UC Berkeley Point of View
Nailing the frames of the Republican National Convention
Monday, August 30: All terror, all the time
George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, is filing
daily dispatches analyzing the language used in the major speeches of
the Republican National Convention. Lakoff is a senior fellow
at the Rockridge Institute
and the author of "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think,"
in addition to books on linguistics, metaphors, and mathematics. He analyzes
"framing," or the ways in which conservatives and liberals position issues
to fit their respective moral worldviews. His latest book, "Don't Think
of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate," will be published
by Chelsea Green
The first prime-time speeches of the convention
were devoted to framing the election in terms of September 11 and the
"global war on terror" it sparked. Over and over, Arizona Senator John
McCain and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani invoked the horror
of that day three years ago. With Giuliani's speech, you could practically
feel the soot coming down. The frame was set by the visual background
an engulfing image of the smoking ruins and the date writ large. The
speech elaborated how we are to view the election. Here's the frame that
McCain's speech framed the Iraq War as an inseparable
part of the Great War on Terror, a battle of Right versus Wrong, of Good
versus Evil - a war of necessity, not choice. "We must fight; we must,"
he said, calling the Iraq war a "rendezvous with destiny" (quoting FDR
on World War II) and arguing "there was no status quo to be left alone."
The argument is that, although apparently Saddam Hussein didn't have
weapons of mass destruction, he would have had them sooner or later.
Exactly when isn't important, because as Giuliani said, Saddam "was a
weapon of mass destruction himself." When the literal isn't there, the
metaphorical will do.
Effective framing is equally about what's excluded from the frame.
Frames, once established, are hermetically sealed. You can only think
within the frame, only reason with what the frame allows.
When you focus tightly on something like the events of September 11
and a war between good and evil, you are choosing to omit other details
and issues. For example, neither speaker once mentioned the name Osama
bin Laden; al Qaeda was only mentioned a few times. The fact that both
are still at large and functioning cannot be part of the frame celebrating
our incremental victories in the "global war on terror" and the triumph
of George W. Bush. Neither McCain nor Giuliani mentioned the thousand
American soldiers killed in Iraq except in the most abstract terms, as
heroes or sacrifices. The tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have
been killed are also omitted, as are the new terrorists recruited as
a result of the Iraq War. Halliburton is not mentioned, nor Abu Ghraib.
Oil is not mentioned. There's no oil in the fight-for-freedom frame.
In the frame, people like us are good, and terrorists are just evil.
There's no attempt to understand the causes of terrorism, why ordinary
kids grow up to become terrorists. Although both McCain and Giuliani
took pains to spell out that the bad guys were Islamic fundamentalists,
those who had "hijacked a great religion," not ordinary Muslims, they
excluded from the frame other kinds of terrorists, such as the Irish
Republican Army or Timothy McVeigh.
McCain and Giuliani spoke of the terrorists as a faceless "they": "They
fight to express a hatred for all that is good in humanity" (McCain).
It's as if he and Giuliani were referring to a fixed, finite group, "'they'
will hear from us," meaning we'll bomb them and then there will be fewer
of them. Whether bombing may make it easier for terrorists to recruit
new terrorists is not part of the frame. Giuliani invoked Yassir Arafat
getting the Peace Prize as a joke, but the larger picture of the Israel-Palestinian
experience has to be excluded: the Israelis have been going after the
Palestinian terrorists militarily for years and they're just ending up
with more and more terrorists, including women and children.
Interestingly, Giuliani's speech used September 11 to justify attacking
failed states. Although terrorists are not a state phenomenon - they
exist separate from governments and national boundaries - conservatives
are trying to use the notion of the failed state to justify the only
kind of war they know how to wage, which is against countries.
It is "critical to remove the pillars of support for the global terrorist
movement," Giuliani said, and that support can take a very intangible
form, such as "the lack of accountable governments. Rather than trying
to grant more freedom, create more income, improve education and basic
health care, these governments deflect their own failures by pointing
to America and Israel and other external scapegoats." So, any government
that cannot control its terrorists is evil. That's bad news for the countries
Giuliani named - Iran, Syria, and the Sudan - but notice he didn't mention
Saudi Arabia, a failed government from which Osama Bin Laden has drawn
his wealth, whose businessmen support radical Islamic schools, and the
country of origin of most of the September 11 terrorists.
There are many other things that are excluded from the
official framing of the "global war on terror," such as oil,
the economy, the deficit, health care, jobs, education, taxes, and the
effects of global trade. The implication is that none of these things
if every American is
in mortal danger,
even those in the swing states where there's little to no chance of a
But rationality is not at issue here. People think in terms of frames.
If this frame is accepted, all such "rational" arguments will be beside
the point. Negating the frame would just reinforce it. The facts alone
won't do the job.
If you don't want this frame accepted, you have to puncture it effectively
by using what the public already believes (for example, that Iraq is
a disaster area), and you have to offer a strong, positive alternative
George Lakoff's affiliation with the Rockridge Institute appears
for identification purposes only.
Previous NewsCenter interviews with Lakoff:
professor George Lakoff dissects the "war on terror" and other
conservative catchphrases, 26 August 2004
the issues: UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff tells how conservatives
use language to dominate politics, 27 October 2003