Applying MetaSelf to Lakoff's Analysis
Revision of a paper given at a Denton, Texas conference on Language and Linguistics,
Jan. 31, 1998.
In his book Moral Politics, George Lakoff
shows how conservative and liberal conceptions of the family affect political
views. He calls the conservative conception "Strict Father Morality," and
the liberal one "Nurturant Parent Morality." While these two
viewpoints share many values, they have very different emphases. Conservative
morality highlights moral strength, self-discipline, obedience, andd a hierarchy
of moral authority with the father at the top. On the other hand, liberal
morality stresses nurturance, empathy, social ties and self-development.
Because of its emphasis on self-discipline and hierarchy,
Strict Father Morality is clearly part of a vertical model of the world. Mind
is placed over matter, body and feelings; father over mother;
God over humans. People are over nature, adults over children,
and men over women. This is all part of the ancient Great Chain of
Being, a conceptual model that Lakoff and Mark Turner discuss thoroughly in More
Than Cool Reason. Lakoff wants to counteract the tendency toward
hierarchy and subjugation prompted by the Great Chain, but in the epilogue
of Moral Politics, he says that "Because conservatives have worked
out an elaborate language of their moral politics whil liberals have not, liberals
are put at a disadvantage in any public discourse. He issues a call to
improve liberal language. I will try, as someone who, broadly speaking,
thinks of himself as a liberal, to respond to Lakoff's call in my remarks.
A brief re-examination of horizontal spatial expressions
for morality will show their considerable strength in expressing liberal values.
If this strength were broadly recognized (a big if), I believe that the discourse
between liberal and conservative viewpoints would become more evenly matched. I
will look at the spatial expressions and the general spatial "feel" of
ideas such as empathy, nurturance, social ties, fair exchange, respect, tolerance
of diversity, justice, equality, and cooperation. My observations are
quite nontechnical. But it appears to me that we can meaningfully picture
all these things as going on between or among people on more or less the same
level, or even as leveling out their vertical differences on the Great Chain.
Our language shows that morality is pictured in three
dimensions. Let's examine the three bodily axes and highlight their associated
moral ideas and spatial expressions.
First, the UP/Down Axis. What does it represent?
Goodness, (spatial expressions: Uprightness, and upstanding
citizen, The Fall.
Hierarchy -- power, control, and authority over.
Also judgment: someone hands down a judgment, and things come under a rule
And levels of development and maturity. -- Growing up. (Comparing
children and adults.
Verticality expresses levels of abstraction or generality. Lower,
more concrete things explain higher, abstract ones, a very useful application
of the Great Chain.
And there is mood: feeling "down" and feeling "up." And
self-control -- shoving feelings down, suppressing them.
Vertical levels also signify high and low quantity and quality;
base, highly refined.
It is important to note our ambivalence about the
vertical axis. For example, with social class. Sometimes
high, middle and low class are factual distinctions. Other times there is a
judgment or animus implied. Contempt creeps into phrases like "high
and mighty," and "lowly." Liberals especially may
be uncomfortable with verticality and with judging others as not entirely equal. Similarly,
they may like the idea of respect as looking up to someone, but be less comfortable
with its counterpart, contempt or putting someone down.
The vertical axis can be a neutral picture of an
individual's pride, independence, self-reliance, responsibility, dignity,
autonomy, and uniqueness. Standing tall. Standing up
for oneself. The strength to stand up to or against. Standing
on one's own two feet. These see OK, but we are less comfortable with
setting oneself apart or above others. And what about
developmental level, comparative stature and measuring up to a standard? Since
an infant can't stand up and a child is short, how does this affect our esteem
for them? The vertical axis does provide a partial corrective
to these overtones of comparison and judgment, for we say "something
stands on its own," meaning it is intrinsically worthy, in and of itself,
and comparisons are beside the point.
Now, let's focus on the Front/Back Axis and its spatial expressions.
Structure of psyche. The persona (a front we put up),
the unconscious (the back of my mind).
Honesty and integrity as a match between front and back
of the self. A key aspect of self-development is self-knowledge
and integrating the front and back with what's inside.
Relationships and social ties: What's going on between us. Connection. Imagery:
a tug of war, butting heads. Turn-taking is like a seesaw or dividing
a pie. Mutuality is like a two-way street; "it goes both
ways." Give and take.
Communicating (putting across). Exchanging
information, instead of handing down orders.
Empathy or compassion is imagined by putting oneself in
other's shoes, changing places.
Fairness, justice, a level playing field. The
lack of tilt of the front/back axis. Even, fair exchange in
a commodity transaction. Balance as a Moral Accounting Metaphor. Equality.
Closeness and contact are naturally linked with intimacy,
identification, support, and attachment, while Distance can express
social respect for the status or freedom and independence of another.
Space often stands for freedom, and openness and making
space can mean tolerance for difference and diversity.
Too much space without support can represent abandonment and disorientation.
Magnanimity is putting someone on the same level despite differences
in vertical status, power or development. "No man stands so tall
as he who stoops to help a child." In this aphorism we have another
attempt to counter the force of the vertical model. And the sentence "I
learn so much from watching my baby" counterbalances the idea that the
parent is teaching and must condescend.
Cooperation can be pictured as focusing on or moving toward
the same goal (vision and locomotion metaphors, respectively).
We can understand nurturance, a cardinal liberal virtue, as compounded partly
of empathy, tolerance, magnanimity and seeing someone as standing on their
own, intrinsically valuable.
Third and finally, the Left/Right Axis.
Good judgment. Comparison. Balanced scale. (weighing
arms on each side; on the one hand,...on the other hand...") Finding the
reasonable position between two extremes.
However, this axis also evokes being split, torn between, and
being forced to make a choice between... Splitting the
difference. A fair division. So, sometimes this axis evokes
equivalence and evenhandedness (equals sign as a fulcrum: 2+ 2 = 4), but other
times it evokes having to choose one side or the other.
The dimension of width is used figuratively when we speak of narrow-mindedness
And social inclusiveness means embracing a wide circle of friends.
Collectively, these vertical and horizontal ideas and expressions give us
a rich picture of human morality. It is clearly a mistake to concentrate
on any one axis to the exclusion of the others.
The MetaSelf Model
So, how might we best package this fully three-dimensional
model to make it as appealing and effective as the Great Chain? A memorable
visual and kinesthetic image with all three main bodily axes is provided by
a box-frame. Like the human body, a box-frame has 3 perpendicular axes,
with a strong front/back contrast. When paced on the wall, it faces the
viewer, who moves closer for detail and away for an overall view. So this object
already as a social, interactive element. The basic conceptual metaphor
of the MetaSelf model is this: A person is (like) both a viewer in a
room and a frame on a wall of the room. In this model, the walls of the
room represent any system that surrounds and supports or confines the self. The
non-empirical transcendent is outside the room, encompassing the whole space. The
mind and the body are placed on the same level, along with the repressed (pressed
back) shadow cast on the wall. This is an image of alighment, not suppression
of feelings and shadow. The self and the other person are also on the
same level. Race, gender and class are omitted.
The idea of heart can be seen as coming from the center of the
body (represented by the backboard of the box-frame), forward through the personal
and into interactions along the z axis. Spirit can be seen as the entire
z axis that runs through all the volumes and planes of the self, taking different
forms in each plane. Soul, in the invisible, rather disembodied sense,
can be located on the part of the z axis outside the room.
A suitable catchphrase for this model? "The
Great Frame of Being." The Great Frame includes: the frame
of the body, the frame of the box-frame, and the frame of a house with rooms.
I suggest that this model increases the power of liberal
language and values by tying them directly to body-based imagery. With
this more articulated and coherent alternative, we can better criticize a social
structure or a politics as "too vertical." Horizontal authority
is based on an exchange of views, shared responsibility, and give and take. There
is an axis that goes through all the planes of the self and all the people
involved, linking authority with honesty, integrity, and a good knowledge of
one's feelings and the back of one's mind. This is not a trickle down
morality of obedience but action in thoroughgoing accordance with one's whole
being and one's most encompassing values and beliefs about reality.
If we think of ourselves as all uprightness, individuality
and spine, we'll never fill out morally to become broadminded and connected
to others. An, if we think of ourselves as all horizontal, we flatten
our individuality and confuse our identities with the interests of others;
we fall into the conservative caricature of a bleeding heart liberal. All
of us have every reason to think of ourselves as three-dimensional.