Saturday, September 25, 2004

The Dangers of Poorly Chosen Metaphor

One of the reasons I worry about the popularity of the Lakoff thing, or, to be more precise, the popularity of Lakoff's framing idea as it has actually been taken up, is that it seems to be encouraging pseudo-progressives. (I will discuss why I call them 'pseudo-progressives' in a moment.) But I also dislike the fact that it is shot through with false metaphor. (Yes, metaphors can be false, because they can be true.) An example of this is found in the undeniable clumsiness (at the most lenient reasonable assessment) of Lakoff's 'strict father/nurturant parent' metaphor which are supposed to be models for understanding conservative and progressive worldviews. But the metaphors are objectionable on almost every side. In The American Prospect article, Lakoff says of conservatives:

When this view is translated into politics, the government becomes the strict father whose job for the country is to support (maximize overall wealth) and protect (maximize military and political strength). The citizens are children of two kinds: the mature, disciplined, self-reliant ones who should not be meddled with and the whining, undisciplined, dependent ones who should never be coddled.


First, in what strict-father family is the mature, disciplined, self-reliant child never meddled with? But putting aside that small matter: as I said in a comment to a post below, no conservative who believes in small government will allow the government to be a father of any sort. A small government conservative will insist, forcefully, that this is precisely the whole problem with big government politics, and something inconsistent with a small government view of the world. You can't have both a strict father as Lakoff paints him and have a non-dictatorial father. For the strict father model, Lakoff insists, disobedience must be punished, the child's duty is to obey, the strict father controls the women. The strict father model is a dictatorship. But this means there are a vast number of conservatives to whom the strict father model could not conceivably be applied.

The 'nurturant parent' metaphor is possibly better; although there are perhaps many progressives who will also quite consistently reject the notion that any parental metaphor should be applied to the government at all. It is better, however, because it is utterly amorphous. When he talks about the 'strict father' metaphor in the article above, Lakoff gives us a vivid picture. When he talks about 'nurturant parent', the best he can do is say:

It is assumed that the world should be a nurturant place. The job of parents is to nurture their children and raise their children to be nurturers.

Lovely, and very vague. It isn't surprising that many people who consider themselves progressives recoil from the metaphor as exactly what they don't need: yet another reason to think that progressives are vaguely mushy and gooily vague. It's a bit like people who say, "All you need is love": true, and not helpful for understanding anything. Likewise with the 'nurturant parent' model. Again, these metaphors are supposed to be models for understanding the respective positions; but they are very poor at that. And when Lakoff goes on to describe what he thinks follows from the 'nurturant parent' metaphor we realize that he honestly thinks that absolutely everything good does. In discussing the 'strict father' metaphor he gives us an abusive and omnipotent government; in the 'nurturant parent' metaphor he gives us a perfect and infallible government. And it is not surprising if there are people on both sides who will say, "Wait a minute; we aren't trying for a government that's any of these things." There is, indeed, something disturbingly psychoanalytic about these 'models for understanding' progressives and conservatives; it is as if Lakoff is trying to put people on the couch:

CONSERVATIVE: I advocate small government.

LAKOFFIAN PSYCHOANALYST: Ah, you see government as a strict father.

CONSERVATIVE: No, most certainly not.

LAKOFFIAN PSYCHOANALYST: But of course you do; you think people are born bad and need to be made good by obedience.

CONSERVATIVE: How could I possibly do that while believing in small government? To be sure, some of my friends hold that people are born with a tendency to sin; but they still hold that people who take the trouble of trying to be reasonable are able to live in a society on their own without the government telling them what to do. I think people are born good and need mostly to be left alone by the government to develop their own potential; the only reason we need government is that we are also born imperfect.

LAKOFFIAN PSYCHOANALYST: But then you are a progressive, because you see the government as a nurturant parent....

CONSERVATIVE: No, confound you! I don't see the government as any sort of parent at all!

LAKOFFIAN PSYCHOANALYST (writing in his notebook): Subject, like most people, employs a mix of the strict-father model and the nurturant-parent model....

And it is, in fact a bad way to frame the whole discussion. Coturnix at Science and Politics argues that it is not a frame at all:

Second, some do not understand that the Lakoff's theoretical model is not a frame itself. They complain along the lines of "if we use these terms, conservatives will destroy us by painting us as effeminate". But, Lakoff does not suggest that we use the family-related terms in political rhetoric. Thinking of the nation as a family is a way to understand the psychological basis of framing, not a frame itself. Quite to the contrary, Lakoff suggests in several articles that progressives should use the frames that project strength, masculinity and uprightness, as well as to paint conservatives as cowards, sissies and "girlie-men".

I am unconvinced. Framing is, according to Lakoff himself, ubiquitous. It is not something you turn off and on, as if you could say, "Now I am framing, now I am not." You are always doing it. Lakoff, in constructing his 'models' is framing. People reading Lakoff who talk about how they agree with with him are framing. Progressives are already using the family-related terms in political rhetoric because Lakoff himself does so. And this is the danger of such a poorly chosen set of metaphors. Once it is out there, it is out there; and it is out there. Coturnix also wonders how 'nurturant parent' can get associated with 'nanny state'; but that's a virtual inevitability of the metaphor, with its big government and nanny-like and treating-the-people-as-children associations. This is why metaphors in these matters must be chosen carefully and trusted only when they show themselves tried-and-true; they associate on their own. If progressives can't understand this, Lakoff is certainly right about one thing: they are incompetent at framing.

In any case, my chief objection to the way framing has been taken up has nothing to do with these absurd 'models'. It is the point I highlighted in my post about framing the issue of framing. I do not know if it is a trend or just something that has been there that I did not see before, but I have recently seen a terrible number of so-called 'progressives' saying very nasty, contemptuous, haughty things about ordinary people. Let us be clear. You are not a progressive if you regularly have contempt for ordinary people, even those who disagree with you. You are not a progressive if you insult large masses of people on a regular basis with phrases like 'stupid' (nor if you regularly treat them as stupid, which is the link to the topic of this post; see the point about manipulation in my framing of framing post). A true progressivism always has a populist side: it is with respect to improving and helping actual people that progress is measured. And you can't be populist while attacking large masses of the actual people, because that is regressive. If you treat people with contempt you aren't treating their good as the standard of your progress; and that is not, I would assume, what progressivism is supposed to be about. Unless I have completely misunderstood what 'progressive' is supposed to mean?

UPDATE (9/26): You can find a sample chapter of Lakoff's book Don't Think of an Elephant here; there are some things added beyond the article noted above, but not much.

UPDATE (10/1): Looking back over Language Log's comments on Lakoff, I find that they also noted the vagueness of the 'nurturant parent' metaphor (on September 9). For other interesting posts, see here and here, where it is pointed out that Lakoff's framing is not verbal framing but idea-framing (and, in the latter, the suggestion, which I find intriguing, that framing is about rhetorical pathos).

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