When I agreed to review George Lakoff’s new book Whose Freedom?, there were
many things I didn’t know. I didn’t know that Steven Pinker would review it
in The New Republic. I didn’t know that Lakoff would write an angry rebuttal
to the review, or that a nasty
exchange laced with ad hominem attacks
would ensue. I didn’t know that the debate would get
extensive coverage in the
But as I read the book, I watched with interest as the online discussion about it escalated into a frenzied uproar. Meanwhile, the midterm elections were also coming to a head–compared to the din surrounding Lakoff’s book, the election rhetoric itself was actually rather dull.
Sure, the Republicans tried to paint Kerry into a corner by disingenuously suggesting that his joke about getting “stuck in Iraq” was a jab at the intelligence level of the U.S. armed forces. But Kerry wasn’t running for reelection, and Democrats quickly realized that the best way to win this battle was not to engage the enemy at all. The anti-Kerry gambit was a deception, a tactical maneuver designed to reshift the focus of the election away from Republican bumbling, and the Democrats read it correctly.
The Pinker-Lakoff debate, by contrast, only seemed to grow more sour with age. Pinker called Lakoff’s book a “train wreck,” and Lakoff retorted that Pinker was either ignorant or willfully deceptive. The heated rhetoric was not restricted to the two principals either: one of many jumping into the fray, “Chris” of the CogSci blog Mixing Memory, chimed in with “Lakoff’s reply is one of the most intellectually dishonest pieces of writing I’ve seen from a cognitive scientist,” and “reading Lakoff is making me feel dirty.”
As I pondered my Whose Freedom? book review, I began to feel more like a child’s nanny than a critic. And indeed, like a truly diplomatic nanny, I also realized that coming down on one side or the other of this debate would be counterproductive. Pinker and Lakoff are both “big idea” cognitive scientists; they want to come up with an explanation not for a discrete cognitive function (like how we remember words or understand facial expressions) but for all of human cognition, all at once. Then they want to apply that explanation to an entirely different field: political science. If it wasn’t so preposterous, it would be appealing only for its audacity. If I really was their nanny, I’d give them both a time-out.
The problem with Lakoff’s book isn’t just its misapplication of cognitive science, it’s also its narrow understanding of fields as diverse as politics and religion. The problem with Pinker’s review is almost the same.
Lakoff’s ostensible goal in Whose Freedom? is to show how Republicans have hijacked the term “freedom” and show Democrats how to take it back. It’s an appealing notion: When Bush claims that the War on Terror is about preserving American freedom, he’s simply lying. The concept of freedom has absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. To the extent that we’re fighting terrorists, we’re looking to restrict freedoms, not protect them.
But when it comes time to apply cognitive science to this argument, Pinker is persuasive: The forcefulness with which Lakoff rallies “cognitive science” in support of his position is unmerited. Lakoff’s claims that frames (schemas for considering a problem) and metaphors are the foundation for all rational thought certainly aren’t supported by the evidence he presents in Whose Freedom?, and his two attempted rebuttals of Pinker’s reviews don’t do the job either.
If Lakoff’s cog scibased explanation of how the Republicans spun their way into power is this unconvincing, then one can likewise doubt his claims about how to combat the conservative agenda. That said, Pinker’s criticism of Lakoff isn’t much better:
But Lakoff’s advice doesn’t pass the giggle test. One can imagine the howls of ridicule if a politician took Lakoff’s Orwellian advice to rebrand taxes as “membership fees.” Surely no one has to hear the metaphor ‘tax relief’ to think of taxes as an affliction; that sentiment has been around as long as taxes have been around.
Perhaps I’m missing something, but I’ve been unable to find the passage Pinker refers to in Whose Freedom? (and an Amazon Search Inside backs me up). Lakoff does argue that Democrats shouldn’t adopt Republican branding of the Bush tax cuts as “tax relief,” but he doesn’t suggest calling for “membership fees.” And Lakoff is right about the inherent dishonesty in calling tax cuts that disproportionately impact the wealthiest Americans “tax relief” for all. If Pinker truly believes that rebranding unappealing political actions “doesn’t pass the giggle test,” then perhaps he should look up Bush’s “Clear Skies” initiative, which removed pollution controls, or even the boondoggle that was once the “No Child Left Behind” act. If rebranding didn’t work, politicians wouldn’t use it, and even if Lakoff’s (alleged) specific suggestion might not be optimal, there are plenty of other ways to characterize removing tax cuts that, as Lakoff advises, don’t invoke the Republican theme of “tax relief.” Two examples that presumably would pass Pinker’s giggle-test: “fiscal responsibility” or “balancing the budget.”
The fact of the matter is that even if Lakoff overreaches with his science, he does have a point. Republicans have controlled the political discourse in this country for the last 12 years, and arguably the last 26, and if Democrats are to win they need to figure out how to wrest control back. Unfortunately, this thesis is better supported in other works, such as Jimmy Carter’s Our Endangered Values. That book is much more convincing in its explication of the beliefs of the Christian Right largely because it comes from the perspective of an evangelical Christian. Although some might find Carter’s evangelism not much easier to fathom than that of Christian Conservatives, the book helps us gain some insight into their motivations.
But Lakoff’s artifice about metaphors and frames doesn’t help move this discussion forward, and claiming that “cognitive science” can show politicians how to win elections is just as dishonest as calling a tax on a multimillion-dollar inheritance a “death tax.” Scientists have a hard enough time just figuring out how we remember individual words; explaining beyond a doubt what political arguments will be persuasive is simply beyond cog-sci’s reach.
Of course, cognitive scientists like Lakoff are rightly interested in understanding whether we can identify frames that characterize partisan thought,
but the best way to approach this problem isn’t through a polemic such as Whose Freedom?–it’s through scientific research. “Chris,” the blogger
from Mixing Memory, is beginning work on one
study, a comprehensive survey that will be distributed to both partisan conservatives and liberals. But even such a study won’t tell the Democrats much about how to pursue the 2008 presidential campaign.
Almost lost in all the hullabaloo about Whose Freedom? is Lakoff’s lengthy cataloging and characterization of conservative and progressive versions of “freedom,” which encompasses most of the book’s text. For the most part, this discussion is rather dull, and it doesn’t offer a tremendous amount of insight into conservatives or liberals. A more concise Lakoff would simply say that Bush’s “freedom” is really “capitalism,” while Lakoff’s is “socialism.” Again, other books, such as Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science, are much more effective in describing the differences between conservatives and progressives. Pinker sees fit to criticize this section of the book as well, but clearly here Pinker is merely expressing his personal political preference. For example, Pinker argues that Lakoff’s work neglects to acknowledge “the impending failure of social insurance programs that ignore demographic arithmetic,” as if the Republican plan for “saving” Social Security is any better. For two esteemed cognitive scientists, the debate has devolved into so much hot air.
Of course, one way to test the efficacy of Lakoff’s advice is to look at the ballot box. In 2006 Democrats won about as decisively as could be hoped for. Does this signal triumph for Lakoff’s politico-rhetorical agenda? To the extent that Democrats refused to engage Republicans on their own terms, I suppose Lakoff could claim a small victory. But rhetoric actually played a minor role in this year’s election. Instead, the sweep of real world events dominated the scene: scandals in Congress and a brutal, protracted war in Iraq. Republicans were so busy backpedaling that they had little opportunity to take their usual aggressive approach. With illicit (and more importantly to their base, gay) behavior in their own party and in key churches, it was hard to characterize the Democrats as the party of immorality. With the Republican war burning through hundreds of billions every year, claiming the Democrats were the real tax-and-spenders rang hollow. Democratic rhetoric–and Lakoff’s book–weren’t needed at all.
In the end, Whose Freedom? is an intensely dissatisfying book. Most of the text attempts an encyclopedic catalog of liberal and conservative versions of “freedom,” but the catalog isn’t exhaustive enough to be useful, and instead comes off as merely exhausting. Lakoff’s attempts to connect his catalog to cognitive science are both woefully incomplete and tragically overreaching. In the end, although Lakoff shares some of my political philosophy, I wouldn’t touch his science with a ten-foot pole.
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