(By NCrissie B)
This week I consider George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling’s The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic . Today I look at their core premise, that human reasoning is grounded in moral rather than factual analysis. Next I’ll explore how to challenge political myths and lies without reinforcing those same myths and lies. Then I’ll conclude with a Democratic phrase list that evokes progressive moral reasoning.
George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of several books, including Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics. Elisabeth Wehling is a Ph.D candidate at the University of California, Berkeley and earned her master’s degree in communication psychology at Hamburg University. In addition to her research, she writes and consults on German and European politics.
Why Are You Talking Politics?
There are many possible reasons to talk politics. You may want to work through an idea aloud, where the listener is more a sounding board than an active participant. You may want to express your affiliation and celebrate shared beliefs with a group of like-minded people. You may want to demonstrate your expertise with or passionate commitment to public issues. You may want to learn from or be reassured by someone whose expertise you trust. You may want to explore the perspective of someone whom you respect despite your disagreements. You may want to argue for entertainment, or as an exercise in social dominance. Or you may want to persuade a listless Democrat to vote, or to persuade a swing voter like Fred to support President Obama and other progressive Democrats.
Why we’re talking politics with a specific person in a specific conversation should shape how we converse. Yet too often we talk politics with a listless Democrat – or with Fred – as if we were celebrating joint beliefs with other like-minded people, or demonstrating our expertise, or trying to win an argument. Not surprisingly, those conversational styles rarely persuade. Persuasion is about changing minds, and to do that well we must understand at least a little about the human mind itself.
How Do We Feel-Think?
That seems an oddly phrased question. We recognize that we feel, and that we think, but the Enlightenment model of reason has taught us to perceive those as different processes. Yet as we saw in our discussions of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, unconscious System 1 intuition comes before conscious System 2 reasoning, and both intuition and reasoning are more emotion-based than we’re taught to believe. Simply: we ‘feel’ before we ‘think,’ and how we ‘feel’ strongly influences how we ‘think.’
And in politics, Lakoff and Wehling write in The Little Blue Book and at The Little Blue Blog, that feeling-thinking process is more about moral reasoning than facts and logic:
In politics, the highest frames are moral frames. The reason is that all politics is moral: political leaders propose policies because they are right – not because they are wrong or don’t matter. All policies, therefore, have a moral basis.
Facts and logic do matter. Progressive policies should fit empirical facts if we know the facts, and with logical inferences when we don’t yet or can’t predict exact facts. Public policy issues often rely on patterns and estimates of which events or outcomes are more or less likely, much in the way a weather forecaster in Minneapolis can say that February is likely to be colder than August. Even if we strongly prefer sandals over snow boots – intuitively and/or emotionally – we would be foolish to tell Minnesotans to leave their boots at home and wear sandals in February. On the other hand, if it’s 64° in Minneapolis next February 26th, as it was in 1896….
Moral Reasoning Comes First
Facts and logic do matter in politics, but they exist in moral contexts. The topic of footwear in Minneapolis may seem trivial, but trivial examples can help us see important ideas. Why does it matter whether a Minnesotan wears sandals or snow boots? The issue seems purely practical: choose sandals or shoes or boots that protect your feet from the weather and/or fit the image you want to project … or an image that others expect of you.
Notice how quickly that starts to sound like a moral issue. Now imagine a school board or a corporate executive committee setting a dress code for students or workers. They will probably still care about image, but if their concerns about image trump concerns about safety – making the students or workers wear sandals in February because it fits a preferred image, despite the risk of frostbite – that would be immoral.
How might you persuade the school board or corporate committee to change the dress code? You might present the average temperature chart I linked above, and information about frostbite. And those facts would be useful … if the school board or committee members agree that the students’ or workers’ safety matters more than a preferred group image. That italicized clause expresses a moral value, and facts about weather and frostbite risks won’t matter until and unless the school board or corporate committee members share that moral value.
Talking Moral Values
To persuade people to support progressive candidates or policies, we must persuade them to share moral values. Yet because we so often talk politics with each other – to explore, bond, demonstrate expertise, or for entertainment – we often leave moral values out of the discussion. Most progressives agree on those values, so we can and do skip past them. We may test each others’ facts and logic, and that is very useful, but we get away with that by presuming (often but not always correctly) a shared base of moral values.
Then we call or meet that listless Democrat or a swing voter like Fred, who may not share all of our moral values or may not see the link between those moral values and the candidates or policies we came to advocate. We may skip over that part or, worse, advocate for progressive candidates or policies using words or tactics that evoke and reinforce conservative moral values.
Consider these three phrases:
- favoring the top one percent – The word “top” is a vertical descriptor, and higher/upper usually means better (“he earned top grades,” “she reached her peak potential”). When you use that phrase, you imply that billionaires are better than the rest of us, and that’s a conservative moral value.
- favoring the wealthy and business interests – Many people would like to become wealthy or start their own business, or may already think of themselves as wealthy or already own a business, and hope that will yield at least some favors. Values aside, insulting someone or his/her dreams is not a path to persuasion.
- favoring billionaires and big corporations – By contrast, few people imagine becoming billionaires or building big corporations, and most Americans already believe the deck is stacked to favor those groups. This phrase evokes the ideas of “everyone paying their fair share and playing by the same rules,” a phrase President Obama uses often, and those are progressive moral values.
We’ll explore other such phrases in the third post, but next we’ll talk about how to challenge conservative myths and lies … without reinforcing those myths and lies.