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[greenyes] Linguistics and Public Attitudes to the Environment

October 28, 2004 | Back Issues

Environmentalists Losing the War of Words, Says Berkeley Linguist
Political and social change often comes down to a war of words. And
according to a prominent cognitive linguist from California,
anti-environmental forces have been winning that war because progressives
don't know how to talk about issues.

In his new book Don't Think of an Elephant, University of California at
Berkeley professor George Lakoff shows how people think in terms of frames
and metaphors, which guide their thinking on issues.

One example is talking about tax cuts. Conservatives talk about "tax relief"
instead of "tax cuts," reinforcing the idea that heroic conservatives are
rescuing people from the affliction of taxes.

Another example came in the State of the Union speech last January, when
President Bush said, "We do not need a permission slip to defend America."
The language suggests an underage America asking permission of an adult
teacher to leave the room. Another example: how conservatives shifted the
language from "estate taxes" to "death taxes."

Conservatives and liberals have a fundamentally different view of the world,
says Lakoff. Using the family as a metaphor for the nation, conservatives
see the world through a "strict father" lens. Through discipline and
punishment, the strict father urges his children to know right from wrong,
which will increase their chances for success in a dangerous world.

Liberals, on the other hand, use the "nurturant parent" model, which
encourages children to become happy and fulfilled adults through trust,
honesty, and open communication. These two worldviews, says Lakoff, explain
the striking split in today's politics and the mutual hostility between the
two political parties.

According to Lakoff, conservatives have become far shrewder at using
language to win converts. When it comes to talking about the environment,
conservatives refer to a collection of language guidelines by Republican
pollster Frank Luntz, who has long recognized that Republicans have become
vulnerable on environmental protection. The book is must reading for
conservative political candidates, judges, public speakers and even high
school students who want to become conservative leaders.

Luntz urges his readers to use words like "clean," "safe," and "healthy,"
even when talking about logging forests or polluting the air by burning
coal. Luntz's influence can be seen in such Orwellian program names as the
administration's "Healthy Forests Initiative" and "Clear Skies Initiative."

A now-infamous Luntz memo obtained by an environmental group serves as a
primer for conservatives when talking about the environment. In the memo,
Luntz urges conservatives to say "climate change" instead of "global
warming," because "while global warming has catastrophic connotations
attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less
emotional challenge."

The Luntz memo also urges conservatives to call themselves
"conservationists" instead of "environmentalists," because "conservationist"
conveys a "moderate, reasoned, common sense position between replenishing
the earth's natural resources and the human need to make use of those
resources." [1]

According to Lakoff, conservatives have invested billions over the past 30
years in think tanks, book publishing, magazines, and media consultants.
This has given them a huge head start over environmentalists in using the
most persuasive language for political change. Says Lakoff, "Playing
catch-up won't be easy, but it is necessary."

Peter Anderson, President
4513 Vernon Blvd. Suite 15
Madison, WI 53705-4964
Ph: (608) 231-1100
Fax: (608) 233-0011
Cell: (608) 698-1314
eMail: anderson@no.address

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