Framing guru George Lakoff on “Farm Bill”

While waiting for the Michael Pollan–moderated Farm Bill Teach-In to begin, I noticed George Lakoff near the front of the auditorium. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Lakoff — whose day job is a linguistics professor at UC Berkeley — became somewhat of a "rock star" in the political community for his work on "framing" (see Dairy Queen's 2003 interview with Lakoff for details). A common misconception about "framing" is that it is "spinning." It actually refers to the conceptual framework—the context or metaphor—that the brain associates with each word or phrase that it processes.

When I saw Lakoff, I thought, "It would be interesting to see what he has to say about the language used in the Farm Bill debate." My wish came true. At the end of the event, Michael Pollan invited Professor Lakoff to speak for a few minutes about what he had heard, and how the issues could be better presented so as to tap into more positive unconscious frames. (You can watch the whole Farm Bill Teach-In here.)

frames.jpgLakoff frames it

I think it was clear to everyone in the audience that "Farm Bill" is a lousy name for the legislation, because it also covers school lunches, food stamps, and what everyone eats and drinks every day. Recent versions have also covered energy, so the bill also influences where electricity and transportation fuel comes from.

Lakoff suggested "Food and Farm Bill," "Healthy Food and Farming Bill," "Healthy Food Bill" and other variations. He also talked about the need to call "processed food" by a more sinister name of "diabetes-producing food." In his opinion, "processed food" is not necessarily the pejorative that many expect. Processing is required for all foods and is a somewhat generic word. Lakoff prefers more jarring terms like "industrial food" or "chemical food" that bring contradictions into the frame. He also suggested using the word "poisons" to refer to pesticides.

A bent frame?

Although the idealist in me is hoping for big changes in the 2007 Farm Bill, my inner realist anticipates little change in the commodity programs. And so, after the legislation exits the Congressional sausage-maker, we'll still be smothered in monocultured corn and soybeans. Therefore, calling the Farm Bill the "Healthy Food and Farming Bill" (or some other variant containing the word healthy) sounds somewhat "Luntzian" to me. "Luntzian" refers to Frank Luntz, a famous Republican strategist who specializes in finding the best words and phrases to sell political ideas. Luntz is a master of using framing to spin radical ideas masquerading as benign-sounding positioning. One of his most famous contributions was the 1994 "Contract with America" (or the "Contract on America" as some have renamed it). Another was his recommendation to the GOP that they highlight the small areas of uncertainty regarding climate change to confuse the public. The Bush Administration has been an avid follower of Luntzian language, with programs like the "Clear Skies Initiative" (a program to weaken air pollution restrictions) and the "Healthy Forests Act" (a way to allow timber companies to cut large trees cloaked in the garments of forest fire prevention). More about Luntz on a 2004 episode of NOW with Bill Moyers.

Someday I hope we can call the omnibus agricultural legislation the "Healthy Food and Farming Bill" or the "Healthy Food and Sustainable Agriculture Bill," but for 2007, I'm settling on the "Food and Farm Bill," because it emphasizes that the legislation is about food.

Ethicurean readers, what do you think? Can we find a better frame than the "Food and Farm Bill"?

Image credit: Photo of frames by greenfinger, from the morgueFile.

2 Responsesto “Framing guru George Lakoff on “Farm Bill””

  1. Charlie St.Clair says:

    National Food System Planning Act would be a start

  2. Allen Hance says:

    Check out the work of the Farm and Food Policy Project at http://www.farmandfoodproject.org and http://www.healthyfarmbill.org