Thursday, March 31, 2005

Framing is for idiots

Joshua Green has a new article in the Atlantic Monthly ("It Isn't The Message, Stupid") that is the most direct assault yet on the growing popularity of Lakoffian style messaging within the Democratic party. I haven't digested it completely, but I was immediately struck by the sneers of condescension that just drip from Green's pen. He refers to messaging groups as "Masonic cabals". Fans of Lakoff are called "disciples". Lakoff himself is labeled a "self-appointed guru" (as if his popularity doesn't have anything to do with the validity of his work) and a "potential savior".

In fact, Green's article is a text-book example of using framing to deride something you don't like. Instead of simply laying out a case for why messaging won't help the Democrats, Green starts with the assumption that it won't and then uses a slew of metaphors to paint messaging practitioners as disciples of a flim-flam man.

I will be the first to agree that Lakoff should not be followed religiously. His deconstruction of progressive messaging is incredibly weak, especially in comparison to his brilliant deconstruction of its conservative counter-part. No blind-follower am I. Shouldn't Green be open to the possibility that us fans aren't just lock-step devotees of some traveling rainmaker? Can't he respect us enough to allow that we might actually be able to recognize some of the deficiencies in Lakoff's work and improve on them?

Besides, I have yet to meet any fan of Lakoff who would even remotely qualify as a disciple.

I've read and heard thoughts like this before. Green's is not the first missive I've read that questioned the wisdom of following Lakoff's advice. I even had a conversation this past weekend with a woman who is a colleague of Lakoff who doesn't like him. Though she managed to make some good points in her criticism without openly mocking the messaging effort.

What I find most interesting about the criticisms of the new "fad" is that a lot of it seems to be premised on the idea that it will be used badly therefore it should be knocked down. The critics like to cherry-pick Lakoff's work, find some of his sillier stuff, and then use that to label the whole messaging effort as a pointless distraction. But the message underlying this kind of criticism is that messaging is a tool that we will fuck up (because we are just foolish devotees of Jedi-Master Lakoff). So it is up to people like Green to stop us before we make fools of ourselves.

Green comes across as one of those practical sorts who thinks that ideas should be sufficient. The central thesis of messaging is that ideas are for shit if you can't present them in a compelling fashion. It is not, as Green suggests, that "how you frame an idea largely determines the response to it." It is that no idea, no matter how good, will sell if you don't frame it correctly.

The framing doesn't sell the idea. It just gets the foot in the door.


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