Sunday, August 16, 2009

Strict Fathers, Nurturant Parents and the Health Care Debate

In 1996, George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at Cal-Berkeley, wrote a book called Moral Politics that does a better job explaining the differences between liberals and conservatives than anything else I’ve read. His model provides a useful and illuminating way of looking at the current debate over health care, which has gotten so ridiculously out of hand.


Lakoff’s thesis, as simple as it is provocative, is that liberals and conservatives view the world according to competing metaphorical systems based on ideal family life. He calls the conservative version of the ideal family the “Strict Father” model, and the liberal the “Nurturant Parent” model. In the Strict Father model, authority and moral strength are primary, while the Nurturant Parent model values empathy and nurturance. Both family models imply moral systems, descriptions of how we should behave, and who can serve as ideal and non-ideal people – good guys and bad guys. Lakoff begins the book by describing each metaphorical/moral system independent of politics, then applies each to a broad range of issues, like taxes, abortion, social programs and gun control, to explain why each side feels the way they do. It’s a thick and ambitious book (not hard to read, though), and I’ll try to summarize the key points here before briefly applying them to the health care debate.


(It’s important to note that each system described here and by Lakoff are “pure” or extreme, meaning they usually exist on a continuum somewhere between the two poles.)


Strict Father morality asserts that a system of hierarchical authority in the family and in society is natural and morally right. Generally speaking, humans have authority over animals and nature, parents have authority over children, and in many versions God has authority over humans and men have authority over women. A system of discipline, or rewards and punishments, is necessary to uphold authority and order, without which the family and society would crumble. This includes self-discipline. For Strict Father moralists, it’s vitally important to maintain a system of rewards and punishments within society. Competition, then, is essential, and an individual’s success or failure within society’s competition defines him as moral or immoral. Here’s how Lakoff says it:


“Competition is a crucial ingredient in such a moral system. It is through competition that we discover who is moral, that is, who has been properly self-disciplined and therefore deserves success, and who is fit enough to survive and even thrive in a difficult world. Rewards given to those who have not earned them through competition are thus immoral. They violate the entire system. They remove the incentive to become self-disciplined and they remove the need for obedience to authority” (68).


It’s not hard to see where Lakoff is going with this, and his reasoning makes a lot of sense: social programs, like welfare or health care, are distasteful to Strict Father moralists because they reward people with things they haven’t earned. Competition within a capitalist society provides rewards and punishments that uphold an order that is not just preferable, not just moral, but natural. Want money or health care in our current system? Get a job! If you can’t, you probably don’t deserve them anyway.


Consequences of Strict Father morality: Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, aren’t fluid categories. They are recognizable, stable and definite. // Other moral systems aren’t just different, they’re wrong, and since they subvert the correct system they are evil and must be fought against. // Legitimate authority is bestowed by success. Obedience to legitimate authority is moral; disobedience is immoral. Illegitimate authority comes from outside the moral system and is highly resented. Generally, people who have achieved some success in the system have proven that they are their own best authorities, and attempts to override this independence should be fought against. // Business, the military, sports teams, law enforcement and religion are models of Strict Father morality and are highly respected; success in these realms bestows authority and morality, while failure suggests a severe lack of character.


Nurturant Parent morality also believes in the authority of the parent, but authority is secondary to empathy and nurturance. The primary responsibility of a parent is to care for his children and to raise them in such a way that they care for their children and for their community as a whole. Community is also primary, and is seen as a kind of ecological system in which each part plays a vital role – if a part is destroyed, something important is irrevocably lost. Because of this, hierarchical relationships are minimized. Within the family, children are given a measure of independence, such as the freedom to question parents, to discover for themselves the basis for authority, which ideally comes from natural desire and positive reinforcement, not from punishment or forced loyalty. Fairness is also primary, but in a way that contrasts from Strict Father morality. Nature and society do not distribute resources evenly – physical ability, mental capacity, money and opportunity are spread unequally within any community and throughout the world. Because of this, it is the responsibility of those with more to help those with less. And government, as a repository of resources, has the moral responsibility of providing for those who, for whatever reason, cannot provide for themselves. While it’s true that such systems of aid are never perfect and allow people who could provide for themselves to get a “free ride,” this is an unfortunate consequence and a reason for improvement, not an argument against social programs.


Consequences of Nurturant Parent morality: We build our resources and abilities so that we can provide not just for our immediate family, but for our community. Self-improvement, then, is a virtue, while laziness or a refusal to improve oneself is immoral. // Empathy means being able to see the world from another person’s point of view, which means acknowledging the truth of other viewpoints, situations, cultures . . . So while some things are inherently immoral, Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, are fluid categories that change from one community to another. Examples of Goods: social responsibility, generosity, open-mindedness, ability to communicate, cooperativeness. Examples of Evils: selfishness, closed-mindedness, lack of self-respect, insensitivity.


Liberals, who subscribe to some version of Nurturant Parent morality, not only want government to provide health care to citizens, they can’t understand why everyone wouldn’t want this. It’s health care, for Christ’s sake – something expensive, to take care of you when you’re sick, provided for free or at a lower cost. But they fail to see the moral dimensions that are so clear to conservatives, and so the very public and very angry outcries against health care come as a complete shock. As a social program provided by the government, health care violates rules of competition that are fundamental to conservative moral principles. This violation occurs primarily on two fronts: reward and punishment, and illegitimate authority. First, if we reward everyone – including illegal immigrants and the kinds of people who milk welfare even though they’re capable of providing for themselves – with the greatest benefits of free society, what incentive do they have to improve themselves? (Of course this part of the argument ignores the financial aspects of health care, but Lakoff says, and I agree, that conservatives would object to health care for everyone even if we could afford it.) Second, any instance of government imposing its will on citizens, even if it is ostensibly for citizens’ own good, is an example of illegitimate authority that erodes essential moral boundaries. Health care initiatives that require everyone to pay into the system or to participate in some way are particularly evil to Strict Father moralists.


Nurturant Parent moralists often view Strict Father arguments in financial terms, and counter with their own financial formulas: If we can find a way to spend a billion dollars every couple of weeks on a morally bankrupt and strategically useless war, we can find a way to provide health care for all our citizens. But this misses the deeper moral points that conservatives are trying to make. Military spending, for Strict Father moralists, provides protection from opposing, immoral systems in a dangerous world. And the military instills in people a sense of moral strength and respect for authority that improves society. This is money well spent. But social programs that provide services for just anyone, regardless of their accomplishments, erode the moral fiber of the nation.


In the Good vs. Evil model of Strict Father morality, Socialism is an inherently evil and immoral system that eschews competition for a particularly insidious brand of fairness, which coddles and softens and weakens. In the empathetic, relativistic Nurturant Parent model of morality, Socialism is an extreme form of governance in the same way that Capitalism is: neither can function in its pure form, each needs the other as a necessary corrective.


The people who seem angriest right now – Strict Father moralists, in Lakoff’s terms – are those of the Good vs. Evil variety. They want no part of socialism, because socialism is evil. Of course, I doubt these people would reject Medicare, or try to overturn child labor laws, or argue that the interstate highway system built by our federal government is evil. But all of these are examples of socialism acting as a necessary corrective to capitalist excess, or of the fed doing a job too big for state governments, and all can be seen as deeply moral. But liberals are not nearly as aware of the moral dimensions of their politics as are conservatives, who have a clearer understanding of the connection between their “family values” and their view of government. This is of course why they’ve been able to own the term “family values” in the first place when there is no inherent reason for this; they do not have stronger family units, or raise more productive or socially aware children than liberals. But they have succeeded in defining morality in the public mind according to a narrow set of issues related to the family, primarily abortion and gay rights. This is nonsense – morality is infinitely more complex.


If health care reform is to have any chance, its proponents need to marshal the same moral fervor being used by the other side. And it shouldn’t be difficult. If left to continue on its current path, the health care system will bankrupt the government. Fewer people will be covered, because free-market health care systems stay in business by denying coverage. The free market, effective for many things, will not alter this path on its own, nor will it find a way to cover the uninsured – it is faceless and has no conscience. It is morally wrong for government not to involve itself in this problem. This is what the federal government, with all its resources and its national reach, does. But current health care bills are being watered down by conservatives who take an ideological position against socialism in any form. They may give, or attempt to give, practical reasons for their stance, but ultimately their arguments are ideological and moral. And even worse, the watered-down bills are being demonized as evil, as comparable to Hitler’s plans for ethnic cleansing. These comparisons are ludicrous. They are immoral. And they should be fought against with the same fury with which they’re brought. Conservatives are incredibly angry right now. If liberals don’t recognize the moral dimensions of the current fight and get just as angry, we’re in for a long, frustrating and unsuccessful fight. 

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Barack Obama and the Ethics of Narrative

From the time Barack Obama introduced himself to us in his 2004 DNC speech, to his announcement of Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee to replace David Souter on the Supreme Court, he has relied heavily on narrative as a rhetorical tool – that is, he tells stories to persuade, to convince, to urge us to buy whatever he happens to be selling. Sometimes the stories are obvious and riddled with clichés. Other times they are subtle and sophisticated. Nearly always, though, they are effective. I think it’s important to look at the preferred rhetorical device of one of the world’s most influential people.


In the 04 DNC speech Obama was unapologetically selling himself (with a side order of John Kerry, in case anyone wanted him). What we remember from that speech is not that Obama didn’t yet have an office in Washington DC (he was still a state senator), or how starkly (and, to some, refreshingly) the speech contrasted with that of the Rev. Al Sharpton, but that Obama’s mom was white and his father was black, that he was raised by his mother and grandparents in Kansas and Hawaii and Indonesia, and that his grandfather fought in World War II. The story was both commonplace and remarkable, the former because it featured a kid of mixed racial heritage raised by a single mom who moved a lot, the latter because – oh shit! – he’s giving the keynote at the DNC! And he’s really good!


This common-remarkable mix was perfectly suited to the occasion because it’s the kind of American dream narrative that gets people without requiring much thought from them. In short, it’s a cliché, albeit with enough twists (the race factor being the biggest) to garner attention. And the speech itself is full of sappy, romantic images calculated for maximum effect. This isn’t to say that the speech is flawed. Far from it. Obama knew his time was limited, and clichés, despite their many shortcomings, are the liquor of the rhetorical world – they’re quicker. Here’s a passage as soaked as my Aunt Peg’s 90-proof rum cake:


“Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that shone as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before. While studying here, my father met my mother. She was born in a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas. Her father worked on oil rigs and farms through most of the Depression. The day after Pearl Harbor my grandfather signed up for duty; joined Patton’s army, marched across Europe. Back home, my grandmother raised a baby and went to work on a bomber assembly line. After the war, they studied on the G.I. Bill, bought a house thought F.H.A., and later moved west all the way to Hawaii in search of opportunity.”


This excerpt is positively Gumpian for what it chooses to include and all that it leaves out. But when you’re thinking in rhetorical terms, the primary question is, “Did it work?” Yes, it worked, and for a lot of reasons. First, it gives people something they’re already primed to hear, in a proven, tasty format. There’s nothing sophisticated about this aspect of the speech and its narratives – but they are no less effective for it. Second, it anticipates and answers the most obvious criticisms of its author: he’s inexperienced. There’s plenty that’s sophisticated about this. Generally, inexperienced politicians seeking office have to focus on the future (as Obama certainly did in his presidential campaign, with forward-oriented buzzwords like Hope and Change), but with his biography, subtly plugged-in as it is to so many important events of the past (WWII, Civil Rights movement, racial integration) Obama focused attention on his past away from governance and onto the common/remarkable nature of his story.


Some might say this is unethical, that telling stories when you should be discussing your qualifications, or the qualifications of the man actually running (Kerry) is openly deceitful. To those folks I would say that Obama, as a state senator speaking at the DNC, had very few rules he needed to abide by. In national terms, he wasn’t encumbered by the responsibilities of office. He was a rising star doing something important for his party and, of course, for himself.


But as he rose in prominence so rose his responsibility to the voting public. As a presidential candidate, Obama owed us more than he did as a state senator and DNC keynote speaker. Did he give us more, or did he continue to rely on stories we already knew? Probably the best speech to look at in this context is what Obama’s senior advisor David Axelrod called, in an article in the November 17, 2008, issue of the New Yorker, “probably the most important moment of the whole campaign,” his “A More Perfect Union” speech, also called his speech on race, delivered in response to widely aired videos of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.


Without a doubt, the politics of the tight Democratic primary required Obama to distance himself from Wright, and to render Wright in three dimensions to contrast the 2-D version being shown in YouTube clips. For doing these things, Obama scores no ethical points. But for giving us our first nuanced, mature version of race in America from a Presidential contender, he did score. The political moment in which he found (or placed, if you prefer) himself did not require honesty about American race relations, certainly not thirty minutes of it, some of which was risky stuff, as when he equated black anger with white resentment, or retold the American creation myth so that it featured deeply flawed founding fathers who, despite all their ambitions, were slaveowners. I like a good story as much as the next person, and so my ears perk up when Obama plays the storyteller, as he often does. For me, this speech marked the ethical high-point of Obama-as-raconteur. I’m afraid he’s gone downhill since.


The most recent example is his shilling of Sonia Sotomayor. I’m sure she’s a fine judge, but what we really got from Obama was her heartwarming story, bread and butter American dream stuff a la the 04 DNC keynote. Of course it’s amazing that she’s accomplished all that she has, but our President emphasized it so much that it seemed to be her principal qualification. It was all he could talk about, and this was echoed as she was introduced at her confirmation hearings, when the two senators from New York gave what were essentially two versions of her wondrous life. If there were four senators we could’ve had the gospels.


It thrills me that our current president not only speaks well but thinks well, and that he understands that we more fully understand any issue or situation by being able to tell its story. But story as rhetoric is powerful stuff, and if we don’t watch what stories we buy we might find ourselves with very questionable merchandise.  

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sarah Palin and Two Views of Language

Right now, Sarah Palin is one of the most talked-about and polarizing figures in American culture. To break it down along simplified party lines, liberals hate her and conservatives love her – or, at least, they hate/love whatever it is she represents to them. But why is she so fascinating to both sides? I think it’s because Palin, like GW before her, represents a fundamental split among Americans over language and what it means to communicate successfully.


Palin’s detractors see a woman who enters into a sentence like a spelunker who hasn’t thought to wear a headlamp, losing her way in the sense-obliterating darkness of mixed metaphors, weak analogies, and verbs with no discernable subjects. Lets call these folks the Listeners. (In the interest of full disclosure, and if it’s not clear already, I belong to this camp.) But her supporters see someone who says what she feels in the unadorned, perfectly imperfect cadences of everyday people, someone who clearly values actions over words and can therefore be trusted to do what she thinks is right and to tell us about it in a way we can understand. Let’s call these folks the Watchers. For both groups she is utterly comprehensible. Each sees a set of values reflected in her use of language, and based on that set accepts or rejects her.  


Listeners think words are important enough to be viewed on their own, apart from the person speaking them. They like transcripts. They also believe that scrutinizing words, especially the words of powerful people or people who wish to be powerful, is a civic virtue. To Listeners, Palin’s infelicities with the English language amount to an ethical failing. They hear her compare herself to a point guard passing the ball in her recent resignation speech and extend the analogy until it breaks down completely, which, it turns out, isn’t very far at all: a point guard who passes the ball stays on the court, and is around for the next play; basketball fans who go to see a professional point guard aren’t interested in watching her replacement.


The Watchers, on the other hand, aren’t worried about her verbal miscues because they know what she means. Maybe the basketball analogy isn’t perfect, but who cares? She’s saying that she’s part of a team, and is doing what she thinks is best for the team as a whole, not just for herself. The Watchers feel that Palin’s words are less important than who she is, and that the two are separate. We can’t all be great speakers, but we can tell right from wrong and it’s our actions that count.


But the problem with the latter view is that, like it or not, the words we use are a fundamental and very large part of who we are as individuals in the world. I should qualify this: To our families and those with whom we’re intimate, we’re much more than our words. And no matter who we are, words without actions are empty signifiers. But if we aspire to any profession that requires public communication, words must be the currency of our trade. To be in such a position and to be careless with words is to invite others to shape our words for us.


GW stands as an example of this. Our first MBA president, lacking an appreciation for the nuance of language that comes from studying law, bumbled his way through press conferences while administration lawyers crafted some very tricky memos that allowed all sorts of horrible things to be done to people who were, more often than not, of little if any value to us as sources of information. And this is becoming his legacy, as more of their language and its consequences come to light.


A Palin presidency would be equally disastrous. We can tell from her words. Understand I’m not just talking about a disregard for proper grammar – public speakers, no matter how formal the occasion, aren’t held to the same standards as published writers, and this is as it should be. I’m talking about the fine line between carelessness and obfuscation that is all too easy to cross. As when Palin, in her resignation speech, gave us muddled and meandering reasons for her decision and then repeatedly said that she’d “candidly, truthfully” told us why she was quitting her job. Did she think she’d actually done this? Or did she think that by saying she had done this that it was so, or that we would believe it was so?


The good news for us is that the media, despite their many shortcomings, are good at unmasking this type of person. Teleprompted speeches can only take you so far when the 24-hour news cycle demands at least a moment of your unscripted self. If in that moment you claim to read “all” of the news publications (rough translation: “I read none of them”), viewers should discern your lack of respect for words, yourself, and the office you’re seeking.


The sad truth, though, is that the Watchers discern something else. They see a liberal media bullying someone whose values, as she has represented them, are similar to theirs. They are every bit as intelligent as the Listeners, but they value words much less. Because of this they resent it when people scrutinize Palin’s sentences, or see it as a waste of time. Like Plato, they see language as a murky reflection of the real, many times removed from concrete things and meaningful actions. But we can only compare the Watchers to Plato because he turned his thoughts into words and wrote them down. A hundred years from now, words are all that will remain of Palin. Americans will read them and be thankful that more of us chose to listen, instead of merely watching.