More on Lakoff vs. LappÈ

The Idea: The only way to prevent extremists from holding nations hostage to their emotions is to devolve power so that no one wields enough of it to exploit it the way untrammeled tyrants and fanatics inevitably do if they can. And the way to reopen dialogue isn’t by re-framing, it’s by refocusing on what we can all agree on, regardless of frames: The need to create a healthy, happy legacy for our children.
Last January I reviewed George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics, which lays out the difference between progressive and conservative worldviews and ‘frames’, and explains how to ‘re-frame’ debate in positive ways:

Hold your ground. Always be on the offense. Never go on defense. Never whine or complain. Never act like a victim. Never plead. Avoid the language of weakness, for example, rising intonations on statements. Your voice should be steady. Your body and voice should show optimism. You should convey passionate conviction without losing control…Never answer a question framed from your opponentís point of view. Always reframe the question to fit your values and your frames. This may make you uncomfortable, since normal discourse styles require you to directly answer questions posed. That is a trap. Practice changing frames…Show respect; Respond by re-framing; Think and talk at the level of values; and Say what you believe.

Lakoff also explains why an appreciation of different frames is actually comforting (instead of seeing those with opposite perspectives as stupid or irrational, you start to understand where they’re coming from, and, sometimes, you get a better understanding of where you’re coming from). I worried out loud about our human propensity (a) to be seduced by false comforts and (b) to believe what we have ‘come to believe’ even in the face of overwhelming evidence of its absurdity. Such is our ability to filter out what doesn’t jibe with our preconceptions.

In the same article, I referred to Frances Moore LappÈ’s GNN essay espousing the need to move away entirely from ‘nuclear family’ frames (conservative = strict father; progressive = nurturing parent), and the need for progressives to acknowledge neocons’ willingness to use blatant lies, deception, fear-mongering and emotional coercion to meet their ends, rendering mere ‘re-framing’ an inadequate progressive response to conservative assaults on citizens’ opinions. I expressed my view that she was right, but that her (re-)frames were unsatisfying because they weren’t intuitive, visceral and engaging enough. And her argument about the ‘unethical’ nature of conservative tactics struck me as ‘crying foul’ just because the other team wasn’t playing by your rules — when the battle over public opinion has never been constrained by either principles like fairness, or accepted ‘rules’.

I recently re-read that essay, which was entitled Time for Progressives to Grow Up in light of events of the last few months, and realized I missed some of her points. She describes the neocons’ “ends-justify-means, destroy-the-enemy approach”, a brutal, manipulative and over-reaching strategy that is abhorrent to most of us of all political stripes, but the point is that it works. Killing the guy who seduced your daughter may not be legal or ethical, but it sure is effective. And that ferocity is the signature of the neocons’ high-adrenaline campaign to win the hearts and minds of the world at any cost, and is increasingly being used by conservatives outside the US as well.

LappÈ also makes the point that progressives need to call neocons to account for such extremist tactics, but warns this is difficult to do without “making those who have been manipulated feel ridiculed and put down”. This difficulty, and progressives’ reluctance to fight fire with fire (by using lies and manipulation proactively themselves) is precisely what the neocons are counting on. When such tactics are used by extremists from any side, moderation, civility, consensus, rationality and the truth always lose out. The neocons have learned this lesson from the successes of terrorists and warmongers since the dawn of civilization. Such provocation always leads to hysteria and/or escalation — and the triumph of extremism over moderation. As Oscar Wilde said, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”

Is there anything that can be done to counter this tactic effectively, and to keep things reasonable? Take a look at the situation in the Middle East or Ireland and you’ll find your answer: As soon as reason and moderation look like they might win the day, all it takes is one extremist act to nullify a generation of diplomacy and reasoned negotiation. We are at heart emotional creatures more than rational ones, and passion can always trump reason. I recently argued that this passion might just push the US over the line to totalitarianism — it’s happened often to democracies before, sometimes improbably. The only answer, I believe, is to devolve and dilute power, take it away from hierarchies and move it to communities, so that no extremist group can ever accumulate so much of it that they can use it to hold a nation hostage to its own emotions, which is the situation the US currently finds itself in. You don’t defuse a barroom brawl by pleading for civility, you arrest it by taking away the antagonists’ ability to fight.

That takes me back to LappÈ’s other quibble with Lakoff — the use of nuclear family metaphors to contrast frames. She argues for a new, broader frame of Strong Communities:

A ìstrong communitiesî frame might require progressives to stop, for example, talking about the ìenvironment,î which non-progressives can hear as a ìsoftî distraction in war time, and frame ecological challenges as threats ìto safe air and water and food.î We might stop talking about poverty, and alleviating it, which evokes images of do-gooders, and talk about ìfair-chance communities.î Stop talking about reforming criminal justice and talk about results-based crime prevention.

Regular readers of How to Save the World know of my passion for communities, and I do believe this is a psychological improvement over ‘nurturing parent’. And LappÈ does provide a host of examples that suggest there is a great appetite for moving much more human activity and authority (and hence power) to the community level from the state level (and to some extent even from the family level, at least for those who appreciate “it takes a village to raise a child”). Both conservatives and progressives share a loathing for hierarchy and bureaucracy, although they see them through very different frames.

But as I noted in my earlier article, in fairness to Lakoff, he suggests progressives use precisely these community-based re-framings to further appreciation and support for the ‘nurturing parent’ cause; nurturing parents, I suspect he would argue, instinctively ‘get’ the value of community in supporting the learning, nurturing, responsibility to all, and egalitarianism that are so dear to the progressive movement.

And the term ‘community’ does not (yet at least) mean the same thing, or as much, to many of our planet’s citizens as it does to us, who see its value in social networks, global communications, self-governance, ecological thinking, citizen boards and open source. To most of the world, especially those on the other side of the digital divide, community may more likely mean claustrophobic small towns, violence-obsessed neighbourhoods, dying farm villages, ghettos (of different types), despair and even tyranny (from warlords or tin-pot community dictators).

So I don’t think we’ve yet found the right frame that will bridge the chasm that extremists and isolation have opened up between conservatives and progressives. As much as LappÈ might want us to choose an ‘adult’ metaphor, I suspect that the best bridging metaphor might be another family one: Legacy for Our Children. The fact that 90% of the inhabitants of this planet want an average of 2.8 children each threatens us with extinction. But it also ensures that creating a healthy, happy world for those children is an issue almost everyone, of every political stripe, really believes in and can agree upon. And most importantly, it provides a platform for dialogue that is as close to ‘frame-neutral’ as we could hope to find.

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3 Responses to More on Lakoff vs. LappÈ

  1. Zach says:

    Dave: Firstly, I apologize for being hard on you in my previous comments. Secondly, your blog facinates me because I don’t understand why you write it. What is the real reason you write this blog? (Maybe you’ve explained on an earlier date?) What is it you are trying to acheive by spending so much time at this? Do you enjoy it? Why are you so concerned and angry about what others are doing? I’m asking, seriously, because I feel my perspective is very different from yours and I just don’t get it (your perspective). I hope you will enlighten me. Thanks.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks to Cyndy for pointing out that the GNN essay, although dated May/05 by Common Cause, is in fact the same one I reviewed in January — I just read it more carefully the second time around. I’ve made some editorial changes to the original draft of the above article to reflect this.

  3. Rayne says:

    See Amitai Enzioni’s work on Communitarianism; see also The Communitarian Network.

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