our very existence as the kind of society we are. We are what we are because we have those guarantees, and this Court exists to see that those guarantees are faithfully enforced. They are not technicalities!" ("Profiles: The Constitutionalist," The New Yorker, 12 March 1990, p. 65)

Lakoff missed another easy opportunity with this passage

Reagan repeated the "welfare queen" example so often that this unusual, indeed unique, example was taken as typical. (p. 128)

to point out that Reagan's "welfare queen" was not an "example," but a political myth created to demonize welfare recipients. As noted at DailyKos:

The "Chicago Welfare Queen" got a lot of play during the 1976 Republican primary. Sometimes she had 12 names and 30 Social Security numbers, sometimes she was also an unwed mother on AFDC. Candidate Reagan never bothered to point out to his shocked small-town audiences that his story was largely allegation and rumor. The woman in question, Linda Taylor, had been officially charged with using 4 aliases - not 80 - and fraudulent collection of $8000--not $150,000. She had not, at the time of Reagan's statements, been convicted of anything.

Also, Lakoff's use of "sexual preference" (p. 56) rather than "sexual orientation" plays into the Right's frame of LGBT citizens making an incorrect/unnatural/sinful choice rather than simply accepting their innate sexuality; he should know better.

Despite these minor flaws, Lakoff has launched another powerful salvo in the liberal/progressive struggle to defend America in this important election year. May his words find their targets with both accuracy and effect.

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