Mark Hanson Commentary: “Watch Your Language”

One of the most important aspects of considering a moral or political issue is often scarcely noticed. It has to do with the words chosen to define it. For example, when we talk about doctors helping patients die, do we call it physician-assisted suicide, or physician-aid-in dying? Each term suggests a different set of values. Selecting the terms we use to describe an issue is called framing, and the dominance of certain frames in our society—and our lack of attention to them—is a worrisome ethical issue in its own right.

Linguistics professor George Lakoff describes framing this way. Every thought you have activates neural circuits in your brain that become fixed over time. Up to 98 percent of our thoughts become automatic, and many exist in what we call “frames,” which structure our understanding of life. You associate the term ‘hospital,’ for example, with a frame that includes doctors, nurses, rooms, and so on. Frames are also hierarchical, meaning that one must understand certain things first before one can understand others. Here is where politics and morality come together, Lakoff claims, because the highest frames in politics are the moral values, like freedom and fairness, to which political debates refer.

Framing implies that the ways in which we describe political issues are not morally neutral, because certain values will be privileged over others. Using terms favored by conservatives reinforces conservative frames and therefore conservative values. Likewise for progressive terms. The more you use them, Lakoff claims, the more they seem like just common sense, and that’s why we have to be careful.

Current coverage of the so-called fiscal cliff issue provides an important window into how certain values have become dominant in our public discourse. Conservatives like to talk about “tax relief” and “cutting spending” for “entitlements.” Lakoff suggests that the term “relief” is associated with easing afflictions, so if you continually use the term ‘tax-relief,’ you reinforce the idea that taxes should always be reduced. Under President Eisenhower, the top tax rate was over 90 percent. Under Nixon, it was 70 percent. With George W. Bush, it was 35 percent. And people still want relief.

The term ‘government spending’ implies money spent on things that are unnecessary. The term ‘entitlements’ reflects Governor Romney’s sentiment that 47 percent of Americans feel entitled to government support, as if something is owed to them for nothing.

But what if we used different frames? Columnist Tom Friedman suggests that instead of tax cuts we should say service cuts, because services—think roads, schools, and security—are what we cut when we cut taxes. Alternatively, instead of speaking of raising taxes on the wealthy, President Obama speaks of fairness, and asking people to give something back—an entirely different frame.

Rather than talk about government spending, President Obama talks about investments, in education or infrastructure. And the term ‘entitlements,’ Lakoff points out, ignores the fact that people have often earned benefits through contributions from wages.

Despite differences in frames, it is worth noting that political leaders rarely talk about cutting the defense budget. But note that we call it defense, rather than military, because the frame ‘defense’ implies security rather than waging war.

Lakoff argues that conservatives have largely won the battle of frames, a conclusion supported perhaps by noting how regularly Democrats like Max Baucus use the term ‘tax relief.’ It is also important to note, however, just how many important moral issues are framed with economic terms. Author Jack Turner argues that in the absence of a larger shared vision of a good society, we often turn to money as a common value and thus frame issues economically. In Montana, we might especially notice how discourse about the natural world frames nature largely in terms of “resources.” Note how Senator Tester’s bill is titled “The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act,” even though it also preserves wilderness.

We should therefore continually ask ourselves two questions in matters of ethics and politics: First, whose interests are most served by the way an issue is framed, and second, does that frame represent our best values for thinking about that issue? What if we recast the fiscal cliff debate as being primarily about service cuts and social justice, rather than tax relief and entitlement spending? What if we followed Turner’s recommendation to refuse to use the language of economics when talking about issues that should have little to do with money? As Lakoff reminds us, the more we use this language, the more it becomes fixed in our brains—literally.

The dominant ways of framing debates in our country today favor the wealthy and the powerful. Achieving a measure of a better society and truer democracy must begin with our own awareness of how the issues we face are framed and then, as Lakoff suggests, substituting frames in our own speech that represent the higher values we should aspire to for ourselves and for our society.

Mark Hanson writes as a guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.