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.
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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:
Resentment towards Illegitimate Moral Authority
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 Lakoffs 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