|This 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.