Should Australian progressives pay attention to George Lakoff?

Related posts

Sign up for updates

More than 580 union leaders, campaigners and organisers subscribe to my email newsletter.

We live in a post-fact world.

I assert this for two reasons. Firstly, because it crystallises the conservative approach to public discourse, which is largely exemplified by lying, lying loudly and lying often. Secondly, because increasing scientific research demonstrates that most people don’t use facts and evidence to form views and attitudes, or influence behaviour.

In an article in The Guardian, The Political Mind author George Lakoff makes some bold statements about effective messaging.

In a nut-shell, Lakoff argues that if progressives want to persuade people, should speak from a moral position and appeal to people’s values, rather than start from the basis that someone’s mind can be changed by giving them accurate information or facts.

This led to ACTU “economics guy” Matt Cowgill asking whether progressives really should “abandon fact-based arguments”.

The key point that Lakoff, and his supporters, are making is to do with persuasion. A principal purpose, in my view, of argument is to persuade the person (or people) you are arguing with to accept your view point.

Progressives, on a whole range of issues, have taken as a starting point that a primary reason that the public don’t support various progressive initiatives (the carbon price, debt, asylum seekers, greater unemployment benefits, a mining tax, equality in public funding for public schools, etc) is due to lack of accurate information.

For example, a typical progressive argument during the 2010-13 asylum seeker debate looked like the graph below. The graph shows the number of refugees arriving by boat and other means, then the size of the Australian population.

Asylum Seekers

It is an evidence, fact-based argument. It intends to make the point that the conservative-media and LNP reported “flood” of asylum seekers is small in the scheme of things. Therefore, members of the public who are against asylum seekers arriving by boat should not be worried.

Needless to say, this argument, and those like it, don’t change many minds. Similarly, conservatives often repeat the lie that asylum seekers coming by boat to Australia are “illegal” or “breaking Australia’s laws”. When progressives counter with the fact that it is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia, or that arriving by boat breaks no Australian laws, it is a fact-based argument.

But these kind of arguments don’t change minds.

This is because it is not based in a moral framework.

If a person’s moral entry-point to asylum seekers is based on the conservative context of the “immorality” of queue-jumping, or racist fearmongering about “economic refugees” who “buy” an expensive place on a people-smuggling boat and thus are “unworthy” or “not genuine”, then no amount of facts will change their mind.

Another situation where progressives use fact-based arguments and evidence to attempt to change peoples’ minds is climate change.

Below is a graph that you would see often, or variations of it. It shows the global annual-mean surface air temperature change since 1880, and clearly demonstrates that there has been about a 0.8-1°C increase in global air temperatures. Other graphs that you will see include the decreasing summer Arctic sea ice, rate of sea level rise or ocean acidification.

GISS Surface Temperature Analysis via NASA

From the start of the global climate movement, and especially since the 1990s, environment organisations have had the predominant view that people, when presented with the evidence, will act rationally in response and reduce carbon emissions.

Simon Copland from Inside Story has an excellent article about this, and makes the point that environmental and sustainability gains could be made by pointing out the scientific evidence and “once people know about climate change, they will take action to deal with it”. It’s known as the “deficit model” of communication.

For decades, environmental organisations used the framework of “Educate, Engage, Act” as the basis for their communications. If you could educate someone about the issue (climate change) by presenting them with the scientific facts, then they would engage with the issue, and then take action.

This model has been proven to be ineffective. It is especially ineffective in the context of conservative attacks directed at the facts themselves. The entire climate denialist machine is based on a post-fact paradigm, where lies are presented as fact, scientific certainties are undermined or denounced.

From a moral standpoint, conservative attacks on proponents of climate change use the morality of fossil fuel extraction to attack the immorality of “expensive” and “ineffective” renewables, and to discredit advocates of climate action as anti-capitalist (and thus “immoral”) and anti-free market.

If your moral stand-point to climate change is that capitalism and extraction is good and moral, and that wealth is the proof of that morality, then no amount of scientific facts about the dangers or pace of climate change will change your views.

To conservatives, The carbon price, and renewable energy target, and biodiversity/conservation laws are immoral because they interfere in the moral activity of the free market.

Fact-based arguments with hockey-stick graphs and dire predictions about sea-level rise actually serve to entrench skeptical views.

(Here’s a contrary view however.)

This carries for every contested area of public policy.

Copland again:

Science communicators have understood this for quite some time, and have seen the impact this has on science communication campaigns. “Despite the continued reliance on information campaigns to mobilise action,” social scientists Johanna Wolf and Susanne Moser explain, “communication research has largely dispelled the information-deficit model of environmental education and communication. More knowledge of a problem does not necessarily, directly, and by itself lead to a change in behaviour, and sometimes it can actually hinder behaviour change.”

But wait! What about Australia?

Matt Cowgill references the recent lie by Social Services minister Kevin Andrews, who made the remarkable claim that Australia’s welfare system was “unsustainable”.

He asked (I’m paraphrasing), surely a progressive counter to Andrews’ lie is to 1) assert that his premise is wrong and that welfare receipt has fallen as a share of the population; and 2) Point out that a lot of low income people rely on the welfare system to protect them from poverty and assists social mobility.

(Matt also seemed to intend number 2 to be a moral argument, but is really a fact-based argument.)

From a moral point of view, conservatives spread the view that welfare is inherently immoral. Welfare promotes immoral dependency. The conservative view of welfare also makes the case for the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor; hard-working people who fall into unemployment through no fault of their own are “deserving”. The “undeserving” people on welfare are alcoholics, lazy, vagrants, unmarried mothers or criminals.

Conservative views of the sustainability of the welfare system is also tied to government debt and deficit. A government in deficit is immoral because it lacks discipline to live within its means; spending on programs that give money to the “undeserving” is immoral.

From this point of view, any spending on welfare is unsustainable. Even if welfare receipts have fallen as a share of population or welfare assists with social mobility and prevents people from falling into poverty, those facts are simply immaterial. Welfare of any amount, even declining spending, is immoral.

Matt also raises the argument being waged in the US over the minimum wage (a version of which is happening in Australia).

Below is a graphic that is typical of many that progressive organisations use to promote an increase in the minimum wage in the USA. It uses facts to dispel conservative myths about the minimum wage.

USA minimum wage - Economic Policy Institute

The New York Times makes exactly these points in the opening paragraph of an article about the minimum wage. It makes a principally fact-based case for raising the minimum wage: “research, facts and evidence show that increasing the minimum wage is vital to the economic security of tens of millions of Americans” and “the minimum wage is specifically intended to take aim at the inherent imbalance in power between employers and low-wage workers”.

The conservative argument against increasing the minimum wage is again based on the morality of money and on discipline. Having money is moral. The minimum wage is an immoral interference in employers and employees freely entering into contracts. It creates dependency and distorts the free market. Because it primarily benefits the poor, there is a risk that it will benefit the “undeserving poor”, thus creating dependency on government regulations. What’s more, by raising the wages of the undeserving, it takes jobs from the deserving.

If you look at the minimum wage with a conservative context, then no amount of research and facts about “taking aim at the imbalance in power” or giving “economic security” to millions. Especially if those millions of poor people are undeserving.

George Lakoff and his supporters make the point that conservative messaging and policy development has had decades to entrench itself. A network of well-funded conservative think-tanks have provided saturation coverage across television, radio and newspapers (and more recently, the online channels) to push the right-wing agenda.

The conservative hegemony is so complete that many progressives simply cannot advocate progressive policies unless they’re in a conservative form.

For example, almost every progressive policy on climate change uses neoliberal market-based proposals regarding the carbon price or renewable energy investments.

Progressive arguments for minimum wage increases talk about the economic benefits and effects on employment, rather than making a moral case for setting wages at levels that guarantee human dignity.

Progressive arguments for welfare spending take place within the constraints of neoliberal economics and international comparisons, rather than from a moral standpoint of the role of government in ensuring individual economic security through providing a universal safety-net and basic protections.

Why should progressives change how they communicate and argue?

If progressives care about actually changing peoples’ minds, then they need to stop communicating ineffectively.

As noted earlier, there is a growing body of research that demonstrates effective and ineffective values-based communications. See here for more.

In a post-fact world, people seek out the facts that suit them. Climate denialists prefer to look at graphs that show global cooling. Anti-debt conservatives look a graphs that show out-of-control spending under Labor. People search out evidence that affirms their pre-existing views and attitudes.

For these reasons, I think that progressives need to stop making fact-based arguments. Facts are contestable. Values are a lot harder to contest and challenge.

Of course, facts and evidence serve a role. An important role.

The problem is that progressives tend to start and end with facts and evidence to try to persuade the public.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but for Matt’s benefit, I reiterate that I’m talking about persuasion. Public policy development clearly should take into consideration evidence and facts. I have a Masters degree in Public Policy, so I understand this.

Developing policy, and advocating for it to the public are fundamentally different.

Matt asked me to also provide concrete examples of what I thought a progressive, values based argument would look like.

The first principle is to establish a way to talk about progressive morality and the role of a moral government.

To give this context in a mainstream way, you could talk about values based on freedom and dignity, with the role of government to act as an impartial referee to preserve opportunity, to protect individuals to preserve security, and to refrain from action that would infringe individual freedom.

Again, I should emphasise that this is a pretty mainstream way to describe progressive values. I’m posing them here just as an illustration, not because I think they’re the One True Way to define progressive values.

Also, bear in mind that the best way to do this would involve more than just my “gut feeling”, so I’m by no means saying I have The Answer.

Welfare: Since Federation, the Australian community has always made sure that children, the elderly and people on low incomes get the assistance they need to live with dignity. Government help makes sure that low income people and families can afford the basics and necessities, which is why we have sliding scales of assistance. This assistance is modest and is a smart investment, and reckless cuts to the system would hurt everyone. (Security)

Minimum wage: Australia’s minimum wage means that anyone working in a basic job has the opportunity to earn enough for them and their family. It is set independently to preserve the Australian dream of opportunity and that through an honest day’s work you get a fair day’s pay. (Opportunity)

Same-sex marriage: Australia is a free society, and that means free for everyone. It’s not the right of the government to say that some people aren’t free to marry the person they love. (Freedom)

These three examples are illustrations, not definitive. But I hope they demonstrate that you can make a moral case for something, and then use, if necessary, some facts and figures to back up the moral case.

Remember though, facts are contestable because they are extrinsic. Morals are much harder to contest, because they are intrinsic.


If you don’t like George Lakoff (and who would blame you), then I suggest you read:

%d bloggers like this: