Left Out By Right Rhetoric
|Sharon Basco is executive producer of TomPaine.com.|
Hillary Clinton wasn’t the
first, and she won’t be the last, to envision a "vast right-wing conspiracy."
Like most dragons, this one is based in truth: right-wing conservatives have
become extremely adept at expressing and communicating their message. This
success is charted and discussed in a book entitled Moral Ethics by
George Lakoff, who is a professor in the department of linguistics at the
University of California, Berkeley. TomPaine.com’s Sharon Basco spoke with
him about his theories.
Check back on Friday for part two of this interview.
There are two different models of the family, and two different models of politics.
TomPaine.com: When your book Moral Politics was first published
in 1996, its subtitle was "What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t."
In its latest edition, the subtitle is "How Liberals and Conservatives Think."
Whether you’re focused on what they know, or how they think, your thesis
is that both parties operate from a model of the family.
George Lakoff: Yes, all Americans have the basic metaphor of the nation
as family, where we have Founding Fathers, and we send our sons and daughters
to war, and so on.
And politics is connected with the family via
this metaphor, and connected very, very deeply. There are two different ideal
models of the family that I'll call a Strict Father Family and a Nurturing
Parent Family.... And this metaphor maps those models of the family onto
our national moral and political life. And what you get are two very, very
different models of the family, and with them two very, very different models
Here’s how those differences play out. If you have the Strict Father models
of the family then you’re assuming that the world is a difficult place and
always will be, that children are born bad and have to be made good, that
the job of the father is to be a moral authority, to protect the family,
to support the family....
The strict father wants his kids to become disciplined, pursue the self-interest,
and become self-reliant and be good people because they are disciplined....
Now this comes into politics in many ways. First, it says that social programs
are evil. Why? Because... social programs are seen as something that gives
people things they don’t earn, therefore making them morally weak. Namely
it hurts the people it’s supposed to help. That’s the conservative argument
In foreign policy you see this in terms of the idea of the moral authority
of the father. So the father in a strict father family doesn’t give up his
moral authority. He’s supposed to be in charge, period. And no back-talk.
And this administration says, "Of course, we know! No back-talk! ... We know
what’s right, we have the authority and the power. And we’re not going to
debate it. We’re just going to tell you what’s right and if you don’t like
it we’ll punish you!" This is the Bush administration’s view not only of
foreign policy, but a lot of domestic policy as well.
On the progressive parents’ side, the idea of a nurturing family is very,
very different. There it is assumed that the world should become a nurturing
place, should become a safe place, a healthy place. And that children are
born good and should be kept that way and developed. That the idea of a parent
is to nurture children, and to raise children to be nurturers as well....
This implies many things.... First a nurturant parent has to be fair, promote
fairness. You’re not empathetic toward someone if you’re not fair with them....
Protection is an important value. Think of the things that nurturing parents
want to protect their children from, not just crime and drugs but also cars
without seat belts, tobacco, chemicals in the environment, unscrupulous businesses,
namely all the things that liberals would like the government to protect
You have as well the idea of fulfillment in life. If you’re a nurturant person
and you care about others, then you need to be fulfilled in life and happy
in your life, and you want others to be....
In addition to that there are other things that follow. For example, open
two-way communication. You don’t really understand what others need and what
your children need if you don’t communicate openly and honestly with them.
So open, honest two-way communication is crucial. Whereas in the strict father
model it’s, you know, the father says, the child does, period, no back-talking.
And you see that in liberals’ and conservatives’ attitudes toward government openness.
Another extremely important part is community development. In a nurturant
family you know you need the help of the community: "It takes a village,"
as Hillary Clinton said, "to raise a child." And you need to have community
development if you’re going to have overall nurturing....
A progressive view of international relations says that you live in a world
community. You should be a responsible, empathetic citizen in that world
community.... We should be cooperative, venture into treaties, work with
other nations, and so on. And this is a very, very different view than what
you get from folks who just say we should use our power to serve our self-interest.
TP.com: You write that "liberalism has a view of discourse that puts it
at a disadvantage." This brings to mind the often-heard notion that conservative
talk shows, whether radio or TV, are effective in part because they put their
arguments in black and white and in staccato, single-syllable terms.
Lakoff: [I]t's very important to know that if you take someone else's
words or ideas and negate them, even if you are against the ideas... you
support the ideas by negating them.
Now, this is how Fox News works.
They will say, "We are fair and balanced. We will have a liberal and a conservative."
But we have a conservative host! What the host does is, the host frames the
questions, so that the liberal, even if he denies them, still supports the
frame. For example, "Are you against the president's proposal for tax relief?
What? You are against tax relief?"
"We’re just going to tell you what’s right and if you don’t like it we’ll punish you!”
Think about the framing of "tax relief." Relief says that taxation is an
affliction, a burden that anybody who takes the affliction away is a hero
and good, and anybody who is against it, wants people to suffer, right? You
are against alleviating suffering?
You see how this works, and it works throughout. The conservative think tanks
have worked for 40 years now, developing not just language, but modes of
thought that the language fit. And they have learned it very well, and the
folks at Fox News have learned it very well.
Liberals have no idea that language is not neutral, it is framed -- they
walk into these things all the time. So, liberals have the idea that if you
just tell people the facts, people will be rational, and reach the right
conclusion. The facts will set you free. They won't! The facts unframed --
if not framed properly in the appropriate moral way, won't set you free!
People won't reach the appropriate conclusions. It is very important that
the facts be understood in some moral framework. The conservatives have understood
that, and they frame everything they have in a moral framework....
But all liberals have a morality; it is a nurturing morality, and they haven't
learned to talk in terms of that morality, and they haven't learned to frame
their policies in terms of that morality....
TP.com: Is there something about the conservative framework that allows
for what opponents will see as "dirty tricks" or deception?
Lakoff: Yes there is, unfortunately. By the way, I don't want to say
that all conservative communication is deceptive. I don't believe that for
a minute. But let me begin by saying that I think there are many people who
are honest conservatives, who have this moral worldview, and use it directly
and speak from the heart -- and they believe that. But there is something
in the worldview that leads to seeing deception as a reasonable thing to
do. It has to do with the idea of evil being out there in the world. That
is, if you are fighting evil, you can use evil to fight evil -- you can use
fire to fight fire. The assumption is that, you know, if you are out there
in a world against evil-doers, you may have to do some not very nice things.
That is part of the conservative worldview.
So they see liberals
as doing something that they believe is simply wrong and immoral by their
perspective. They can fight it anyway they can. Deceptive practices are all
part of the game.
TP.com: We usually think of language as neutral, but you write that "the
who, what, when, where and why of news reporting does not capture the complex
partisan differences in metaphorical conceptual structure that lie behind
the political positions of conservatives and liberals." What is it that puts
liberals at a disadvantage?
Lakoff: It is not merely the language of news reporting. The conservatives
understand that language is framed -- that it is not neutral, that it expresses
ideas, that ideas are important, that ideas govern the way people act as
well as the way they think. When they put out news releases or have interviews,
they have learned to frame things very carefully.
Now, the news
business, and liberals have not yet learned this -- they have not learned
how to do this -- because they believe that language is neutral; that it
can express neutral ideas; that simply the facts will set you free....
Conservatives have discovered ... that everything has a point of view.
So the assumption is that news is objective, there is objective truth (who,
what, when, where, why), that there is no particular framing that slants
things one way or another, that episodes are neutral; that when you report
simply one event, not looking at its context, that that is neutral, and that
they are there for being fair and balanced -- whereas they very well may
not be. The whole idea of news reporting, as it is taught in journalism schools,
is that you can report things -- just the facts -- and get them out there:
who, what, when, where, why, period.
What cognitive scientists have discovered is that this is never true. Conservatives
have discovered it too. They discovered that everything has a point of view.
That even the idea of episodic news, where you report the news without its
context, that is a political decision on the part of the news room. That
political decisions are made all the time, and they have gone out and started
to make those decisions. They will put in their context on their stories.
They will frame it in all sorts of ways by using appropriate language, and
Fox News is completely slanted toward a conservative world-view....
Most people think that everything is neutral, and they don't notice the world-views
they have, and how things are fitting in. So that the news business has not
yet addressed the fact of framing, the fact of metaphorical thought, the
fact that in this country you have two different conceptual systems for framing
virtually every issue. They haven't tried to come to grips with it, and meanwhile,
the conservatives have exploited it.
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Published: May 08 2003