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 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?

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Zack Lynch says:

    Your blogs continue to surpass the clouds….keep them up…

  2. Dale Asberry says:

    Unfortunately, understanding does not make conservative moral perspectives right nor good. Those very perspectives are directly responsible for driving the world to ruin.I’ve worked diligently trying to “reframe” some of these issues for conservatives – THEY refuse to see anything outside of their perspective. This impossible task is no longer my job and I think they deserve to be consumed by their inanity. I will be focusing the rest of my life on creating as best a safe haven as I can from their reckless, stupid denial. And, people will defend their denial to the death.You cannot change anyone. The best you can hope for is to offer to lead them to a path where they can choose to follow or not. They’ve made their choices clear. The quickly approaching catastrophe is a natural selection process to remove the genetic pre-disposal to conservative values from the human gene pool.* Those that are left will be able to learn from their folly.* I believe that many/most people have a brain chemical imbalance that reinforces conservative memes through pleasure – see Reciprocality and M0.

  3. Thanks for the essay, Dave. You chose a “hot” topic, and a very timely one. Dale, hi. Don’t think we’ve met. You’ve made a comment in a public forum, so I’m taking that as license to toss in my .02. While dealing at length with conservatives is undoubtedly frustrating, I’m disturbed by your fatalist tone. Conservatives’ “reckless, stupid denial,” is your problem, too, remember–i.e., you live in the world. It strikes me that demonizing the Right isn’t going to build bridges, isn’t going to foster Liberal empathy or understanding or inquiry into the appeal of Conservative ideologies which, alone, will bring about unity and a sense of shared purpose. There are glimmers of hope, if you look for them. I’m thinking of the pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy around abortion, here in the US, where abortion rights are under serious attack. The dichotomy has been exploited politically, in a very disgusting way, mostly by the Right. Yet, what hasn’t gotten much media attention, is that “centrist” groups, encompassing activists with “pro-choice” and “pro-life” views, have sprung up to explore agendas common to the two camps: improving education and personal responsibility, improving childcare and child/family welfare, improving medical access and birth control, to make abortion rare.

  4. Jon Strande says:

    Dave, another fantastic post. Thank you!I’ve started reading some of the same stuff, on linguistics, and just picked up my first Lakoff book: Women, Fire and Dangerous Things.There was a great interview with Frank Luntz (the guy on the right doing the same thing Lakoff is doing on the left) that I came across, he said, in response to the question, “can you convince a voter what to think?”He replied: “That’s a good question. But the way I look at it is not to convince the voter what to think, it’s to convince the voter that what they think is correct.”Dale, I’m with Karen, please don’t give up! You’re obviously an intelligent person and we need all the smart people we can get to build a better future. Karen, great comment! I love that you brought up the abortion issue, and it’s nice that rational people from both points of view can come together to talk intelligently about the issue. I heard a great interview on Now with Bill Moyers once, they were interviewing Sister Joan Chittister (an author and a Nun) – she said the most interesting thing on the subject:”But I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking. If all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed and why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”Interesting take, huh? Pro-birth and Pro-death. Anti everything else. Whatever the experts call it: Lanugage, Context, Frames – it is important if you want to effectively communicate a message that requires action on the part of others. Otherwise, who cares what words you use? I could go on and on here. But I’ll stop so as not to clutter up the comments… Again Dave, another great post! I’m so glad I found your blog.

  5. Dave Pratt says:

    Dave,As you have mentioned, Conservatives depend on external, authority driven rules and ideologies. They’ve grown up asking the why questions. All children do. They’ve grown up breaking the rules, of course, because we all experiment with breaking the rules. That’s human.The real problem begins with what each of us does within our own history of rule breaking and question asking. Conservatives repent and atone to the rules, and to the “reasons” given by authority. In so doing, they learn to define themselves as rule followers belonging within the secure boundaries of the authority structure. The problem with this is that it creates a myopic moral duality. It causes them to be angry and condemning toward anything not status quo, while they are still impulsively drawn to whatever the rules have forced them to reject.Conservatives close ranks around the rules. They are deeply frustrated, agitated, and aggressive toward anything that reminds them of their repressed desires and uncertainties. They often live double lives of hidden “sinfulness” and aggression, while maintaining upstanding “clean” public images. They tend to enclose themselves in rule driven groups and experiences that will not remind them of their unresolved vulnerabilities and uncertainties. They feel unhinged and assaulted by liberal “fancy pants” ideas.For Liberal/Progressives the rules are open to constant challenge and reevaluation. When we break the rules and see the problems, we have learned to seek change and self-correction without condemnation. We’re expansive in our thinking, openness, and range of experience. We are also fearful of the thinly restrained aggression of conservatives toward our more open beliefs and lifestyles.Today, in the U.S., with the “red states” moving toward old models of patriarchy, we are afraid. We are justifiably afraid. We can see that conservative certainty is breaking down the rules and laws that have been established to restrain them from (en masse) harming us.

  6. Dale Asberry says:

    Dave Pratt…Beautifully stated. Pulling a conservative out of his/her self-induced stupor only brings out more of their anger since it places them in the uncomfortable position of having to confront their own faults which then forces them to see the house of cards they’ve placed themselves into… people will defend their denial to the death rather than admit they are living a lie.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone, for an articulate and illuminating thread. And I second Dale’s review of Dave Pratt’s comments — brilliantly perceptive, and absolutely terrifying.

Comments are closed.