October 28, 2004

Does George Lakoff have the answers?

While walking to dinner this evening with a friend, we got to talking about the sad state of American politics. Liberals and conservatives seem to have lost the ability to persuade one another.

They don't even seem to be speaking the same language. For example, many conservatives expressed their outrage over Bill Clinton's "conduct" with Monica Lewinski in moral terms. Clinton's behavior was "immoral" not only because he lied about "having sex with that woman," but because he shouldn't have been having extramarital sex in the first place. Liberals acknowledged that Clinton lied, but it didn't seem to bother them very much. Some of them even sympathized with Clinton, who shouldn't have had to face an inquiry about his private (and off-limits) sexual life in the first place.

Now we're dealing with George W. Bush, and the tables are turned. Once again, a President has lied to us, this time about an imminent threat from a foreign state that justified a preemptive war. Now, though, the liberals seem to be the only ones upset by the Chief Executive's lies.

Both liberals and conservatives claim to disapprove of "lying," but it seems like they're talking about two different things when they use the same word. How can they be expected to persuade one another of anything when they don't speak the same language?

George Lakoff has offered the best analysis of these misunderstandings that I've seen. His book Moral Politics attempts to explain the language and worldview of conservatives and liberals. While I'm not sure I share Coturnix's view that the conservative outlook has been "thoroughly refuted by the past century of cognitive psychology and neuroscience," I find Lakoff's description of the conservative "strict father" and liberal "nurturant parent" worldviews persuasive.

Conservatives, according to Lakoff, see the world through the lens of heirarchy. In the "strict father" model of parenting, subservient children are taught self-discipline and morality by an authoritarian father, who dispenses punishment when his moral edicts are violated. The strict father's goal is to raise children who will be fully capable of leading independent lives as adults--to the extent that his grown children still depend on him for anything, the strict father has failed. Subservience and authority are necessary stages along the path to complete independence. Implicit in this "independence," however is the notion that the adult will govern himself according to the moral edicts passed down from his father, and will in turn pass these on to his children. There is not much room at any time in life for exploration, and there's no room for alternative moral precepts. Conservatives translate this heirarchical model onto the wider society. It explains their simultaneous embrace--so confusing to liberals-- of government "paternalism" in the social realm and laissez-faire in the economic realm. The social realm is where the fundamentals of life are learned, much like childhood in the life of an individual. Here is where the "strict father" government must impose rigid discipline upon the "children" citizens. The point is not to discipline for discipline's sake, but to produce citizens that are capable of governing themselves (according to the imposed moral order). These citizens will not need further guidance as they go out into the adult world of the marketplace, and any attempt by the government to interfere with the market is akin to a father interfering in his adult child's life--a sign that the parent has failed to do his proper job. Conservatives defend "liberty" in the context of this model: it is the liberty of the well-raised adult, who has internalized the morality of his father and who is prepared to pass it on to his "children"--welfare moms, Mexican immigrants, and Iraqis--with harsh discipline if necessary.

Liberals, on the other hand, adopt what Lakoff calls the "nurturant parent" worldview. Here, the role of the parent is to provide a nurturing environment for the child to explore on his own. On this model, the child will turn out well-adjusted and moral if he is allowed to learn things on his own. His moral worth is measured by whether he has chosen what is best for himself. This explains why liberals are more tolerant of other cultures and subcultures than conservatives are. Being gay is neither morally right or wrong; what matters is whether you're gay for the right reasons. A parent should discipline the child only as much as necessary to keep her safe, because safety is a necessary component of the nurturing environment that children need. The goal of childraising is to produce well-adjusted adults who can work well with others. Being human, adults will never lose their need for a safe, nurturing environment, so parents can and should continue to contribute to their children's development throughout their lives. A good parent is never too authoritarian, but never withdraws too completely. When the liberals translate this model onto the wider society, they are unsurprisingly tolerant of "alternative" lifestyles and cultures. What the liberals see as morally praiseworthy freedom to explore, the conservatives see as deviance worthy of punishment. In the economic sphere, the liberals reject the notion of fully independent economic entities who should be left to their own fates. Citizens will always be at risk for economic injury, and the responsible government should make sure that adequate safety nets are in place for those who fall between the cracks. A government has a responsibility, say the liberals, to take care of its citizens.

Undoubtedly, Lakoff provides a helpful way for liberals and conservatives to understand each other. He helps us see why we sometimes seem so incoherent: it only looks incoherent through the other guy's worldview. But is this enough? Is an awareness of how the other side uses language like "morality" and "freedom" enough to enable us to persuade one another in the political arena? On some days, I think so. On other days, I'm not so sure. Lakoff's models simply alert us to other ways in which we disagree.

As for "cognitive science," well... Even if the "strict father" method of raising children is completely discredited by "science," the strict father political worldview remains just that--a worldview. This worldview cannot be proven or disproven by any kind of science that I know, and it is, ultimately, completely independent of how one raises one's children. We shouldn't forget that Lakoff has provided us with helpful metaphors.
(Thanks to Majikthise for the reminder.)

Posted by Carey at October 28, 2004 11:08 PM