Putting Lakoff’s Work in a Larger Context

Putting Lakoff

In applying to political discourse the scientific discoveries of how concepts are embodied in our brains, George Lakoff and his associates have made an important contribution to how we Democrats ought to be talking about issues.

What is missing, however, in this application of science to politics, is recognition that a powerful worldwide system known as patriarchy needs to be the context for these discussions. For example, in a recent Truthout article, “Obama, Tea Parties and the Battle for Our Brains,” Lakoff explains how liberals and conservatives differ in their views of the family.

Liberals, Lakoff pointed out, prefer the model of “a nurturant parent family” that is not only based on “empathy,” but also on “responsibility – for both oneself and others, and on excellence: doing as well as one can to make oneself better, and one’s family and community better. Parents are to practice these things and children are to learn them by example.” Clearly, these are families in which women, as the primary nurturers, have an important place.

“Conservatives,” wrote Lakoff, prefer “a strict father family” model. In this kind of family, “the world is seen as a dangerous place and the father functions as protector from ‘others’ and is the parent who teaches children absolute right from wrong by punishing them physically (painful spanking or worse) when they do wrong. The father is the ultimate authority; children are to obey, and immoral practices are seen as disgusting.”

Republicans claim that this model is based on “traditional family values.” Actually, they are patriarchal values rooted in the subjugation of women, for it is not just the children who must yield to the authority of the father, but the mother as well.

Patriarchy is a system with a long history, predating written records, but it remains a powerful contemporary force throughout the world.

Patriarchs instituted the practice of marriage many millennia ago in order to subordinate women whom they saw as a valuable commodity by giving every man the right by law to absolute dominion over a wife. In patriarchal marriages, the father is more than a mere “protector.” He is a property owner. And in many countries, a wife today has no more rights than a slave. Women and girls are sold into marriage or prostitution, traded for other goods, or simply given away. A wife is viewed as valuable property because along with the domestic services that she provides she is able to produce children, especially sons, and the progeny belong to the property owner.

This issue of ownership is at the root of the strong opposition on the part of conservatives to Roe vs. Wade. The idea that a woman would have control over her life to the extent that she could legally abort the “male-owned” fetus is anathema to the patriarchal system and to those who espouse “traditional family values.”

Conservatives seek to strengthen patriarchy here and abroad by not only denying women access to abortions, but also to contraceptive information and devices.
Conservatives mask their contempt for women under the term “pro-life.” Few seem to notice that they have painted themselves into a corner on this issue, because if they claim that abortion is tantamount to murder, then how can they logically allow abortions, as some want to do, in the case of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother?

Here, in the United States, thanks to two militant women’s movements over the last 150 years, progress has been achieved in removing many of the barriers to full personhood for women. But we are not out of the woods by a long shot. We women still have no equal rights under the US Constitution. Men in “nurturant parent families” can also be abusive and overbearing. And even here the violence – rapes, murders and domestic abuse – necessary to maintain the subservience of women goes on at a steady pace.

An issue Lakoff addresses in terms of framing is homosexuality. Liberals use “gays and lesbians,” which gets a more positive response in polls, while conservatives always use “homosexual” as in “homosexual marriage” or homosexuals in the military” etc. The question that needs to be asked, however, is why conservatives feel compelled to demonize homosexuals in the first place. The answer is that homosexual relationships undermine the patriarchal system that is structured on heterosexuality. Men are not involved in lesbian relationships, keeping the women in line. Two cohabiting men are seen as abdicating their responsibility to help control women. One might add that gay and lesbian relationships offer a more equal, and, therefore, a threatening model, to the patriarchal one.

Conservatives here have been tagged as working with their counterparts in Uganda to achieve legislation that would outlaw homosexuality and impose death sentences on those in violation of it.

The quid pro quo for lower-class men in exchange for their privileges vis á vis women is absolute loyalty to the ruling patriarchs. The loyalty chit is called in whenever patriarchs gear up to fight another one of their wars. The presence of women and homosexual males in the military erodes the ages-old patriarchal ideal of what it means to be “a real man.” Over the centuries, and the present one is no exception, men around the world have been willing to put their lives on the line to advance the interests of those at the top.

By substituting “patriarchal” for the phrase “conservative moral,” in Lakoff’s final sentence: “The highest value in the conservative moral system is the perpetuation and strengthening of the conservative moral system itself,” we would have a statement that gives us an appropriate context.