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Don Rogers: It pains us to think

Why it took me so long, I don’t know. Seems obvious now:

Conservatism, as we understand it today, boils down to the strict father.

Liberalism goes to the nurturing parent (not Mom, exactly; more a partnership).



Well, duh. I just needed the right image. Now I know.

We like to know more than we like to think, basically. Thinking is hard, hard work. Knowing is the reward, though also a trap.

Here also is a collision between research, a function of the neocortex, and deeper impulses nearer the limbic that have lurked for longer than we’ve been a species.



In parenting anyway, the research suggests kids turn out better with “authoritative” parenting, nurturing but firm, a middle ground. Not “authoritarian” and not permissive, “everybody gets a prize.” Permissive is not nurturing, just as abusive is not merely strict.

But then, evidence proves a lot that many of us reject about things we believe we already know, from local crime trends to the preponderance of knowledge about global warming.

Not because of our politics, either. Because of what makes us human. I don’t know about wicked, but we’re certainly flawed creatures, all of us.

Which brings me to George Lakoff, the linguistics and cognitive sciences professor emeritus at Berkeley, and his book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant.”

The tome ultimately failed as a field guide for liberals following the 2004 election. President George W. Bush, unpopular and seemingly an easy mark for Democrats, beat John Kerry. This was Kerry’s race to lose, and he sure did.

I say failed because Hillary Clinton lost the same way. Lasting lessons learned: zero, as it turned out. Obama was the anomaly, unless the Democrats finally take what one of their own has been trying to teach them seriously.

Lakoff recognized how the Republicans have outsmarted the Democrats in the use of language to best frame concepts we fear or fly toward.

I picked up the metaphors of the strict father and nurturing parent from his book, along with the brilliance, actually, of phrases like “tax relief,” “death panel,” “school choice,” all examples of what Lakoff explains as framing or reframing language to political advantage.

Nixon sent the opposite message of what he meant by declaring, “I am not a crook.” Oops. People heard “crook” much the same way you and I can’t not see an elephant when we read Lakoff’s title.

Trump made hay getting his opponents on their heels in similar ways. “Crooked Hillary” stuck in part from her protestations, among many other missteps. But the election was close enough that Lakoff could have made the difference for her, had she been listening.

I didn’t realize “climate change” was part of the code, too, a Republican softening of “global warming.” Operative Frank Lutz came up with that one, along with others, during the W. era. Now everyone across the political spectrum uses this subtle deflection of the concept of humans cooking the planet.

Lakoff’s book doesn’t go so far, but I can see how this fits with our natural inclination to put our thoughts, maybe especially our deepest moral ones, on autopilot to free our brains for other heavy lifting.

This is explained well in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” by psychologist Daniel Kahneman. New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” finishes the point in his exploration of how habits are made and only with great difficulty changed.

We like to know more than we like to think, basically. Thinking is hard, hard work. Knowing is the reward, though also a trap. It’s what you “know for sure that just ain’t so,” as the line goes, that’s perhaps our biggest political problem.

Once we “know,” it’s nearly impossible to nudge ourselves back to hard thinking again. Thinking means real pain, perhaps even agony. “Knowing” in a sense is to decide we’ve done enough thinking. This struggle’s over. Now we “know.” Now we have a habit of thought. Good luck changing our minds.

If sugar has blown up our diets and willpower, well, we’re just as vulnerable “knowing” to propagandists, those purveyors of “fake news” we’ll believe to the point we declare the real fake. This has much less to do with veracity than from our own deep unwillingness to stir up settled matters. It’s like a suggestion to take up running when you quit 20 years ago. In short, forget it.

Far simpler in stormy times to steer by an ideological GPS. It may not be strictly correct, but it does head in a consistent direction, maybe a little to the right or to the left. Better than being adrift, powerless … thinking.

Lakoff himself is unreliable in his political positions. It’s easy to see where he succumbs to “knowing” what may not be so.

But he’s diagnosed our condition precisely, if in faintly Freudian terms.

At least I think so.

Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at drogers@theunion.com or 477-4299.


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