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November 12, 2003 » 11:46 pm

George Lakoff on Shared Language and the Rockridge Institute

George Lakoff, professor of linguistics and cognitive sciences at U.C. Berkeley, is an intellectual whose work I have admired for several years now. He is the author of many books, including Philosophy in the Flesh and Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.    (AD)

My friend Alex brought an interview with Lakoff to my attention. Lakoff, along with seven other professors from Berkeley and U.C. Davis, recently founded the Rockridge Institute, a progressive think tank.    (AE)

One of Rockridge’s goal is to develop a shared “moral language,” and to unify progressives around that language. In the interview, Lakoff explains how conservatives invested heavily in infrastructure beginning in the 1970s, creating a network of think tanks, scholars, and media outlets devoted to pushing a conservative ideology and agenda. The result was a shared language that framed public issues from a conservative perspective.    (AF)

Lakoff wants to do the same for progressives. He says:    (AG)

The background for Rockridge is that conservatives, especially conservative think tanks, have framed virtually every issue from their perspective. They have put a huge amount of money into creating the language for their worldview and getting it out there. Progressives have done virtually nothing. Even the new Center for American Progress, the think tank that John Podesta [former chief of staff for the Clinton administration] is setting up, is not dedicated to this at all. I asked Podesta who was going to do the Center’s framing. He got a blank look, thought for a second and then said, “You!” Which meant they haven’t thought about it at all. And that’s the problem. Liberals don’t get it. They don’t understand what it is they have to be doing.    (AH)

Rockridge’s job is to reframe public debate, to create balance from a progressive perspective. It’s one thing to analyze language and thought, it’s another thing to create it. That’s what we’re about. It’s a matter of asking ‘What are the central ideas of progressive thought from a moral perspective?’    (AI)

Lakoff cites several examples of how conservatives have framed language to subvert public opinion. For example, “tax relief” implies that taxation is an affliction from which we should be relieved. However, taxes could also be viewed as the enabler for what makes this country great. They enable our infrastructure, they fund research that leads to innovations, they cover law enforcement and defense, they preserve our national parks. We ought to be patriotic about paying taxes! The problem is that the conservatives have taken the initiative in framing the language for public issues, and progressives are playing into their hands by using their language.    (AJ)

A Shared Language for Collaboration and Communities    (AK)

Developing Shared Language is a fundamental prerequisite for effective collaboration, and it is one of Blue Oxen Associates‘ primary goals. The Lakoff interview does a beautiful job of explaining why language is so important for framing ideas and unifying a community.    (AL)

One of my aha moments while working with Doug Engelbart on Bootstrap Alliance was that there were many, many people out there working on essentially the same thing. Most of these folks were blissfully unaware of others, but when they learned of each other’s existence, nothing would happen. They couldn’t figure out how to work with each other. The problems were that there was no Shared Language to begin with, and that there was no motivation to develop that Shared Language. Lakoff touches upon the reason for the latter: People simply don’t appreciate the importance of Shared Language.    (AM)

I’ve mentioned MGTaylor many times in this blog. Blue Oxen Associates has partnered with Tomorrow Makers, an MGTaylor spinoff, on one of its initiatives. MGTaylor’s facilitation process begins with a series of exercises designed to develop shared language among the group. The process often frustrates participants, because they feel like they’re not “doing anything,” or they’re not being productive. The reality is, without going through that stage, it is impossible for groups to accomplish anything or to be productive. Most participants realize this in the end. Shared Language is what makes collaboration possible.    (AN)

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