graphic: MetaSelf Logo

The mind is
inherently embodied.

— Lakoff & Johnson



Politics and Morality

The following is a revised version of a paper I gave at a Denton, Texas conference on Language and Linguistics, Jan. 31, 1998. It summarizes a lot about the model in the form it first occurred to me — the box-frame.

I include this document here partly in order to make plain my generally liberal political stance, which accords in many respects with those of Professor Lakoff. However, I do believe that MetaSelf also includes many aspects of conservative values and can be fruitfully used by people of a wide range of opinions.

The Great Frame of Being:
Politics, Morality and the MetaSelf Model

photo: Cover of Moral Politics, George Lakoff

View a Youtube talk called "George Lakoff: Moral Politics"

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 and 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 discussed thoroughly in More Than Cool Reason. I will conclude by proposing an alternative conceptual model, The Great Frame of Being.

Lakoff wants to counter the tendency toward hierarchy and subjugation that can be prompted by the Great Chain. In the epilogue of Moral Politics, he says that "Because conservatives have worked out an elaborate language of their moral politics while liberals have not, liberals are put at a disadvantage in any public discourse." He issues a call to improve liberal language.

A brief re-examination of horizontal spatial expressions for morality will show their considerable strength in expressing liberal values. I will look at spatial expressions for ideas such as empathy, nurturance, social ties, fair exchange, respect, tolerance of diversity, justice, equality, and cooperation. My observations are quite non-technical; my training was in psychology, not linguistics. It appears to me that we can more easily picture these things between or among people on the same level than when they are on different vertical levels.

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.

The Up/Down (or Top/Bottom) Axis

This axis is not just a bare geometric line running through our bodies. The top and bottom poles are very different in their appearance and function. We live in a gravity field. Gravity on this axis pulls us down, while the Ground supports us from underneath (sub, under; port, carry). Learning to stand and walk are notable achievements of our early development. And this is fundamental to our conceptual system.

What abstractions does this axis represent?

Goodness. (Spatial expressions: uprightness, an upstanding citizen, The Fall.)

Hierarchy – levels of power, control and authority over. (A level is a horizontal plane at right angles to gravity.) Also judgment: someone hands down a judgment, and things come under a rule or law.

Levels of development and maturity. – Growing up. Comparing children and adults.

Verticality expresses levels of abstraction or generality. The "ladder of abstraction" has many rungs. Lower, more concrete, specific instances versus higher, over arching concepts and categories. Induction is up; deduction is down. This is a useful application of the Great Chain.

And there is mood and energy level: feeling "down" and feeling "up." And self-control – shoving feelings down, suppressing them. Vertical levels also signify high and low quantity and quality. More is up, less is down. Base vs. highly refined.

We may feel 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." Extreme liberals especially may be uncomfortable with verticality and with judging others as not entirely equal.

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 seem okay. 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 in 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 that it is intrinsically worthy, in and of itself, and comparisons are beside point.

The Front/Back Axis and its Spatial Expressions

Structure of the psyche. The persona (a "front" we put up), versus the unconscious (the back of my mind).

Honesty and integrity as a match between front and back of the self. The 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. Joining together. Turn taking is like a seesaw or dividing up 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 others shoes, changing places.

Fairness, justice, a level playing field. The lack of tilt of the front/back axis means that no parties have the advantage of a downhill charge, to use military imagery.

Forgiveness is sometimes expressed as forgiving a debt, "calling it even Steven," where the word even means "on the same level" or the same quantity. "Balancing the books" as a moral accounting metaphor. An even, fair exchange in a commodity transaction. Equality. Balance – a level seesaw with the fulcrum as an equal sign ( = ) in the middle. The ups and downs "balance out."

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 for" can mean tolerance for diversity and difference. "A place at the table of life." However, too much space without support can represent abandonment and disorientation.

Magnanimity has overtones of putting someone on the same level despite differences in vertical status, power or development. No man stand so tall as he stoops to help a child. In this aphorism we have another attempt to counter the force of the vertical model. In the sentence "I learned so much from watching my baby" counterbalances the idea that the parent is teaching and must condescend.

Cooperation can be pictured as focusing on and moving together 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. Giving someone support and yet not crowding them.

Courage. The angle with which one faces something, confronts it directly, is a big part of how we think of courage. An archetypal image of courage is the man in Tienamen Square standing if front of the Army tank, facing it down.

The Left/Right Axis

Good judgment. Comparison. Balanced scale. The gesture of weighing arms on each side of one's body: "On the one hand…, on the other hand." (Judgment is a quality of mind in one person, while fairness is a front/back axis in balance between two or more people within a system; social justice is the levelness of the whole system, the whole playing field.) Finding the reasonable position between two extremes.

However, this axis also evokes being split, being "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 broad mindedness.

And social inclusiveness is pictured as embracing a wide circle of friends.

The MetaSelf Model

Collectively, these vertical and horizontal ideas and expressions give us a very rich picture of basic human morality. It is clearly a mistake to concentrate on any one axis to the exclusion of the others. So, how might we package this fully three-dimensional model to make it as appealing and effective as the Great Chain which has been around so long?

One memorable visual image with all three main bodily axes is provided by a box frame. I have moved away from this image as a means of communicating MetaSelf to general audiences. It seems be too unusual an object to serve the purpose. I now direct people's attention to the body itself as it faces another person. The older, Box-Frame Model can be accessed here.

Like the human body, a box frame has three perpendicular axes, with a strong front/back contrast. When placed on the wall, it faces the viewer, who moves closer for detail and a way for an overall view. The viewer gives this object a built-in social, interactive element. The basic conceptual metaphor of the meta-self 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. This is the realm of faith, ideology and existential assumptions. 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 alignment, not suppression of feelings and shadow. The self and the other person are also on the same level. Race, gender and sexual orientation 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 persona and into the 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 that is outside the room. This is also the location of the witness self or the philosophical "I".

A suitable catchphrase for this model might be "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, for certain audiences, this model increases the power of liberal language and values by tying them directly to schematic body-based imagery. This is a coherent alternative to The Great Chain. We can better criticize a social structure or a politics that is "two vertical." Horizontal authority is based on the 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 in 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, one's most encompassing values and beliefs about reality. Exchange, sharing and social connection are stressed more than individual responsibility and hierarchical power.

If we think of ourselves as all uprightness, individuality and spine, we will never fill out morality to become broad-minded and connected to others. And, if we think of ourselves as all horizontal, we flatten our individuality and confuse ours 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.