Friday, December 10, 2004

Reconsidering Lakoff

I've been thinking a lot about George Lakoff, Elephants and Framing. I am a big fan of Lakoff's work and have distributed multiple copies of "Don't Think Of An Elephant" to many interested parties. I consider it essential that progressives and Democrats learn from Lakoff's work. But, as much as I enjoy his work, there is something that has still not allowed me to accept it fully.

Lakoff has done, I think, a superb job of identify the Republican frame. The "Strict Father Morality" explains so much of the Republican program of the last 20 years that it is hard not to believe it is correct. The source of my discontent is Lakoff's counter frame for Democrats and progressives. The "Nurturant Parent Morality" just doesn't ring true to me as the heart of progressive morality.

There are two aspects of it that gnaw at me:

  1. "Nurturant" is a framing word that still entails a sense of namby-pamby, bleeding-heart liberalism. The kind of weak-kneed, jellyfish, why-won't-anyone-love-me frame that has painted Democrats, liberals and progressives into a corner.
  2. "Parent" is a framing word that invokes a paternalistic sense of relationships. If Democrats and progressives are supposed to be "nurturant parents" doesn't that, of necessity, infantilize the people we are dealing with?

The first problem can be dealt with if we realize that "nurturance" is the frame, not the framing word. We want to invoke the concept of nurturing people to a better life without necessarily using the word "nurturance". Unfortunately, the explicit discussion of framing within the progressive community has lead to people using "nurturance" explicitly, which leads in turn to the entailments discussed above. You don't see Republican's talking about "strict fathers" but plenty of Democrats have started talking about "nurturant parents". If anything, the lesson Lakoff offers us is that words are dangerous and we should be careful how we use them ("Back off! I've got a dictionary and I'm not afraid to us it!")

It is the second problem that I think is more damaging to Lakoff's approach. The Republicans may have a "Daddy knows best" approach. But Lakoff is advocating a variant, a "Mommy/Daddy knows best" approach, that can be just as domineering. At least in the "Daddy knows best" approach the Republicans have a frame that explicitly embraces the authoritarian model. Lakoff's frame is just as authoritarian, it just won't admit it.

Progressives, on the other hand, eschew this authoritarian approach to human relations. They don't view humanity as a family made up of parents and children. They view it as a community of shared interests.

This, I think, gets to the heart of the problem: both the "Strict Father" and "Nurturant Parent" frames are built on the "Family of Man" metaphor, in which all of humanity is viewed as members of a family, some parents, some children. But that is not the only viable metaphor for human relationships. An alternative metaphor would be the "Community of Man" metaphor, in which all of humanity is viewed as being equal members of a community.

In the "Community of Man", each of us has an equal right to a certain level of human dignity ("Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness") while at the same time we have a shared responsibility towards each other to ensure we all have the opportunity to reach our fullest potential. In the "Community of Man" there is no parent. There is no all-knowing poobah who is responsible for raising us and teaching us right from wrong. There may be people who have temporarily been given authority over certain sub-groups in order to achieve certain goals. But those people are not assumed to be on a higher moral plane by virtue of their position.

In the "Community of Man" there are people who are wiser, stronger, more intelligence and/or more natural leaders than others. But in the "Community of Man", such people are not elevated to a position of moral superiority simply because of those qualities. In the "Community of Man" it is not assumed that those who are blessed with greater skills are thereby entitled to a greater say in the future of the community. Indeed, in the "Community of Man", people who are blessed are all the more obligated to use those blessings for the betterment of others ("Mankind was my business" - Marley's Ghost).

The "Family of Man" metaphor naturally leads to a bifurcation of society.  The "Family of Man" encourages dictatorial rule (Fascism under "Strict Father", Communism under "Nurturant Parent"). The "Community of Man" metaphor is naturally immune to this defect.

Now this is very important: when I argue that the "Family of Man" metaphor has defects I am not arguing that the "Community of Man" has no defects of its own. It most certainly does. For example, its reliance on mutual cooperation and shared responsibility can encourage the avoidance of responsibility. If the entire community is mutually responsible then no one is individually responsible. This can open the "Community of Man" to destruction through decay or attack from an external "Family of Man" society. For example, the "Community of Man" approach of a Mahatma Ghandi would have ultimately failed against the "Strict Father Family" approach of Adolph Hitler.

It is my personal belief that a functioning society is one in which the "Family of Man" and the "Community of Man" compete with each other. It is only in the struggle between them that society as a whole continues to survive. It is when one metaphorical approach dominates that a society risks corruption and destruction.

America is currently in danger of total domination by a "Family of Man" approach. Lakoff's "Nurturant Parent" frame, far from countering this danger, may simply encouraging it in another form.



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