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An essay donated by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys,

About George Lakoff's book:
"Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think"

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About George Lakoff's book:

I have been reading a lot recently about the differences between Liberals and Conservatives in an attempt to come to a better understanding of why some people voted for or against President Trump, and continue to support or oppose him.

All the reports I have read, and written about in previous essays, have shed some light on the issue. However, none seemed to capture the full essence of what these differences entail. George Lakoff's book comes closest. 1

For Mr. Lakoff, Conservatives hold what he calls a Strict Father world view and Liberals hold the Nurturant Parent world view. A world view, also called your Nomos, is your interpretation/explanation of how and what makes the world and people work.

It is formed by everything that you:

  • were taught by your parents,

  • learned from others -- friends, teachers, preachers, neighbors;

  • learned from books, TV and movies, and now from the internet,

and perhaps most importantly:

  • from all that you have experienced and observed.

These world views color our conception of morality, religion and positions on political issues -- from social welfare, child rearing, education, women’s rights, environmental issues, economics, same sex marriage and homosexuality, transgender persons, abortion and access to birth control and health care. AND don’t forget attitudes towards immigrants, people of other religious faiths and of different ethnic and cultural traditions.

Some might call the Strict Father world view a Patriarchal view as I did in my essay about Moral Foundation Theory. Some might use the word Authoritarian. This view holds that there is a natural hierarchical order to things with God at the top, then the human Father as head of the household, the women and children, and finally slaves and servants below them.  Though Lakoff didn’t put it this way, basically: the father is the Lord of his Castle and everyone must bow down and obey the Lord without hesitation, question, challenge or complaint. Obedience to the Lord is considered the highest virtue and this is pounded (mentally and far too often physically) into the children from their birth. The basic premise is that life is difficult and the world is fundamentally a dangerous place AND it takes a Strict Father figure to protect the wife and children and the family property from all the evil that is out there. Tradition is to be upheld, change is anathema, and the Lord's word is the LAW. Moral issues are based upon ideas of rewards and punishments. Good work is rewarded and bad deeds are not just punished but must be severely punished IF children are to grow up to be upstanding, responsible adults.  Those who promote the Strict Father concepts present themselves as the guardians of Family Values, Tradition and Morality. Anyone that rejects their World View and belief system isn’t just wrong but they are the enemy of the People, un-American, and the embodiment of EVIL. 2 This model is outlined in Lakoff's book on page 33.

The Nurturant Parent model is quite different, to say the least! According to Lakoff's book, 2 as opposed to discipline and obedience in the Strict Father model:

"Love, empathy, and nurturance are primary and children become responsible, self-disciplined and self-reliant through being cared for, respected, and caring for others, both in their families and in their communities. The Nurturant Parent extends this world view, to those in their community that are less fortunate. Children must be encouraged and helped in finding and developing their own special talents and abilities, whether they are your own children or other people’s children. Questions are encouraged not discouraged. The world is seen as an exciting place to be experienced and explored, not a frightening place. AND the same holds for immigrants and people of other religious, ethnic and cultural traditions -- they aren’t to be feared. Change isn’t to be feared. It is part of the natural order and is to be worked with and adapted to. Lakoff says 'When children are respected, nurtured and communicated with from birth, they gradually enter into a lifetime relationship of mutual respect, communication, and caring with their parents." 2

AND, I add here: mutual respect, communication and caring with all others.

Lakoff goes into details about how the two groups see all those moral, religious and political issues that I mentioned above.

I encourage folks to read this book IF they are really interested in understanding how the other side thinks and does what they do. This book has spawned some serious thinking for me. I address these thoughts below.

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Part 2: What is Morality all about?

I don’t think that most people have a good understanding of Morality. They know it is about right and wrong, virtuous or non-virtuous, and SINS. BUT I don’t think they understand what purpose it serves.

Lakoff tells us near the end of his book that:

"... the very notion of morality is founded on experiential well-being and human flourishing."

As I see it, moral systems are created so that people have some basic rules that if followed keep them from fighting and killing and destroying each other and each other’s possessions.

Put both of these ideas together it is easy to understand why many cultures have developed a form of the Golden Rule:  "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" as the simplest formation of their moral system. If you don’t want someone to destroy your crops you don’t destroy theirs. If you don’t want someone to harm your children or wife you don’t harm theirs. If you don’t like being told what to do, don’t tell others what they should do!

Another common formulation has been "do no harm". So, we see Strict Father Morality claim that what they are doing -- strong corporal punishment as one example -- doesn’t harm children. It is for their own good. Another example is their attempts to do away with all social welfare programs. They feel that this is for the person’s own good. It will force them to become self-reliant. Also, it punishes those folk who abide by the rules by taking their hard earned money away from them in the form of taxes to pay for programs for those who thumb their nose at the rules. Social programs suffer from this double whammy in the eyes of Conservatives.

From a Liberal point of view, Conservatives have shown us with their support for President Trump that their claims to be defenders of "Family Values" is a hypocritical claim. There are many examples the most recent being the separation of immigrant children from their parents at our southern border. From the Liberal perspective that policy is a double whammy, it harms children and breaks up families.

As Lakoff puts it near the end of his book:

"The highest conservative political principle is the Maintenance of Conservative Authority -- the preservation, support, and extension of conservatism itself."

The preservation of the Institution (conservatism in this case) has become more important than what the institution was created for in the beginning -- the preservation of moral/good Family Values. If the preservation of the Strict Father/Authoritarian World View means sacrificing or ignoring their position ("Being good is being Upright" P. 71 or "Moral weakness is a form of immorality" P. 73) then so be it. The preservation of Authoritarianism is more important than anything else.

To be fair this has happened to many institutions, including the Roman Catholic Church and some other faith groups; government agencies and nations; businesses and corporations. The preservation of the institutions became more important than doing what the institutions were set up to do in the first place. This has resulted in the decline and ultimate demise of many institutions.

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Part 3: Are Liberal ideas/morals being forced upon our society?

I have come to realize that Liberal ideas have generally crept into our culture -- on little cat feet while no one was looking. The Liberalization of America is NOT a vast conspiracy to undermine our nation’s values or the moral character of our people. Liberal ideas have NOT been forced upon people. Examples are with clothing styles, the foods that we eat, the books that we read, and TV and movies that we watch. Don’t forget the ads we are bombarded with many times a day. And now of course the Internet, communication and transportation systems and networks that have opened up the world, erased man-made boundaries, and encouraged communication and education between cultures, religions, and ethnicities.

No one in the 1960s was told they had to wear short skirts! It was simply what everyone else was doing, and teenage girls want to be just like everyone else. Many however did try to tell women they can’t wear slacks to work or blue jeans or short skirts!

What about our food tastes? Is there anyone that doesn’t like Chinese food or Italian food? As a society we no longer consume as much meat per capita as we once did. Fruits and vegetables have crept into our diets, they were not forced upon us. No one was told they had to eat Chinese or Italian or Mexican food. The food is good and appeals to our American taste buds!

I wonder if anyone has ever taken stock of the books on the Best Seller list to see how many have a liberal bent to them and how many a conservative bent.

Even the books about macho male topics -- like soldiers, private detectives, police, etc: -- have liberal ideas mixed in. Examples are: attitudes towards sex, women’s roles, concern/compassion for those harmed. They display emotions, fight for justice for those wrongly accused. The Super Heroes of the comic books and movies use their super powers to fight for the rights of the oppressed and for justice. They fight against authoritarianism, strict Father Morality, and World View that exploits others.

The culture creep leaped ahead with the World Wars when so many men left communities to fight. Women had to step in to fill the manufacturing jobs and be the sole caregivers for their children. They discovered they had skills and abilities they didn’t know they had. They also liked what they found out about themselves.

Referring to the young men drafted into the service, they said:

"How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they have seen Paris?"

There was no way women would settle back into domestic home life after having a taste of what they could do outside the home. More importantly I realize that once "the cat has been let out of the bag there is no way you can stuff it back in again." OR if you prefer a different metaphor: "once the water has gone over the dam, or under the bridge or down the river" it is gone, and you will never get it back!

Take a look at the Ads on TV. Cereal nurtures you; nurturing men change diapers and do the laundry; cars surround you in nurturing luxury -- there may be power under the hood or all-wheel drive and safety features, but luxury sells cars. Even rugged tough American Trucks advertise their "softer-nurturing-luxurious" amenities. Nurturing images sell products and in the process change attitudes subtly, slowly but surely.

My point here is that Liberal ideas/attitudes/changes have occurred gradually and become accepted as natural parts of mainstream culture. Gradually, momentum reached a point that the changes, where necessary, could be codified into our legal system. This includes child labor laws; anti-discrimination laws against people of color, other religious, cultural and ethnic traditions, women -- and now homosexuals and transgender folk and of course same sex marriage.

The laws supporting same-sex marriage came after enough gay people had come "out of the closet" to their friends and families. Their friends especially (and some family members) accepted them and came to respect them for who they are as human beings. This turned the tide and motivated legislators to change laws to protect minority rights. These attitudes towards homosexuals changed gradually over many years. Conservatives don’t seem to grasp this important point. Liberal ideas have gradually crept in and been absorbed into our American culture before the Conservative forces fully realized what was happening.

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Part 3 Bullying and White Supremacy:

One point Conservatives don’t seem to get is this: People simply don’t like to be forced or bullied into doing something. Conservatives certainly think that same-sex marriage has been forced upon them and they don’t like it. Actually it is just the final step in a long slow process. Conservatives simply refused to acknowledge that changes were occurring all around them until it was too late for them to do anything that would reverse the momentum.

The Liberal sees the Strict Father model as a bullying model (and in some cases as a justification for White Supremacy). People like their independence. When push comes to shove, they will push back and chose a world view model that encourages them to go their own way rather than bow down to some other person’s way!

After all, this is the American Way, rugged, self-reliant independence, free from oppressive and repressive forces! The Strict Father morality and world view justifies and sanctifies bullying, oppression and repression.

Liberals believe that governments and our legal system should be used to insure that the "American Way" applies to everyone, not just to some. If this means restricting some individual/business/corporate rights in order to protect the health and well being of workers, the environment, and the general public from exploitation, greed, injustice, pollution; then that is the ONLY moral option to take. Liberals shouldn’t hesitate in stating that any action that harms or has the potential to harm others or fails to right a past wrong is immoral. Strict Father "Morality" isn’t moral.

Conservatives see this as an attack, a repudiation, a rejection of their entire World View. In my opinion, they are right, it is!

  • "For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven." Bible: Ecclesiastes 3.

  • "In fact, for all things there is a time for going ahead, and a time for following behind" Tao Teh Ching: 29.

The Times have changed. People have grown in their understanding of themselves, the world, and other people. People’s and societies' needs have changed.

In my opinion the time for Strict Father morality and World View has passed. It is time to move ahead and upward with a World View and new system of Morality that is better suited for our multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious life in this 21st Century, so that everyone has the opportunity to not only survive but to thrive.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. book cover George Lakoff, "Moral Politics, How Liberals and Conservatives Think," Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store. 1361 Amazon customers, rated this book with 4.5 out of 5 stars. All three numbers are unusually high for a book on this topic.

    A typical review was written by a Mark Bell:
    "I first heard about this book when two of my friends, a staunch atheist and an evangelical pastor, were both raving about it. What ?! I had to read it for myself. Wow! Just finished, and I can't recommend it highly enough for any owner/operator of a human mind and/or conscience! It's hard to explain how an empirically-based, research-oriented book could be well-written and take you on a tour of intellectual, social, and philosophical history and thought without somehow getting lost in the tall grass. If you've caught yourself wondering how those "damn liberals/conservatives" could even think such things, take some time to find out why."
  2. Seen on Page 33 of the above book.

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Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys
Originally posted on: 2019-FEB-20
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