Thursday, May 26, 2005

On Lakoff, Religion and Language: The Rising Tone


Over on Rockridge Forums, George Lakoff wrote a post about religion (go read the whole thing). Among else, Lakoff writes:

"...the difference between conservative and progressive Christianity is whether God is seen as a strict father or nurturant parent.

The strict father God is punitive: Follow His commandments and you go to heaven. Disobey and you go to hell. Since you're all sinners, He'll give you a second chance. His son has suffered so much he has built up enough moral credit to pay for the sins of everybody. If you accept Jesus as your savior, He'll wipe the slate clean as if you've been born again; but this time you'd better get it right or else. Do what your church says and you'll go to heaven; disobey and you'll go to hell.

The nurturant God offers Grace, which is metaphorical nurturance. To get grace, you have to be close to God; you can't earn Grace; it's given freely and unconditionally; it must be accept ed actively; it fills and nourishes you, protects you, heals you, makes you a moral person. Moral Politics is the link between theology and politics. Conservative theology and politics are both structured around strict father morality, just as progressive theology and politics are both structured around nurturant parent."


As a born-and-raised atheist, I see no problem with the above. This is pretty much the same way I see the differences between the fundamentalist and progressive theologies.

However, Caleb does not like this and comments (among else, go read the whole longish post):

"For instance, it was entirely possible for some antebellum reformers to see God as a Nurturant Parent but to see the state as author itarian and thus ungodly. A small but vocal group of radical abolitionists thought that all human government was sinful precisely because a state could not be nurturant in the way that God was.[]These were people, in other words, who had a Nurturant Paren t view of God and a political posture that Lakoff and Grodzins would probably label "progressive," but who also failed to see the state as a Nurturant Parent."


I tried to respond in comments but my stupid computer balked at that preposterous idea, so my comment is here, and I hope that Caleb will detect it through his sitemeter:

"There is nothing contradictory in being a "Nurturant Parent" person and seeing a Strict-Parenting government as authoritarian. One is expected to se e it that way. The notions of "state" differ between the two worldviews, too, as SP (Strict Parent) folks are hierarchical, thus see state, of neccessity, as a top-do wn organization (King, or President CONTROLS the subjects), while NP (Nurturant Parent) folks see state as a complex system (bottom-up) of players (hopefully ALL citizens) all working together to provide the best possible organization that will lead to th e greatest good for the greatest number - thus no need for a hierarchy: the President is equivalent to a family member who was voted to be in charge of garbage and recycling for the month, while another member is voted to do the cooking, etc., until the next month's elections when the roles change."


Brandon latches onto some word definitions that Lakoff uses in this piece, e.g., "literal", "realist" and "rational" and disagrees with the way Lakoff uses these terms. I was hoping for a more sophisticated analysis of the actual substance of the article, but it was not there. Is that just a face-saving technique?

I think the KEY paragraph in the article (not mentioned by Caleb or Brandon) is this one:

"One of the important consequences of the Moral Politics analysis is that morality is independent of religion, that each religion may have strict and nurturant versions. This is the reverse of the usual assumption that morality comes from religion (since many people learn about morality through religious schooling). If morality is independent of religion, as seems to be the case, then it is no mystery that one can be moral but not religious."


Yes, yes, yes. It does not matter how you define the word "literal": it is impossible to have a truly literal reading of the Bible - the internal incosistencies are too big. Thus, each group of people, e.g., each denomination, cherry-pic ks the statements from the Bible (or Koran or whatever), decides what to take literally, what figuratively/metaphorically, and what to completely ignore, thus building its own cartoon version of theology. This cartoon version is what the priests preach a nd the flock hears (see the post below about the actual familiarity of Christians with the contents of the Bible).

Some of those cartoon versions are consistent with SP worldview and invoke SP frames, while others are consistent with NP worldview and invoke NP frames. If you are growing up in a SP household, an SP cartoon version of religion will "feel" good to you, as it will be consistent with your moral system - obedience being the key moral strength. Likewise for NP folks - empathy being the key moral strength.

Thus, one's moral code/system PRECEDES one's theology (and church/denomination membership). You pick the cartoon version that jibes with what you already believe, not the other way round. To make it even easier for you, yo ur parents have already picked the church according to their (and thus your) moral system, so you do not even have to do any shopping around for the cartoon version of your liking (unless your worldview changes in adulthood as you travel, read, think, and bump into people who think differently, e.g., at a University).

The key is that it is not the church that teaches you morals, but your moral code that makes you pick one church over another. You choose the least amount of friction and cognitive dissonance by joining the church whose cartoon version of theology most closely matches your own moral system that you acquired much earlier through your parents' childrearing style. If your parents used Dobson's books, you will be a fearful femiphobic fundamentalist and you will feel great in a fundie church. If your parents consulted Spock, Brazelton and Leach, you will feel good in a liberal church, or no church at all.

Prompted by all this, Chris chimes in, but quickly abandons any discussion of religion. Instead, he attacks Lakoff in an uncharacteristically ad hominem way. He picks one paragraph in one of the older Lakoff's books, disagrees with it, and from that concludes that Lakoff is an idiot. This surprises me as Chris is the first to chide others for making this very mistake of summarily dismissing people according to a single pet peeve.

The paragraph in case deals with the rising inflection in questions and falling inflection in statements (Chris quotes the whole thing - go read). Lakoff hypothesizes that UP has to do with unknown (thus one asks questions about it), while DOWN has to do with known (one makes statements about it).

The fact that I do not know if this is testable may just be due to the limits of my intellect, but on the purely common-sensical, lay-person grounds, Lakoff's idea sounds right. If yo u have asked me this question yesterday, before I read that paragraph, I would have probably come up with the same explanation, something along the lines of:

We make statements about the familiar. We live on the surface of the Earth, thus we are most fa miliar with our immediate surroundings DOWN here. We ask questions about the unfamiliar. We, and especially our ancestors, see UP, i.e., the heavens as unfamiliar: the Sun, Moon, stars, clouds, lightning, wind, snow, rain.... all that mysterious stuff i s high above. That is why we place God there. A Just So Story, but plausible.

But, as I was thinking this I was thinking about English language. Then I thought: I would have concocted exactly the same story 20 or more years ago, at the time I was t hinking in Serbo-Croatian language. So, how about the most powerful research method - the comparative method? I have heard over the years native speakers of English, German, Dutch, Swedish, French, Italian, Romanian, Finnish, Hungarian, Polish, Chech, Slovakian, Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Russian, Albanian, Gypsy, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese. I have tried, briefly, to learn a few of those languages. If I remember correctly, ALL of those languages have rising intonations in questions and falling in statements. What can account for this? Either common descent or convergence.

If it is common descent, i.e., the intonation can be traced to one of the earliest languages out of which all the other languages evolved, then one can think of two possiblities. One, tribal elders sat down one day and decided that questions in this new thing called "language" should have a rising tone, while statements whould have a falling tone. This "fiat hypothesis" does not sound plausible (and even if it is, their choice may not be completely arbitrary). It is much more likely that the intonation arose spontaneusly, naturally, out of some deeper sources of human nature. Lakoff's metaphors serve just as well as any others one may think of.

If it is convergence, then some natural cause is even more likely. There is, apparently, a propensity for humans to raise their voices at the end of questions, and to lower them at the end of statements. Why?

Questions are not the only kind of senten ce with rising intonation. Exclamations do the same thing. Rising tone asks for attention, while a statement often states the obvious - the shared knowledge, i.e., the phatic language, the intimate language. Raised voice carries farther, too. When the officer shouts "atten-SHUN!", if you are 500 yards away you will hear it, at least the "shun" part. And while bellowing the orders, the officer RAISED his head in attempt to get his voice carried as far as possible, in order to stretch the vocal cords s o he can shout louder, and in order to look taller, thus more imposing. With intimate language, sharing common knowledge, one crouches, bows, whispers, talks DOWN. This would connect the meaning of UP and DOWN in the physical realm to the meaning of LO W and HIGH in the realm of sound - not an arbitrary connection, I suppose.

What is the situation in Creole languages? How about languages that kids create spontaneously? Do they raise voices at the end of questions, but not statements? Do they even need to understand the language of adults (I assume some are around) in order to "pick up" the different tones of statements and questions?

So far so good, nothing to dismiss Lakoff out of hand for. Perhaps his details are incorrect, but in general he is onto something here. Anyway, he is aware of his fallibility. That is why he put up the Rockridge site and forums. If you look at that post of his, it is chock-full of questions. He is asking people to comment so he can learn. As an NP himself, he is uncomfortable with the hierarchy, even if he is on top (Lakoff talks, everyone listens!). He prefers a communal enterprise, a conversation that will educate everyone, including himself. Isn't this why blogs are better than MSM??

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