Reinventing Newspeak – The Fatal Error at the Heart of The Little Blue Book

Most people who are passionate about politics wish to convince others to see things their way. To that end, the world-famous linguist and partisan Democrat George Lakoff has written the Little Blue Book:

Voters cast their ballots for what they believe is right, for the things that make moral sense. Yet Democrats have too often failed to use language linking their moral values with their policies. The Little Blue Book demonstrates how to make that connection clearly and forcefully, with hands-on advice for discussing the most pressing issues of our time: the economy, health care, women’s issues, energy and environmental policy, education, food policy, and more. Dissecting the ways that extreme conservative positions have permeated political discourse, Lakoff and Wehling show how to fight back on moral grounds and in concrete terms. Revelatory, passionate, and deeply practical, The Little Blue Book will forever alter the way Democrats and progressives think and talk about politics.

from publisher’s description.

At first blush this seems like a great idea to the passionate person – they’re sure to win all the arguments if they follow the books recipe! But the book’s recipe is not a recipe for winning arguments, but rather a recipe for preventing the reader from losing arguments – from being convinced by the person they are arguing with. How? By preventing them from actually being able to consider the opponents’ arguments by removing the opponents’ language from the reader’s brain.

The book starts off from a profound starting point, that people make decisions based on their moral frames of reference. But then it goes in a very unexpected direction. It instructs the reader to completely ignore the interlocutor’s own moral frames.

  • Use your own language; never use your opponent’s language
  • Be aware of what you believe and repeat it out loud over and over; never repeat ideas that you don’t believe in, even if you are arguing against them.

Let’s contrast these instructions with those of the late Dr Covey who has a great video that starts from the same premise – but argues that to communicate, you must adopt your interlocutor’s frame of reference and to try to understand where they are coming from.

As a method of convincing people, this book is a disaster; it purposes shouting down the non-progressive by denying them any legitimacy to their ideas. One the interlocutor figures out that what he is saying is being ignored, he will probably reciprocate by not listening to anything the reader has to say.

So what benefit is there to the reader to refuse to think like the person they are arguing with? George Orwell explained:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression  to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods.

The Principles of Newspeak – An Appendix to 1984 by George Orwell

The book is not a recipe on how to convince, but in fact is a recipe teaching the reader how to be intolerant and closed-minded.

Interestingly, this should not be a surprise. In a study of people’s ability to articulate political arguments, progressives had the worst performance when it comes to being able to articulate the ideas of people they disagree with. If you were to ask a Goldwater-conservative to provide you with the argument for Single-Payer Health-Care, he is far more likely to be able to do so than a progressive will be able to make the argument for a free market in health-care.

This book continues the trend, and if adopted by progressives will ensure the continued inability to attract new supporters to their movement… which is a very good thing.

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.