Elephants, Crooks, and Class Warfare

When President Obama announced his new plans for improving the economy in the States, Republicans cried, “Class warfare!” Obama’s response was, “It is not class warfare—it’s math.” This response not only reminded me of Nixon’s infamous claim, “I am not a crook,” but also reminded me of George Lakoff’s warning against using your opponent’s frame in your counterarguments (see Framing—Again. It is a failure to remember the Don’t think of elephants rule. When Nixon said, “I am not a crook,” the connection made in most people’s minds was, “Nixon—crook.” The not gets lost in translation.

In addressing the issue of negative commands, a long time ago on an ancient medium known as audiotape, one of the first NLP trainers, Connirae Andreas, mentioned training an individual who said something to the effect of, “Negative commands? Oh, I’ve got that. I don’t use them.” Even when we know to avoid them, we end up using them—perhaps because we’re telling ourselves, “Don’t use negative commands….” I suspect that at some point, one TV ad or another will say, “Don’t forget to vote,” and some people will. Many of us can probably remember the advertising campaign, “Give a hoot. Don’t pollute.” You don’t have to look far to find negative expressions. Even the signs controlling pedestrian traffic command, “Don’t walk.” That probably means running is OK.

The problem is that negative expressions are embedded deeply in language. The concept behind negative language is, after all, an important human development in that it provides us with a better understanding of what we don’t want. The problem with “what is not” statements, however, is that negativity is an abstract concept that requires more mental effort to process than is required by a positive statement. What occurs to you, for example, when you think about the following common negative statements:

  • Don’t look now….
  • Don’t interrupt me.
  • Don’t slam the door.
  • Don’t touch me.
  • Don’t walk.
  • I’m not afraid.
  • I’m not interested.

Most people can, of course, process these and other negative statements intellectually, but if you’ve ever told someone “don’t look now,” you already know that his or her first response probably was to look. What’s the first thing that occurs to you when someone tells you, “Don’t be afraid”? To process a negative concept, the mind has to do two operations. First, it has to process the inherent positive concept, and then it goes back and superimposes the negative idea:

  • The man is not sleeping.
  • The airplane is not flying.
  • They are not intoxicated.
  • The dog is not chasing the cat.

The chances are good that for each of the statements, your first image was of the positive, as would be the case of picturing a man sleeping and then changing it to “not” sleeping in one way or another, say playing basketball or eating a big burrito…. One of the reasons that happens is that, at some level, you have to answer the question, “if not sleeping, what?” and that information isn’t supplied. The basic frame of the original is “sleeping,” and that doesn’t go away.

The same is true for the exchange between the Republicans and Obama. The basic frame of “class warfare” doesn’t go away when Obama says that is not class warfare but “math.” One of the problems with “math” as a reframe for “class warfare” is that it is as vague a concept as “not sleeping.” The listener is forced to dredge up possibilities for what math specifically. Others have said, “Yes, it is class warfare—and the rich are winning.” That may do a better job of changing the focus of the argument, but it still places the emphasis on the “death and destruction” associated with war. The side that “wins” a war, after all, still suffers a variety of casualties. My image of class warfare is the French Revolution, which was called “the Reign of Terror” for good reason.

Our national political dialog differs from our personal dialog more in degree than in kind. I suspect that many of us talk to ourselves and to others in our lives the same way Republicans talk to Democrats, and vice versa. My sense is that changes in modes of expression begin with increasing awareness of the way language influences thought and action (said with apologies to S. I. Hayakawa, who wrote a book with that title). Regardless of how aware you are, you can learn more by simply paying attention. I think it was Yogi Berra who said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

One of the things you might find yourself observing in the days and weeks to come is the way people—especially those in public life—frame their ideas. Do they define what they don’t want without ever specifying what they want (and want you to want) instead? If Nixon weren’t a crook, perhaps he was a big burrito. With increasing awareness, you may discover a lot of big burritos out there….


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