Can the framers of the Constitution, and the framers of our religious texts, be themselves framed?
Berkeley linguist George Lakoff explains why a phrase like “activist judge” exploits a naive notion of what it means to interpret a text (like the American Constitution). And he argues that Democrats shouldn’t yield such phrases to Republicans (as in the debate over Sonia Sotomayor):
Conservatives are . . . as much “judicial activists” as anyone else. So how do conservative Republicans get away with the “activist judge” ploy? Democrats hand it to them. Why? Because most Democrats grew up with and still believe a view of reason that has been shown in cognitive science and neuroscience to be false. The sciences of mind have shown that real reason is largely unconscious, requires emotion, uses “models” (frames, metaphors, narratives) and so does not fit the world directly. But Democrats tend to believe that reason is conscious, can fit the world directly, and works by logic, not frames or metaphors. They thus believe that words have fixed literal meanings that fit the world in itself, regardless of models, frames, metaphors, or narratives. If you believe this, then original meaning could make sense. Democrats don’t fight it when they should.
In other words, what far-right conservatives do in the reading of the Constitution is the same thing that they might do when they read the Bible in a fundamentalist manner. They imagine the meaning of a particular text to be mysteriously and magically inherent in the text itself, and easily peeled off of it. One reads, in short, naively, and pretends that one’s reading is not even an interpretation of a text, but just a straightforward and neutral explication of what common sense necessarily shows to be there. No readerly “action” or framing needs to be involved in the understanding of a text, or if there is any, it is minimal.
Thus only liberal “activists” really read texts, well, actively. Conservatives just take texts for what they “obviously” say. The debate over “activist judges” has thus been allowed to be framed in terms of fundamentalist hermeneutical assumptions. And liberals have the steep hill to climb of making the case for why the reading of texts should ever be complexified. In a culture with a low attention span, complexity and nuance are hard-sells. Sonia Sotomayor, in her upcoming public hearings before the Senate, may find out just how hard a sell it is.
Keep it simple, stupid?