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Thursday, August 25, 2005

The War on the Civil Justice System

George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley professor of Linguisitcs, speaks extensively about how progressives can fight the myth of "tort reform." Lakoff is the author of Don't Think of an Elephant!, a shorter version of a book he wrote titled "Moral Politics." Lakoff has a novel perspective on how the choice of language ultimately affects political debate. The crux of Lakoff's thesis is that Democrats do a terrible job of discussing the issues because we always discuss the issues within the frames set by Conservatives. Frames are the way in which we look at issues; these frames are shaped by our core moral values. So when a liberal tries to discuss why "tort reform" or "tax relief" is a bad idea, it's a lost cause. Those are terms with positive connotations that tug directly at conservative frames. The challenge, says Lakoff, is for liberals to use different frames that more accurately reflect the heart of the issue. Instead of speaking of "tax relief", we need to talk about tax cuts for the rich; instead of tort reform we need to frame the debate as a war over the continued validity of the civil justice system. Lakoff argues we should refer to trial lawyers as "public protection attorneys." The difficulty is in finding marketable terms.

Lakoff has other ideas that, to me, aren't as strong as his recongition that liberals argue based on conservative frames. Lakoff argues that liberals have a nuturing parent model of government. In our view, government should take care of our basic needs, support us and advance good. We care about the nuturing parent and the government because the lessons we have learned make us want to care. Conservatives, Lakoff argues, have a strict father model of government. In this model, conservatives favor order over the rationale behind the order. The strict father gives orders and rules the home . What he says goes and the family follows because that's the thing to do; reasons for his actions are irrelevant. I think both the strict father and nuturing parent models are interesting, but it is quite a leap to suggest that these models are behind the thoughts of EVERY conservative and liberal.

Still, George Lakoff is a crucial force on the left. We need to stop talking like Republicans and start emphasizing our core values instead. I urge you to check out the link at the top and read what Lakoff has to say.

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