What Conservatives Really Want   3 comments


George Lakoff won’t mind that I stole his article title and used it as my own, because really, he just ripped off the title of Frank Luntz’s book, What Americans Really Want…Really. Dr. Lakoff is very aware of Dr. Luntz’s work and consequently that he was giving a nod to Luntz’s title when he came up with What Conservatives Really Want. It was a conscious appropriation without a conscious acknowledgment; Lakoff never mentions the title similarity anywhere in his article. What if Frank Luntz titled his new book Don’t Stink of an Elephant! and didn’t give any credit to Lakoff? (Impossible — that book would be dedicated to Lakoff.)

Lest you point out that “What (plural of some hard to understand group) Really Want” isn’t exactly a unique template and that Frank Luntz didn’t himself invent this interest-grabbing phraseology, I’d like to point out that Dr. Luntz and Dr. Lakoff are both known for their work in political language, so their shared area of discipline suggests they should avoid such coincidences. I could only imagine that Dr. Lakoff thinks it’s Dr. Luntz’s ‘social responsibility‘ to let another political linguist pinch his title, and that that’s simply ‘the price of living in a civilized society.’

The title-snatching annoyed me, but the dedication line bothered me more once I read what turned out to be in essence the same Lakoff article for the 40th or so time. Lakoff consigns:

–Dedicated to the peaceful protestors in Wisconsin, February 19, 2011.

And there’s nothing wrong with that on its face. Whether one agrees with the Wisconsin protesters or with the idea of constitutional republic, Dr. Lakoff is certainly well within his rights to dedicate his writings to anyone he wishes.

It just comes off as disingenuous when the article is really just self-plagiarized from the same thing Lakoff has written over and over and over. You can’t dedicate a message and an idea to a group of people, and then just rehash the same polemic against ‘strict father morality‘ and ‘individual responsibility‘ that can be found in all of his books and each of his internet articles. Briefly mentioning the Wisconsin protests before getting to the well-worn message he’s really trying to get through seems opportunistic and out of touch. Do the protesters to whom the article was dedicated really care about why conservatives like guns?

Here’s what Lakoff is really saying, Wisconsin protesters: You guys are making headlines and I’m going to use your demonstration to say the same thing I’ve been saying that hasn’t caught on in the the last 10 years because evil conservatives have more money than I do. It’s pathetic. I realize that Arianna Huffington never pays Lakoff for his contributions to the Huffington Post, but in his case, why should she pay someone to merely mention some current event and then repeat the same typo-laden diatribe he always writes?

Lakoff talks about the evils of the ‘strict father’ morality, personal responsibility, the Father as decider, discipline as the means to prosperity, the free market, viewing taxes as taking money away from those who have earned it, and opposing abortion. He believes these are all bad things. Not things you get to decide for yourself, bad things. And that’s his right to believe these things are bad. But even though he dedicates his article to protesters in Wisconsin, he makes all the same points here, here, here, here, and well, you get the picture. Somehow government workers in Wisconsin in danger of getting their pensions cut are supposed to be related to Lakoff’s personal linguistic preferences and the importance of abortions and gun control.

It seems like Lakoff is simply self-fulfilling  his own question-begging theories of cognitive science. If you activate a conservative or progressive frame over and over again through use of the same specifically crafted metaphor-laden phrase, this literally deepens the channels of the neurons in your brain that correspond to a certain point of view. There’s actually dendrites and synapses in your brain that tell you that paying higher taxes is empathy incarnate and that using the word ’empathy’ in this way over and over physically entrenches the frame in your mind.

Lakoff himself keeps saying the same thing over and over and the treads on those neural passages are so deep now that he can’t seem to think (let alone write) of anything else. The funny thing is, Lakoff’s theory need only be true of himself to explain his behavior, leaving the rest of us unaffected. He always writes the same thing because he believes that people reading it over and over will make them believe it, and this belief that he holds in permanence through repetition causes him to write the same thing over and over.

The one new thing I read in this article was this:

In the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama accurately described the basis of American democracy: Empathy — citizens caring for each other, both social and personal responsibility…

What? Did I miss the sarcastic irony? I was always taught American democracy was based on freedom and equality, with the choice to be empathetic or not implicit in said freedom. Is “empathy” the word you think of when you think about the basis of American democracy? Not that Lakoff’s definition of “empathy” here is the definition regular people subscribe to — it’s not exactly the empathy Atticus Finch taught Scout, you and me in To Kill a Mockingbird. In the context of the Wisconsin protests and progressive framing, ‘social responsibility‘ is a codeword for taxpayer-funded, government-run entitlement programs. The federal government taking more of your money and giving it to people they favor is what Lakoff calls ’empathy.’

And that’s no accident. Lakoff knows ‘empathy‘ is a good word, a good thing that everyone likes and wants to demonstrate. He knows our teachers taught empathy as a theme when we read To Kill a Mockingbird in school, and he knows we thought it was powerful. So the ‘framing’ trick is to attach this very good word to a concept that most people don’t like at all, like higher taxes to fund entitlements. But you have to be a tolerant, open-minded progressive to see why coming to understand Boo Radley’s humanness and feelings is really the same thing as tax hikes.

So in “What Conservatives Really Want,” George Lakoff steals a title from another political linguist, dedicates his 90% post-consumer material article to Wisconsin protesters, and proceeds to chase his own tail by repeating the same points he always makes. For some reason, Wisconsin protesters need to know why Lakoff thinks conservatives love guns and hate abortion, and that, even in this time of economic crisis, explains why their entitlements are being slashed.

Lakoff applies what he believes to be true generally of conservatives to Governor Walker and the Wisconsin government specifically, rejecting the idea a priori that any conservative ever makes a purely economic decision. Applying the broad scope of what conservatives believe to a specific situation (Wisconsin budget) during a specific time (financial crisis) and specific circumstances (recent elections, governor, unions) without doing research on these specifics speaks of astonishingly fallacious reasoning. It’s also dumb to think that this theory is the most useful, encouraging, or hopeful message he can provide for the protesters.

It’s probably not completely accurate to think protesters are even interested in what Lakoff thinks are Governor Walker’s real goals, and aren’t just focused on preserving their financial interests. I’m sure there’s some protesters who don’t care about dismantling the conservative agenda wholesale, but really just don’t want their benefits cut. Lakoff offers us no insight into Governor Walker’s mind, but he also makes a lot of assumptions about Wisconsin protesters and what they should know beyond that they want the money they believe they deserve. So, dedicating his article to Wisconsin protesters, Lakoff tells us what he thinks conservatives really want, but makes no effort to understand what Wisconsin protesters really want. Really.


3 responses to “What Conservatives Really Want

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  1. Prof. Lakoff, in one word, what we must achieve first and foremost
    is for everyone to COOPERATE, at least in America to serve as a model for the rest of the world, or we shall most certainly destroy our own species the way things are headed today with nothing but destructive Us/Them divisions.

    Not one of our institutional leaderships are making that happen. We have no political or intellectual groups that are focused on anything but maximizing personal wealth and power because that’s all any of them are achieving.

    This absolute truth has been stated by many of our wisest, but not nearly enough of us care to heed the warnings, much less do anything about them.

    Linus Pauling tried to be an academic and scientific role model leader for
    promoting world peace but even he was marginalized after having won two of the greatest Nobel Prizes in history.

    Our worldwide web is the most powerful communications device in history, but it is full of rhetorical exercises and not one of our institutions is actually dedicated to achieving acceptable quality of life for future generations because they aren’t even saving us from environmental and political destruction we are experiencing today.

  2. This is a very nice deconstruction of Lakoff’s article which I took a particular interest in after I made a snarky comment on HuffPo about it which was promptly deleted.

  3. Pingback: Oh no – Banned From Huff-Po!~ « Smirkdirk's Blog

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