How Not To Think About How Liberals And Conservatives Think

A very good and very old friend of mine, who has retained his liberal persuasion, has been trying to get me to read George Lakoff, HOW LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES THINK. Lakoff is a linguistics professor at Berkeley. I still haven’t, but I have just read a long two part interview with him recommended by my friend that appeared here and here. I have just sent my friend the following response, which I post in the vain thought that others might be interested, and since I may not have much time to do much else today.

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I’m embarrassed to say that one of the many things on my to-do list that is still undone is reading the Lakoff book that you recommended a while ago. But I did just take a look at the interviews with him linked above. Assuming these sympathetic interviews allow Lakoff to express his views more or less fully, which they appear to do, I must confess that my appetite for reading a fuller exposition has been pretty well satisfied by reading these unappetizing (to me) appetizers.

Now the last time I was going to write something vaguely political to you I put it off until I had time to think and craft something I wouldn’t feel too bad about sending. As you know (by virtue of not receiving anything), that time never came. So I’ve vowed to say at least something about Lakoff. This is especially hard, in part because of the limitations of email. I’d feel much more comfortable discussing Lakoff et. al.with you than writing, because of matters of tone if nothing else. I’d feel much more comfortable saying something like “I think the guy’s an idiot” than I do writing it, since you seem to be impressed with him and I don’t want to imply that you’re an idiot. This would be clearer, or at least easier to convey, in person than via email.

A related problem is that I don’t have time to study this carefully enough, or to write long enough, to capture what even I think about him, or would think if I thought more. But I promised myself to say something and so, if you will keep in mind that I’m not shouting and reserve the right to modify or abandon anything that follows, here are a few off the cuff comments based only on the two TP interviews. This will be a series of often unconnected points.

• Lakoff is an unwitting (because there is no evidence here of wide reading in history or political science) imitator, even mirror image, of the long and dishonorable tradition of “explaining” abolitionists, and indeed all radicals, as psychologically unbalanced. The conservative as disciplinary father and the liberal as nurturing mother — I know he says “nurturing parent,” but this point is nothing more than the traditional observation that the Democratic party has become feminized and wants to promote a “nanny state” — is the rankest of stereotypes. Well, maybe not. When Lakoff writes:

Protection is an important value. Think of the things that nurturing parents want to protect their children from, not just crime and drugs but also cars without seat belts, tobacco, chemicals in the environment, unscrupulous businesses, namely all the things that liberals would like the government to protect citizens from.

… he gives a good definition of what a conservative would define as a nanny state.]

• Sure, many conservatives are strict moralizers and many liberals are relativist situational ethicists — most stereotypes have some basis in reality — but this one strikes me as having, at best, the very slightest of descriptive validity and absolutely no explanatory power. Does he mean to say conservatives were actually brought up under the iron heel of strict fathers? Or merely that they approve of strict fathers? But if the latter, then the point is purely circular: conservatives are conservative, or rather what Lakoff thinks of as conservative.

• As an example of how malleable such high-flying, looking at the forest not the trees stereotypes can be, it would take no effort at all to perform an ever so slight rewrite of Lakoff’s basic family psychology caricature and come out with something very much like David Riesman’s inner/other directed, with very different evaluative connotations.

• He appears to have no idea of, or interest in, real conservatives. To him, they’re all Jerry Falwell. His stereotype doesn’t even begin to fit an enormously wide range of current conservative people and thought…. I’d like to see Lakoff make sense of Camille Paglia. Or David Brooks, now at the NY Times (and popularizer of the Red vs. Blue divide in a fabulous Atlantic Monthly article). Or Andrew Sullivan. Or Eugene Volokh, an increasingly influential law prof at UCLA. Or … this is ridiculous since the list is endless.

• If I attempted to give examples of comments that strike me as inane or insulting, I’d wind up quoting most of the interviews. Let me give just one that is entertainingly silly: one of the virtues that flows easily and inexorably from the nurturing liberals’ innate sense of fairness is that they care about others, and that requires “open two-way communication,” and of course “you see that in liberals’ and conservatives’ attitudes toward government openness.” Really! I’ve actually spent a good deal of time on FOIA issues (including some litigation), and I think there is absolutely no difference whatsoever between liberal and conservative views of openness: they each want the other side to be open. Perhaps Lakoff is not familiar with Gov. Dean’s sealing his records for a record-setting length of time in order to prevent, as he said at the time, political problems later, or with Hillary’s extreme efforts to keep her health care task force proceedings private, or with Bill’s claims of executive privilege to protect discussions with and among government lawyers attempting to protect him from the consequences of what he claimed was private and not official behavior. This is just one example of Lakoff’s presentation as pure partisanship masquerading as science.

• The “openness” point is trivial. But what is not trivial is the “argument” that liberals are empathetic and “care” and that conservatives are uncaring meanies, a view that I find at once insulting and laughable. With Iraq, for examples, a good argument can be made that conservatives are much more “empathetic” with the survivors of the hundreds of thousands of corpses in the so-far-discovered mass graves than are liberals. My point is not the reverse of Lakoff’s, that liberals are evil-intending, or uncaring, bad people, but that this is a ridiculous way to discuss legitimate differences in politics, ideology, etc. The offensively strong implication here, as in all such reductionist arguments, is that people who agree with me are good and people who disagree are bad or stupid (or in need of professional treatment by empathetic caregivers).

• Lakoff generously admits — thanks for nothing, George! — that “there are many people who are honest conservatives” (implying, of course, that many or perhaps most conservatives are not honest), but even these honest ones see “deception as a reasonable thing to do.” This is a reprise of those cold warriors who argued that commies don’t believe in truth so by their own lights they do nothing wrong when they lie, cheat, or steal. Hmm. Now that I think about it, today’s post-modernists (go read Stanley Fish) pretty much say that’s how they themselves operate. And speaking of PoMos, Lakoff himself seems to belittle the notion that “there is objective truth.” But for him, liberals “frame”; conservatives deceive.

• Why do good, honest conservatives believe that deception is good? Lakoff knows:

It has to do with the idea of evil being out there in the world. That is, if you are fighting evil, you can use evil to fight evil — you can use fire to fight fire. The assumption is that, you know, if you are out there in a world against evil-doers, you may have to do some not very nice things. That is part of the conservative worldview.

This point has the potential, alas unrealized, to be interesting. I believe that conservatives do believe that evil exists in the world, but what is Lakoff saying here, actually or implicitly? That evil doesn’t exist? That liberals don’t believe evil exists? That liberals do believe evil exists but they nevertheless believe that it is never necessary “to do some not very nice things”? Dean did recently, reluctantly, admit that Saddam was “a bad man,” but I’m trying to remember if any prominent liberal has used the word “evil” other than in ridiculing Reagan’s “Evil Empire” or Bush’s “Axis of Evil.”

War is not a nice thing. Do liberals believe it is ever necessary? Lakoff certainly doesn’t say.

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  1. Sandy P. January 2, 2004 at 4:26 pm | | Reply

    Don’t be too sure about the “fathers” comment.

    I read recently in the blogosphere that maybe the 60s boomers turned out the way they did was because they hate their fathers (and mothers). They couldn’t live up to “The Greatest Generation” so they’ve spent the better part of their lives tearing down what their parents built.

    (Of course, they don’t hate the inheritances they’re going to get.)

  2. Laura January 2, 2004 at 6:45 pm | | Reply

    The problem with putting ideas, or people, into boxes labeled “conservative” or “liberal”, and then trying to explain what makes them that way, is that that discourages folks from looking at issues individually and deciding what they think about them. It also causes us to assume what other people think about issues based on their overall ideology. I think people cheat themselves and each other when they try to rely too much on overarching labels. And it keeps us from finding common ground. There are conservatives who reflexively throw a fit when the term “gun control” is mentioned; well, if you deny a convicted serial killer the right to purchase and carry a gun, then that’s gun control, isn’t it? But you can’t even have a conversation with some people.

    So I’m a conservative who cares about the environment; I’ve got liberal friends who are adamantly pro-life, and so on. It’s a beatiful thing.

  3. John Rosenberg January 2, 2004 at 8:55 pm | | Reply

    Laura – I agree. “Putting people in boxes” discourages us from listening to what people actually say. If you’ve decided that someone is a conservative because of a domineering father, then the reasons that person gives for being for or against something really don’t matter. They aren’t the “real” reasons.

    The assumption/label problem is quite pervasive and quite deep-seated, however. You mention that you are “a conservative who cares about the enviornment.” But many liberals would respond that unless you support their particular favored regulations you don’t really care about the environment, no matter what you say, just as there are conservatives who would say you’re not really conservative if you don’t oppose x or y regulation.

  4. Patrick Dennis January 6, 2004 at 12:10 pm | | Reply

    An interesting exception to the oft-noted moral relativism of liberals regularly emerges when the subject of race, precisely, race in America, is discussed. People who (I often suspect) secretly believe that Osama and Saddam are simply the inevitable, guiltless offspring of western imperialism will adamantly deny the existance of any nuance of time and place when discussing our slaveholding founding fathers. (But the latter-day slave trade in Sudan? …)

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