Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Lakoff - XVI: public health and language

[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)]

This series began as an attempt to extract some useful ideas for public health from George Lakoff's neuroscience-inspired notions of "framing," notions that unexpectedly took the progressive political world by storm after being championed by, among others, Howard Dean. Lakoff himself seemed to relish his new role as guru and assumed almost oracular status. His election-eve book, Don't think of elephants has been described as a "dumbed-down" version of his theories and it is that, and worse, as it distorts the core of his ideas and opens him to the well-founded critiques I noted in the previous post of this series.

However the core ideas are still important for Progressives (from an earlier post):
As children of the Enlightenment, Progressives are heavily invested in rational discourse: facts, logical inference, rational decision making, consistency. In some ways we are blinded by these ideals in the sense that we do not recognize the importance of mechanisms outside that framework, which we have tended to identify with irrationality, "pure ideology," or the occult, to name a few pejorative categories. What Lakoff has done is call our attention to the fact that cognitive science suggests that we continually, but unconsciously, make "inferences" not based on "facts" or logical syllogisms. Those inferences are the products of neural structures and their computations, inferences to which we have no conscious access. They are rational in a different sense, a deeply material and biological sense. They are rational in that they express one way an organism can evolve to reproduce and survive in a changing world. In the human species neural structures (and the body connected to them) evolved to allow very complex inferences about the world and how to react to it. These are our conceptual systems and their visible evidence in the real world is technology and culture. Technology and culture are ways that individual neural structures interact with other structures to further enhance species survivability.
There is much more to it, of course (some of the main points are in the series of posts whose links are in the sidebar on the left, below the many Bird Flu links). As I have tried to emphasize in this series, Lakoff's work has a theoretical structure which he has been elaborating for many years. In Lakoff's view metaphors are embodied in neural structures and code for biologically useful unconscious "inferences" to handle common situations in the world. The argument that now seems to be emerging in the Left blogosphere partly involves the nature of those metaphors, particularly the Family metaphor (see Lindsay Beyerstein's characteristically astute view at Majikthise).

As I have noted, Lakoff doesn't claim the kind of empirical support for the Family Metaphor construction he has become so famous for, as he does for other aspects of his work. However the Strict Father metaphor (what Lindsay aptly dubs the Patriarchal Family metaphor) is an unusually cogent idea with impressive explanatory power. But in my view, the Nurturant Parent counterpart he constructs (for reasons of symmetry?) is much less persuasive, although not because the idea of nurturing isn't also a valid metaphor. As I suggested earlier, I think it has just been hitched to the wrong wagon, The Family.

Which brings me at last to Wallack and Lawrence's discussion of Public Health available at Lakoff's Rockridge Institute site. Here is their preamble:
The mission of public health—improving the health of populations—is difficult to advance in public discourse because a language to express the values animating that mission has not been adequately developed. Following on the work of Robert Bellah, Dan Beauchamp, and others, we argue that the first “language” of American culture is individualism.

A second American language of community—rooted in egalitarianism, humanitarianism, and human interconnection—serves as the first language of public health. These values resonate with many Americans but are not easily articulated. Consequently, reductionist, individualistic understandings of public health problems prevail.

Advancing the public health approach to the nation’s health challenges requires invigorating America’s second language by recognizing the human interconnection underlying the core social justice values of public health.
I think this is an excellent beginning Given the discussion roiling the blogosphere it occurs to me that progressive politics might easily be viewed as "public health writ large" and their observations might equally apply. At any rate it is a way to take Lakoff beyond what has become battle over the utility of Nurturant Parent as a "frame," a discussion I think that has played out its usefulness.

Wallack and Lawrence (W/L) assert (I believe correctly) that the language of individualism ("this country's first language") is inadequate for expressing public health concepts. They also identify a "second language" in US culture they call the language of interconnectedness: humanitarian values, interdependence and community. W/L assert that the language of interconnectedness is underdeveloped in this country. I am less sure of this but I agree that metaphors which are immediate, natural and unconscious will always trump those which have to be explained:

Egalitarianism, humanitarianism, and social responsibility—values that lie at the core of a social justice orientation to public health—often seem inadequate to respond effectively to the moral resonance of individualism. Yet in a culture preoccupied with personal responsibility and suspicious of governmental power, it is imperative for the public health profession to tap into these countervailing values in order to become more effective advocates for the public health approach to the nation’s many health challenges.

Lakoffian "framing" involves using the right language to "activate" existing unconscious metaphors. It is not "spin." Ezra Klein and others claim that in fact Nurturant Parent language activates other metaphors that associate nurturing with weakness. My own view is that the problem is that Nurturant Parent is situated on conceptual territory of individualism when we need to be on the territory of community.

There is a widely shared progressive ethic in this country and it exists alongside that of individualism. W/L claim the language to express it is relatively underdeveloped. But I would assert that it is there and public health provides some examples. Here are two.

Right to Know: For years the American business community has been trying to get rid of worker and community "right to know" laws that force companies to disclose the composition of chemicals in the workplace, the amount of pollutants emitted into air and water and a variety of other things. They have so far been unsuccessful. RTK touches a societal "core value."

The Precautionary Principle: Just what it is is hard to say, but it resonates with Mom's advice: Look before you leap; A stitch in time saves nine; Better safe than sorry. Another bogey-man of American business. They hate it. Used in many environmental battles to stop unsafe technology.

And here are some useful clichés (clichés often express core values). Some examples:

We are all in this together: Expresses the intuitive protection that community affords and the danger of loss of community (as in "Either we all hang together or we will hang separately").

No one is safe unless we are all safe: Fits perfectly with current public health concerns about emerging infectious disease (such as bird flu, the topic of many posts on this site) or climate change.

Kennedy's inaugural phrase: Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country. Unfashionable these days, but it reminds us of an era (thirties through sixties) when ideas of shared obligation were at the top of the list, not the bottom. And possibly suggests that W/L's claim that "individualism" is the "first language" of this country is not a given but is historically contingent. Conservatives have been successful in in the last 30 years of changing the ordering of core values (another point of Lakoff's), but the ordering can be changed again. But we have to find the right entries in the list.

The point of this list is not the phrases themselves, but the underlying metaphors ("core values") they activate.

The debate over Lakoff conceals another debate on the Left: to what extent is more "thinking through" of our values needed and to what extent are we clear about them but just haven't "sold" them properly. Put me in the first camp. There is hard theoretical labor to be done, labor that the Left has ignored but the Right hasn't. We have been lazy and in some cases careless or worse.

The blogosphere is becoming one of the most important tools we have ever had to work some of this out together. In 40 years active on the political Left, I have spent more time in meetings than many of my students have lived. The blogosphere is becoming one, huge asynchronous meeting room. Let's use it for this.