Canadian Progressives Need a New Sales Pitch, US Academic Warns

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By Jim Coyle, Feature Writer, Toronto Star, April 25, 2015

Conservatives are better at promoting their world view because they know how to tell a story; they are adept at using narrative, metaphor and emotion to sell their message, says cognitive linguist and author George Lakoff.

The estimable George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist from the University of California at Berkeley and a proud and out progressive, was in town recently.

This being election season in Canada, and he being a professor who studies how our brains interpret the world, Lakoff wants you to think about something.

He wants you to think about how you think about politics.

His lecture, organized by and Canadian Dimension magazine, presented some useful observations for citizens who will soon be subjected to a barrage of political arguments, advertisements, debates, seductions, threats, sign wars, manipulations, warnings and out-and-out nose-stretchers.

Lakoff – author of the bestselling books The Political Mind and Don’t Think of an Elephant! – has a way of getting your attention.

“The facts are not going to set you free,” he informed a gathering at Bloor Street United Church.

“Language is never neutral.”

“There is no centre.”

For starters, we mortals are not the rational political calculating machines we might like to think, he said.

In reality, 98 percent of thought is unconscious. Consciousness is tiny because it’s tiring. And the brain likes to preserve energy.

The brain prefers habit, the path of least cognitive resistance. That’s why we do so much each day without even thinking about it.

It’s also why we develop patterns – or frames – through which we process what we see, hear and feel in our encounters with the world and its inhabitants.

This is how we usually process political arguments, our brains adapting within milliseconds what we’ve seen, heard or felt “to fit the patterns it already has.”

Without our being aware of it, inconvenient facts are distorted or ignored.

Which is why superior logical arguments don’t always win, why poor conservatives often vote against their own interests, and why striking an emotional and moral chord is crucial.

“The facts are not going to set you free, when you have somebody who just doesn’t have the appropriate world view,” Lakoff said.

As to the so-called “centre,” Lakoff says, there is no there there.

Only about 30 percent of people have a single world view or rigid ideology, he said. The rest have more than one, an often contradictory set of views. “They’re called moderates.”

But not all moderates are created identical, he said.

Some are of predominantly conservative bent, with a few progressive views; others of mostly progressive outlook, with the odd conservative value – all of them in different degrees and depths of feeling.

“There is no ideology of the moderate,” he said. “There’s no set of beliefs that all moderates hold. Doesn’t happen. Not there. There is no centre.”

So why, he asked, are politicos “always talking about the centre?”

He attributes it to polling. Pollsters rely on statistics. Statistics produce bell curves. Bell curves have a centre.

“It says most people are in the centre, when there’s nobody in the centre,” Lakoff said.

What progressives should be doing, he said, rather than chasing this mythical constituency, is speaking their own moral world view in their own language.

Why are conservatives typically better at this?

“The problem with the Democrats in the US is they went to college.”



Then Lakoff went on.

Progressives went to college and learned the reasoning skills of the Enlightenment, developed an unwarranted faith in logic, reason, mankind’s essential rationality.

In short, they believe they can win a debate on facts.

“If you’re a conservative and you go to college, what are you likely to study? Business. In the business curriculum, there is a course called marketing. What do marketing professors study? Framing. Metaphor. Imagery. Emotion. Narrative. Stories.

“That’s what they teach. They teach people how people really think, because they have to sell products.”

On top of that, conservatives – in the US and Canada – have invested a lot of money to create think-tanks and institutes that train their disciples in messaging and frame public discourse in conservative terms.

So, instead of stamping feet and wagging fingers about perfidious Tories, progressives should pay more heed to “what we’re not talking about,” Lakoff said.

For instance, progressives might want to reframe matters and portray a society in which taxes are not so much a burden as an investment, a world in which the private and public are not such distinct societies.

“Can you run a business without roads? Bridges? Can you run one without sewers? These are public resources.

“How about public education? You have to hire educated workers. What about health? If there’s disease, it’s sort of nice to have a centre for disease control.

“It’s nice to have clean water … You can’t run a business without that. Also without the electric grid. It’s also kind of useful to have airports.”

Computer science was developed in research institutes and universities, he said. As were pharmaceuticals. As was – pace Al Gore – the Internet. You want to use cellphones. Well, you need satellite communication. “No private industry did that or could have done that. The public did it, via the government. What the public did was invest in public resources to make private life possible.”

“Private depends on the public. It always depends on the public. What are called taxes are public investments in public resources for private life.”

Rather than cursing the Tories, Lakoff suggests, progressives might start thinking of ways to tell those stories.

Our Comment

A good reminder of the need to consider not just what we want to communicate, but how best to do that!

But, is it a “sales pitch” we’re after? Wouldn’t it be interesting to take such a course and then try to apply what it teaches, to see if it can affect serious rutted thinking as well as it “sells products”?

Given the evidence of successful marketing ploys, perhaps the long-term goal should be to better educate people to think!


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