By George Lakoff
During Watergate, Richard Nixon famously said, “I am not a crook.” And, immediately, Americans coast-to-coast thought of him as a crook. This incident inspired my book title Don’t Think of an Elephant!” What does the title make you think of?
Why does negating an idea so often have the opposite of the effect negation is assumed to have?
My late colleague, Charles Fillmore, the great linguist who discovered frame semantics, observed that every word is cognitively defined (unconsciously) in terms of a conceptual frame. Frames are structures of ideas. Ideas are carried out in the brain by neural circuitry. When a word like “crook” activates a frame, it is activating in the brain a neural circuit characterizing the Crook Frame, through which we understand what a crook is.
Every time a neural circuit is activated, its synapses get stronger. Negation in natural language works neurally by neural inhibition – neurotransmitters that have the effect of weakening (but not eliminating) the strength of neural synapses.
But when you mention the word to be negated, the neural effect of the negation is thwarted. The reason is that the word activates the neural circuitry for the frame, making its synapses stronger, and thus overriding the partial inhibiting effect of the “not.”
Karen Handel is an archconservative running in the sixth district of Georgia against Jon Osoff, a progressive who is young, intelligent, articulate, and empathetic.
Osoff, asked in the debate about the minimum wage, shifted the frame away from immediate numbers that could approach $15 an hour over a reasonable period of time so that small businesses would have time to adjust. He said that he believed that any American who works a 40-hour-a-week job deserves a livable wage. In short, if you work a full week on a job, your wages should be enough for you to live on — even if only at a barely livable level. This was an important frame shift via words: “minimum” to “livable,” getting at the real issue.
Handel disagreed, saying: “I do not support a livable wage!”
She thus evoked the concept of a livable wage, focusing on the idea of a livable wage and thus calling attention to and strengthening the Livable Wage Frame — exactly what she opposes. And she really does oppose it.
Handel’s comment has gone viral, as it should. The election will show whether Ossoff won handily — or Handely, that is, with Handel’s help.