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 of politics.

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 politics.

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 citizens from.

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