War of The Words

War of the Words

Bobbie Kithcart

Edited by Erica O’Neil

We often hear the call for bipartisanship, but the game plan for that seems like a stretch amid such polarization—and it may even be impossible for some on the extreme right or left that lack the neurological wiring. But there’s a vast middle ground that we can activate as PCs!

How do we activate that middle ground? Cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, investigates how we develop our moral frames and worldview in his research, stating that, “most people are morally complex and, there aren’t as many thorough-going conservatives as one would think.” In short, there’s hope! And skillful framing is the solution.

I practice Lakoff’s framing daily. I’m guessing most of you don’t roll over in bed and kiss your Trump-supporting spouse good morning? Or have to reframe political landmines throughout the day as you navigate conversation across ideologies? It’s what I’m learning and what we all need to do as PCs!

Even if you aren’t butting heads with a loved one over politics, you regularly speak to people from across the political spectrum. As PCs, our job is to engage our neighbors who don’t specifically share our values. It’s best to start with the low hanging fruit, Independents who vote Democrat.

To do that successfully, we need to learn how to activate Progressive frames in this group. (Check out my March 2018 blog post if you’re not familiar with framing) It seems odd to state the obvious. Activating frames is a critical basic skill to cultivate so why haven’t Progressive Democrats mastered this?

Lakoff has warned us for some time that the Democrats suffer from hypocognition or a lack of ideas. He reminds us, “frames are what we use TO think. They are OUR neural structure. This isn’t spin, words, persuasion, marketing or propaganda. Ideas come first, and they are tied to our progressive moral perspective.” Apparently, we think we have all the ideas we need–but in reality, we don’t.

Hypocognition results in that empty feeling and a struggle for words when explaining our position to others. It’s not talking points or spin, instead it should be a stunningly clear phrase depicting our mission. Conservatives excel at this. They have their unifying command: Personal Liberty! Everything they say and do is relevant to this frame.

What is ours? *Crickets chirping.* We don’t have one and developing one takes years. But a strong beginning would be to phrase our frames using empathy.

Empathy is the foundational value of our progressive, “nurturant-parent” morality. Husbands and wives share equally in the care of their children. Parents are attuned to their child to provide for them as they need. They model how to be responsible for themselves and others. They also demonstrate the moral imperative to do their very best.

Empathy is the footing of our moral frame: caring, self-responsibility, and social-responsibility. The next layer of values are the bricks and reflect how we behave in the world. They are trust, communication, truth, honesty, and cooperation. Using this moral construct to create our argument can help activate these unconscious shared values in others.

Whenever you discuss issues using progressive language, you activate an entire cascade of moral meaning. Lakoff reminds us, “cascades are quite complex…they include the family value metaphors to structure economic, sexual, religious and political values.” But, most people won’t be aware of these thoughts. They will simply feel strongly about them as being morally right!

We must start standing up for what we believe! Stop being reactive! Stop using the language of the opposition, which activates a completely different unconscious frame. We need to walk up and speak confidently from our values of empathy and social responsibility. We need to be proud to be a Progressive Democrat. When we tie our argument to their conservative value—it will surprise them when they realize we are stating that we also deserve freedom and liberty!

We can speak about their moral constructs such as liberty, freedom, the pursuit of happiness and be clear about what we mean when we use those words. Because, these ideas are what Lakoff calls, contested concepts. My spouse and I can agree on murder as immoral until the details are revealed and then everything changes. Death penalty! No death penalty!

We can also avoid further assumptions by addressing the myths that limit our ability to effect change. Most of our fellow progressives, “believe that people are at all times consciously aware of what they think and that words are defined directly in terms of the world,” says Lakoff. But, these myths are based on reasoning that more facts and information lead to more rational decisions.


We wrongly assume that all thought is conscious, because 98% is not! We incorrectly believe everyone reasons the same way. Or that concepts and words mean the same thing to everyone, but in reality, they don’t! Here are a few other landmines:


  • “The truth will set us free. If we just tell people the facts…they’ll all reach the right conclusions.” The truth alone will not set you free. Frames are developed over time and hard-wired. Truth must be part of the moral construct.


  • “A normal person is rational and reasons on the basis of self-interest.” I think we all understand that after the 2016 election people vote for who they identify with and share their values, even if it’s a vote against their self-interest.


  • “…Candidate is the product and the candidate’s position on issues are the features and benefits of the product.” Lakoff scoffs at polling and says it’s not issues, it’s the candidate’s ideals and values that are at stake. “Morality is central to identity and trumps policy.”


Conservatives have controlled the dialogue for too long with their restrictive and undemocratic moral imperatives—and they are reshaping Democracy in the process! As Progressives we must wake up and callout the opposition using our moral frame.


Here’s a checklist for how we can conduct these discussions.

  •  Moral values – Be proud to be a Democrat. Define your position using progressive moral truths that activate the nurturant-parent frame within your Independent audience. Remember, facts don’t make sense unless they are defined within the moral frame.
  •  Contested concepts – Please use them but be sure to define what it means to you.
  •  Conservative moral values – Incorporate the conservative value that is relevant to the argument and familiar to your opponent.
  •  Deep truths – Include these unspoken fundamental drivers when engaging in deep discussion that requires more feedback to the opponent. More about these in my next blog post.

Let’s eavesdrop on a gun safety argument using these basic steps:

Progressive moral value: Our Democracy is built on caring for and about each other. Let’s face it, school shooting violates our first job of protecting our children! Isn’t that true?

Contested Concepts and Conservative Moral Value: Our children are not free to learn if they can’t attend school without the fear of being gunned down or stressed out with the horror of active shooter drills. Our kids have the right to the liberty of learning.

Deep truth: The NRA lobbies for gun manufacturers to sell guns. The NRA buys the loyalty of our legislators by donating to their campaigns for the gun manufacturers. And, this pressure on our legislators have resulted in greed, even the willingness to sacrifice our children’s lives for money!

Illustrate progressive values tied to conservative moral value: Our laws are created by us because we care about each other and we want to be free to pursue happiness with our children and family. Corporate profit and campaign funding over our kid’s safety is not liberty. It is senseless murder. Sensible gun laws are mandatory. Ban semi-automatic weapons. Universal background checks for all. No bump stocks.

Lakoff reminds us that, “Messaging is about thinking, not just language. To get language right, you have to conjure the thought that comes up when you say it.” Was this a successful argument? How would you make it better? Granted, this type of argument may be most useful in front of a legislative body, but we’re trying to reach everyday people in their homes, not politicians mired in punditry. So, tone it down.


There was a great deal of emotion in the gun safety argument and here’s why. George Lakoff ceaselessly reminds us that, “Frame circuits are not logical. They are connected to emotion. Language is emotion. Political frames are part of a hierarchy dominated by moral frames. Political messages about policy can only be understood in terms of moral values. All politics is moral.”

Conservatives enforce message discipline. We need to become first-rate at messaging discipline quickly. Since most people are morally complex, calling out our opponent’s policies as harmful is a good place to start! We must become proactive communicators and frame our arguments to evoke support.

Reasoning like this may seem difficult at first because it is new. It requires you to actively stretch your brain to include all the elements. Think of it as learning to play a new musical instrument. It’s a lot to think about at first but it makes beautiful music once you put it all together.

Below is a simplified table that allows you to select key elements to facilitate your practice. Find an area you want to argue about with a friend and practice by applying the formula as illustrated, above. To use the table, just choose the appropriate construct from each of the columns.

As you practice your compelling arguments, please remember to share what worked and what didn’t, your victories and failures, because it will make us all stronger. “Get clear on your values and use the language of values,” says Lakoff. All the best!

Check out this YouTube video if framing still puzzles you. www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_CWBjyIERY

2 thoughts on “War of The Words

  1. Mickey Tucker

    This is fabulous information on which people can take action. It’s very much in tune with the program I am planning to talk about with your Dad.

    Thank you for sharing this really well-written piece…very effective!

    Mickey Tucker

    1. Erica O'Neil

      Hi Mickey,

      Contact Bobbie Kithcart, the author of the piece if you would like more information on how to enact such language in everyday discussions. She can be reached at bobbie dot kithcart at gmail dot com and is happy to help bring such a discussion to your LD.

      Glad you found this useful!!



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