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Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Political Mind

George Lakoff is an unabashed Progressive Democrat who uses his expertise in cognitive science to advise political progressives to confront Republican conservatives who have been dominating the conversation. His insights are useful and based on good science. But I would argue that the political understanding and choice is not between conservative and progressive, as he says, but between naive (or direct) realism and constructive (or mediated) realism in both camps.

Lakoff relies on the experiments and findings of many neuroscientists to demonstrate that the rational mind of the "Old Enlightenment" has in fact a huge irrational or unconscious substratum of emotions, narratives, metaphors, and frames that shape the conscious ideas that seem so self-evident. He does a great job of showing how the different narratives determine the political language and policies of both progressives and conservatives. There is the "Christian nation" narrative in tension with the "melting pot" and "indigenous ancestor" narratives. The is the "war is noble" narrative in tension with the "avoiding foreign entanglements" and "peace on earth" narratives. There is the "family farm" narrative in tension with the "industrial or corporate America" and the "working class" narratives. There is the "manifest destiny" narrative in conflict with the "colonial expansionist" and "pacification of savages" narratives.

He argues that conservatives use the "strict parent" frame demanding obedience to universal natural (not necessarily man-made) rules and up-by-the-bootstraps pedagogy. And liberals or progressives are more into the "nourishing parent" frame that provides means to people along with a pedagogy that opens options. Therefore liberals see conservatives as authoritarian, blamers of the poor, tough on mistakes, and task masters in line with a social-Darwin or Calvinist line of winner take all. And conservatives see liberals as promoters of a "nanny state," weak on crime, unable to fight enemies, and as indecisive losers aligned to losers in line with a passive Christianity or new age spirituality.

While conservatives see health-care as insurance that needs to be earned, liberals see health care as a basic protection that society should provide all citizens like protections from a foreign foe, from violent criminals, or from epidemics. One is a strict father: do it on your own, kid! One is a nourishing parent: let me help you get what you need in order to make it in the world. Each perspective engenders a different morality, one that stresses authority and righteousness, the other that stresses empathy and forgiveness.

Lakoff advises that in political conversation, we need to see the frames and narratives that are often hidden from view and use different narratives and frames. He also counsels a new consciousness or a "New Enlightenment" that recognizes the non-rational elements in perspectives and policies and avoids the 18th century rationalism of universal natural laws, self-interest as a driver of behavior, and impersonal logic.

Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) also tries to show the difference between the liberal/progressive and the libertarian/conservative by identifying six moral pillars that are wired in  the brain but stressed differently by the two camps. Here is my diagram of his thesis.

I believe that Lakoff and Haidt complement each other.

But my argument with both of them is that the crucial difference in ethics and politics is not between conservatives and progressives. Lakoff himself says that we face misunderstanding when we imagine a left-moderate-right spectrum. My own experience shows that life itself, beginning with the cell, needs to at times hold back and conserve the boundaries and at other times to open those boundaries and let in the new. In politics at the local level, e.g. organizing in the neighborhood, workplace, congregation, or classroom, the astute and experienced organizer knows when to conserve and when to progress. Saul Alinsky would always confront righteous lefties by insisting that community organizing is a conservative action because it conserves families, neighborhoods, institutions, and the earth itself.

It is often demagoguery, usually an oversimplification, and always risky to divide people into two camps.  But I will take that chance in my philosophy in dialogue with neuroscience by making the
distinction between the naive realist and constructive realist, or as we used to say in scholastic philosophy between univocal and analogical ways of knowing.

We are born naive realists. We are led by our caregivers to attend to things in the world by seeing, hearing, feeling and especially by language. We assume that what we see, everyone sees. It is just a matter of looking at things as they appear. How they appear, they are. Our first language which focuses on things through words which signify real things is the true language; and as we grow up and learn that there are other languages, we know that they are merely translations of the primordial language. A "chair" is a chair. Obvious.

But then perhaps our caregivers, our teachers, even our religious counselors point out that there are other valid ways of discovering and making our world. We learn from the inside-out other languages and cultures, different narratives for understanding the world, and many different art forms. We learn the art of interpretation and criticism. And we learn that no matter how different people talk or see or
worship, we can, to a limited extent, enter into their minds and see the world as they are seeing it. If we are liberally educated, we learn history and science and how they have developed over time. We learn that the new science progresses through changing paradigms and models. And if we are fortunate enough to learn evolutionary biology and neuroscience, we learn that there is no fixed reality out there, but a booming, bubbling mass of waves and particles of information which our brain has evolved to pattern in communication with other brains through analogies, metaphors, narratives, and models.

The main struggle in personal life and in society, I argue, is not between a conservative vs progressive mind, not between the political left and political right. I know there is a difference in that a conservative is focused on conserving institutions while progressives are focused on developing new ones, that conservatives are focused on limited spending while progressives are focused on investment to achieve fiscal responsibility, that conservatives are more focused on personal responsibility to help society and progressives on social responsibility to help individuals. These are
good tensions in a political debate.

But the most important struggle is between the naive realist univocal mind-set we are born with and the constructive realist analogical mind-set to which we must be educated.

I remember a pastor saying to his congregation that the problem with ordinary Catholics is that they have not progressed beyond the dogmas of the catechism. Theology is applying critical thinking to all the doctrines of the Church. Religious education and thinking he said does not end in Catholic grade school or Sunday school.

My Tea-Party Cousin Vinnie has little in education to question an absolutist univocal mind that cannot understand how people just don't see "the way things really are." He gets all his information and opinions from Fox News and talk radio which he considers as straight talk. He has no use for science when it does not conform to his economic doctrine or to common sense. In his eyes, true
belief and morality is under attack by the liberal elite establishment often centered in universities and government.

And my ardent socialist friend, under a faulty interpretation of Hegelian Marxism, believes that history is on "their side," that progress for all measured in economic terms is assured, and that capitalism will inevitably fall. The Revolution will culminate that fall. In the 1970s, while I was very active in the civil rights and end the War in Vietnam movements, I published an article criticizing elements of the New Left for adopting and advancing that absolutist approach

The struggle is between thoughtfulness and thoughtlessness, critical thinking and dogmatism, reflective wisdom and conventional wisdom, faith and belief, ethical behavior and utilitarian morality within both the left and the right, progressives and conservatives. There are thoughtful conservatives like John Kekes and Francis Fukuyama who rethink and refine their positions unlike those pundits
who are paid to be doctrinaire like Charles Krauthammer and Anne Coulter. There are thoughtful progressives who rethink and refine their positions like Robert Reich and Jonathan Haidt unlike pundits that reflect a more doctrinaire liberalism like Bill Maher and Rachel Maddow.

Evil is not either conservative or progressive as so many of those strident appeals for money say. But evil often stems from the failure to learn and grow in wisdom as defined by Socrates as an examined life and knowing that we do not know with certainty. Racist Klansmen, anti-Catholic know-nothings, intolerant religionists, haters of those who are different, uncritical dogmatists, macho militarists, despisers of the weak, so-called terrorists or freedom fighters, violent revolutionaries, proletariat dictatorships, true believers, namers and blamers, these are representatives of an evil mind and behavior. As parents and as a society we have a responsibility to assist them and each other to grow up.

Whether they are personally responsible or not, the immature and destructive behavior of naïve realist
pundits and politicians must be confronted. And for earth's sake don't vote for them.

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