Friday, February 10, 2006

How People Think, Why They Think, and If There is Anything to Think About

As I discussed waaaay back at one of my very first posts, I am fascinated with theories of how people think. Personally, I am a huge fan of Lonergan and his theories on consciousness, value choices, etc. called the General Empirical Method or GEM. Fr. Lonergan’s theories are well developed, have a very interesting goal, and developments in the GEM theory are widely followed by philosophers, theologians, and scientists.

Therefore, my construction of the universe is inherently objective; reality does indeed exist separately from a viewer; that reality can be known through the senses and the use of reason; value judgments can be made based upon reality; therefore, truth is an objective reality, as are such things as morals and ethics. Where I begin to differ from Objectivists is that I am teleological; I believe there is a source of this objective reality and its moral and ethical framework. While it may be shocking, shocking!, to discover that a devout Catholic with a degree in Theology is a Thomist, please remember that I became a Catholic after agreeing with St. Thomas, not the other way around.

As you may imagine, I have issues with a great deal of Postmodern theory. I recently encountered some of the effects of some specific PoMo work, though. While cruising around that internet thingy you’ve obviously heard about, I ran into the blog Science and Politics. In particular, I ran into this post on Creationism. Now, I am no creationist and have often taken the ‘side’ of evolution in debates, so that didn’t hold a lot of interest to me. No, what caught my eye was the blog author’s contention that conservatives must think the way they do because environmental factors that have left them unable to think clearly.

The author arrives at the conclusions he does seemingly based upon the theories of a linguist name Lakoff. While Lakoff may be decent in linguistics (although as a theologian and former professional linguist I have little respect for many current professionals in linguistics) he is most famous for his theories in philosophy and cognition. His Embodied Mind Thesis is a typical Postmodern conceptualization; it rejects logic as a keystone (or even serious element) of thought and rejects the very concept of objective reality. Instead, Lakoff’s theory proposes that thought is made up of metaphorical interplay, leading to him concluding that mathematics is based upon cognitive bias (i.e., mathematics is not objective, but inherently biased) and rejecting falsifiability as a possibility, among other things.

In his book Moral Politics Lakoff purports to explain not just that Liberals and Conservatives think differently, but to explain how and why they think differently. His basic argument (and I am being brief) is that there are two main ‘frames of thought’; the Stern Father and the Nurturing Parent. Conservatives, he argues, hold the metaphor of the Stern Father, while Liberals hold the metaphor of the Nurturing Parent. The Stern Father outlook is, he argues, bad while the Nurturing Parent is good.

I assume no one is shocked to learn that Prof. Lakoff, a Berkeley professor since 1972, is very, very Liberal. Indeed, his think tank the Rockridge Institute is a very progressive institution focused on philosophical and intellectual support of Liberal causes while Lakoff himself is a bit of a celebrity advisor to the Democratic Party.

The biggest issue I have with the books Moral Politics and his other political work Don’t Think of an Elephant! is that they describe stereotypes and misconceptions of ‘generic’ Conservative thought as a monolithic whole, and then mischaracterizes the impetus behind even that broad stroke image! Let me explain.

In an interview, Lakoff associates fear with the Stern Father/Conservatives, who wish to keep the nation in fear, and joy with the Nurturing Parent/Liberals, who want to stress the positive aspects of America. Yet it is Conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush that speak of America in positive terms, Howard Dean and John Kerry that speak of it negatively; Conservatives speak of the nation becoming safer, Liberals warning that it is more and more dangerous. Either both sides are “off script” or Lakoff is wrong. Indeed, Liberals point to patriotism (a positive view of one’s own country) by Conservatives as a flaw, reveling that they consider negative feelings about the nation to be normative.

Lakoff also contends in the interview that the Strict Father/Conservative believes the world to be a dangerous place while the Nurturant Parent/Liberal believes that the world is able to be made better (he did not state what Liberals think the world to currently be in this part of the interview). Yet he admits that a primary goal of Liberals is to protect people from the ‘evils’ of the world; a bad environment, smoking, unscrupulous businessmen, etc. This contrasts with his contention that Conservatives see people as inherently bad who must be made good while Liberals think they are inherently good. Good people don’t need mandatory safety laws, do they? So why do Liberals promote them and Conservatives oppose them?

Here’s where the disconnect comes in; the core defining element of Conservative politics in the last 30 or so years has been a desire for less governmental intervention, i.e. fewer laws and regulations. There are differences in ideology, religion, etc., but Conservative political parties agree that they want the people to be trusted with decisions. Liberals, on the other hand, have called for more and more regulation; smoking bans, seat belt regulations, helmet laws, environmental laws affecting land use, etc. In short, by actions Conservatives demonstrate that they trust individuals to act in a positive/moral manner while Liberals demonstrate that they believe that individuals will act in a negative/immoral manner. Conservatives want (in broad terms) to remove strictures on behaviors while Liberals want to (again, broadly) coerce positive behavior from recalcitrant individuals who cannot be trusted.

Who seems to view people as ‘good” and who seems to view people as “bad”? Again, experience and the statements of people show Lakoff to be wrong.

Another error of Lakoff is his belief that Conservatives have a no meddling concept; that ‘grown children are to be exempt from their fathers’. He argues that the American antipathy towards governmental interference is part and parcel of this. I would argue that the American antipathy toward governmental interference is because Conservatives resent the government attempting to replace the influence of the father, even with grown children.

In a similar vein, Lakoff argues that Conservatives oppose Feminists because the Strict Father must subordinate women. This leaves him unable to explain, however, Conservative Feminists (as he admits, tacitly) and betrays a lack of comprehension of the nuances of Conservative thought.

Stunningly, he concludes that this same subordination of women is the source of Conservative opposition to abortion! Either he is unaware of the broad range of Pro-life thought or he dismisses it out of hand. Regardless, it places him in the position of being unable to explain Liberal opposition to abortion.

Implied but unacknowledged in Lakoff’s description of the difference between Conservative thought and Liberal thought is the undercurrent of independence; Conservatives, he claims, raise their children to be independent and to leave to form their own families. While I disagree with his assessment that the “Father” then has nothing to do with them, his conceptualization of the “Nurturant Parent” is interesting in one very important aspect; he explicitly admits that a) children need protection from the evils of the world, b) family is seen as community, and vice-versa, c) Moral Agents are ‘Nurturing Parents’, d) people who need help are ‘children’, e) moral ‘growth’ never ends. In short, he is arguing that, in the Liberal worldview, people who need help never grow up – and everyone needs help. Like Peter Pan, people remain co-dependent children forever in need of protection from the evils of the world. But who is to care for them? Why, the more ‘moral’, who act as parents. No one is independent, all are children.

I find this a terrifying model, especially in light of his statement that in a Liberal worldview obedience to ‘moral agents’ comes from “love and respect, not fear of punishment”. The implications are that disobedience to Liberal thought is due to a failure of love, a failure of respect, not independent thought or disagreement with the moral agent. It carries a whiff of the re-education camps of Soviet Russian and China to me. Let me give an example – if we follow Lakoff’s views of a Strict Father government, a lawbreaker is expected to pay a fine; but in his Nurturant Parent view, is a lawbreaker expected to come to love the government?

Another serious issue with Lakoff’s theory is that while he purports that the Strict Father/Nurturant Parent concepts are just that – concepts, he then makes broad generalizations and tries to use research in child development and use them as illustrations of why Conservatives are pathological. In one instance linked here, he argues that since some real-world fathers are too strict and their abused children grow up to be psychologically damaged, that means Conservatives are also psychologically damaged. This is akin to calling Conservatives ‘dinosaurs’ and then using paleontology to show that they are doomed to extinction!

As offensive as that may be, there is one thing that keeps refuting Lakoff; that pesky objective reality I mentioned earlier. His core conceit is that Liberals are failing politically because they are using the wrong words. If they could just get people to hear their real message, he argues, Liberalism would be triumphant. One of his key arguments to illustrate this is that Conservatives refer to “tax relief”. Lakoff argues at length that this is merely a framing device, a tool that makes people see taxes negatively. If Liberals use a positive framing device, he argues, people wouldn’t support reductions in taxes.

Unfortunately for him and the Liberal politicians he advises, he’s wrong. People don’t like taxes, regardless of the wording. A number of polls indicate that people do, indeed, understand the Liberal political message – they just don’t like it. More critically, intelligent people realize that underneath the fancy rhetoric this is that same old Liberal argument; “If you really understood the issues, you’d think just like me”, with the implication that disagreement with Liberal ideas is based in ignorance or stupidity, or mere churlishness.

Lakoff’s Strict Father model indicates that Conservative thought equates worldly success with moral strength/authority. Yet this is a total contradiction to the theological anthropology of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is a hierarchcal religious institution led by men that focuses on moral authority, self-denial, etc. In short, it is almost certainly what Lakoff was thinking of during many of his formulations of Embodied Mind Theory. And I doubt anyone would argue against the idea that the Catholic Church is both Conservative and ideologically influential.

Yet Catholic Theology explicitly rejects the concept of material success having any correlation to moral authority. Also, Lakoff argues that Conservatives reject the unsuccessful as ‘unworthy’; this does not explain the fact that 4 of the 5 largest charities in the US are religious charities, and that two of them are explicitly Conservative. If the Strict Father model is correct, why are Conservatives so darn willing to give to the unsuccessful? And, again, why aren’t the largest charities Liberal ones, if they are inherently more ‘nurturing’?

One thing I find fascinating in the internal inconsistency of many of Lakoff’s supporters. For example, this writer, a staunch supporter of Lakoff, argues in the linked article that Conservatives need tightly-knit communities in order to be/remain conservatives. Yet Lakoff argues that communities of such a nature are a natural outgrowth of Liberal/Nurturant Parent conceptualization. So which is it? Do Liberals live in tight-knit communities of mutual support, or do Conservatives?

In the same piece, Bora argues that as time goes on more and more people will attend college and avoid fear-induced clinging to ‘cults’, resulting in a rational, sane world. In addition to the insulting narcissism he displays (the implication that Conservatives are uneducated or, if educated, in the grips of a ‘cult’), Bora seems to forget that Lakoff argues that no one is rational; Bora himself is, in Embodied Mind Theory, incapable of being objectively rational because Lakoff contends there is no such thing; we are all within our ‘frames’ and unable to move beyond them. Either Bora does not understand Lakoff, or he has neglected that part in favor of his own opinions.

Which begs the question; if everyone is trapped within their own frame, how did Lakoff realize that and write a book? And what good will the book and his many lectures, etc. accomplish if we are, indeed, bound about by our particular frame? More to the point, in the absence of objective reality, how can he demonstrate he is correct? If he can, does that prove him wrong? If he can’t, should we care? Lakoff’s arguments are the same tired old saw – ‘Liberals are right, Conservatives are wrong. But those poor, benighted Conservatives are sooooooo [ignorant/stupid/selfish/trapped/evil] to realize how barbaric they are’.

Similarly, Lakoff argues that Conservatives don’t present facts or arguments, they sow fear and confusion; this induces people into the Strict Father paradigm (how? Beats me!) and causes them to become unthinking Conservatives. I wonder what all of those Conservative think tanks and policy wonks and all those position papers and economic analyses are for, then? Yet Liberals think Conservatives are condescending?

G. K Chesterton once wrote of Aristotlean/Thomistic philosophy that he liked it because in it “…an egg is an egg…”, meaning that there was no need for an elaborate mental framework to describe simple reality. What Lakoff has done is take the fact that people look at the world and come to different conclusions and decided that this means there is no objective world and no rational thought. Instead, he posits an elaborate mental framework that forces us into specific thought patterns and prevents us from using or understanding language in ways foreign to that framework.

Likewise, the reason that Liberals are losing elections is probably not that most people don’t understand Liberal positions, it’s that most people don’t agree with Liberal positions. Or, in many cases, they do agree with many Liberal positions and many Conservative ones, but vote and act based upon positions they see as key to their own lives.

Liberals continue to cling to the belief that they alone are logical, that they alone are rational, and if the rest of us were to just ‘get it’, everyone would agree with them. They do not see this as patronizing, or insulting, or even horribly egotistical. They just keep wondering why they have less and less influence on public discourse.

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