Wednesday, 27 July 2016
I have read two major books by George Lakoff and several of his articles. He is a sharp analyst of political discourse when he sticks to linguistics. When he goes big in metaphysics (Philosophy in the Flesh, 1999) and in the recent Alternet piece, "Understanding Trump," not so great. His "family metaphor" for America's political culture is mostly useless.
If Trump's supporters were all 8 or 9 years old, Lakoff would be spot on. Almost no one past that age thinks of their culture in terms of "strict father" or "nurturant parent." But Lakoff thinks all Americans do.
"We tend to understand the nation metaphorically in family terms …."
"We" apparently means "all of us," that is, all adult Americans of voting age. All of us (Canadians, too, probably), consciously or unconsciously think of the nation as a kind of large family. That's nonsense. As they develop from infancy to adulthood, individuals become members of other social collectives - peer groups, sports teams, military units, college fraternities/sororities, corporations, charitable organizations, etc. - which no one thinks of as extended family groupings. This fact calls for different sorts of cultural categories. Tribe, kingdom, empire, and nation are available. Just as 'organism' is not a good metaphor for society in general, 'family' is a bad metaphor for culture in general.
"The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The nurturant parent family (progressive) and the strict father family (conservative)."
"Most readily understood," sure, because pitched at the mentality of a 10-year old. Far too simplistic for a political theory. Do family systems fall neatly into two simple categories, nurturant parent and strict father? What about strict mother? Indifferent parent? Abusive parent? Permissive parent? Same sex parent? Atheist parent? Multiple agnostic parents? All right, give Lakoff a pass on that. More to the point is his classification of voters: conservatives and progressives. Are they all coming from the Family System perspective?
There are many different kinds conservatives and progressives. Take conservatives: this website lists 7. Throw in Libertarianism for an 8th. It's ridiculous to think that all those varieties can be lumped together into a single moral worldview governed by the family metaphor. There is one group that does seem to fit the description. Lakoff again:
"Evangelical Christianity is centered around family life. Hence, there are organizations like Focus on the Family and constant reference to “family values,” which are taken to be evangelical strict father values. In strict father morality, it is the father who controls sexuality and reproduction. Where the church has political control, there are laws that require parental and spousal notification in the case of proposed abortions."
Ok, give him the white Evangelicals, even though Trump himself is not particularly religious. However, Lakoff seems to realize that his metaphoric vessel cannot contain all the wine in the cellar of contemporary conservatism:
"There is a certain amount of wiggle room in the strict father worldview and there are important variations. A major split is among 1) white evangelical Christians; 2) laissez-fair free-market conservatives; and 3) pragmatic conservatives who are not bound by evangelical beliefs."
Indeed. So much wiggle room, in fact, that only the first of his three "variations" is a plausible exemplar of the Family System Theory, as we have seen. The other two whom he labels "pragmatic conservatives" and "laissez-faire free marketeers" don't fit the mold at all. Those are not insignificant groups of conservatives. They number in the millions, and none of them are operating from the pre-rational metaphors of God the Father, family system, or family values. They are rationalists through and through. Think Michael Bloomberg and the Koch Brothers. Carly Fiorina and Condoleeza Rice. Their donation dollars support candidates whose values are power and money and whose loyalties lie with the 1%, not with 'the people' or, rather, 'the children' in the Family System metaphor.
So two of Lakoff's 'wiggler' groups do not operate from the strict father worldview. There is a fourth group he might have mentioned: the now fabled Angry White Male class. These include traditional rednecks, second amendment fanatics, Reagan democrats, and hordes of newly unemployed mine and factory workers who feel betrayed by Republican and Democratic leaders alike. Strict Father is not what these guys have in mind for their vote. They are clamoring for something like a Warrior Hero or Avenging Chieftain on the order of Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan. Trump is their fantasy Achilles at the walls of Troy gearing up to smite their enemies.
In light of so many 'wigglers,' just how useful is the Family System Theory as a descriptor of the worldview conservatives are supposed to share? Nor are conservative outliers the only groups that won't march obediently under Lakoff's Family System umbrella. Next up - progressives.
Wait, what about liberals? Lakoff doesn't bother to distinguish between these. Liberals might protest, but since neither liberals nor progressives are using the Family System map, we can cooperate with Lakoff for the sake of this discussion.
Progressives will justly ask, "What do you mean by 'nurturant parent family'?" Lakoff doesn't say much about this here, but he does describe the nurturant parent model as the opposite of the strict-father family - basically, not governed by a fearsome boss-dad. The nurturant parent family, in Lakoff's view, is not a dominator hierarchy, but it is a hierarchy nonetheless, a benign one headed up by a loving parent instead of a boss parent.
Whatever that means in the details, progressives would reject the entire premise. A progressive democracy, for them, does not consist of nurturing governors and childlike citizens. Citizens of voting age, with important exceptions, are considered by progressives to be competent adults equal in dignity and rights to their elected representatives and capable of working out their own morality by means of rational thought and dialogue, not by taking direction from any kind of parent-figure, whether strict (the boss) or nurturant (the nanny).
I have argued that Lakoff's Family System Theory is too narrow to encompass the large spectrum of political orientations in America's political landscape. People who march behind Trump's banner arrive there with a variety of metaphorical perspectives and perceive in Trump several different kinds of person: Strict Father for some, yes, but also Warrior Chief, Pragmatic CEO, Outsider Change Agent, Messiah for American Exceptionalism, etc. What does Lakoff think?
"Trump is a pragmatic conservative, par excellence. And he knows that there are a lot of Republican voters who are like him in their pragmatism."
Lakoff argues for this characterization by citing several broad policy statements that Trump has consistently repeated in his otherwise chaotic speeches: support for Social Security, standing up to Chinese trade practices, cutting taxes, reforming immigration policy, law and order, etc. Is he right? Perhaps, but the ugly campaign Trump is running looks anything but pragmatic. In any case, Trump, whether seen as pragmatic conservative or proto-fascist or loose cannon, is nobody's Family System man, and when his pragmatic pronouncements are arrayed against his bizarre and inconsistent ravings about everything and everybody he doesn't like, it is doubtful that any label can stick to him for long.
"Understanding Trump?" Good luck.