Fair shake of the sauce bottle, reclaiming patriotism, and all that

by ericknight

In 2005, George Lakoff wrote a book called Don’t Think Of An Elephant. The book was Lakoff’s explanation for why the Democratic Party had been out of power for so long in the United States. Lakoff had sent the book off to some boutique publishers and had been knocked back several times for being too niche. When it finally got accepted, Lakoff half expected never to hear about it again. Within twelve months it had become a sensational hit within the ranks of the Democratic Party.

To explain why it was a hit, you need to know a little bit about George Lakoff. As a linguistic student in the 1960s, Lakoff had studied under Noam Chomsky. Lakoff had been one of Chomsky’s prodigies but the pair had fallen out over a rather obscure difference of opinion. Chomsky’s theory of language was that words had great beauty for their own sake. Lakoff’s view was that the meaning of words resided in deep cavities of our psychology. To understand the meaning of language, you had to understand the human mind.

For Lakoff, the human mind was hardwired in one of two ways. They were directly associated with your relationship with your parents. One half of the population, Lakoff contested, were brought up under a strict parent model. These people responded to language which sparked metaphors of discipline and order. The other half of the population responded to the “nurturant” parent model. These people responded to language which endorsed mutual responsibility and equality.

Lakoff’s claim in Don’t Think Of An Elephant was that people who responded to strict parent figures were hard-core Republicans. Those who responded to the nurturant model were hard-core Democrats. Swing voters had a bit of each in the them. Winning political campaigns for the Democrats came down to a simple strategy: hitting the nurturant metaphor in people’s minds hard enough and more frequently.

To illustrate the point, Lakoff gave an example. The reason Republicans had been so successful in winning voters was that they could summarize what they stood for in ten words or less: lower taxes, stronger defense, smaller government, free markets, family values. If the Democrats could do the same, Lakoff surmised, their fortunes would turn. Lakoff suggested some key words: broad prosperity, stronger America, better future, effective government, mutual responsibility.

I mention this on the day after Australia Day only to explain why I struggled with a book called Reclaiming Patriotism. The book was written by Tim Soutphommassane, a political philosopher I met briefly whilst in Oxford. Tim’s book was aimed for a progressive audience. His argument (at the risk of over-simplifying it) was that the left had ceded jingoistic language to the right. His call to arms was to take it back.

I struggle, firstly, to believe that anyone on the left would admit that they feel queasy around words like liberty, egalitarianism, and democratic citizenship. But the more significant problem for me is Tim’s suggestion that the true deficiency for the left is in language. It’s not at all clear to me why language should be the pre-occupying theme of progressive discourse at the moment. Surely it is more important for left people to be asking itself ‘what can I do to be patriotic’ rather than ‘what can I say to reclaim the language of patriotism’?

Language only goes so far. You can say you want a fair shake of the sauce bottle, but people will only believe you if you seem like the sort of person who speaks that way. People have a way of seeing through slogans.

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