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Lib vs. Con - why we think differently

Binary_Digit

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This is part of a transcript from an NPR interview last October. I figured it belongs with the philosophy part of "religion and philosophy", because it looks at some of the possible core reasons for why our philosophies on life tend to point our moral compasses in opposite directions. Anyway, I hope you find this as interesting as I did. :)

Analysis: Liberals and conservatives

October 12, 2004

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Sometimes it seems as if liberals and conservatives are talking past each other. Liberals, for example, find it hard to understand how conservatives can support the death penalty and oppose abortion at the same time. Conservatives fail to see how liberals can paint themselves as champions of labor when they support environmental regulations that limit the creation of new jobs. At some point, people on both sides throw up their hands and say, `My position is plain common sense, and you just don't get it.' George Lakoff argues that both of them are right. What divides red state, blue state, 50/50 America, he says, are fundamentally different world views that explain why conservatives tend to agree on a wide variety of seemingly disparate issues like taxes to school vouchers and why liberals take the opposite tack.

So why are you a liberal or a conservative or maybe a maverick? Did you choose one philosophy over the other, or do you decide by issue by issue? What are the underlying principles that make liberals liberals and conservatives conservatives? Why do the two sides have so much trouble understanding each other?

Our number here in Washington if you'd like to join the conversation is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

George Lakoff is a cognitive scientist and professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He explains his theories in a book called "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think," first published in 1996, out again in 2002. He joins us now from the studios at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

Good of you to join us on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Professor GEORGE LAKOFF ("Moral Politics"): It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: You write that the most important tool to understanding these differences is to understand metaphors and that the most important metaphor is the family.

Prof. LAKOFF: Yes. When you try to understand why it is that all of the different positions hold together; why it is that the same people who favor abortion also favor lower taxes, also favor, you know, the ownership of guns and so on; why do they fit together? And why do people who have exactly the opposite positions, why do they fit together? What explains it is a metaphorical understanding of the nation as a family.

We have our Founding Fathers. We send their sons and daughters to war. We hear these expressions and never think twice about them, but we do understand the nation as a family, but what's interesting is that there are two different kinds of families, what I call a strict father family and a nurturing parent family. And when you understand the differences and that these metaphors of nation as family map those things onto the nation, what you understand is that there are two utterly different understandings of our politics that come out of these family views.

The strict father family begins with a set of assumptions. The world is a dangerous and difficult place. There's competition. There will always be winners and losers. Children are born bad; that is, they want to do just what they want to do, not what is right and that they need to be made good. You need a strict father, according to this view, because you need someone who will protect the family in the dangerous world, support it in the difficult world, win those competitions and teach his children right from wrong. And the assumption is, there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong, and there's only one way to teach kids right from wrong and that is punishment, painful punishment, which can be either physical punishment or withdrawal of affection.

The result of this is the following: The assumption is children will develop discipline through being punished when they do wrong; that is, they'll learn to discipline themselves internally, and that this moral discipline will result in discipline to get them through in the world, to seek their self-interests and become self-reliant and prosperous. And, thus, you have a...

CONAN: And themselves to go on and raise--be stern fathers themselves.

Prof. LAKOFF: Exactly. And not only that; there's a link between morality and prosperity as a result. And so you see the idea that if you're not prosperous, you're not disciplined, and if you're not disciplined, you're probably not moral and so you deserve not to be prosperous. You deserve your poverty.

CONAN: And the others...

Prof. LAKOFF: The result is that you go against social programs. You think all social programs are immoral because they give people things that they don't want--I mean, that they haven't earned, and the result of that, if they haven't earned it, is dependence. The result of that is that people become less and less disciplined, and, therefore, you hurt the people you're trying to help. That's the conservative argument.

Now the liberal way of raising families is the following. They have a nurturing family, and they assume that both parents are necessary and equal and that their job is to nurture their children and raise their children to be nurturers of others. Nurturers of others is very important. In addition, nurturance has two things about it. First, empathy; you have to know what all those cries of the baby mean. You have to be able to connect with your children. And responsibility; you have to be able to take care of yourself if you're going to take care of others and you have to be responsible for others. And you're teaching your children to be empathetic and responsible toward others as well.

From these two values, empathy and responsibility, a great deal follows, namely all of the progressive principles. So, for example, if you empathize with your child, you'll want to protect your child, and, therefore, you have political principles of protection, like worker protection, consumer protection, environmental protection. If you care about your child, you want your child to be fulfilled in life, and so fulfillment becomes an important value, and there's no fulfillment without freedom. You have to be free to fulfill yourself, and that's why liberty and pursuit of happiness go together.

Similarly, a child can't be fulfilled if he's treated unfairly. So fairness is a value. There's no freedom without opportunity and no opportunity without prosperity. So opportunity and prosperity become values, and you don't live alone. As Hillary Clinton says, `It takes a village.' You live in a community. So community-building and community maintenance and service to that community become values, and you can't have that without cooperation. So cooperation is a major value together with what is required for cooperation: trust. No trust without honesty and open communication. So cooperation, trust, honesty and open communication are progressive values. All of these values are the progressive moral system. That is why progressives believe what they believe, and they often run up against conservatives.

CONAN: Now the heart of this is the idea of this unconscious metaphor. Now you point out, not unconscious in the Freudian sense but unconscious in the sense that we just don't think about it.

Prof. LAKOFF: Right. Most of our thought, as cognitive science shows, is unconscious, I mean, almost all of it, and certainly the concepts that we use, the ideas we use and so on are almost all unconscious. They're things we just don't even notice or think about until someone points them out to us. And so our job as cognitive scientists is to figure out how people can actually think and how that works. One of the most important things that we've discovered is that people first think metaphorically, and second, they think in terms of what are called conceptual frames; that is, small little bundles of ideas that are coherent and about one thing.

For example, if you take the notion of tax relief, which came into our parlance through George Bush when he took office, take the word relief. Relief is the fine relative to what is called a conceptional frame. For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction and an afflicted party who's harmed by it, a reliever who takes the affliction away, who's a hero, and if anybody tries to stop them, they're a bad guy. You add tax to that, and you get taxation is an affliction, which is a conservative idea that goes along with the idea that people who are disciplined should pursue their self-interests, become prosperous. Their money is their reward, and taxation is something that takes that reward away, an affliction.
 
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(Continued)

CONAN: And these, you argue, establish two coherent political philosophies that are internally consistent, even when from the other side it seems like an apparent contradiction.

Prof. LAKOFF: That's correct. Each of these philosophies is internally consistent, and each makes sense. In fact, they define what common sense is. That is, your view of what morality consists of and your view of how to frame things defines common sense. They're physically in your brain. You can't change them.

Now what's particularly interesting about this is that we all have both versions of this, either actively or passively. If you are a liberal in every part of your life but you go to an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie or a John Wayne movie and you understand it, then you have a strict father model, at least passively used for understanding but not necessarily for living, and similarly for the other side. Many people have both models active in different parts of their lives. So, for example, a Reagan Democrat is someone, say, who's a blue-collar worker who's a strict father at home but nurturing in his union politics or on the job.

CONAN: So as you go through this--You're also a linguist, as we pointed out--you point out that people use different words, that literally both sides are talking different languages.

Prof. LAKOFF: Sure. Take an example from the Republican convention. You had Zell Miller saying that George Bush had a spine of tempered steel. What is that about? Why a spine of tempered steel? Well, the idea is that a strict father has to be morally strong, internally strong, and that character is defined by this internal strength. That's the spine of tempered steel. What's the opposite of that, that someone who doesn't have such a spine? A flip-flopper whose spine, you know, doesn't stand up. It goes back and forth from one side to another so that the flip-flopper charge is actually a very deep charge to anybody who has a strict father model. It's not a matter of just going from one position to another. It's a matter of not having that spine of tempered steel, that internal moral strength.

CONAN: It's a matter, they would say, of character.

Prof. LAKOFF: They would call it character. Their notion of character is internal moral strength, whereas the notion of character for progressives is caring and responsibility.

CONAN: Another metaphor that plays an enormous role in your theory is that of moral accounting. Tell us a little bit about that.

Prof. LAKOFF: Well, that's a major metaphor for morality. Let me give you an example. Suppose I do something good for you. You say, `Gee, I'm in your debt. I owe you one. How can I ever repay you?' It's as if doing something good for you, giving you a favor, is like giving you money, and then you owe me something back. Now if I do something bad to you, how are the books balanced? Well, there are three ways. I can do something good to make up for it. That's restitution. You can do something bad back to me. That's retribution, or, by moral arithmetic, you can take something good away from me which is revenge. Those are the standard ways of doing moral accounting. Of course, there's turning the other cheek which is, you know, the classic Christian way to deal with this, which means that you say, `OK. Harm me again and you owe me twice.' So that imposes guilt. Guilt has to do with the notion of moral debt.

CONAN: And I wonder--we just have a minute or so left before we have to go to a break, and we will get to your calls after a break, (800) 989-8255. But this idea of, you know, this accounting, how old is it? I mean, money isn't really that old in terms of human culture.

Prof. LAKOFF: It goes back--it's not just money but property of any kind, anything that you own or have. So it's not just property. There's trade and trade goes back as far as you go. Moral accounting goes back as far as recorded history goes, and the basic metaphors for morality do, too. If you look at the division between strict father and nurturing parents, that is ancient as well, goes back to different interpretations of religion. There are in each religion, a strict version and a nurturing version, and they go back thousands of years. And within European history, you get both versions of both religion and of politics.

CONAN: We're talking with George Lakoff about his theories presented in a book called "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think." So what made you decide to accept one moral and political philosophy or the other? Or are you somewhere in the middle, a maverick, if you will? Again, our number if you'd like to join us: (800) 989-8255. The e-mail address, totn@npr.org.

Back after the break. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about moral politics, the differences between conservatives and liberals, with the author, George Lakoff. He's also a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Are these principles making sense to you? Do they hold up for most issues? Can you bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives? Join the conversation, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail: totn@npr.org.

And let's get some listeners involved. Michael joins us from Boston, Massachusetts.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes. Thanks for taking my call. I'm actually a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and I've done research, and my team have done some research that is actually in our book called "The Politics of Denial," published by MIT Press a few years ago, where we found that there was a strong link between experiences of harsh punishment in childhood and support in adulthood for punitive public policies, like the death penalty. And I think Dr. Lakoff's research is very good, but what the issue that we directed--and I'd like to hear him comment--is, you know: Why is punitiveness so valued when the evidence is so clear against it, you know, the three strikes and you're out, the death penalty; it costs much more to execute people than it does to incarcerate them for life. And what our research indicated was, it was a process of emotional displacement from childhood associated with experiences of harsh punishment in childhood.

Prof. LAKOFF: What you call emotional displacement is an instance of the metaphor of the nation as family, and that's not a contradiction. It's just a way in which that is worked out. Punishment in childhood is what is necessary in a strict father model in order to create moral children. They're supposed to be punished, painfully punished, when they're children, and that metaphorically goes on to painful punishment for wrongdoing in adulthood and, therefore, harsh sentences. This has nothing to do with rationality. It has nothing to do with whether it works. We know that the death penalty doesn't deter murder. We know that harsh punishment does not deter criminals. We know that incarceration and stiff sentences don't really do anything, and that doesn't matter. What matters is the moral system that is in people's brains physically as a result of not only the upbringing but anything counter to that upbringing to overwhelm it. So what you have in the upbringing by the nation as family metaphor that we all have, it's just part of our brains naturally, is that it just seems right. It seems like it's the right thing to do to punish wrongdoers, if you're brought up that way.

CONAN: Yeah. Yet a lot of us who were brought up by strict fathers don't feel that way when we raise our children. A lot of us who were brought up by nurturers, well, may decide to punish our children.

Prof. LAKOFF: Well, first of all, there are--as I said, we all have both models because we're brought up in this culture, and sometimes we're exposed to both strict fathers and nurturing mothers, and you may have both. In addition to that, a lot of people rebel against their upbringing and say, `That was awful for me. I'm not going to do that,' and they wind up using the opposite model that's there for them in the culture.

CONAN: Michael, does that make sense to you?

MICHAEL: Well, yes, except that what we found experimentally in the empirical data that we collected was that if we had people--if we first asked them what their opinions were on these political opinions, like the death penalty and use of military force, we found this strong relationship between physical punishment and support for these policies interacting actually with gender. So the males were more punitive than females and with therapy, which was our measure of denial, if they had ever any psychotherapies. If we asked them first to recall instances of their childhood punishment and then asked them the public opinion questions, the evidence of the emotional displacement disappeared.

Prof. LAKOFF: That's very interesting. So what you're saying is that when they recall how much they disliked and how much they, you know, were horrified by their childhood punishments, what you get is inhibition. That is, neurally you're inhibiting that model, and that's not at all surprising that you would get a result like that.

MICHAEL: That's an excellent explanation to that.

CONAN: Oh, Michael, an excellent phone call. Thanks very much for the question.

MICHAEL: Thank you.
 

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(Continued)

CONAN: Appreciate it.

If this model works, it should explain why seemingly different views are incorporated in one model or another. Let me ask you, for example, about the inheritance tax. This is an issue that conservatives oppose. They oppose elimination. They oppose the inheritance tax. In your model, wouldn't inheriting a lot of money lead people not to have self-discipline, wouldn't be opposed to the strict father model.

Prof. LAKOFF: Not at all. Via the logic of the strict father model, there are two reasons that go against it. First, you're supposed to be able to do anything you want with your money. So if that's your reward, it's yours and you can do what you want with it, like give it to your children, and that's just fine. With respect to the children, the assumption is that a good, strict father will raise his children right, and if they're raised right, then they will be moral, too. So if they're moral, too, and they get the money that their father earned honestly and so on, why not?

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Wesley calling from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

WESLEY (Caller): Yes, sir, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

WESLEY: Great topic today, as always.

CONAN: Thank you.

WESLEY: I'm probably one of your younger listeners, I would imagine, recently working through this very thing on my own, and I've come to the realization, at least in my mind, the difference between a conservative and a liberal-minded person would be the conservatives subscribe to the notion that America is a land of opportunity, and the liberals, I find, subscribe to the notion that America's a land of equal results. And I think that feeds in to--the more I hear about this model talked about today, the more I tend to agree with it. I think that you find the strong father unit representing--you're not assured anything, but as track records would have it, if you work hard, chances are you'll succeed.

I did certainly grow up in probably the cliche strong father household personally, and interestingly enough, as I raise my two-year-old daughter, I prefer not to have to get to the discipline. I'd rather nurture as much as I possibly can, kind of be the John Kerry and, you know, work every single--you know, exhaust all my options and then be the George Bush if I absolutely have to and step in and be a firm disciplinarian. But I think Michael pointed out an interesting, that you can go from having a strong father mentality to rejecting that or denying it, as he said, and migrating more towards the nurturing model, the family model.

CONAN: Are you on most issues conservative, Wesley?

WESLEY: I am, but I decide on the issues. I vote primarily Republican, but, for instance, I voted for a Democratic mayor in our recent elections.

CONAN: Well, George Lakoff, if you ask people how they make their decisions, everybody says, `Well, I decide on the issues.'

Prof. LAKOFF: Of course, because all of this is unconscious. Notice there are a couple of things that I didn't say before. Nurturance requires strength. You can't be a good nurturing parent unless you are strong, and moreover, it requires setting limits. That is, you have to tell your child, you know, what they can and can't do and why, but it doesn't mean punishment. It does mean making sure that they know why you're doing what you're doing and that they respect you for it.

Now with respect to opportunity vs. equal results, that's a conservative framing of this issue, and it's not appropriate. Most liberals really are looking for opportunity, but they see something that conservatives are not allowed to see because of this model. We have a two-tier economy. About a quarter of our work force can't afford health care, and they work. Almost all the people who can't afford health care are working people who don't make much money at their jobs. A large percentage of the jobs in this country don't pay enough to really live on, and those people cannot, even though they work hard, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, 'cause if everybody did, nobody would do those jobs, and they're absolutely necessary jobs. These are jobs where the people who do them support the lifestyles of the top three-quarters of the country, but there's no way that they can get out of those jobs. There aren't other jobs for them, and somebody's got to do those jobs. That is what you can see if you're a liberal, but if you're conservative, you just don't see it. You have the idea that any individual, one by one, can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but you don't see the mass of people and the mass of jobs because you only look at the individuals.

CONAN: Wesley, you were trying to get in there. I'm sorry.

WESLEY: No. I was just going to point out, it's like the Indian caste system. I think of the lower castes that clean the public rest rooms and have no way to get above--I think that's a fair enlightenment of my view. I'm admittedly a conservative and, of course, I do see things that way, but it's just interesting. The older I get, the more nurturing I become. My wife comes from a very nurturing family, for instance, and it's been a great blend to have my spine of tempered steel, as it were, and her nurturing ability. And quite frankly, I'm oftentimes on the good end of receiving her nurturing in our relationship. She's filled in a lot of emotional needs that I've had. So anyway, but I appreciate the time. I appreciate the topic today. Great topic today, Neal.

CONAN: Thank you for the phone call, Wesley. And we should point out that while George Lakoff is, of course, a scientist and describing his scientific theory, he is himself a liberal Democrat, correct, George?

Prof. LAKOFF: That's right.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Jackie in Ann Arbor, Michigan. `Yesterday in class, we discussed the uses of the word "liberal" and "conservative" as labels. One point that was made was that many people that are liberal are now more increasingly referred to as progressives. The intro to the show used the word "liberal." The guest is using mostly the term "progressive." I'm interested to know why the guest has chosen to use that term, progressive, rather than liberal. What does he see is the difference between the two words?'

Prof. LAKOFF: Well, over the past 30 years, conservatives--by the way, in 1964, after Goldwater lost, conservative was a dirty word. Conservatives have framed the word `liberal.' They've branded it. So they have expressions like `Hollywood liberal,' `limousine liberals,' `latte liberals,' and so on, as if they were effete and elite. And similarly, a lot of people who are on the left, particularly on the far left, see centrist liberals as going against progressive principles, traditional liberal principles. The result is that the word `liberal' has lost its legitimacy both on the right and on the left. A recent survey by the Center for American Progress found that the word `progressive' doesn't have these negative effects. And a lot of people who might previously have called themselves liberals are now calling themselves progressives for that reason.

CONAN: And I'm afraid--I don't mean to give them short shrift, but we just have a couple of minutes left.

(sic)

CONAN: George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He's the author of "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think." His most recent book is "Don't Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives." He joined us from the studios of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University at California at Berkeley.

Well, after moral politics, when we come back from this short break, we'll go to something, well, truly important. Postseason baseball gets under way. It's October. Where else would you be but Yankee Stadium? (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
 
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