Why Isn't Everyone Progressive?

November 16, 2008

Clay Nelson

Clay preached the following sermon as the guest preacher at the Auckland Unitarian Church.


I have a confession to make. I am the world’s worst dinner guest. Contrary to commonly accepted etiquette, I welcome any opportunity to talk about religion and politics, even in polite society. As I am passionate about both requiring little encouragement to voice my opinion, the host and hostess by the end of the evening are happy to see the back of me. Their horror is magnified if they are National blue or Republican red. I am uncompromisingly progressive in my politics, which is a direct result of my equally progressive theology. I may believe strongly in the separation of church and state, but religion and politics not only go hand in hand, they are inextricably woven together.


So for someone like me the last two years has been as close to heaven on earth as one could imagine. Obsessive would be a kind way of describing my attention to every aspect and nuance of the American campaign trail. The Huffington Post threatened to charge me rent, accusing me of living on their website. The cause of such obsession was the first truly progressive candidate in forty years to have a shot at getting elected in spite of being black.


While Obama was my choice since he spoke at the 2004 Democratic Convention, reading his books and observing how he conducted himself and his campaign only deepened my commitment and my amazement. My amazement was that the McCain-Palin ticket had any support at all. I was even more amazed that they got 46% of the vote. My amazement led me to ask, “Why isn’t everyone a progressive?”


A progressive’s world would be at peace recognising that all creation is an interconnected web. Nations would work together to resolve issues of disease, poverty, terrorism and global warming. The basic needs of food, housing, health care, access to education and freedom for all would be universal goals. Governments would serve and protect, yet be accountable to the people. What could be more reasonable?


While Barack Obama ran as a progressive, which made my heart glad, he didn’t win because he was one. It was more a case of being the only viable alternative to the total failure of Bush administration policies. And in spite of how disastrous those policies were, McCain might still have won if the financial markets had not gone into meltdown. Hope and “Change we can believe in” might not have been enough to put him over the top without fear of lost jobs and retirement accounts.


My hunch is that the actual number of political progressives is still quite small, just as the number of religious progressives is. Exit polls do tell us that Obama did get the overwhelming support of that latter group. Among those voters who attend church weekly, when asked how they interpret the Bible, only 17% of Obama’s most religious voters believe “The Bible is the literal word of God,” compared to 58% of McCain’s religious voters.


While struggling to answer the question of why more of us aren’t progressive, I was made aware of a book by George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. The book, entitled The Political Mind: Why you can't understand 21st-century American politics with an 18th-century brain, attempts to give us some answers to this question and offers an approach for making more progressives.


In reading reviews by other linguists and neuro-scientists his ideas are not widely held, but that does not mean his work is not thought-provoking. At least I, not being either a linguist or cognitive scientist, found it so.


Let me summarise some of his ideas from his work:


If you believe in the 18th century Enlightenment view of the mind – that reason is conscious, literal, logical, unemotional, disembodied, universal, and functions to serve our interests – you will look and act wimpy. You will think that all you need to do is give people the facts and the figures, and they will reach the right conclusion. You will think that all you need to do is point out where their interests lie, and they will act politically to maximize them… [But if you believe this you are] dead wrong. You will be ignoring the cognitive unconscious; you will not be stating your deepest values; you will be suppressing legitimate emotions; you will be accepting the other side’s frames as if they were neutral; you will be cowering with fear at what they might call you [you know, the “L” word]; you will be refusing to frame the facts so that they can be appreciated. In a word, you – and all the other progressives who believe in Enlightenment reason – will be wimpy. Conservatives operate under no such restraints and consciously or intuitively have a much better idea of how brains and minds work. That’s why they have been more effective.


What they understand is the power metaphors play in our thinking. For example, from the beginning, Judeo-Christianity has made use of a primary metaphor – pastoralism – which most of us have never thought to question: pastoralism, with its images of sunlight, grassy fields, happy sheep, and a watchful, protective shepherd. We still use the word “pastor” and “pastoral duties” to describe our religious leaders and their roles in shepherding their “flocks.” Traditional religions still speak of the Lord as “my shepherd” who “maketh me lie down in green pastures” and “leadeth me beside the still waters.” They still speak of Jesus as “the sacrificial lamb” and “the lamb of God.” They cite the gospel of John, where Jesus himself told the disciples to “feed my lambs” and “take care of my sheep.” And they know that when Jesus said this, he wasn’t referring to literal animals.


But have you ever pondered this metaphor as a metaphor? I certainly have, especially because I’ve always thought sheep were incredibly stupid. Lately I’ve read that they’re not really as dumb as I thought, that they rank in intelligence just below the pig and are about even with cattle. Even so, though, sheep are timid, nervous, and easily frightened. They’re also defenceless against predators, except for a highly-developed instinct for running away.


Given this information about actual sheep, how well does the image of sheep and shepherds work for you as a religious metaphor? It apparently worked very well in Biblical times, when so many people were shepherds, and when everyone else in the culture depended on sheep for their milk, meat, and wool, but what about today? How would our understanding of God and Jesus be altered if we substituted, for sheep, the similar image of cattle or goats? “I’ve been washed in the blood of the calf,” we might pray. Or, “the Lord is my goatherd; I shall not want.” I don’t mean to sound frivolous (well, maybe I do), but my point here is that the pastoral metaphor is clearly outworn as an accurate one for modern people. And yet – this would be George Lakoff’s point – it’s so much a part of our brains that we hardly notice, much less question its accuracy.


This is true of any number of other unquestioned metaphors common in human language. As just one of hundreds of examples, consider the metaphor he uses to explain moral accounting. “He paid his debt to society,” we say; “I’m going to make you pay for that”; “You owe me”; “I’m in your debt”; and on and on. When we use phrases like this, we don’t consciously think about money. The metaphor is unconscious; it’s imprinted in our brains. The implications of that are profound in religion – and they’re even more profound in the world of politics. To illustrate this, I want to concentrate in this sermon on three metaphors in particular. The first is the metaphor of the nation as a family. The second is the metaphor of a left-to-right scale in the political spectrum. And the third is the metaphor of war. How has our unconscious acceptance and use of these three common metaphors hurt us as religious and political progressives, and how can understanding that help us?


So let’s tackle these one at a time. First, there’s the metaphor of the nation (or the governing institution) as a family. Russians speak of Mother Russia; Germans speak of the Fatherland; American’s speak of the Founding Fathers and of George Washington as the Father of the Country. Catholics call their priests “Father.” Christian Science is governed by the Mother Church. When we go to war we say that we are sending our sons and daughters, even when we don’t mean our literal children. After 9/11, Congress created the Office of Homeland Security to protect the national family. You call this building, this religious institution, your “church home.” As progressives, you feel “at home” here.


Much more significantly, though, for both religion and politics, we unconsciously assume two different models, two different versions of what the ideal family should be. Whether we’re talking of how best to raise children or about what kind of government we want, conservatives and progressives have two very different models in mind – one big reason why we have such trouble communicating, because each model is largely unconscious on both sides.


What are the two different models? For conservatives it’s the Strict Father model; for progressives it’s the Nurturing Parent model.


If the Strict Father model of family is branded into your brain, you value and advocate authority, obedience, discipline, and punishment. You see the Father of the family as its moral leader, and as the authority who must be obeyed. You need a Strict Father to teach you the difference between right and wrong, and you learn this through discipline and punishment. When you grow up, you’re then ready to enter the marketplace as an independent person, and to oversee your own Strict Father family unit.


Now it all falls into place. Now we see why conservatives focus so much on authority, obedience, discipline, and punishment. A Strict Father has earned, and deserves, his authority – and so, in this model, do the corporate bosses who make all that money. Competition builds character; beating out your competitor is a sign that you have good character, that you merit what you’ve won. This model is also why political conservatives are so often fundamentalist Christians as well. God himself is a Strict Father. Obey him, and you’ll go to heaven; disobey him, and you’ll go to hell. Of course, if you say, “I’ve been bad, I’m so sorry,” and mean it, he’ll give you a second chance – but only if from now on you bend to his absolute authority. You’ve been “born again” into the Strict Father family of the religious conservative.


Think, too, of the implications, in a Strict Father family, of gay marriage, or of abortion, or even of women in the professions. You can’t have gay people or career women in such a family because distinct gender roles are too important. And you can’t be pro-choice because that’s disobeying the male prerogative, both familial and divine, to be the decider.


But there’s another model for the ideal family, the Nurturing Parent model. If this model is branded into your brain, a good family, to you, is one that includes two equally responsible parents (it doesn’t matter what gender) or one parent, female or male. Either way, the parental role is to nurture the children and to raise them to nurture others. There is discipline, yes, but it’s administered in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and that means that restitution is preferred over punishment. A Nurturing Parent’s primary goals are instilling empathy, providing protection, and facilitating empowerment.


And of course progressive political views mirror these same Nurturing Parent values: empathy, protection, empowerment, and community. In this model, the proper role of both the church and the government as to protect and empathise, not to exert authority and dispense punishment.


Once we become aware of these two different family models, what can we learn from them? One thing, at least: that as progressives we should be talking more than we are about our moral worldview – about caring, about hope, about being responsible. As progressives, we should be aware of recent neurological studies that tell us that the human capacity for empathy seems to be hard-wired into the normal brain. And when we propose our progressive ideas, we should realize that the more we can arouse the empathic response, the more support we will gain. We’re talking about morality here, Lakoff writes, “about whose moral system will rule.”


This isn’t as easy as it sounds, and here’s just one example. All of us, progressives no less than anyone else, have an easily frightened child deep inside. So when McCain challenged Barack Obama’s readiness to be President on the grounds that he lacks experience, it triggers a collective (and largely unconscious) fear: the fear that, in the face of a national crisis, we need a Strict Father who’ll know what to do and who’ll protect us from harm. What’s essential, therefore, is to bring this to consciousness and to recognize it for the deeply rooted wish that it is: the wish to be safe, whatever the cost. Knowing this, we can go on to reiterate and re-emphasize the values progressives hold dear: equality, freedom, and empathy.


The second metaphor I want to consider today is, according to Lakoff, both an inaccurate and a dangerous one: the metaphor of a left-to-right scale on the religious and political spectrum. In that conservative ideas are touted as “mainstream” ideas, and progressive ideas are maligned as “liberal” or “leftist,” the left-to-right metaphor “empowers conservatives and marginalizes progressives.” There’s no such thing as a mainstream population with a unified worldview! People are actually conservative in some ways and liberal in others, depending on the issue. You might be conservative on family values and gun control, for example, but progressive on the importance of protecting the environment. You might be socially liberal but fiscally conservative. One problem with the metaphor is that it assumes a consistent worldview that puts each of us in a fixed place on a scale, with a “centre” between two “extremes.” And if you’re on the fictional left of that fictional centre, you’re labelled a leftist extremist.


Similarly, we can’t assume some solid, “orthodox” centre or mainstream when we speak about religion – a centre that puts religious progressives on the left and agnostics and atheists on the farthest, most radical fringes. Yet that image is in people’s brains. “My job,” Lakoff writes, “is to make you think twice about it, and then stop using it. If you can. But it won’t be easy. Overcoming misleading metaphors that are physically present in your brain never is.”


And finally we turn to the metaphorical image of war.


“The War on Terror,” Lakoff points out, is a perfect example of how a dishonest and ruinous notion can take root at times of national trauma – because trauma of any kind alters brain synapses more easily and radically than usual – and then be repeated so often that it’s in the brain forever after and won’t disappear. I was hardly aware, until I read Lakoff’s book, that for the first few hours after the towers fell on 9/11, the Bush administration described the attack as a “crime.” Had America stuck to this idea – that terrorists are criminals – they could have used international crime-fighting technique, as Britain has done with considerable success. If they’d stuck to this language, Iraqis themselves might have seen the attackers as criminals instead of as noble soldiers. However, the Bush administration almost immediately substituted a consciously-chosen war metaphor for it original criminal one. Now, instead of a being seen as the criminal act that it was, the attack was deliberately re-framed, for political reasons, as an act of war.


Actual wars, Lakoff writes, are fought against physical armies of other nations. But terror is an emotional state. Since you can’t defeat it on a battlefield or sit down at a treaty table with it, “war on terror” therefore means a war that will never end. The very word “war” activates a fear-response in the brain that in turn activates a conservative worldview: that of a powerful Father who uses domination and strength to make sure we’re “secure.” And of course “war on terror” is a metaphor intentionally chosen to provoke just such a response and to cut off objections. Progressives fell into the trap just like everyone else., and so when people who represented by views argued against giving the president total authority, we made ourselves vulnerable to labels like “defeatist,” “unpatriotic,” and even “treasonous.” The metaphor put us completely on the defensive, always the weaker position.


The “war on terror” metaphor has succeeded on the domestic front, too. It has returned Bush to the White House, gotten right-wing judges appointed, disemboweled social programs, despoiled the environment, robbed Americans of their constitutional protections, sucked the economy dry, and used taxpayer money to further enrich corporations. 


Yet how many politicians or political commentators can you name who have ever criticized the war-on-terror metaphor as a metaphor? John Edwards came closest in 2007, when he confronted Conservatives about their framing of terrorism as a war. “The war on terror is a slogan designed only for politics, not a strategy to make America safe,” Edwards said. “It’s a bumper sticker, not a plan. It has damaged our alliances and weakened our standing in the world. As a political ‘frame,’ it’s been used to justify everything from the Iraq war to Guantanamo to illegal spying on the American people. It’s even been used by this White House as a partisan weapon to bludgeon their political opponents… But the worst thing about this slogan is that it hasn’t worked to defeat terrorism. The so-called ‘war’ has created even more terrorism, as we have seen so tragically in Iraq.”


The worst of it is that the war metaphor is still intensely alive and politically powerful. “We are still removing our shoes at airports,” writes Lakoff, and pouring out bottled water. We’re still hearing “War on Terror” from every Republican politician up to and including John McCain. “What conservatives did was to use language, ideas, images, and symbols repeatedly to activate the conservative mode of thought and inhibit the progressive mode of thought in individuals who had both,” he goes on. We can’t just erase such ideas. But we can employ the same tactics: using progressive language, ideas, images, and symbols, repeatedly, to activate progressive modes of thought and inhibit conservative ones in those who have both. And, just as important, we can initiate a discussion of the war metaphor as a metaphor, one that’s deliberately designed to arouse fear and to cement conservatives’ power.


Is there anything else we can do? Lakoff has quite a list. First, we can still do all the tried-and-true, practical things: write letters, contribute to causes, volunteer to work for candidates, talk to our neighbours and friends. But we need to do more. Lakoff has a dream of “Congress, the citizenry, and the press rising up and shouting, “Wait a minute! [The ‘war on terror’] is a metaphor that doesn’t fit! You don’t go to war on an inappropriate metaphor!”


Further, we need to insist on discussing any policy’s empathic consequences. How will it affect us? How will it affect others? Will it make us more, or less, free? How does it affect nature – is it sustaining, or harmful? How will it affect life in the future? “What, if anything, makes it beautiful, healthful, enjoyable, fulfilling?”


Let me conclude with five guidelines from Lakoff to buoy you up in this effort.


* Remember that an idea introduced under conditions of trauma, then repeated again and again, is in our synapses forever.


* Remember the need to repeat things yourself, to say them not once but over and over. “Brains change,” Lakoff says, only “when ideas are repeatedly activated.”


* Remember that if you’re not careful, you’ll fall back into conservative framing traps. We must be like Barack Obama in his response to Wolf Blitzer when, during the 2007 presidential debate, Blitzer told the candidates to raise their hands if they believed that English should be the official language of the U.S. “This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us,” Obama replied. “When we get distracted by those kind of questions, I think we do a disservice to the American people.”


* Remember not to assume that others share our definitions of words like freedom, equality, fairness, and opportunity; all these words come in conservative and progressive packages. We must work to keep the progressive version of each concept uppermost during discussions.


This is something we failed to do last week in New Zealand. While I believe America still has a long way to go to become a progressive nation, I believe New Zealand already is one, in spite of the last election. A country that was first in the world to give women the vote, resisted apartheid during the Springbok Tour, has attempted to make restitution to the Maori for past abuses, has stood up to American militarism, has given civil rights to the gay and lesbian community, seeks to provide quality health care to all its citizens, provides a safety net to its most vulnerable citizens, maintains a military suitable only for peace-keeping, makes education widely available to all, has taken steps to protect children against parental abuse and has even provided protection to prostitutes may not be as progressive as the Netherlands (we can’t smoke dope legally yet), but by American standards, is pretty bloody progressive. However, those who resist such a progressive world have made headway in recent years by reframing our country as a “nanny state.” It is the patriarchal strict parent saying we are feminine and weak. The last election is a warning that if we want to continue to be a progressive nation we must pay attention to such metaphors in both politics and religion. They are dangerous to our well-being.


St Matthew’s and the Auckland Unitarian Church are a pretty small slice of religious New Zealand, which is small anyway, but our progressive views are a public voice of support for those seeking to overcome their fears to be the empathetic beings we are hardwired to be. They may not know it but they count on us, to quote Abraham Lincoln, “to speak to the better angels of our nature.”

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