Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Moral Politics in the Context of History of Marriage

This was first posted on on July 10, 2004. I will expand on this later, bringing even more biology into it. For more info on the topic, visit

Book Review:
George Lakoff Moral Politics and
E.J.Graff What Is Marriage For?
Most biologists understand the value of integration and cross-species comparison in explaining phenomena of life. In 1963., Dutch ethologist and Nobel laureate Nicholas Tinbergen published one of the most influential papers in the history of science entitled "On the Aims and Methods of Ethology". In this paper, Niko Tinbergen posits that a full explanation of a biological (biochemical, physiological or behavioral) phenomenon must include four distinct modes of explanation: mechanism, ontogeny, function and history. Mechanism is a description of the phenomenon at all levels of organization, from molecules and cells through tissues and organs to organ systems and whole organisms. Ontogeny describes how the phenomenon develops through embryonic development, growth, maturation and aging, including environmental factors that may influence the process. Function explains how the phenomenon serves the organism, i.e., makes it well adapted to its environment. History explains how and why the trait in question evolved from its ancestral forms.
When a biologist reads literature on other subjects, from philosophy to political science, the almost automatic search for all four modes of explanation does not disappear, and more often than not, one or more of the modes is discovered to be completely missing from the discussion. Thus, a biologist will search for multiple sources in hope that each will cover one of the modes that can then be put together into a complete explanation of the phenomenon.

George Lakoff's Moral Politics is, in this regard, better than most social science writing, as it discusses two out of four modes: mechanism and ontogeny. Using the tools of cognitive linguistics, Lakoff attempts to explain the differences in mindset and wordlview between conservatives and liberals. We tend to think about human populations as distributed along a straight line from extreme liberal on the left through moderate in the center to the extreme conservative on the right end of the distribution. Some more sophisticated models show a coordinate system with economic views represented on the x-axis and social views on the y-axis. Of course, in such models, we expect a bell-shaped distribution with majority of the population clumped somewhere in the middle. How can we then, in the same breath, talk about sharp polarization in the current political climate in the USA?

Lakoff elegantly solves this problem with a discontinuous system consisting of two core models, one conservative and one liberal. Variations of the cores are not distributed linearly, but are radial deviations from either one or the other core models. Thus everyone is, at one's core, either a conservative or a liberal and there is no such thing as a moderate. Political independents are the most sophisticated (and pragmatic) voters of all, as they are capable of cool-headedly picking and chosing between conservatism in some areas of life and liberalism in other areas and smoothly transtitioning from one to the other as they please. No surprise they are "swing" voters, unaffected by 60-second ads, and present completely alien and opaque minds to most campaign managers.

The difference, according to Lakoff, between the conservative and liberal mindset lies in their understanding of human nature and behavior, which informs their childrearing philosophies, which provide the foundation for a moral system, which in turn determines one's view on every imaginable economic, social or political issue.

Unfortunately for conservatives, their understanding of human nature and behavior has been thoroughly refuted by the past century of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Their notion that children are born bad and only upbringing makes them good is wrong. Their notion that discipline breeds self-discipline is erroneous. Their notion that obedience in childhood leads to self-reliance in adulthood is wrong. Their idea that people always act in their own interest, a folk behaviorist notion of "stick and carrot" approach, is utterly wrong. Actually, the opposite is right. Kids are born with potential for both good and bad. Strict discipline leads to selfishness and aggression. Obedience leads to reliance on external foci of authority. Finally, people act according to what they think is right, which is often against their interest, even when they are fully aware they are acting against their own interest (e.g., when poor people vote Republican).

The conservative worldview, dubbed Strict Father by Lakoff, also relies on existence of Moral Order. For instance, God has moral authority over people, people over other animals and the rest of nature, men over women, adults over children, straights over gays, religious believers over non-believers, Whites over Blacks, and in the USA, also Americans over foreigners. Some of these power relationships are suppressed in public discourse due to forces of political correctness, yet are simmering hidden within the minds of core conservatives nonetheless - witness the rise and fall of Trent Lott.

On the other side is the liberal core model, called Nurturant Parent model, that is based on the modern science-backed childrearing ideas, those of Drs.Spock, T.Berry Brazelton and Penelope Leach. Its core value is empathy. It is based on equality and respect, on self-nurturance and mutual nurturance, on promotion of love and happiness, and on importance of community for personal growth.

This is not the place to go into details - you have to read the book - but Lakoff persuasively demonstrates how one's views of economy, environment, healthcare, education, foreign policy, religion and everything else logically follows from one's core ideological belief. Unrestrained free market, expanding the military, police and the prison system, mixing Church and State, invading foreign countries at will and torturing its citizens, while at the same time suffocating social programs and ruining the environment are direct logical outgrowths of the Strict Father model of parenting. Conservative views that social programs are enabling laziness, or that the environment is a recource to be used by humans, are the only logical views a conservative raised in the Strict Father model can possibly adopt. And don't forget, beliefs received from one's parents early in life are the most difficult to question and abandon - they are just too deeply ingrained.

Since science refuted the basic tenets of the conservative worldview, it is not surprising that conservatives have strong anti-scientific and anti-intelectual sentiments. Those "liberal elites" are their natural enemies because their research keeps demonstrating that the core traditional model is a house of cards, an out-dated edifice without foundation in reality.

Perhaps the key take-home message of the book is that the two worldviews use language differently. The same word will have a very different meaning to a conservative and to a liberal. The last chapter describes how the use of language, through appeal to core moral ideals, affected some very important political outcomes, e.g., Clinton impeachment, Gore's loss to Bush, and the early days of the Bush administration. Lakoff warns the liberals to take the cognitive linguistic findings seriously if they want to win elections in the future.
While conservatives spent billions of dollars over the past few decades on think tanks to craft the neo-Orwellian language of conservative rhetoric, easily transfomed into soundbites, campaign slogans and TV ads, liberals feel it is dishonest to to do the similar thing. They go with the truth and expect that truth will win by itself. They do not understand the power of framing issues in one's own language, and will never win over voters other than self-described core liberals.

There is a huge number of people in America whose values are liberal and progressive who, due to Republican misuse of language, learned to believe that they are conservative and that the GOP serves their interests. The Democratic party needs to demonstrate to those people that their place is on the Left. It has to craft the language of progressive ideology and learn to market it and sell it to the electorate. It needs to tap into native ability of some of its political stars - most notably Senator John Edwards, this year's best bet to beat Bush in a landslide - to change the style and content of the political discourse and retake the domain of morality and "family values" that the conservatives have so blatantly taken for themselves. The first step is to finance research in liberal think-tanks, such as The Rockridge Institute led by Lakoff himself. While conservatives' parroting of Frank Luntz's talking points is infuriatingly dishonest, it is also very effective. The response of the liberals needs not be to hire an equivalent of Luntz to write talking points, but to use the knowledge and wisdom of people like Lakoff to counter conservative dishonest language with a liberal honest language.
Much of the debate among liberals today centers about the choice between campaigning to "fire up the base" versus "moving to the right to appeal to Independents". The whole dichotomy is based on utter misunderstanding of what is liberal base, and who the Independents are. Adopting a language that appeals to people who are progressive but think they are conservative does not constitute moving to the Right, it is just a smart way of using language, perfectly exemplified by the recent victory of Stephanie Herseth in heavily Republican South Dakota. Or, as Arianna Huffington once said, you need to talk to the good in the people, and they will respond. If liberal is naturally "good", then appealing to the good in people will awaken the progressive liberal (really American) values of equality and fairness in many people who otherwise identify themselves as conservative. They are the base of the Democratic party, temporarily kidnapped by the Orwellian rhetoric of the GOP.

While "Moral Politics" is an excellent and potentially useful analysis of the current state of mind in the USA, a biologist trained in Tinbergian "four aims and methods" will feel unsatisfied with the book. The function and the history are missing, and without them the conclusions are suspect and the explanation incomplete. Where does one go to fill in the gaps?
What Is Marriage For? by E.J.Graff may be the book filling the "history" gap. Sure, it does not trace all of the history of all aspects of ideology, yet the history of marriage is probably the most important and revealing aspect of the story of evolution of the two worldviews. Both books contain a chapter on current research on childrearing with, not surprisingly, similar conclusions and even citing some of the same studies. These "ontogeny" chapters are probably the strongest tie between the Lakoff's "mechanism" book and the Graff's "history" book.

What can an unsatisfied reader of Lakoff find in Graff's work? First, the history of marriage, as viewed from a Lakoffian perspective, reveals that the two main moral systems and attendant ideologies are not restricted to the USA, nor to the present time. Second, it provides the demonstration that, besides occasional swings back and forth, the liberal model has been, for a few centuries now, slowly replacing the conservative model around the World.

The history of marriage can be seen as a constant struggle between the two ideologies, one bent on keeping the moral authority of the white straight adult rich male, the other fighting for equality of all people. Every change in the definition of marriage was a blow to the conservative core model, and a victory for the liberal worldview. Giving women right to own property, granting legal equality, allowing contraception, or divorce, allowing inter-racial marriage and, currently, allowing same-sex marriage, are some of the stages of evolution of marriage, from a feudal economic arrangement designed for the strengthenig of the clan, towards marriage as a love relationship between two equal human beings.

At every stage, the conservatives scream with the same rhetoric, mentioning God, Armageddon, imminent dissolution of society, emergence of disease, and weakening of the human race as inevitable results of the proposed changes in the definition of marriage. The last century's definition of marrige is dubbed "traditional" or "biblical" and changes are viewed as crimes against nature. Current model of "traditional" marriage is only about 80 years old. The "biblical" marriage is an easy sell only to those who do not know history: it took 16 centuries for the Christian church to realize that the Rapture is not going to happen tomorrow, thus celibacy may not be the best idea, thus marriage needs to be included into the domain over which the Church exerts its control. Until the 17th century, the Christian church did not say a word about marriage.

Whatever the proposed change in marriage is at any time in history, it is conflated by conservatives with sodomy, incest, polygamy, pedophilia and, watch this, atheism! As Graff notices, by the time they get to that kind of rhetoric, it's too late. The techonological innovation, leading to novel economic relations, leads to changes in social fabric. The courts are forced to deal with and to acknowledge the social changes. Once the legal battles pave the way, legislators are emboldened to formalize the new social order and write it into law. This may take a couple of decades, but when that happens, and the conservative pundits start screaming Hail and Brimstone, the process is already gone too far. The religious institutions, being the most conservative, take the most time to adapt to the inevitable changes in social relations. This may take several decades for Protestant denominations, a few centuries for Catholicism or Islam, or never for Eastern Christian Orthodoxy or Jewish Orthodoxy. Still, with or without the Church blessing, the society moves on, gradually dismantling all the elements of Moral Order and replacing them with equality for all: sexes first, races later, genders (and sexual orientation) today.

Putting the two books together, one gets the big picture: Lakoff is too nice to conservatives, implying at least some validity of their belief system although it is based on empirical nonsense. Placing Lakoffian analysis within Graffian historical context paints a much bigger and starker picture. History of the past few centuries is a history of a big shift in power structure. The domination of a few white Christian straight rich males over everyone else has gradually diminished over time. In America, a country founded on principles of liberalism (just read the writings of the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) and adoption of free market ideas, the power immediately spread over a much larger number of white straight Christian men. The rich still held the political power, but the vast new middle class was legally equal, had equal opportunity for success, and many moved upwards, upsetting the hierarchy. That is the essence of the American Dream, after all.

Over the next couple of centuries, the other groups, those identified by Moral Order as subservient to white men, faught and won equality under law: women first, followed by people of other nationalities and faiths, followed by people of other skin colors. Current fight is over the equality of gay, transgender and intersex people, a fight they are winning if the conservatives' "Armageddon" rhetoric is any indication. Speeding up the process by introducing a Constitutional Amendment is the most counter-productive action the conservatives are staging right now, and it may prove to be their doom in the November election.
The only minority group that can still be openly ridiculed without political consequences are atheists. And there, a battle is brewing under the surface, too. A number of non-believers' societies have existed for a long time. But today, it is different. Encouraged by the successes of the gay movement, as well as by the numbers from the latest Census indicating that non-believers are as much as 30 million strong and the fastest-growing religious category, the non-believers are uniting under the banner of The Brights (a cute word designed to do to atheism what the word "gay" did to homosexuality) with explicitly political agenda to change the cultural and political landscape in a way that will allow the non-believers to be elected for political office. The Newdow case in the Supreme Court, concerning the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance, is the first test of strength of the new movement.

Thus, conservative movement is a creed of rich white Christian guys who are still peeved that Medieval power-structure that had them on top is no longer around. They long for the non-existent Golden Age in the past, for the times of fairy tales in which all of them are princes and all of them can get to sleep with Cinderella. They know they are cornered and fatally wounded and are fighting ferociously for their very existence. Through lies and Orwellian language, they have duped millions to help them fight. They will do absolutely anything and everything to retain power, as they demonstrated in Florida recount in 2000. Their only hope for the future is election of George W. Bush. If Bush gets elected, they will be in a position to finish the job they started during his first term, that is, to dismantle democracy and any means through which progressives and liberals can challenge their absolute power, turning America into de facto one-party state. Reforms of the judiciary system, starving the social programs, rigging the voting machines, changing the rules how Congress and Senate operate, waging endless wars and flaming fear through the population - all those are components of the strategy for their survival. If successful, their program will turn America into a totalitarian society without any middle class whatsoever. Middle class is a rare and recent phenomenon in history. A state that wants to foster a free-market economy needs to first form and, through laws and regulations, protect the existence of middle class. The conservatives have a different economic model in mind, one comprised of a few rich guys at the top and a quarter billion enslaved workers, too poor, tired and scared to speak out, with no protection by the courts. This is a system based on monopolies and, as Adam Smith stated a long time ago, such a system does not help a state win in international competition.
It is no coincidence that the GOP reacted in furious panic to the announcement of Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee, North Carolina Senator John Edwards. It is Edwards who, better than any other prominent Democrat, understands what is going on, and knows how to explain in linguistic frames exactly how the conservatives are undermining the liberal American values and the free-market economic system. When Edwards speaks, he reframes the discourse in a way that Frank Luntz is unable to counter, and in a way that resonates with American people. Even those who are utterly uninformed and disinterested in politics "get it" with their guts and hearts when Edwards exposes the devious conservative schemes to undermine the bedrock of our democracy and what America is all about. John Kerry and John Edwards are no 60's hippies and liberals. They are progressive, they are patriotic, and they are fundamentally American. They are not on radial deviation from the Lakoffian liberal core - they are in the dead center of the core. They will win in November. Once they win, this will be the demise of conservativism in America. The fissures in the Republican party are starting to crack already, and they will explode after the election. The GOP may never fully recover from this, no matter how much it tries to reform itself, so it is understandable that it is fighting tooth and claw and is ready to employ the most despicable tactics to ensure its survival. The history is against them. Their worldview is a thing of the past. Future is now, and it belongs to the liberals.

posted by coturnix @ 10:58 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink