The Case of the Missing Concepts

Hypocognition, in cognitive linguistics, means missing and being unable to communicate cognitive and linguistic representations because there are no words for particular concepts.”

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The enthusiasm for evidence-based medicine (EBM) has not been accompanied by the same success in bridging the gap between theory and practice. This paper advances the hypothesis that the phenomenon psychologists call hypocognition may hinder the development of EBM. People tend to respond to frames rather than to facts. To be accepted, a theory, however robust, must fit into a person’s mental framework. The absence of a simple, consolidated framework is referred to as hypocognition. Hypocognition might limit the application of EBM in three ways. First, it fails to provide an analytical framework by which to orient the physician in the direction of continuous medical development and variability in individual people’s responses. Second, little emphasis is placed on teaching clinical reasoning. Third, there is an imbalance between the enormous mass of available information and the practical possibilities. Possible solutions are described. We not only need more evidence to help clinicians make better decisions, but also need more research on why some clinicians make better decisions than others, how to teach clinical reasoning, and whether computerised supports can promote a higher quality of individualised care.”

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Americans, especially, suffer from what linguists call hypocognition: the lack of a core concept we need in order to thrive. The missing concept is of democracy as a way of life; democracy not as a set system–something done to us, for us, finished and done–but as a set of system values that usefully apply in all arenas of life. In the dominant, failing idea of democracy, society is a subset of economic life. To make the needed planetary turn to life, we must envision the opposite: economic life re-embedded in society guided by shared human values, including fairness, inclusion, and mutual accountability.”

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Frances Moore Lappe (Hope’s Edge, 2002) makes the case that often politicians and corporations use terms that leave us suffering from “hypocognition.” Hypocognition results when a term is used to conjure up all-positive images to prevent us from understanding what is really going on. For example, hypocognition makes it hard for the public to believe there can be anything wrong with “globalism” or “free trade,” which sound like the apple pie and motherhood of the 21st century. It is easy for the press to portray those who protest against “free trade” as fringe lunatics.

“Ms. Lappe coined the term “primitive marketism” as a more appropriate name for what has become the accepted standard of world trade over the last 20 years — that the single principle of highest return to existing wealth is the sole driver of the world-wide system of production and exchange. That leaves cultural integrity, human rights, environmental protection, and even the ability of people to feed themselves as inconsequential to multinational corporations reaching around the world for opportunities for the highest return to existing wealth.

“As much as the term “primitive marketism” helps identify problems inherent to the way global trade is structured today, it takes a bit of bending of the mind and tongue to use it. It seems to me that a term that more immediately and clearly identifies where we are headed with world trade — a term which leaves no room for hypocognition — is “corporate colonialism.””

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This perspective on reason matters to the discussion in this forum about global warming, because many people engaged in environmentalism still have the old, false view of reason and language. Folks trained in public policy, science, economics, and law are often given the old, false view. As a result, they may believe that if you just tell people the facts, they will reason to the right conclusion. What actually happens is that the facts must make sense in terms of their system of frames, or they will be ignored. The facts, to be communicated, must be framed properly. Furthermore, to understand something complex, a person must have a system of frames in place that can make sense of the facts. In the case of global warming, all too many people do not have such a system of frames in the conceptual systems in their brains. Such frame systems have to be built up over a period of time. This has not been done.” (pp. 72-73)

“Have you ever wondered why conservatives can communicate easily in a few words, while liberals take paragraphs? The reason is that conservatives have spent decades, day after day building up frames in people’s brains, and building a better communication system to get their ideas out in public. Progressives have not done that.” (p. 73)

“The right language is absolutely necessary for communicating ‘‘the real crisis.’’(p. 74)

“‘Hypocognition’ is the lack of ideas we need. We are suffering from massive hypocognition in the case of the environment.” (p. 76)

“An important frame is in throes of being born: The Regulated Commons – the idea of common, non-transferable ownership of aspects of the natural world, such as the atmosphere, the airwaves, the waterways, the oceans, and so on.” (p. 78)

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Not all corrections to hypocognition have to be heavy stuff, like grief and scientific advancement. One of my favorite authors tried to give everything a word. Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, put out a book with John Lloyd called, The Meaning of Liff. It started as a slightly-drunken party game, during which Adams and his friends picked out the names of English towns and pretended the names were words that they had to define. As they were coming up with different definitions, they realized that, as humans, they all shared common experiences that don’t have names.

“My favorite word of the book is “shoeburyness,” which is defined as “the vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat which is still warm from somebody else’s bottom.” Everyone has felt that. One author I read went to a strict college at which men were forbidden to sit in a seat directly after a woman vacated it, because he would feel her residual body heat and the dean of women considered that too sexual. But no one came up with a word for it. Once there is a word for it, people can begin to refer to it. What concept do you think needs a word? I nominate “splincing” — when you’re completely in the wrong, and hate it, and you daydream about someone wronging you so you can feel righteously aggrieved about something.”

Criticizing Mooney’s Praise of Haidt

In response to a post by Chris Mooney about Jonathan Haidt, I’ll compare and contrast The Righteous Mind and The Republican Brain. But I’ll begin with a more broad comparison.

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I’ve read both Haidt’s book and Mooney’s book. I’ve also read some of George Lakoff’s books (most specifically relevant is Moral Politics). I’ve read as well a fine book by Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler (Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics), of which I highly recommend. There are other authors and books I could mention, but I won’t for simplicity’s sake. 

Of these four, the book by Hetherington and Weiler was the most satisfying as an overview of what scientists presently know about ideology and polarization. The other books, in comparison, only sample this vast field. However, Lakoff’s book was most satisfying in offering the most generally useful framework (useful in explanatory power and useful in fairly describing both sides).

Going by a different standard, the books of Haidt and Mooney probably would be the most satisfying to the general reader. Both of them are good at clearly communicating what is otherwise complex and sprawling. It can’t be doubted that Haidt and Mooney have in combination brought this debate to the public in a way that hasn’t been done previously, although Lakoff must be given credit for paving the way.

For the rest of this post, I will solely focus on Haidt and Mooney.

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Personally, I prefer Mooney more than Haidt.

It’s not that Haidt fails in formulating an interesting hypothesis but it certainly requires more research and, I would add, better research. Mooney presented himself as being more intellectually humble in two ways. First, he remained closer to the research itself whereas Haidt constantly speculated and philosophized. Second, he was more upfront in acknowledging the complexities and uncertainties which probably is the reason he wasn’t prone to speculate and philosophize.

Mooney doesn’t attempt an overarching theory like Haidt’s moral foundations theory, instead just following the evidence. Mooney put forth some possible explanations, but he never formalized them into a singular inclusive theory. Mooney’s approach opens up discussion by not claiming to have it figured out. Haidt, on the other hand, can come off as too certain of his own research and arguments.

It’s surprising that Mooney doesn’t perceive the difference between his work and that of Haidt. It was Mooney’s book, among others, that helped me understand the deficiencies of Haidt’s approach.

The best example of this is the issue of research methods (the debate about which unfortunately doesn’t get enough attention in books directed at a more general readership). Haidt has relied on self-reports which are notoriously unreliable whereas Mooney presented reasearch that went way beyond self-reports. Haidt’s self-report research is useful as a preliminary step or else when corroborated by more reliable methods, but such research by itself isn’t adequate for the type of overarching theory he wants to prove.

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Related to this, I kept noticing how selectively Haidt used evidence.

It looked like he was often seeking evidence to fit his pet theory instead of a theory to fit all of the evidence, not that he was necessarily doing this intentionally and consciously. Such cherrypicking would even be expected from one part of his theory. Maybe he doubts the human capacity for objective reasoning based partly on self-observations. Or maybe based on the assumption of human unreason he felt it would be ineffective to appeal to the reasoning of his audience.

Considering the data intentionally or unintentionally excluded from the book, it wasn’t hard for me to find holes in Haidt’s arguments. He needed to do a more wide-ranging survey of data before presenting a theory. This, of course, assumes he wanted to present a rational defense in the first place (i.e., a logical argument that is fair and balanced). I suspect he was intentionally emphasizing persuasion more than reason which would make sense considering that is what he should do according to his own theory.

This does make his arguments challenging to analyze. The standard he was using to make his arguments probably aren’t the same standards I hold to in my own valuing of reason. It seems somewhat pointless to rationally analyze a theory that doubts the validity of rational analysis.

Let me make one thing particularly clear.

I don’t doubt his motives per se. I’m sure he has good intentions. In fact, it is because of his good intentions that, as a moderate or centrist or even right-leaning liberal, he wants to understand conservatives and wants to communicate in a way conservatives will understand. This is praiseworthy as a motivation but not praiseworthy in how Haidt acts on it, at least in the case of his book. Persuasion used to doubt reason is a very dangerous thing.

Haidt ends up bending over backwards to reach out to conservatives. He tries too hard to bring conservatives to his side and so as a consequence he is willing to sacrifice treating liberals fairly in his analysis of moral foundations, going so far as to dismiss large aspects of liberal morality and thus defining his entire theory according to conservative beliefs and values. In doing so, he cherrypicks the evidence which distorts his presentation and biases his argument.

Ironically, this causes his book to fail according to Haidt’s own standards. Instead of acting as a bridge over the divide, he simply switches from a former liberal bias to a conservative bias. This switching of biases doesn’t in any way achieve balance or promote mutual respect and understanding.

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Haidt falls into the typical liberal trap of “The Cult of Centrism”. The most famous example of this can be found in the mainstream media’s love of false equivalence.

It’s odd that Mooney doesn’t see this problem in Haidt as he is otherwise fully aware of this problem among liberals. Haidt wants to be reasonable or at least appear reasonable, but it is this very namby-pamby liberal impulse that ends up making him blithely unreasonable.

Mooney interestingly gives a slight nod to this fact at the end of the post in which he praises Haidt. Even so, he somehow concludes that Haidt essentially agrees with his book. This perception of agreement is shown even more clearly in another post by Mooney. I get the sense that there is more disagreement than either wants to let on… probably for reasons of presenting a strong defense against the naysayers both have faced. I also get the sense that Mooney just wants to stay on good terms with Haidt and so feels compelled to defend him against the criticisms Mooney would more objectively apply to a stranger.

Here is from the post linked above at the beginning of this post:

“I have differences with Haidt myself. Most importantly, I think the research he’s surveying–and the research he himself has done–adds up to a much tougher conclusion about political conservatism than he is willing to lead with (if you read between the lines, though…).”

So, the trick is that you have to read between the lines in order to discover what Haidt really meant. Methinks this is being overly generous.

I would argue that this problematic for any number of reasons.

Readers shoudn’t have to guess what an author actually meant, especially not in a book describing scientific research. Mooney didn’t write in such a convoluted or opaque manner. If Mooney is correct that Haidt wasn’t communicating as clearly and directly as he could have, then this is a major failing of his writing style if not a failing of his entire line of reasoning.

Furthermore, why does Mooney assume he knows Haidt’s secret thoughts and subtly implied meanings? One could read all kinds of potential meanings between the lines. Maybe Mooney is simply wanting to believe Haidt agrees with him more than he does and so is reading into Haidt’s bok something that isn’t there. Maybe Haidt wrote precisely what he meant to communicate without any hidden messages to be deciphered.

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This leaves me a bit confused. I’m not sure what Mooney ultimately thinks about Haidt’s book.

If we take the conservative bias away from Haidt’s argument, then we would have a very different theory than what Haidt presents. It seems Mooney would like to reinterpret Haidt’s book according to his own image. I’d be fine with rehabilitating Haidt’s theory by removing the problematic parts, but I doubt Haidt would like this as he doesn’t see those parts as problematic.

GOP Busted On Talking Points!

In the past, I’ve noticed various talking points being repeated using very similar and sometimes exact phrasing (). I was frustrated because most people don’t seem to notice this form of propaganda/brainwashing. Even the liberal media in the past seemed oblivious to this technique used by conservatives. But it seems the liberal media is finally catching onto this game.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/24/gopers-parrot-lines-from-_n_710541.html

An extensive review of GOP campaign literature, floor speeches and public statements reveals that Republican candidates and officeholders routinely use GOP talking points verbatim in their speeches and campaign literature, while passing off the language as their own personal views.

Using the plagiarism detection software program iThenticate as well as Google and the Library of Congress, HuffPost found that more than 30 members of the House and Senate eschew originality when it comes to making their case.

A search for Democratic violations turned up far fewer instances. But if Democrats show less of a penchant for blatant copying, it may reflect their traditional unwillingness to follow the party line more than any higher ethical standards. Will Rogers’s oft-quoted declaration — “I’m not a member of any organized political party, I’m a Democrat” — has worn well over time.

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State of Confusion by Dr. Bryant Welch

p.136:

Advertising succeeds on the basis of repetition. Assert the reality you want over and over again. Be absolute and never tentative. Tentativeness encourages independent thinking. The more people think independently, the less malleable they are. If there is a gap between your position and common sense, simply rewire the connection with “associational logic” that obscures the gap. Associational logic… creates the illusion of logical connections where there are none.

pp. 143-4:

While the ostensible joke is that these people are all ike puppets articulating a canned message…, there is much more than that at play. If the same language is used, the words can be transformed from language into symbols. University of California at Berkley linguist George Lakoff writes:

When a word or phrase is repeated over and over for a long period of time the neural circuits that compute its meaning are activated repeatedly in the brain. As the neurons in those circuits fire, the synapses connecting the neurons in the circuits get stronger and the circuits may eventually become permanent, which happens when you learn the meaning of any word in your fixed vocabulary. Learning a word physically changes your brain, and the meaning of that word becomes physically instantiated in your brain.

Repeating over and over does not simply persuade someone that what is being said is true; it actually makes it true in the inner workings of the mind. The target audience may not even be aware that they have adopted the particular point of view in question, but a space that was once filled with uncertainty is now filled with an idea. Further, it is an idea shared by a very self-confident and powerful other person. If that idea is repeated over and over, it begins to play a symbolic role in the mind.

pp. 134-5:

Symbols, primitive emotional states, and repetition are not the only vulnerable aspects of the mind. Associational thinking also plays a key role in current political gaslighting. Sometimes it is very humbling to recognize the true nature of the mind. It is made out of symbols that are connected to one another by associations of emotional connections. What we think of as logical connectiosn play a much more limited role in mental functioning. This has tremendous implications not just for advertising, but also for political reality formation. Gaslighers can build emotional connections between symbols without their target audience really even knowing what is being done. In 2000, the Republican Party spent over two and a half million dollars running an advertisement attacking the Gore prescription plan that ahd the word rats written across it but that flashed with such speed that it was invisible to the naked eye. With today’s technology, people can literally build a connection in the mind between rats and an opponent’s policy position.

These same associational connections once established can also create a pseudologic in which associations create the illusion of logical connections used to support policies and positions that simply have no logic behind them. The fact that two items are in some way associated in the mind serves as a substitute for the formal logical connections that people associate with cause and effect and rational thought. The mind is tricked just as our eyes are tricked in a shell game. For an undiscerning audience, this can be very effective. People frequently do not appreciate, or even notice the role that highly subjective emotional states play in formulating what they take to be rational and logically constructed “thoughts.” Psychologist William James said, “People often think they are thinking when in fact they are just rearranging their prejudices.”

If these associational forms of “logic” lead to a pleasant emotional state such as a simplistic and self-gratifying conclusion about a difficult and complex problem, people are even less likely to challenge the faulty reasoning behind it. If one’s mind is saturated with images that are the psychological equivalent of a trademark that brands Fox News as fair and balanced, it will for many people completely override any assessment of whether Fox News is actually fair and balanced.

Conservative Moral Order & the Lazy Unemployed

I was just having a discussion about the conservative worldview. Many conservatives believe in meritocracy and that our society is a meritocracy. They assume that rich people deserve their wealth because they’ve somehow earned it or are somehow morally superior. The poor are therefore lazy and morally inferior. This is what George Lakoff calls the Moral Order principle of conservative Strict Father morality. It’s because of this Moral Order that conservatives complain about the rich getting taxed which they see as the government stealing from hardworking Americans. This, of course, ignores all the Americans who do work hard and all they get is the shaft from the wealthy elite.

It’s easy for some to think that this is just a liberal exaggeration, but sadly many conservatives do have such a warped view of reality. For example, Ben Stein made an interesting comment recently:

http://thinkprogress.org/2010/07/20/ben-stein-ui/

Writing at the American Spectator yesterday, former Nixon speechwriter and TV personality Ben Stein downplayed the suffering unemployed Americans are experiencing by writing that the people who are unemployed right now are “generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities.” He claims the unemployed are Americans with “unpleasant personalities…who do not know how to do a day’s work“:

The people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities. I say “generally” because there are exceptions. But in general, as I survey the ranks of those who are unemployed, I see people who have overbearing and unpleasant personalities and/or who do not know how to do a day’s work. They are people who create either little utility or negative utility on the job. Again, there are powerful exceptions and I know some, but when employers are looking to lay off, they lay off the least productive or the most negative. To assure that a worker is not one of them, he should learn how to work and how to get along — not always easy.

Of course, saying that the 15 million Americans who are unemployed right now are “generally” people with “poor work habits” is as offensive as it is wrong. The current recession is a global phenomenon caused by the collective bad behavior of the world’s largest financial institutions. Before the recession, the unemployment rate hovered around six percent; it is ludicrious to say that millions of Americans suddenly got lazier and less able to work within the span of a few months.

Conservative & Liberal Families: Observations & Comparison

This post is a continuation of my thoughts from my previous post.

Social Indebtedness: Strict Father Morality & Hierarchical Authority

I didn’t intend to have a second part, but I wanted to add more context for the ideas in question… which led to further thoughts. Some of the context of my thoughts is personal and I originally decided to leave out the personal for various reasons. Sometimes I prefer discussing ideas on their own merit. Also, I’m usually a bit reluctant to bring up certain personal experiences and observations, especially when they involve others.

The personal context I’m going to discuss relates to various families I’ve known over the years. I’m not, for the most part, going to speak about the details of specific examples and I won’t name specific people (but if you know me well enough, you might be able to guess). I’m going to take these specific examples and combine them so as to characterize similarities and dissimilarities between two general categories of family. These two categories are essentially conservative vs liberal (in the social, not political, sense), but I’m not theoretically generalizing about all conservative families and all liberal families. The examples I’m drawing from are limited to my experience of growing up as a middle class white person and so the families I’m considering are also middle class white families. Another similarity is that all or most of the these families were Christian… which is typical for the US. The main difference is that some of the families are from the South and some from the Midwest (which isn’t what divides the conservative and liberal families).

The main inspiration of my thoughts here is my having read George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics. In it, Lakoff discusses the conservative Strict Father family model and the liberal Nurturant Parent family model. Lakoff extends these models into the political sphere, but I won’t be doing that. As Lakoff points out, some people might use one model for one area of their life and use the other model for another area of life. For my purpose here, it doesn’t matter how respective families may vote or how they may otherwise act outside of the family. In case you’re interested, one of the “liberal” families I’m referencing has lived in the South for generations and so I wouldn’t be surprised if they voted Republican. I consider them liberal in terms of their parenting style (i.e., Lakoff’s Nurturant Parent). If you feel confused by what is meant by Lakoff’s labels, there is plenty of info that can be found on the web describing these parenting models (including some videos of Lakoff explaining it). To give a simplistic explanation, conservative parents emphasize their own authority (and emphasize punishment when their authority isn’t respected/obeyed) and liberal parents emphasize a more informal, egalitarian relationship to their children (and emphasize explaining to a child what they did wrong).

I should add that the types I’m going to describe only indirectly relate to Lakoff’s model. In a sense, I’ll be describing two sub-types (hopefully not stereotypes) that I’m familiar with (which may or may not fit the experience of others). So, there is a definite limitation to my following analysis. Like everyone, I’m biased by my own family experiences (my parents mostly parented according to Strict Father morality but they had some Nurturant Parent tendencies) and my own socio-political preferences (moderate liberalism with leanings towards civil libertarianism, socialism, and anarchism). I’m not claiming to be perfectly objective, but I am striving to gain understanding beyond mere subjective opinion.

For certain, this isn’t a fair comparison, but the unfairness of my making these two specific categories is simply based on what I’ve observed. Life itself is unfair. The two types of family I’m considering are of parents who seem to have had very different experiences themselves growing up. The conservative examples I’m drawing from grew up in what I’d consider (as a liberal) to be marginally dysfunctional families, either severely Strict Father households (with strict punishments) or else broken families (such as divorce). This doesn’t, however, mean these parents considered their own upbringing as having been dysfunctional or that these parents would necessarily see this as the motivating factor of their having used the Strict Father model for their own children. As for my examples of liberal parents, I also can’t comment on their perceptions of how they were treated growing up by their own parents. All that I can say about these two types of parents is that the liberal parents seemed to have maintained a closer relationship with their own parents… which I think is a telling detail.

Let me give further details.

The liberal parents I speak of remained in the same town, community, or region they grew up in. So, extended family lived nearby and were seen regularly by the children of these liberal parents (informal visits, holiday gatherings, family reunions, etc). The liberal parents’ children grew up in a more stable environment. They lived in the same neighborhood their whole life or maybe moved some distance within the same community. They grew up with the same neighbors and the children of neighbors. They grew up in the same school system and knew the same kids their whole lives. They went to the same church from childhood to adulthood.

Once upon a time, almost all families would’ve fit the description of my liberal family examples. Our society, however, has become increasingly mobile. The conservative parents in my sample moved around more… maybe because they didn’t want to remain in the same area that their own parents (and extended families) lived… or maybe because the parents thought it was part of their responsibility to be successful in their careers. Obviously, this led the children of these parents to have a less stable upbringing. I think this is very important since for most of human civilization people didn’t move around much. A mobile society is quite the social experiment. For whatever reason, the conservative parents in my sample were more willing to embrace this social experiment. I really don’t know what to make of this. I don’t see any reason why Strict Father parents might on average be more likely to move around than Nurturant Parent families. I couldn’t say why this pattern exists in the families with which I’m personally familiar (and I understand that my sampling is hardly representative).

I could point out a few possible reasons. In the US, conservative family values are defined in terms of the nuclear family. I was reading something recently (I can’t recall the source) of how these nuclear family values seem to be an extension of American individualism. Conservatives, in particular, believe in individual responsibility and, from the conservative perspective, the nuclear family is an extension of the individual’s responsibility. This focus on the nuclear family has the unintended consequence of undermining the importance of extended family and of community in general. Another possibility is that conservatives are attracted to the ideal of fiscal responsibility (of course, related to individual responsibility) and conservatives seem to have more respect for those who are highly successful in the business world (a sign of individual success and hence moral fitness/superiority). Does this lead to at least a certain type of conservative to be more willing to sacrifice other aspects of their lives (such as extended family and community) for the sake of career? Or could it be that parents with less social stability caused by moving around (meaning less family, friends, and neighbors to rely upon) are more likely to emphasize a stricter parenting style in response? My intuitive sense leans toward the latter.

Let me briefly explain my why I suspect the latter.

I was recently having a discussion with a friend about Lakoff’s book. He reminded me of the book Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff which is a book I’m somewhat familiar with. Liedloff shares her observations of tribal child rearing and it’s very different than what one might expect. Despite all the dangers, tribal parents as described by Liedloff seem fairly tolerant and trusting. It makes sense once you understand. To a tribal child, there are always adults and older children around. Tribal people don’t have jobs to go to. If they have work to do, they either bring their kids with them or leave them with someone else. Children are raised by the entire tribe. There is no need for strict rules about everyday behavior when there are so many people around to supervise. This less strict (i.e., liberal) parenting style is most easily re-created in the modern world with families that have remained in the same community for multiple generations (especially if the community is small and close-knit and/or if extended family has remained nearby). It’s only natural that parents without others to offer daily support will feel a need to rely upon more strict parenting to ensure children behave even when no adults are around.

However, as Lakoff points out, there are many reasons for why parents choose a particular parenting style. Some of these reasons are purely ideological. Also, I definitely think ideological tendencies are based in psychological attitudes that may relate to inheritable genetic predispositions. As for my samples, I can’t know the specific causes and motivations. Anyways, the reasons behind all of this are secondary, for my original intent, to the results. The real measure of liberal vs conservative parenting are the families themselves, specifically in how they relate to each other.

Let me give a specific example.

In one of the conservative families, the parents are critical of those who have personal problems. Such things as poverty and addiction are seen as signs of potential moral inferiority (a typical conservative attitude). Lakoff describes this in terms of the conservative notion of moral essence. Outward behaviors or lifestyles are seen as manifestations of an inherent character that each person possesses (hence, the reason why some conservatives value career so highly). This is the judgment that was behind Reagan’s allegation of poor black women as being “Welfare Queens”. So, one of these conservative parents critcized some other parents (I believe they were part of the extended family) for having let their grown son live at home. This grown son was, as I recall, a schizophrenic and drug addict. From the conservative viewpoint, these other parents were contributing to and supporting the grown son’s immoral behavior. I doubt this conservative was blaming the person for having schizophrenia, but it would seem that this conservative didn’t think the schizophrenic was doing enough to improve his life. If he had been in a drug rehabilitation program, the conservative’s judgment probably would’ve been different. For many conservatives, drug addiction is one of the worst possible sins because it’s both immoral and illegal (meaning all around irresponsible).

Let me compare that to one of the liberal families who has a grown son living at home. This grown son is an alcoholic, but otherwise has no problems and holds down a job. He still lives at home because he often needs to be given rides. His dad worries that if he didn’t live at home he might get in trouble or hurt himself trying to get home after drinking. These liberal parents are very protective and the conservative parents would say that the liberal parents are simply protecting the grown son from the real world consequences of his actions.

This is the part that relates back to the previous post which I linked at the beginning of this post.

The essential difference here seems to be how social indebtedness is perceived. The liberal parents believe family is obligated to each other and that such obligation doesn’t need to be morally earned. The conservative parents believe in necessity of morally earning what are perceived as moral rewards. I pointed out in the other post, h0wever, that hierarchical nature of conservative views on authority translates as this moral earning only working in one direction: from child to parent and not from parent to child. The conservative view is that the child is obligated to the parent without the parent needing to have earned it. I find this odd. The child of conservative parents can’t be sure he can rely upon his own parents to be there if he has personal troubles, in particular if those personal troubles are perceived as somehow failing the parents’ moral standards. The conservative parents would be confused, though, if the grown child later on didn’t act obligingly in taking care of the parents when they need help (such as when they grow old).

The question I wonder is: How many conservative parents would actually follow through on their own ideological values? It’s easy for a conservative parent to criticize the moral failings of other parents. But would they refuse to help their own child even if they perceive their child as having caused his own problems? It’s a genuine conflict. If they did help their child despite their own moral values, their actions would be hypocritical. Or is this hypocritical? Maybe there is a greater value at stake that trumps the conservative’s normal mode of righteous judgment. Maybe some conservative parents could realize, at least in the moment of genuine need, that their own love for their child means more to them than the family values their minister has preached about at church. The significant point is that such a situation is a conflict in the first place for conservative parents. For liberal parents, there is far less sense of conflict between enforcing moral standards and loving their child because the liberal parents are less likely to have as strict of an attitude about morality.

My personal assessment, of course, is that I side with the attitude of the liberal parents. The liberal families I’m thinking of are much closer and they seem more forgiving of each other’s imperfections. Also, they seem more willing to help eachother out on a regular basis. In conservative families, on the other hand, there is more conflict and more grudges. Among these, who wouldn’t want to belong to the liberal families? It’s not that the liberals are perfect, but that the imperfections become less of an issue. One factor that might relate to this is the general attitude towards ideology. The liberal families seem to be less overtly ideological in the sense that they don’t discuss or argue about ideology much. The liberal families spend time together simply enjoying each other’s company: cooking and eating, drinking, playing games, light conversation, etc.

I’m sure that there exists examples of happy and loving conservative families, but I just don’t personally know of them. Even so, I wouldn’t try to separate these families on the basis of measuring which parents are the most loving. I imagine that most parents perceive themselves as loving. There is some factor here, though, that does relate to love or rather the child’s experience of being loved. The conservative parents seem more formal in general. I know that one of the conservative families sat down to eat and pray together which none of the liberal families did. One of the liberal families had such an informal household that it was often chaotic. There usually was no sitting down together except to watch tv. As I recall, all of the liberal parents mostly let their kids do their own thing without a lot of rules and chores. None of the liberal parents were the type to ground their kids for breaking rules as the conservative parents did. I will say that the children of one set of conservative parents were maybe better behaved in some ways, but I can’t say they were overall better and I can’t say they necessarily turned out better when they grew up. The children of the liberal parents all went to college and all have jobs. Generally speaking, the liberal families just seem closer even to this day (more than a decade after their children graduated from high school). I can’t say that means they love each other more, but closeness certainly does seem like a necessary element of familial love.

As I come to my concluding comments, let me point out one of my other biases which isn’t mine alone.

I’m a member of Generation X and I suppose I’m typical in my cynicism about my elders and about my own parents. GenXers are known for having been raised in broken families with absentee parents (but none of the parents in my sample were divorced). In general, the parents of GenXers (Silents and Boomers) have been known for their relaxed parenting style (by which I mean absentee parenting and not necessarilly liberal). GenXers have been called latchkey kids because our parents weren’t around much. The 70s and 80s were not kid-friendly times, but more important was the fact that many parents were, unlike previous generations, strongly focused on their careers to the detriment of family. Many GenX children had both parents working. It was normal for GenX children to come home to empty houses and parents typically didn’t know where their kids were after school. Parents in a two job household are busy and distracted parents. My own parents weren’t horrible parents, but they fit much of the pattern of the parents of my generation. I’m trying to sift through my generation’s childhood and separate the good from the bad.

Interestingly, the liberal families I’ve been discussing only had one parent working (or at least only one parent working a normal job that took them outside of the home). In one of these liberal families, the stay-at-home parent was the complete opposite of strict and also he had some psychological issues which caused him to not be as responsible as he otherwise might have been, but nonetheless he was always around and he spent a lot of time with his children. So, that is a big difference. The children of all these liberal parents grew up with a parent who was usually around and available. This is where I speculate that the conservative families that had two working parents felt a need to be more strict about rules for the very reason they were around less. The question is why did they choose to both work. The liberal families I’m speaking of most definitely weren’t wealthy and I have no doubt they could’ve used a second income. Maybe it’s easier to have only one parent working if you never move from the community (of family, friends, and neighbors) that you were raised in. So, the question then is: Why did the conservative parents choose to leave their childhood communities in order to seek careers that forced them to travel or else why did they choose a lifestyle of moving that required particular types of careers?

I’m of the opinion that Generation X has been more impacted by a less stable upbringing than any generation before. I’d say this impacted the children of both conservative and liberal families, but in the examples I’m familiar with this social instability had greater impact on the children of the conservative parents. Even though society itself was less kid-friendly when GenXers were growing up, the children of these liberal parents maybe had relatively more stability than most GenX children (it helped that none of the families in my sample lived below the poverty line). It’s understandable to an extent that young parents starting out in life don’t realize they are experimenting on their children. When the parents of GenXers themselves were children, they grew up at a time when stable communities were still intact to a large degreee. In the 50s and 60s, many communities were still very healthy and the downtowns were still economically viable. At that time, factories were being put up all over the place. Times were good and society was optimistic. So, these parents can’t easily understand the very different world that GenXers grew up in. This is equally true for conservative as well as liberal parents.

I’m not necessarily arguing that one group is inherently superior in all ways. Neither type of parent could possibly guess the long term results of their lifestyles and their parenting styles. Ultimately, maybe it doesn’t matter. Results are results. As I see it, the liberal parents I know of seem to have had better results. I can’t base any final conclusions on such limited observations, but I do think the comparisons I’ve made do illuminate important differences. In understanding Lakoff’s theory in the context of my personal observations, I feel confident that at least some of these perceived differences are directly correlated to the parenting styles.

On a more personal note, I must admit I feel less forgiving toward the conservative parents. Doing this comparison, I can see failings in all of the parents, whether conservative or liberal. Nonetheless, there is a difference that matters and this difference goes beyond even results. The conservative parents seem more righteous in their family values and more judgmental of the parenting style of others. Because of this, I think that their righteous judgment should be turned back towards their own failings. Even if the results (and failings) were equal, liberal parents invite forgiveness in their having a more forgiving attitude towards others and the conservative parents invite judgment in having a more judgmental attitude towards others. So, if the liberal parents taught their children anything worthy it is this attitude of acceptance and understanding. Even if the conservative parents were somehow absolutely right, how would their righteousness serve their children well and serve society in general well?

My criticisms here are partly self-criticisms. I’m not a parent and I don’t want to be. I can be quite righteously judgmental at times. This tendency in me doesn’t encourage a happy outlook nor happy relationships. For this reason (among others), I’m glad I’m not a parent. I wouldn’t want to pass on to my (hypothetical) children my own failings.

Social Indebtedness: Strict Father Morality & Hierarchical Authority

I had a thought about Lakoff’s idea of conservative Strict Father morality and how it’s related to hierarchical social organization.

A parent or a church has the responsibility to raise a child well according to the values of the model. That makes perfect sense.

However, once raised, that child is considered wholly responsible to himself. And, so, the parents or church are no longer responsible to the child who has become an adult. But the grown child is forever responsible to the parent or church that raised him. It’s a debt the adult can never pay.

It’s the latter part that confuses me. Why doesn’t in particular the parent forever owe the child that the parent forced into the world? Why are all the failings of the raised individual considered entirely to be blamed on the child? And why do conservatives have a tendency to say people they deem as good as having been raised well and hence giving the credit to the parents or church?

It seems that in the hierarchical worldview there is a permanent inequality among social roles. The child’s only hope in gaining the upperhand is to one day take on a position further up in the hierarchy (such as becoming a parent or minister). But the child, even once a parent himself, will never have ultimate hierarchical position until his own parents die. Power is automatically deferred to those high up in social status and those lower in social status have little to no right to challenge that power.

The whole hierarchy is built on an inherent indebtedness. Just by being low on the totem pole, you owe everything to those above. In terms of fundamentalism: God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, (and, in Catholicism, the Pope is the head of the Church), man is head of the woman, and parents are the head of the child. Those above owe nothing to those below, but everyone ultimately owes everything to God who is at the very top.

What is strange about this is that those on top don’t have to earn the indebtedness that those below owe to them. They inherit the indebtedness simply by taking on a particular social role. Those in positions of authority (parent, husband, minister, etc) deserve unquestioning respect.

Of course, there are less extreme conservatives who moderate this slightly. They might see authority as being more complex in that it includes other social systems such as government and capitalism. They might justify this hierarchy through a rationalization of meritocracy. Those in positions of authority are assumed to have earned their position… and therefore those with less socio-economic status are by definition less deserving. Those with power and wealth have no obligation to help those without power and wealth. In fact, it would be perceived as morally wrong and so would be perceived as undermining the moral order for any exception to be made to this hierarchy of indebtedness.

To someone that lives in this worldview, it boggles their mind that someone of inferior status (child, wife, etc) wouldn’t automatically defer to the authority of their superior status. It just seems wrong that the inferior status person wouldn’t act obligingly. As such, it is automatically assumed the child will take care of his parents when they grow old. The parents morally deserve being taken care of simply by right of having superior status. The parent doesn’t have to earn being taken care of. It doesn’t even matter if the parent didn’t take as good of care of the child as they could have. In the extreme forms of this worldview, the parent is always right.

I find this perplexing. As an individual (whether in my role as child, citizen or whatever else), I’m only willing to do anything for someone who I believe is willing to do anything for me. I don’t feel I automatically owe anyone anything. Those in positions of authority or who otherwise have higher status have to earn my respect. Why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t respect be either mutally given or mutally earned?

 – – –

 * As a side note, there does seem something inherent (genetically or culturally) to this different attitude towards power and authority. I remember a study that showed liberals state more willingness to hit their fathers. I would assume this would be even true if the father hit the child first. Bob Altemeyer has done research that shows those with high Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) have more fear about the world. So, would the conservative (especially the extreme conservative that most strongly correlates with RWA) not challenge authority simply out of fear? As a liberal, I’d say respect isn’t worthy if it’s based on fear.

Failure of Conservative Morality in Politics

I’ve been reading about American society from a few different directions. I have just read some books about political history (such as the writings of Richard Hofstadter), but most recently I’ve focused on the the generational theory of Strauss and Howe (I’ve perused several of their books) and the moral frames model written about by George Lakoff in his book Moral Politics.

Last night at work, I was reading Lakoff’s book and found it quite fascinating. His main premise is that conservatives use the Strict Father family model to frame their political views and liberals use the Nurturant Parent family model to frame their political views. It makes a lot of sense to me, but that isn’t what got me thinking.

Lakoff was using Reagan and Bush sr as an example of how conservative morality plays out in politics. Conservatives use the rhetoric of small government, but obviously there are many exceptions to this rule and many moral principles they hold higher than the ideal of small government. Basically, when a conservative speaks of big government they’re referring to social programs that benefit the people who conservatives don’t believe are deserving. It’s not about saving taxpayers’ money but about doing the right thing. Those who do right should be rewarded and those who do wrong should be punished.

So, in terms of Reagan and Bush sr, who was rewarded and who was punished? By giving tax cuts to the rich and increasing the size of the military, what was the moral purpose that conservatives were trying to achieve? Increasing the military seems more obvious on the surface. The evil, Godless commies needed to be punished and it was the righteous duty of God-fearing Americans to punish them. So, what did the rich do to deserve tax cuts? Well, the basic idea is that we live in a meritocracy and so the rich have earned their wealth through hard work and ingenuity. It’s wrong to take away from the rich what they’ve earned fair and square. The corollary of this is that the poor deserve to be poor and so it’s perfectly fine that the tax cuts don’t benefit the poor (including the working class poor). As the Bible says (Matthew 25:29), “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

Still, Lakoff takes this one step further and it’s the best explanation that I’ve ever come across. He argues that Reagan and Bush sr (along with their advisors) weren’t stupid. They fully realized they were increasing the size of government and creating a massive deficit as had never been seen in all of US history. This wasn’t an accident. It was quite intentional. If social programs benefit the undeserving, this becomes a moral problem that must be solved no matter what the cost. If the country becomes immoral at the core, then all is lost and nothing else matters. By creating an enormous deficit, this forced Congress to tighten its belt and cut funding to all social programs. And that is exactly what happened. It’s so clever it’s evil.

This brings me to something else I read in of the books written by Strauss and Howe (I don’t remember which one). They pointed out that the GI generation was the most politically powerful generation in all of US history. The GI generation had more than three decades of GI presidents and two of those were Reagan and Bush sr.

The GI generation came to see itself as the Greatest Generation. They fought hard and worked hard. For most of their life, they saw American wealth and power ever increasing. They believed two things about this situation. First, they took personal credit for all of it and so they thought they were deserving of being rewarded for that they had done. Second, they assumed that this trajectory of increase would continue for a very long time. They were wrong on both accounts. There were complex reasons for America’s rise to wealth and power, but the main reason was that Europe was decimated by WWII. Without much competition, America’s exports dominated the global economy. This situation wouldn’t last for very long since the European countries were able to rebuild.

When Reagan and Bush sr were presidents, the GI generation was at the height of its power. They were golden and they were mostly free to use their power as they so desired. Since they thought they had earned it, they redicrected America’s wealth towards their own generation. The tax cuts to the rich were disproportionately directed to the GI generation since their generation was (and is) the wealthiest generation in US history. They also redirected money to their generation by funding expensive social programs for the elderly. So, where did this money come from? As I pointed out, social programs for the undeserving (i.e., the poor) were cut. A related example was Reagan’s kicking the mentally ill out of the psychiatric hospitals (and created a large population of mentally disturbed homeless people who then needed to be rounded up and put in prison).

Even more interesting is the fact that social programs directed at youth (from welfare to school funding) were all cut. This had two impacts. First, starting with young Boomers and ending with Generation X, the quality of public education decreased and SAT scores decreased. Second, Generation X became the most poverty prone generation in a century. While the GI generation remained wealthy, GenXers grew up to discover that their employment opportunities were as bad as was experienced by the whole country during the Bust Years of the Great Depression.

What must be understood is that GIs such as Reagan and Bush sr did all of this out of their sense of morality. They were simply doing what they thought was right. They were rewarding those who they thought deserved it and they were punishing those they thought deserved it. In doing so, the made America into a deficit-driven militarized empire which they saw as forcing America into its role of being the greatest nation in the world. The heavy costs of this were worth it in their minds.

The problem is that they couldn’t see the long term consequences. I don’t think they realized that creating such a deficit would increase out of control and end up crippling our entire country. They didn’t foresee how deregulation of markets would eventually lessen the power of the American economy. They saw the world through the lense of their own generation and didn’t realize how differently it would look to later generations.

They thought that benefitting the rich was the right thing to do since they believed the rich deserved the wealth they earned. It’s easy to argue against this in pointing out that it takes everyone in a society and not just those at the top to make an economy successful, but there is an even more important factor they didn’t understand. Many GIs became wealthy during a time when there were high taxes on the rich. How is that possible? How did the GIs become so wealthy despite being heavily taxed? This cuts to the heart of the misunderstanding that motivated Reagan and Bush sr.

There are many arguments about who deserves what, but there is a more essential issue about who can use wealth to the greatest benefit of society as a whole. To conservatives, those who become rich deserve their wealth because they theoretically will put their extra wealth towards wise investment in the economy. Sadly, it doesn’t work out this way. Innovation happens from the bottom up. Reagan and Bush sr implemented policies that increased the wealth gap which concentrated the wealth at the top. I forget the source, but I was watching an interview recently where the person was referring to data about wealth. That person pointed out that wealthy people don’t invest their wealth wisely. Beyond a certain level of wealth, extra money loses any practical worth. What the super rich tend to do with their extra money is gamble it in risky investments because it doesn’t really matter to them if they lose it. What they generally don’t do with it is invest it in further innovation. That is what happened recently with our economy. There were too many people making risky gambles and not enough people investing in industries that produce concrete products. Our economy has become dependent on the banking business and America has lost its innovative edge.

The conservative moral vision of Reagan and Bush sr has backfired.

Lakoff puts all of this into a larger context of the metaphorical frames used by conservatives and liberals. Reagan and Bush sr as GIs were seeing the world according to the experience of their generational cohort. And as conservatives they were seeing the world according to the Strict Father moral frame. It was because of their being GI conservatives that they implemented those particular policies. Like most of us, they couldn’t see outside of their reality tunnel. But the consequences of their narrow vision have been immense. Bush jr, although of the Boomer generation, was simply the ultimate endpoint of this particular worldview. Under Bush jr (aka The Decider), the military was strengthened and regulation was paralyzed (with eventual consequences as we now see with the BP oil spill), the deserving were rewarded and the undeserving were punished. Bush jr certainly was trying to return America to the conservative moral vision of a righteous country, but it’s become obvious that this vision has failed. The costs are just too high: undermined Constitutional rights, massive deficit, crippled economy, struggling small businesses, ever increasing wealth gap, shrinking middle class, environmental disasters, etc.

An opening has developed in the status quo of recent decades. People are hungering for a new vision. Many hoped that Obama could bring that new vision, but many have been or become doubtful. Lakoff sees the liberal vision as being in a difficult position. For various reasons, conservatives have been very successful in framing most of the political discourse in recent history. Liberals have an opportunity right now. It’s just not clear if liberals are presently capable of organizing their own moral vision and communicating it well. Even though conservatives have indisputably failed in their attempt, it isn’t yet determined if liberals will likewise fail during this time of change. What is for certain is that many cultural narratives are being formulated right now. The narrative that gains the most traction will most likely be dominant in politics for the next several decades… or so that is the prediction of Strauss and Howe. I guess we’ll find out.