Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Political Metaphor

That illustration has little to do with anything I'm about to write. It's a Wordle of my Delicious tags. Wordle is a cool toy, and surely this tag cloud says something about me, I'm just not sure what.

As I write the TV is quiet in the background, tuned to the Republican National Convention. My Dad is upstairs watching, and quiet as it is, I wince occasionally. As the speakers are quick to point out the issue is not so much Democrats and Republicans but different ways of imagining ourselves. George Lakoff is a cognitive scientist with a theory about how we make sense of the world through metaphors. Lakoff has much more to say about metaphors beyond politics, but he's well known for talking about metaphors in the American political context.

Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust is a compact, yet thorough exposition of his ideas on the subject. Lakoff contends that whether liberal or conservative Americans view the nation in terms of a family metaphor. Lakoff contrasts a conservative conception of this metaphor as "a strict father" model against the liberal "nurturant parent" model. In popular press this way of looking at American politics is rendered as "The daddy party and the mommy party." In the last presidential election cycle Frances Moore Lappe wrote an essay urging progressives to be wary of this framing. I think France Moore Lappe is brilliant and her points about the downsides of the liberal model within the nation as a family metaphor quite sound. But I'm less persuaded that we can quickly change the metaphors we live by; that, it seems to me, is a slow process.

The religious controversies within Christianity often revolve around the place of women in society. In my last post I pointed out that Mike Davis observes the dominance of women in the Pentecostal movement in the developing world. Indeed, the prominence of women within the movement here in the USA is a source of much dispute with other streams in the Evangelical movement. Many in the movement believe that women are prohibited from exercising authority over men in the Church. Actually this is the pervasive doctrine among most Christian denominations, not just the Evangelical movement.

From my agnostic perspective, it seems to me that Christian's often raise the argument of "Biblical orthodoxy" when in fact the orthodoxy they actually refer conforms to their world view which is rooted in sets of interlocking ideas having little to do with the Bible. So I hardly predict that the theological disputes between Evangelicals will impair Sarah Palin's appeal to Evangelical Christian voters.

The funny thing about thinking in metaphors is how impossible or unlikely different metaphors used by others seem. Our metaphors point what particulars out of the flux of events to attend. The old parable The Blind Men and the Elephant captures well how metaphors shape our views:
"When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja went to each of them and said to each, 'Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?'

"Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, 'Sire, an elephant is like a pot.' And the men who had observed the ear replied, 'An elephant is like a winnowing basket.' Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.
People are aware of the hazard and the importance of multiple views, even if we fail to be cautious. And we are able to hold multiple contradictory views at the same time. So while our world views are sets of interlocking the fit is often quite loose.

Gender roles changed with the rapid industrialization of the Industrial Revolution. Among upper and middle class women in Great Britain and the USA a separation of spheres which historian Barbara Welter called The Cult of True Womanhood developed in response to the Industrial Revolution. And what we tend to think of as Victorian values in the USA are closely related to this development. Welter wrote:
The nineteenth-century American man was a busy builder of bridges and railroads, at work long hours in a materialistic society. The religious values of his forbears were neglected in practice if not in intent, and he occasionally felt some guilt that he had turned this new land, this temple of the chosen people, into one cast countinghouse. But he could salve his conscience by reflecting that he had left behind a hostage, not only to fortune, but to all the values which he held so dear and treated so lightly. Woman, in the cult of True Womanhood presented by the women's magazines, gift annuals, and religious literature of the nineteenth century, was the hostage in the home. In a society where values changed frequently, where fortunes rose and fell with frightening rapidity, where social and economic mobility provided instability as well as hope, one thing at least remained the same - a true woman was a true woman, wherever she was found. If anyone, male or female, dared to tamper with the complex of virtues that made up True Womanhood, he was damned immediately as the enemy of God, of civilization, and of the Republic. It was the fearful obligation, a solemn responsibility, which the nineteenth-century American woman had - to uphold the pillars of the temple with her frail white hand.
The four virtues of women in this construction are: Piety, Purity, Submission, and Domesticity.

In many ways the entry of so many women into the industrial labor force has upended this conception of womanhood. Sarah Palin's nasty speech accepting her nomination as vice presidential candidate highlighted the contradiction between the her reactionary politics and her ambition. Even her masterful rhetoric portraying John McCain as a strict father worthy of authority highlights it. McCain has had four recurrences of his cancer, his health is an issue. She cannot simply run as a help-mate, but must also show herself capable of the presidency.

The contradiction is not one felt only by women and men with conservative politics, it's a contradiction which dogs liberal women and men too. There is so much great writing on the about sexism and Feminism, that it's daunting to engage in the subject. I'm sure I'll screw up as I try. Yet these issues, often discussed in the press as "the culture wars" are too important not to address and to try for better understandings. So I prattle on in my next post.