Thursday, November 4, 2004
My friend Jake, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tennessee, posted the following essay in the comments. It deserves a place here on the front page:
I've never blogged before, but what started as a pastoral letter to my congregation has turned into what can only be called a rant. To spare them, I'm putting it here instead, and will start over with something gentler for them in the morning..... So, here goes...
I find great hope in what we hear from the election. Of course, my candidate didn’t win. And Bush’s radical agenda and strengthened political power strike me as dangerous. Here, in Tennessee, as the old blues song goes, “I feel like a stranger in my own home town.”
But here’s where I find hope: one in five voters cited “moral values” as the decisive factor in his/her vote. These voters were, yes, overwhelmingly, cultural conservatives. But still, they understood themselves to be acting morally. Where there’s an active conscience, there is hope. But liberals are a long way from being heard by these moral actors.
Conservatives often complain that liberals are contemptuous of them. From what I’ve seen, they’re right. In the liberal circles I’ve known, I mostly hear bafflement about conservatives—“why would they vote against their economic self-interest?”—followed by scorn. Too often, liberals consider conservatives “selfish” on taxes, “backwards” on religion, and “stupid” or “blind” on the facts. Is this contempt worthy of half of our fellow Americans? Skipping from bafflement to scorn strikes me as intellectually lazy and politically ineffective.
What if liberals followed bafflement with honest curiosity? What if we really wondered how a conservative understood his vote, or her values? Painful as it is, maybe this election will summon the humility needed to seek understanding.
This year, the best thinker to help me understand conservatives has been George Lakoff, a linguist at UC-Berkeley. To wade through his heavy stuff, read "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think." For an easier read, get "Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate." His thinking is also on the web, at the George Soros-funded Rockridge Institute.
For here, I’d like to sum up his thought, and then say where I see the opportunity for religious liberals.
Lakoff says that liberals and conservatives differ in two ways: how they address issues, and the family-model from which they find meaning.
First, how they address issues. Liberals use facts and policies; conservatives use “frames.” Frames are metaphorical ways of thinking about complex matters. For example, our vast, diverse nation is sometimes spoken of in terms of “family.” While not literally a “family,” the concept makes intuitive sense, and captures much of the complexity of our relationships to each other. Speaking in terms of frames works. Conservatives know this; liberals don’t.
For instance: taxes. Liberals can harp on about how the Bush tax cuts drive up the deficit, they can repeat that the “top 1% got tax cuts,” etc., till they’re blue in the face. But conservatives frame the issue in one phrase—“tax relief”—and win it in a cake-walk. Why? Because, says Lakoff, embedded in the phrase “tax relief,” is the immediate suggestion that there is an affliction needing relief. What is the affliction? Taxes. Once people start using the phrase “tax relief,” it becomes very difficult to argue why you would want to increase this affliction.
How could liberals metaphorically frame the issue of taxes? Well, says Lakoff, they could talk about taxes as investments, drawing social and economic dividends. Or, in terms of patriotism—everyone paying his or her fair-share dues.
The point is this: “frames” trump “facts,” “metaphor” beats “argument,” and “vision” beats “plan.” Concrete language is the expression of good thinking; abstract thinking loses listeners and voters. No pretense of objectivity here, or rational cost-benefit analysis; this is values-based, meaning-based politics. Straight to the heart.
Lakoff’s second point is that liberals and conservatives are both organized around the metaphor of family, but understand the ideal family differently. Lakoff calls the conservatives’ family model the “Strict Father.” The liberals’ model is the “Nurturant Parent.”
The “Strict Father” values obedience, moral order, discipline, self-reliance, punishment as a form of “tough love,” clear sense of “right” and “wrong,” and many other things that would strike you as intuitively "conservative."
The “Nurturant Parent” values empathy and responsibility, fulfillment, community, cooperation, and many things that seem familiarly "liberal."
In one debate, the asides between Bush and Kerry about their daughters illustrate the two models. Chuckling, Bush said something like, “Well, you have to put a leash on them,” and Kerry replied, “I’ve learned not to do that with mine.” Different parenting styles, different guiding values, different idealized family model.
Lakoff says that, while conservatives have been honing their message in well-funded think-tanks for three decades now, liberals are all over the map, without guiding metaphors or themes. It’s not that so many more U.S. citizens have the “strict father” mentality; it’s that the issues have been clearly and effectively framed from the conservative standpoint. Liberals need to articulate their values, says Lakoff. Incidentally, in his post-mortem today, Slate Magazines’ William Saletan encourages the Democrats to do this, as well.
So, we need to do two things. First, rather than heaping scorn upon conservatives who “just don’t understand,” as liberals, we need to understand that they mean it when they say they are voting their values. Understanding them, and taking them at their word, means living out our own value of empathy. It also means getting to know our neighbors, not holing up in some liberals-only enclave.
Secondly, we need to learn how to articulate our own values in metaphors, and then learn how to reframe the debate. Using conservative terminology and frames—"tax relief," "partial-birth abortion," etc—we’ve already lost it.
I don’t yet know the compelling metaphors that will give voice to our values the best. But the work is before us. This is where I find hope in the election. If it is true that people are thinking and acting morally—all of us, not just those who voted like us—then there is hope for persuasion, and change.
In the next four years, no doubt there will be cause to protest, to take to the streets. But perhaps a more important role for the liberal church will be to do the intellectual and soulful work of articulating and sharing our values. To do this effectively will mean using frames and metaphors. Being poets whose words move people’s hearts. Sad as it is to say, Bush and the Republicans have been such stirring poets. This is the lesson of the political landscape.
Luckily, the same work needs to be done in the religious sphere, too. It may be connected to Bill Sinkford’s “language of reverence,” and is definitely connected to the current Commission on Appraisal’s “Theological Unity Amidst our Diversity.”
Translating concepts into metaphors is the work of moving the liberal church into the post-liberal age. When and if we can do this, we will have found a voice that will resound through our cities—even in Tennessee!—and throughout the whole country.
This election is dispiriting, but it was one of our very own ancestors, Theodore Parker, who said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Friends, he was right.
Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 4 November 2004 at 8:16 AM