George Lakoff on “Metaphor, Morality, and Politics: Why the conservatives have left the liberals in the dust”
In response to my post yesterday on psychoanalysis and the Democratic Party, and on a “politics of Being,” Abe Burmeister sent a fascinating article by George Lakoff on the metaphors underlying conservative and liberal politics. Lackoff is a well-known cognitive psychologist and professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and the author of the classic Metaphors We Live By (1980).
Lackoff emphasizes that people think largely in metaphors, and that metaphorical consistency and attractiveness is central to effectively communicating a point of view. Lakoff argues that conservatives have a very consistent set of root metaphors that animate their political views (e.g. the value of strict fathers, retribution for wrongdoing, morality as being upstanding and strong in withstanding evil, etc.)—and that conservatives are highly self-aware of this metaphorical consistency, and use it to powerful effect in communicating their point of view. Lackoff believes that liberals have a different set of root metaphors (nurturance and love, people as fundamentally good, a morality that encourages people to be happy so that they can nurture others and help others be happy), but—and this is the crucial point—that liberals are not self-aware of their metaphors and do not effectively express them in their communication. And thus conservatives are more effective communicators than liberals, and gain converts. Liberals—who have in many ways an inherently more attractive point of view—continue to lose community members and elections because they communicate in terms of issues and interest groups, and do not make clear the underlying consistency of their vision.
As someone who was educated as a cognitive psychologist, I agree generally with Lackoff about the importance of metaphors and thought. And I agree about the value of consistent and attractive metaphors in communication.
I don’t agree that a “good mothering” set of metaphors will make liberalism widely attractive. I think that in an increasingly individualistic and post-conventional society, people are turned off by parenting metaphors. By contrast, what I think is attractive is a politics based on free, happy people as the center of wisdom in society. This politics of Being emphasizes that each person has an aspect of self that is a direct expression of the highest wisdom in the universe. Community wisdom emerges out of the coming together of the wisdom of many individuals. The politics of Being is a politics of peer-to-peer relationships, bottom-up. It is not a politics of top-down, and is thus neither modeled on strict fathers nor on nurturing mothers.
Thanks, Abe, for a great referral! What this adds to the agenda is exploring in more depth the metaphors that together make up a politics of Being.