The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff
The difference between conservatives and progressives? It’s all about morality, specifically family morality or how people subjectively define a ‘good’ family. That’s what George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist from University of California at Berkeley, claims in this book. Conservatives are operating within a framework constructed around a ‘strict father morality’ that stresses authority and obedience. Progressives, on the other hand, operate within a ‘nurturant parent’ framework that is founded on cooperation and understanding. These two different moral frameworks lead to fundamental disagreements between people about what is good, what is right, and what should be done in a wide variety of situations.
He may have a point. Let me share a personal anecdote. A few years ago, a nephew and his wife and kids were visiting. They are lovely people, but both parents are politically conservative (which I am not). Their kids were in the backyard and happened to start walking on a narrow, tile covered strip that runs between my concrete patio and some landscaping. It’s a drainage system, a buried plastic pipe surrounded by rocks and covered by thin tiles. It is designed to shed water away from the patio and works quite well, but it’s not substantial enough to use for a walkway. I began to say something like, “You shouldn’t walk on that because—” I had intended to explain what it was and why the kids should use the concrete path instead, when their dad shouted at them, ordering them off. They complied instantly. “That’s how you do it,” he told me. I said nothing. They were his kids, after all, but I felt that what he had done was fundamentally wrong. His kids obeyed but they didn’t understand. I didn’t want blind obedience. I felt it important, essential really, for the kids to know why they shouldn’t walk there. In my mind, blind obedience to authority is wrong. To my nephew, a child’s blind obedience to his father is good.
But, back to the book…. Lakoff claims that these two different understandings of family values, ‘strict father’ versus ‘nurturant parents,’ helps explain the deep political divide between conservatives and progressives. It’s not quite as simple as my short review makes it sound. If it was, all conservatives would agree on just about everything, as would all progressives. They obviously don’t. To explain this, Lakoff identifies several variants within each of these two broad groups, but each, at their core, shares the applicable view of family.
He devotes much of this short book to ‘framing,’ which is about how people frame their beliefs and arguments about specific topics. Since this book is primarily about political issues, he uses those as examples. His advice is that it is important when discussing your views to present them within the context of your own framework. A conservative, for example, may see the great divide between rich and poor as perfectly legitimate because the rich deserve to be rich. Progressives might see the same issue as an unjust denial of equal rights and equal opportunity, and should speak to it in those terms.