Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Framing freedom

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist whose area of research has been the way that metaphors shape thought. The central theme of his work has been that metaphors provide conceptual cognitive frames that allow us to interpret and understand facts about the world.

All of our concepts are organized into conceptual structures called "frames" (which may include images and metaphors) and all words are defined relative to those frames. Conventional frames are pretty much fixed in the neural structures of our brains. In order for a fact to be comprehended, it must fit the relevant frames. If the facts contradict the frames, the frames, being fixed in the brain, will be kept and the facts ignored.
A classic example of facts not fitting a frame would be fossils before Darwin. In the Creationist frame of natural history, the Earth and all its life was created spontaneously at once by God. Fossils of organisms that that no longer existed and had not existed in the course of recorded human history were difficult to account for in this frame, and had to be fitted to the frame (they were species eliminated in the Great Flood.) The fact that many of these fossils appeared to represent transitions between species did not fit the frame of Creation, and was thus rejected. Then Darwin came along with his theory of evolution. In the evolutionary frame of natural history, species evolved gradually from other species, a process driven by natural selection. Fossils fit this frame, and the frame made it possible to understand the fact of transitional forms.

Applying his ideas about framing to the realm of politics, Lakoff came to the conclusion that the reason "liberals" and "conservatives" see the positions of the other as illogical is because they are using different frames to evaluate the facts related to those positions. In 1996 he wrote Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, in which he argued there are two major frames of morality which dominate political culture: The Nurturant Parent Family ("liberals") and the Strict Father Family ("conservatives".) The central premise of the book is that these models provide conceptual metaphors which shape the way that people think about politics.

In American culture there are two opposed and idealized models of the family, the Nurturant Parent model and the Strict Father model. The metaphor of the Nation as a Family maps the values and relationships from those family models onto our politics, creating "liberal" and "conservative" political positions that we understand through our models of family structure.

The progressive worldview represents, metaphorically, the Nurturant Parent family model, and the conservative worldview represents the Strict Father model. The two models come with distinct moral systems that are founded on different assumptions about the world, interpret shared values such as responsibility or fairness differently, and center around different moral priorities.

In other words, our beliefs about what a family should be exert a powerful influence over our beliefs about what kind of society we should build. For instance, those with a strong Strict Father model are likely to support a more punitive welfare or foreign policy than someone with a strong Nurturant Parent model, who are likely to favor more cooperative approaches. Those with a strong Nurturant Parent model are more likely to favor social policies that ensure the well-being of people such as health care and education, whereas someone with a strong Strict Father model would object to social programs in favor of promoting self-reliance.
Lakoff followed up on this with Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate in 2004 which was basically a condensed version of Moral Politics which advised progressives that conservatives are doing a better job of communicating their values to voters and that progressives need to learn how to frame issues to better reflect their own values so that people will have the conceptual tools needed to be able to understand how progressive policy fits into the framework of progressive values.

In his latest work, Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea, Lakoff focuses specifically on the way that the concept of freedom is being reframed by "radical conservatives" in such a way that the traditionally progressive American idea of freedom is being framed out of existence. Again, the two family metaphors account for the different versions of freedom.

In the Nuturant Parent Model, freedom is achieved through the commonwealth principle in which members of society contribute as a community to build the infrastructure (public education, court system, scientific research, roads, etc) necessary to achieve liberty and equality for all members of the society. Taxation should be progressive because the wealthy use more infrastructure than the poor and because it helps provide the opportunity all citizens should have to be free.

In the Strict Father Model, freedom is achieved through individualist principles in which each individual is free from government interference to act as an individual in the market place, where the morally good are rewarded for their success and the morally bad are punished for their failure. This means freedom from progressive taxation which is viewed as punishment of those who have succeeded in the market and freedom from government regulations which inihibit moral agent's ability to compete in the marketplace.

One interesting thing that Lakoff believes is at the root of the different conceptions of freedom is the role that causation plays to freewill. Liberals tend to recognize systemic causation and how their individual actions directly contribute to systemic affects while conservatives tend to recognize direct affects while ignoring systemic causation. Since systemic causation doesn't fit into their frame, according to Lakoff, they don't see it. If you take this distinction to be true, then it might explain why liberals and conservatives seem to have opposing visions of reality.

Many questions of freedom come down to questions of causation - systemic or direct. because of the details of the strict father versus nururant parent models, radical conservatives and progressives tend to see causality - and with it, morality - in very different ways. Moral responisibility is, of course, about freedom, about the question of what you are morally free to do. Differences in perceptions of causation have everything to do with differences in judgements about freedom and hence about what is moral.

Suppose it is true that those using strict father morality tend to favor direct causation in moral decision and largely ignore systemic causality, while those with nurturant parent morality readily admit systemic causality into moral decision. What follows is a major split in our understanding of what is real - a split along moral and political lines!

It is hard to overestimate how important this is. Our understanding of causation defines what we take to be real in the world and what we take to be the consequence our our actions. Political decisions affect reality. What is disturbing is that political ideology can so deeply affect the understanding of what is real and so thoroughly hide the real consequences of so many political decisions.
Lakoff spends the majority of the book explaining how domestic and foreign policies can be framed in their relation to either the Strict Father or Nurturant Parent family metaphor. Conservatives better understand their conception of freedom and are shifting its definition:

via words and idioms, like as"death tax," "tax relief," "judicial activism," "war against terror," "liberal elites," "defending freedom," "pro-life," "tax and spend," "legislate from the bench," "cut spending" "up-or-down vote," "homosexual lifestyle" "ownership society," "cut and run," and so on. Second, via arguments such as "It's your money. You earned it. You can spend it better than the government can."
The message of the book is that those who do not like the direction the country is going need to first understand how their values relate to the conception of freedom, then learn to frame issues in terms of those values in order to communicate a positive message reflecting your own conception of freedom rather than one that just reactivates the other guys frame and legitimizes his version of freedom, keeping the range of disourse limited by his framework.

Another benefit of learning to frame issues according to your own values and being able to recognize the frames that are evoked by someone else's language and arguments which isn't explicitly addressed in the book is that it facilitates responsible civic discourse. Afterall, democratic debate isn't possible if you can't communicate with someone because you're speaking different languages.

For more on the book and the ideas within, see this blog interview, and for more on framing see the Rockridge Institute.


Alan said...

Excellent Post. Although, it always been clear that both sides of the cultural divide evaluate their facts through the lens of different biases and value structures.

I always work to see an issue from the perspective of both sides and it helps to keep me moderate, but more importantly it helps to ensure that I always put the truth (as much as one can ascertain it) ahead of idealogy or indentity politics.

Alan said...

Now if I could only see the truth in spelling: I meant "ideology" and "identity"

steeplebob said...

Great post, HG. I was not familiar with Lakoff (and I'm not at all well-read on the foundations of political thought) but I will be reading more of his work and keeping an eye on the Rockridge Institute.