Saturday, July 29, 2006

Linguists Have Messages?

I know I promised a post explaining the difference between word games and language games. Those of you who showed up briskly rubbing your hands together thinking "Okay - let's see what fascinating things he'll say about language games..." will have to hold on. The fun's not here yet.

Instead I will make an observation about my chosen field: linguistics. To preface this observation I will quote from an article by Michael Tackett in last week's Chicago Tribune.

Suggesting George Lakoff as a possible "oracle" for the democratic party he writes that Lakoff

makes a very persuasive argument that Democrats have allowed Republicans to hijack words such as "freedom" and "liberty" in fundamental ways that have undercut Democrats' credibility.

Tackett is writing in response to Lakoff's latest book: Whose Freedom? The Battle over America's Most Important Idea. One might read Lakoff's claim as a straight analysis of the discourse as he sees it. But there's a trend in linguistics that goes beyond simply encouraging political posing. Political stances are not merely accepted in linguistic analyses - they are often expected. Perhaps this is a natural course of a discipline that has struggled to legitimize its practical relevance (I present to a friend a simple analysis of the phonology of English pluralization and he says "Okay - I get it. What's going to change about my world now?").

So Lakoff looks to change something - and politics is a state's system for the delegation of power. So he must engage in political discourse. And he must effect change. And the current power in all three branches has favored the Republican party - so of course Lakoff must move it to the Democratic.

After all - once a scientist (and linguists are trying really hard to be scientists) has
observed, described, predicted and learned to control - necessary change isn't a political goal: Is it not an ethical goal? And perhaps someone like Lakoff merely believes that we have allowed a regime to establish itself too firmly. Tacket continues:

Consider the war in Iraq. Republicans have adroitly labeled Democratic calls for troop pullbacks as "cut and run." So how did Democrats respond? With John Kerry saying that the Bush strategy is "lie and die."

Instead, Lakoff says, Democrats must change the nature of the debate, starting by rejecting the premise that America is in fact at war. The war, he says, ended when President Bush said it did with his "Mission Accomplished" stunt on an aircraft carrier. Now, Democrats should refer to the conflict as an occupation. They should say U.S. troops were not trained to be occupiers and that they were betrayed by administration policy, with the U.S. weakened as a result.
. . . Right or wrong, no prominent Democrat has adopted Lakoff's proposed framing. That hasn't stopped him from making the rounds in Washington, urging Democrats to take heed.

Here is where Lakoff reveals an agenda of pure political influence. Giving advice to one group can be a disinterested comment on the forces within a system and how they might influence that system. But his advice shows definite judgement. In an article co-authored by Lakoff is found the following view.

Incompetence obscures the real issue. Bush’s conservative philosophy is what has damaged this country and it is his philosophy of conservatism that must be rejected, whoever endorses it.

Conservatism itself is the villain that is harming our people, destroying our environment, and weakening our nation. Conservatives are undermining American values through legislation almost every day.

Judgement is fine. If what is predicted is compatible with what is observed it should be noted without apology. My pause is seated centrally on the assumptions in such a statement. Lakoff has said often that Bush is not incompetent - that in fact he has shrewdly carved his path. But Lakoff too easily implicates anyone who holds a conservative view, holding a loosely defined battery of priorities responsible for a reckless president who claims to hold the bulk of them dear. Not only does he use the same tactic that Bush used to stifle dissent ("If you're not with us...") He blames a philosophy for what he accepts as the decay of our American world (within and without the country?).

For a while now Lakoff has used the "strict father" model to describe Bush's method and values. Criticising the authoritarian view of definite right and wrong, he judges paradoxically - calling that approach wrong. This is not a problem if wisely argued. I will accept some paradoxes - for instance the refusal to leave intolerance unchecked.

What I find most perplexing is Lakoff's faith in the power of the Republican frame. Has the country accepted Bush's view of the nation's needs and the included arguement of the causes and effects of the nations struggles? Must a new frame be established for the Democrats to regain power? And is the establishement of a new frame simply an attempt to introduce a topic that better suits the speaker's abilities to persuade?

But I digress. Politics have become the league that pulls good athletes out of school. Linguists are not the only ones to start throwing their values into their theories as rationalization and raison d'etre for the discipline. Otherwise who would care about what we say? And does such an approach furtively push for the banishment of basic investigation?


  1. Linguists aren't the only ones trying hard to be scientists. I met a couple doctoral Philosophy students from UNL a couple weeks ago. I was pleased to learn they are working descriptively from data sets just like real scientists. The one I talked to more about his studies happens to be working in the philosophy of language under some of Omaha born Kripke's theories, namely work in proper nouns.

  2. There is a new book on the shelves now called Talking Right by Geoffrey Nunberg.


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