conflict As I read and think more about Lakoff ‘s work, I’m beginning to discern a further schism between conservatives and liberals: Conservatives’ worldview is essentially morally-based , framing everything in terms of good & bad, right & wrong. Liberals’ worldview on the other hand is essentially rationally-based, framing everything in terms of logical & illogical, reasonable & unreasonable. It’s no wonder they can’t talk to each other. Conservatives attack liberals using moral negatives (disloyal, treasonous, cowardly). Liberals attack conservatives using rational negatives (illegitimate, irrational, unwarranted by the facts). Conservatives justify ‘dirty tricks’ as necessary to circumvent liberals’ moral ambivalence and agnosticism. Liberals justify condescension and legal machinations as an appropriate response to cope with and rein in conservatives’ emotional overzealousness. Conservatives scream “shut up” when they’re out-argued, and liberals shout “foul” when they’re outmaneuvered.

Lakoff argues that a dialogue, a mutual understanding of the legitimacy of each others’ ideology and worldview, is critical to avoid extremism or standoff, but such a dialogue is impossible when the two groups aren’t even speaking in the same plane of language. How long has this been going on? And what are we going to do when the survival of our planet depends on everyone working and acting together, and setting ideology aside?

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  1. Rayne says:

    Classic Spiral Dynamics and Gravesian psychology. My take: Conservatives=Red/Blue/Orange Memes; Liberals=Green/Yellow/Turquoise Memes, in general. It can be done, but it will be a challenge to get these groups to find common ground.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Never seen Spiral Dynamics before. Like everything in psychology, this seems horribly overly-simplistic to me. My worldview corresponds to none of the ‘colours’ in Beck’s article. Not even close. Square pegs in round holes. Interesting reading, however, if not as useful as Lakoff’s theories. Thanks, Rayne, your breadth of reading continues to astound and inspire me.

  3. Chris Dent says:

    I’ve made some comments on how these two solitudes seem similar to others–holistic, reductionist; formal, informal–in a mailing list posting linked from here: same posting also seems quite relevant to your most recent posting on storytelling. I’ve enjoyed the feeling of synchronicity between some of the things you have to say and some of the things I have to say.PS: when will radio get trackback?

  4. The Raven says:

    Don’t think this hypothesis flies. Way, way too many sharp conservatives out there with precise, logical minds and rational arguments. What is Objectivism, after all, except ruthless rationality? Liberals, on the other hand, generally strike me as being almost totally morally driven. The left hews closely to ideas of fairness, for example, which you see in concepts like “economic disparity.” Thinking of as many cases on each side as I can, I can’t pin either one with such simplistic labeling. Seems a lot more complex than that. Regards, – R.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Chris: Thanks. BTW, I confess I’m still one of those that “doesn’t get” the little purple things on your blog. There’s clearly more to it than simply parsing long entries and comment threads. Looking forward to your layman’s explanation. As for Radio getting trackback, the last I heard from Dave W was that it was implemented for Manila and would be implemented ‘soon’ for Radio. I check every day and I’ll be blogging about it as soon as it’s up.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    R.: Good point, I agree I was oversimplifying. There was an article recently on the difference between ‘metropolitan’ and ‘provincial’ conservatives. I’ll try to find the link and post it. With that distinction I would say the ‘metropolitan’ conservatives à la Buckley are rationalists while the ‘provincial’ conservatives who rule the roost now are moralists. Liberals are trickier to bifurcate this way: ‘fairness’ is I think very much a rational argument at root, not a moral one. Many liberals use ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’ interchangeably, with more of a logical undercurrent than a moral one. The abortion debate is a perfect example of the disconnection between conservative “killing unborn babies is wrong” purely moral-based argument and the liberal “rights of the mother need to be reasonably balanced with the rights of the fetus” rational argument. I suspect that many ‘metropolitan’ conservatives would probably sound remarkable liberal on this issue for that reason. So I think my argument makes sense, if you clarify that by ‘conservative’ I mean the Bushian provincial neo-conservatives, not the coastal metropolitan variety, who I agree don’t fit the rational vs moral mold. Cheers and thanks for the comment.

  7. Susan says:

    Conservatives’ world view is morally based? Wow, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. In my opinion, conservatives are practical to the extreme–they create or perpetuate “morality”-based systems as a way to dominate other people and gain advantage. I see no actual concern for right or wrong in most cultural conservatives–just a healthy awareness that using those terms gets them what they want and silences opposition.

  8. Adrian says:

    I think there’s some truth to the hypothesis. Both terms –“liberal” and “conservative” — are loose-fitting descriptors encompassing a range of viewpoints, so yes, there is a risk of oversimplification. But I’d argue, nevertheless, that most conservatives share a belief that some sort of imposed public morality system should be used to keep modernity, which they distrust, from spinning out of control. The Christian right has scripture; the neo-cons look to the 19th century for examples of “equipoise”. Liberals have a greater confidence in reason, science and social policy, view morality — in the sense of “virtues and vices”, not as ethical inquiry — as a clerical anachronism, and harbor less nostalgia for a lost cultural unity based on strictly enforced norms.Is Objectivism “conservative”? That seems doubtful. Most self-described conservatives I’ve met are happy enough with the Almighty Dollar aspect of Ayn Rand’s philosophizing — Horatio Alger on speed, so to speak — but they balk at the atheism and amorality. Not much about “family values” in Atlas Shrugged, if I remember correctly.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Susan: Conservative morality, according to Lakoff in the article I cite here, is ends-justify-the-means morality. Maybe we know different conservatives, but the ones I know (and I know a lot of conservatives) really believe in the morality of what Bush is doing, really believe that we’re locked in a good-versus-evil struggle that must be won at any cost. They’re genuinely shocked at the idea that the Bush regime is just cynically manipulating public opinion out of greed.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Adrian: Well put, especially the distrust of modernity, which conservatives tend to view as amoral which to them is even more troubling than immoral. If you’re immoral at least you can be ‘saved’.

  11. Susan says:

    Sound’s like you’ve been fooled. It’s all an act. And that’s one of the few things I’m sure of these days.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Well it’s good to know there’s someone even more cynical than I am these days. How does that song go that’s been coopted by the CSI Miami TV show?: We’ll be fighting in the streetsWith our children at our feetAnd the morals that they worship will be goneAnd the men who spurred us onSit in judgement of all wrongThey decide and the shotgun sings the songI’ll tip my hat to the new constitutionTake a bow for the new revolutionSmile and grin at the change all aroundPick up my guitar and playJust like yesterdayThen I’ll get on my knees and prayWe won’t get fooled again.

  13. says:

    Concerning stereotypes – e.g. Good Americans/Bad Americans, Good Christians/Bad Christians etc etc, Augustine has invented a game with masks to sort these out. See the May 15th post at:

  14. xian says:

    ironically, it seems that many of the online right-wingers and libertarians like to say that liberals are ruled by their emotions and that conservatives make their judgements based on cold, hard facts. go figure.

  15. Kevin Hayden says:

    I agree that both are simplistic. Both sides have fairly wide umbrellas, imo.To the right, the amoral neocons gather with the more libertarian paleocons and religious conservatives. I think the first two groups simply crafts their messages to manipulate the third group, which is the largest. The only issues that all three seem to agree on are ‘Taxes are bad, and violence must be met with greater violence.’Among liberals, the umbrella holds those that think government can resolve most problems, some that think white males create most of the problems to everyone else’s disadvantage, and some that believe all big business and/or all consumerism is bad. The places they seem to converge is in a faith in activist government and group or communitarian action.The principal arena where liberals can be accused of immorality or amorality is typically in matters of sexuality and mating. Yet most of the liberals I know have strong moral positions on such things as treating folks equally, conserving resources, sharing with others and more.In both groups and subgroups, I’d say there’s times when part of their mantras offer good solutions, but each has its drawbacks as well, at times.Reducing it to rationality vs. morality is absurd. A better yin-yang would be a preference for govt/spiritual authoritarianism and elitism and economic individualism vs. a preference for govt/spiritual social activism and consensual communitarianism elsewhere.

  16. otterhound says:

    Maybe both liberals and conservatives are morally motivated, but they have a different type of morality. Professor John Haidt’s theory is that there are what he calls five foundations of intuitive ethics: suffering, reciprocity, ingroup, hierachy and purity. He thinks that liberals’ morality relates solely to the the suffering (kindness/compassion) and reciprocity (justice/fairness) foundations — what he calls “think morality”. Conservative morality hits all 5 foundations, so also includes ingroup (belongness, patriotism), hierarchy (self-explanatory) and purity (chastity, etc.) (“thick morality”). He has a great powerpoint presentation on this, link below. I think he is really on to something. Haidt’s home page is at The powerpoint is at

  17. otterhound says:

    “think” morality in the above comment should have been “thin” morality.

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