Linguist and Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff

The esteemed academic discusses current events.

George Lakoff is an author, linguist and cognitive scientist. He is Director of the Center for the Neural Mind and Society at UC Berkeley. He is the Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley, where he's taught since 1972. His research involves the application of cognitive and neural linguistics to politics, literature, philosophy and mathematics. Lakoff applies his work to analyzing political world views and the framing of issues in public discourse. He is working on a neural theory of thought and language that explains how meaningful ideas can arise from neural circuitry and their connections to the body. George Lakoff's books include Don't Think of an Elephant!Whose Freedom?, and The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic, among others.

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Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

There is a persistent question in the era of Trump. Why is it that so many Trump supporters remain faithful to him even when he works against their material best interests and well-being? Tonight acclaimed cognitive scientist and linguist, George Lakoff, joins us to explain, and he will also explore how Trump opponents can fight back.

So stay with us. We’re glad you’ve joined us. George Lakoff in just a moment.

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Tavis: So pleased to welcome acclaimed cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff back to this program. A few months ago, he joined us to discuss President Trump’s ability to deliver his message in a way that actually sticks inside peoples’ brain circuitry.

It became one of the most talked about shows we’ve done all year, so I had to have him back in part because this thing I’m holding — this stack of paper I’m holding in my hand is just a sampling, professor, of all of the questions.

I mean, this happens every now and then, but I got inundated with questions that people wanted me to ask you when I had you back on this program. So glad to have you back.

George Lakoff: My pleasure. It’s really great to be here.

Tavis: My great delight to see you, sir. Again, I had tons and tons of questions all over social media for Professor Lakoff. There are two, though, that I want to ask to get our conversation started tonight. Then we’ll go from there.

Lakoff: Sure.

Tavis: This one comes from Shelly Singh Henry. “The attempts by our new administration to condition citizens to discredit the media and distract from their underlying agenda are becoming more obvious. Would love to hear Professor Lakoff on PBS as he explains the scientific factors at work used to assist the Trump administration’s plans.”

Why is he being so effective? And by effective, I just mean that it’s conversation 24/7 whenever he says anything about the news media. What’s behind that and why is it so effective?

Lakoff: Well, first, it works because, first, all ideas are in your neurocircuitry. They’re in your brain. They don’t float in the air. Once you hear them, anytime you hear them, if you understand them, it activates some neurocircuit to understand them.

Anytime it’s repeated, it activates that circuit again and, the more it’s repeated, the stronger it gets. And as the circuits are more activated, at some point, they become semi-permanent or then permanent.

So if he starts attacking the media as saying, “Fake news, fake news, fake news”, then people who believe what he says, as people who have strict father morality and have his view of how the world should be, they’re not going to hear that on the media. They’re not going to hear his version on the media, so they’re going to say, oh, the problem is that the media is against him and against us.

Tavis: And all he has to do to make that believable, to make that an issue for the people who support him, is merely just to keep saying it?

Lakoff: He has to keep saying it and saying it in such a way that it goes in favor of the people who believe him and what their moral view is. When Trump got elected, these people said, “Oh, finally, America is the way it should be. It’s the way we understand it.” Of course, a lot of liberals said, “Uh-oh, now we’re oppressed. Now we have to resist and we have to persist and say other things and change all this.”

This is part of the way things work in peoples’ brains. When you have two opposite views of the world, they’re there physically in your brain. And when they’re about morality, about what’s right and what’s wrong, they define who you are as a person and you don’t want to vote against who you are as a person. You don’t want to argue against who you are as a person.

And if the country doesn’t fit who you are as a person, if what you see on TV doesn’t fit it, if it fits the opposite view, you feel that that’s got to be wrong because I can’t be wrong. I can’t be a wrong person. I know what’s right and wrong, so they got to be wrong.

Tavis: You used the word morality a moment ago, and I want to come to that. I read a piece in the New York Times this past Sunday, a fascinating piece. It raised a lot of questions for me. I think that the two professors, the two researchers, who wrote the article missed some critical pieces in their analysis.

I wasn’t in total agreement with the piece, but I read the piece and I was fascinated by it because the piece spoke to the research that they had done on Hillary Clinton’s tweets and Donald Trump’s tweets six months out from election day.

They spent a lot of time, these two researchers, analyzing both of their tweets. One of the takeaways from the article was that Trump has done a masterful job — my word, not theirs — but a masterful job of putting out what they called “morally charged tweets”.

Lakoff: Absolutely.

Tavis: Morally charged tweets. That he did that much better, they argue, than Hillary Clinton did, these morally charged tweets. And as a result, Trump had a 15% higher retweet ratio — rate — that Hillary did.

Lakoff: Yes.

Tavis: So he’s better at morally charged tweets. They resonate with this audience around these issues of morality. They get retweeted a great deal more than Hillary’s tweets. Then they went on not to just analyze hers, but to look at Republicans and Democrats and how they send it and how they tweet.

It was a fascinating piece, again. If you want to read it, I can’t remember the name of the article, but just go to last Sunday’s New York Times opinion section and you’ll see the article that I’m referencing.

I’m raising that with you now since you mentioned morality. What is it about these morally charged tweets that Trump is so good at that gets under peoples’ skin, that makes half of us upset and the other half love him and retweet what he says?

Lakoff: Because all of our politics is based on morality. If anybody gets up and says, “Here’s my policy. Do what I say”, the assumption is it’s right, not wrong. They don’t say it’s evil, do it, you know. The assumption is it’s right.

And you have two opposite views of what’s right. One I’ve called nurturant model, one where you assume that government cares. As Lincoln said, “It’s of, by and for the people.” For the people means government cares.

You have another version of that in progressive thought where citizens care about other citizens, work through the government to provide public resources so that everybody has their well-being served, their protection and freedom served. And this is true of both the businesses and ordinary people.

Now that is crucial to progressive thought. The problem is that nobody ever says it. Though that is crucial, it’s part of the unconscious way of what’s behind thought. 98% of thought is unconscious. It’s carried out by your neurosystem.

Thoughts don’t float in the air. They’re in your neurosystem and you don’t have conscious access to it. So what’s conscious is tiny compared to what’s unconscious and these moral systems are part of your unconscious, but they determine everything you think is right and wrong.

You have two opposite views of right and wrong here, so this is crucial. That’s why morality matters. Now Hillary went out and says, “Oh… She didn’t talk about morality. I tried to convince her to do so once, but it didn’t work. She didn’t do it.

She talked about competence. You know, I have experience, I know better, I’m strong, I know how to work with the other side, all of that stuff. No morality, nothing. Everything Trump said was about morality, about right and wrong, and it was his version of right and wrong.

In his tweets, his tweets have a structure. People think that he’s crazy and he does crazy things at night. The opposite is true. He has four types of tweets. One of them is what I call preemptive framing. He tries to frame the issue his way first in one of the tweets. So he tries to get the people to believe it his way before they have a chance to do anything else.

Tavis: We saw that with Comey. I mean, a litany of things, but the Comey thing comes to mind immediately.

Lakoff: Comey came to mind, but also there were three to five million illegal votes, all of that.

Tavis: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, sure, sure. So preemptive framing.

Lakoff: Preemptive framing.

Tavis: Okay.

Lakoff: The second is diversion. The Russian thing is getting close to him, so he attacks somebody in the media, Mika or somebody, and he creates a diversion and then for several days they don’t talk about Russia. They talk about something else. So diversion.

Then there’s attack the messenger. Somebody says something about him being awful or wrong and he comes back 10 times as strong and attacks the person who said it. That can be the media. If the media reports honestly on something that doesn’t fit what he says or suggests that he’s doing something illegal or immoral, then he comes back and attacks the messenger.

The fourth is trial balloons, you know. Say, “Oh, everybody should have nuclear weapons. Let’s see if that one works” or whatever. Some crazy idea that he…

Tavis: Or “I’ll do a cyber security deal with Putin. Let’s float that and see if that works.”

Lakoff: Let’s see if that works, so it didn’t work, but it’s a trial balloon. Those are the four things and combinations of those. Every tweet is one of those four things. No matter when it comes in, it’s always one of those four things at least and maybe two at once.

So these are strategies he has. They’re not crazy things that he whips off in the middle of the night. They’re things that he thinks will help him with his base.

Tavis: Okay. So why can’t the minds — I really don’t want to believe that he’s any brighter than the people who run news organizations in this country. They’re educated at the same schools. They’ve got experience in the same way he does in their own lane. I do not believe that Donald Trump is smarter, wiser than the people who run the news business in this country.

So my question is this, based on that assumption. Why can’t they just decide to not cover his tweets? I mean, in other words, why not cover what he does or doesn’t do policy-wise, but not cover the Trump sideshow? Why can’t they just decide in their own minds we’re just not going to cover those tweets, we’re not going to cover that nonsense?

Lakoff: Money. The Nielsen ratings. The…

Tavis: I hear that, and I’m not naïve in pushing back. I get the money and the news ratings, but they say, professor, that they don’t like him calling them fake. They don’t like the way he attacks the news. They don’t like, they don’t like, they don’t like. But they keep — as I said the other night to Naomi Klein, they diss him for saying it, but they disseminate it to all the rest of us.

Lakoff: Exactly, and here’s why. Whenever you use somebody else’s moral language, you are helping them because every word that is defined relative to someone else’s moral language activates that circuit in somebody’s brain, in the public’s brains, and every time it’s activated, it gets stronger. In order to negate something, you have to activate what you’re negating.

When Nixon said, “I am not a crook”, everyone thought of him as a crook [laugh]. I wrote a book called “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, you know, you think of an elephant, right? So there all these people in the news media who have a false belief about reason.

A lot of people who are educated in journalism school — I often lecture at the Berkeley journalism school or in political science courses and so on — they learn that reason is, as Descartes said in 1650, “I think, therefore I am.” He assumes all thought is conscious 98% unconscious. He was a mathematician. He says, “When I think, it’s like going through a proof in mathematics. That thought is logic.”

He said, “That notion of rationality is what makes us rational animals, human beings, so everybody has the same rationality.” Now that is what’s taught implicitly in journalism school and also that language is literal. It just fits the world as it is. Can’t be metaphorical and so on, when it is metaphorical.

So what happens is, people learn that view of what thought is and then they can’t get out of it. So they think that, if they diss somebody which is negating what they said, they’re actually helping the other person, but they don’t know it because they think is logic. And in logic, negations negate something and wipe it out.

Tavis: So it seems so simple, but the media doesn’t seem to understand it.

Lakoff: Because they took the wrong classes [laugh].

Tavis: And that’s what I was trying — I could not say it as brilliantly as you’ve just said it. But, again, Naomi Klein and I discussed this earlier this week and it just seems to me that what the media is missing as they cover these stories, as they cover these tweets like they’re legitimate stories, is that they are aiding and abetting. They’re being complicit in helping advance his agenda.

Lakoff: Exactly. You know, you go and look at MSNBC and they’re constantly saying so and so said this and this fact shows it’s wrong and this fact shows it’s wrong. Every time they do that, they help the other side instead of positively saying what’s true in such a way that it is clear that that would undercut the other side.

Tavis: So we should refrain how we resist.

Lakoff: Exactly. Let me give you a nice example of this. Take the notion of regulations. Trump wants to get rid of all regulations. You know, Ryan says we’re going to get rid of three-quarters of the regulations. Regulations are words that come from the corporate world. Corporate worlds hate regulations. They say regulations are expensive. They keep us from doing whatever we want.

If we want to put pollution in the world, they stop us from doing that because we can make more money doing that. They’re costly for that reason. If we have to actually clean up after ourselves, we have to spend money on it. We lose profits. That’s costly. We should get rid of regulations.

Regulations are there for a reason: protection, to protect people. The Affordable Care Act, the real name of it is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. They should have called it the Patient Protection Act.

The point is, if you talk about protections and you get up and say, “We’re going to get rid of three-quarters of the protections that the government has”, how would it sound? “We’re going to get rid of all the protections. Everybody who’s protected, we’re going to get rid of your protections.” It would sound crazy, right? Who would accept that?

But that’s the reality and the question is, when you have these two realities with different viewpoints, a corporate viewpoint that says regulations are bad, we can make more money without them, and then the people who are protected by them who say, wait a minute. These are protections. The choice of words matters. That’s why it matters.

And what happens in the front pages of the New York Times, they use the words, “Regulation, regulation, regulation” when they talk about the EPA regulations being cut rather than the EPA protections being cut.

Tavis: See, that makes perfect sense to me and I’m connecting, again, this conversation to what Naomi Klein and I talked about this week. She regards Donald Trump’s election less as a peaceful transition of power and more as a corporate takeover.

So if you buy that language, speaking of language, that is really was a corporate takeover, then this kind of language being used matches pretty nicely with the notion of a corporate takeover.

Lakoff: Well, it’s partly a corporate takeover and partly an authoritarian takeover. I mean, Trump is an authoritarian and he’s a corporate authoritarian.

Tavis: Corporatist, yeah.

Lakoff: Corporatist authoritarian. So the Republicans who are corporatists, you know, go along with that perfectly well. So he has both of those.

Tavis: You mentioned reason a moment ago and I could be totally off-base here. If I am, you correct me. But when you started talking about reason, I started thinking about Trump and, as you laid out so nicely, how effective he is with his tweets, etc., etc. and thinking about conversely where the Democrats keep coming up short.

It seems to me that the Democrats and even Barack Obama as president for eight years just totally misread the notion of reason. I get the sense sometimes that Barack Obama, when he was president, and Democrats even to this day think that if you just tell people the truth, if you just tell them the facts, that everything…

Lakoff: They’ll reason to the right conclusion.

Tavis: They’ll reason to the right conclusion.

Lakoff: Not only that, Obama in his farewell speech, said exactly that. He said, “Enlightenment reason is essential for democracy. That’s what we have to do. Just get the facts out there. People will reason to it.” Hillary Clinton, in her speech at Wellesley, where she went and gave a graduation speech, she said, “What’s wonderful about Wellesley is they teach enlightenment reason.”

Now if you’re a Conservative and you go to college, what are you going to study? Probably going to take some business courses. In that curriculum, you’re going to take marketing. More people who teach marketing know that people really reason unconsciously, that they use frames, that they use narratives, that they use metaphors, that they use images and that they use emotion.

That is normal reason. That’s how people really think and everybody who does marketing knows this, right? But the people who go to college and are Progressives and become Democratic leaders and so on, they won’t take the marketing course.

They also won’t take cognitive science and they won’t neuroscience which would teach you the same thing. Instead, what they do is they’ll take a course like political science or law or public policy or economic theory, not business economics, and they teach enlightenment reason from 1650.

It’s just false. Not only that, they all got A’s in this. They’re really smart [laugh]. They’re really smart, they’re good people, they have the right unconscious values, right?

Tavis: Unconscious values. I love that, yeah [laugh].

Lakoff: Well, you know, it’s true. And the Democratic Party is wedded to this and when they’re wedded to that, you have reason. And two, they hire people who are consultants and pollsters who are also wedded to that view of reason. So everything they put out is like that.

And when you have that view of reason, then everything becomes an issue, issue by issue, one issue, one issue, instead of the general notion that there are bigger things like care, that democracy requires care as Lincoln said and as any view of progressive politics says.

You know, citizens care about other citizens and what they do with the government money is to get money that will provide for peoples’ well-being and care and protection and freedom, not just in private life, but also in their business lives.

That has been true since the beginning of our country. At the beginning of our country, you had public education, you had roads and bridges, of course, for companies to get their goods to market, interstate commerce for companies. You had a national bank, a patent office, a judicial system 90% for corporate law.

All of this was to help people mostly who were in business, but also private citizens, and that is how the country was set up. You provide public resources for everybody. That’s how that worked. Now you also have in medicine, we have spent half a century to a century paying in advance for the development of modern medicine through the government, through the NIH and through universities.

You have in science, how did you get computer science? It didn’t just come from nowhere. It didn’t fall from the sky. It had to be supported by DARPA and from the Defense Department and the NSF. Where did satellite communication come from? NASA and NOAA.

What about cell phones? How do you get cell phones and GPS systems? They don’t fall from the sky, you know. It’s done by the Defense Department. They have over 50 satellites going around at any one time. 24 of them are active. They’re at 51 degrees at an angle from the equator. And at any time, four of them can focus on any point on earth, okay?

So what happens if you want to make a cell phone call? You take your cell phone and you send a message to a tower. The message goes at the speed of light, the tower has a switching system, then it goes at the speed of light to the satellite, then that has a switching system.

It sends it, does the switching, sends it at the speed of light, switching, speed of light, switching, around the world to the person you’re calling in Europe, down to the tower, down to the satellite. Now how fast does that have to go, and the switching systems, speed of light in between?

The switching systems have to go in nanoseconds, billions of a second, billions. If they’re a millionth of a second off, your message is hundreds of miles off. Your cell phone call is not 15 to 30 feet. It’s hundreds of miles. Your GPS system is off. Now how many businesses in the world use cell phones?

Tavis: Every one of them.

Lakoff: Every one of them. Your dollars that are paying for this system are supporting not only the American economy, but the economy of the world. And Russia and China are trying to get their systems up there.

Now this is crucial. Most people have no idea about this. And not only that. Our politicians don’t tell you. They don’t tell you that the private depends on the public, that private enterprise and private life depend absolutely on such public resources. You couldn’t do anything without public resources.

And the Republicans think that they all did it themselves, you know. I did everything myself. I am a self-made man. Hardly. You didn’t build the roads, you know. You didn’t invent computer science. You didn’t pay for it. You know, it’s crazy. They use these wonderful government resources that the entire country paid for.

And think about it in terms of healthcare. We paid for this medical system. We paid for the development of the drugs through the NIH, for the training of the doctors. All the medical research that went into all of this was paid for initially and the research was funded by places like NIH and universities and public universities.

This is crucial. Most people don’t realize this. They don’t understand that in fact when you get a treatment from your insurance company, if you can have insurance, you actually paid in advance for the development of that treatment.

If that’s an investment, why isn’t that a dividend? If you’re looking for an argument for universal healthcare, that’s the place to start. This is a dividend because you’ve already paid for the development of the medicine.

Tavis: All righty. That’s why I wanted you back [laugh]. That is why I asked you back. I apologize. I had all these questions in my hand that I wanted to get to, but the professor, as always, was so brilliant. Forgive me for not getting to more of your questions.

But I did just want to acknowledge that so many of you reached out to us after his last appearance on this show. So that just means you got to come back again.

Lakoff: Great to see you.

Tavis: Mr. Lakoff, I appreciate it. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: July 14, 2017 at 2:55 pm