Kristofer Jäntti blogs about George Lakoff’s contribution to Politics
George Lakoff, the renowned cognitive linguist, stresses the importance of metaphorical thinking and frames for human cognition. In his lecture in London (Monday 7th of October), arranged by Counterpoint, he challenges contemporary conceptions of political communication and the Enlightenment view of rationality.
Europe is undergoing a ‘Populist Zeitgeist’ where populist parties have not only increased their share of the vote but are also in government, recently exemplified by the entry of the Progress Party as junior partner in a coalition with the Conservatives in Norway. In Britain UKIP saw a surge in votes in the last local elections and is expected to do well in the coming European elections.
Lakoff argues that reason for this hemorrhaging of votes from mainstream parties to the political fringes is the misconceived policy of trying to appeal to voters in the political centre – a notion that he argues does not exist. In his book Moral Politics he argues that what distinguishes conservatives from progressives are two different moral systems: the strict father and the nurturant mother. The former is a metaphor for a family that teaches self-reliance and self-discipline while the latter is one where each family member cares and is cared by one another.
Most people mostly fall into one of the two moral systems. ‘Moderates’ are still dominated by one moral system while retaining elements from the other. Lakoff sees the attempts of parties to ‘capture’ moderates by appealing to both moral systems as mistaken. Instead, he councils to parties to frame their political messages in one or the other moral systems, which will ensure that the ‘dominant’ moral system in moderates will overpower the other.
Moreover, he argues that political arguments framed with the view that voters make decisions consciously and dispassionately after reviewing the facts is ineffective and exhibits an erroneous Enlightenment view of rationality. In his lecture he proclaims a different vision of human rationality: ‘To be rational you must be emotional’. Therefore, Political Parties can improve the effectiveness of their messages by framing their campaigns using stories and metaphors that appeal to the emotions by tapping into the unconscious moral systems.
Professor Lakoff’s theories about human cognition and suggestions for political communication are thought-provoking, yet to some they are sinister. One of the main contentions, however, is how his biconceptual model of moral systems works outside the context of the USA. For example, the campaign that saw the spectacular political rise of Pim Fortuyn in Netherlands in the early 2000’s combined a call for tighter immigration control (strict father model) with a staunch support for the rights of women and sexual minorities (nurturing family model).
In conclusion, George Lakoff’s application of Linguistic Cognitive Science to the realm of Political Science is analogous to the ‘Behavioural Revolution’ in Economics. Understanding how people ‘tick’ improves the way political parties frame their message and, perhaps, can be used as way to halt the decreasing levels of political participation in developed countries. Smoking and healthy-eating are examples of notions that have been successfully ‘reframed’ with the corollary changes in behaviour which implies that Lakoff’s work has the potential to address the Knowledge Gap.