Friday, July 18, 2008

So I Read Lakoff's "The Political Mind"

...and my principal take-away is that in order for the book to be effective, it needs to be broadly ignored.

See, I think he has a point. He makes the point that the way we think about things bears little resemblance to the abstract, computer-like capital "R" Reason of the old Enlightenment. No, it actually has a lot more to do with the connections we make between narratives, frames, and concepts. If confronted with a fact or concept that builds a frame (or a connection between frames) we accept it. If not, we reject it.

And, most critically, facts that could build up multiple narratives might not necessarily do so. If a fact could be used to support two contradictory narratives--which is common enough, actually--the one that's got the strongest connection will win out. So, for example, if there are two connections to the concept of "war on terror", one progressive and one conservative, the conservative one will win out even if the connection only slightly more powerful. The only way to make "war on terror" seem progressive is to use other narratives and concepts to build it up.

Fine so far. But there's one problem. (Well, two. His concept of liberalism as "nurturing parent" is incredibly message-blind coming from someone like him.) The problem is that the reason Republicans get away with this sort of thing is because they don't talk about it. They just do it. Luntz doesn't talk to the press about it (and they'd never get behind it anyway, as seen by the damned-near-hitpiece that the NY Times threw up about the book) and neither does Rove. They just tell the people who need to know, and publicly reveal just enough to impress the press and scare the Dems without actually revealing the core ideas. Nobody out-and-out said that the term "tax relief" was intended to de-legitimize the concept of taxation as a duty and government as a shared responsibility. No, they just worked out that that phrase suited their positions, and went for it.

Lakoff gives lots of examples of more positive "frames", but by telling everybody how the trick works beforehand, nobody's interested. He's so worried about having his idea of framing taken seriously by clearly-befuddled Dems that he makes a point of showing Republicans exactly what the frames are and therefore exactly how to beat them!

And that's too bad, because stripped of the controversy over cognition, there are some points that are definitely worth repeating. People really aren't the rationality machines that "rational choice" theory purports they are. There really isn't a spectrum from "left" to "right" that people sit on. A lot of people really do jump back and forth on all manner of issues because of the meaninglessness of "consistency." People really do respond instinctively to narratives, and the complex narratives that make up most people's politicaly opinions really are usually built out of a variety of interconnected simpler narratives.

And, yes, you really need to place your arguments within a moral framework. Liberal arguments of the "but it's the only rational solution!" variety are a vicious trap, and we need to jump over the damned thing already and move on to basing our reason on real moral cases.

But honestly, I kind of hope that this disappears completely under the waves in public. That there's no debate, no discussion, and no dissection of the book. That liberals pay very, very close attention to what it says, think about how it affects how they argue, and stop mentioning the damned book completely.

And that Lakoff maybe take a page from Luntz, and work behind the scenes a bit more.

Oh, and a bit of an edit: Lakoff has a point on how political opinions build up. But his "nation as family" concept is kind of flawed, because there are a LOT of metaphors used for a nation. Geoffrey Nunberg made some good points on that front a while back, and they're still valuable today.

There's the problem. If you tried to simply apply Lakoff's solutions, they wouldn't work. If you even apply his grand political theories, they probably wouldn't work. But if you take what he's saying about cognition to your own positions, well now, there's where you've got something.

Cognitively aware liberalism is far more than a "nurturing parent."

More editing: Just to boil down what I'm thinking here.

I think Lakoff has done a fabulous job of describing the landscape, and has done some yeoman's work in laying out the tools that have been used by conservatives to shape said landscape: the trimming shears, riding lawnmowers, weed-whackers and so on. And, once again, the simple insight that politics requires an explicit moral base, not a simple appeal to interests, is a very powerful one.

Where he hasn't quite nailed it yet is the how; he gets that liberalism is built on "empathy", but hasn't sourced it enough and continues to drop the ball with that lame-sounding "nurturer parent" line. And he hasn't figured out exactly how to use the tools. He's a scientist, not an engineer. Application isn't his job.

So what needs to be done from here is mostly translation and application. Happily, there is hundreds of years of writing on liberalism to translate and apply using these new tools of cognitive liberalism. Even if Rockridge isn't around to do it, other people can pick up the torch.

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