Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

January 14, 2005


Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 13:31
ust finished reading George Lakoff’s Moral Politics, his comprehensive study of the difference between liberal-progressive and conservative worldviews. I’ve written about him before, and the ICD has a great online summary of his views. But having now read a whole book of his thinking I’d recommend anyone interested in changing people’s minds do the same, for two reasons:
  • Reading his books will not only help you understand conservatives better, it will lower your stress level about them. You will actually empathize with them, understand where they’re coming from, instead of vilifying, demonizing, reacting pathologically to them (as we all tend to do when facing an enormous force we can’t understand); and
  • Reading his books will help you understand your own worldview, how you think, and why you feel the way you do, and help you stop rationalizing your viewpoint, and allow yourself to appreciate that you believe what you do for profoundly emotional, moral reasons. For the liberal-progressive, the ‘categories of moral action’ are:
    • Empathetic behaviour and promoting fairness
    • Helping those who cannot help themselves
    • Protecting those who cannot protect themselves
    • Promoting the virtue of fulfillment in life
    • Nurturing and strengthening oneself

By contrast, the conservative categories of moral action are:

  • Promoting strict-father morality in general (good vs evil, rules to be obeyed, strict rules on right vs wrong)
  • Promoting the virtues of self-discipline, responsibility for one’s own actions and success, and self-reliance
  • Upholding the morality of reward and punishment (including preventing interference with the pursuit of self-interest by self-disciplined, self-reliant people, promoting punishment to uphold authority, and ensuring punishment for lack of self-discipline)
  • Protecting moral people from external evils
  • Upholding the moral order (legitimate authority)

The most striking contrast is that the conservative categories of moral action are, well, more active, while the liberal ones are more reflective. And hence while neither side has a monopoly on ‘ends justifies the means’ behaviours, and both sides react with ‘understandable’ moral outrage when the other side uses such justifications (“Bush lied people died” vs “Anti-government protest is support for terrorism”), the conservatives’ greater propensity for action, for intervention, for response would seem to make them more prone to such justifications (and the need for them).

Lakoff is one of us, an avowed liberal-progressive, so we should trust him when he advises us how to deal with conservatives, understand them, and re-frame debates in ways conservatives can understand and which allow us, sometimes astonishingly, to find common cause with them (like responding to the tsunami disaster). Some possible areas for doing this, where with the right frame we could wrench conservatives from the clutches of the cynical and brilliantly manipulative neocons, are:

  • Environment and Energy: Instead of the conservative frame of ‘the energy crisis’, we need to re-frame the debate on the environment and energy as a health crisis (the purity of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, and the growing number of allergies, epidemics, and chronic physical and mental illnesses), an aesthetic, quality of life crisis (the beauty of nature vs the ugliness of smokestacks, oil-wrecked beaches, and endless paved sprawl), an economic crisis (our vulnerability and dependence on non-renewable and scarce commodities like oil, water and land), and a moral crisis (our responsibility to be good stewards of the Earth). Today’s Salon.com article by Katherine Mieszkowski suggests that the environmental movement has been so incompetent at such re-framing, at moving from the defensive to the offensive, and at articulating the moral imperative for their movement, that the movement is dry, dusty and moribund.
  • Education: Instead of the conservative frame of supporting “family values’ by insisting parents take principal responsibility for their children’s education, we need to re-frame the debate on education on the enormous damage that overly-strict parents do when they beat their spouses and children and subject them to psychological punishment and repression and refuse to listen to them (that damage is well-documented in all credible clinical studies), on the unacceptable state of children’s health, on the utter lack of quality education or opportunity for children whose only ‘sin’ is to be born into a poor family, on the lack of adequate child care for parents who must of economic necessity both work, and on the lack of critical skills of most children who graduate from both public and private education systems.
  • Economic Opportunity: Instead of the enduring myth that markets are ‘free’ and completely efficient, and that economic success if available to anyone with self-discipline, effort and self-sacrifice, we need to re-frame the debate to acknowledge the economic reality that wealth for some is only made possible by paying much lower wages to others, that those others deserve adequate health care, adequate nutrition, decent housing and full access to education that our economic system will not provide without enforced laws and regulations that mandate them, and that markets and economies have always been and must be constructed and run, and should be well-run, morally, to treat the inevitable low wage-earners decently.

These are all very difficult re-framings, but liberal-progressives who have any hope of achieving their moral objectives through political means have to try.

But suppose you’re a radical progressive, past believing that conservatives can be part of the solution, or that incremental effort and change will be enough to do more than stem the inexorable slide into repression and crisis? Such thinking is based on two premises:

  • Things are the way they are for a reason. People change their minds and behaviours slowly, and there just isn’t time, even with the most compelling argument, to convince enough people of what needs to be done to save the sinking ship. After all, if brilliant, no-brainer technologies like TiVo and Skype are still struggling to succeed because they require a minuscule change in behaviour, what possible hope is there for bringing about much more dramatic changes, globally, by persuasive means?
  • If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. As long as moderates who try to appeal to both worldviews to build consensus for change, like Jared Diamond for example, keep encouraging the false hope that collective will, social and political pressure are enough to solve extremely serious problems like unsustainable overconsumption and overpopulation, he’s no more helpful than the Lomborgian wackos who try to wish the problems away by denying they exist. We have a very human tendency to be seduced by false comforts, to not want to hear bad news, to not want to know things that will make us nervous or uncomfortable or depressed, and that tendency creates massive inertia which precludes large-scale change. People will believe what they want to believe (even in creationism, Lomborg, and the Rapture), no matter how irrational, and it’s futile to fight any religion with facts.

Even radicals, though, need to be pragmatic. Perhaps trying to convince conservatives, and others that just don’t get it, of the need for radical change is a waste of time, but if radical progressives begin to take actions without popular consensus, not only will they be sitting duck targets for the conservative framing of their actions as terrorism, Marxism, idealism, and other unpopular isms, they will alienate moderate progressives and unite them in opposition to the radical reforms necessary. And while progressive fence-sitters may arguably be useless to the radical movement, their anger (and feelings of betrayal) could very seriously hamper that movement. There is no honour in unnecessary martyrdom. The premature doom-saying of Ehrlich, the elitist neo-primitavists and other radical environmentalists in the 1970s hurt the movement as much as the conservative opposition, and set its cause back a generation or more. Radical progressives could do as much damage to their cause through ill-conceived extremism, elitism, or intellectual condescension as radical conservatives did to theirs when they bombed abortion clinics and the Oklahoma federal building, took up vigilantism and started dressing in fatigues and calling themselves ‘militias’.

David Weinberger recently noted a new GNN article by Frances Moore LappÈ (Diet for a Small Planet) questioning whether Lakoff’s strict-father conservative and nurturing-parent liberal metaphors were the right ones to use at all. LappÈ has recently written Hope’s Edge, a book that describes ‘life-affirming’ mental models, and is based on Erich Fromm’s Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (which argues that sometimes our struggle to find meaning leads us to cling to unsupportable and dysfunctional ideas).

LappÈ argues that Republicans did more than just out-frame liberals in the last election: They frightened a lot of naive and uncritical Americans into voting for Bush and other right-wingers through outright lies and some of the slimiest dirty politics ever seen on the planet, exploiting the media’s inability to clearly distinguish truth from lies or to reprimand liars even when they’re caught.

But aside from that, are nuclear-family metaphors the ones to use at all? In defence of Lakoff, the metaphors Lakoff uses are designed for understanding the worldviews, and are useful for that. They aren’t designed to be part of the re-framing. LappÈ, I think, misses this point and takes the metaphors too literally: Just because liberal-progressives act like nurturing parents doesn’t mean they see the rest of the world as children and everything as hierarchical. LappÈ wants the liberal-progressive metaphor to be re-framed around citizenry and community instead of family, but the nurturing-parent metaphor is all about citizenry and community. The purpose of the metaphor is to understand and contrast, and Lakoffs’ metaphors work very well for that. Of course we could develop a pair of citizen-community metaphors (perhaps conservative as isolationist and pre-emptive and liberal-progressive as inclusive and responsive) but these metaphors wouldn’t help understand or re-frame better than Lakoff’s, and would be inherently less personal and more complex.

LappÈ talks about the OpenSource and Community Harvest movements as illustrations of the compelling humanism, intellectual and economic agility, and inclusiveness of liberal-progressives, and as poster children for the liberal-progressive model.

Although I quibble with LappÈ’s criticism of Lakoff’s metaphors, I like her ideas for re-framing the Economic Opportunity issue (“creating fair-chance communities”), and the issue of local security (“results-based crime prevention”).

I also like her Strong Communities message as the over-arching, positive meme of liberal-progressives. Like Lakoff’s re-framing of the debate for Environment, Education and Economic Opportunity, Strong Communities provides a great avenue for re-framing the intertwined issues of International Relations, Security and Humanitarianism. Whereas conservatives have (successfully in the US, unsuccessfully elsewhere) framed these issues as ‘courageous leadership’, ‘the war on terror’, and ‘market-based assistance’, liberal-progressives could powerfully re-frame the discussions in common-cause terms as issues of (all of us in the global community) helping each other, a ‘Global Neighbourhood Watch’, and peace through unity and prevention. Instead of just attacking the waste and ineffectiveness of the trillions the US has spent in a futile attempt to protect itself from violence from anywhere, we need to show a better way. At the risk of introducing yet another metaphor, by running the schoolyard in a way that is open, caring and inclusive, you can ‘disarm’ the bullies before they are born, instead of resorting to ever-increasing force to keep them in line. But once again, this is a difficult re-framing to do. Just as we don’t change our minds and behaviours easily, we don’t change our frames easily either. If the new frames don’t work intuitively on the vast majority of people, we need to change them until they do. We’re certainly literate and creative enough to do so. But let’s not get distracted with arguments over metaphors.

Hmmm. Radical pragmatism. Is than an oxymoron or what?

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