Thursday, September 16, 2004

Karl Rove the Feminist Bankteller

Paperweight's Fair Shot has two posts (Part I and Part II on the Age of "Post-Reason Politics." According to Paperweight, this age is characterized by the following outlook:

1. Act as if there are no facts. There are simply things that people say or believe, and other things that other people say or believe.
2. Act as if there is no causation. There are simply things that people do and other things that happen. There is no connection.

Paperweight notes that this view of our age is consistent with the political writings of George Lakoff, in which he describes the use of "framing," and argues that all political discourse is built around a system of metaphors, or frames1. Paperweight believes that while many in the general public will be swayed by truth, many others won't. Of the latter, he writes:

[They] will continue to rely on heuristics, on shortcuts, on faith... [They] are easily manipulated by people, like Rove, Atwater, and their colleagues in the right-wing noise machine. The irony, of course, is that the manipulators are not themselves imprisoned by heuristics or their own manipulations. They understand exactly what they're doing, how to use all of the levers of power that they're wrenching out of the hands of the people, and exactly how they'll benefit.

In the second post, Paperweight offers an explanation for this new age of politics. He writes:

So, why is this possible, this wholesale contemporary rejection of the fundamental lessons about facts and causation, so hard-won over the last few centuries? I think it's because as a species, we've outstripped our ability to comprehend our world. Humans evolved to survive in small communities where the primary threats were physical, and almost everything that happened could be divided into two categories: simple physical problems that could be solved by heuristics (e.g. the intuitive Newtonian physics of throwing a spear) or complicated happenings that were relegated to the category of the supernatural (e.g., illness or pretty much any non-obvious causal connection). Social interactions were likewise based on heuristics, at least in part. That was modified by living in small communities, where you saw everyone over and over again, so that you could correct your misimpressions. It's hard, if you live in a small community, to outlive a reputation as a liar or a cheat, or a witch, if so accused.

He goes on to expand on this in some detail. I think it's safe to say that this explanation is less than parsimonious, and may be empirically questionable as well. For one, it's a good bet that humans outstripped our ability to comprehend the world as soon as we started forming large communities, cultures, and societies. Even ancient physics, to say nothing of Newtonian physics, aren't really very intuitive. Our "folk physics" is actually quite inconsistent with both. Throughout the history of human culture, it's reasonable to assume that the vast majority of people in any given society continued to rely on heuristics, faith, etc., to make decisions. It's simply the way our mind works, as people like Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have shown over and over again. This is Lakoff's point as well. Even though a select few have been able to overcome superstitions, and to reason effectively inspite of their innate tendency to use suboptimal/irrational heuristics, most of us go through life clinging to these. Furthermore, even the most enlightened among us are bound by our world-view, and subject to the limiting effects of the confirmation bias, as the history of even post-Enlightenment science has shown over and over again.

The irony, then, is not that the Enlightenment has produced a world so complex that people have to fall back on heuristics, faith, and irrational beliefs to make decisions. They have always done this, even in the height of the Enlightenment. Instead, the irony is that scientific techniques born of the Enlightenment have taught us enough about the ways in which humans make decisions that there are now more and more among the select few who have learned to take advantage of these facts about the human mind. Furthermore, the Enlightenment has done an excellent job of allowing larger and larger segments of the population to participate in the political process. Instead of politics being the domain of educated, land-owning white males, anyone over 18 who hasn't been convicted of a felony can vote. This means that the largest segment of the population, the individuals who have not been as radically transformed by Enlightenment knowledge as the select few, now have a powerful political voice. Thus, the select few have a vested interest in learning how to manipulate this voice.

Unfortunately, it is conservatives who have learned to manipulate this voice the most effectively. As Paperweight and George Lakoff both note, it is the Karl Roves and Lee Atwaters of the world (to say nothing of the Ann Coulters and Rush Limbaugh's of the world, who are both products of manipulation, and excellent practitioners of it) who are now excelling at using lies and clever misrepresentations of the facts to manipulate large segments of the population to vote against their own interests. Liberals, for better or worse, still demonstrate the Enlightenment commitment to truth, at least in practice. This may be because they haven't learned the lessons about human decision making that conservatives have, or it may be because liberals really are more committed to Enlightenment principles. The cynic in me suspects the former is the case. Regardless, the question for liberals today is, how do we overcome the more developed conservative ability to deceptively frame political discussions in ways that are beneficial to their own interests? Clearly, liberals must develop a better understanding of how people make decisions. How they use that understanding is likely to generate a great deal of debate among those involved in liberal politics. Do we manipulate people with lies and deceit, as conservatives are doing so successfully today, or do we learn to use this understanding in combination with the facts to frame the political discussion in ways that are both consistent with our ideology and politically expedient2?

CORRECTION: Paperweight is in fact Paperwight! I had read it "Paperweight" every time. You've gotta love the role of top-down processes and expectations on language perception.

1 Contrary to Paperweight's assertion, Lakoff's view of frames still involves the existence of empirical facts (Lakoff even uses such to justify his liberalism). However, the way these facts are used to form a coherent world-view, and interpreted within that world view, is dependent on the use of a system of frames.
2 This latter route is the one that Lakoff wants us to take. He and the other researchers at the Rockridge Institute are committed to findingg ways to do this within the perspective of contemporary liberalism, and to teaching liberal politicians how to use this knowledge effectively.


Anonymous said...

Hey, so 3 things.

(1) It's PaperwIght, not PaperwEight. Common mistake, my fault entirely for choosing that particular nom-de-blog.

(2) I apologize for the shortcomings of the argument (most particularly for the prose). You've made points which I understand, and which I either failed to consider, or failed to make clear.

(3) I think you may misconstrue my criticism of Lakoff. It's not a criticism at all, but rather a lament that this is the way that the actual facts have to be packaged. I don't think that Lakoff himself believes there aren't facts (for that matter, I don't think Karl Rove believes that), merely, that in order to really drive political actions, you have to *act* as if those things don't matter in packaging the frames, and hew to your positions regardless of the validity of any rebuttal or attack.

In any event, thank you for reading, and thank you for the thoughtful criticism.

Chris said...

Wow, until this moment, I had not noticed that it was Paperwight! My mind automatically filled in the "e." I'd correct it, but I think it's too interesting a cognitive phenomenon.

Sorry for any misunderstandings I may have had of the points you were making. In particular, I see now that I jumped on your citation of Lakoff unfairly. Conservatives in particular are fond of lumping him with the postmodern relativists (who don't actually exist) who believe that there are no facts, only interpretations (in this case, linguistic and conceptually-determined interpretations). I'm not quite sure why I am always so quick to defend him, as I'm not particularly fond of his work, but as with your name, I read "Lakoff" and "no facts" and my mind filled in the blanks.

Also, I don't think your arguments were wrong, but that they were just a little off center. I do think its the Enlightenment's fault, but for different reasons. I also believe that the "heuristics" have always been the way people make decisions, and that it wasn't always so evident in politics (at least not until the 20th century) because so few people actually participated in politics. Still, I think you can see the results of irrational decision making in politics, even in the early products of the Enlightenment (e.g. the French Revolution).

Let's hope that more left-leaning intellectual folk like Lakoff start to notice what's going on, whatever the causes. Let's hope that those who do don't have the kooky theories of human cognition that Lakoff does, too.

Bora Zivkovic said...

I hope that the fact that new Lakoff's "Self-help" book "Don't Think of an Elephant" (or: "How to win an election against a conservative opponent") has been sold out before it came out is a sign that the Dems are waking up to the whole issue of "framing".

I understand they printed 100,000 and I still did not get my copy because the first batch went to the campaign staff etc.

Joe G said...

With some further chronological displacement to add perspective, I feel I can add a few things:

As Language Log and others note, Bush lost the Social Security Reform framing battle, so badly that he may in fact fail to accomplish any reform in that area _or Medicaid_ at all. Which is almost a pity. Almost. And with the result that he squandered - not spent, simply lost - a vast amount of his political capital.

Why, lately I saw a poll in a (pro-Democrat) city paper that said that Americans still support the Iraq war... but now oppose Bush. Victory!

Also, Kerry pretty thoroughly lost the framing battle over Kerry and over Bush. Pity, that.

Next Democratic candidate I support will, deus volent, understand that persuasive framing matters, even when you're telling the truth and the other guy's lying out both sides of his face.

Also: thanks to Language Log for the extensive pointers, and Read My Blawg -

Unused & Probably Unusable.

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