Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Lakoff - XVIII: Lakoff vs. Lakoff

There was a curious exchange in Alternet a few weeks ago. Martha Burk, of Tom struck a glancing (and in my view gratuitous) blow at George Lakoff, somehow associating him with the Democratic Party and Al Gore's success in crafting a political platform that allowed George Bush to capture more of the women's vote than anyone's imagination could credit. It was followed by a totally ineffective defense by Lakoff himself in which he demonstrated once again the truth of the old adage, "Those who can do, those who can't teach." As a framer he is laughably bad. But as a thinker about framing he has insights we ignore at our peril. Burk is an example of the increasingly prevalent tendency to confuse Lakoff's theory of framing with his inability to practice it.

First Burk. Her critique of the Democrat's political bungling on women's issues is clearly correct but shouldn't be blamed on Lakoff. It is largely traceable to incompetence in the Kerry political campaign and the ineptness of Kerry as a candidate. Yet here is Burk's lead-in:
Lakoff, the current darling of party strategists agonizing over what went wrong in the last election, says the Dems didn’t get their ideas out in a way that fit the emotional "frames" already in people’s minds about the role of government in their lives.


Lakoff is probably right that Bush’s appeal to women and men alike was more emotional than rational.


It’s true most women don’t get up in the morning and think "I hope abortion stays legal today." More likely they get up and think, "I hope the baby sitter shows up, nobody gets sick, the car holds together one more year, the older kids don’t get shot at school, and the boss doesn’t pat me on the rear and promote the guy I trained over me." But unless the Democrats are willing to talk directly to women about those concerns -- in emotional terms, if necessary -- then "reframing" abortion won’t do the trick. And lifting "personal freedom and personal responsibility" from the Republican playbook -- as Dean is now doing -- won’t do any good either. When women get up on Election Day morning, they’ll still think about elephants.
What's wrong with this is the statement that "Lakoff is probably right that Bush’s appeal to women and men alike was more emotional than rational." I don't know if Lakoff ever said this I doubt it), but if he did, he shouldn't have, since that is not the burden of the views he espoused before he became a political consultant to losers. We have previously discussed Lakoff's contribution to political discourse (see also numerous other posts linked in left sidebar). It is based on theoretical foundations in cognitive science. Here is a the relevant part of that 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 other kinds of "inferences" not based on "facts" or logical syllogisms. Those inferences are no less rational because they are the products of neural structures and their computations, 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 the neural structures (and the rest of the body connected to them) have evolved in a direction to allow very complex inferences about the world and how to react to it, which we call conceptual systems and their visible evidence in the real world, technology and culture. Technology and culture are ways that individual neural structures can interact with other structures to further enhance species survivability.
This is a deeply materialist and (dare I say) dialectical version of cognitive science that makes room for both biology and the fact that this biology is modified by our own history and the the history we make. It rejects the notion of a "rational" and "emotional" reaction and threfore that Republicans are successful because they tap into the emotional side. Reactions are all "rational" in the sense that they constitute (largely unconscious) inferences embodied in neural structure. Starting with his book Moral Politics Lakoff stepped away slightly from his own theoretical structure and the empirical data that validated it and began to speculate on a set of political "puzzles" of which Burk's litany of why it is so "irrational" of women to vote for Republicans is a good example. Her misinterpretation of Lakoff (which unfortunately he doesn't refute) is that they were just reacting emotionally to a Republican spin machine. Lakoff instead counters with how the message can be "reframed" in ways that express his version of core moral values (vaguely and pliably related to his "nurturant parent" metaphor for the progressive world view).
The emphasis on framing and language is not a covert attempt to push women's issues that are controversial -- be it abortion or contraception -- off the progressive agenda. Quite to the contrary, it is a refusal to accept the conservative definition of the issues involved, and put forward a positive vision, based on deeply progressive values and moral perspective.
Unfortunately Lakoff's attempt at reframing is typically unconvincing (at best; you can read it for yourself here). And not really relevant to Burk's argument, except if he believes his own brochures about how his theoretical insights also make him a competent applied practitioner.

What should we take away from Lakoff's theories? The most important I believe is that the "facts" will not make you free, not because rational argument must take second place to emotional appeals or moral encouragement, but because there are many ways "rational" inference is occurs, much of it is inaccessible to conscious thinking. Unraveling this will require some real theoretical and empirical labor, which progressives have yet to do. Lakoff himself made a seminal contribution in Moral Politics, and his exposition of the Strict Father world view and how it solves the kind of puzzle Burk poses has cogency and uncanny explanatory power. But he fumbled the ball on the Nurturant Parent metaphor and has compounded the mistake by making claims it cannot sustain.

Lakoff the cognitive scientist has provided important insights with consequences for practical politics. Lakoff the practical political consultant has been a failure. It will fall to others to exploit his insights to better purpose. In the meantime, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.