The Little Blue Book: Quotations from Chairman Lakoff
A prime example of Lakoff’s ruinous recommendations can be seen in the debate over abortion, which never seems to get resolved despite a trillion words being expended on it every day. The “conservative frame,” to use Lakoff’s language, is that a fetus is a human being who has not yet been born; thus to “abort” the fetus is to kill it, which means a human being has been killed, which is tantamount to murder. In response to this frame, Lakoff recommends — a recommendation that liberals dutifully follow — that those on the left completely ignore the conservative argument, and instead “reframe” the issue with metaphors like “freedom of choice” and “women’s independence” and “reproductive rights.” All those positive words — “freedom,” “independence,” “rights” — recast the entire debate in a different light, allowing liberals to “win” the debate by not acknowledging that the opposing side has even made a statement.
According to Lakoff, liberals should in no way challenge the claim that abortion is murder; in fact, they shouldn’t even acknowledge that such a claim is being made. (True to form, Lakoff himself never mentions this position in his discussion of abortion.) But here’s the problem for Lakoff: It’s a really really convincing argument. And it’s also a concept that every woman on some gut-instinct level knows is at a minimum somewhat true, if not entirely true. Of course a fetus is human or a near-human; the only valid question (one which Lakoff forbids even asking) is when does it acquire individual human rights? Conception; birth; or somewhere in the middle?
So the Lakoffites can yap about “freedom of choice” and “women’s independence” and “reproductive rights” all day long, yet the listener will think: But you aren’t addressing the fundamental question. Is it murder? “Stop thinking in those terms,” cries Lakoff. But the public can’t stop, because the idea of abortion as murder has already been stated, and the idea of fetus as human existed even long before the modern political debates. Even if there were no Republican party, no conservative movement, a great many people would still have moral compunctions about abortion, because the controversy is rooted in biological realities, and was not fabricated out of thin air by reactionary rabble-rousers.
And this same insuperable problem bedevils every aspect of Lakoff’s thesis: Most of the countervailing “conservative” arguments he seeks to suppress are rooted in inescapable economic, biological or physical reality that can’t be euphemized out of existence, no matter how hard you try. This brings us to the fundamental difference between “progressivism” and “conservatism”: Progressives and their various ideological brethren have a deep belief that human nature and human culture are “constructed,” that there is no biological determinism, that mankind is a blank slate, and that human nature and human culture can be molded at will whichever way we want, if we just put our minds to it and manipulate the language cleverly enough; by contrast, conservatives and their various ideological brethren believe (correctly) that human nature is “innate,” not fabricated, not random, and arises from genetic realities that willpower cannot dissolve, no matter how hard we try. Furthermore, much of the misery we’ve experienced in the last century comes from futile attempts to create utopian societies by denying the immutability of human nature and attempting to change it by force.
While Lakoff’s foolish insistence that liberals never repeat conservative frames means that conservative notions never get directly rebutted, this insistence backfires in other ways as well. Why? Because conservatives take the diametrically opposite strategy: They seize on every utterance that liberals make, and repeat their “frames” as loudly as possible to demonstrate how deceptive they are. So while liberals studiously avoid analyzing anything conservatives say, conservatives meanwhile are avidly dissecting every single thing liberals say. The end result is that conservatives, to their own satisfaction as least, successfully challenge and de-fang every liberal notion; but liberals never challenge or de-fang conservative notions, instead seeking to snuff them out with a lethal dose of Silent Treatment.
But it gets worse, because it is the very euphemisms and other ludicrous “conceptual metaphors” recommended by Lakoff which give conservatives so much grist for their mill. Every time a liberal talking head gets up and uncorks another howler in the Lakoff style, conservative fiskers and deconstructionists latch on and tear it to pieces, trumpeting it as further evidence of liberals’ cluelessness or mendacity. So not only does Lakoff recommend holding fire against conservative frames, the ammunition he saves only ends up being used against the liberals themselves.
And this man is considered their master strategist?
To show just how out of touch Lakoff is, when analyzing core conservative values on pages 50-1 of The Little Blue Book he still cites of all people James Dobson (an evangelical Christian whose political influence peaked thirty years ago in the early ’80s) as a leading conservative philosopher; even worse, to prove his “strict father conservatism” thesis, Lakoff quotes a book that Dobson wrote back in 1970 about disciplining children, as if it was relevant to the 2012 election. Rather, it’s more likely that Lakoff almost certainly knows that Dobson is now at most a minor gadfly, but he’s useful to hold up as an example of extreme social conservatism, since there are no similar current examples informing the 2012 campaign. My guess is that Lakoff first formed his theory about “strict fathers” back in the early ’80s, and his thesis remains frozen at the historical moment when Dobson and the Moral Majority lorded over America as puritanical tyrants. Or something.
But the conservatives are way, way ahead of Lakoff, who doesn’t seem to fully grasp that an entirely new paradigm has emerged.
There’s a new frame in town: The nanny state. In a masterful maneuver of political aikido, conservatives have taken Lakoff’s antediluvian “strict father conservatism” frame and completely reversed it. Conservatism now stands for freedom from authority, while is it progressivism that seeks to implement the new scolding parent metaphor, now known as the “nanny state.” It’s liberals who want to tell you what to do and what is allowed, not conservatives.
And this frame is widely accepted by the general public not simply because of superior conservative messaging, but because there is evidence backing it up. It is mostly liberal politicians, not conservative politicians, who pass laws and regulations telling citizens what they can and cannot do, what they must and must not buy, what they are and are not allowed to say.
Who seeks to impose the “strict parent” paradigm now? Liberals. And everyone knows it. Yet still there’s George Lakoff off by his lonesome still pounding his fists about “strict father conservatives.” All the rhetoric in the world can’t hide the fact that conservatism now stands for unintrusive small government, and that progressivism stands for intrusive big government. The “nanny state” frame is so powerful and self-evidently true that it can’t be ignored away, and can’t be euphemized away.
Yes, there has long been tension within the Republican Party between social conservatives, the “strict fathers” of Lakoff’s frame, and fiscal conservatives. Long long ago, social conservatives briefly seized the spotlight and for a while got all the attention, but that seems like ancient history now. The small government/libertarian/fiscal conservative/laissez-faire/Tea Party wing of conservatism is ascendent, and this rise to power and prominence dealt a death blow to Lakoff’s “strict father” thesis. There’s been a magnetic reversal of the poles, but Lakoff’s compass is still pointing south.