Please visit the new home of Majikthise at bigthink.com/blogs/focal-point.

« Roe's robosculpture | Main | Book meme »

April 06, 2005

Beyond "nurturant parent"

This entry is inspired by Revere's latest Lakoff post. I encourage you to check out his whole Lakoff series, starting here.

Lakoff's strict father/nurturant parent distinction is widely misunderstood. Some people are unclear on what nuturant parenthood entails. They incorrectly assume that "nurturant" is a euphemism for weakness or effeminacy. Cortunix dispels many of those misconceptions here.

More often Lakoff is criticized for his choice of labels. We know that it takes courage, strength, and resolve to be a nurturant parent--but those aren't the associations the term evokes in most people.

I think this is Ezra's worry:

So the strict father frame the Republicans use immediately paints Democrats as mommy. And while mom is awesome, it's dad you call when you hear noises downstairs late at night. That's how Republicans win elections, they basically mount the stage and say "did you hear that, America? I think I heard someone jiggling the door downstairs! Now would you rather have George Bush and his bat go check it out, or should we send John Kerry and his baguette?" So Lakoff responds to this by suggesting that Democrats become a gender neutral nurturing parent, which simply doesn't exist, and would actually just mean mom.

It's important to note that Lakoff doesn't recommend that progressives explicitly evoke the nurturant parent model in their daily rhetoric. It's more of a tool to figure out where other people are coming from.

Lakoff argues that all of our reasoning is influenced by metaphors. Metaphors relate abstract or unfamiliar concepts to ideas we already understand. For obvious cultural and biological reasons, "family" is a powerful metaphor for many different human affiliations. So it's not surprising that nations, churches, armies, corporations, and organized crime syndicates have evoked the family in their rhetoric for centuries. (Founding fathers, sons of the revolution, Holy Fathers, brothers in arms, the XYZ family of companies, godfathers....)

Everyone likes families--but liberal and conservative world views prescribe different ideals family life. So, the Lakoffian question is this: If the nation is like a family, what kind of family should it be? For conservatives, the ideal family is an authoritarian hierarchy ruled by a strict father. Liberals idealize a nurturing family that encourages each individual to achieve her full potential. It's important to note that both sets of metaphors resonate with everyone to some degree.

I think it would be better for liberals to think of the Nurturant Family as the counterpart to the Patriarchal Family. Note that "family" is a metaphor for our ties to our fellow citizens, not just a metaphor for the relationship between the government and the the people. If you think that families and countries need strict fathers, it makes sense to make the President the strict father of the country. But if your ideal society is like a nurturant family, it would be paradoxical to elect one uber-nurturer to succor us all.

The ideal liberal family is a multi-generational collaboration. Power is shared among family members. In the idealized liberal family mothers and fathers collaborate to raise their children. Parents have an important role, but so do aunts, uncles, grandparents, and of course, brothers and sisters. It's no accident that feminists, trade unionists, minority leaders, and other progressive groups use sibling metaphors to express their ties to their allies. You can count on your brothers and sisters to watch out for you.

Hilary Clinton infuriated the wingnuts with her remark that "it takes a village raise a child." Metaphorically, her comment was a direct attack on the strict father model.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c61e653ef00d83422a44153ef

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Beyond "nurturant parent":

» On Lakoff: Dispelling some myths and misinterpretations from DemSpeak

Majikthise takes on some misconceptions of Lakoff's "strict father/nurturing parent" metaphors [Read More]

» Lakoff - XVI: public health and language from Effect Measure
This series began as an attempt to extract some useful ideas for public health from George Lakoff's neuroscience-inspired notions of "framing," notions that unexpectedly took the progressive political world by storm after being championed by, among o... [Read More]

» Framing Lakoff from Across the Great Divide
There's more to Lakoff and Strict Fatherhood than dad coming home to lay down the law and haul out the belt. Ezra Klein explains why Daddy polls better than Mommy. There's a discussion going on at Majikthise that focuses on this aspect of Lakoff's... [Read More]

» Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company from Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company
Inspired by the back-and-forth between Ezra Klein and Lindsay Beyerstein here, here, and here, I offer my own ideas on framing that completely bypass the "strict father" vs. "nurturant parent" debate. [Read More]

» The Public Park Parable of Political Psychology from A Blog Around The Clock
Another one on psychology of political ideology (form April 08, 2005):... [Read More]

Comments

I think the notion of seeing liberal and conservative along the lines of the father and mother is not quite as accurate as seeing liberal and conservative along the lines of happiness vs. greed. Liberalism takes the side that happiness is our goal in life while conservatism takes the side that it's wealth.

Maybe if we contrast a Ward Cleaver-Father Knows Best nurturant dad with the guy who blows his paycheck at the bar and blows up at his kids when they ask why they can't have new clothes for school, we can get mom out of the picture and start talking about how some fathers are really disfunctional.

thehim--
It's not a matter of accuracy; it's a matter of evoking less-than-fully conscious reactions on the basis of shared experiences--family life, in this case. It's the reaction that counts, not the metaphor.

I am a nurturant father (literaly) and not that I have any problems whatsoevre with efemmenate men, I would not be accused by many of being terribly affeminate. I am also a strict father, having been a fuck up most of my life, (I have a I.Q of 167 and work in construction) I do not want to make the same mistake my parents did. I think if you take this analogy and succesfuly cross it over to government and society it would be great. My son is three, he has empathy beyon his years.(kids are notoriously "me" minded) he began reading @ 31 months age, he loves to share his privelages and he has a strong sense of fairness and justice. No he is not perfect but if society had the balanced authority my son gets from his parents AND extended family the world would be a better place and my ulcers would probably go away.

Phew. When I saw the title of this post in my RSS feed, I thought you'd preempted the brilliant post I was going to write on this subject.

Fortunately, you didn't. Now I just need to find the time to write mine....

For month's I've been trying to wrap my brain around Lakoff's framing. I've attended local DFA meet-ups where they've shown the video, I've read the packets, I've read the commentary on the web... and it still doesn't click. I just don't find any resonance in Lakoff's metaphor. I've raise two son's to adulthood (most of those years as a single dad), so maybe that colors my view. I see the metaphorical comparison between Republicans and Democrats as the cruel abusive father vs. the strong, supportive father. Would you rather have the dad who breaks into your pigbank to go out drinking and then comes home to beat up you and your mom - or - the dad that picks you up, dust you off, straightens out the handlebars on your bike and then help you keep your balance while you learn to ride on your own? - - - If we're going to create myth, lets do it so it rings a bell for all Americans not just the "enlightened" ones.

If we're going to create myth, lets do it so it rings a bell for all Americans not just the "enlightened" ones.

That's Lakoff's goal. He thinks that both types of parental model resonate with everyone in our culture to some degree. Our challenge is either to explain why GW is a terrible strict father (he doesn't protect us, he isn't responsible, he keeps us dependent on foreign debt and foreign oil instead of preparing us to stand on our own...) and/or to sell our own policies in terms that appeal to everyone's latent progressive impulses (our candidate will preserve equal opportunity for all Americans, and protect everyone's constitutional rights, &c.)

The contrast is really between Awesome Dad and Asshole Dad. Everyone can relate to that.

Now would you rather have George Bush and his bat go check it out, or should we send John Kerry and his baguette?

this is the only sentence that matters to the crowd to whom this is addressed. that is, the soft phallus ref here is what keys the listener, and everything else become irrelevant in the ridiculously two-dimensional, nay, simply bipolar construction they offer. simple, stupid, sentimental. no wonder we have a hard time getting thru to the average wingnut. what is reason in the face of a soft dick? /pun/

It's not a matter of accuracy; it's a matter of evoking less-than-fully conscious reactions on the basis of shared experiences--family life, in this case. It's the reaction that counts, not the metaphor.

That's true, and it's a function of our society that the way we react to things is more important than what happens when we think them through. The better metaphor might be that we had to choose between Homer Simpson with a bat and Marge Simpson with a baguette. And we chose Homer because our gut says so.

The better metaphor might be that we had to choose between Homer Simpson with a bat and Marge Simpson with a baguette.

Oh, come on -- I've made my share of jokes about John Kerry's hair, but I think that's taking things a bit too far ...

Everyone likes families--but liberal and conservative world views prescribe different ideals family life. So, the Lakoffian question is this: If the nation is like a family, what kind of family should it be? For conservatives, the ideal family is an authoritarian hierarchy ruled by a strict father. Liberals idealize a nurturing family that encourages each individual to achieve her full potential. It's important to note that both sets of metaphors resonate with everyone to some degree.

No, the liberal answer to the question is, "The nation is not a family." Liberalism doesn't begin with a collective; it begins with the individual and considers the state a tool to prevent individual from hurting one another. The nurturant parent model therefore can never describe liberalism; at most it can describe a brand of conservatism that attaches to a sufficiently new tradition that for now it looks like liberalism.

"Liberalism takes the side that happiness is our goal in life while conservatism takes the side that it's wealth."

I'm uncertain of which brand of liberalism you're referring to here. There was a strand in the counter-culture of the 1960s that emphasized personal fulfillment over making money - perhaps that is what you're thinking of? I doubt the 60s counter-culture makes up the majority of those who today would consider themselves left-of-center. There is an older liberal tradition that includes both Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham, neither of whom saw the acqusition of wealth as the automatic opposite of happiness (though Adam Smith has a lovely tirade against ambition in Theory of Moral Sentiments). In my opinion, Bentham's emphasis on the utility of social reforms provides the intellectual basis for the majority of the social reformers in the Democratic party today.

(from Alon Levy) .."Liberalism doesn't begin with a collective; it begins with the individual and considers the state a tool to prevent individual from hurting one another..."-
The State then, is the seat of morality. Isn't that just a stand-in for "family"?.. and for "family values"? It IS the "body politic", no?
^..^

No, the state is a) subordinate to the people, and b) strongly limited by several explicit mechanisms, in particular a constitution. Liberalism doesn't view public morality as a public good, so the government is not the seat of morality; the people are.

Re: "Liberalism doesn't view public morality as a public good, so the government is not the seat of morality; the people are.."-
Isn't "the government" simply the mechanism that "the people" utilize to promulgate that morality which they hold in common? Or does each of "the people" decide what's moral to them, as individuals; and then wear their morals as it suits them? Also, where do these morals arise? ^..^

The problem with the "it takes a village" model is that it also alarms people who have good reason to be mistrustful of the busybody side of villages.

I happen to agree that it does take a village, but I don't think everyone annoyed by the phrase is a defender of the "strict father" model.

Or does each of "the people" decide what's moral to them, as individuals; and then wear their morals as it suits them?

That is more or less correct, although in certain circumstances, such as when people's actions or inaction threatens others' liberties, or when people actively hurt others, there is grounds for government action. For instance, the liberal justification of welfare is very individualist: it prevents people from starving to death. This is why welfare is a typically liberal social program, whereas many socialists prefer achieving full employment and giving everyone higher wages, thus empowering workers.

"I happen to agree that it does take a village, but I don't think everyone annoyed by the phrase is a defender of the "strict father" model."

That's true. Many people have been hurt by the conformist pressures of small communities (be that a small town, a small tribe, a small clique of friends, a commune, etc.). This happens, no doubt, in small villages in Asia, but this also happens in communes in America where everyone has freely choosen to join the commune and everyone can be assumed to be working in good faith toward harmony. To take one example, go to Twin Oaks sometime, the famous commune set up in Virginia in the 1960s (you can easily find their web site using Google). If you go there and park, and then get out and take the left-most path, and walk past all the buildings, you'll soon think you are out in the woods. If you keep going you come to a little cabin. That is their escape cabin for people who are burned our and need some time away from the community. Go in the door and look at the small shelf to your left. There is a notebook there that is something of a community notebook of pain. Open it up and read it and you soon realize all the pain and hurt and politics that crop up in small, tight-knit communities, even when everyone is working toward harmony.

Some people are non-conformist rebels against community pressures. Thus they are irritated by the "It takes a village" stuff. But they are hardly defenders of the strict father point of view.

Liberalism doesn't begin with a collective; it begins with the individual and considers the state a tool to prevent individual from hurting one another.

Rather like the way a nurturant parent keeps his/her kids from hurting one another?

Libertarianism is the philosophy that doesn't conceptualize the country as a family. That's why they don't much care whether some people exploit others--the government isn't supposed to prevent individuals from hurting eachother, except in the most literal sense.

The comments by Lindsay, citizensteve, and wmr get to the heart of the problem -- instead of just creating a new image for Democrats that accepts the "strict father" frame, we need to redefine the terms of the debate on both ends.

Here's my post on the subject that I promised above.

Wow, you remembered that oooooold post of mine! I better go and re-read it now. I hope I still agree with myself on this :-)

I have also responded to Ezra (and Brad Plumer) on this topic, and had a similar discussion with Alon Levy in comments on Pharyngula post (about liberal heresy in last two paragraphs).

Modern liberalism and conservatism are just conflicting sets of ad hoc policy prescriptions. Any attempt to state the fundaments of either inevitably degenerates into a search for a metaphor, in this case parenting styles, since neither political view is really based on consistently adhered to set of principles.

Neither political view is really based on consistently adhered to set of principles.

This is completely false. Both liberalism and conservatism have long histories of principles that are really adhered to and used in picking views on issues.

Rather like the way a nurturant parent keeps his/her kids from hurting one another?

Yes, just like a nurturant parent strict father keeps his kids from hurting one another. Similarly, both views consider the proposition 1+1=2 to be correct, but it doesn't make them identical. The difference is that the nurturant parent does not view himself as a tool to make his children's life better, consider it within his children's rights to replace him if he doesn't do a good job, or let his children do whatever they want as long as they don't hurt their siblings.

"Modern liberalism and conservatism are just conflicting sets of ad hoc policy prescriptions. ... neither political view is really based on consistently adhered to set of principles."

No, you are confusing the political parties, Democrat and Republican, with the political theories, liberalism and conservatism.

As Alon Levy says, the political theories have long histories and traditions, and both have a certain amount of internal consistency.

The political parties are both ad-hoc groupings of diverse factions, each with its own motivations and theories. You might find inntellectual consistency in the theories put forward by any one of those factions, but you won't find consistency in the "big tent" political parties that group the factions together. The political parties both represent short-term, transitory, ever-changing, loose-knit coalitions of factions who rarely agree, or even like, one another. In a parlimentary system some of those factions would have their own political parties, but the American political tradition encourages the factions to group into 2.

I might add that in America both of the main political parties are essentially liberal, with a few anti-liberal factions in both. The parties get their distinctive flavorings mostly from the anti-liberal factions (Christian fundamentalists on the right, socialists and black nationalists on the left) that make up their militant wings.

The comments to this entry are closed.