Ramblings and thoughts by a Mensch or two.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Progressive values ARE American values

America is about opportunity. America is about freedom. America is about equality. All of these values are endangered species today. Why? Because a minority of those claiming that they are patriotic Americans have been framing public debate for the last 30-40 years.

George Lakoff, a professor at UC Berkeley and a fellow of the Rockridge Institute, has put together a careful analysis of what's been happening and what progressives have been doing wrong. His analysis is based on cognitive models of our belief systems, in other words how progressives and conservatives think. Every wonder why progressives have one set of values that on the surface appear unrelated, and conservatives seem to have diametrically opposed values? Why would, for example, conservatives be against abortion ("pro life") when they are also against the government providing prenatal care, postnatal care, and health care for children? If pro life were an accurate description, then you would expect conservatives to support everything that supports healthy children.

Lakoff's characterization of why the right opposes abortion is not as complimentary, at least from the point of view of someone who is progressive: Abortion is a means of birth control, a way for women to keep control of their own bodies. He posits that the core family value system that frames the policies of the right stem from a "strict father" family model. If you're a progressive reading this, you may not be familiar with the phrase, but the concepts are probably not entirely alien as much as distasteful. The prototypical strict father model assumes that:
  • The world is a dangerous place.
  • It always will be, because there is Evil out there.
  • The world is highly competitive, and there will be winners and losers.
  • There exists an absolute right and wrong.
  • Children are born bad, and must be made to be good, where good entails knowing what's right, and having the discipline to do what's right.
As a result, raising a family requires a strict father who:
  • Protects the family from a dangerous world.
  • Supports the family in a competitive world.
  • Teaches his children right from wrong.
Since following these values is the only way to succeed (according to this model), therefore:
  • If you're rich, that means that you were disciplined, and therefore good. And good people should be rewarded.
  • If you're poor, that means you weren't disciplined, and therefore you weren't good. And bad people should be punished. In this model, starting out as poor doesn't prevent you from being disciplined--and therefore if you're still poor, you deserve it.
This is paraphrased from Lakoff's book, "Don't think of an elephant!". To a progressive these ideas might seem rather extreme, antiquated, in poor taste, and, frankly, parodied. It turns out, though, that he pulled many of these ideas from another book, "Dare to Discipline," by James Dobson. While I was not familiar with the latter name myself, apparently Dobson is featured on thousands of radio stations and has sold millions of copies of his book. Physical punishment is part of this model on the theory that it will teach children not to do wrong--never mind the fact that it's not currently believed to be a good method of training.

How does this connect to abortion? Well, if you believe--as many seem to--that this strict father model is the best model to live by, then abortion, along with other forms of birth control, gives more freedom to women, with the side effect that they are not as beholden to men. As premarital sex is seen as lack of discipline, it is something that should be punished. As delaying child bearing to have a career gives women more power, it is seen as a dangerous thing. Anything that threatens the authority of the strict father is considered bad, even evil.

This is the theory underlying the way that conservatives are running the government. Why aren't we seeking consensus, why are we ignoring world opinion? Because our strict father (Bush) wouldn't be upholding his responsibilities if he didn't know right from wrong, and if he wouldn't do what he needed to protect his family. It would actually be considered wrong in that frame to ask permission: As he said in the debates and elsewhere, he doesn't feel the need to ask for a "permission slip" to defend the US. The image evoked is that of a child who must ask permission to go to the bathroom; the message is that he is the Authority, and that he is beholden to no one.

So how do progressive values stack up? Well, Lakoff describes the "nurturing parent" model as the one that progressives tend to use. To summarize Lakoff's nurturing parent model:
  • Both parents raise and nurture the children, who are seen to be born good, ready to be made better.
  • Empathy is a key value and skill, and you need to practice it to understand and fulfill the needs of your children.
  • This is hard work, and requires strength and competence.
Empathy as a value leads to a few other values:
  • Protection is important, as you empathize with your children and wouldn't want them to be hurt.
  • Fulfillment is important, as you want your children to be happy.
  • If you are unfulfilled and unhappy yourself, you won't want others to be happy, so it becomes a moral responsibility to seek fulfillment.
  • You want to teach your children to nurture, and who wants others to be happy and fulfilled.
  • Fairness is important, as you want your children to be treated fairly.
Which leads to a number of other values:
  • Freedom, since without freedom you can't seek out fulfillment.
  • Opportunity and prosperity, which are cornerstones of freedom.
  • Honest communication is required to form a bond of empathy with your children.
In this framework, the abortion issue is seen as a right: The freedom for women to live their lives as they see fit, to seek out their own fulfillment and opportunities. And the freedom of women is a well established American value, along with the complete set of progressive values.

If you haven't read and of Lakoff's books, I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of his conclusions, which include new ways to think about these models, and how to reframe the debate so that people will be able to hear our conclusions. All I've really hit on in this article is the foundations of his theory. If these concepts seem right to you, I would recommend Don't Think of an Elephant. Note that I'm not getting any commissions from these links--I'm just including them for convenience. If you want the complete analysis I would recommend Moral Politics--a much thicker though more complete book. If you just want the conclusions, the last chapter of Elephant is online: How to respond to conservatives.