Thursday, October 28, 2004

Once More into the Breach

OK, this is my last post about Lakoff before the elections, but someone has to clear up some misconceptions. So here goes:

  1. "Strict Father" and "Nuturant Parent" moralities are meant to describe all conservatives and liberals. This is not in fact the case. Instead, they are meant as prototypes around which conservative and liberal world-views cluster. Lakoff's work draws heavily on Prototype Theories of concepts popularized in the 1970s by Rosch and Mervis1. In these theories, prototypes are central tendencies, or mean or median instance of a concept abstracted across many instances of the concept. The features represented in the prototype are the most characterisic (in the sense of being present in the most instances) of the concept. Some instances of a concept are more typical than others by virtue of sharing more of these characteristic features. However, some members of a category will, in fact, share very few of the characteristic features. Thus, under the prototype view of concepts, instances of a concept have a "family resemblance" to each other, rather than sharing necessary and sufficient features, and some members of a category will actually be more similar to members of a contrasting category than to members of the same category. The classic example used to illustrate prototype theories is the concept BIRD. A robin is a highly typical instance of the BIRD concept (at least for people raised in the United States), while the emu is not. Bats share many perceptual features with birds, and few features with many mammals, but are in fact highly untypical members of the concept MAMMAL rather than fairly typical members of the concept BIRD. There are a lot of problems with prototype theories (e.g., how do you explain bats as mammals without some sort of causal theoryl or definitional property?), making Lakoff's reliance on them troublesome, but it's important to realize that this is what his two moral metaphors are. For more on Lakoff's view of concepts, and how it relates to his political theories, read Chapter 17 of his Moral Politics, as well as this excellent post at Semantic Compositions.

  2. "Nurturant Parent" means "Nurturant Mother." This seems to be a common misconception, and it has been argued against well here and here. Lakoff uses the term "parent" instead of "mother" in order to avoid this misconception, but in a way he brings it on himself. By contrasting "Nurturant Parent" with "Strict Father" morality, he naturally invites the father-mother contrast. However, the Nurturant Parent is meant to embody both feminine and masculine traints. Here is a short characterization of the Nurturant Parent world-view from Lakoff:

    In the Nurturant Parent family, it is assumed that the world is basically good. And, however dangerous and difficult the world may be at present, it can be made better, and it is your responsibility to help make it better. Correspondingly, children are born good, and parents can make them better, and it is their responsibility to do so. Both parents (if there are two) are responsible for running the household and raising the children, although they may divide their activities. The parents' job is to be responsive to their children, nurture them, and raise their children to nurture others.Nurturance requires empathy and responsibility.

    As this description makes clear, the use of the term "parent" instead of "mother" is not just meant to clear up confusion, but also to highlight the fact that within the nurturant parent world-view, both parents take part in child rearing on an equal footing with similar roles. The use of "Father" in Strict Father morality, while it may invite confusion, is meant to contrast the conservative "paternalistic" world-view with this less male-dominant one.

  3. "Framing" is a clever euphemism for "spinning." This seems to be the almost universal reaction to Lakoff's political theory among conservatives, but is also shared by some liberals. It's probably true that Lakoff's advice and techniques could be used for spin, but that is not what he advocates at all. Instead, what Lakoff wants liberals to do is to start describing their views in terms of their values, something he thinks Republicans do (often deceptively) very well. Here is a short description of the project and the reason it's needed:

    Progressives must rethink their policy goals in terms of values. There are always underlying moral reasons for supporting certain policies and opposing others. The first task then becomes identifying the values behind any given policy.

    The temptation for progressives is usually to talk about policies in terms of statistics: affirmative action is necessary because African Americans make up 14.7% of the current college-aged population but only 8% of college students. Seat belt laws are needed because 9,200 people died needlessly in motor vehicle accidents in 2000, and because injuries to less than one-half of 1% of the population cost the rest of us $26 billion. This may be true. But eyes and ears glaze over at statistics if they aren’t contextualized in terms of values. The question progressives don’t often answer explicitly is: Why do these statistics matter to us?

    Lakoff feels that an exclusive focus on the facts, without detailing the values that make facts "good" or "bad," puts liberals at a disadvantage. Instead of "spinning" the facts, then, he wants liberals to include a description of why the facts matter from the perspective of liberal values. This is what he means by "framing." And this is why he sees "framing" in terms of values as important:

    Americans believe that leaders should have a moral core that informs what they do. This moral core is seen as more important than one’s stance on any particular issue. George W. Bush is perhaps the best example of this in recent memory. He summed it all up in the 2000 campaign, when, after facing criticism for his lack of mastery of foreign policy details, he responded: “I may not know where Kosovo is, but I know what I believe.”

    Progressives hear this and tear their hair out: How could the President of the United States actually boast about his lack of knowledge? And who really cares what he believes if he doesn’t know what he’s doing?

    For better or for worse, however, most Americans do believe that values are important when choosing leaders. This shouldn’t surprise us, given that the American democratic system—in contrast to so many European democracies—involves choosing a person, rather than a party. Parties are about policies, but people are about values.

So, there you have it, three misconceptions, and three attempts to explain why they're wrong. I hope this helps. More than likely, conservatives will still see "framing" as synonymous with "spinning," and "Nurturant Parent" as a label for a feminine world-view. In part, this is because Lakoff's own inadequate descriptions of the prototypical conservative and liberal world-views (both of which are thoroughly critiqued here and here). If I were a conservative, I would be offended by his caricature of me, or at least of the prototype of my political world-view, as well. Lakoff's larger point is an excellent one, but as I've said on many occasions, his own use of it is highly problematic, and in most cases, highly impractical as well.

UPDATE: I just realized that I left out the reference to the Rosch and Mervis paper, which I'd meant to include in a footnote. This is what I get for blogging in a fit of insomnia. It's a shame, too, because this paper is one of the classic papers in cognitive science, and presents some excellent experiments which have inspired many future experiments. Anyone interested in cognitive science in general, and concept research in general, should read the paper. So, here it is:

1 Rosch, E., & Mervis, C.B. (1975). Family resemblances: Studies in the internal structure of categories. Cognitive Psychology, 7, 573-605. There is a draft of a good paper on prototypes by James Hampton here, as well.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps we just have in mind different ideas of what 'spin' is; but 'framing' arguably is a euphemism for 'spinning', since spinning is just the description of fact to fit with one's point of view or values. Since this is what framing is, and since framing has the same function in the language as spinning without the negative associations, it seems quite right to consider 'framing' a euphemism for 'spinning' (that this is in fact so seems to be clear when Lakoff talks about conservative framing).

Of course, one can hold, with some reason, I think, that 'euphemism' is not quite the right word because some things called 'spinning' are entirely reasonable. But that's a different route, and requires giving the situation a more favorable spin than it usually gets!

Also, while I think (1) is technically correct, I'm not so sure Lakoff manages to have the careful and sophisticated touch with descriptions it really requires. In his hands it always seems to verge not only on caricature but on the straight stereotyping of people; and it's hard to find more than a rare recognition of the actual complication of the situation in Lakoff's writings. I think you're right about (1) and (2), but I think Lakoff really sets himself up badly; as I think I've said before, I think Lakoff frames the discussion of framing very poorly. 

Posted by Brandon

Anonymous said...

Brandon, I think you're absolutely right about "spinning," and I actually considered drawing a distinction between spinning in general and deceptive spinning, but since "spinning" almost universally means something negative in public discourse these days, I figured I'd leave it this way. Framing is spinning in the sense that it combines the facts with a point of view, but it's not meant to be deceptive spinning, in the sense that it takes a point of view and uses it to distort the facts.

On the second point (about #1), I think Lakoff does a fairly good job of pointing this out in the book (in Chapter 1, Chapter 17, and Chapter 18), but he almost never mentions it in the Rockridge publications, or in interviews. So, his highly caricatured/stereotyped version of conservatives, and his odd presentation of liberals, throw people off. Most prototypes will probably look like caricatures, but unless you continually explain to people that they are prototypes, and may not be consistent with any single instance, you're asking for trouble. 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

I just realized my references were a little obscure; when I talk about (1) or (2) being 'technically correct', I meant not the misconception but your response. 

Posted by Brandon

Anonymous said...

I just realized my references were a little obscure; when I talk about (1) or (2) being 'technically correct', I meant not the misconception but you're response. 

Posted by Brandon

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