American Culture

George Lakoff gives conservatives way too much credit

Personal responsibility does not a moral system make.

We’re all indebted to the influential linguist George Lakoff for applying his work to politics in recent years. Among his invaluable contributions has been his perspective on framing. For example:

It’s a general principle: Unless you frame yourself, others will frame you — the media, your enemies, your competitors, your well-meaning friends.

Another one of this themes can be seen in a recent op-ed.

Ultra-conservatives believe that the sequester is moral, that it is the right thing to do.

Progressives, on the other hand

… tend to believe that democracy is based on citizens caring for their fellow citizens through what the government provides for all citizens – public infrastructure, public safety, public education, public health, publicly-sponsored research, public forms of recreation and culture, publicly-guaranteed safety nets for those who need them, and so on.

More from a 2011 piece titled What Conservatives Really Want.

In the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama accurately described the basis of American democracy: Empathy — citizens caring for each other, both social and personal responsibility—acting on that care, and an ethic of excellence. From these, our freedoms and our way of life follow, as does the role of government: to protect and empower everyone equally.

On the other hand, writes Dr. Lakoff, returning to the 2013 piece (emphasis added)…

Ultra-conservatives don’t believe this. They believe that Democracy gives them the liberty to seek their own self-interests by exercising personal responsibility, without having responsibility for anyone else or anyone else having responsibility for them. They take this as a matter of morality. They see the social responsibility to provide for the common good as an immoral imposition on their liberty.

“The way to understand the conservative moral system,” Dr. Lakoff writes in the 2011 piece

… is to consider a strict father family. …  The use of force is necessary and required. Only then will children develop the internal discipline to become moral beings. And only with such discipline will they be able to prosper.

If you’re beginning to wonder what’s so moral about this system, read on (emphasis again added).

And what of people who are not prosperous? They don’t have discipline, and without discipline they cannot be moral, so they deserve their poverty. The good people are hence the prosperous people. Helping others takes away their discipline … makes them both unable to prosper on their own and function morally.

If this is a “moral system,” it’s only in the most technical sense of the term. One can’t help but wonder if Dr. Lakoff is bending over backwards to give conservatives the benefit of the doubt. Or, to give him the benefit of the doubt in light of all the constructive work he’s done, his characterization of the ultra-conservative upbringing as a moral system is principally intended to convince progressives to characterize their positions as manifestations of a moral system as well.

One can concede that conservatives – not just ultra-, but of all stripes – oppose abortion and gay marriage out of a sense of morality, however narrow and exclusive of other moral principles. But practicing don’t spare the strap – whether literal or virtual – on your children in order to scour the mercy from their souls is not moral.

In fact, it barely qualifies as a simply a system of beliefs. At best, it can be called a behavioral technique. Dressing up individual responsibility as a moral system comes across as, if not pandering to conservatives, showing way too much respect for viewpoints symptomatic of a lack of self-knowledge. Its usefulness as a device for convincing progressives that conservatives respond to moral framing is thus compromised.

Nevertheless, even though his example isn’t the best, it bears repeating that we’re in  Dr. Lakoff’s debt for continuing to point out that conservatives view the world through the lens of morality: whether it’s moral in the most narrow sense of the word – such as their opposition to abortion and gay marriage – or actually immoral – such as their hardhearted views toward the needy.

5 replies »

  1. My problem with the whole “moral” argument is that moral framing is extremely self-serving, on both sides.

    Whenever anyone say moral, or “the right thing” to me. I immediately look under the carpet.

    It’s like the growth of all these “poverty tourism” things, where kids go on a one week mission to save a developing nation. It’s ostensibly a moral thing to do, but it’s really self serving in the extreme–treating poor people like animals at the petting zoo, gaining the admiration of your friends, etc.

    I might argue that the real conservative frame is “what best serves my interests and personal bigotries” and that they look for a frame to fit that. “What do you think of this nice gilded religious frame, dear?” “Lovely, honey, it mutes my racism and goes well with the drapes.”

  2. Forgive me, Russ, but I think you’ve missed it a bit, here.

    I believe that what Lakoff is saying has great merit. He’s trying to provide a frame of reference for better, and more persuasive, communication with the far right. In essence, he’s pointing which arguments won’t work and can’t work, given their somewhat internally consistent ideology that can, and does (for them) take on the mantle of morality.

    You say, for instance: “or actually immoral – such as their hardhearted views toward the needy.” But Lakoff is saying (and I concur) that they see hardhearted views as being moral because those views will lead to greater prosperity and independence for the needy. In their minds, their approach is the one that is helpful, progressives take an approach that is harmful, and therefore, progressives are the immoral ones.

    None of this is new, of course. Homo sapiens is both a pack animal and a loner, and the societies he builds, and ultimately tears down, reflect this dichotomy. When a privileged, wealthy individual looks around and sees poverty and misery in his fellow man, it creates cognitive dissonance with that part of him that’s social (assuming he’s not a sociopath, but that’s another story). So, he makes up a reason why this is justified and right and moral. The reason has varied over time. The “natural order of things,” whether it is divinely ordained or not, probably comes in at the top of the charts.

    Unfortunately for the privileged, the onset of an intellectual tradition that “all men are created equal,” at least under the law, dismantled the idea of natural order, and sent the rich scurrying for a new justification. They found it in “the undeserving poor.” After all, if all men are created equal, then the end result, in material terms, must have to do with effort. If one is poor, it is because one is not industrious. Christianity got on board with this in the decidedly hard-nosed Protestant idea that prosperity is rewarded by God for personal industry, and that this effort was, in itself, Godly. So, in Protestant countries, inequality of wealth became both “fair” and, once again, the way God wills it, only with the twist that God wills it because it’s fair.

    There is a new intellectual tradition, though, that threatens the conservative construct, and that is the scientific assertion that initial conditions affect final outcomes; in other words, if one starts out life as a blind, crack baby with spina bifida, one is not likely to grow up to rival Donald Trump — who got his first job from Daddy in an already thriving real estate empire — as a real estate magnate. Prima facie, this assertion is so clearly true that it is quite threatening to conservatives, so as humans will do, they tend to reject of ignore evidence that would imply that they are not entirely deserving of their wealth, or at least of the wealth disparity they enjoy.

    If progressives are to combat this ideology and, yes, moral system (because it is the sense of standing on firm moral ground that makes the ideology defensible), then they must destroy its premises and, most of all, the false and (to them) immoral stances they attribute to progressives.

    For instance, I have seen, over and over, conservatives assert that “progressives believe in equality of outcomes, and conservatives believe in equality of opportunity.” As you know, nothing could be farther from the truth. I cannot remember ever hearing a progressive assert that equality of outcomes is a goal. Doubtless, there are some absolute Marxists who believe this, but they are rare, and I have never met one. In fact, what I hear from progressives is exactly the same statement. Progressives believe in equality of opportunity, or as much equality as can be achieved in the real world. Progressives and conservatives appear to agree on this, but what they don’t agree on are the semantics of the word “opportunity.”

    Conservatives seem to believe that initial conditions don’t matter, and that opportunity is a function of had work, talent, and having the government get out of the way. In other words, they believe, on some level, that everyone starts with an equal chance. Progressives don’t remotely believe this. They believe that everyone starts with extremely unequal chances, and that society, through government, has an obligation to level the playing field as much as possible, recognizing that it can never be completely level, or probably even close.

    One way to overcome cognitive dissonance is to keep repeating a fact that is true, and nothing can be truer than the fact that inequality at birth is the primary driver of final outcomes (at least in a material sense). To fight the conservative mindset and win converts, it’s important to start from a place of agreement. Progressives and conservatives both believe in meritocracy, and that meritocracy is both the fairest approach to society, and the one that creates the most prosperity for all. I believe that the progressive approach should be that we need, as a society, to create conditions that allow those with the most merit to succeed, and that our current society does not do that very well. In conjunction, I would recommend that progressives withdraw support from organizations that are inherently anti-merit (like the parts of unions that protect the jobs of those unworthy to hold them). After all, not all the contradictions are on the conservative side.

    That’s a snapshot of one way I would craft messaging to win converts to the progressive side. One needs to start with shared values and work from there. I believe Lakoff is crafting an argument to do just that.

  3. Russ: This is among your best posts. I’ve read Lakoff’s book, Moral Politics, and agree with your conclusions.

  4. My takeaway from Lakoff’s scientific work about how human beings work is that we are – if our parts are working properly – by definition moral beings, attempting to determine right from wrong. I recently posted his video of Retaking Political Discourse. The best simple example of his thesis is that no one says “Read my blog post I’m full of crap.” We all speak our piece believing we are right. That’s a moral stance.

  5. Are we framing pictures or houses? This article suggests the former in simple directions of left or right and up or down. Two neat little dimensions within which all human thought resides. Oversimplification? The curtain opens on Progs versus Ultra-Cons, slips into Progs versus all Cons after intermission, and for the finale the fat lady sings a rousing rendition of “Damn those Dirty Cons Anyway!”.

    Well that’s a lovely construct that completely ignores another dimension of human thought. In our sum we are not all this or all that, but rather a medley of flavors derived from experience, environment, and a little bit of grandpa and grandma thrown in for spice.

    Example from the article, “all Cons are against abortion and gay rights”…say what??? One can easily be a fiscal conservative and social liberal, different rooms in the same house. There’s the missing dimension, we are all houses built of rooms full of ideas and nosy neighbors trying to stand outside and peek in the windows will never grasp the full content of the space within.

    Mr. O’Brien in comments speaks thoughtfully and eloquently to cognitive dissonance and the deleterious effect of dirt poor crack house beginnings. I’ve always believed in Horatio Alger having lived a bit of it myself in an “I’m an overnight success and it only took me 34 years to get here” sort of way, but his words move me. Perhaps there are ways we can help the poor, especially children, in some way other than relegating them to petting zoo ghettos and handing them prepaid credit cards, cell phones, and government cheese to while away their time with.

    Discourse gentlemen is seeking common ground from varied opinion, not gathering like minded friends, hanging your opponent’s picture on the wall and laughing at your own limited perceptions of him.