…the left’s current foundering not just to a failure of strategy but to a failure of self-knowledge.
–Laura Miller on George Lakoff, “Freedom’s not just another word” [Salon pass required]
In George Lakoff’s latest book, Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea, he calls for the progressives, the left, i.e. the Democrats to use language to reclaim the linguistic and metaphorical framework of the concept of freedom back from the conservative right.
Miller’s opening paragraph really drives the point home: the laughter of Jon Stewart’s audience as clip after clip of Republican robots saying the same phrase rolls by. But if that phrase is defining, or even co-opting “freedom”, it sticks. We are laughing and making associations and cognitive frameworks at the same time.
Lakoff says that there are deep and surface “frames” or frameworks of understanding we all have, like a container within which basic concepts are stored and agreed upon, beyond the personal level where metaphor helps us to conceptualize, internalize and understand even the most basic of concepts (see his book The Metaphors We Live By for more on this).
The frame of freedom, he argues, is the metaphor of the family. The conservatives? Well, that’s definitely “Daddy knows best” (and Daddy leads, and Daddy has the money, and Daddy sets the rules, and Daddy is going to heaven), which he calls strict-father. This is the framework of American business–the type of governance predominant in the office. What’s insidious about this framework is that it has, as an extension, the idea that those who follow the rules are moral, and those that don’t are immoral.
Don’t like Homeland Security reading your email or listening to your phone calls? Immoral! One of those people who need social assistance? Immoral! And stupid!
But there is another framework: nurturant-parent (note the genderless referent as well). More like “Parent will guide, lead, help and support”, this framework is the dominant one in the hearts and households of America. Morality here is a lot more about being a good guide, help, supporter, and so on.
So, rather going all the way to that filthy “socialism”, the American progressive need only look to a definition of freedom embedded in the households of America to reach a deeply entrenched framework of understanding–and one that provides a sense of identity to them AND to the people. AND one that allows for the American version of social assistance, and care, and respect for the community, and the moral responsibility for the “haves” to give back.
If you are thinking that simply TALKING about this stuff, consciously articulating a framework and making that part of the gameplan is, well, lame, you should check out of some of Lakoff’s work.
I studied his work on metaphor many moons ago (see–you have a concept of time via that metaphor), and it stuck with me. We are creatures of language. Otherwise, we are basically chimps (or chumps, as the case may be). If only one framework is being consistently messaged and built and done so with conviction, then even if it does not resonate with how we act, we will “believe” it.
Hey you progressives, Democrats: start talking!