Friday, April 08, 2005

Lakoff's Back

Lakoff is back in the blogosophere, with the "Nurturant parent" metaphor under attack again. And as before, I can't let Lakoff discussions go without saying something myself. The discussion started when Ezra Klein argued that we should "let go of the Lakoff," specifically because the "Nurturant Parent" metaphor makes liberals look weak. Lindsay responded by noting that the "Nurturant Parent" metaphor isn't meant to be used as a frame, but as "a tool to figure out where other people are coming from," to which Ezra responded by saying that whatever the metaphor is for, taking the "nurturant" world view leaves us looking weak, and perhaps even acting weak (I'm not sure, in the second post, whether Ezra is arguing that we should change our metaphor, or change our world view). Lindsay quickly responded, writing, "Maybe we should get rid of the parent labels altogether and concentrate on the substance of each set of metaphors." In between and after these posts, there were posts all over the place commenting on the Ezra-Lindsay exchange (see here, here, here, here, here, and here).

First, here's what I think most of the discussants agree on. Lakoff is onto something when he says that Democrats have, for some time, been talking about the issues in Republican terms, and this means that we need to start framing these issues in terms that reflect our own views, and how they differ from Republicans'. Given the success of the Republican Party over the last decade or two, it's hard to argue against Lakoff on these points. Where people disagree, then, is on how to go about it.

Lakoff himself uses the "Nation as a Family" metaphor to characterize the general American mode of thinking about politics. From this he derives two familial metaphors, "Strict Father" and "Nurturant Parent" morality, to describe the two dominant world-views in American politics. The two parental metaphors, characterizing conservatives and liberals respectively, derive from the Nation as a Family metaphor, and our representations of political issues derive from the overarching political metaphor along with the particular parental morality metaphor to which we happen to adhere. Lindsay is right, then, that Lakoff doesn't intend for liberals to use the "Nurturant Parent" as a frame in political discussions, though he is certainly using it as a frame himself. However, I think Ezra's also right when he says that the "Nurturant Parent" metaphor isn't a good one, even if we're only using it to describe the liberal world view at an abstract level. In fact, like Lindsay in her second post, I think both parental metaphors are problematic, especially in combination.

The problem is evident in rampant the misunderstandings of the metaphors that both conservatives and liberals have displayed. A good metaphor, and especially a good frame, will lead people to represent your position, or your world view, in a way that is at least consistent with that position or world view. But as Ezra analysis of the "Nurturant Parent" metaphor shows, this is not what is happening. The problem arises from the comparison of "Strict Father" with "Nurturant Parent," and it's Lakoff's fault. It's his fault because he seems to be completely unfamiliar with the vast cognitive scientific literature on comparison. This might be excusable were Lakoff not in fact a cognitive scientist, and one who studies metaphor, to boot, but someone in Lakoff's position should know better.

As I recently discussed, comparisons are important. In a sense, the mapping between two domains (e.g., "Strict Father" and "Nurturant Parent") serves as a frame in itself. Because of this, it's imperative that in attempting to label and describe our positions and world views, we make sure that in likely comparisons, the predicates we want to highlight --those we want others to explicitly represent-- are, in fact, highlighted. We can do this by insuring that the common structure of our frames (be they metaphors, analogies, or anything else), the predicates we want to highlight in our domain are alignable in the comparison domain (i.e., there is a corresponding predicate, in a corresponding position, in the structure of the comparison domain). It's clear from all of the misunderstandings of Lakoff's parental metaphor comparison that he has not done this. Our representation of Strict Father, be it because of the word "Strict," or because of the masculinity of "Father," appears to include strength, whereas the corresponding predicate in Nurturant Parent appears to be something other than strength (perhaps weakness) in the corresponding position. But Lakoff makes it clear that the Nurturant Parent goes out of its way to protect its children, which should imply strength. The problem, then, is to present the liberal world view in such a way that strength predicate in its representation is alignable with strength, at least on issues such as terrorism, in the conservative world view.

I wish I had a really good suggestion for a pair of contrasting metaphors to use to label the prototypical conservative and liberal world views, but I don't. As Lakoff's failure makes clear, it isn't easy to come up with metaphors that work. Lindsay's suggestion (in her second post) that we just call the world views models Y and Z doesn't really work, either. One of Lakoff's insights is that the analogies we use (I call them analogies, while he would call them metaphors, but then his theory of conceptual metaphor is what's causing the all of the problems here) provide us with an entire structure of inferences, further analogies (or metaphors), and labels with which we can reason about and describe political issues. Y and Z don't provide us with much structure. Furthermore, I think the "Nation is like a Family" analogy is a good starting point. Research on political analogies has shown that the best analogies are those to highly familiar domains, and domains don't get much more familiar than family for most people. And since the government is the head of the family, parental analogies are the most straightforward. But we're going to have to get rid of "father," because it explicitly invites a gender contrast. No matter how hard he tries, Lakoff can't make people represent the "Nurturant Parent" as gender-neutral, when he contrasts it with a metaphor that implies a gender (once the gender predicate has a value on one side of the comparison, it begs for one on the other). "Strict" and "nurturant" are probably going to have to go, as well. I would suggest "Authoritarian Parent" and "Democratic Parent" (the contrast coming from personality research, and capturing the traits that Lakoff describes), but that would probably create a bunch of pissed off conservatives.

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