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We've Been Framed

Linda Belans. 6-19-2022




When I posted George Lakoff's quote on an activist Facebook site, it sparked an animated discourse on how we should talk about abortion. Several people suggested that we use the term "forced births" as a way to refute the Republican march to outlaw our Constitutional right. This inspired me to write about Framing and language, specifically regarding our right to abortion.*

George Lakoff, the brilliant cognitive linguist and philosopher who studies the politics of framing, would ask us to anchor our language in what we *do* value and want, rather than what we *don’t* value and don’t want.


Lakoff mentions Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transportation and former presidential candidate, as someone who understands political framing and language: He strategically uses the term Freedom To, rather than Freedom From. Lakoff might argue that the term ‘Forced Births’ telegraphs Freedom From (what we *don’t* want), which advances the republicans’ frame that fetuses are babies which drives their agenda to force women to give birth. He illustrates this well-researched theory in his seminal work Don’t Think Of An Elephant in which he asked participants not to think of an elephant. In fact, an elephant became the only thing they could then think of.


Lakoff would argue that the term Forced Births places that image – the one that republicans want – into our neurological pathways. When framing, he asks us to use language anchored in the Democratic value of compassion  – a moral concept he credits Biden for always adamantly leading with. This counters republicans’ framing of everything in terms of game theory: winning and losing. (Remember when candidate 45 referred to McCain as a ‘loser’ for being captured? Or, at a military cemetery, called fallen WWI soldiers “losers and suckers?” He appealed to the republican frame of winning as a moral issue. Everything flowed from that.)


Lakoff argues in this 20 minute interview that Democrats fail in our messaging when we focus on policies rather than our values. His research says that we have to project the morality of compassion as the basis of Democracy’s founding principles: that “what we’re saying is right.” Black Voters Matter, anchored in this value, is one of the most successful organizing groups in the country: Witness co-founder LaTosha Brown in today’s participation in The Moral March on Washington.


Republicans have come to depend on Democrats to help spread their radical anti-democratic or anti-Biden messages. It’s hard to resist being so incensed by them, so we refute them by repeating them. My Twitter feed is filled with examples of this, most recently, Biden’s bicycle fall with pictures along with short, often juvenile rants at republicans for focusing on it. Everything on social media gets shared.


There are some things we can do:

1) Work really hard to resist refuting republicans and white supremacists by repeating their language. We need to use our own framing language rather than theirs: I own my body, for example, vs forced births.

2) Call out corporate media when they repeat republican frames and language in their headlines as they often do. Demand that they use neutral or factual headlines. Many headlines in the Loser example above say: “Trump denies…” when in fact, there is actual evidence that he did.

3) Be kind to each other. Practicing compassion is key to practicing framing language.


Source material the anti-abortion rights origin story Lakoff interview

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