Rev. Neal Jones, PsyD

Our Narrative (July 15, 2012)

posted Aug 12, 2012, 8:15 PM by Neal Jones   [ updated Aug 12, 2012, 8:18 PM ]

           There is an interesting paradox in the national discourse over President Obama's health care plan.  A majority of Americans support the provisions of the plan -- no preconditions, no caps, no loss of coverage if you get sick, the ability to keep your college-age child on your policy, and so on -- and, at the same time, a majority of Americans are opposed to the plan.  How can this be?  According to George Lakoff, conservatives persuaded a majority of Americans to oppose what they call "Obamacare," not by arguing against its policy details, but by reframing the whole debate by controlling the language of the debate.  They introduced phrases like "death panels" and "government takeover," and they said things like, "Government bureaucrats will make you health care decisions for you," and they repeated these phrases over and over until they convinced millions of Americans who were for the policy provisions of Obama's plan to be against the plan as a whole. 

          What is more, observes Lakoff, liberals have actually helped the conservatives by arguing against them.  By arguing against them, liberals have unwittingly helped to repeat and thus reinforce the conservative arguments.  Liberals do this all the time with nearly every issue.  If liberals want to win the hearts and minds of voters, advises Lakoff, they should be putting forth their own terms, phrases, arguments, and values without any reference to the conservative message.

          So who is George Lakoff, and why would I talk about him in a sermon?  He's a linguist who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, and he's been trying to teach liberals how to communicate at least as effectively as conservatives.  He tells us that communication is more than words; it's about framing -- framing your words, your arguments inside a particular worldview.  Framing is something we all do.  We all talk in a way that reveals and appeals to the worldview we happen to hold.  In politics, he says (and I would add religion), the ultimate frame is morality.  All politics is moral.  Politicians, political parties, and political movements use words and propose policies that imply certain moral values.  Policies are proposed because they are assumed to be right, not wrong. 

          Conservatives understand this.  They do a much better job than liberals of giving moral justifications for their positions.  Liberals are policy wonks, nattering on about the details of policies, cost-analysis, scientific facts, demographic trends, socioeconomic factors, while conservatives are moralists, painting the world in black and white, as good vs. evil, and this is the way most people think.

          Lakoff points out that conservatives and liberals have very different moral systems that stem from different family values.  This is so because the family represents our first experience in life of being governed, and we use these early experiences as templates for the way we think we should be governed later in life.  The ideal conservative family model is what he calls the strict father family, in which the father is the ultimate moral authority.  The father is the Decider, and his authority must not be challenged.  His job is to protect the family, support the family (by winning competitions in the marketplace), and to teach his kids right from wrong by disciplining them physically when they do wrong.  The use of force is necessary and required.  Only then will children develop the internal discipline to become good, successful adults. 

          This idealized conservative family is projected by conservatives on the capitalistic market.  Their slogan "Let the market decide" assumes that the market itself is the Decider.  The market is seen as both natural (since it is assumed that people naturally seek their self-interest) and moral (since if everyone seeks their own profit, the profit of all will be maximized).  As the ultimate moral authority, there should be no power higher than the market that might go against market values, including the government.  The government can spend money to protect the market and promote market values, but it should never rule over the market through regulation, taxation, unions, workers rights, environmental protection, or safety laws.

          For conservatives, the role of government must be kept to a bare minimum because government is seen as antithetical to individual freedom.  That's why they are forever pushing tax cuts, slashing pubic spending, and privatizing nearly everything.  In the words of conservative Grover Norquist, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." 

          In the conservative moral framework, individual freedom, individual initiative, and individual responsibility, not social responsibility, are primary.  It's the freedom to seek one's own self-interest with no commitment to the interests of others.  It would be wrong for the government to provide health care, education, public broadcasting, public parks, and so on because this represents paying someone else's way.  People should pay their own way.  No one else should pay for your health care.  If you want an education, you should pay for it yourself.  Providing birth control and abortion removes the consequences of immoral behavior.  Taxation is taking money away from those who have earned it and giving it to people who don't deserve it.  If people are uninsured, unemployed, homeless, or poor, it's their own fault.  They're not disciplined.  If government steps in and helps them, it will prevent people from learning the hard lessons of life they need to learn.  Helping others creates dependency.  So when Tom and Judy Turnipseed and others from our congregation feed the homeless at Finley Park on Sunday afternoons, they are actually doing them a disservice.

          It has long baffled liberals why low-income, working class whites consistently vote against their economic self-interests by supporting conservative candidates and causes.  Lakoff's analysis makes perfect sense.  Most low-income, working class whites have strict father family values, define themselves in terms of those values, and vote on the basis of those values, selecting strict father figures as their political leaders.

          We see the conservative value system in full bloom in the Tea Party and in the policies of our Governor, who recently vetoed $1.4 million in proposed state spending for things like supporting victims of rape, helping hemophiliacs pay their insurance premiums, and providing testing for people at-risk for kidney disease.  In explaining her vetoes, Governor Haley says these people have her "sympathy and encouragement" but that such spending is a "distraction" from  protecting South Carolina's overall public health.  One of the Governor's supporters in the legislature warns that our state government is "turning into a charity."  According to Sen. Lee Bright from Spartanburg, "The difference between charity and tyranny is that charity is when you willingly give to an organization because you want to help.  Tyranny is when you force tax-payers to pay for these different organizations."  To liberals' ears, such policies are heartless, but they are entirely consistent with the conservative moral framework of individual responsibility and minimal government. 

          The liberal moral system likewise flows from an ideal family model, only it's one in which parents have equal authority.  Their central moral role requires empathy with each other and their children, it requires self-responsibility, and responsibility for the well-being of other family members.  This means open communication, transparency about family rules, shared decision-making, and fairness.  When liberal family values are projected onto the political arena, they envision democracy as citizens caring about one another and acting responsibly on that sense of care, taking responsibility both for oneself and for one's family, community, country, people in general, and the planet.  In the liberal moral framework, social responsibility is primary. 

          Therefore, the role of government is to protect and empower all citizens equally.  Protection includes the social safety net of health care, social security, safe food and drugs, trade policies, consumer protection, environmental protection, and job protection.  Empowerment is what makes a decent life possible -- roads and infrastructure, communication and energy systems, laws and enforcement, transportation, education, minimum wages, scientific research, resources, art and culture.  The public is not opposed to the private.  The public makes the private possible.  Nobody makes it on their own.  If you got wealthy, you depended on the public, and you have a responsibility to contribute to the public so that others can make it, too.  Moreover, the wealthy depend on those who work and who deserve a fair return for their work and for their contribution to our national life.

          The public is not opposed to freedom; it makes freedom possible.  You're not free if you get sick and cannot see a doctor because you don't have health insurance.  You're not free if you don't receive an adequate education to enable you to pursue your goals for your life.  You're not free if your wages are so low that you cannot afford a decent living. You're not free if you are denied the necessities of life.  Government has a moral mission to provide necessities because this is how we take care of one another.  Private enterprise can provide services, but the necessities of life should never be subordinated to private profit.  In the liberal moral framework, human values take precedence over market values. 

          So what does George Lakoff have to do with religion?  I believe his explanation of the competing conservative and liberal moral frameworks helps to understand the difference between conservative and liberal religion.  Conservative religion worships a strict father God.  If you sin, he will punish you for your own good, maybe in this life, but certainly in the next life.  Heaven and hell are the ultimate reward and punishment system.  I think Fundamentalists refer to the Old Testament so much more than the New Testament because the Old Testaments portrays a wrathful, vengeful God who kicks Adam and Eve out of Eden, incinerates Sodom and Gomorrah, floods the entire earth (save Noah), and orders the genocide of the inhabitants of Palestine so that his chosen people can have their promised land.  To be saved in conservative religion is not to trust your own good thoughts or good intentions or good works; it's to put your faith in your heavenly father.  Conservative religion is about individual sin and individual salvation.  You pay for your sins, and you purchase your own ticket to heaven with your own personal faith in a savior.  I think one reason conservative religion thrives in America is because it complements our extremely individualistic culture.

          Liberal religion emphasizes empathy and compassion, which is why, I think, liberal Christians refer more to the New Testament, particularly to the compassionate life and teachings of Jesus.  Jesus scandalized the religious establishment of his day with his radical, unconditional love for all people, even Samaritans, gentiles, prostitutes, lepers, the poor, and the infirmed.  Our Universalist ancestors rejected the notion of hell because they believed that a loving God would not condemn anyone, and our Unitarian ancestors rejected the notion of original sin because they believed everyone was created in the likeness of God, with the capacity for goodness.  Non-theistic, humanist religion likewise emphasizes the intrinsic worth of all persons and that all people deserve to be treated equally with respect. 

          Liberal religion is about social sin and social salvation.  Our social, political, and economic structures and systems can crush human dignity and deny human worth.  Since we make the social, political, and economic structures and systems of our world, it is our responsibility to unmake them or remake them to reflect the values of justice, equity, and compassion.  I think the contrast between conservative and liberal religion is captured by the contrasting answers to a question posed to Mother Teresa and former Unitarian Universalist President Gene Pickett.  When asked, "What is the meaning of life?", Mother Teresa replied, "To become holy and go to heaven."  Pickett answered, "The purpose of life to become whole and create heaven on earth."

          While Unitarian Universalism stands clearly in the liberal religious tradition, I want to point out that our UU Principles emphasize both individual and social responsibility.  We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person (1st Principle), which is your responsibility as an individual to recognize and honor in yourself and others.  We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning (4th Principle), which is your responsibility as an individual.  We affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process (5th Principle), which is your duty as an individual to exercise. 

          We also affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion (2nd Principle), which your responsibility in your social relationships.  We affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth (3rd Principle), which is your responsibility to your congregation.  We affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all (6th Principle), which is your responsibility to humanity.  And we affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence (7th Principle), which is your responsibility to the planet.  Our UU Principles express the essence of conservative and liberal faith -- the sacredness of the individual and the reality that as individuals, we exist in community and come to life in relationship.  The realization of both poles on that continuum is necessary for a balanced, holistic spirituality. 

          I think Lakoff's observations about communication are also relevant to liberal religion.  We UUs dwell too much in the neocortex and hardly ever visit the limbic system.  We strive very hard to be rational, and we expect others to be rational, too.  We speak with an academic accent, and we expect others to be as well-reasoned and well-educated.  The longer I live, the more I am convinced that people are not all that rational.  They are also emotional and moral, and if we UUs expect to communicate with a wider community, we need to learn to speak in moral terms with passion and conviction.  Martin Luther King was a master communicator because he spoke to our head and heart and aroused our conscience and concern.  I suspect that we UUs are hesitant to use moral language because we are afraid of sounding moralistic.  Yet it is possible to talk about right and wrong without assuming that others are never right and you are never wrong.  It is possible to speak the truth with love and to seek justice with humility.

          I also think that Lakoff is right on target when he observes that we liberals are too reactive to conservatives.  We spend too much time trying to distinguish ourselves from them and from the way we used to be.  Being a psychologist, I suppose I see this in developmental terms.  I suspect that many of us UUs are in an adolescent stage of spiritual development.  Many of us are still in the process of rejecting the conservative religion we came from and of healing from the wounds it inflicted on us.  We may not be where we used to be, but we're still not where we ought to be.  I think it would facilitate our healing and help us to get unstuck from reacting to our past if we would strive to be as clear about what we do believe as we are about what we no longer believe.  The next step in our spiritual maturation is to know what we stand for, not just what we stand against; to know who we are, not just who we are not.  If we would do that for ourselves, we would have a positive, appealing message for others.

          It would be the kind of message written by the participants in the adult education class we held a few months ago, "Articulating Your UU Faith."  For example, in response to the question, "What is Unitarian Universalism?", Lisa Eason wrote:  "We are a liberal faith community that is bound not by a creed but by our shared values as represented in our Seven Principles.  People of any, all, or no religious beliefs are welcome in our congregations.  We respect other faith traditions and believe that there is wisdom in the world's religions and that we can learn from them.  We have a long and proud history of challenging injustice in the world.  We believe that humans are not perfect but that each and every person has inherent worth and dignity."  This is example of a winsome way of stating what we stand for and believe in.

          We don't need to waste our time arguing with and refuting conservatives.  We have a moral vision for our city, our state, and our nation based on the liberal values of acceptance and open-mindedness, fairness and equality, compassion and community.  And the most effective way to communicate that vision is to live it.

                                                                                                                          Rev. Dr. Neal Jones

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