Chairman Lakoff’s Cognitive Casuistry
George Lakoff is an impossibility. A hapless totalitarian clown of such extreme dimensions, a rational mind has to assume the possibility he isn’t real. He writes whole pages at a time in which every sentence is factually wrong in a glaringly obvious way, but it doesn’t matter because his conclusions would be absurd even if his facts came from something resembling reality. He must be joking, but he isn’t. And, best part, the Democratic Party is following his advice. Closely. The liberal establishment has found its dead end, and it teaches at Berkeley.
Excreting his latest pamphlet-depth book in partnership with one of his graduate students, Elisabeth Wehling, the alleged linguist applies a cartoon of cognitive science to show progressives how to rise to gentle power past the vicious and uncaring political right. It’s hard to see Wehling’s contribution, because Lakoff has been down precisely this very road before: progressives are animated by a “nurturant” morality, a family model in which parents are equal and the family cooperates (but parents, who serve in this metaphorical model as government officials, “have the last word because they are ultimately responsible”). Conservatives, on the other hand, organize their relationship with the world around the metaphor of the “strict father.” They don’t nurture or discuss; they dictate and punish, and twirl their waxed mustachios beneath the canopy of their silken top-hats.
The great failure of liberal politics, Lakoff and Wehling argue, is that the left has spoken with deep reverence for facts and reason, but has also allowed the right to define the frames in which political topics are discussed. Since most understanding of language occurs in buried and unconscious ways, arguing good facts with a bad frame dooms liberals to trigger conservative moral perceptions. By shifting the linguistic “framing cascades” with which they discuss politics, progressive politicians can alter the “neural logic” by which listeners process their arguments.
Abortion, for example, isn’t. When we talk about “aborting” something, Lakoff and Wehling explain, we are talking about ending an intentional effort prematurely. “What happens with an unwelcome pregnancy is nothing like this. The pregnancy was not intentional, was not planned, and there was never any intention of bringing it to an end state.” So there’s no possibility for anything to be aborted; rather, and the emphasis here is from the original, “what is desired is development prevention, keeping any development from happening.” Nor can liberals allow themselves to casually refer to the it-thing parked inside a woman’s reproductive anatomy as a “baby,” a horrifying error that adopts an “extreme conservative” frame. The object may be discussed as a blastocyst, an embryo, or a fetus. There is no such thing as a “pregnant mother,” as mother status may only be triggered when the feet clear the birth canal and the it-thing turns human; instead, liberals must teach their minds to think and speak only of a “pregnant woman.”
This whole discussion about uteruses and the clumps of cellular matter that develop inside them is a “matter of liberty, of the freedom to live your life as you want.” So the correct words for your mouth to form when discussing the development prevention of a fetus are these, and no other: “family freedom.”
Put all those phrases together, and here’s a progressive framing cascade that makes your neurons yearn for a world with a rich bounty of liberty-giving dilation and curretage: Did you hear the wonderful news? Mary fought for her family freedom by preventing the development of her fetus!
Just like that, your whole moral frame is neurologically shifted. It’s science, you see. And you can perfect your scientific thinking with practice, eradicating your old moral framework through “a lot of repetition.” The key is that good cadre work together to clean their minds and their language. “Practice creating cascades linking values to policies,” Lakoff and Wehling advise. “Do this out loud with your friends and colleagues.” Imagine the discipline it took them to omit the protocols for purification by self-criticism.
Lakoff, as always, never comes close to understanding his own ideas, and I think I’m being merciful here by leaving Wehling out of it. Since conservatives are guided by the strict father model, for example, Lakoff is sure they have “a view of the market as decider with no external authority over it.” So the embodied “market” of this book is a decider, a unitary authority, a single force that thinks and imposes, a uniform thing that rules from above. It has nothing to do with any actual “market” that any non-Berkeley professor on earth perceives to be the market, a sphere of human activity defined, especially outside the boundaries of regulatory capture and crony capitalism, by unrelenting diffusion: many competitors, new technologies, new entrants, shifting consumer interests and loyalties. In Lakoffworld, everyone cracks open an RC Cola while they gather around the family Philco to listen to the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour. The conservative point about market actors is that if you don’t hitch them to state power, they are scattered and ephemeral, and cannot form lasting forms of domination. See the strict father model at work, there?
Lakoff somehow does, and it’s just one of an endless series of suggestions that he doesn’t notice how his political targets actually think. In the pages of Lakoff’s books, conservatives occupy a single category of identity, gathered around the “strict father” like cavemen around a fire. Meanwhile, outside those pages, Rick Santorum’s lip curls as he describes Ron Paul as “disgusting,” and Paul endlessly returns the favor, and Newt Gingrich stays in a hopeless campaign because he feels compelled to destroy Mitt Romney, and Jon Huntsman dismisses Michele Bachmann as a slightly batty novelty act. In Lakoffworld, Lew Rockwell and William Kristol share a moral framework: they are both figures of the political right, and no further analysis is needed.
The most gobsmacking idea Lakoff promotes is precisely the one that the liberal establishment has identified as his most persuasive rhetorical maneuver. Because conservatives believe in “individual, not social, responsibility,” he argues, they reject the importance of public involvement. Instead, they insist upon an atomized moral world in which humans gather in a dismal private cold around such individualistic clusters as one’s “family, closest friends, or church, synagogue, or temple.” Conservatives reject the place of the Public–Lakoff capitalizes the term–and its implication of mutuality and common caretaking. The Public is one thing, found it one place: it is the state, and shared humanity is triggered only by state power. Watch closely, because this paragraph from Lakoff and Wehling will be very familiar:
“No one makes it on his or her own without the Public. No one who is wealthy has built her own roads and schools, educated his own knowledgeable employees, done her own basic research, is fully protected by his own army and police, or maintained her own food supply.”
The state makes us. You built a business? You didn’t do that. Civil society and the public sphere vanish. When you gather in a church or a charity or a civic club, you gather in private, somehow isolated from other human beings. Government isn’t there to switch on the Public. Only government can.
This is the intellectual model the liberal establishment has consciously adopted, and it is insane.
Chris Bray served as an infrantryman in the peacetime Army.