UC Berkeley News


Letters to the Editor
Readers respond to Lakoff

22 September 2004

Prior to the start of the Republican National Convention late last month, the UC Berkeley NewsCenter — the campus’s online news and information website, produced by the Office of Public Affairs (which also publishes the Berkeleyan) — invited Professor of Linguistics George Lakoff to file daily reports during the convention, analyzing the ways in which each night’s speakers “framed” their arguments to best appeal to voters, decided and otherwise. Lakoff, already familiar to regular NewsCenter readers as the subject of an interview last year on the general topic of framing by political advocates of all ideological stripes, offered his analysis of the language of the GOP convention to shed light on the rhetoric of an extended political event. After the convention’s close, the Berkeleyan, in our Sept. 9 issue, published the second night’s analysis, condensed slightly, and pointed readers to the NewsCenter for the full four nights’ coverage.

Reader response has been significant — some of it laudatory, much of it heated and critical. A sampling of reader letters directed to both the NewsCenter and the Berkeleyan over the past few weeks appears here. Some writers objected to what they perceived as Lakoff’s ideological bias masquerading as academic rigor, while others leveled criticism at the NewsCenter and the Berkeleyan for giving Lakoff space in which to (in one writer’s words) “spread such poisonous depictions of people who hold differing beliefs.”

Lakoff’s work in cognitive linguistics is nationally recognized; we regret that we did not think to invite his analysis of the rhetoric of the Democratic National Convention as well. For his part, Lakoff here responds to criticisms of him and of his work offered by our correspondents.

George Lakoff responds:
It is all too rare for cognitive scientists and linguists to get an opportunity to present our work to the university public. I was therefore happy to respond when I was asked to study the framing used in the speeches during the four nights of the Republican convention. I was particularly impressed by the skill with which the Republicans presented their framing of the campaign — spread out with masterful precision over all the major speeches. The frame analysis revealed a structure not noticed by any of the usual commentators, and I am grateful to the many members of our community who personally expressed their appreciation for a study not available elsewhere.

Given this, the letters received are interesting. Happily, none of them found anything incorrect or inadequate about the frame analysis I gave of the content of the Republican speeches. Yet they are angry, not grateful. Why?

A frame analysis does not end with an account of what is inside the frame. It also has to show the boundaries of the frame, by looking at what is outside the frame as well as what is inside. An important way to delineate a frame is to show aspects of reality that the frame does not fit. I did this at some length for Gov. Schwarzenegger’s speech, contrasting the inside of the frame with the external reality, to reveal the frame structure.

Mr. Sanchez interpreted it, however, as “a line-by-line critique” and a “partisan rebuttal.”

Dr. Mukerji and Mr. Schaaf took it as “making political statements” and “left leaning.” And Mr. Sealey took it as “opposition to a political cause.” Why?

The reason, I think, is that they were framing my frame analysis in terms of what they see on political talk shows, where partisans criticize each other. They interpreted the piece as if it were the liberal side of such a show, without a corresponding conservative side, and hence not “fair and balanced.” This is not surprising, since the partisan-scream-show frame is familiar, while the frame-analysis frame is not.

Ms. Herren writes that I “never suggest that liberals use framing.” I was asked to write about the Republican convention, and no liberals spoke there. But half of my book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (University of Chicago Press, 2002) is about liberals’ framing. Ms. Herren’s misunderstanding is very common. She says that I suggest “that conservatives use framing with deceptive intentions, but this is the nature of framing, and liberals use it as well.” Throughout my writings I point out that framing is normal and used in every sentence anyone says. In politics, it can be used effectively to express what one really believes. I suspect that Gov. Schwarzenegger, for example, deeply believed the framing he used in his convention speech. Framing can also be used deceptively, as was done by Zell Miller and Dick Cheney in their speeches. It is important to note the differences between effective sincere uses of framing and deceptive uses.

The writers are all advocates of scholarly rigor, as am I. Unfortunately, short articles can only present results, and partial ones at that. For those who want more rigor, Moral Politics is a 500-plus-page book. I recommend it to Mr. Sealey, so he can see that the strict-father/nurturant-parent analysis is in fact “based on research findings.”

For Mr. March, who thinks my description of the strict-father family is “glib” and “grotesquely self-serving and circular,” I recommend the chapter in Moral Politics where I discuss in detail the right-wing literature on childrearing practices.

It is now 40 years since the Free Speech Movement, and these letters show that the authors have either forgotten or never learned its lessons. The FSM taught us that no great university is politically neutral. UC teaches evolution, as it should. The business school teaches standard business practices, without equal time given to critiquing them. UC manages nuclear weapons labs — hardly an apolitical position. Mr. Sealey thinks that “the university should be neutral in politics” but doesn’t mention all the everyday ways in which it is not, like those just listed.

But the FSM taught us more. The university is a place where the great political issues of our time should be discussed. Understanding how framing is used — and misused — in politics is crucial to the future of our democracy. Berkeley happens to be the university where framing research was pioneered and developed. I applaud the editors of the NewsCenter and the Berkeleyan for taking at least one step in bringing an awareness of framing to the public. And I applaud the writers of these letters both for writing them and for allowing them to be published. They have provided an occasion for a greater understanding of how framing works.
The article by George Lakoff (“Then you are a Republican!”) in
the Sept. 9 Berkeleyan was presented as an academic linguistic analysis. However, the line-by-line critique of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s speech at the Republican National Convention quickly devolved into a partisan rebuttal. Many of the implications he claims to extract from the language of the speech seem to have little foundation in anything but the most caricatured view of conservative beliefs. As someone who fully intends to vote for John Kerry this November, I consider it very important for us to not use political like-mindedness as an excuse to eschew scholarly rigor. As a university we need to keep this in mind in order that our academic insights into the political world carry the weight they deserve outside of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Daniel Sanchez
Lawrence Hall of Science

Diversity and discussion are Berkeley’s strong points today. UC Berkeley does not support Democrats; UC Berkeley does not support Republicans. It is a place that welcomes and revels in diversity of opinion, attitude, ways of life, etc.

The Lakoff articles point fingers without allowing the opposing point of view to be heard. They never suggest that liberals use framing, but look at how Lakoff deliberately refers to liberals as progressives — definite framing. He suggests that conservatives use framing with deceptive intentions, but this is the nature of framing, and liberals use it as well.

Jaime Bianca Herren

Professor Lakoff glibly defines conservatives as brutal adherents of the “strict parent” approach to life, attributing to them the method of parenting “through painful discipline — physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline.” By contrast, liberals and progressives use the so-called “nurturant parent” approach, which “has as its highest value helping individuals who need help.”

This grotesquely self-serving and circular characterization of conservatives as “bad” and progressives as “good” makes mock of any pretense at academic objectivity the good professor might claim.

David March
Virginia Beach, Virginia

While the NewsCenter is generally informative, we have noticed that in the recent past there has been a dramatic increase in the number of stories covering the upcoming presidential election, politics in general, or current events about our society at large. When opinions are presented, these pieces are almost invariably imbued with a decidedly liberal slant.

UC Berkeley should responsibly represent a large and diverse student and alumni constituency, many of the members of which, naturally, are politically conservative. To alienate these members of our own community through consistent publication of politically one-sided articles is not only misguided but ultimately self-defeating — the University now needs the moral and financial support of all its alumni more than at any other time in its distinguished history.

The [UC Berkeley] home page is also the digital front door for thousands of visitors and potential friends and donors in the USA and abroad. For these web visitors to consistently witness a politically charged and left-leaning home page does not work to the university’s advantage, enforcing outdated stereotypes of Berkeley that, to the vast majority, are hardly flattering.

We don’t see Harvard or Stanford making political statements on their home pages, despite the strong political leanings of their respective faculties, and we don’t believe Berkeley should be doing so either.

Debjit Mukerji ’94
Brook Schaaf ’00

I’m an ardent Democrat and UC Berkeley student, and I’m asking that you stop posting these articles, [and] that UC Berkeley, a public institution, hold a neutral standpoint on the upcoming elections. Out of all the UC [campuses], UC Berkeley is the only one that is posting these articles. By doing so, the university is clearly favoring one side. No such articles were posted on the [NewsCenter] during the Democratic convention.

Robin Colocho

As a Boalt Hall grad (though currently a medical doctor at UCSF and UC Berkeley), I much enjoyed reading Prof. Lakoff’s tendentious interpretations of various Republican Convention language, which for some reason UC Berkeley considers academic enough to not only print but to post online. However, as the current Republican candidate in the 14th Assembly District [which includes portions of Contra Costa and Alameda counties, including the city of Berkeley], I contend he is electioneering in the baldest sense of the word, and thus that the Berkeleyan owes equal time.

In general, I am offended at the good professor’s linguistic maneuvers, attempting to claim all that is righteous and good for his so-called progressive causes whilst denigrating a conservative opposition which, in good faith, may share many of his goals but finds his apparent preferences for achieving these goals somewhere between naive and ludicrous.

I could go through virtually every paragraph of your article tearing apart the language this politically active academic employs under the guise of his post as a professorial linguist, but it would take too long, and there are better ways to improve the world.

Lance Montauk

As a citizen, Mr. Lakoff is entitled to form his own judgment on current politics. It is unfortunate that his analysis, resting on metaphorical assimilation of political causes to familial relationships, is presented as if it were underpinned by research findings; yet unfortunate things happen.

But the university should be neutral in politics. Therefore it is wrong that the article, endorsing the opposition to a political cause, has been published in a news bulletin of the university. It is also wrong that the cost of publication is borne by the budget of the university. These things would be wrong even if the views expressed by Lakoff were wholly sound.

Raphael Sealey
Professor Emeritus of History