Nel's New Day

March 12, 2012

Language Strengthens Brains, Both Conservative and Progressive

Today begins International Brain Awareness Day, and George Lakoff’s article in today’s Huffington Post is an apt offering to observe this annual commemoration of  intelligence. Author of The Political Mind, Moral Politics, Don’t Think of an Elephant!, Lakoff writes about the ways that Republicans pound conservative ideas into people to guarantee a radically conservative future for the country.

Progressives have ridiculed the possibility that Rick Santorum—or even Newt Gingrich—could possibly be the Republican presidential nominee, let alone get elected. Bill Maher is one of those on the left who thinks that we should worry about a Republican being elected this fall. History has proved his theory right with both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush sitting in the U.S. president’s seat after many voters thought this could not happen. Both men changed the country for the worse, despite the fact that neither one of them was as radical as the current gaggle of conservative candidates.

How did they get elected? Repetition. According to Lakoff, repeated language strengthens the brain circuitry. If that language is conservative, then it strengthens the conservative brain circuitry. The conservative language is not limited to just the presidential campaign; it influences elections from school boards on up to Congress. Even negating conservative language activates that characterizes conservative values.

Lakoff writes that conservative ideals are reinforced in everyone, including progressives, by repeating myths before explaining why they are wrong. He suggests that progressives need to repeat—and repeat—liberal moral values and policies to activate the progressive part of the brain. According to Lakoff, morality beats policy. After President Obama gained majority support for his heath care plan, conservatives attacked “Obamacare” on moral grounds. They never mentioned the provisions of the act because people wanted what the health care act provided. Instead conservatives claimed that the health care act violated the moral principles of “freedom” (“government takeover”) and “life” (“death panels”). They repeated these two words over and over and over, convincing millions of people that they should fight the entire health care plan.

Progressive moral values are empathy and responsibility, both for oneself and others, leading to the need for government to have certain moral obligations: providing protection and empowerment for everyone equally. For progressives, the public is important: public infrastructure (roads, buildings, sewers), public education, public health, etc. Private businesses cannot prosper without these public provisions; thus the private depends on the public. These liberal moral values are also found in families: parents have equal authority with empathy for each other and their children. Self-responsibility and responsibility for well-being of other family members means open communication, transparency about family rules, shared decision-making, and need-based fairness.

Conversely, the ideal conservative family is based on a strict father who is the natural leader of the family, who is assumed to know right from wrong, whose authority is absolute and unchallengeable, who is masculine and makes decisions about reproduction, and who sets the rules–in short, the Decider. Their morality requires that children to be taught right from wrong through strict discipline. These family beliefs extend to conservative morality of free markets. Poverty comes from not being fiscally disciplined; poor people deserve poverty because they lack discipline.

In government, conservative moral beliefs require conservative religion with a strict father God; a view of the market as Decider with no external authority over the market from government, unions, or the courts; and strictness in other institutions, like education, prisons, businesses, sports teams, romantic relationships, and the world community. According to conservative belief, control over reproduction ought to be in the hands of male authorities. For conservatives, democracy is about the freedom to seek one’s own self-interest with minimal or no commitment to the interests of others. Brains that absorb these conservative moral values then vote against their personal interests.

Made readily available through television and the Internet, the repetition of language expressing conservative values leads to more and more working people becoming political and accepting those values in their politics. When Democrats do not provide progressive moral messaging, repeated over and over, conservative populism will expand. Ridiculing conservative language reinforces it in the brains.

Lakoff uses the following examples to show how conservatives rationalize their moral values:

  • The strict father determines what happens in the family, including reproduction. Thus reproduction is the province of male authority.
  • The strict father does not condone moral weakness and self-indulgence without moral consequences. Sex without reproductive consequences is thus seen as immoral.
  • If the nation supports birth control for unmarried women, then the nation supports immoral behavior.
  • The conservative stress on individual responsibility means that you and no one else should have to pay for your birth control–not your employer, your HMO, or the taxpayers.
  • Having to pay for your birth control also has a metaphorical religious value–paying for your sins.

If no one else should have to pay for contraception, the next step is that no one else should have to pay for any health care, and the step after that is that no one else should be forced to pay for anyone else. It’s the Santorum approach: no public education, safety nets, parks, or any public institutions or services.

Rush Limbaugh’s “apology” fits with the conservative moral value system. Although he seemed to apologize for using two words, slut and prostitute, to describe Sandra Fluke, he didn’t apologize for having attacked her because she supported birth control. It might be noted, however, that his apology, for the sole purpose of regaining his advertisers, may have failed in that arena. Thus far he has lost almost 100 advertisers with most of them now refusing to advertise on any conservative media.

Clear Channel, which owns 850 radio stations in the country and reaches 190 million listeners, also owns Premiere Radio Networks, the company that syndicates the radio shows of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and others. Clear Channel also controls other conservative talk radio hosts such as Michael Savage and Mark Levin. Bain Capital is a primary owner of Clear Channel. Although Mitt Romney no longer runs Bain Capital, he makes millions dollars from Clear Channel. This parent company auditions and hires actors to call radio shows as “listeners” to provide planned content through their stories and “opinions” so that the conservative message is clear and pervasive.

Lakoff also wrote, “All moral logic in politics, whether progressive or conservative, is based on metaphorical thought processes, applying family moral values to political moral values. Republicans understand this and Santorum carries it out masterfully for the benefit of all conservative Republican office seekers at all levels, today and in the future. The Santorum Strategy does not end with this election. It is part of a permanent campaign that has been going on since the Gingrich revolution of 1994, and will continue into the indefinite future.”

A graph covering the past 30 years shows the conservative success in controlling the brain circuitry of U.S. voters. Democrats have barely edged towards the left during that time while both moderate and partisan House Republicans have veered way off to the extreme right. For instance, the partisan Republican (the “90% Republican”) in 2011 hovered near the absolute threshold of the radical right. In comparison, the partisan Democrat (the “90% Democrat”) was far from his/her ideological extreme, having only made a negligible move to the left. Even more critical is that a moderate Republican in 2011 (the “10% Republican”) was not really moderate anymore, having moved so far to the right that he/she was nearly as factional as the Democrat’s partisan member.

Lakoff cautions Democrats, who may assume that the presidential campaign concerns only this year and that birth control is only about birth control, to not to make that mistake. Conservatives are in the fight for the long haul, working toward a fundamentalist Christian theocracy and succeeding in the people who they promote for Congress. That’s why they spend all their times lying about the Democrats–the brain circuitry.

Sad to say, tomorrow’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi will definitely activate the conservative part of the brain.

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