argumentThis week there was a letter to the editor of our local community paper entitled Disgusted With Today’s Young People. The author, apparently a man in his sixties who owns a small business in the nearby town where he has lived all his life, lamented that this town was not what it used to be. When he grew up people treated each other with respect, and showed respect for people’s property. They were obedient and appreciated and deferred to authority. Now, he said, the children stand around idly on street corners, at night they run around drinking and smashing beer bottles on the street, vandalize cars and spray-painting graffiti on the walls of stores. He and his daughter, he went on, now drive down the streets of their “once lovely” town “angry, revolted and disgusted” at the “moral decay” of “young people” that has “ruined” their town.

I could almost picture dozens of readers nodding nostalgically in agreement, but my reaction was “What planet are you living on?” The town he describes is awash in failed, boarded-up businesses, eyesore strip-malls, horrendously-snarled traffic (it’s a major thoroughfare for commuters, and the town has failed for 20 years to develop an alternative route to the one ‘main drag’), and sprawling, ugly, shoddy, identical houses on postage-stamp size lots. I avoid it like the plague because it’s been horribly mismanaged, and the quality local shops have moved to more tourist-friendly areas as the big box stores have started moving in. But all this guy can see in this ugly sprawl is a handful of “disgusting young people”. How could he have such a warped view of reality? I concluded it must be the result of some direct personal experience. I wanted to understand. I started by reviewing George Lakoff’s theories about where our worldviews and prejudices come from.

A brief aside: I’ve noticed that Lakoff’s varied theories of human behaviour and cognitive science seem to be converging. He is beginning to look like the successor to Merleau-Ponty, the philosopher whose ideas underlie David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. In a recent interview in Edge Magazine, Lakoff says:

 When Mark Johnson and I [studied] the cognitive sciences in detail, we realized that there were three major results that were inconsistent with almost all of Western philosophy (except for Merleau-Ponty and Dewey), namely: The mind is inherently embodied. Most thought is unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

The differences [when you approach philosophy from a cognitive science perspective] are differences that matter in your life. Starting with results from cognitive semantics, we discovered a lot that is new about the nature of moral systems, about the ways that we conceptualize the internal structure of the Self, even about the nature of truth… We are neural beings. Our brains take their input from the rest of out bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything – only what our embodied brains permit. Metaphor appears to be a neural mechanism that allows us to adapt the neural systems used in sensory-motor activity to create forms of abstract reason. If this is correct, as it seems to be, our sensory-motor systems thus limit the abstract reasoning that we can perform. Anything we can think or understand is shaped by, made possible by, and limited by our bodies, brains, and our embodied interactions in the world.

Abram quotes Merleau-Ponty saying something similar:

Synaesthetic [involving all the senses together] perception is the rule [among all life on Earth], and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist sees it, what we are to see, hear and feel.

I think this is important, revolutionary thinking, and I’m going to ponder on it and write about it further.

But back to the letter to the editor. Lakoff is best known, at least in the blogosphere, for his explanation that the dramatic differences between the politics, philosophies, and entire worldviews of liberals and conservatives are due to the different metaphors they use to describe and understand the world: The conservative uses the metaphor of Moral Strength (The world is divided into good and evil; To “stand up to” evil one must be morally strong through self-discipline and self-denial; Someone who is morally weak cannot stand up to evil and so will eventually commit evil; Therefore, moral weakness, lack of self-control and self-indulgence are forms of immorality) and the Strict Father metaphor (It is the father’s job to support his family and protect it from evils — both external and internal; He insists on his moral authority, and commands obedience.) The liberal uses the metaphor of Moral Empathy (We must understand what others feel and why; We must look after each other; Social ties to others are vital; Happiness should be maximized as long as it does not hurt others; Fairness is paramount) and the Nurturing Parent metaphor (protecting and helping yet empowering our children and those less fortunate to care for themselves, being cared for and cared about, having one’s desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from one’s community and from caring for and about others).

So Lakoff is saying, on the one hand, that the way we think is intimately connected with, and limited by, our bodies: Perception lies behind all Conception, which is why we think mainly in ‘physical’ metaphors. And on the other hand, he’s saying that liberals and conservatives have fundamentally different, almost opposite, worldviews because they use opposing metaphors to understand and explain the world. We all have more or less the same bodies, the same ‘perceptual equipment’, so that must mean that liberals and conservatives have had radically different life experiences with that equipment. Conservatives, believers in a world of danger and weakness, must have experienced first hand, through their senses and bodies, violence, the threat of violence, abuse, neglect, repression, deprivation, uncertainty, morally atrocity, and/or moral ‘failure’. We learn from what we see and what we are shown, not what we’re told, which would explain why children of conservatives who live very comfortable lives tend to be more liberal, why children who are abused tend to be both conservative and abusive, and why liberals, as they get older and experience more violence, tend to get more conservative. It would also explain why liberalism peaked in the late 1960s, a time of unprecedented comfort and peace (so that, unlike the Iraq War, most saw the Vietnam War for what it was — ideological aggression — not for what the conservative government portrayed it as — protection). By contrast, conservatism has peaked in depression, wartime and post-war times, when there is more physical evidence of violence, deprivation, danger and the other factors that promote a conservative worldview.

Here’s where Lakoff and I disagree: He says that conservatives are winning the PR war for political hearts and minds because their metaphors are better understood and easier to appreciate than liberals’, and that therefore liberals need to better articulate their worldview and belief systems. I think the reason why there are still such an astonishing number of conservatives in the world is simply because the world is filled with violence, abuse, neglect, repression, uncertainty, threats of violence and danger. The fact that the media are obsessed with showing us these things adds to the general anxiety, as does the amazing rate of change in all fields of human endeavour, but these are not first hand things: Most of the world lives with, or has lived with, personal physical or psychological terror of one kind or another for much of their lives, and that has to affect their worldview.

What is particularly surprising to me is that the conservatives who are trying to make the world ‘safe from terrorism’ don’t realize that terrorism is, in most forms, an innately (if extreme) conservative act. Bush can bluster about terrorists “hating freedom” and “being evil” but the truth is that most terrorists are not anarchists who blow things up for a lark out of self-indulgence, but rather devout, conservative fanatics who are acting out of moral outrage against what they see as evil, and who kill others as acts of retribution that they see as profoundly moral. Very much as the American neocons saw their hysterical and immensely-costly destruction of two Arab nations as profoundly moral acts of retribution for 9/11. In this sense, conservatism is self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing, and what we have seen in the last three years is different sects of aggrieved conservatives attacking each other with increasing savagery and calling each other ‘evil’, while we liberals sit on the sidelines saying ‘huh?’

But my view of all this is, of course, a liberal one. Both the American neocons and the Arab fundamentalists would be outraged by the above paragraph, because their bodies and their personal experiences have taught them to know who is moral and who is evil, and to them, liberals just don’t get it and are therefore morally weak and ‘evil’ as well. If you’re not on the side of America/Allah/God/Whoever, you’re on the side of terrorism/our enemy/Satan/evil.  If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Just as the conservatives will never convince me (even if I now, at my late age, were to become a personal victim of violence) that I’m immoral and encouraging the ‘enemy’ because I don’t support pre-emptive wars, anti-abortion laws, capital punishment, the right to bear arms, the war on crime, the war on drugs, three strikes laws, an eye for an eye, drowning government in a bathtub, confrontation above consensus, untrammeled ‘free’ trade, blind patriotism, reckless deregulation, tax cuts for the rich and holy, ‘family values’, gay-bashing, repression of civil liberties in times of ‘war’, feminist-bashing, increased military spending, and the right to beat one’s children — so will I never convince conservatives of the opposite. They see me as naive and weak, or worse. I see them as psychologically damaged to the point they can no longer see clearly.

And that, ultimately, was my conclusion about the “angry, disgusted” gentleman who wrote to our community paper. Some personal experience has caused him to become so bitter, so blind, that he can’t see the trashy Wal-Mart and the strip malls of discount ‘dollar stores’ and the boarded-up shops and the shoddy, pathetic homes and the loud, polluting, interminable traffic congestion and the staggering ugliness and numbing mediocrity of the town he’s lived in all his life, but he can see a small group of young people, one of whom perhaps spray-painted something on his whitewashed wall and then, seeing the owner coming, sneered or laughed at him and fled. And with that one personal incident, all the real problems of the world and their real root causes and the desperately-needed solutions vanished and all that was left was a Moral Vacuum and the personal rage and anger and feeling of helplessness and victimization, and the fight between Good and Evil.

I could be a pessimist and confess that the conservatives are bound to win, because as the world gets more crowded and hence more violent, dangerous and filled with catastrophe this will breed more conservatives (and because conservatives are now breeding, on average, much larger families than liberals). But as a liberal, I can’t be too pessimistic. As a liberal I believe that all humans are born and remain inherently ‘good’, or at least start out undamaged. We are all born liberals. We have to be trained to be conservatives.

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  1. Indigo Ocean says:

    A few days ago Wayne Dyer told me and a group of about 300 other people some interesting information about frogs. It seems that a frog would starve to death if trapped within a container of dead flies up to his neck. That is because the frog perception system can only “see” moving flies, which have to be moving in a certain arc (I forget convex or concave) at that. I have myself observed that frogs will almost always freeze when they feel they are in danger rather than running. Because they can’t see anything that is still they unconsciously expect that nothing can see them if they aren’t moving. I say “unconsciously” because I doubt they have any awareness even of their inability to see what is not moving. The still world is simply a non-event to them.It is worth considering what worlds are non-events for each of us. What does it mean to be human within a cosmic soup of enormous proportions, with dimensions curling up within dimensions as string theorists are discovering? To me the hope for humanity does not lie within different configurations of our current ways of knowing. The hope is that within the ever increasing “discoveries” of our time, rather than leading to anxiety over uncertainty and therefore more conservatism, some discoveries will lead to a tremendous expansion of consciousness across the globe. Just as the “discovery” that the earth revolves around the sun and that it is not flat but spherical was part of a general expansion of the possibilities for how humans see themselves fitting into reality, new discoveries are coming that I hope will have a harmonizing effect on our self-concept as humans.

  2. Doug Alder says:

    Interesting article Dave – Lakoff doesn’t just say that the conservative message is winning because it is easier to understand. On the one hand, he makes a point of saying that the conservatives have worked together in a concerted movement to refine those frames and present a united front to their constituents for the past 20 years or so. Liberals on the other hand have floundered in that respect. Liberals have not come together to frame their beliefsa in a way that anyone can understand, but instead have been going off in many different directions, unorganized, and have let hte conservatives negatively frame liberal ideals in their place. That’s the main point I think that hte conservatives have been well organised for the past 2 or 3 decades wheras the liberals have not.Somewhat off topic, I was reading today in New Scientist of a leading member of SETI who predicted the other day that if there is intelligent life in our galaxy we will find their radio signals (assuming they have progressed that far) within he next 20 years. It occured to me while reading your explanation of Lakoff (very well synthesized by the way) and seeing the quote “Anything we can think or understand is shaped by, made possible by, and limited by our bodies, brains, and our embodied interactions in the world.” that communication between ourselves and an alien species will be nigh on impossible unless they are bipedal, similar sensory organ structure to humans and live on a planet at least close to earthlike. Otherwise their sensory perception, which will shape their whole conception of the universe, will bear no relation to ours. Communication of any kind with us would be limited to mathematics I would assume.

  3. Kevin says:

    I’m not so sure a persons political beliefs are based on their own personal experience, so much as what they perceive (or are told) their experience will be if their way of life is changed. Personal experience can’t explain how so many people I grew up with are so conservative. We all grew up in safe, cozy, middle-class neighborhoods, going to private schools where the most violent thing we ever encountered was mild hazing. I’m sure there are people who have had terrible experiences of abuse, hidden in their private lives, but I would doubt that it is any more frequent than someone growing up in a poor urban setting.In their case, their own experience with violence doesn’t make them conservative, the fear of experiencing the violence they see elsewhere does. They want to keep things exactly as they are now. This would also explain why the older people get, the more conservative they become… They have more time invested in making their life as it is, and more to loose.I have no figures, but I was always under the impression that people who live in the poorer neighborhoods tended to be more liberal. If personal experience with negative things makes someone conservative, they should be the most conservative of all.I think conservatism characterized by being afraid that something we are used to will change, and we wont be able to adapt. Liberalism is characterized by realizing that something _must_ change. I would guess that most affluent liberals have some fleeting moments of conservative weakness when they consider how their own life and prosperity could be effected in the short term if the concervative policies which protect our affluent way of life were suddenly changed. (I personally have it do good now… why would I want anything to change?) The difference is the ability to look past that immediate fear of change and see a better world in the future… even if we wont be around to enjoy it.

  4. etbnc says:

    George Lakoff might agree with your observation, kevin, if we frame it as “different forms of personal experience” rather than strictly “not personal experience” at all.Likewise, Dave, I’m not sure you really disagree with Lakoff so much as just focus on a different part of the same system. Besides the web content you’ve linked here and previously, have you read Lakoff’s book, _Moral Politics_? It’s a much more detailed treatment than the essay you cited, well worth reading.In fact, it’s one of the most insightful and useful books I’ve read in recent years. Lakoff’s insight into dominant cultural views is an incredibly powerful tool, and its value goes beyond politics. I don’t just recommend it. I urge everyone to run! don’t walk, to your local bookstore or library to get George Lakoff’s book, _Moral Politics_.

  5. Johnny Nemo says:

    Liberals also have a strange compulsion to “healing” and “inclusiveness” that manifests itself thus:Having attained power in some liberal structure with a leftist-reformist agenda, the candidate then seeks to “unite the party” by reaching out to those conservative elements who would rather desert than support him, and thus loses the leftist-reformist supporters who write him off as “just another politician”.Lyndon Johnson did it; George McGovern did it; Joe Clark did it; Michael Dukakis did it; Mikhail Gorbachev did it.Liberals move to the right to try to attract support. But if we leftists wanted to support a rightist candidate, we can throw a rock and hit ten of them (please: throw it hard).

  6. etbnc says:

    I’m not sure why you describe it as “strange”, Johnny Nemo. Otherwise your first sentence could be straight from Lakoff. “Healing” and “inclusiveness” are indeed key elements of the liberal worldview that he describes.Lakoff also commented on the issue you noted: “Thinking you can get more votes by moving to the right” is a common progressive mistake. The web site for Lakoff’s think tank,, has his slides from that speech as well as other useful information. (,etbnc

  7. mark says:

    Churchill said “Any 20 year-old who isn’t a liberal doesn’t have a heart, and any 40 year-old who isn’t a conservative doesn’t have a brain.” To which we could add, and 60 year-old who doesn’t return to his liberal roots doesn’t have a soul.

  8. Mark says:

    I basically agree with most of this post, but I think you make a leap from what the conservative metaphor is to what the cause of it is. Is there data that indicates that abused children tend to be conservative, or that prosperity breeds liberals and difficult times breed conservatives? It seems like the essential difference between the metaphors is the level or the source of fears; the Moral Strength and Strict Father metaphors are about protecting for harm in some way, while the Moral Empathy and Nurturing Parent metaphors are more about learning from different-ness. That can’t be complete though – social anxiety and levels of shyness seem to be innate, and yet I doubt that there’s much correlation between shyness and conservativism/liberalism. I’m really basing this on intuition more than data, though.

  9. Johnny Nemo says:

    ETBNC, the “strange” part is that this desire for inclusiveness manifests itself in abandoning those whose support has got you this far to pursue those whose support you haven’t a prayer of getting anyway.

  10. I agree with the article, Dave. My comment is: to a certain degree it is impossible to be a person without some conservatism. After all, it is easier to be conservative, since we don’t have to think as much.This creates a conundrum. If liberals believe their view is the correct/good view, aren’t we expressing conservatism by that very action? To a degree, all political parties are conservative since they see their ideas as good and everyone else as evil (or in need of help).

  11. Indigo Ocean says:

    Kevin,Statistically, people in poor neighborhoods tend to be socially conservative and economically liberal. My personal observations are consistent with that. I also tend to think that older people get more conservative largely because they have less day-to-day contact with the breadth of life so they get more of their “knowledge” through the media which only serves up fear and despair.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Interesting comment thread, everyone. Thank you.Indigo: I think you may underestimate the intuition of frogs, helped perhaps by evolution. Most animals are less able to discern form and colour than humans, but more of their visual receptors are attuned to movement even in the dark. I’ve watched our dog Chelsea pick up and chase a frog jumping 50 feet away, but walk right past a rabbit frozen in place 10 feet away. I’ve seen some people do a fair imitation of this freezing behaviour to avoid notice ;-) And the story of the discovery that the Earth revolves around the Sun is an interesting one. Although it’s true scientifically, in a very real sense perceptually the Sun *does* revolve around the Earth. A lot of human activity depends on our measurement of the perceptual ‘reality’, and not much changed as a result of the scientific discovery.Doug: You’re right — thanks for the correction. I’m trying to think of the last political leader anywhere who compellingly supported and articulated the liberal worldview. There have been many neo-liberals (Kennedy, Trudeau, Carter) but no true liberals I can think of. Maybe one of the European leaders? As for SETI, Stephen Jay Gould made the same point in Full House that expecting commonalities between human Earth language and any other language is statistically ridiculous — we’d be better off studying dolphin language, which we at least know came from a common progenitor. Gould also pokes fun at the absurd prevalence of humanoids in science fiction.Kevin: I see your point, but where does the *fear* come from, if not from personal experience? Are your unharmed conservative friends so easily affected by the media’s passion for the crime blotter that they become fearful vicariously? If so, doesn’t seem like they’re exhibiting very acute critical thinking. Gladwell implies the fear stems from ‘learned helplessness’, a deliberate exploitation of our propensity to fear the unknown.ETNBC: Welcome, and thanks for the book reference (I haven’t read it and I will) and the website link.Mark: I confess I don’t have data — but the people I know who were abused or lived in terrifying environments as children are all very conservative. I think shyness essentially correlates to low self-esteem, and not necessarily to conservatism. If the low self-esteem was caused by abuse, the shy person is likely to be conservative also. I was painfully shy as a child because I was very trusting and open and left to learn social graces at my own pace, which often created situations of great discomfort for me, but was never exploited to the point of abuse. I’ve never been conservative and as I get older I get less so.

  13. Catnmus says:

    Kevin, thank you for expressing that so succintly. Dave, I think what you’re missing is that these young people didn’t learn their fear from the media, they learned it at their parents’ and grandparents’ knees. I think that Kevin is saying that they were taught from childhood that “those people on welfare should just suck it up and get a job digging ditches and not have so d*mn many babies”, and they then internalize that along with creationism and “1+1=2” and “The Yankees rule and the Red Sox drool”. I believe that you might be right about SOME people – there will always be some that actually do arrive at their choice by critical thinking – I’ve been abused and therefore I’m for the Three Strikes Laws, or I’ve seen others abused in sweatshops and therefore I’m opposed to Free Trade laws. But I think the vast majority of people’s conservatism/liberalism is defined by WHO they’ve known, and to what degree they’ve either been brainwashed or learned critical thinking.

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