George Lakoff's Freedom Frame


George Lakoff is a cognitive scientist whose theories have deepened our understanding of the brain and how we think, act, talk and feel. He works in the domain of mirror neurons and cognitive systems, which may be the stuff beneath our poetry but not necessarily the stuff of poetry. Still, readers who follow him in his new meditation on the fate of freedom in America might find themselves calling up their own images from our historic struggle for freedom:

  • An escaped slave lifts his eyes to the night sky, looking for the constellation of stars that will guide him north to freedom. "Follow the Drinking Gourd," he's been told in coded song;

  • A woman in a high-collared dress endures the contemptuous slanders (and the spit, and the thrown rocks, and the beatings, and the jailings) from those who violently oppose a woman's right to vote;

  • A sharecropper's daughter learns to read by candlelight, determined to escape the cruel, enforced poverty that threatens her family and her future.

These are pictures in the American Grain. They are part of our historical consciousness. They might even appear in public school history books, illustrating the progressive tradition of freedom that promises to all the opportunity to choose and pursue our goals, that teaches interdependence, empathy and an understanding that one's freedom is inextricably tied to the freedom of everyone else.

But it is a tradition under sustained assault from those who view freedom another way. To a conservative tradition that has never trusted the will of the people -- the unprivileged masses -- "freedom" is achieved by following strict rules, by accepting the discipline of those in authority. The "battle over the America's most important idea" is not new.

We see the two ideas of freedom -- the authoritarian and the egalitarian -- struggling with one another in the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. In his new book, "Whose Freedom? The Battle over America's Most Important Idea" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) George Lakoff holds these competing traditions up to the light.

Lakoff's central premise is that warriors with radically different worldviews fight the war over freedom. To conservatives, their authoritarian freedom seems the only natural road to human fulfillment. People are born bad, and will remain bad and "unfree" without discipline, punishment, hierarchy, and authority. To progressives, justifying authority in the name of freedom seems little more than a transparently hypocritical justification of elite privilege and control.

As described by Lakoff, progressives believe freedom means the opportunity for individuals to set and achieve their own goals, and the recognition that freedom is impossible unless we accept responsibility for ourselves and for others. Conservatives recoil at the progressive notion of liberty and argue that the prattlings about freedom and responsibility from the left are nothing but weak pleas for leniency from the debauched and the libertine, the unworthy and the unreconstructed.

Framing the political battle in America (and across the globe, really) around the idea of freedom, Lakoff focuses attention on what really is at stake in the trench-bound war of attrition we call contemporary politics: continued expansion of human freedom or a retreat to an elite-run distopia, a kind of knaves' old world in brave new world clothing.

Lakoff became a celebrity in 2004 as the world caught up to his 1996 groundbreaker, "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think" and made "Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate" a sensational bestseller.

But his ideas are fruitful in ways not understood by some of his fans and nearly all of his critics. Kevin Drum, in his review of "Whose Freedom?" in Mother Jones magazine, complains about "the political class that has uncritically lionized Lakoff." He has a grudging admiration for Lakoff's insight that the language of family life is mapped onto the political domain, that conservatives can be understood as embodying a "strict father" morality while liberals operate in a nurturant, empathetic family moral model. Drum also sees the value in the discoveries of cognitive linguists, that the brain uses conceptual systems, structural contexts hard-wired into the developing brain, which determine the meaning of words.

Still, Drum complains that this "genuinely useful concept" has not produced world-shaking results. This is like attacking James Watson and Francis Crick for not immediately eradicating all human disease once they had discovered DNA. Wishful thinking makes for bad critique.

I think Drum's resentment is misplaced. Rather than direct it toward Lakoff, it might constructively be directed at some consumers who fetishized Lakoff's work and thought themselves experts in framing because they'd bought a book by the famous Berkeley professor. This is a legitimate problem in an era of celebrity and consumer politics, but it is not a problem created by Lakoff.

Democratic officeholders embraced Lakoff's new ideas. The consultant class, however, was less enthusiastic, in part because he had become a celebrity, which made him potentially dangerous to their bottom lines.

Lakoff, founder of the Rockridge Institute, recognizes the serious research that must be done to fully uncover and employ the practical benefits of his insights into conceptual frames. But like many of us, he's also aware of the urgent need for profound change. The policy consequences of extremist conservative rule are -- literally -- killing people, not just in war, but in the de facto euthanasia we call a health care system, through the poisoning of the environment, through the enforced poverty and obscene income disparity of our time.

Some of his recommendations seem as simple as common sense. For instance, he tells us that progressives should define the U.S. adventurism in Iraq as an occupation rather than a war. Also, in a recent conversation he spoke of belittling the argument for a constitutional ban on flag burning by speaking of lighting up the flag as "bad manners, and we don't outlaw bad manners in the Constitution."

The flag burning debate takes us back to the importance of understanding our warring conceptions of freedom. For conservatives, Lakoff says, the flag is at once a symbol of authority and of freedom. Conservatives cannot hear or understand arguments against the ban that are based on freedom of speech. "It is a big deal for anyone who believes in strict father morality," Lakoff said. In other words, progressives will never convince them that a constitutional ban on flag burning destroys our freedom because for conservatives, freedom is woven into the flag itself.

In "Whose Freedom?" Lakoff has three goals: 1) Describe the distinctly different ideas of freedom held, respectively, by authoritarian, strict parent morality and nurturant morality; 2) Show us how to advance the progressive ideal of freedom; and 3) Deepen our understanding of conceptual frames so we might see their influence and grow beyond the conceptual systems that shape our brain and constrain what we can think, say, or do. The latter goal lifts the book beyond a discussion of political freedom and into an exploration of the possibilities of human freedom in a deterministic universe.

In the summer of 2005, before Lakoff sat down to write "Whose Freedom?," he grew agitated as he discussed the implications of conceptual frames on free will. I tried to argue that "frames are not forever." He wasn't buying it, though his probing questions (which I couldn't answer) hinted at the direction he would take in the new book. If unconscious conceptual systems determine our thought and action, in what sense can we be truly free? He answers that question early and late in the book.

"At stake here is the deepest form of freedom -- the freedom that comes from knowing your own mind. If you are unaware of your own deep frames and metaphors, then you are unaware of the basis for your moral and political choices," he writes in the introduction.

And, in his conclusion, he adds, "We were not raised to think in terms of frames and metaphorical ideas. And we were not raised to think in terms of alternative worldviews -- that our countrymen and even our next-door neighbors might see the world in a radically different way. In short, we were not raised to see certain deep truths that are essential to our freedom. Transcending the ideas that we were raised with -- growing to see more -- is the cognitive work of achieving freedom."

In other words, by understanding how language and the mind work, we might take some of the "forever" out of the systems our minds use to understand the world. The possibilities of freedom are enlarged and extended, and that's what the progressive ideal of freedom is all about. I'm convinced that conceptual frames evolve and change. Five centuries ago, the Renaissance thinker Desiderius Erasmus engaged in a spirited debate with Martin Luther over free will. Luther preached predestination. Free will was a dangerous illusion, since God determined our futures.

Luther, and Calvin after him, overthrew the authority of the Church, but they laid the foundation for the contemporary authoritarian, strict-parent model of family and governance. Obedience to earthly authority and conformity to strict social mores, they taught, would reveal a person's status as one of the predestined Elect. Erasmus, who felt and witnessed the euphoria of expanding cultural and intellectual freedoms during the Renaissance, thought predestination dark and demoralizing.

Erasmus authored a book on child rearing and education that was very much in the nurturant mode. It recommended empathy and the teaching of responsibility, cooperation, and experiment. Rules, Erasmus thought, should not be followed too strictly. The Reformers were scandalized. They edited Erasmus' book, replacing his ideas with their own recommendations of discipline, punishment, and the importance of authority.

If we can so clearly see the defining historical moments of conceptual systems still with us today, as we can see the strict parent morality in the Reformation, we can imagine some future observers looking back and seeing the defining moments of altogether different conceptual frames. As the poet Charles Olson wrote, "What does not change / is the will to change."

The possibilities of freedom are more than illusion. That is freedom in the American Grain. George Lakoff, like Erasmus before him, is afraid the narrow, conservative minds of today's political Reformation will snuff out the fires of liberty once and for all. He urges us to battle. He tells us to follow the Drinking Gourd.

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