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Monday, January 09, 2006

George Lakoff Frames Progressive Morality: Part I

The Topic that Dare Not Speak Its Name: Morality

This is the first of a series on George Lakoff's book Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think. George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley and Democratic party strategist, is a leader in the relatively new discipline of cognitive linguistics, which combines the study of language usage and the mental processes involved in concept formation. Lakoff also wrote last year's New York Time's best seller, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives. Over the next week or two, I will take a look at the problem he is trying to solve for Progressives, the methodology he uses, the application he has made to moral discourse, and finally I will offer a critique of his project as it relates to the traditional issues of morality and ethics.

Though it was probably not the determining factor in the 2004 election, the "moral vote" entered into the public awareness as President Bush took his second term in office. The general--and vague-- perception was that the Democratic Party had been taken over by a secular, anti-religious faction and, for all its faults, the Republican Party was America's only hope for preserving its moral heritage. Whether or not this perception was justified, the hard reality is that the existence of a political party depends upon its ability to win elections and the Democratic Party seems to think it must capture (or recapture) the moral high ground if it going to win elections in the future.

However, the Democratic Party has a problem. It has marketed itself as the big tent party. It is the workers' party. It is the minorities' party. It is the party of the poor and oppressed. It is the party of civil rights for race, gender, and sexual orientation. It is the party of progress. It is the party of diversity. Democrats are egalitarians. They value equality of result above all else.

Traditional morality is not about equality, it is about right and wrong. It is about justice. To say "we are all equal under the law" is a at best a partial and misleading truth. The truth is that the law separates law-keepers from law-breakers. We are not all actually equal under the law because under the historically real operations of the law some are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, while others are not. In terms of concrete, material realities there is no such thing as equality under the law. We can imagine it as an ideal antecedent state of relation, but in the historical outworking of our real social behavior, it is a fiction. The law can, and should be, blind to race, gender and wealth, but it is not blind to lawlessness.

The Democratic Party has not been identified with "law and order" because its idealized view of equality has led it down a path that makes it sympathetic toward those who have been judged under the law. If you raise equality as a virtue over justice as a virtue it creates a real tension in the way you regard "criminals". People who break the laws that protect the citizenry cannot be ignored, but neither is it right to merely punish them if equality trumps other concerns or virtues.

In this day of the therapeutic society, this tension is resolved by interpreting criminal behavior along the same lines as diagnosing biological illness. Criminals are not evil, they are ill. They do not deserve punishment, they need therapy. Those prone to sociopathic behavior are just as entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as everyone else. Therefore, the public has a responsibility to provided them with all the necessary rehabilitative protocols it takes for them to achieve the American Dream.

Traditional morality is highly resistant to social engineering. When we say a code of conduct is "traditional" it implies that it cannot be changed much without abandoning the tradition. This is a hindrance to a party committed to progressive ends. It is inevitable that developments and fashions in technology and psychology will clash with the established codes of conduct: views of marriage and family, personal responsibility, birth control, cloning, euthanasia, sexuality, etc.

Traditional morality is also grounded in religion. The Democratic Party is not hostile toward all forms of religion. The difference between the Democratic and Republican view of religion is not easy to explicate. I will have more to say on this later. A this point in the analysis, all that can be said is that, in the Republican Party, there is a willingness to allow some policy to be grounded in religious values, especially Judeo-Christian values, while in the Democratic Party there is an unwillingness to allow any policy to be so grounded, especially if it's a Judeo-Christian value. While the actual difference is subtle, the net effect is a Democratic Party that seems completely ungrounded in any of its values.

Due to these and other issues the Democratic Party has allowed its secular, anti-religious members to influence its rhetoric with regard to morals. The erosion of its moral vocabulary has indeed led it into an impoverished condition. For all its high ideals, it appears to lack a solid foundation upon which to rest its morality. Why bother fighting for racial equality if humanity is nothing more than a multi-colored material accident? What's the use of promoting gay rights if in so doing you appear to be undermining the foundations of social order?

In its desperation to win elections, many in the Democratic Party, especially within its secular, anti-religious segment, have turned to George Lakoff who seems to offer the provision of a positive moral vocabulary to those who don't do morality. In the next part of this series, I’ll provide some more explanation of how his discipline of cognitive linguistics is being brought to the aid of Democratic strategists.

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