A critique of Lakoff’s moralizing of politics

Excerpted from Dale Carrico:

“You may note that this puts me at odds with George Lakoff’s popular “moral politics” thesis. I do not agree that “we” are animals more suited to moral/subcultural framing of political questions as Lakoff repeatedly insists is the case. I think we are animals whose politics are re-constituted in culture, and that ubiquitous planetary p2p-networks transform on the one hand moral/subcultural practices of identification and dis-identification as well as the contingent modes of association and solidarity in which we engage as stakeholders — as awareness of our imbrication in global forces of exploitation or planetary environmental processes changes our sense of collective agency, for example.

I believe these changes render our politics more ethical — matters, in my view, of contingent universalization against the grain of our identifications, dependent as they are on constitutive outsides, the thems making us uses, solicitations of agreement in unimaginable difference that render us comparatively indifferent to differences that otherwise make differences to us in our moral/subcultural lives.

Where Lakoff’s rhetorical recommendations make sense (and I really do wish he would cease endlessly trying to shore up his sooper-science cognitive credentials, which make him sound like next season’s sad phrenologist, and just admit he is offering up reminders from the many centuries old humanistic discipline of rhetoric) is in his proposal that there are substantial vestiges of political moralizing playing out in the political terrain — and at war with more secular-cosmopolitan tendencies in many human hearts — that make effective politics in our own fraught moment a matter of delicate translation more often than not, efforts to appeal at once both to subcultural moralizers and to contingent ethicians.

Even in making this practical recommendation it seems to me Lakoff tends to go off the rails a bit — suggesting there is something deeply and essentially wrong with liberal policy-oriented issue discourse that needs to be re-canalized in toto into a subcultural signaling effort more like that in which our US conservatives still indulge, one more suited to his sense of “human nature.” That liberals who prefer fact based policy and stakeholder negotiation while demonstrably remaining human is more than enough to expose the error in Lakoff’s reactionary assertion of a universal moralizing human nature, however desperately he seeks to demonstrate this nature through his glib generalizations from results in the disorderly and fledgling cognitive sciences.

That Lakoff goes on to graft his “essential” human nature, and its resulting political landscape, onto a laughable North Atlantic and insistently heteronormative dyad between the “strict father” and the “nurturing parent” that cannnot accommodate historical or already existing forms of affinity let alone all logical possible ones only adds insult to injury and lets you know that I used the word “reactionary” in respect to Lakoff advisedly, however committed he may be to what pass for liberal policy outcomes in this historical moment.

To the extent that so much of liberalism in the last thirty years has been a matter of struggling to preserve welfare entitlements and international norms in the face of a global counter-revolutionary neoliberal corporate-financial developmentalism backed by neoconservative militarism, the organized left has often taken on the character of a defensiveness that renders it more congenial to conservative frames than the progressive ones more typical of its assumptions and aspirations (while the rest of the left has often settled into the unsettlement of the usual disorganized anarchisms).”