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May 26, 2005


Beyond Lakoff's Strict Father vs. Nurturant Parent, A Strong Community

[Rachel's introduction: Francis Moore Lappe tells liberals to get
real -- the radical right is playing by a new set of rules, they're
playing hardball, and they're playing for keeps.]

by Frances Moore Lappe

George Lakoff's new best-seller Don't Think of an Elephant has been
heralded as the "bible" for battered progressives searching for
direction in the post-election doldrums. Lakoff himself has become the
Left's answer to Frank Luntz, the focus-group genius behind the
branding of Bush's "death tax," "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests"

"Frames," according to Lakoff, are the key to understanding how
political ideas are received. Human beings don't absorb information as
raw material; we sift input through frames of meaning carried in the
language we use.

Lakoff's central idea is that conservatives see the world through a
"strict father" frame emphasizing discipline, self-reliance, forceful
defense, while progressives see the world through a "nurturant parent"
frame -- supportive, nourishing, emphasizing mutual responsibility.
Lakoff claims that thirty-five to 40 percent of Americans fall into
each camp, although most are some sort of mix.

The Right, Lakoff points out, is extremely good at selling their
policies in clear, easy to understand "strict father" frames.
Progressives, on the other hand, too often seem to offer laundry lists
of issues lacking any overarching moral framework.

So, it's easy to see why progressives are rallying around Lakoff's
call to arms. Since polls show majorities actually agree with the
progressive agenda on many key issues, including corporate power, the
environment and abortion, focusing on "framing" issues in ways that
Americans can understand them seems like the answer they've been
praying for. Certainly, much of Lakoff's advice about communicating
progressive ideas is powerfully insightful and right on target.

But two big dangers loom.

First: Too narrowly focusing on getting the frame right might delude
progressives into believing that's all they need to win, since we all
share a common, democratic playing field.

No. The radical Right plays by different rules. In this, David Brock's
book Blinded by the Right was my wake-up call. Because Brock was not
so long ago a radical right-wing insider himself, his experiences
inside this mean-spirited, ends-justify-means mindset of this group is
-- chillingly and convincing. He depicts people willing go to any
lengths, including lying (as did Brock himself in his character
assassination of Anita Hill) in order to vanquish enemies. (See his
new book: The Republican Noise Machine)

In 2000, leading Republican Congressman, Majority Whip Tom DeLay
distributed a pamphlet to all his Republican colleagues entitled The
Art of Political War: How Republicans Can Fight to Win. Its author
David Horowitz writes, "Politics is war conducted by other means. In
political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but
to destroy the enemy's fighting ability... In political wars, the
aggressor usually prevails." (Read more in Banana Republicans.)

On his final episode of Now, Bill Moyers spoke with Richard Viguerie,
a founding father of the modern conservative movement and author of
America's Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media
to Take Power. Viguerie couldn't have described the Right's
Machiavellian outlook more succinctly, speaking about the vicious pre-
election attacks on Kerry:

"I just wish he [Bush] could have done a little bit more [against
Kerry]. I thought it was just great. And we're not gonna play, Bill,
by the liberal establishment's rules. They say, 'This is acceptable
and this is not acceptable.' Those days are gone and gone forever."

I got my own taste of Viguerie's anything-goes world, where the facts
are irrelevant and, as he told Moyers, all journalism "is opinion."
Campaigning in late October for Lois Murphy, who challenged incumbent
Republican Congressman Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania's 6th district, I
experienced the power of a lie. Gerlach campaign telephone message ads
linked Murphy to the Taliban (MoveOn supports her, MoveOn "supports"
the Taliban, ergo Murphy = Taliban-lover). Who would swallow that, I
thought, especially since Murphy is a feminist? worked. "Are
you with the Taliban lady?" said a potential voter when I approached
his door. He threatened to set his dog on me.

Most Americans would be appalled -- if they knew: There's no evidence
the majority of Americans approve this ends-justify-means, destroy-
the-enemy approach.

So here's one point progressives might want to savor as they think
about frames: A broad swath of the American people may share the
"strict father" frame just enough to be vulnerable to manipulation;
but this does not mean Americans broadly, deeply share the worldview
of those in power. The Left must get much better, not just at placing
its issues in a compelling moral frame, but at exposing and holding
the radical Right accountable for its lies and deception -- without,
and here is the tricky part, making those who have been manipulated
feel ridiculed and put down.

Time to grow up

Second, the frame Lakoff identifies with progressives -- "nurturant
parent" -- itself needs critical thought.

Nurturant parent -- what could be worse for progressives?

They're already stereotyped as coddlers of the lazy poor; dubbed
"bleeding hearts" who refuse to require people to take responsibility
for themselves. A nurturant parent framing may confirm the caricature.
Lakoff is careful to distinguish his parent model from "mother," but I
fear it is too easily received as a soft mother alternative to strict

The question few seem to be asking is: Are "strict father" (Right)
versus "nurturant parent" (Left) our only choices, or can we move
beyond the nuclear family metaphors?

If the Left is indeed stuck with nuclear-family metaphors, they're
seriously out of luck; in scary times like these "strong father" will
win out over what is seen as "soft mother" every time. Thankfully, the
narrow, Western psychoanalytic, nuclear-family frame itself is
becoming dated.

Maybe we're entering a new stage that has much in common with eras
before the invention of the nuclear family. Maybe, in many respects,
we're moving beyond hierarchy, which any parent-centered frame
necessarily must be. Big shifts are underway:

First, the communications-technology revolution is allowing us to
experience one planet. Billions of us can now see and converse with
people on other continents. We experience the events of 9/11, our
fellow humans starving in Darfur, and the battles in Iraqi streets in
real time.

Second, the ecological revolution is infusing our consciousness with
an awareness of our interrelatedness far wider than our immediate
family. Ecology teaches us that there is no single action, isolated
and contained; all actions have ripples -- not just ripples up through
systems in hierarchical flows, but out through webs of connectedness
in what we might think of as lateral flows. Ecology teaches us that
the world is co-created through complex networks of relationships, no
one of which is dominant.

These revolutions are unconsciously but profoundly reshaping human
identity -- the definition of self-interest and our place in the
world. We're realizing that we exist in community with each other and
the world. We therefore share needs, interests, and experience with
many communities far beyond our immediate families.

Third is the "revolution in human dignity." We've lived so long under
the spell of hierarchy -- from god-kings to feudal lords to party
bosses -- that only recently have we awakened to see not only that
"regular" citizens have the capacity for self-governance, but that
without their engagement our huge global crises cannot be addressed.
The changes needed for human society simply to survive, let alone
thrive, are so profound that the only way we will move toward them is
if we ourselves, regular citizens, feel meaningful ownership of
solutions through direct engagement. Our problems are too big,
interrelated, and pervasive to yield to directives from on high.
Besides, few of us -- unless we're scared into it -- are prepared
simply to take orders.

With "regular people" stepping up as public problem-solvers on every
continent and on so many levels, it's hard to identify this change for
the revolution it is. Some measure it in the explosive growth of
citizen organizations, now totaling two million in the U.S. alone. In
just one decade, the '90s, they jumped 60 percent. And they're being
noticed: more national governments, global corporations, as well as
the U.N., are inviting citizen representatives to the table.

This growing appreciation of the power of each one of us also means
students gaining a role in mediating their own disputes and in school
governance; work teams spreading in factories; citizen boards in major
municipalities now making significant budget choices from Sao Paulo to
St. Paul; and patients increasingly enlisted in their own healing
practice. Everywhere, citizens themselves are involved in decisions
affecting their futures, the better the outcomes for all.

A desire to break with parentism in favor of fellowship and a hunger
for healthy, strong community is not a progressive's pipedream. It is
palpable. It is everywhere. Three far-flung illustrations come quickly
to mind.

The open source revolution

Consider the revolution underway in computer software: the widening
embrace of Linux -- an open source operating system -- and nascent
rejection of Microsoft, with its top-down control of 90 percent of the
world's software market. Recently Munich, Germany, decided to convert
14,000 government computers to the Linux system despite the personal
intervention of Microsoft's chief executive. Founder of the open
software movement that created Linux, Richard Stallman, said this
about why he left the proprietary, exclusive, top-down control
software world: In that world, "the first step in using a computer was
to promise not to help your neighbor. A cooperating community was
forbidden. The rule made by the owners of proprietary software was,
'If you share with your neighbor, you are a pirate.'"

Stallman considered this approach immoral. So he created the opposite
software rules and culture: one that encourages mutual help and mutual
learning. And it's catching on. And now the business pages are
fretting about Microsoft's future.

Or turn to another, land-not-cyber-based, expression of community: The
community-food-security movement (See springing up
from Brooklyn to Iowa City, from Oakland to Burlington. Farmers'
markets, community-support-agriculture, school gardens, buy-local
campaigns, restaurant-farmer alliances, fair trade purchasing -- all
reflect a sense of strength through interdependence and face-to-face
relationships. They emphasize self-responsibility in community and are
rejections of top-down, centralized solutions.

And here in Boston, local Catholics are upset that several parishes
are closing, sunk by the huge cost of sex-abuse scandals. Some
parishioners are "sitting in" in their own churches to protest.
Refusing to leave in what they call "24-hour vigils," these Catholics
have said "no" to their priests and bishops. They are saying that
their parishes are their communities -- and are as essential to their
happiness and well being as are their nuclear families. Such renegade
communities are now forming an association in the Boston area.

In a sense, these parishioners are rejecting the strict father in
favor of community. (Just as soldiers in Iraq recently publicly
challenged Rumsfeld while their "community" cheered.) "Support is
growing," one parishioner said on the radio recently. "People are
slipping money under the door to keep us going." And the result? Our
area bishop declared that two of the parishes slated to close would
instead remain open.

New metaphors, new "frames," are called for to capture these profound
changes in ways of seeing ourselves and our world.

We need to ask: What frames best embrace the growing appreciation that
human beings are going beyond one-directional communication, moving
from "one-to-many" directives toward "many-to-many" multi-logues? What
frame suggests mutuality -- mutual responsibility, cooperation,
teamwork, dialogue, synergy, inter-connectedness, and the co-creation
of meaning?

Any parent frame fails the test; it is inevitably one-directional, and
hierarchical. So let's bury the family metaphor and search for a more
robust frame -- one that suggests communities that work for all
because they are connected, responsible, compassionate and therefore

When Lakoff expands on his nurturant parent frame, he also notes that
"the basic progressive vision is of community -- of America as family,
a caring responsible family." He includes "mutual responsibility" and
"community-building" as central pieces of an effective progressive
framing, suggesting he, too, chaffs within the limits of the nuclear
family metaphor. And his examples of progressive reframing are more
embedded in a community than a nurturant parent metaphor: such as the
progressive rationale for taxes being "membership dues" contributed in
order to reap the benefits of a community to replace the Right's
message of taxes as an affliction for which they offer "tax relief."
Here his progressive frame is about mutuality, not nurturing.

A New Frame: Strong Communities

In times of war, when fear is being consciously stoked to keep a
populace in "freeze" mode, the Right's strict father frame carries
strong appeal. Fearful creatures duck for cover. We try to cast out
those who might rock the boat. Frightened, we look for a strong
protector. And this is precisely why progressives must not fall back
on nurturing themes. In addition to holding the radical Right
accountable for its mean-spirited, anti-democratic outrages, as
mentioned above, we must get tough in at least two other ways.

First, we must more effectively show just how our security is
threatened, not secured, by today's strict-father "protectors." We can
show how dreadfully ill-prepared to defend ourselves we are when anti-
government ideology has its hold on Washington, leading to under-
funding our "first responders"; to 15,000 highly vulnerable private
chemical plants in charge of their own security; and to health care
dependent on giant drug companies.

Progressives can also show that society is weak and vulnerable when we
are divided, rich against poor, white against Black, Evangelicals
against other faiths. Americans intuitively know that divisions weaken
us; it's one reason we've responded throughout our history to calls
for basic fairness, such as the Civil Rights movement.

Second, in a positive vein, progressives can show that the more
engaged and just a community, the stronger and safer we all are. The
more we know that we can count on our neighbors, our schools, our
health care providers -- because we know them and because they are
adequately funded -- the safer we feel. Immediately after 9/11, a
public health expert pointed out an obvious link between fairness and
community safety. With over 40 million people lacking health
insurance, if there were an act of biological warfare against us, an
infectious agent could spread swiftly, he pointed out. For how could
it be contained if millions of uninsured delayed seeking medical
attention? Obviously a case in which unfairness -- the fact that so
many can't afford insurance -- threatens everyone's safety.

A "strong communities" frame might require progressives to stop, for
example, talking about the "environment," which non-progressives can
hear as a "soft" distraction in war time, and frame ecological
challenges as threats "to safe air and water and food." We might stop
talking about poverty, and alleviating it, which evokes images of do-
gooders, and talk about "fair-chance communities." Stop talking about
reforming criminal justice and talk about results-based crime

Let's salute George Lakoff and his colleagues for rallying
progressives to frame our "issues" in a compelling moral vision. But
rather than reacting to the "strict father" frame by searching for a
better use of a "nurturing parent" frame, let's reframe the entire
conversation to one that begins with a definition of citizens as
responsible grown-ups, not helpless children. In this progressive
moral vision we strive to live in strong communities -- safer and more
viable than ones that rely on a strict father, who on deeper
examination may turn out to be only a stubborn loner, a bully bringing
on the very threats from which he claims to protect us?

Let's choose frames that capture what most people intuit: We all share
one small -- shrinking -- planet, and our real hope therefore lies in
creating strong communities.


Frances Moore Lappe is the author or co-author of 14 books, most
recently You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear
(Tarcher/Penguin 2004). Her books are widely used in college courses
and have been translated into over a dozen languages. She's now at
work on a book about taking democracy to its next historical stage -
democracy as a living practice that embraces economic and social as
well as political life.