notes: the political mind by george lakoff
the political mind: why you can’t understand 21st-century politics with an 18th-century brain, by george lakoff, viking, 2008
“american values are fundamentally progressive, centered on equality, human rights, social responsibility, and the inclusion of all. yet progressives have, without knowing why, given conservatives an enormous advantage in the culture war. the radical conservatives seek and have already begun to introduce: an authoritarian hierarchy based on vast concentrations and control of wealth; order based on fear, intimidation, and obedience; a broken government; no balance of power; priorities shifted from the public sector to t he corporate and military sectors; responsibility shifted from society to the individual; control of elections through control of who votes and how the votes are counted; control of ideas through the media; and patriarchal family values projected upon religion, politics, and the market.” p1
“we will need to embrace a deep rationality that can take account of, and advantage of, a mind that is largely unconscious, embodied, emotional, empathetic, metaphorical, and only partly universal. a new enlightenment would not abandon reason, but rather understand that we are using real reason – embodied reason, reason shaped by our bodies and brains and interactions in the real world, reason incorporating emotion, structured by frames and metaphors and images and symbols, with conscious thought shaped by the vast and invisible realm of neural circuitry not accessible to consciousness. and as a guide to our own minds, especially in politics, we will need some help from the cognitive sciences – from neuroscience, neural computation, cognitive linguistics, cognitive and developmental psychology, and so on.
“we will further need a new philosophy – a new understanding of what it means to be a human being; of what morality is and where it comes from; of economics, religion, politics, and nature itself; and even of what science, philosophy, and mathematics really are. we will have to expand our understanding of the great ideas: freedom equality, fairness, progress, even happiness.
“and subtlest of all, we in the reality-based community will have to come to a new understanding of how we understand reality. there is a reality, and we are part of it, and the way we understand reality is itself real.” P13-4
“language gets its power because it is defined relative to frames, prototypes, metaphors, narratives, images, and emotions. part of its power comes from its unconscious aspects: we are not consciously aware of all that it evokes in us, but it is there, hidden, always at work. if we hear the same language over and over, we will think more and more in terms of the frames and metaphors activated by that language. and it doesn’t matter if you are negating words or questioning them, the same frames and metaphors will be activated and hence strengthened.” p15
“the neural circuitry needed to create frame structures is relatively simple, and so frames tend to structure a huge amount of our thought. each frame has roles (like a cast of characters), relations between the roles, and scenarios carried out by those playing the roles. the sociologist erving goffman discovered that all institutions are structured by frames. a hospital, for example, has roles like doctors, nurses, patients, visitors, operating rooms, x-ray machines, and so on, with scenarios like checking in, being examined, having an operation, being visited, and so on. the frame structure would be violated, or ‘broken,’ if, say, the visitors were performing operations on the doctors at the check-in desk.” p22
“when you see a blue square, it appears as a single object. yet the color and shape are registered in different parts of the brain. neural binding allows us to bring together neural activation in different parts of the brain to form single integrated wholes.” p25
“the main thing to remember about neural binding is that it is not accomplished by magic.; it has to be carried out by neural circuitry that links ‘binding sites’ in different parts of the brain. each neuron has between 1,000 and 10,000 incoming connections from other neurons, and another 1,000 to 10,000 outgoing connections. there are between 10 and 100 billion neurons in the brain, which means that the number of connections is in the trillions, as s the number of circuits. a great many of them are binding circuits.” p25-6
“in addition, neural binding can create emotional experiences. in the area of the limbic system, the oldest part of the brain in terms of evolution, there are two emotional pathways with different neurotransmitters: one for positive emotions (happiness, satisfaction) – the dopamine circuit – and one for negative emotions (fear, anxiety, and anger) – the norepinephrine circuit. there are pathways in the brain linking these emotional pathways to the forebrain, where dramatic structure circuitry seems most likely to be located.
“activations of such convergent pathways are called ‘somatic markers.’ it is they that neurally bind the emotions (downstream, near the brain stem) to event sequences in a narrative (upstream, apparently in the prefrontal cortex, at the front and top of the brain). the somatic markers allow the right emotions to go where they should in a story. they are the binding circuits responsible for the emotional content of everyday experiences. just as color and shape can be neurally bound, yielding an integrated experience of a red rose, so emotional content can be bound to a narrative, yielding a melodrama – a narrative with heightened emotional content.” p27-8
“let’s start with the tags-to-riches, or pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, narrative. the hero/heroins starts out poor and unknown (the precondition). he or she undergoes a series of hardships: the odds are against him/her (the buildup). through an exercise of will and discipline, he/she does something extraordinary (the main even) and so achieves success (the purpose) and recognition (the result), and gains respect, fame, and/or wealth for the achievement (the consequence)…
“by contrast, there is no honored narrative for the reality of americans who work hard and can’t climb the ladder of success because there are no rungs on it. there is no classic american narrative for the cheap labor trap, in which companies drive down the cost of labor by outsourcing and other means, thus trapping tens of millions of workers in low-wage jobs from which they cannot escape.” p29
“in a new enlightenment, cultural narratives will not be gone, replaced by cold, hard reason. cultural narratives are part of the permanent furniture of our brains. but in the new enlightenment we will at least be self-aware. we will recognize that we are all living out narratives. it will be normal to discuss what they might be, to raise the question of what influence they have, and whether we can or should put them aside.
“there is also a dark side of narrative. the people in our national security apparatus – the military, the cia, and private contractors – know that personal identity is largely defined by the narratives we live out. methods of torture have been devised to break down the ‘subject’ being interrogated by destroying the narratives that define him so that he no longer has his old identity. they then use techniques such as sensory deprivation, isolation, fear, and physical shock to forge a new identity for him in which he is dependent on his torturers and is willing to help.” p36
“the deep narratives are fixed in the brain; the synapses of the neural circuits characterizing them have been so strengthened that the highly general, deep narratives are permanently parts of our brains. neural binding allows these permanent general narrative structures to be applied to ever new special cases. that’s why the same narrative structures keep recurring, from war to war, from celebrity to celebrity, from one political figure to another.” p38
“the same part of the brain we use in seeing is also used in imagining that we are seeing, in remembering seeing, in dreaming that we are seeing, and in understanding language about seeing. the same is true of moving. the same parts of the brain used in really moving are used in imagining that we are moving, remembering moving, dreaming about moving, and in understanding language about moving. mental ‘simulation’ is the technical term for using brain areas for moving or perceiving, imagining, remembering, dreaming, or understanding language. it is mental stimulation that links imaginative stories to lived narratives.
“but what links your lived narratives to those of someone else?
“our most plausible hypothesis at present is ‘mirror neuron circuitry, which integrates action and perception.’ we apparently have ‘mirror neuron circuits’ in the premotor cortex that fire when we either perform a given action or see someone else perform the same action.
“this is not magic. mirror neuron circuits are connected via two-way pathways to other brain areas:
“1. to the primary motor cortex, which connects to motor neurons in the muscles of the body and directly controls muscle movement;
2. to the parietal cortex, wh ich integrates sensory information arising in the visual, auditory, and somatosensory regions;
3. via the insula to the positive and negative emotional pathways;
4. to the posteromedial cortex, which must be active in the experience of empathy, say, in compassion and admiration; and
5. to the so-called super-mirror neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which modulate the activation of the mirror neurons, apparently to either enhance or limit their capacity for empathy.
“mirror neuron circuits are apparently used in so-called mind reading, when we guess from seeing part of a familiar action what the rest of the action will be.” p39
“naomi klein has documented the rise of ‘disaster capitalism’ under the bush administration, where private contractors get huge no-bid contracts to do jobs in disasters (such as 9/11, katrina, iraq) that government used to do, while government agencies are made nonfunctional through budget cuts. this is essentially a major transfer of wealth from taxpayers to private corporations, an overwhelming weakening of government, and a capacity-shifting from government to corporations that profit mightily from disasters at great cost to the general public. such relatively invisible ‘reality creation’ is below the public radar screen. why is this possible?
“the brain supplies the reasons. first, stressed like fear (of terrorist attacks), worry (say, about finances, health care, and so on), and overwork tend to activate the norepinephrine system, the system of negative emotions. the result is a reduced capacity to notice. second, the right conceptual framework must be in place in order to recognize apparently different events as the same kind of event.
“for example, as i write this, there are three front-page news stories that seem to be about different things: blackwater mercenaries killing civilians in iraq, the president’s veto of the continuation of schip (a government-run children’s health care program that has been working), and the fda no longer having the resources to monitor food and drug safety trials. but they are about the same issue: the radical conservative political and economic agenda is putting public resources and government functions into private hands, while eliminating the capacity of government to protect and empower the public. the public has no conceptual framework to see all these as the same and to comprehend what this means, and with the stress of fear and worry and to create the substantial neural structres needed to comprehend what is happening in hundreds of areas of life.
“the democratic leaders are not, as they say, connecting these dots. on the contrary, their appeal to supposed enlightenment reason – conscious, logical, unemotional, disembodied, based on perceived self-interest, and open to rational discussion as classically conceived – plays into radical conservative hands.” p41-2
“though the old enlightenment mischaracterized the human mind, enlightenment values nevertheless wrought the foundations of american democracy. a new enlightenment should likewise articulate america’s original values, both conscious and unconscious, and extend them further in the same direction. america was founded and developed as a progressive country, and it is crucial that its values be reclaimed and extended to fit the needs of our century.” p44
“at the same time, conservative modes of thought and language have come to dominate political discourse in the media. we can see this in the everyday use of conservative language and the ideas that go with it: illegal immigrants, not illegal employers or illegal consumers; war in iraq, not occupation of iraq, surge, not escalation; supporting the troops, not squandering tax money, and so on. though the progressive mode of thought expressed the ideals of american democracy as seen in our founding documents, it has become less and less dominant in public discourse. the denial of habeas corpus, unrestricted tapping of citizens’ phones, and routine torture have brought forth little discussion of the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” p46
“behind every progressive policy lies a single moral value: empathy, together with the responsibility and strength to act on that empathy.” p47
“empathy leads to recognizing that unfair and discriminatory treatment is a form of harm requiring government protection. this correlates with the idea that we are all equal, and that the denial of equality counts as harm. this is the moral basis of civil rights laws – voting rights laws, antidiscrimination laws, and so one. it is also the moral basis of labor law. the right to unionize, for example, recognized the unfair advantage that employers have over employees in negotiating the conditions of their employment.” p49
“neoliberals sometimes mistake real reason for relativism, because real reason recognizes that there are multiple ways in which the brain sees reality. i have previously criticized neoliberals for assuming that just citing facts and figures will carry the day politically, when what is needed is an honest, morally based framing of the facts and figures, showing their moral significance, and conveyed with the appropriate emotions and with words, images, and symbols that really communicate. when conservatives answer liberals’ facts and figures with no facts or figures, but with their own morals-based frames presented with emotion and symbolism, their framing will win.” p52-3
“neoliberal thinking in terms of facts and figures on the one hand and serving the interests of demographic groups on the other also leads to ‘issue silos,’ the isolation of one issue from another – food and drug safety; children’s health care; controlling military contractors – as if there were no general moral principle and political issue governing all of these. but there is: privateering (see chapter 7). privateering is the destruction of the capacity of government to carry out its moral missions, together with the privatization of government functions with no public accountability and the enrichment of corporations at the public’s expense.” p54
“neoliberal policy think tanks therefore tend to be silos – cranking out issue-by-issue policies, while not addressing the deeper threats to our democracy, such as the threat of privateering. their thought also leads to policy as technocratic solutions and ‘rational systems’ to be instituted through legislation and implemented in government. the assumption is that the rational system of law, the enforcement of law, government regulation, and the courts will win the day. meanwhile, conservatives have figured out ways to undermine all such strategies, by defunding or reassigning regulators, hiring lobbyists in government positions, letting corporate lobbyists write laws, refusing to enforce laws, and getting their judges into the courts. let us call this ‘administrative undermining.’ because old enlightenment reason creates issue silos, the general case of administrative undermining has not even been named, much less called a general threat to democracy and made an issue of. old enlightenment reason is not even up to the job of making the moral case that such general conservative policies as privateering and administrative undermining are threatening democracy.” p55
“the political effect is that neoliberals tend to surrender in advance to conservatives, simply by accepting their frames.
“neoliberal reason, besides starting with self-interest, also depends on the idea of optimization: let’s get all we can get, even if it’s not all that much. this is incrementalist thinking: better to get a little something now than nothing at all, even if it means accepting conservative framing. what’s wrong with that? in some cases, everything. the question is whether the incrementalist solution will be a long-lasting one. take health care. insurance companies get their money by denying care, by saying no to as many people in need as they can get away with, while maximizing the premiums they get from healthy people. health insurance will always work this way. it is not the same as care; ‘coverage,’ when you read the fine print, may not even include care.” p56
“neoliberal thought arises from the old enlightenment view of the mind. it is anything but a trivial matter, since it has important political consequences. one of the things cognitive science teaches us is that when people define their very identity by a worldview, or a narrative, or a mode of thought, they are unlikely to change – for the simple reason that it is physically part of their brain, and so many other aspects of their brain structure would also have to change; that change is highly unlikely.” p59
“conservative thought has a very different moral basis than progressive thought. it begins with the notion that morality is obedience to an authority – assumed to be a legitimate authority who is inherently good, knows right from wrong, functions to protect us from evil in the world, and has both the right and duty to use force to command obedience and fight evil. he is ‘the decider.’ obedience to legitimate authority requires both personal responsibility and discipline, which are prime conservative virtues. obedience is enforced through punishment. in large institutions, there will be a hierarchy of authority, used, among other things, to maintain order. loyalty is required to maintain the hierarchy. freedom is seen as functioning within such an order.” p60
“prosperity is seen as a mark of discipline, which is turn seen as moral, since discipline is required to obey moral laws and whatever is required by those in authority. by the logic of this system of thought, if you are not prosperous, you are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve your poverty. it follows that if people are given things they have not earned, they become dependent and lose their discipline and with it their capacity to obey moral laws and legitimate authority.
“we can now see where neoliberals and conservatives converge. in conservative thought, people are born bad – greedy and unscrupulous. to maximize their self-interest, they need to learn discipline, to follow the rules and obey the laws, and to seek wealth rationally. the market imposes discipline. it works rationally by rules and laws, and requires disciplined rational thinking. it rewards those who acquire such discipline and punishes those who do not. the market, from this perspective, is fair and moral.
“neoliberal thought applies enlightenment rationality to the market. markets are ideally constructed to be fair and moral, though they may need government regulation to guarantee it. rational choice in a well-regulated market will lead to an optimal, natural distribution of wealth. well-regulated markets, from the neoliberal perpective, are fair and moral.” p61-2
“the myth is that the deregulation or privatization of a moral mission of government eliminates government. but it doesn’t. large corporations also govern our lives – often making life-and-death decisions that affect us. government isn’t eliminated. it is just shifted from the public sector, where there is an ethic of protection and public accountability, to the private sector, where there is an ethic of profit and no public accountability. the principle here is the ‘conservation of government,.’ deregulation and privatization do not eliminate government; they only make it unaccountable and take away its moral mission.” p63
“what’s wrong with medicare for all? if we take the profit and ‘administration’ out of health care and stop treating it as a commodity, enough money could be saved to cover everybody. but from a conservative perspective, it would be immoral: no one should have their health care paid for by anyone else, lest they become dependent, lose their dicscipline, and be unable to function morally.
“but from a progressive point of view, there is a moral bottom line here: health is fundamentally life-affirming; denial of care when health and life are at stake is fundamentally life-denying.” p67
“in its moral basis and its content, conservatism is centered on the politics of authority, obedience, and discipline. this content is profoundly antidemocratic, whereas our country was founded on opposition to authoritarianism. yet conservatism also lays exclusive claim to patriotism. there is a contradiction here. how do conservatives get around it?
“the answer can be found in the word ‘conservatism’ itself. those who call themselves by that label typically say there are in favor of conserving the best of the past traditions. yet contemporary ‘conservatives’ are often quite radical, wanting to impose near-radical values where they had not been before, such as eliminating habeas corpus and other safeguards of liberty, eliminating checks and balances and supporting the powers of the ‘unitary executive,’ abolishing public education, and so on. fiscal conservatism used to be seen as holding back on government spending, but today it means accumulating an astronomical deficit as a way to justify cutting social progrmas and government protections, while supporting militarism.” p68
“biconceptualism is made possible by the brain. first, there is mutual inhibition, which permits conflicting modes of thought, but only one at a time. second, there is the difference between general modes of thought versus the special cases. neural binding is the mechanism for applying a general mode of thought to a special case, say, applying general conservatism to health care, or applying general progressivism to global warming.” p72
“the strict father is the moral leader of the family, and is to be obeyed. the family needs a strict father because there is evil in the world from which he has to protect them – and mommy can’t do it. the family needs a strict father because there is competition in the world, and he has to win those competitions to support the family – and mommy can’t do it. you need a strict father because kids are born bad, in the sense that they just do what they want to do, and don’t know right from wrong. they need to be punished strictly and painfully when they do wrong, so they will have an incentive to do right in order to avoid punishment. that is how they build internal discipline, which is needed to do right and not wrong. with that discipline, they can enter the market and become self-reliant and prosperous. as mature, self-disciplined self-reliant adults, they can go off on their own, start their own families, and become strict fathers in their own households, with out any meddling by their own fathers or anyone else.
“mapped onto politics, the strict father model explains why conservatism is concerned with authority, with obedience, with discipline, and with punishment it makes sense in a patriarchal family where male strength dominates unquestionably. authority, obedience, discipline, and punishment are all there in the family, organized in a package.
“why would someone in the midwest genuinely feel threatened if gays in san francisco are allowed to marry? the explanation is simple: there can be no gays in a strict father family; the gender difference and the role of masculinity are crucial. suppose that kind of family – its values and its politics – defines who you are in everyday life. suppose those values define your personality, not only how you function in your family but with your friends, in your business, in your church. suppose that strict father marriage, with its version of masculinity, is a major narrative you live by. then a threat to its legitimacy is a threat to your very being. marriage isn’t the real issue; the real issue is identity.
“why is it that conservatives, not progressives, tend to be against abortion? think of some of the people who need an abortion: a woman who sees a conflict between motherhood and a career, or a teenager who has had sex outside marriage. in both cases, a decision by the woman on her own is an affront to the strict father. he is to determine whether his wife gives birth – and conservatives in many states have supported husband notification laws. the pregnant teenager has disobeyed her father and should be punished – and many states have parental notification laws.
“there is a second reason as well. for the father to know right from wrong, there must be an absolute right and wrong, and that means that categories must be absolute. if category lines are fuzzy, it could be hard to tell if a rule or a law was broken. absolute categorization requires essences, properties that define absolute categories. though it took aristotle to spell out how the theory of essences worked, he was simply noticing the everyday version in the cognitive unconscious. there is an unconscious but pervasive folk theory of essences, in which essences define strict categories. essences in this folk theory are inherent, don’t change over time, and are the causal sources of natural behavior.
“the logic of essences is all over conservative thought. take the concept of character. why do conservatives dote on it? if you can train people to have the right (read ‘conservative’) moral character, they will do the right things even when not told. as for babies, if they have the essence of a human being at birth, and if that essence cannot change, then they had the essence of a human being before birth…all the way back to conception. t the folk theory of essence is not conscious. it just defines intuitive ‘common sense.’
“in a strict father family, it is assumed that the father merits his authority, and indeed, throughout conservatism, hierarchies of power and wealth are justified on ‘merit.’ why should ceos make so much more money than other employees? they deserve it.
“competition is crucial. it builds discipline. without competition, without the desire to win, no one would have the incentive to be disciplined, and morality would suffer, as well as prosperity. not everyone can win in a competition, only the most disciplined people, who are also the most morally worthy. winning is thus a sign of being deserving, of being a good person. it is important to be number one! strict father families often promote competitive sports and take them very seriously….
“why are fundamentalist christians conservative? because they view god as a strict father: obey my commandments and you go to heaven; if not, you go to hell. well, i’ll give you a second chance. you can be ‘born again.’ now obey my commands (as interpreted by your minister) and you go to heaven; otherwise you go to hell: authority, obedience, discipline, punishment. note that ‘individual responsibility’ is a hallmark of this view of religion – it is up to you and you alone as to whether you get into heaven…
“if your very identity is defined with respect to a strict father family, where male-over-female authority rules, then the legitimacy of gay marriage can threaten your identity so can anything that violates the strict father family, such as extramarital sex.
“on the other hand, war and torture at a national level are carrying out the protective function of the strict father. why torture? if your enemies are evil, you can – and may have to – use the devil’s own means against them.” p78-80
“progressives, correspondingly, have a nurturant parent model: two parents, with equal responsibilities, and no gender constraints – or one parent of either gender. their job is to nurture their children and raise them to be nurturers of others. nurturance is empathy, responsibility for oneself and others, and the strength to carry out those responsibilities. this is opposite of indulgence: children are raised to care about others, to take care of themselves and others, and to lead a fulfilling life. discipline is positive; it comes out of the child’s developing sense of care and responsibility. nurturance requires setting limits, and explaining them. it requires mutual respect – a parent’s respect for children, and respect for parents by children must be earned by how the parents behave. restitution is preferred over punishment – if you do something wrong, do something right to make up for it. the job of parents is protection an empowerment of their children, and a dedication to community life, where people care about and take care of each other.
“here we see the politics of empathy emerging in the family. when mapped onto the nation, the result is the progressive politics of protection, empowerment, and community.
“there is a reason why this model is gender neutral. fathers can, and do, form deep positive attachments with their kids. they, as well as mothers, can do all the things required by the nurturance model. conservatives, however, often parody this model by describing it a a mommy or nanny model, calling the democrats the ‘mommy party’ and speaking of the ‘nanny state.’ the same is often true of those who grew up with strict fathers and nurturant mothers. but it is a mistake. nurturance is not gendered and requires strength.” p81-2