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George Lakoff: Moral Politics

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Lakoff, George. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, Second Edition (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2002)

This volume, the second edition (2002) of Lakoff's 1996 opus Moral Politics, fleshes out his work on metaphors in political language. It's valuable reading for anyone who enjoyed Don't Think of an Elephant! and wants to delve deeper into Lakoff's thinking on the subject. This list of lessons (pp. 419-20) is about as concise as possible:

  • Words are defined relative to conceptual frames. Words evoke frames, and if you want to evoke the right frames, you need the right words.
  • To use the other side's words is to accept their framing of the issues.
  • Higher-level moral frames limit the scope of the frames defining particular issues.
  • To negate a frame is to accept that frame. Example: To carry out the instruction "Don't think of an elephant" you have to think of an elephant.
  • Rebuttal is not reframing. You have to impose your own framing before you can successfully rebut.
  • The facts themselves won't set you free. You have to frame facts properly before they can have the meaning you want them to convey.

Lakoff delineates the "Strict Father" and "Nurturant Parent" cognitive models--corresponding to conservatism and liberalism, respectively--and shows how seemingly contradictory positions (such as conservatives' disapproval of abortion and support for the death penalty) actually have an internal coherence when viewed from within their model. That doesn't make the results of the conservative "Strict Father" model any less pernicious, as Lakoff observes: "In the process of writing this book, I have had to examine, and therefore question, every point of my own beliefs."

Every day, I have had to compare my liberal beliefs with conservative beliefs and ask myself what, if any, reason I had to hold my beliefs. I have emerged from the process with a great respect for the coherence of the conservative position and for the intelligence and cleverness used by conservatives in articulating their views in a powerful way. [...] I also find conservatism, now that I think I understand it reasonably well, even more frightening than I did before. (pp. 335-6)

This paean to the much-maligned Sixties is my Quote of the Day:

Sixties liberalism, to those involved in it, focused on social responsibility. Sixties liberals see it this way: They risked their safety and their lives (and sometimes lost them) in civil rights demonstrations. They fought for anti-poverty programs, and worked to establish them. They brought feminism and ecology into the mainstream. And they demonstrated courageously against what they saw as the immorality, duplicity, and downright foolishness of the federal government in conducting an immoral and ill-advised war in Vietnam. The people who did all these things were not flower children, or deadheads, or violent radicals. They were idealistic liberals who were self-disciplined, self-reliant, hard-working, and dedicated to American ideals; they were the very opposite of the stereotypes. (pp. 318-9)

Later generations should take a few pages from the Sixties playbook and--armed with Lakoff's trenchant analysis--prepare to take on today's reactionaries.

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