Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Book Review: The Political Mind

I just finished reading George Lakoff’s new book, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain. Lakoff’s previous books include Don’t Think of an Elephant!, which discussed progressive and conservative mental models of politics and the reasons why progressives lose elections due to ineffective use of language structures called frames.

Don’t Think of an Elephant! made quite a splash in the progressive community by showing that progressives give a huge advantage to conservatives, allowing them to define the cognitive frames that we all use to conceptualize politics. By letting the conservative message machine set the frames used in the media and throughout society, progressives lose. It argued for a more conscious use of language to accurately convey the progressive moral vision.

The Political Mind continues Lakoff’s revelation of research into cognitive linguistics, the brain, and how the brain works when thinking about politics. The information conveyed here is profoundly important and creates a whole new paradigm of how we understand political decision-making based on recent brain research. I cannot overemphasize how important it is that progressives learn and assimilate this information. Our Democracy, our environment, and our ability to effect the kind of changes that are needed to protect them may actually depend on it.

Lakoff’s central argument is that as progressives, our most widely accepted modes of political communication and political theory are incorrectly based on an 18th-Century Enlightenment understanding of how the mind works. He describes the 18th-Century view of reason thus:

“Progressives have accepted an old view of reason, dating back to the Enlightenment, namely, that reason is conscious, literal, logical, universal, unemotional, disembodied, and serves self-interest.”

Lakoff argues that the entirety of this 18th-Century understanding of reason can be proven to be false based on recent discoveries about how the brain actually operates. In fact, he says, thought is mostly unconscious, emotional, and fits into metaphorical structures called frames that group related concepts through neural connections made and strengthened when different parts of the brain are activated simultaneously.

Why does this matter?

It matters because we cannot assume, as progressives usually do, that if you give someone the facts about an issue they will study those facts and make a logical decision that serves their self-interest. Some might, if they have taken the time to research the issues and to create a mental connection between issue positions and their own understanding of those issues. For most voters, however, there is a much more direct way to communicate political concepts, and it is emotional, metaphorical, and based on values.

Lakoff argues that progressives must learn to communicate their moral vision, which is fundamentally based on empathy, in direct emotional language that strengthens the brain’s empathetic response. In fact, he states that brain research has shown that humans are mentally wired for empathy. A progressive’s job, then, is to present policies and messages that elicit that natural empathetic response.

He also discusses the difference between progressive and conservative thought, in an extension of the nurturant parent vs. strict father model that he presented in his previous work. Just as the progressive moral vision is fundamentally one of empathy, the conservative moral vision is fundamentally one of authoritarianism. These are two distinct modes of thought that are very different, but each of us is capable of using both modes at least some of the time. As Lakoff says,

"Our democracy is presently being threatened by the politics of obedience to authority, the very thing that democracy was invented to counteract. The politics of authority is succeeding because conservatives have been activating their ideas in the brains of the public, while finding ways to inhibit the use of progressive modes of thought."

The conservative spin machine, by working actively to get their frames into the public consciousness, has succeeded over many years in activating the authoritarian mode of thought to a greater degree in our society. Progressives need to learn to use language that explicitly states their moral vision of empathy. Hearing words that evoke an empathetic response repeatedly will strengthen the natural empathetic response in the public.

Lakoff argues that we must replace the 18th-Century Enlightenment view of reason with a New Enlightenment understanding of real reason. The information he reveals is certainly a new paradigm and very important, but one of the weaknesses of his book is that he fails to succinctly define his term “real reason.” It is not clear, at least to me, whether real reason refers to the way people’s minds actually work in regard to language and metaphor and physically embedded associations, or the knowledge of how brains work, which at present is described in technical scientific language that is unavailable to most people. This knowledge can be used by those who understand it to craft more effective policies and messages, but it is a long way from being accepted as popular scientific knowledge. The public would benefit, I think, by learning more about how our brains work with language, for, in Lakoff’s words,

"Language can be used to change minds, which means it can change brains – permanently, for good or ill. It does not merely express emotions, it can change them; not merely arouse or quell them, but change the role of emotion in one’s life and the life of a nation."

Reading these words and those that followed describing the physical changes that can be wrought in the brain through the use of language, I was reminded that ancient cultures often credited the same god who created language, such as Mercury in Roman mythology or Thoth in Egyptian mythology, with the invention of magic. There is great power in words. Understanding how they work protects us from being manipulated.

Ultimately, Lakoff’s book will be read by intellectuals and adopted by some, but for the political workings of the mind as he describes them to be understood by the public, and for the modes of communication that he suggests to come into common usage by the average progressive, someone is going to have to translate this information into precisely the kind of emotional, metaphorical language that Lakoff suggests, but as a scientist, is not very much prone to using himself. In other words, Lakoff does exactly what he accuses Democratic politicians of doing: presenting us with facts that few will be able to immediately understand and asking us to accept his premise based on those facts, while perhaps failing to notice that his arguments do not make an emotional connection in our brains. Indeed, there are whole chapters of this book that seem to be aimed more at his colleagues in cognitive science than at the general reader. (I have not quoted these sections, because their meanings were at best quite difficult to comprehend for the lay person.)

It’s a shame his work is not presented in a more readily accessible fashion for the general reader, because the implications of understanding it are quite astounding. In his Afterword, Lakoff describes how society might change if this research were common knowledge.

"We would understand that our brains evolved for empathy, for cooperation, for connection to each other and to the earth. We cannot exist alone.

We would embrace the fact that empathy is at the heart of American democracy. It is a positive force for human society at large. It is why we care about fundamental human rights... Without such care, there would be no America."

I recommend this book to all progressives who want to learn to communicate more effectively and who are willing to wade through at least some technical language about brain science. I hope that Lakoff will write a shorter book explaining this information and aimed at the general reader, much as he did with Don’t Think of an Elephant!



July 19, 2008: Edited to shorten quotes and conform to fair use standards.

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