For many of us on the left, it is confusing that the reddest states also happen to be the poorest and the most reliant on the social programs that their elected officials oppose. They choose Governors rejected expanded Medicaid dollars. They have suffered some of the most devastating environmental disasters. But, they select attorney generals that sue the Environmental Protection Agency. They are in the most need of jobs in their states, but their leaders fire teachers, nurses, and other government workers to provide tax breaks to businesses that bring in automated plants that provide only a couple of dozen jobs. Why do they continue to embrace a philosophy and political movement that has not helped to solve any of the problems that their states face? As George Lakeoff, UC Berkley cognitive linguist tells us, people don’t vote their interests; they vote their values. Their values and ours create a mental frame. Our mental frame is the foundation of how we think, feel, and understand the world around us. It is known as our worldview. It is that difference in frame that has made it so difficult for us to cross that divide and talk to each other with compassion and understanding.
George Lakoff fits American mythology into a family framework. We have founding fathers; we have the Daughters of the American Revolution. We send our sons and daughters to war. As Dr. Lakoff applied this framework to the political structure, he saw developing in Newt Gingrich's Contract with America in 1994; he found inspiration from psychology. He identified two types of families, the strict father family, and the nurturing parent family. The strict father family is hierarchical, teaches independence, and values working towards self-good as benefit of whole good. Dr. Lakoff identifies the strict father family as a refuge from a dangerous world. Since the world is a dangerous place and it is the job of the father to protect the family, decisions are based on the interest of the immediate family group, not on the greater good.
The other side of the frame is the nurturing family. The nurturing family mindset is gender neutral. According to Lakeoff, it reflects the world as safe and welcoming. The nurturing family frame takes into account the greater good, not just the needs of the immediate family. The nurturing parent is more generous than the strict father because the world is not as scary for them. The nurturing family is more democratic than the strict father family. Everyone gets to have a say in the way things run. One person, one vote. Everyone’s needs are important.
What do these two frames look like when applied to conservatives versus progressives? (I have decided that I will not always be using Republicans and Democrats to distinguish the two parties. Although we will often see Republicans fall along the strict father frame, while Democrats frequently frame their political thought as nurturing parents.) The paradox in all of this is that each frame tends to create the kind of world that they each envision. Conservatives create a world that is more dangerous and scarier. Red states are financially poorer, have worse air and water quality, residents live shorter lives, have more unemployment, and score lower on measures of general satisfaction. People in more progressive states live longer, have less unemployment, and greater satisfaction in their lives. Obviously, these are general statements. Statistics don’t apply to individuals.
The question becomes: “How do we cross this divide?” How can we come to understand someone else’s worldview? How can we help someone move past their understanding of the world to find a new truth about how and why the world they live in has become so scary. George Lakoff tells us how important it is not to reinforce the frame we are trying to supplant. In other words, if we want people to stop thinking about limits on the fossil fuel industry as a problem for oil companies, but as a good for society, we have to stop talking about environmental regulations and start talking about environmental protections. In the same way, if people are talking about their world view, they are in some ways making that world view stronger. He is right. When the progressive movement is messaging on the larger stage, we must take care in how we word our arguments so that we are not just saying “no.” We must turn the discussion on its head. We will be talking more about this as we move along. But, for now, where we need to start is by listening. We must earn the right to express our views. When Hillary Clinton calls Trump supporters “deplorable,” she gave up on ever winning any of those votes. She said to those voters; “I don’t know you. I don’t want to know you.”
The first step in learning to communicate with compassion is to understand how our frame creates a barrier to being able to care about others. We are going to talk about this much more over the coming weeks and months, but everyone wants a place to start. I’m going to give you George Lakoff’s starting point. He tells us to start getting people in touch with their nurturing parent. Don’t start in on a discussion of the issues. Don’t talk about the latest Russian scandal. Start by tapping into your FOX news loving uncle’s sense of compassion. Ask him to tell you about a time when he helped someone else without any expectation of getting anything in return. Do that, then tell us about it in the comments.
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This weekend I am going to Southern California to the Medicare for all March. Next week we will talk about health care. We will also cover listening.