The View from a Small Island: What We Learned from a Pandemic and Political Upheaval

I was laid low by the second shot of the Moderna vaccine.  With a sore arm and flu-like symptoms, while sleeping the better part of three days, I lost interest in food or friends—I could not stay awake. Moderna vaccine, while protecting me from Covid 19 closed the door to my usual ‘I live to eat’ mentality. The steps many of us discovered and counted between the couch and the refrigerator no longer mattered.

In my few waking hours, ‘Death to 2020’ a Netflix full-length flick with some recognizable faces entertained me—belly laughs. [Editor alert: If minor vulgarity and commonly heard cable swear words do not offend, I highly recommend it. British actors and a few recognizable Americans make for some witty hilarious observations about the long year of the Coronavirus.]

Entertainment aside, I found too much time to read and watch media stories about the cultural and political divide between us—a divide which is far beyond the political, far from political parties. A divide identified in a semiotic study of presidential campaigns’ advertisements from as early as 1952—reinforced by institutions which strengthens our divide. (As recently as February 20, the divide spread beyond our borders as displayed by spectators at the Australian Open Tennis matches in Melbourne. (See The Age: )

Consequently, my intent to write about the tactics many of us employed to survive the isolation of a pandemic and compounded by the stunning attack on our free and fair elections and our nation’s Capitol, my topic seemed superfluous and of little interest to me—all observations now in the rearview mirror.

Adding to my political upset, I engaged in an email conversation with a virtual book-club acquaintance. I am a long-distance member of this club. Minus the boring details, I struck the match, culpable of lighting the verbal fire between us which ended in a response from my acquaintance—a three-page single spaced commentary on the lack of merits of the Democratic Party, its politics and the media. My acquaintance proclaimed that we had now an ‘old man’ with outdated policies for our country’s leader, President Biden. (I challenge my friend’s ageist attitudes.) Simultaneously, he espoused the merits of the ex-president and excused his rhetoric to incite a mob, to overturn our democratic elections. No. I could not find common talking points between us—a point where we might begin a conversation and rescue this long-distance relationship.  

Where To Start—The Theory of Moral Reasoning

So, I looked elsewhere for answers. I returned to the theory of Dr. George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics. Lakoff has written extensively about our divided world views. Retired after a long career at the University of California, Berkeley, Lakoff is now the Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society.  Progressives and Conservatives have, according to the theory of Lakoff, a differing world view—a view with a chasm too wide to bridge. Thus, my inability to find a common talking point with my book-club friend.

Begin with a scientific, evidence-based fact: unconscious thought in the brain is carried by neural circuitry. Basic neuroscience confirms: “we have no conscious access to this circuitry, but it is there. When it comes to politics, Progressives and Conservatives essentially have different brains. The unconscious beliefs conditioned in their brains are nearly exact opposites.” (Lakoff 2017)

A second ‘fact’ is environmental. It has been tested, researched and accepted by social scientists. Lakoff continues: “In the effort to understand each other, we accept that all politics is moral.”  We, progressives and conservatives, have opposing world views—we see the world through different lens. Lakoff’s theory points out that we encounter life’s experiences differently. It is helpful to think about how we frame those experiences through our language.

Let’s begin with a conservative frame of reference. A hierarchical and ‘fittest’ order to the conservative world view is the only way to survive—to overcome adversity, to make the world safe. To many, and with good reason, ‘The world was not safe.’ Therefore, if we reduce the unknown dangers we feel, at a minimum perhaps we are safer. There is no room for the gray areas—those unknown dangers—if we are to survive. Evolution certainly is on the side of this argument.  To reduce all unknowns, we needed a hierarchy built upon the ‘Strict Father’ model. This model, Lakoff identifies as a conservative’s view of the world and he relates it to a political frame of mind. Conservative.

Others in our ancestral tribe, Lakoff identifies as progressive–those who broadened their experiences. who took chances in the big bad world. Some survived, solidifying their world view. They ventured out more, were less afraid and accepted differences between themselves and others. ‘Other’ was not so frightening. Progressive.

In brief, this describes Lakoff’s Theory of Moral Reasoning. “The Strict Father and the Nurturant Parent models of moral reasoning were also evaluated in relationship to political issues.” (Ohl, et al. 2013) A Lakoff Semiotic study of presidential campaign advertisements from 1952-2012 uncovers our separate world views and our different party policies.

And the conclusion?  Conservatives make use of moral reasoning and see the Strict Father paradigm (hierarchy and language) as the way to safety and world order. Change be damned! Progressives talk in terms of a nurturant parent—openness to change and difference as the way to world order. Fluid boundaries. Differences are not threatening—diversity captures and uses the best of our entire society.  

Only in recessions or wars do differences in campaign language between the two parties narrow.  Historically, we have pulled together when crisis strikes. Perhaps we will again as we did in 1942, in 9/11, but the years of Trump may have struck at the heart of collective memory. Democracy must be protected from the Cult of Trumpism which began in the Conservative world long before the Trump years in the White House.

For a more detailed understanding of the Lakoff theory, read “Two Questions about Trump and Republicans that Stump Progressives” (July 1, 2017).

In my next post, I explore ‘what’s really not working’ and the Sisyphean task ahead of us..

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