FLORIDA, November 30, 2012 — When we go to vote, do most of us really care about the objective facts? Or, do we allow emotions to guide our decisions?
Speaking of emotions, does either side of the political spectrum trade on these more than the other?
Furthermore, are economic and national security concerns deciding factors for most voters? Could it be that social values are of greater importance to untold millions than money and the military?
Cognitive science has opened many doors that were closed to scholars and researchers for generations on end. Might it be able to give us insight about the recent rise of ideological identity politics?
In this second part of a candid discussion, George Lakoff shares his thoughts about these extraordinarily demanding questions. A cognitive linguist who has taught at UC Berkeley for four decades, he is the author of a library’s worth regarding the scientific aspects of political belief.
Joseph F. Cotto: From your experience, do most voters care about objective facts? Or, are voting habits more defined by emotionalism?
Dr. George Lakoff: It’s not emotion per se. It’s morality. We have two opposite moral systems operating in America, defining what is politically the “right” thing to do. Because these moral systems are physically in brain circuits, they constrain what can be understood as “right.” And because our moral systems are very much part of our identity, moral threats are often seen as identity threats, which can activate fear, rage, and other strongly negative emotions.
Moreover, what counts as a “fact” has to be understood, and that understanding depends on how we frame the “facts” in terms of larger issues and in moral terms. To “care about” facts, you have to first understand them and their moral consequences, that is, how they fit into your understanding of yourself.
Cotto: In your opinion, does either side of the political spectrum trade more on emotion than the other?
Dr. Lakoff: Conservatives have been more practiced at using fear and rage. Fear tends to activate strict father morality — you want strength and protection. Rage is easier to activate in those who lack empathy for others. Since progressivism centers on empathy, but conservatism does not, the conservatives are more effective at arousing and taking advantage of these emotions.
Cotto: Generally speaking, are the economy and national security chief concerns for most voters? Or, do cognitive factors usually lead people to select a candidate who shares their social values?
Dr. Lakoff: To be of concern, the economy and national security have to be understood, that is, framed using brain circuitry. The same is true of social values. These are all understood via a voter’s moral system and the frames that go with it. Reality plays a part, of course, but is relative to how reality is framed in public discourse. That is why control of public discourse is so very important. And why communication politics matters so much.
Cotto: Over the last several years, there has been a meteoric rise in ideological identity politics. Can this be explained through cognitive science?
Dr. Lakoff: Yes. “Ideology” is based on one’s moral system. Many people have both moral systems in their brains, linked by mutual inhibition: if one is activated the other is deactivated, and one can switch quickly. These are morally complex people, sometimes called moderates, swing voters, independents, and undecided.
Since Reagan, there has been a move in Republican party to oust morally complex office-holders and to support only pure conservatives. The move has been carried out via communication politics, the very successful attempt to control as much as possible of public discourse, which has led to changing the brains of the public in a conservative direction. The result has been the split in our politics that we have seen in recent years.
Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering exactly how it was that you came to be such a prominent academic. Tell us a bit about your life and career.
Dr. Lakoff: My parents were very intelligent people who never had a chance to even go to high school, yet they were insistent that my brother and I go to college. I think about them every day, and I devote whatever abilities I have to doing good in the world in some way, whether through discoveries about the mind and language, through improving our understanding of politics, or through teaching the thousands of wonderful students I have been fortunate enough to teach at Berkeley, and before that at Harvard and the University of Michigan.
I am also appreciative of the wonderful people who have taught me so much — my teachers, colleagues, co-authors, friends, my son Andy, and especially my wife Kathleen. I try to do them justice. Finally, I appreciate my country. Nowhere else would such a fulfilling life have been possible. I work to help make it possible for others.
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