TBR: Moral Politics

Today’s book is Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, by George Lakoff, better known these days for his slim spin-off volume, Don’t Think of an Elephant.  In this book, Lakoff attempts to answer the question that I was left with after reading What’s The Matter with Kansas?, namely why are Christian conservatives willing to mobilize to lower taxes?

Lakoff is a linguist, specifically a "cognitive linguist." This means that he studies how the language that we use to discuss things, and the implicit metaphors behind our choice of language, are shaped by — and in turn shape — how we think about the world.  His core argument is that the real difference between conservatives and liberals in contemporary American politics is that they use different models of the family as their central metaphor for thinking about society.  Conservatives use a "Strict Father" model, a metaphor that supports belief in authority, self-discipline and self-reliance, reward and punishment; liberals use a "Nuturant Parent" metaphor, a metaphor that supports belief in empathy, openness, cultivation of interests, promotion of opportunity, and second chances.  Lakoff argues that moderates (and swing voters) are those who apply both models at different times, depending on the specific issue at hand.

Lakoff acknowledges that there’s no real way to prove the accuracy of a cognitive model.  Instead, he suggests that readers evaluate his hypothesis by examining whether the model is a convincing explanation for the world we see around us.  I found Lakoff’s argument a plausible explanation for many aspects of American politics, including many conservative positions that I fundamentally find incomprehensible.  (For example, why do many conservatives feel that same-sex marriage is a "threat" to "traditional marriage"?   Lakoff argues "Metaphorically, someone who deviates from a tried and true path is creating a new path that others will feel safe to travel on.  Hence, those who transgress boundaries or deviate from a prescribed path may ‘lead others astray’ by going off in a new direction and creating a new path.")  I’d be very interested in knowing whether conservatives feel that Lakoff’s description is generally accurate.

The public debate regarding which Lakoff’s analysis seems least illuminating is that about abortion.  Lakoff accurately states that pro-life advocates view the fetus as a human life, and abortion as the destruction of that life, while pro-choice advocates view abortion as a simple medical procedure.  But his attempt to tie these positions back to the Strict Father v. Nuturant Parent models seems both weak, and deeply cycnical: he implies that adherents to the Strict Father model want to punish women for the lack of self-discipline and morality shown by having sex when they’re not prepared to parent, and therefore decide that the fetus is a baby, while Nuturant Parent supporters decide that the fetus is just cells because they believe in sex out of marriage, second chances, and heavy investments in all children.  This doesn’t ring true to me, and certainly doesn’t explain pro-choice Catholics like Frances Kissling or pro-life feminists like Hugo Schwyzer.

As someone who spends my professional life helping improve the research basis for social policy, I found Lakoff’s dismissal of the role of evidence in affecting policy choices both disheartening and plausible.  He argues that there is a small subset of both conservatives and liberals who are pragmatic enough to be moved by evidence, but that most people are too wedded to their cognitive models to listen to any evidence against the policies they support.  Much to my chagrin, I think that’s probably right.  Conservatives like full-family sanctions even thought there’s no evidence that they are more effective than partial sanctions, but because they seem morally right.  Liberals hate marriage promotion programs because they think it’s an illegitimate use of government power, even though the evidence that kids do better in married-parent families is fairly strong.

I want to talk a bit about Elephant, and the political implications of Lakoff’s arguments, as well as of the significance of the two models of families for parenting, but I think I’m going to save both topics for another day.

6 Responses to “TBR: Moral Politics”

  1. amy Says:

    I don’t think I’ve heard any discussion of pro-choice advocates who do indeed think of fetuses as being alive, and at least potential people if not actual babies. I suspect the ruthlessness implicit in such an idea is too much for the marketplace, especially given the level of sentimentality surrounding motherhood. Sentimentality that’s not suprising, given what an incredible sucker game it is and how necessary it is.
    I do regard early abortion as a fairly simple medical procedure. I also regard it as ending a life, though I’d be hard-pressed to call it human (which of course leads to questions of what, besides a genome, defines “human”). Potentially human, sure. I still think existing humans’ wellbeing and happiness — including mine — trumps the lives of potential ones, though, and I believe I’d have no problem going in and doing the deed pretty cleareyed about what I’m doing.
    I think that’s probably a fairly widely-held view, though you’re guaranteed a lickin’ if you voice it publicly.

  2. bitchphd Says:

    Of course a fetus is alive–and of course it is a potential “human being,” not to mention “human” if only in the sense that a DNA cheek swab is also identifiably “human.” I would argue that the real difference does have to do with the strict daddy thing, though, in the sense that I think it boils down to a question of, do we or do we not trust women as moral agents? For instance, the frequent “exceptions in the case of the mother’s life/rape/incest” argument–is that not a form of moral judgment about abortion? The difference is, anti-abortion people are more comfortable making that moral judgment *themselves* than they are letting individual women make it. I think this because almost every argument I get into about abortion, even with pro-choice people who have some “discomfort” with abortion under various circumstances, it seems to boil down to this. Whether it’s the straw man of the woman who has “irresponsible” sex, or has “frequent” abortions for “convenience,” or the “discomfort” with late-term abortion or abortion b/c of birth defects, or men arguing that they’re pro-choice, yes, but doesn’t the father get a say? it seems to me that the argument really does boil down to “choice”–in the sense of who gets to make it. And I do think that that is, essentially, a control issue.
    As to marriage promotion acts, this liberal dislikes them because they seem to me really oversimplistic and patriarchal, being often (from what I understand) grounded in the idea, not that children need two parents, but that children *need fathers.* Pre-marital counselling is a great idea; teaching couples communication and argument skills is a great idea; promoting family planning and parent education for both moms and dads is a great idea. I don’t think most liberals would actually argue against those things, all of which do, I think, promote stable long-lasting relationships by teaching people not to stay married for its own sake, but to learn how to make decisions that benefit both themselves and their families.

  3. amy Says:

    it seems to me that the argument really does boil down to “choice”–in the sense of who gets to make it. And I do think that that is, essentially, a control issue.
    ———–
    Yeh, I think you’re right. But. I may be naive about this, but I suspect the main reason we’re talking about women as moral actors in this discussion is not widespread fear of women’s dark power and slattern sinfulness, but the biological reality that only women get pregnant. We’ve got a whole bunch of other debates centered on control that ask “do we trust individuals to ____”, and I am not convinced that the default, unreconstructed individual in most debaters’ minds is still male.
    I’m not suggesting that there’s no moral component to the “when are abortions OK” debates. But I think it shows up after the fact, so to speak. We’re talking about public control of private action, and the private action is all women’s, so now we stick moral fairytales about women to the debate in support of whatever we’re after. Why? Because people find those stories familiar, satisfying, and persuasive, and because most people aren’t terribly imaginative or students of rhetoric. I don’t think it’s conspiratorial. Just unfortunate.

  4. jen Says:

    On the topic of marriage promotion, I do believe that we would all benefit from more parents staying married — if it means both parents would be contributing to their kids’ lives. Talking about marriage promotion as a way of benefiting the kids is roughly like buying toys in lots from eBay … you really want the stuffed Cookie Monster, but you’re forced to buy all the Happy Meal gizmos as well. When I hear marriage promotion, I hear people who want me to “submit” to my husband’s wishes, who think I should stay even if he beats me, blah blah blah. I picture myself with a $20-a-week budget for “pin money” and a lifetime’s worth of bitterness. Caitlin Flanagan would probably approve — which just about makes me vomit.
    If marriage promotion were about what’s best for the kids, and nothing more, I’d be a big fan. But since when has anyone in this country cared about what’s best for the kids?

  5. bitchphd Says:

    Yeh, I think you’re right. But. I may be naive about this, but I suspect the main reason we’re talking about women as moral actors in this discussion is not widespread fear of women’s dark power and slattern sinfulness, but the biological reality that only women get pregnant.
    Agreed, completely. It’s the fact that only women get pregnant, for sure. Though I do think that, not on the “slattern sinfulness” front, but on the “not-quite-seeing-women-as-fully-human” front (women need protecting, women are the second sex kind of thing) that we really do, culturally, have a huge problem recognizing women as autonomous moral agents. Hell, I think I have a hard time with that occasionally, with attributing more individuation and full humanity to men than to women. Sometimes it takes a conscious effort to think of women as not “just” (wives/moms/girls/pretty/feminists/whatever).

  6. Mike Says:

    In response to:
    “I found Lakoff’s argument a plausible explanation for many aspects of American politics, including many conservative positions that I fundamentally find incomprehensible. (For example, why do many conservatives feel that same-sex marriage is a “threat” to “traditional marriage”? Lakoff argues “Metaphorically, someone who deviates from a tried and true path is creating a new path that others will feel safe to travel on. Hence, those who transgress boundaries or deviate from a prescribed path may ‘lead others astray’ by going off in a new direction and creating a new path.”) I’d be very interested in knowing whether conservatives feel that Lakoff’s description is generally accurate.”
    I’m a conservative and ex-liberal, so I know about the subject that Lakoff tries to wrap his arms around in his book, especially as I have been a political thinker and active in both worlds.
    To answer your question: I don’t find that Lakoff’s description is accurate. His models are poor, and I think in the end, self serving.
    In answer to your bewilderment about same-sex marriage and conservative views…
    I can condense it down to a simple core, and assist with an analogy. As with anything presented outside mainstream discussion and careful explanation, you should expect that it will be difficult to see, but it is a start. I’ll explain as much as I can in limited space.
    The “threat”: Marriage is about meaning. It is a word that describes something that has a meaning, and it is non trivial.
    You need not know the details of why this is so to have a strong indication that it is true, for marriage has two astounding truths associated with it: First: it is older than recorded history, and secondly, it is known by every culture ever known to exist.
    You would be hard pressed to find other concepts that have those two traits… and I suggest that if anyone can not explain why these two traits are associated with marriage, they do not yet have a clear understanding of marriage. One must search the roots for meaning.
    The shocking suggestion is that marriage is important on a basic, human level, thus compelling all separated and ancient peoples to see the same thing, and act in similar ways (marriage being attended by celebrations, social rules, etc…)
    Meaning:
    By way of analogy, let’s look at what has happened to meaning, and simply for fun, and no other reason, let’s keep it as part of a discussion of homosexuality. Homosexuality has borrowed at least two terms from the English language so far: “gay” and “queer”. These words had different meanings before they were expanded to include gayness. Now we see the result. The previous meanings of “gay” and “queer” are now all but lost. (and let’s not talk about the rainbow…)
    Now, this destruction of meaning in words to make way for homosexualized meanings is not so important when we consider two words from a vast language like English. We can get by if “gay” and “queer” have had their meanings “hijacked”…. but we must admit, that indeed, original meaning was lost almost utterly in the homosexualization of the terms.
    Now, apply a potential loss of meaning to something that I have claimed is by contrast vastly unique and important throughout the ages: marriage.
    Without knowing what *might* happen, we know we are diddling around with something big. Recall the two attributes I mentioned.
    Let me tell you what marriage is, at the most basic and central part of it, and how an “expanded” view of it affects that core. I present it stripped of the varied cultural and legal baggage heaped on it over thousands of years, leaving the essence. Marriage is what ancient peoples saw, very easily, with their own eyes, which is why all ancient peoples had it, even isolated from each other.
    They saw the human mating pair.
    It is that simple.
    Everything else we think of when we consider marriage, is built upon this ancient recognition.
    People instinctively feel this because it is so basic to our very existence. They may not be able to put it into words, after all, we’re all too busy with the trappings of our modern world to think about it much… we institutionalize things so that we *don’t* have to think about them too much… they simply run on their own (untill the iinstitution is challenged)
    Same sex marriage is, literally, is impossible.
    That is, unless you redefine marriage completely outside of it’s core.
    That is the mode of destruction of the concept, and something that many people all over the world have an instinctual understanding of. Same-sex anything does not fit. People know it, but are hard pressed to explain why.
    One has to be prepared to ask if humanity can “get by” without a concept for the human mating pair… just as we can get by without having “gay” and “queer” mean what they used to.
    But beyond that… why would we want to? The human mating pair is real, and deserves a term to capture it. We recognize it in other species, why would we fail to recognize it in our own? Do we dare?
    All the best,
    Mike

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