Before the election, I received a phone call requesting I take a survey. It only took a couple questions before I realized the caller was a conservative, possibly even a Tea Partier, looking for confirmation that I believed taxes were a burden from which I needed relief. I felt like I was being painted into a corner. The choices of responses already presumed agreement, offering no option for looking at the question a different way. In frustration I told the caller that their survey was designed to lead to a presupposed view or conclusion, that they weren’t really interested in my opinion, that I didn’t agree with them at almost every level, and that I wasn’t interested in wasting my time any longer. I hung up, thereby breaking one of George Lakoff’s guidelines for talking to conservatives that he presents in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant! : Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. The first guideline is show respect. I’d like to use the excuse I hadn’t read the book then, but I wasn’t at the time feeling particularly respected or even in a dialogue, so I didn’t hesitate to hang up.

Since the election, I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk to people I disagree with, something I’m not at all good at. Really when I hear people express opinions I find distasteful, I just want to hit them. Thereby failing to live by my own values of compassion and caring. So, I thought I was pretty smart when I hit on the idea to use conservatives own language to refute their arguments – or at least turn them to support what I believe. But George Lakoff’s work showed me the error of my ways.  So along with not showing respect, I’d inadvertently gotten the wrong idea on another guideline – Respond by reframing.

Lakoff is a linguist. In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant! : Know Your Values and Frame the Debate he explains how the neural pathways in our brains work to reinforce our beliefs. Using someone else’s language and understanding of a value, principle, or argument, even if refuting their argument, only works to reinforce those beliefs.  We have to operate from our own values, frame our own views, create our own language. And as Republicans and conservatives have been framing their values and beliefs for decades, we have a lot of work to do, pretty quickly.

One of the things I’ve never understood, is what being against social programs, being for the wealthy, and being against abortion have in common. Why do conservatives support these issues that have no connection as far as I can see? But Lakoff gives us the connection. Conservatives operate from a “Strict Father” model. Progressives from a “Nurturant Parent” model. A Strict Father disciplines their children and raises them to be moral and self-reliant. So social programs to help people go against those beliefs. The moral and self-reliant should end up well-off, so the wealthy should be rewarded, where as those who need help should be punished. And of course, women shouldn’t be sexually active outside of marriage, so birth control and abortion are obviously wrong. A Nurturant Parent on the other hand takes responsibility to raise their children, helping them until they are able to care for themselves and make decisions for themselves.

So what’s that all have to do with promoting progressive values? Well first, we aren’t likely to change the minds of conservatives. But there are people who are “biconceptual,” meaning they operate from both perspectives being conservative in some aspects of their lives and progressive in others. And those are the people we want to talk to, not in conservative frames (because that will just make them more conservative), but in our own progressive frames and language. And what are those frames? Lakoff gives several examples. The one that seems particularly relevant in terms of the Tea Party’s focus on taxes, is talking about taxes as an investment or the dues we pay for being a citizen. Conservatives want people to agree that taxes are a burden from which we need relief. But the reality is that progressives are happy to pay taxes that go to support our communities and fellow citizens. We see taxes as our investment in our future, our country’s well-being, and our children’s future.

Furthermore, Lakoff states that the wealthy have benefitted from our taxes. They’ve built their businesses using our roads, our educations, our internet, our phone and electrical lines, our infrastructure. They need to pay taxes for the benefits they have reaped from using taxpayer supported resources. If they don’t, they are mooches. This is reality and it needs to be stated over and over to refute the tax burden/tax relief frame of the conservatives.

How do we come up with our frames and language? We start with our values, our passions, and we repeat those values and frames over and over again. Progressive values are based on prizing empathy. We believe in caring for others and being responsible to our community. We need to express these things as positives. We believe in equality, investing in the future, promoting health and education, an open and caring society, equal rights, and protecting people and the environment.

Around the time that the Affordable Care Act first started, I had an interesting discussion with a co-worker who is a conservative Republican. She wanted to know how I could believe health care was a right. For once, I was actually able to stay calm and articulate my values. Health care is no different from education I told her. A free, caring, democratic society provides public education for everyone. We see it as both providing an opportunity for any child from any income level to find a way to succeed and grow. But we also know that our community as a whole benefits when its citizens are educated and able to succeed. Those children are everyone’s future. I then went on to say, I gladly pay my school taxes, despite the fact I have no children of my own, because I think that’s what being a caring member of a community is about – providing for the future and education of all children. Health care, I told her, is no different. We all benefit when everyone in the community can afford basic health care and so I’m happy to help pay for that.

I don’t know that I convinced her, but I was happy to be able to calmly and passionately articulate my values. That’s what Don’t Think of an Elephant! can do for all of us. Help us articulate our values and frame discussions with others in our own terms based on our own ethics and beliefs, not theirs. Lakoff says at the end of the book, there are four things to remember: Show respect, Respond by reframing, Think and talk at the level of values, and Say what you believe.  You can find more information on framing at Or read Don’t Think of an Elephant! There’s a lot more ideas there then I’ve managed to convey here!


By Priscilla Berggren-Thomas

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