Thursday, June 30, 2005

don't think of an elephant!

I Have been reading George Lakoff's don't think of an elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate this week. He takes a look, from the perspective of a cognitive scientist, at the recent discussion of the influence of values on voter's choices and how the whole values debate has been hi-jacked by the Right. He says Progressives have so far been befuddled by this because they do not see how their agenda follows with perfect logic from their unconscious value system and because of that they have allowed the Conservatives, who long ago developed perfect clarity about the relationship between their agenda and their own value system, frame the debate. This has put the Progressives on the defensive so that they tend to respond inside the frame provided by the Conservatives. But, as Lakoff points out, this serves to activate the Conservative frame inside the minds of the moderates where the swing votes are and confirm the frame in the minds of the Conservative base. Because when anyone is told, 'Don't think of an elephant.,' envisioning an elephant is unavoidable.

According to Lakoff, both the Progressive and Conservative value systems derive from a family metaphor for the nation; each having distinct assumptions. The Conservative's hold to a strict father worldview in which the world is a dangerous place and the father must protect the family by enforcing order; children are born bad and must be made good with discipline AKA punishment for wrongdoing and reward for correct behavior until they internalize that into self-discipline; the father commands and the family complies. The Progressives adhere to a gender neutral, nurturing parent model in which the world can be improved and we are responsible for applying ourselves to that goal; children are born good (or at least innocent) and can be encouraged to develop their goodness by a nurturing environment; parents are responsible to raise their children to maturity into happy, fulfilled, responsible, empathetic and nurturing individuals who desire and work for the happiness and fulfillment of others as assiduously as their own; parents and children communicate their expectations to each other and negotiate (age appropriately) for win-win scenarios. The values implied by the Progressive model are freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and fairness; open and honest two-way communication which promotes trust; community-building, community-service and cooperation in a community which nurtures its members.

Lakoff advises Progressives to stop trying to argue against the Conservative platform and to start promoting the nurturing family model, claiming without apology all the implied values and re-framing all of their issues and program recommendations with language consciously drawn from this worldview. But to do this they will have to rethink the way they finance their institutions. Currently it is in dribs and drabs (in the thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands but seldom in the millions) and the grants are contingent on immediate, measurable results defined in terms of the numbers of individuals helped. Lakoff recommends adding very large block grants with no strings attached. With such grants the Progressives can establish institutions that nurture their future thinkers. He stresses that this is important because learning how to frame their message effectively is a science that needs careful research to support it and teachers to train the next generation. Those researchers and teachers and students need to be supported while they do this work. Thus, Progressives need to start subsidizing think-tanks; the college education, internships, fellowships and professorships of promising individuals; and print, TV, radio and internet media outlets as the Right has been doing for thirty years!
Besides developing the message and training the message developers and teachers, they also need to train media savvy individuals to help get that message out there and keep it in the forefront of the dialog--to be the writers of books and articles for the layman, the media commentators, experts who get quoted on and off camera, political speech writers, producers of documentaries and movies, radio and TV talk-show hosts, journalists who do not see reporting as value-free, he said/she said stenography. Concomitant to this would be the development and support of media networks to replace those that have been co-opted by Conservatives and the corporate sector. (Some of these suggestions here I have added to those of Lakoff's. Can I help that I am a natural extrapolator?)

Lakoff identifies six types of progressives and their distinct modes of thought. He shows how they are all rooted in the same overall frame. He advises progressives to identify their type and learn how it is just a special case of a more general set of values and in that way learn empathy for the other types and reach out to one another to unify efforts. Here is the six types quoted verbatim from page 14:

1. Socioeconomic progressives think that everything is a matter of money and class and that all solutions are ultimately economic and social class solutions.
2. Identity politics progressives say it is time for their oppressed group to get its share now.
3. Environmentalists think in terms of sustainability of the earth, the sacredness of the earth, and the protection of native peoples
4. Civil liberties progressives want to maintain freedoms against threats to freedom.
5. Spiritual progressives have a nurturing form of religion or spirituality, their spiritual experience has to do with their connection to other people and the world, and heir spiritual practice has to do with service to other people and to their community. Spiritual progressives span the full range from Catholics and Protestants to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Goddess worshippers, and pagan members of Wicca.
6. Antiauthoritarians say there are all sorts of illegitimate forms of authority out there and we have to fight them, whether they are big corporations or anyone else.


After defining these six types, Lakoff encourages all Progressives, as individuals and organizations, to ascertain the one they most identify with and then to look for the frame (the theme, the values and worldview held in common) that underpins them all. And then to learn empathy for the other types, to open lines of communication between them and begin cooperative efforts to reframe their messages and implement their agendas.

I was amazed to find that the only one of the six that I do not identify with at all is the second one, Identity politics, though I did dabble in the concepts when in the process of extricating myself from the fundamentalist religion I was raised . But I was made uncomfortable by an ideology that defined the rights of individuals according to their membership in some narrowly defined group. Too uncomfortably close to what I had just left behind. I saw the solution as defining all individuals as having certain rights by virtue only of being born (as in the Declaration of Independence) and that whenever and for whatever reason (due to prejudice, politics, poverty, violence, disability, illness, etc) obstacles were purposefully or inadvertently set in their path, it is the responsibility of the community to rectify it in some manner that does not assign preference to individuals as defined by exclusive characteristics. But it is the responsibility of the individuals who feel slighted or deprived to see their membership in the overall community as primary and seek to serve that community as well as be served by it. Because the Progressive value system requires that service in community be reciprocal. An expansion of the concept of the commons would go a long way towards solving this conundrum. Consider the fact that the healthcare industry, from research to the education of doctors and the financial support of hospitals, is heavily subsidized by taxpayers and then wonder how the exclusion of anybody in the community can be justified. That is just one example. I can think of numerous others in the areas of education, housing, labor, transportation, energy etc. But I digress. Sort of. The point is that a community that values nurturing its members would be shamed to see anyone abused by the system for any reason.

Thirty years of personal experience with significant poverty (the last four of which I have been systematically educating myself in economic and political philosophy) made me sensitive to the economic and class issues but I never did fall into the trap of thinking these concepts were the exclusive possessors of the only ideas or solutions that matter. For one thing it sends a shiver up my spine to think that all of the meaning in life can be accounted for on some kind of balance sheet or that the worth of individuals can be conflated with the worth of the property or power they have accumulated.

I was introduced to Environmentalism when I did a science project in seventh grade in which I extracted water samples from a number of place on the stretch of the Columbia river that passed by my home town, Longview, Washington and put them under a microscope. There was a lumber mill, a paper mill and an aluminum plant and a shipping port on that stretch. This was also the time in which the debate about and then the construction of the Trojan nuclear plant across the river on the Oregon side took place. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I witnessed the consequences of the clear-cutting and the winnowing of the lush forests that surrounded Longview. All of this profoundly disturbed me. But I did not learn how to apply the science to support these feelings until after I went back to school in the late eighties. Even then, I did not succumb to the fallacy of thinking these issues defined all that was wrong with the world.

As for the last three, I developed deepening affinities for all three during the difficult self-extraction from the authoritarian religious culture and ideology I was raised in. They all coalesced at once for me during the several years I was extricating my heart, mind and soul from the strictures of the scriptures as interpreted by authoritarian patriarchal elders. Learning to feel free to think for myself along with learning the skill itself was hard won and I will give my life up before I will give it up.

1 tell me a story:

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