Lakoff's Latest Assault on Debate

Friday, October 20, 2006

It seems that George Lakoff, famous as the author of Don't Think of an Elephant, has a new book out called Whose Freedom?, which reviewer Steven Pinker nicely summed up as, "the latest installment of the linguist's efforts as campaign consultant". There is a reason I wondered why, at first, I was reading a new review of a book that has been out for at least two years now.

I am not at all familiar with Pinker, but my impression of him from this review is that he is of that vanishing breed I call the "better liberal". This means that Lakoff is being attacked by someone who, while he might wish Lakoff were entirely correct, is objective enough to consider the merits of Lakoff's case, and sane enough to throw the flag if he finds it wanting. Even though he takes his obligatory swipe at Ayn Rand ("Other than the Ayn Randian fringe, has anyone recently proposed abolishing [the income tax]?"), this Objectivist found his review to be very solid work.

I have mentioned Lakoff here before and pointed to some conservative criticism of his earlier book, but it was really nice to see in one place an executive summary of his argument along with the gist of what is wrong with it. For the uninitiated, Pinker gives the essentials of Lakoff's idea.

Political debates, according to Lakoff, are contests between metaphors. Citizens are not rational and pay no attention to facts, except as they fit into frames that are "fixed in the neural structures of their brains" by sheer repetition. In George W. Bush's first term, for example, the president promised tax "relief," which frames taxes as an affliction, the reliever as a hero, and anyone obstructing him as a villain. The Democrats were foolish to offer their own version of tax relief, which accepted the Republicans' framing; it was like asking people not to think of an elephant. Instead, they should have re-framed taxes as "membership fees" necessary to maintain the services and infrastructure of the society to which they belong. Likewise, the lawyers who are said to press "frivolous lawsuits" should be reframed as "public protection attorneys," and "activist judges" who "legislate from the bench" rebranded as "freedom judges."
Lakoff's latest book, then will consist in his attempt to re-frame the concept of "freedom". He does not succeed, and Pinker shows us exactly why.

But first, he notes some other serious shortcomings of the book.
There is much to admire in Lakoff's work in linguistics, but Whose Freedom?, and more generally his thinking about politics, is a train wreck. Though it contains messianic claims about everything from epistemology to political tactics, the book has no footnotes or references (just a generic reading list), and cites no studies from political science or economics, and barely mentions linguistics. Its use of cognitive neuroscience goes way beyond any consensus within that field, and its analysis of political ideologies is skewed by the author's own politics and limited by his disregard of centuries of prior thinking on the subject. And Lakoff's cartoonish depiction of progressives as saintly sophisticates and conservatives as evil morons fails on both intellectual and tactical grounds. [bold added]
Ouch! But then, there is a reason constructive criticism can be the hardest to take. What follows is a lengthy excerpt from the latter half of the review. The whole thing is worth a read, and that is what I would recommend.
This put-up job is typical of Lakoff's book. While he ostensibly offers a scholarly analysis of political thought, Lakoff cannot stop himself from drawing horns on the conservative portrait and a halo on the progressive one. Nowhere is this more egregious than in his claim that conservatives think in terms of direct rather than systemic causation. Lakoff seems unaware that conservatives have been making exactly this accusation against progressives for centuries.

Laissez-faire economics, from Adam Smith to contemporary libertarians, is explicitly motivated by the systemic benefits of the market (remember the metaphor of the "invisible hand"?). Lakoff strikingly misunderstands his enemies here, repeatedly attributing to them the belief that capitalism is a system of moral reckoning designed to reward the industrious with prosperity and to punish the indolent with poverty. In fact, the theory behind free markets is that prices are a form of information about supply and demand that can be rapidly propagated through a huge decentralized network of buyers and sellers, giving rise to a distributed intelligence that allocates resources more efficiently than any central planner could hope to do. Whatever distribution of wealth results is an unplanned by-product, and in some conceptions is not appropriate for moralization one way or another. It is emphatically not, as Lakoff supposes (in a direct-causation mentality of his own), a moral system for doling out just deserts.


"You give me a progressive issue," Lakoff boasts, "and I'll tell you how it comes down to a matter of freedom" [Where have we heard that before? --ed] -- oblivious to the fact that he has just gutted the concept of freedom of all content. Actually, the damage is worse than that, because many of Lakoff's "freedoms" are demands that society conform to his personal vision of the good (right down to the ingredients of food), and thus are barely distinguishable from totalitarianism. How would he implement "pay in proportion to contributions to society through work"? Will a commissar decide that an opera singer deserves higher pay than a country singer, or that a seller of pork rinds should earn less than a seller of tiramisu? And his freedom not to be harmed by "hurtful language" is merely another name for the unlimited censorship of political speech. No doubt slaveholders found the speech of abolitionists to be "hurtful."


Probably not since The Greening of America has there been a manifesto with as much faith that the country's problems can be solved by the purity of the moral vision of the 1960s. Whose Freedom? shows no trace of the empirical lessons of the past three decades, such as the economic and humanitarian disaster of massively planned economies....

The problem is that the misrepresentations are harmful both intellectually and tactically, and will backfire with all of this book's potential audiences. Any of Lakoff's allies on the left who think that their opponents are the imbeciles whom he describes will have their clocks cleaned in their first debate with a Young Republican. Lakoff's book will be red meat for his foes on the right, who can hold up his distortions as proof of liberals' insularity and incomprehension. And the people in the center, the ones he really wants to reach, will be turned off by his relentless self-congratulation, his unconcealed condescension, and his shameless caricaturing of beliefs with which they might have a modicum of sympathy. [bold added]
The mind reels when it contemplates what amusing paroxysms this review might have already caused among the Kossacks! I almost want to visit Daily Kos for a little bird hunting, but my plate's full for the day and the weekend. If anyone else feels a similar urge and finds anything good, the comment section beckons!

The whole problem with the left these days is that it seems to have developed an allergy to the practice of checking its premises against reality. Pinker is indulging in similar wishful thinking if he really believes his review, as good as it is, will do any good -- for the left, anyway.

After the purge, perhaps he and Todd Gitlin could co-found a support group for the excommunicated. Might I suggest Lefty Adults Kicked Out For Fault-finding?

-- CAV


Today: (1) Corrected a typo. (2) Adrian Hester points out a good review of Lakoff's reply to Pinker's review.


Unknown said...

Lakoff replied to Pinker's review. There's a fine review of his reply here. (Which is a blog I wish I'd come across earlier.) I'd agree with his views of the two: "Still, I dislike most of [Pinker's] work, and I've accused him of misrepresenting cognitive science about as often as I've accused Lakoff of doing the same....I point this out to make it clear that my only real stake in the debate between two people I sincerely the science, and in this case, Pinker is right on the science, and Lakoff is wrong. Furthermore, instead of presenting intellectual arguments to convince us that he's right, Lakoff just makes shit up."

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for passing that on.

That does indeed look like an interesting blog!


On top of me being quite busy,'s email (which is what I normally use to mediate comments) has been down all morning and Blogger itself has intermittently been unreachable.

So there may be a bigger than normal delay in my review of comments....