Stephen Harper, the one party leader who probably reads a chapter from George Lakoff’s magnificent work Don’t Think of an Elephant each night before he switches off the light, dragged an elephant into the House this week, and smiled contentedly as the man who wants his job kept flailing away at the elephant.
What was Harper achieving? Macleans had it dead on:
The Conservatives’ only goal this autumn was to mire the NDP, who have been having altogether too good a year, in quicksand up to their waists. It is now clear that Harper promised cap-and-trade, which feels a lot like a tax, in 2008 and didn’t mean it. And that
Mulcair now promises cap-and-trade and means it. MPs spent the week debating the cost of an NDP government, not its benefits, not the cost of Harper’s.
And Mulcair made two cardinal mistakes, which – if he did some bedtime reading of Lakoff – he could easily have avoided.
Mulcair’s First Mistake:
Firstly, he fell into the trap of reaffirming the Conservative frame, as Lakoff warns us not to do:
As someone who studies how brains work and how language affects politics, I see things somewhat differently. From my perspective, there is a form of surrender in advance on both sides -- a major communications surrender.
Let's start with an example, the slogan "No tax cuts for millionaires." First, "no." As I have repeatedly pointed out, negating a frame activates the frame in the brains of listeners, as when Christine O'Donnell said "I am not a witch" or Nixon said "I am not a crook."
Putting "no" first activates the idea "Tax cuts for millionaires."
That’s what Mulcair did: he surrendered in advance and activated the Tory ‘tax’ frame by trying to negate the frame. ‘My cap and trade system is not a tax … and Harperites are lying when they say that …’
Mulcair’s Second Mistake:
Secondly, he did not do what Lakoff says progressives should do:
Don't use conservative language, since it will activate their moral system in the brains of listeners. Don't try to negate their arguments. That will only make their arguments more prominent. Use your own language and your own arguments. Truth squads and wonk rooms are insufficient.
George Lakoff has some very interesting things to say about how the Conservative attack machine has made certain truths untellable in political discourse:
Here are just a few examples of presently untellable truths:
Carbon-based fuels -- oil, coal, natural gas -- are deadly. They bring death to people and animals and destruction to nature. We are not paying for their true cost because they are being subsidized: tens of billions of dollars for naval protection of tankers, hundreds of billions for oil leases, hundreds of billions in destruction of nature, as in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska coast. Death comes from the poisoning of air and water through pollution and natural gas frakking. And global warming pollution destroys nature itself -- the ice cap, the creation of violent storms, floods, deserts, the blowing up of hilltops. The salesmen of death -- the oil and coal companies -- are profiting hugely from our payouts to them via subsidies and high prices. And with the money ordinary citizens are giving to them in subsidies, they are corrupting the political process, influencing political leaders not to deal with global warming -- our greatest threat. We are dependent on them for energy, to a large extent because they have politically blocked the development of alternatives for decades.
George Lakoff on how to frame global warming:
This in a nutshell is his first piece of advice to Thomas Mulcair and his freshly-minted MPs:
Most people don't understand all the facts and figures thrown at them. People think in terms of fundamental values like freedom and responsibility, and themes that are close to their everyday lives, like health, jobs, and their children's future. Polluting fuels are dirty, both physically and morally, and should be called that.
And he warns that persistence is required – something liberals do not take kindly to:
Those are among the big ideas that have to be understood by the public. Language is needed, imagery is needed -- whatever will communicate the significance of the truth.
Ideas like these have to be repeated over and over. Liberals don't like repetition, but that's what it takes. Why? Because that's how brains work.
The Good News for Mulcair:
He should cheer up – he has about 18 to 24 months to work on framing and repetition with his MPs before the next election.
The first thing he should do is forward a copy of this post to all his MPs and advisors, and then buy every one of them George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant as an early Christmas present.