In the wake of the first Gulf War, Noam Chomsky, an American professor of linguistics and noted political thinker, broke down the steps taken by former President George Bush's administration to took to ensure public support for their invasion of Iraq. Manufacturing Consent, first a book and then a documentary movie of the same name, showed how through manipulating the media, outright lies, and other means, the administration ensured that first the media and then the American public were deceived into giving their consent for the war. As a linguist he was naturally interested in how the administration used the English language to assist them in their efforts, and how phrases like "collateral damage", among others, were part of the strategy.
While sharing some of the same concerns about language as Manufacturing Consent, Deflating The Elephant looks beyond a singular event toward the bigger picture. Like the earlier film the central figure, George Lakoff, is a linguistics professor interested in how language is used to shape public opinion. His topic is how the language used by American conservatives over the last thirty years to describe liberals or moderates has gradually changed the public's perception of liberalism from being a force for positive change to something that has a negative impact on their lives.
Lakoff discusses how conservative think tanks have focused on framed messaging to demean liberals and liberalism. According to Lakoff language is influenced by framing — the process of associating a word with a concept — and in turn our way of thinking, our ideology, and our behaviour, is shaped by the way in which concepts are used and repeated. Phrases like "war on terror", "tax relief", and "tax-and-spend liberals" have been used sufficiently that they now result in a conditioned response adhering conservative ideology. Lakoff contends that this is how America has been changed from essentially a progressive country to one with decidedly conservative leanings.
If you have any doubts as to which side of the argument Lakoff falls on, he makes it obvious when he starts to outline how progressives screwed up by ignoring rather than challenging the conservative disinformation campaign. The real giveaway though is the fact that the second part of the movie is dedicated to explaining how liberals can go about countering the negative perceptions that have been created. This involves a detailed analysis of how framing is created and the means to change the perception that liberals are elitists who waste taxpayers' money while allowing the country to be over run by terrorists.
I don't doubt the veracity of Professor Lakoff's arguments or his theories on language, nor do I have any trouble believing there was a concentrated effort on the part of conservatives to demonize liberalism. I agree with his assessment that liberals failed miserably by not taking this linguistic threat seriously and his recommendation that liberals work actively to counter this disinformation. The mood generated by the current administration represents a golden opportunity for rehabilitating liberalism in the United States.
Unfortunately Deflating The Elephant has to be one of the most breathtakingly boring examples of film I've seen in a long time. While Lakoff is interesting and informative, the manner in which the material was presented was stupefying. There's nothing at all interesting about watching someone sitting behind a desk talking directly into the camera no matter what he or she is talking about. The medium is not called motion pictures for nothing.
In fact a film like this one does more to reenforce the notion that liberals are a bunch of elitist intellectuals than any conservative propaganda. Watching Lakoff lecture from behind his desk on a subject that ninety percent of the population neither knows nor cares anything about would only confirm in most people's minds that liberals aren't concerned with real issues. What does any of this have to do with making sure a person can feed their family? How does this relate to the struggle to pay medical bills? There's no effort made by the filmmakers to put the information into a context that details the impact the distortion of liberalism has had on people's life.
One of the claims made about the film is that it's an invaluable learning tool for anyone who wants to learn how to read between the lines and recognize the real meaning behind framed messaging. The only trouble is that hardly anyone is going to want to sit through it. When I read about the movie I thought the topic would be fascinating and was hoping for something along the lines of what had been done with Manufacturing Consent. Instead, even the introductions to the various sections by Sean Penn are stilted (you can almost see his eyes reading off the teleprompter) and the movie as a whole is an exercise in tedium to sit through.
"Preaching to the converted" is an expression that applies directly to this film. While there is nothing wrong with a little positive reinforcement now and then, Deflating The Elephant doesn't even work on that level as the material is presented in a manner that would put both friend and foe alike to sleep.