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Admirable project, but it just won't work
on October 22, 2012
The circumstances and processes whereby people change their minds fundamentally about political issues remain mysterious. What moves conservatives to embrace liberalism, and what leads liberals to abandon the left and become conservative? It's very clear that endless, heated political arguments do not accomplish this. Blah, blah, blah, we shoot our talking points reflecting our alternative realities past one another like so many misplaced guided missiles. Political discourse ultimately seems to be a realm of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
In light of this futility, Professor Lakoff has been working on deciphering "political language" for years now, and has made real contributions to our understanding of how political assumptions and concepts operate within American discourse. He points out how the political left has too often failed to see how the initial framing of issues renders true political dialogue impossible. This short book represents just a sliver of his overall project, and is meant as a quick and easy handbook to help progressives to present their perspective to conservatives in a way that might possibly facilitate real discussion.
Given the sorry nature of political "discussion" in today's society, this seems a welcome opus, and in some small, incremental ways, I think this is a positive contribution to bridging the huge rhetorical gap that divides left and right in the United States. However, Lakoff errs in assuming (apparently) that the basis of this philosophical division lies solely or even mainly in the nature of "moral values," his principal focus. These are important, but I think even these values are built upon something more fundamental, i.e., bedrock assumptions about the very nature of human/social life. I guess this would be termed "social ontology." The most fundamental and contentious issue is whether or not society is a collection of self-creating individuals, or conversely, an interdependent web of people-in-relations. Are we more individual or social? How much do people's circumstances determine who and what they are? To what extent am I my brother's keeper? Am I diminished by and responsible for the existence of poor and miserable people in our midst, or is their continued existence "their own fault?"
This highly contentious set of issues emerged most clearly during the 2012 campaign when Obama made his now-infamous remark, "You didn't build that." Yes, the Republicans took the quotation out of context to make it seem that Obama was completely discounting the accomplishments of successful individuals, but even when it was pointed out that he meant we all depend on collective accomplishments and services in order to pursue our individual goals, the argument fell upon deaf ears with many voters. I would argue that this is because of this fundamental difference in perspective regarding the crucial individual/society relationship.
Within current political discourse, there is an inevitable tendency for conservatives to frame this argument in terms of extremes, i.e., either we strive to be a society of "individual responsibility" or else we are headed toward one that is "socialist." It is within the nexus of assumptions underlying this contentious divide that liberals/Democrats somehow need to concentrate their rhetorical efforts, in my opinion. I am guessing that Dr. Lakoff would argue that his "moral values" framework encompasses these issues, but I sure did not discern it in this book. The kinds of simple talking points he conveys here simply were and are inadequate to convince anyone on the right that they should reconsider their viewpoint. Bottom line: it doesn't work, and more is needed.
No, I don't have "the answer," and I wish Dr. Lakoff well in his continued project. But given the horrendously polarized condition of the American populace today, one does not have to be a maven of political/philosophical analysis to conclude that The Little Blue Book of quick and easy talking points is not going to accomplish a whole lot.