Tuesday, February 04, 2014

liberals do everything wrong: the strict-father will always smash the cathedral

guardian |  the left, he argues, is losing the political argument – every year, it cedes more ground to the right, under the mistaken impression that this will bring everything closer to the center. In fact, there is no center: the more progressives capitulate, the more boldly the conservatives express their vision, and the further to the right the mainstream moves. The reason is that conservatives speak from an authentic moral position, and appeal to voters’ values. Liberals try to argue against them using evidence; they are embarrassed by emotionality. They think that if you can just demonstrate to voters how their self-interest is served by a socially egalitarian position, that will work, and everyone will vote for them and the debate will be over. In fact, Lakoff asserts, voters don’t vote for bald self-interest; self-interest fails to ignite, it inspires nothing – progressives, of all people, ought to understand this.

When he talks about the collapse of the left, he clearly doesn’t mean that those parties have disintegrated: they could be in government, as the Democrats are in the US. But their vision of progressive politics is compromised and weak. So in the UK there have been racist “Go home” vans and there is an immigration bill going through parliament, unopposed, that mandates doctors, the DVLA, banks and landlords to interrogate the immigration status of us all; Hungary has vigilante groups attacking Roma, and its government recently tried to criminalize homelessness; the leaders of the Golden Dawn in Greece have only just been arrested, having been flirting with fascism since the collapse of the eurozone. We see, time and again, people in need being dehumanized, in a way that seems like a throwback to 60 or 70 years ago. Nobody could say the left was winning.

Lakoff predicted all this in Moral Politics, first published in 1996. In it, he warned that “if liberals do not concern themselves very seriously and very quickly with the unity of their own philosophy and with morality and the family, they will not merely continue to lose elections but will as well bear responsibility for the success of conservatives in turning back the clock of progress in America.” 

Since then, the left has cleaved moderately well to established principles around the politics of the individual – women are equal, racism is wrong, homophobia is wrong. But everything else: a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, the essential dignity of all humans, even if they’re foreign people or young people, education as a public good, the natural world as a treasure rather than an instrument of our convenience, the existence of motives besides profit, the pointlessness and poison of privatization, the profundity, worth and purpose of pooling resources … this stuff is an embarrassment to center-left parties, even when they’re in government, let alone when they’re in opposition. When unions reference these ideas, they are dismissed as dinosaurs.

Yet equivalent right wing positions – that efficiency is all, that big government is inefficient and therefore inherently bad, that nothing must come between a business and its pursuit of profit, that poverty is a lifestyle choice of the weak, that social breakdown can be ascribed to single mothers and immigrants – have been subject to no abatement, no modification, no ”modernizing”.

If we accept Lakoff’s conclusion, what would it mean to accept his prescription? This is what he believes it would take to refashion the progressive mindset: the abandonment of argument by evidence in favor of argument by moral cause; the unswerving and unembarrassed articulation of what those morals are; the acceptance that there is no “middle” or third way, no such thing as a moderate (people can hold divergent views, conservative on some things, progressive on others – but they are not moderates, they are “biconceptual”); and the understanding that conservatives are not evil, unintelligent, cynical or grasping. Rather, they act according to the moral case as they see it. If they happen to get rich, and make their friends rich in the process, that is just the unbidden consequence of wealth being the natural reward of the righteous, in their moral universe. To accept, let alone undertake, any of this, one would first need to accept the veracity of frames.

Much of cognitive linguistics concerns itself with how we build the mental apparatus to understand everyday situations: a hospital, or a date, or a cash machine. Erving Goffman, commonly cited as the most influential sociologist of the 20th century, wrote Frame Analysis in 1974, defining and exploring exactly how this happens. Having built the frames to understand life, we no longer deliberately plug back into it. It is unconscious; what we think of as “common sense” is merely an act or notion that resonates with one of our deep frames.

Lakoff’s work on the conceptual systems around morals and politics (and how they show up in language) has yielded two-dozen metaphors for morality, most of them universal across cultures. Of those, the two key frames informing political judgment involve the idea of government as a family: the strict-father model (conservative) versus the nurturant-parent model (progressive).

I talk to Lakoff when he is invited over to London by Counterpoint, a think tank with an interest in how ideas can be used to quell the xenophobia and repression that has, of late, swept Europe. In the strict-father worldview, he explains, “The father is the ultimate authority, he knows right from wrong, his job is to protect the family and so he’s the strongest person, and because he knows right from wrong, his authority is deserved. His children are born bad, because they just do what feels good, they don’t do what’s right. They have to be trained out of feelgood liberalism into doing what’s right. 

You have to punish the kids painfully enough that they’ll start doing what’s right and they’ll get discipline. If they’re disciplined, they go out into the world, and they earn a living. If they’re not earning a living, they’re not disciplined, therefore they can’t be moral and they deserve their poverty.”

To liberals, a lot of conservative thinking seems like a failure of logic: why would a conservative be against equal rights for women and yet despise the poor, when to liberate women into the world of work would create more wealth, meaning less poverty? And yet we instinctively understand those as features of the conservative worldview, and rightly so.

The nurturant-family model is the progressive view: in it, the ideals are empathy, interdependence, co-operation, communication, authority that is legitimate and proves its legitimacy with its openness to interrogation. “The world that the nurturant parent seeks to create has exactly the opposite properties,” Lakoff writes in Moral Politics. As progressives identify failures of logic in the conservative position, so it works the other way round (one of Lakoff’s examples: “How can liberals support federal funding for Aids research and treatment, while promoting the spread of Aids by sanctioning sexual behavior that leads to Aids?”).