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Conscience Magazine

The Trouble with George Lakoff

By Joanna Williams December 20, 2016

Over the past four decades, the word pro-choice has become synonymous with abortion rights. It was first documented in 1974, the year after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. It encapsulates the idea that no woman should be forced to have an abortion any more than she should be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. To be pro- choice is to be pro-woman; it is to see women as capable of deciding for themselves what should happen to their own bodies. Political commentator and professor of cognitive linguistics George Lakoff is a leading proponent of the need to reframe abortion, believing that the use of “pro-choice” no longer works. However, the focus on changing language is, at best, a distraction from the real need women have to access abortion services. Worse, it may actually undermine arguments for a woman’s right to an abortion.

Does the Frame Eclipse the Picture?

The recent second-guessing of pro-choice language has been led by those concerned that younger generations are increasingly equivocal about abortion rights. Lakoff argues that pro-choice activists have allowed the debate to be framed by their opponents. In contrast to the “morally virtuous” pro-life message, some claim the language of choice has individualistic associations with trivial acts of consumption. Many millennials claim that the starkness of pro-life morality beats the equivocal pro-choice ambiguity.

This focus on language is about more than words alone. It is about the connotations words have with particular ideas and the underlying value systems certain words trigger in people’s brains. For this reason, Lakoff criticizes advocates for utilizing pro-choice rhetoric, and thereby inadvertently reinforcing conservative values. He urges the movement to address abortion through a moral lens: “It has to do with freedom, which is a moral issue. And it has to do with the freedom to control your own body. And nobody wants not to be able to control their own bodies—men, women or anybody. [It’s] freedom to control your own destiny. So, to control your own body and your own future—those are essential to what it means to be a free human being. And democracy is supposed to be about that.”

Using this frame, Lakoff says we are going to have to use more than a word or two to make the message clear. Rather than the shorthand “pro-choice,” he recommends that we use “freedom to control your own body,” which could eventually be reduced to “body freedom.” Stuart Derbyshire, associate professor at National University of Singapore, tends to disagree. “‘Freedom to control your own body’ is a bit broad and could gen­erate overlap and confusion with other issues, such as gender transitions, imprisonment, torture, etc. I think we should retain ‘pro-choice,’” he says.

When asked about the proposed new frame, Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent (UK), said, “Abortion is not a value, but an act that should be normalized instead of hidden away from public sight. Freedom to control your own body is an irrational concept. You don’t control your body; think about getting a cold or even cancer. I prefer the use of ‘self-determination,’ which is a value concept.”

The perceived need to reframe the abortion debate led Lakoff to urge pro-choice activists to “explore theories of message framing and brand advocacy.”1 As a result, focus groups have been used to determine the words and images needed to trigger the emotions, moral values and worldview preferred by proponents of a new framing of abortion rights. Frank Furedi is critical of this approach, saying, “Changing your language because of polling data risks losing sight of your principles. It may also distract from developing arguments around the issue for the sake of a soundbite.”

New Messaging

Changing the language used to discuss abortion has been welcomed by Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federat ion of America, who argues, “I just think the ‘pro-choice’ language doesn’t really resonate, particularly wit h a lot of young women voters.”2 Geoffrey Knox, a longtime public relations expert, disagrees: “‘Pro-choice’ and ‘abortion’ do carry values, both positive and negative. It’s up to us who are pro-choice and want increased access to abortion to promote the positive values we want associated with these words. The more defensive we are, the more the negative value comes through. These should not be the only words we use in framing the issue, but avoiding them is not the answer and only reinforces existing stigma.”

Rejecting an established vocabulary demands new messaging; as one commentator explains, “The desire to go label-free is doomed to fail.… Labels are simply part of language, and shorthand rhetoric is part of the political debate.”3 Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, who for more than 15 years has been a co-chairwoman of the Pro-Choice Caucus in Congress, dismisses the idea of a name change. “I’ve never worried about it,” she said.

As noted, focus groups have been employed to determine the best words and phrases to make the importance of abortion rights a priority for a new generation. Data gathered from surveys and these focus groups can offer advocates and service providers valuable insights into how they are perceived by segments of the public.

However, this does not necessarily mean that all insights must be acted upon. Crucially, adopting new labels on the basis of market research is not the same as winning the argument for a woman’s right to have an abortion. Focus groups respond to the questions they are asked; in other words, they hone the presentation of a predetermined position. This emphasis on populist presentation is intended, as Ann Furedi points out in The Moral Case for Abortion, to bring about change through “nudge” rather than “challenge” and thereby “avoid arguments about right and wrong.” A debate driven by principles and visceral conviction is replaced by a “narrow, pragmatic and technical narrative.”4

The current preoccupation with language risks hiding both the medical reality of abortion, and a woman’s need to access such services, behind layers of euphemism. A new vocabulary may be more appealing to target audiences, particularly audiences new to the issue, and therefore win some short-term support for the abortion rights movement. However, if this comes at the expense of open and honest political debate, it may backfire on proponents of abortion access in years to come. Winning supporters to a cause through moral conviction and political principle is a riskier strategy than linguistic change; there’s always a chance that progressives may lose the argument. Ultimately, it is only through winning explicit political support for abortion access that provision can be secured.

The Science of Framing

Lakoff claims that the need to reframe the abortion debate is supported by evidence from the overlapping fields of structural linguistics and neuroscience. He explains that “frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world.” They are primarily formulated through language, and often operate at a metaphorical level: “When you hear a word, its frame is activated in your brain.” To Lakoff, the mind is a “neural network where people make decisions based on conceptual frames and metaphors they’ve learned over the years.”5 As frames are built up over years and work at a metaphorical level, Lakoff argues that facts that do not match a person’s existing conceptual frame will not be enough to persuade a change of mind on a particular issue. Instead, views are changed when different metaphors and language are used to portray an issue, thereby activating different conceptual frames within a person’s brain. For Lakoff, such reframing is a means of bringing about social change: If progressives can alter the frames associated with an issue, they can alter people’s perceptions of the world.

The idea that social change can be brought about through changing language simultaneously overstates the significance of language and underplays the importance of the material conditions of people’s lives. Yet Lakoff is explicit in his arguments: “You might think that the world exists independently of how we understand it. You would be mistaken.” He continues, the world is “in many ways, a reflection of how we frame it and act on those frames, creating a world in significant part framed by our actions.”6 The notion that language constructs social reality has been a popular tenet of post-structuralist thought since the 1970s. It turns an older interpretation of Marxism on its head: Rather than material and economic circumstances shaping a dominant hegemony, the assumption is that language produces society and linguistic change can bring about social change.

Changing language because of polling data risks losing sight of your principles. It may also distract from developing arguments around the issue for the sake of a soundbite.

Ideas are clearly important, and language can be used to powerful effect in winning arguments and provoking sympathy for a particular cause. But reducing social change to linguistic change ignores the very real factors that influence people’s perceptions of society. Poverty, legal inequalities and family responsibilities, for example, all go considerably beyond language use in determining the way individuals experience the world. Lakoff acknowledges that people do not respond in the same way to the same facts; he uses this to argue that people are not “rational animals.” However, it could also suggest that facts are understood in context and are interpreted differently by individuals—and therefore rationally to them— in the unique set of circumstances they exist within.

So doesn’t all of this make a case for different parts of a movement using the language that best works with their own constituents? For example, shouldn’t faith-based organizations within the pro-choice movement craft messages that use their own language that will complement the language used by rights-based organizations or women’s health organizations? Is it necessary for everyone within a movement to use the exact same language, even if it makes their audiences uncomfortable or confused?

At the same time as overstating the significance of language, Lakoff downplays the capacity for people to act consciously upon the world. The ability for people to interpret facts according to their own understanding and context suggests the exercise of “Enlightenment reason” and not, as Lakoff would have it, its irrelevance. The ease with which Lakoff jettisons the capacity of individuals to reason comes from his perception of people as determined by “neural circuits in the brain” that “don’t change readily or easily.”7 This presents people as automatons who simply live out the unconscious workings of their brains. Lakoff argues that we “are often not even aware of our most deeply held moral views” because “each moral system is, in the brain, a system of neural circuitry.”8 We may think we hold a moral stance on a particular issue that we have arrived at through reasoned argument when, in fact, suggests Lakoff, we are simply acting out our neural circuitry.

Reframing Abortion

The logic of Lakoff’s neurolinguistic approach provides a powerful argument in support of reframing the debate around abortion: The application of new metaphors could activate different neural circuits in people’s brains and lead them to perceive abortion rights as a positive value to uphold. If successful, fears of avoiding political debate may appear comparatively trivial. However, the logic of Lakoff’s approach undermines the very position he seeks to support in a number of crucial ways.

The assumption that social reality is constructed primarily through language stands in stark contrast to the experiences of women seeking abortion services. For a woman, an unwanted pregnancy is not a linguistic issue that can be wished away through a new vocabulary. Pregnancy is a biological fact and, although the “wantedness” of a baby might be culturally determined, access to abortion is a material necessity for women who do not wish to be pregnant. Similarly, a woman’s ability to access abortion services is shaped by legal, med­ical and often financial realities rather than metaphorical signifiers.

Both a woman’s need for an abortion and the medical provision of abortion services are material rather than lin­guistic concerns. The preoccupation with the language that frames the abortion debate distracts advocates and providers from the changes that need to occur to secure abortion rights as meaningful in reality. No amount of “reframing” the abortion debate will provide legal, safe and accessible abortion services for all women who need or want them. Ultimately, the defense of abortion rights is not a linguistic exercise, but rather a political argument that needs to be won. Unfortunately, it is not an argument that once won is guaranteed for all time. It needs to be won anew with each generation.

According to Lakoff, there is simply no autonomous being with the capacity to override the conceptual frames a woman builds up over her lifetime.

Lakoff’s understanding of people as reducible to their neural circuitry undercuts what is perhaps the most important argument for abortion access: a woman’s ability to determine for herself what is best for her life. As Ann Furedi argues, “There is a moral case to empower a woman to decide whether to have an abortion on the basis of her own moral reasoning. Indeed, not to allow this is an infringement of her autonomy and self-determination, her right to call her body her own and to shape her own future.”9

It is difficult for advocates to argue for a woman’s right to self-determination while at the same time holding the view that women are not able to make rational choices but are instead dependent upon the unconscious workings of their brain circuits. According to Lakoff, there is simply no autonomous being with the capacity to override the conceptual frames a woman builds up over her lifetime. Lakoff quite rightly takes to task the view that human life begins at, or even before, the moment of conception and argues that people are not their biology. However, he replaces a privileging of biology with only a slightly more sophisticated perception of people as not cells but circuits and synapses.

To defend abortion rights today, we need to win the argument that women are autonomous beings with a right to determine the course of their own lives. We need to argue for “bodily integrity” or, as Furedi states, “The belief that our bodies are our own for us to control and that, providing we cause no harm to others, no one may interfere with us without our consent.” We can only make these arguments if we see people as capable of engaging in rational discussion and exercising self-determination. Changing the language we use to describe abortion does nothing to help a woman who does not want to continue with her pregnancy; worse still, it rein­forces a view of women as incapable of making independent, rational and autonomous decisions about the direction of their own lives.

In Defense of Pro-Choice

Individual autonomy—the ability of people to determine for themselves the course of their own lives—is best expressed in the concept of choice. Although women are not always, or even often, making choices in circumstances of their own choosing, they always have choices to make and their autonomy is expressed through those choices. The language of pro-choice for abortion campaigns encapsulates not just a woman’s right to choose, but, far more fundamentally, a woman’s ability to choose. Abor­tion rights advocates need to make the case that women should be able to exercise control of their own bodies and determine for themselves whether or not to continue with a pregnancy. Ultimately, this means defending the important principle of a woman’s right to choose. As Ann Furedi puts it: “The freedom to make moral choices is the most important freedom we have; the freedom to act on our moral choices is the most important privilege we can claim.”

Of most importance in any consideration of abortion is the woman. There is a risk that, amid the focus on language and the framing of the abortion debate, the needs of women for accessible, safe and affordable abortion provision are lost.

Joanna Williams
Joanna Williams

is the education editor of Spiked and is the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge.

Tagged Abortion