Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Lakoff - XIII: Strict Father

[Preamble: This is one of a series of posts about the relevance of the work of George Lakoff for public health. First a disclaimer. My aim here is not an explication of all of Lakoff, or where he stands in cognitive science versus analytic philosophy, or whether there is a "there, there" as Gertrude Stein once wondered about Oakland (where Lakoff is now situated at UC Berkeley). It is rather to take some elements of Lakoff's writings (and I think genuine insights), and see how they might illuminate a central problem in public health, having a Central Problem. Posts will be relatively short, as befits the medium. PF is Lakoff's book, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999). MP is Moral Politics (2002)]

Time to shove my bird flu and Taser obsessed Revere colleagues aside and return to our examination of George Lakoff's views and their relevance to public health. I noted in Lakoff XII that the Strict Father Family metaphor of politics has gained wide currency and seems to have impressive explanatory power. The details can be found at the Rockridge Institute site here. Some salient points:
The strict father's moral authority comes from his natural dominance and strength of character. His moral strength and self-discipline make him the fitting embodiment of morality, a model for his children.

[ . . . ]

Reward and punishment are moral in this scheme, not just for their own sake, but rather because they help the child succeed in a world of struggle and competition. To survive and compete, children must learn discipline and must develop strong character. Children are disciplined (punished) in order to become self-disciplined. Self-discipline and character are developed through obedience. Obedience to authority thus does not disappear when the child grows into adulthood. Being an adult means that you have become sufficiently self-disciplined so that you can be obedient to your own moral authority--that is, being able to carry out the plans you make and the commitments you undertake. (PF, p. 314).
Stated in this way it is easy to see George Bush, fascism and the cold-hearted attitude of conservative Republicans shining through. But Lakoff makes another important point: all of us, to some extent, buy into and approve of various versions of this. It is part of our culture. Thus when a black pro-football player buys his mother or grandmother a house in gratitude for the "tough love" she gave him as he was growing up in the mean streets of wherever, we nod in approval. Or when we liberal academics hold our students to strict standards of scholarship, instill notions of intellectual self-reliance and punish transgressions like cheating or plagiarism with the academic death penalty (dismissal), we are acting like the strictest of Strict Fathers. We may not transfer this to our politics, but we all understand it at some basic level. And it his further point that we need to "reframe" the discussion to make it congruent with our own liberal model of the family.

How did the Nuclear Family become the dominant political paradigm today? Lakoff doesn't say, but he implies that "Family" metaphors are somehow basic and pre-existing political models in our culture. I think this is an empirical question that awaits historical study, but I am aware that the "nuclear family" is not a historical constant, even in this country. It is clear, however, that the right wing has vigorously promoted the nuclear family as an Ideal over the last 30 years, taking one model among many and somehow elevating it to the dominant one. (Digression: Before the 1980s I do not remember hearing anything about "family values." Family values seem to have popped up at exactly a time in our history when the nuclear family and things related to it have begun to crumble. I suspect this is not an accident. Indeed, one can view the worldwide rise of Fundamentalism as a reaction to the inevitable power and force of modernization in a similar light. But this is a matter for another discussion.)

Family models acquire their power from their primary metaphor components, building blocks related to well-being and survival. Lakoff contrasts the Strict Father conservative family model with the Nurturant Parent liberal family model. What I want to ask here is whether Lakoff's "family model" metaphor for politics is suitable and appropriate for public health. I will argue next that it is not.

[Links to previous Lakoff posts on sidebar to left]