Monday, July 14, 2003

On George Lakoff's Moral Politics

While watching “Mary Poppins” (yes, the Disney musical written by the wonderfully talented Sherman brothers) with my 5 year old for the nth time, my ears perked up when I heard George Banks’ boss crossly lecture his son Michael about feeding the birds. “What have you got? Fat birds!”.

I suddenly realized how the messages of George Lakoff’s book, Moral Politics, had sunk into my psyche. This was a story about the transition a Strict Father family (per Lakoff) into a Nurturant Parent family with a little help from a few magical interventions whipped up by (guardian angel) Mary Poppins. The Sherman brothers explain in the CD version of their music that the movie’s theme was encompassed in their song “Feed the Birds”: the birds being the children and tuppence meaning that it doesn’t take much money to pay attention to your children.

Lakoff doesn’t ever mention how families can transition from one type to the other nor does he mention any sort of magical interventions, but he does a wonderful job in explaining the differences between the world views of liberals and conservatives, no mean feat. It reminded me of one of the priorities of the graduate school program I attended: to increase awareness of multicultural values, the premise being each encounter between two individuals was essentially an interface between two cultural systems. To do that required that we become more aware of our own individual worldview, not an easy task especially since these views lie largely in the unconscious/subconscious realms. At that time, we didn’t have many systematic guides or maps to navigate this domain. Words could be landmines since the meaning behind a word may be different for each individual. Deborah Tannen (it turns out she was a student of Lakoff’s) wrote a wonderful book of linguistic gender differences called You Just Don’t Understand (1990, Ballantine Books). Expectations differ as well which can easily result in explosive encounters.

What Lakoff does is to provide one type of map, coming from the world of cognitive science in his two models: the Strict Father family and the Nurturant Parent family. To grossly oversimplify, he posits that our world view of family could be extrapolated to our expectations about the role of government and the role of politics. Conservatives believe in the values defined by the Strict Father model; their view of government derives from those moral values. Similarly, liberals align with the Nurturant Family model, their view of what government should be comes from those moral values. (Note: A summary of his book is available here. Also see the two part interview in pt. 1 and pt.2. Blog comments: doc searles , in All Too Human, Jim Moore’s blog, Comments on, a recommendation from Seeing the Forest, many others. However, the best prescriptive is to read his book. )

Lakoff builds his cognitive model, using the tools of metaphor and radial categories. Using his model as the base, he describes the differences in how liberals and conservatives think, what their moral values are, the hidden assumptions of their respective worldviews, and the stereotypes ( especially demonizing ones) given by the other side. He discusses specific issues, from each side: taxes, social programs, crime, etc. What I found valuable was how Lakoff was able to present a coherent conservative view that made quite a bit of sense to me. While I vehemently disagree with their point of view, I see very clearly, for example, why California, HeadStart and Medicare have big red target signs on them.

Lakoff’s analysis of the human mind (Ch. 22) from the conservative point of view was notable. Lakoff delineates 10 assumptions of the Strict Father model, distilling further four conditions which must be met for functionality (p. 369):
“… 1. Absolute categorization 2. Literality 3. Perfect Communication 4. Folk behaviorism…”
From the cognitive behavior therapy point of view, these conditions contain significant cognitive distortions such as black/white thinking and global assumptions which need reality testing.

What Lakoff calls “Strategic Frame Analysis” (beginning on page 419) is important, containing what he believes what liberals need to do. Here he discusses the theoretical basis of what to do but he says this more colloquially in his interview:
”… What you need to do is frame your positive ideals, get those ideas out there, and express them in such a way that you can see that the Bush administration is a nightmare, that you can attack them relative to your frame. And that is what you have to do. You can't just take their frame and say we are against it, because you support their frame. These are the kinds of things that can be done…”
His analysis of the 2000 Presidential campaign using his model (beginning on p. 396) was extremely enlightening; I’m hoping current Presidential candidates will benefit by understanding his model.

Criticism: The distinction he makes about the two world views are valid and important. However, I would have liked to see more discussion on the relationship of one’s sense of community to political views. My view of community may be different than his. By community, I mean one’s connection to a cultural identity, ethnic identity, tribal affiliation, and maybe even generational status. I think that ethnicity/cultural values make a big difference in how one views family, not to mention how one may envision how government works.

While I agree with his description of politics using his cognitive models, I’m still trying to fit it into what I see in my own life. Within my circle of moms, I see an entire spectrum of political views, ranging from progressive to neutral to conservative. Although most of us are “attachment parents”, no easy correlation with political views exists (yup, I know this is a small sample size). What gives? My group of moms may be unusual. In my group, the politically conservative attachment parents believe that the nurturance and the organic food they provide to their children enhances the survival of their children in this harsh mean nasty world (and who cares about anyone else). On the other hand, the progressive non attachment (“Let the child cry at night because it’s good for them”) parents believe strongly in the importance of community, of making this world a better place. Lakoff discusses how individuals may be mixed in metaphors. Technically, this fits but to me the mixed metaphors does not adequately explain what is going on. My sense is that there is another core issue to consider.

From my frame, this core issue is what survival means to an individual. Is safety, sanctuary and security the major motivation of one’s existence? Or is there consideration that the survival of self is more global, requiring understanding of one’s place in the environment, world, community, and that there a desire for a sense of connection, purpose, and belonging to the larger world beyond the issue of one’s survival. Sense of survival defines the purpose for the type of parenting: if the belief that attachment parenting will enhance survival, then that is the preferred mode of parenting. Both political views and parenting style follows what survival means to an individual.

My sense is that a historical backdrop of the Strict Father paradigm was probably purposefully left out to keep the focus on the here and now. However, it would be important to note Alice Miller, in her books describing “poisonous pedagogy”(e.g. Thou Shalt Not be Aware, etc) explores in detail the negative ramifications of the Strict Father model: the impact of denial, the loss of a sense of self, and the “narcissistic traumas” inflicted on children. Of course, although quite non-academic but still very relevant, John Bradshaw’s observations on dysfunctional family systems brings to mind the Strict Father family model. Lastly, although Lakoff's model seems quite robust, I’m looking forward to see research support to verify his models.

Lakoff’s Moral Politics fulfills an important and brilliant first step in deciphering the differences in world view between the liberals and conservatives. This is an excellent beginning for a paradigm change in how we visualize politics and opens the door to public discourse, something which Lakoff notes is nonexistent. Lakoff says in his interview,
“…What you want to do is talk in a way that that activates the progressive worldview. The conservatives talk in a way that activates the conservative worldview, and it activates them, with these "voters in the middle" -- making them look at the world from more of a conservative perspective. What the progressives have to do is get them -- "the folks in the middle" -- to activate their progressive worldviews, and spread them over more issues. That is the way that you hold your base and extend it. The conservatives know this, the Democrats haven't a clue. They don't understand this yet…”
Time is short. There is an election that needs to be won.