After I mentioned the topic of this piece in a Facebook posting, a friend was insistent that I do a
full piece on it, so here goes.
“Don’t think of an elephant.”
What just happened in your head? In order to NOT think of an elephant, you, in fact, had to think
of an elephant so you could “not” think about it. The image of an elephant probably flashed
across your mind’s eye.
That phrase, “Don’t think of an elephant” is the title of a very short book by George Lakoff, first
published in 2004, that serves as a guide for activists to advance their agenda by understanding
how people receive and perceive information. He has also published a much longer, scholarly,
“version” of the same analyses titled “Moral Politics”.
The underlying concept is that people have a moral basis for being politically “conservative” or
“liberal” that defines how they process information coming at them from their surroundings.
Lakoff says conservatives have a strict father model in which people are made good through self-
discipline and hard work, everyone is taken care of by taking care of themselves. Liberals have a
nurturant parent model in which everyone is taken care of by helping each other. Most people
have varying degrees of these two in themselves, which helps explain the spectrum we see in
politics. These are what Lakoff calls “frames” through which people “see” the world around
them. But these are not the only frames that exist.
What’s very interesting is that these frames are so solid that even when the facts contradict what
people expect because of their frame, they do not change their minds. Facts just bounce off the
Perhaps the best way to explain this in an Armenian context is through the example of Turks’
attempts at Genocide denial. Think about it – when a Turkish lobbyist approaches an elected
official and says “There was no Genocide,” what has s/he done? S/he had to use the word
genocide. Once that happens, the elected is thinking about genocide, just like you couldn’t help
but think about an elephant when you read the second sentence of this piece.
That’s how people’s minds work. This applies where the matter in question is a societal issue,
an organization, or even an individual, framing defines perception and understanding.
I would add, from personal experience, that it also matters who gets the first word in. So if two
people have opposing opinions on a topic, the one who speaks second to a third person usually
has a slight disadvantage in getting the third person to come to her/his side.
And that’s what explains, partially, the bind, the hole, the ARF finds itself in at this time. At
least in the Republic of Armenia, a fairly broadly accepted frame is that the Armenian
Revolutionary Federation is no different than the agglomeration of oligarchs it worked with
when in coalition with the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA).
With this as the frame in an otherwise uninformed person’s mind, it is extremely difficult convey
a different notion. If the ARF says “we’re not oligarchs,” what happens? People hear “oligarch”
which is a well-established frame, and the hole has been dug deeper for the organization. If
people hear the ARF very rationally, logically, explain why it was in coalition with the RPA, the
hole gets deeper still, because Serge Sarkissian, the former president, now extremely unpopular,
comes to mind. All the ills associated with him somehow also accrue to the ARF.
So what’s the solution for the ARF? It has to undertake the difficult task of recreating the
enormously positive frame it enjoyed among a significant portion of the population when
Armenia regained its independence. I do not want to underestimate the number of people who
had been duped into an anti-ARF mentality through decades, generations, of Soviet propaganda
which contributes to the negative-ARF frame.
How is this to be done? It is definitely not through public statements which will inescapably fall
victim to this negative frame that exists (and the work of those who for various reasons are
negatively disposed towards the ARF). Only hard, productive, social-political-economic work
will reestablish, in time, a positive frame for the ARF. Just as it seems Nigol Pashinian can do
no wrong at this time because of the positive frame through which he is perceived, thanks to his
diligent activism and public relations savvy, the ARF, too, can improve its standing among the
Quiet, low key, productive, helpful, open, heartfelt, constructive work – that’s the path to
progress for the ARF as a party and though it the country and nation as a whole.
Oh, and every Armenian should buy “Don’t Think of an Elephant” and read it.