Language Matters

I learned a few things in the four months I was in graduate school. One of them was something I’d learn in deed if not word during my five years in student government:

He who acts first dominates the debate, because he has made the debate not be about the problem but about his solution.

That’s a great verity. James Madison knew it, which is why the basic premises of the Virginia Compromise became the framework for the U.S. Constitution. Others in politics [as well as in religion and in other fora of debate] have learned another important lesson: the language that you use in debate is important.

George Lakoff of the Rockridge Institute understands this well, describing how conservatives and their think tanks have learned to frame debate in the last three decades. An excerpt:

You’ve written a lot about “tax relief” as a frame. How does it work?

The phrase “Tax relief” began coming out of the White House starting on the very day of Bush’s inauguration. It got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for “relief.” For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going. So, add “tax” to “relief” and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain.

“Tax relief” has even been picked up by the Democrats. I was asked by the Democratic Caucus in their tax meetings to talk to them, and I told them about the problems of using tax relief. The candidates were on the road. Soon after, Joe Lieberman still used the phrase tax relief in a press conference. You see the Democrats shooting themselves in the foot.

I’ve experienced this in discussing religion, too: those who seek to control debate proof-text from the fore. Those who really seek to be egregious about it do their best to demonize their opposition.

Now, you might freak that Lakoff calls himself a “progressive” when he’s a Berkeley professor, but again … that’s all labels.

I rest.