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Cognitive Linguistics is a field of study that examines the relationship between language and thinking. Experts in this field have demonstrated how carefully crafted language can even affect the way in which we conceptualize a host of subjects and issues, even our receptivity to a certain point of view.

While this might smack of pretentiousness to some, a further examination can yield insights into otherwise inexplicable behaviors observed in ideological groups and even explain how ideological differences originate.

Linguistics is often at the root of how plausible sounding concepts work their way into the accepted collective myths of a group, society or nation. I found this intriguing and wanted to know more about how people can be influenced by carefully chosen words and phrasing. That took me on a journey of sorts during which I was introduced to the work of George Lakoff.

Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, has studied Liberal and Conservative thought and related symbolism, suggesting that an important part of our American mythology is an extrapolation of two distinct family models each with their own collection of morality metaphors. He has identified two vastly sets of metaphors for morality that apply to each model and which guide conservative and liberal thought.

Conservative thought arises from what he calls the "Strict Father Family" model. There are certain assumptions inherent in this model:


The world is a dangerous place

It is the father's responsibility to support and protect the family

by being obedient to the father we learn self-discipline

success is the reward for acting within this moral system so moral rewards given to those who have not earned them is immoral

Associated metaphors for this model are:


Moral Strength

Moral Authority

Resentment towards Illegitimate Moral Authority


Moral Order



Moral Purity

Moral Self-Interest


The most striking parts of his analysis describe how wealth is the equivalent of success and therefore morality. Those of differing political persuasions seem divided as to whether this world view is flawed when manifest in ideologies that allow traditional concepts of community to fall between the cracks.

This line of reasoning can be followed further. If people are moral, in a sense the euphemism for success and wealth, then they have what they deserve. The concept of anything given to others who did not get it themselves is immoral. A corollary is that anything held in public trust by those who did not earn it themselves is immoral. Consider the push to privatize entities once held in public trust such as National Parks. The risk is that this would add yet another degree of separation on influence from the voting public and one might reasonably suspect whether this self-enrichment is in all cases moral. It is as profound a question as whether there should be anything at all held in public trust for the use of all citizens.

Christians in power who internalize these metaphors might favor faith-based initiatives such as the ones by which Bush has managed to channel 2 billion dollars of taxpayer money into primarily Christian churches, eschewing any non-discriminatory requirements that might ensure equal distribution of taxpayer dollars, an actual legality when it comes to government programs. It is almost as if delegating the administration of programs to Christian organizations provides a degree of separation that circumvents certain legalities that government must abide by. To date, the result has been that recipients of benefits which had formerly been administered by government we now almost exclusively administered outside of government, away from public scrutiny. In many cases there was no infrastructure in place to ensure that funds were used for designated purposes. Glowing anecdotes of successful works by churches using the taxpayer dollars revealed that the determination of success had merely been made by an informal phone call to the church to ask them whether they were successful or not. I'll leave it to you to guess what the answer was.

It is not surprising that when these metaphors are carried to their logical extremes it borders on elitism. From these metaphors follow many potentially self-serving conclusions such as "I have more therefore I am better" or "He has less therefore he does not deserve to hold public office whereas I do." It is also easy to understand how an outgrowth of the underlying myth might be a tendency to reward the rich and punish the poor without any consideration for how a chain is as strong as its weakest link. There is no prescription that might arise out of these metaphors for providing opportunities for poverty-stricken locales or segments of our society.

When such an implicit schedule of morality is applied to groups it collides the sensibilities of many since it becomes easy to conclude that "all those people" have nothing because they are undeserving and they are undeserving because they have nothing. Clearly, someone with significant emotional investment in such a belief system might be less inclined to support any social programs having the goal of creating opportunities "where needed most".

The personal experience that some have of this equation for determining who is and who is not deserving engenders a litany of criticism from the left is often deemed faulty on several counts:


Resistance towards investment in inner city and impoverished locales has even denied those needing help programs that were not simply handouts and that would require effort by the recipient

Poverty and ignorance are inherited and a community without an abundant supply of ladders cannot very well blame children for not climbing them if they cannot find a single one

Many conservatives call themselves Christian yet seem to internalize the metaphors of the "Strict Father Family" model yet see no contradiction with the most basic messages of Christ regarding charity and the poor. Evidently, for some Christians "Strict Father Family" metaphors trump Jesus

When moral imperative in one area supersedes it in another (i.e. the end justifies the means) there is corruption.

The coupling of any conservative ideology that internalizes these metaphors either consciously or unconsciously when coupled with religious fundamentalism can create a dangerous mix. Consider a world of uncompromising black and white demanding unquestioning obedience to a leader. Moral absolutism used by an individual in service or affirmation of their own position authority does not exactly suggest that leadership has to be earned if those who disagree can simply be labeled as being immoral. To me that is a dangerous mix among a long list of things that should not be mixed like alcohol and barbiturates, gasoline and matches etc. etc.

Lakoff delves into each metaphor in depth. In my experience, once one starts looking for examples, the evidence of how these metaphors have become ingrained in our society and government become blatantly obvious. He is clear to point out that these are tendencies and generalizations, concluded as a result of extensive study of political thought patterns.

The value of Lakoff’s work seems to be that it provides the basis for understanding the basic assumptions of political discourse, not to mention that phraseology internalizing these metaphors bears a powerful attraction when directed at the appropriate group.

Clearly Liberals think they are moral and so do Conservatives. How can both be right without them having distinctly different concepts of morality? What might these concepts or morality be and how are they formed? Much of the day-to-day political discourse that we see in the media is concluded in agonizing dead ends that barely scratch the surface while truly constructive discourse reaches a point at which values can be stated and their relative priorities understood.

NEXT: "Nurturant Parent" family model from which liberal morality metaphors arise

Pat Pattillo

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The following comments are for "Metaphors of Political Thought"
by ppatt

This is a really good essay that's teeming of good points definately worth thinking about. Morality can be such a difficult issue to tackle when people put real thought into it. I look forward to reading your future works.

( Posted by: FurryNippleRing [Member] On: May 6, 2006 )

To you all. I keep polishing this but do not know how to post a revision. Would I just poost again with special instructions to replace rather than add or append?

I have another essay I'd like to do before "Nurturant Parent" called "Agreement or Truth?". Some of this started with 9-11 which brought on a deluge of questions about how ouur society concludes thinks, hysterically or rationally. We all see what is happening but what are the best teachings of history that might possibly show us a better ethos than "sink or swim". Throughout history the great minds have recognized the importance and often the competition between truth, friendship, and trust in government and society. We should never cut the unbilical cord of history since that would be very dangerous. So where is the talk about all these things now? I am concerned.

( Posted by: ppatt [Member] On: May 6, 2006 )

I too look forward to reading your future works. In some western societies corruption is rampant( especially in Europe) as is irrational hysterical thinking. Sheepishly led bunch of wimps!

( Posted by: TINKER [Member] On: May 6, 2006 )

Left out?

Interesting and well presented, but perhaps incomplete.

Is there a model describing Liberal thought?Has it a name? What are its inherent assumptions?

( Posted by: drsoos [Member] On: May 6, 2006 )

is called the nurturant parent family model of morality. I will do it after one thing I am working on now.

I began thinking about how much the entire government as an instrument of social good thing snapped into the methphors already listed. A big fear of so many is clear -- the social benefit of the unworthy. So this sort of ran up against issues of truth and agreement in government that I wanted to lay out. So after laying that ground work I thought I'd do the nurturant parent and then finally try to tie it all together citing historical examples of groups deemed unworthy which are now equal today. Those are an easy guess...

So finally, I think that a lot of this fear of the unworthy getting benefit is just something in our nature and even today without much more justification in the past.

I make no secrets about my inclinations and the ultimate conclusion that I am plugging for. While we should be able to own the extremes of this "ownership society" neglect that groups are teams and only as strong as the weakest links. While the resources directed towards the social good should reinforce work ethic and self-sufficiency, all laudable goals, we all benefit when there is community and when the lowest among us are lifted up. I believe that government should be a force for the social good or all citizens, even those who seem to need it most. At worst pockets of our society fester in squalor and ignorance. I suppose we could just say that they are not worthy and deserve no help. TO me that's a cop-out.

( Posted by: ppatt [Member] On: May 6, 2006 )

Cognitive Linguistics Comment
I think that in order to do an update, or post a revision, you have to:

1.) unpublish this posting
2.) post the revised version

In order to do this unpublishing/reposting thing, you need to use your login, then select an option that has something to do with editing, or something (I stumbled onto this while posting something myself).

I don't know if this will cause you to lose the comments you've already received or not, as I have never done this myself.

Regarding the actual essay; obviously, it's incomplete (you've still got the nurturant/liberal side to present) but it's very interesting so far.

If I understand the basic premise it's this:

We all make certain assumptions about the world, and broadly speaking, these assumptions place us into one of two categories. These assumptions (accepted as fact) also influence our opinions and our actions.

You've presented your assessment of the category that lends itself to more conservative thinking, and you've highlighted some areas that you think are flawed. Next, you'll be talking about the category that supports the more liberal point of view, and I assume (because you've confessed to a certain liberal bias) you'll show how that's a better model.

If you look at some of my postings from awhile back, when I first signed up with, you'll see that even though I'm a Rebulican, I'm also very LIBERAL in my views regarding certain issues, like the war, charity, etc... In fact, neither party (Rebublican or Democrat) has a platform that I can really support. I believe in about half of what the Democrats say, and half of what the Rebulicans stand for. I chose to go with the Rebublican Party specifically because I'd like to influence the direction of the party, and take it more toward the center (there are a WHOLE HOST of people already looking to do this in the Democratic Party; my one small voice would've been lost in the din).

I think we'd agree on A LOT of things; and with respect to the things that we don't agree on, it's probably a question of methods and not goals (you and I probably believe in REAL charity for the poor/needy, but we may differ slightly about the best way to show that charity/compassion).

At some point (if you're up to it) I'd like to explore the Cognitive Linguistics of a person such as myself; a person somewhere in the middle.

Thanks for sharing what you've already done. I look forward to reading more.


( Posted by: rajengineer [Member] On: May 6, 2006 )

for the comments. I am fiscally conservative. While I don't take the bible literally I take the charity part much more literally than do most fundamentalists. How can something so prevalent be ignored in government is the religious right is the "base" of our presidents support?

Labels are tough and even well-meaning people get swept up in the tectonic ideological shift from time to time. You use of left, right and middle remind me of that.

I used to me in the middle but then the right became so extreme (traditional fiscal conservative Republicans are shocked) that I find myself on the left or what some people are trying to redefine as the left in an effort to shift everything rightward.

I hate labels anyway. I would rather spend my time defining exactly what I mean and examining the differences between what people say they are and what they really are.

There have been so many label games played in the last 6 years I find it disgusting. The word Christian cuts such a wide swath that it is relatively meaningless without some context. If one says they are conservative or on the right that could mean anything from someone who would nuke 10 other countries in the world tomorrow and wants nothing held in public trust to a fiscal conservative who is OK with responsible social welfare.

I do believe that this entire small government thing and divestment of the public trust is very dangerous. Sure government can become bloated but whenever responsibility for something is divested a vacuum is created and something fills that vacuum. If that something has yet another degree of separation from the citizens that is bad. We aren't on any board of directors but we can go to the polling booth. Given the choice of being beholding to govenrment or nameless, faceless corporations, I choose my government for a lot of the same sorts of reasons that our founding fathers wanted something that worked for them better than a kings rule.

I am not cynical about the American people and think that we are much better off with with them in charge. I'm also not willing to have the far right label me ideologically. All my positions are centrist, if we must label. I play that game only to the extent that I am forced to do so.

Historically speaking all this privatization is most extreme and I don't think we need to recalibrate the political scales to accomodate it.

( Posted by: ppatt [Member] On: May 6, 2006 )

reply to ppatt
Ditto; and brilliantly said.

I look forward to reading more of your writing.

RAJ :-)

( Posted by: rajengineer [Member] On: May 6, 2006 )

thanks again...
I'll be pithy (not my forte). My entire motivation for writing all of this, aside from catharsis, was because two monodimensional labels are inadequate and have been used to distory, divide and conquer. The use of labels has become to ingrained and habitual that many cannot express themselves in a way that goes past the labels. I find that sad and frustrating which consequently motivate me.

( Posted by: ppatt [Member] On: May 7, 2006 )

sorry for that. I am a speed typer and always need to edit better.

Mispellers of the world untie!

( Posted by: ppatt [Member] On: May 7, 2006 )

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