Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Understanding The Progressive Mind And The Conservative Mind

(c) Andy Ternay
  • More flower pictures. Do I have a sick, forbidden fetish for flowers? Yes, I do, get over it.

  • Today's entry may be a litte convoluted. Please bear with me.

    Linguist George Lakoff argues that when we humans attempt to understand the world around us, we try to do so through the lens of a smaller environment, something we are familiar with and understand intimately: the family. So, when we attempt to make sense of large, complex socio-economic structures, we try to understand them through this metaphor of family and this concept remains in the background of every thought about society, government, etc. This frame of family remains a backdrop for all of our thoughts on society, it creates the moral worldview each individual holds.

    Frames are vitally important because they are the conceptual backdrop by which we understand everything around us. Language can be used to invoke these frames.

    Wow, that is a stunning oversimplification of what he says. I hope I have not just diluted all of the meaning out of his writing there. If it is not clear, please take a minute to visit for a more complete explanation.

    Lakoff goes on to assert that in the United States of America, there are two competing frames by which we understand family structure. He defines them as follows:

    The Nurturant Parent Worldview and the contrasting Strict Father Model.

    The Nurturant Parent Worldview:
    In the Nurturant Parent family, it is assumed that the world is basically good. And, however dangerous and difficult the world may be at present, it can be made better, and it is your responsibility to help make it better.  Correspondingly, children are born good, and parents can make them better, and it is their responsibility to do so.  Both parents (if there are two) are responsible for running the household and raising the children, although they may divide their activities.  The parents' job is to be responsive to their children, nurture them, and raise their children to nurture others. Nurturance requires empathy and responsibility.

    In the Nurturant Parent family, the highest moral values are Empathy and Responsibility. Effective nurturing requires empathy, which is feeling what someone else feels—parents have to figure out what all their baby's cries mean in order to take care of him or her.  Responsibility is critical, since being a good nurturer means being responsible not only for looking after the well-being of others, but also being responsible to ourselves so that we can take care of others.  Nurturant parents raise children to be empathetic toward others, responsible to themselves, and responsible to others who are or will be in their care. Empathy connects us to other people in our families, our neighborhoods, and in the larger world.  Being responsible to others and oneself requires cooperation.  In society, nurturant morality is expressed as social responsibility.  This requires cooperation rather than competition, and a recognition of interdependence.

    Strict Father Model:
    n the conservative worldview, it is assumed that the world is, and always will be, a dangerous and difficult place. It is a competitive world and there will always be winners and losers. Children are naturally bad since they want to do what feels good, not what is moral, so they have to be made good by being taught discipline. There is tangible evil in the world and to stand up to evil, one must be morally strong, or "disciplined."

    The father's job is to protect and support the family. Children are to respect and obey him. The father's moral duty is to teach his children right from wrong, with punishment that is typically physical and can be painful when they do wrong. It is assumed that parental discipline in childhood is required to develop the internal discipline that adults will need in order to be moral and to succeed. Morality and success are linked through discipline. This focus on discipline is seen as a form of love—"tough love."

    The mother is in the background, not strong enough to protect and support the family or fully discipline the children on her own. Her job is to uphold the authority of the father and to care for and comfort the children. As a "mommy," she tends to be overly soft-hearted and might well coddle or spoil the child. The father must make sure this does not happen, lest the children become weak and dependent.

    Competition is necessary for discipline. Children are to become self-reliant through discipline and the pursuit of self-interest. Those who succeed as adults are the good (moral) people and parents are not to "meddle" in their lives. Those children who remain dependent—who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant—undergo further discipline or are turned out to face the discipline of the outside world.

    When everyone is acting morally and responsibly, seeking their own self-interest in a self-disciplined fashion, everyone benefits. Thus, instilling morality and discipline in your children is also acting for the good of society as a whole.

    In Strict Morality, the Strict Father is the Moral Authority, determining right from wrong, and protecting the family from a world that is chaotic and threatening. Evil is a major force in the world that must be fought using Moral Strength, which has the highest moral priority. Evil is both external and internal. Internal evil is fought with self-discipline and self-denial to achieve "self-control." "Weakness," and the tolerance of it, is immoral since it implies being unable to stand up to evil. Punishment is required to balance the moral books: If you do wrong, you must suffer a negative consequence.

    Competition is necessary for a moral world; without it, people would not have to develop discipline and so would not become moral beings. Worldly success is an indicator of sufficient moral strength; lack of success suggests lack of sufficient discipline. Dependency is immoral. The undisciplined will be weak and poor, and deservedly so.

    Strict Father Morality demonstrates a natural Moral Order: Those who are moral should be in power. The Moral Order legitimizes traditional power relations as being natural, determining a hierarchy of Moral Authority: God above Man; Man above Nature; Adults above Children; Western Culture above Non-western Culture; America above other nations. (There are other traditional aspects of the Moral Order that are less accepted than they used to be: Straights above Gays; Christians above non-Christians; Men above Women; White above Non-whites.)

    Since to participate in the promotion or preservation of immorality is itself immoral, it is a moral requirement to eradicate immorality—through "tough love" if possible but through punishment if necessary—in every aspect of life, both public and private, domestic and foreign.

    And right there is where I stopped, thought about the two models and how they might be applied to the world around us, and reached two conclusions:

    1. The Nurturant Parent Worldview fits my worldview almost perfectly. I accept some tenets of the Strict Father Model, but not many.

    2. For the first time in my entire life, I had a framework to understand how conservatives think. I have never, ever been able to come up with a way to reach the conclusions they do, support the goals they do because I could never rationally understand how the conservative thinks. Taking this abstract model and applying it to specific policies and goals, I suddenly started to understand how and why conservatives think they way they think.

    I still think conservatives are fucked up though. I just better understand how they get fucked up and the specific train of thoughts that fucks them up.

    Here is my offer: anyone who wants George Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant, email me via the link in the sidebar or put it in the comments and as money allows, I will purchase you a copy of the book and send it your way. As money allows means it might take a little while. Yes, I think this book is that important.