Can this language change American politics?

Berkeley linguist to Democrats: talk to America like it’s a 5-year-old.

That’s not what George Lakoff says, exactly, but it’s what he does in a sample editorial he wrote to teach progressives how to convey their message more effectively to the American public.

In a sample editorial on Arizona’s immigration law–reprinted in full below–he doesn’t want to use the term “undocumented worker” because that sounds like something Karl Marx would say, and he doesn’t want to use the term “illegal immigrant” because that sounds like something Karl Rove would say.

So in Lakoff’s words, immigrants become “guys.” Are you reading this at a tiny schooldesk? Because you should be. Turns out there are good guys, and there are bad guys:

Almost all immigrants who entered the US without papers are honest, hard-working, decent people, who have often risked their lives to come [to] America. They do essential work, mostly for low wages, work that makes the lifestyles of most Americans possible: cleaning homes, caring for children and the elderly, gardening, cooking in restaurants, working on farms, doing odd jobs, working on construction. They deserve our gratitude. They are America’s mainstays, good guys. There are 12 million of them in America, helping us all live better every day.

A small number, as in any population, are bad guys: occasional murderers, human traffickers, drug dealers, gang members and thieves.

As a progressive, Lakoff is skating on thin ice, using a term that generally refers to men. For many years the U.S. treated female immigrants as mere attachments to male immigrants,. For many years, immigration researchers only studied or interviewed male immigrants. It’s still a bit of a sore spot among people who value gender equity. And today, U.S. immigrants are more likely to be women. That is, more women than men enter the U.S. legally (no one can be sure what the percentages look like among undocumented immigrants).

A groundbreaking scholar of language and mind, Lakoff may be risking language that could be called sexist in pursuit of some benefit. Perhaps he means to evoke stereotypes, for he considers stereotypes vital to the conceptual frame in which language operates:

“An important part of framing is the establishment of prototypes: social stereotypes, prototypes (typical case, ideals, nightmares, salient exemplars). Stereotypes are used in automatic reasoning and decision making.”

Good guys vs. bad guys, white hats vs. black hats, Underdog vs. Simon Bar Sinister.

Not all of Lakoff’s language is that simple. His topic requires terms like immigration, deportation, and arbitrary implementation, and those bring the register to about the tenth-grade level. But Lakoff tries to displace prevailing conservative values with a conceptual frame that even a 5-year-old could appreciate.

Arizona’s immigration law is a bad law, Lakoff tells us, not a good law.

In recent decades, Democrats uncertain whether to sound like Karl Marx or Karl Rove have opted to sound like Rove, spurred by pollsters who found conservative language popular in the mainstream. They believed it would move them toward the center and appeal to centrist and Republican voters.

Lakoff calls this “disaster messaging.” Facing disaster, Democrats adopt Republican language.

Here’s Obama speaking about immigration on Cinco de Mayo:

The way to fix our broken immigration system is through common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform. That means responsibility from government to secure our borders, something we have done and will continue to do. It means responsibility from businesses that break the law by undermining American workers and exploiting undocumented workers – they’ve got to be held accountable. It means responsibility from people who are living here illegally. They’ve got to admit that they broke the law and pay taxes and pay a penalty and learn English and get right before the law – and then get in line and earn their citizenship.”

And Lakoff’s analysis:

Use force against the illegals (“secure our borders”); get tough (“held accountable”); personal, not social, “responsibility”; criminals (“living here illegally”); be punitive (“admit they broke the law and pay taxes and pay a penalty”); English only (“learn English”); they’re getting free handouts (“earn their citizenship.”).

Put aside for a moment the substance of the policy and notice that these are conservative Republican themes that fit a conservative Republican view of the world. Democrats, starting with the president, are using the language that activates the conservative Republican view of the world.

Whenever Democrats employ conservative language, even to progressive ends, it reinforces the conservative conceptual frame, according to Lakoff.

“When the Democrats use conservative language, they activate more than the conservative framing on the given issue. They also activate and strengthen the high-level, deep, conservative, moral frames. This tends to make voters more conservative overall – and leads them to choose the real conservative position on the given issue, rather than the sort of conservative version provided by the democrats.”

And this, Lakoff believes, is how conservatives continue to rule even when voted out of power, and how a conservative minority in Congress can hold progress hostage on a whole array of issues: health care, climate change, immigration….

But that doesn’t mean Democrats need to sound like Marx. There’s a third choice.

Lakoff’s alternative language is remarkable only in its banality. There are good guys and bad guys, good laws and bad laws. There’s honesty, decency, and immorality. No workers of the world uniting, but many mentions of work. Here’s the full text of Lakoff’s sample editorial:

End a Bad Law: 287(g)

Bad laws, laws that hurt far more than they help, should be eliminated. Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is a bad law. Here’s why.

Almost all immigrants who entered the US without papers are honest, hard-working, decent people, who have often risked their lives to come the America. They do essential work, mostly for low wages, work that makes the lifestyles of most Americans possible: cleaning homes, caring for children and the elderly, gardening, cooking in restaurants, working on farms, doing odd jobs, working on construction. They deserve our gratitude. They are America’s mainstays, good guys. There are 12 million of them in America, helping us all live better every day.

A small number, as in any population, are bad guys: occasional murderers, human traffickers, drug dealers, gang members and thieves. They need to be captured and convicted.

But 287(g) mostly harasses, jails, harms and deports the good guys and, in doing so, mostly lets the bad guys escape.

The 287(g) program allows local police and jailers to act as deportation agents with ultimate power over the lives of the good guys, who are assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Their very entry into the US without papers constitutes sufficient “guilt” to justify their mistreatment and deportation.

The 287(g) program promotes a form of racial profiling – 287(g) is immoral, an affront to the human rights that define what America is about.

The 287(g) program is also ineffective in getting the bad guys, partly because it uses so many resources on going after the good guys.

As Alex DiBranco reports, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that 287(g) is poorly managed, ineffectively organized and arbitrarily implemented from place to place; ignores or actually provides false information to the public; fails to focus on noncitizens who pose a safety threat; gives shoddy training; lacks oversight; and has not terminated those local partners who have clearly violated the terms of the agreement – local law enforcement officials running amok in hunting down harmless undocumented immigrants. The 287(g) program also deters undocumented immigrants who witness a crime from coming forward and encourages racial profiling in which Latinos are “guilty until proven innocent.”

The 287(g) program should be ended and replaced by a law that protects the good guys and pays serious attention to catching the bad guys. It is not just ineffective; it is downright immoral.

What do you think: Can this language change American politics?

You can find Lakoff’s full reasoning for the content of his sample editorial in his own words at Truthout.com. You can also find a next-day version on Alternet, where the editors saw fit to change Lakoff’s headline, from “Disaster Messaging” to “Why Conservative Lies Spread and What Progressives Can Do to Fight Them.” Lakoff never accuses conservatives of lying. So is Alternet taking his advice and asserting its own conceptual frame?

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