The Cunning Linguist

Why are Liberals and Conservatives so far apart on many issues, seemingly unable to come to any common viewpoint through discussion?  Some neurological explanations have been put forward, such as that Conservatives tend to have a larger amygdala in the brain – which makes them more sensitive to feelings of fear and disgust.  However this alone does not seem to account for the predictability of peoples positions, whether Conservative or Liberal on a wide range of social, political and religious issues.

George Lakoff, is a cognitive linguist and professor of cognitive sciences who has proposed a thesis that we live our lives by Metaphor.  Many of the metaphors we have in common, however there are some that are different between the two groups – particularly in metaphors for morality : 


According to Lakoff the Conservative metaphor for moraility is Moral Strength :


  • Being Good is Being Upright
  • Being Bad is Being Low 

Examples include sentences like: He’s an upstanding citizen. He’s on the up and up. That was a low thing to do. He’s underhanded. He’s a snake in the grass. Doing evil is therefore moving from a position of morality (uprightness) to a position of immorality (being low). Hence,


  • Doing Evil is Falling.


    The most famous example, of course, is the fall from grace. A major part of the Moral Strength metaphor has to do with the conception of immorality, or evil. Evil is reified as a force, either internal or external, that can make you fall, that is, commit immoral acts.

  • Evil is a Force (either Internal or External)


    Thus, to remain upright, one must be strong enough to “stand up to evil.” Hence, morality is conceptualized as strength, as having the “moral fibre” or “backbone” to resist evil.


  • Morality is Strength


    But people are not simply born strong. Moral strength must be built. Just as in building physical strength, where self-discipline and self-denial (“no pain, no gain”) are crucial, so moral strength is also built through self-discipline and self-denial, in two ways:

    1. Through sufficient self-discipline to meet one’s responsibilities and face existing hardships;
    2. Actively through self-denial and further self-discipline.



The Liberal metaphors for morality are given as :

  • Morality as Empathy: Empathy itself is understood metaphorically as feeling what another person feels. We can see this in the language of empathy: I know what it’s like to be in your shoes. I know how you feel. I feel for you. To conceptualize moral action as empathic action is more than just abiding by the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule does not take into account that others may have different values than you do. Taking morality as empathy requires basing your actions on their values, not yours. This requires a reformulation of the Golden Rule:

    Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.


  • Morality as Nurturance: Nurturance presupposes empathy. A child is helpless and to care for a child, you have to care about that child, which requires seeing the world through the child’s eyes as much as possible. The metaphor of Morality as Nurturance can be stated as follows:


    • The Community is a Family
    • Moral agents are Nurturing parents
    • People needing help are Children needing care
    • Moral action is Nurturance


    This metaphor entails that moral action requires empathy, involves sacrifices, and that helping people who need help is a moral responsibility.

  • Moral Self-Nurturance: You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. Part of the morality of nurturance is self-nurturance: maintaining your health, making a living, and so on.

  • Morality as Social Nurturance: There are two varieties of moral nurturance — one about individuals and the other about social relations. If community members are to empathize with one another and help one another, then social ties must be maintained. The metaphor can be stated as follows:


    • Moral agents are Nurturing Parents
    • Social ties are Children needing care
    • Moral Action is the Nurturance of Social Ties


    This entails that social ties must be constantly attended to, that maintaining them requires sacrifices, and that one has a moral responsibility to maintain them.

  • Morality as Happiness: This is based on the assumption that unhappy people are less likely to be empathetic and nurturant, since they will not want others to be happier than they are. Therefore, to promote your own capacity for empathy and nurturance, you should make yourself as happy as possible, provided you don’t hurt others in the process.

  • Morality as Fairness: Fairness is understood metaphorically in terms of the distribution of material objects. There are three basic liberal models of fair distribution:

    1. equal distribution;
    2. impartial rule-based distribution; and
    3. rights-based distribution.

    Metaphorical fairness concerns actions conceived of as objects given to individuals. One can act to the benefit of others equally, impartially and by rule, or according to some notion of rights. According to this metaphor, moral action is fair action in one of these ways.


  • Moral Growth: Given that morality is conceptualized as uprightness, it is natural to conceptualize one’s degree of morality as physical height, to understand norms for the degree of moral action as height norms, and to therefore see the possibility for “moral growth” as akin to physical growth. Where moral growth differs from physical growth is that moral growth is seen as being possible throughout one’s lifetime,

14 thoughts on “The Cunning Linguist

  1. Basically Laker is a socialist whose main aim seems to be to educate Democrats on how to use language to win elections.

    Hence, the above. Words are his business of course which is why he comes out with stuff like “The Romney-Ryan Budget is a Devil’s budget. It guts The Public”, and suggests Democrats err in using the term “partial-birth abortion”, and say “ending pregnancy” instead.

    Yes, words are powerful. Just remember that his main idea is not simply the difference in metaphors, but rather how the Democratic party can use different metaphors and language to win elections.

  2. Well you can see the power of words in the way gays changed their cause one-liner from ‘gay marriage’ or ‘equal rights’ to ‘equal marriage’, which, in itself is meaningless, but when put together with what went before becomes less resistable.

  3. The Rudd catch-phrase from 2007 was ‘working families’, which was aimed at recovering the grass roots Howard won in previous years. Gillard was always on about the ‘future’ because she was short on policies, but tripped herself up with her ‘no carbon tax’ promise which she broke, which ended her future as PM. Words are powerful.

  4. pro-life vs pro-choice – each side is implying the other is anti-life or anti-choice.

    Howards slogan “For all of us” – (but not for them)

    Gillard’s “Moving Forward” – as opposed to going backward or standing still

    Aside from this though, does anyone think that there is a fundamental difference between Conservatives and Liberals that is due to Biology or up-bringing, or the central metaphors that we use to think about the world?

  5. “Aside from this though, does anyone think that there is a fundamental difference between Conservatives and Liberals that is due to Biology or up-bringing, or the central metaphors that we use to think about the world?”

    I don’t think it has anything to do with biology.

    Even if you were to argue that naturally empathetic people become tend to be more more left-wing, I wouldn’t agree.

    There are plenty of people who are conservative in economics and politics who feel that their politics are the best way to help people.
    i.e because they empathise with people they are against abortion, a social welfare system that works against initiative etc.

    And it seems that Republicans in the US give more to charity than Democrats.

    Biology is not it. In the same way, I don’t think Germans and Japanese have cruelty in their DNA.

    As for upbringing, certainly!
    Of course. Not everyone ends up believing the same as their parents, but it’s obviously a factor.

    As for metaphors, like I said, we choose words that suit us. Everyday,

    Actually, I’ll change that. People are definitely influenced by language – including metaphors. The big thing isn’t the use of metaphors but the use of language in general. There are those who are influenced, and those use the words to influence others.
    And my point is that Lakoff spends much of his time trying to use language to promote his politics.

    Yes, “Marriage Equality” is much easier to promote than “homosexual marriage”.

    But for that matter “kingdom builder” also sounds better than “person who gives lots of offerings”.

    But I’d say that left-wing people are much better than conservatives – which is the opposite of what layoff tries to say.

    How you phrase the question or problem or choice is everything. The Democrats in the US and people aligned with them are far better at doing that.

  6. By the way, the thread is over, but I think there’s an answer for the boats coming from Indonesia. From what I understand, an Australian vessel evidently intruded into Indonesian waters. And lo and behold the Indonesian navy has suddenly got into patrolling mode.

    So…..they actually do have a navy, and they can get out and patrol if they have a good enough reason. Maybe they thought Australia was going to invade…?

    We need a “miscellaneous” thread here.

  7. I don’t think its illegal yet to leave a country by boat, particularly if you are not a resident of that country.

    I suppose we could make it illegal – then we wouldnt have so much of a refugee problem.

    I wonder why they didnt think about that when they drew up the refugee convention to solve the problem of the Jews were fleeing their countries.

  8. I think I’ve worked it out. You old guys have some rule about always mentioning Nazis or Jews in every thread but you didn’t tell the newbies.

  9. I get it, you advocate preventing people leaving a country when they are in fear for their lives.

    But you don’t want to mention the war.

  10. No, no. Mention the war all you like.
    Just fascinated how much some people bring it up. Actually, I’m really pleased to see people sticking up for Jews here.

    I just think the Indonesian navy could do more to help people in leaky boats.
    They sure spring into action sometimes.

  11. Actually the scripture that Eyes brought up about “women being saved through childbirth” would be an interesting one to see the differences in interpretation between Liberals and Conservatives.

    Admittedly it’s a tough one for those with a more traditional approach to scripture.

    Be great if we could discuss it using Queensberry rules.

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