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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 or law.
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 broadmindedness. 
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.