Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Response Too Long For HaloScan

Posted by olvlzl.
The major point of the post is that history provides a sounder academic field with which to guide political decisions and policies than behavioral or cognitive science. I didn’t say that there isn’t something to either behavioral or cognitive science, though I’d certainly argue that many researchers in both fields tend to go way beyond what their research supports. The amazingly baroque structures that they tend to build on rather shaky pilings are impressive until you look at what they’re built on.

The recent dustup begun by Steven Pinker in the New Republic, George Lakoff’s defense of his work (Pinker seems to have quite opportunistically distorted what Lakoff said, I didn’t read the book so I will have to depend on Lakoff’s rebuttal. Lakoff should know what he wrote, afterall.) and Geoffrey Nunberg’s analysis of it is a good window into just what the field can get like. If any of the various viewpoints will stand even a couple of decades is anyones’ guess at this point. This part of Nunberg’s analysis is germain to the point of what I wrote:

Why does any of this matter? Pinker suggests that the danger is that Democratic politicians might actually take Lakoff at his word and build their strategies around his ideas. But as best I can tell, Lakoff's direct influence on the language of the Democrats has been negligible. He may have had the ear of some prominent Democrats, but you couldn't tell it by what comes out of their mouths. And no wonder--as Pinker and a number of other people have observed, Lakoff's own framing suggestions are pretty lame. Democratic politicians don't need to know anything about cognitive science to realize that referring to taxes as "membership fees" or to trial lawyers as "public protection attorneys" would make them easy targets of Republican ridicule. And as for his proposal that Democrats should reframe "activist judges" as "freedom judges," a Google search turns up no instances of the phrase apart from remarks that make fun of the suggestion.

True, linguists coin slogans about as well as physicists ride bicycles. And the fact that Lakoff has a tin ear for political phrasing doesn't negate his indirect influence in drawing Democrats' attention to the importance of framing. That's all to the good. It's easy to say that what matters is ideas, not language. But while people often exaggerate the effect of Republican slogans and bumper stickers, there's no question that a well-turned catchphrase can do a lot of work in shaping public opinion--think of "cut and run." As Walter Lippmann pointed out in Public Opinion, American political life is saturated with verbal symbols that "assemble emotions after they have been detached from their ideas." However compelling the ideas that Democrats come up with are, they'll have a hard time packaging them unless they can do a better job confecting the wrapping paper. (My own sense is that liberal Democrats would do better revisiting the populist language that brought them to the ball in the first place than invoking the labored moral frames that Lakoff proposes. But that's for another conversation.)

I’ll admitt that Lakoff’s politics are a lot closer to mine than Pinker’s and I’ll renew the charge that Pinker isn’t above some rather dirty politics (see Lakoff’s rebuttal) and, if it’s not obvious, Pinker is not apolitical. However, though I might agree with Lakoff’s politics, I don’t believe his scientific work is as good a guide to politics as history is. Any agreement between us is on other grounds.

To deny the logical outcomes of biological determinism, both as clearly demonstrated in history and in the adoption of Pinker’s work, in particular, by right wingers, is just to deny what’s plainly there to be seen. If it doesn't go past Brooks and Hoff-Sommers it can't be a very difficult point. It’s a clear danger to progressive politics, I say it’s a danger to democracy itself. The enormous gulf that separates the scientific speculations of these determinists, based on their interpretation of rather skimpy data, and what actual life shows us as revealed by the far larger record of history that resulted from the actions of people, basing politics on Pinker and the rest is an act of faith that is enormously risky. I’m not willing to take that risk on sciences that have a track record of changing fashions quite as often as these do. Even if they didn’t, their assertions, untested in history, are far less impressive than what is learned from looking at ideological and “scientifically” based politics in the 20th century.

Oops, Left This Off
Also from Nunberg’s analysis:

True, many liberals have always been prone to this tone of argument. But Lakoff's writings seem to give a scientific imprimatur to the idea that liberalism and conservatism are distinct mentalities--that we're the ones who are "for nurturance and care," for example. And while liberals may find that picture flattering, it also plays into the rhetorical hands of conservatives, who are happy to reframe ideological divisions as warring personalities and lifestyles and to obscure the economic roots of political divisions. In fact the most damning thing you can say about Lakoff is that he too often takes the right at its word.

Now, here I can agree and disagree with Nunberg. I do think that there is a political danger from the Republican media in this kind of framing, though I do it myself. The reason is that after the going on seven years of the Bush II regime, the years of Newt Gingrich, Tom Delay, Lott, Frist, Bush I, Ronald Reagan, Scalia, Thomas, Rehnquist.... not to mention the conservatives who hold enormous influence without holding office, anyone who can remain a conservative after the disasters and most criminal governments under them has failed both the tests of morality and history. To not point out their criminality and moral depravity is to distort the truth. You can't talk about them honestly without mentioning it.