Since Michael Erard's article in the Texas Observer came out about 10 days ago, SC has largely refrained from comments on the notes left here. The article was picked up by Kos, and between the two sites, traffic picked up hard for a few days. Rather than respond to the comments on an ad hoc basis, your host decided to wait until traffic died down, and then collect his responses in one place, much like is done in regular magazines after a controversial article is published. Since traffic is very definitely back to typical levels now, it's time to close the book (at least for the moment).
First, we'll address the comments which have popped up on Kos' website:
While I perhaps should have addressed this comment by joining the discussion directly, I have no real desire to get into a flame war with people who can't be bothered to fact check. The obnoxious quote:
What I found amusing was the shot that guy took at Lakoff. He just had to call him an out of touch elitist. Why, where could that attack have come from? As if Lakoff doesn't know that not everybody thinks of the earth as a Goddess. (I wonder if he really said that anyway.)
I'm glad that this guy and Luntz are the best they can come up with on the other side. It doesn't matter how "in touch" Lakoff is anyway. We can all test his ideas and make use of them. We can improve on them where necessary, too. His work will launch many others.
I was perhaps a bit saltier than desirable in the comments that Mr. Erard ended up printing, but the writer clearly didn't care to actually read my original piece, where the "Earth as Goddess" line is clearly footnoted, along with a myriad of other "nature worship" metaphors. Nor did I actually say "out of touch elitist", a statement which reveals that the writer is as sensitive to certain standard conservative tropes about liberals as some conservatives are about liberal talking points. To the extent this could be extracted from my remark -- "Lakoff’s problem, and this is one area where Frank Luntz just by virtue of his job has a real advantage…is that he doesn’t see enough ordinary people and discuss these things." -- it clearly is attributed to job descriptions and not political positions.
But there's another point made here that recurs in the comments I've gotten -- "it doesn't matter how 'in touch' Lakoff is anyway". I cannot stress enough a point all sides ignore at their own peril -- genuine swing voters don't agree with them. Not with Lakoff, not with Luntz, not with your host. In this vein, SC encourages readers to examine a posting by Rachel Shallit on the subject of a grotesquely hateful comment that she received. The commenter calls her "small-minded" and a "fundamentalist", two adjectives which any reader of Rachel's would be highly unlikely to apply to her. It's clear enough that the person who left the comment is full of hatred towards Christians; such speech is unlikely to appeal to other people who do not share that hatred. If George Lakoff proposes rhetorical figures based purely on his own likes/dislikes/pet peeves, he can only blame himself for the results. Lakoff himself gives numerous indications in his writing that he understands this point, even if he fails to act on it. Kos' commenter gets this, too -- Lakoff's ideas will have to be "tested" and "improved on" -- but it gives him emotional satisfaction to deny this sort of criticism when it comes from the wrong sources. C'est la vie.
Another commenter at Kos' site comments that:
Justin Busch is right in criticizing Lakoff as not the most deft of "framers."
Fair enough restatement of my point, and I appreciate the fact that it was said in a non-insulting manner.
Finally, a third commenter at Daily Kos doesn't say what she thought of me, but I provide her comment for the benefit of interested parties:
In the meantime, there's a lengthy conservative critique of Lakoff linked by the wonderful, brilliant blogger LanguageHat.
So now we'll turn to what's been said here. One writer going by "Thucydides Jr." argues that:
[y]ou must realize that some data, for either side, is not trustworthy. Both sides have "data" that is not as independent as one might like in a thorough debate of critical issues.
As I replied to that one, this is true, but one does not get to simply assert that all data invoked by your opponents is compromised, while all of your own is correct. In fairness, "Thucydides" doesn't make that argument -- but Lakoff's position is even more cynical. If one believes, as Lakoff does, that frames trump actual analysis of data, the burden of proof to show that this is so is on Lakoff, not on the people he's asserting it about (which emphatically includes those he agrees with). This point stands unrefuted.
A much more disturbing comment is left by Dawn Mueller, who discusses the emotional appeal of Lakoff's ideas. Her story is chilling:
I am a woman who has been in a very serious domestic violence situation. I have a daughter, who I have tried to "nuture." [sic] People frequently accuse me of being "too nice." Her father, who is both quite a "totalitarian dictator" and an "ignorant fool," seems to demonstrate Lakoff's "strict father mentality" rather cleanly.
I nuture. He rules. Lakoff made points with me!
There is no reason to deny her personal tragedy, and it is easy to see how Lakoff's models line up with her personal experience. Having said that, Dawn displays the same lack of concern about whether or not Lakoff's arguments are correct that Kos' reader did:
Whether or not Dr. Lakoff is correct in all of his analyses and characterizations is not of primary importance to me. What is more important is that he did succeed in making a connection with me that has made me more aware of political rhetoric...Whether or not your arguments are sound and valid, I know not -- but I have not found them to be particularly motivating...So, right or wrong, George Lakoff seems to be offering something to me that I feel worth developing and refining...Whether or not Lakoff's analogies and metaphors are accurate, is of secondary importance to me.
As far as Ms. Mueller is concerned, what matters is the emotional appeal of the arguments, not their soundness. In some sense, this is exactly Lakoff's point -- except that it applies to his topic, not to his argument itself. It matters very much whether or not his arguments about framing are sound in order for emotional appeals based on them to have the desired impact. Ms. Mueller provides considerable evidence -- albeit unintentionally -- that Lakoff is preaching a message that can only appeal to the choir:
I do not consider myself a member of the "ay-leet", as has been a rather popular word this election season. I might not refuse a "lah-tay", if offered, but my own inability to afford such luxury ranks me in with the commoners....For what it is worth, I voted Democratic this year -- straight ticket. In the past, I have voted variously for Libertarians, Greens, Independents and Democrats. I was an independent until this electoral season, whereupon I became a "Dean Democrat."...I have been in no physical or verbal contact with the father for the past two years, and I cannot prove that he did vote for George Bush in this election. However, I feel quite confident that, had he voted, it would have been for Bush. The father is an Illinois "red-county redneck" who almost perfectly fits the Lakoff characterization.
I take no special joy in arguing with someone who is clearly in a lot of pain, but Ms. Mueller's contempt for "red-county" people, including her mocking of their presumed linguistic behaviors, is evidence that she finds great emotional resonance in Lakoff's hate and isn't terribly concerned with how it plays among those who don't already agree with her. Implicit in these statements is the notion that Bush voters are domestic abusers; explicit is the notion that they're rednecks. If this is not bigotry, there are no statements worthy of the name. I prefer to believe that these words reflect her acknowledged personal anguish rather than cold antipathy, but much similar rhetoric is coming from people with rather fewer mitigating circumstances.
Of course, it's possible that I might be taking it personally because she couldn't help taking a few shots at my relative obscurity -- not to mention my distinct failure to be a partisan of her preferred type:
[h]e was able to get it out in bookstores in time for the closing laps of the election. And, I willingly plunked down ten bucks for it, after having skimmed through it in the store...After reading his text, I am inclined to invite him out to a nearby university in Iowa (yes, politically-hot Iowa!), to discuss his ideas and goals.I do not feel as inclined to invite you out to speak to my local political group and to the community, which is largely Democratic. (I'm just trying to be honest here...Please don't take offense!)...I bought his book and read it. I even felt motivated to telephone him the other day, to inquire about his speaking availability. Perhaps this suggests that the man is doing something successfully!
If the number of books sold is the only metric by which arguments are to be judged, my hat goes off to Prof. Lakoff for administering me a solid and likely unrecoverable beating. I will restrict myself to noting that Prof. Lakoff does not feel obliged to concede anything to James Dobson by virtue of a similar disparity. I am similarly undismayed by my failure to secure an invitation to speak; it's not clear what appeal my message of taking opponents seriously would have to her circle in light of her other statements.
Following Dawn Mueller's comments, a reader named Chris observes that:
My position on the issue does seem to stem from a broader ideological framework, and it seems plausible to me that I reason about that with some metaphors...Reading your review I wonder if Lakoff isn't on to something, but he's merely got the details wrong because he's relying on his stereotype of conservatives rather than actually listening to them.
That's about what I was trying to say with the line that he's taken an impressive theory of cognition (for a dissenting viewpoint on that, see here, or any of the other excellent Mixing Memory posts linked here) and turned it into a less impressive political theory. I fully endorse the idea that that there are some substantive insights about cognition and reasoning in Lakoff's work, but the specific analysis is wrong.
Finally, directly under Chris' comment, I come in for some criticism of my presentation of introspection from a critic going by "liberal japonicus" (henceforth, LJ). As he writes:
First of all, you choose an example from a work that cites two lingusts who would probably rather be caught dead than put in the same category as Lakoff (Williams and Riemsdijk) in a chapter that seeks to point out the flaws in Chomsky's approach (another person who would rather be caught dead than be listed with Lakoff) In fact, Lakoff has written about the problematic nature of grammaticality judgements on several occasions.
I haven't read the book by Williams and Riemsdijk -- as I made clear in the article, I was citing them via Manning and Schuetze's textbook, for the same purpose that they do -- but I don't think I did Lakoff any injustice on this point. The argument made in Part II is not that Lakoff endorses introspection or grammaticality judgments, but that it's a bad research method, and nevertheless the one he employs. That Lakoff himself claims not to believe in it -- indeed, he is quite emphatic on the claim that he's doing empirical work (a point he made to rebut me to Michael Erard) -- only reinforces the dubious nature of his arguments.
According to LJ, though:
[m]ore substantially, you misunderstand why introspection arose as a valid linguistic approach. Structuralism was primarily concerned with describing languages to which we did not have personal native speaker access (in our heads, not in terms of informants) It was Chomsky who argued that the rules that we could discern through introspection were actually a universal 'program' that could explain all human languages. (It should also be noted that Sapir toyed with the idea when he wrote about ths psychological reality of the phoneme.) It is also telling that Chomsky has a a number of occasions directed his ire at Labovian linguistics which has a statistical basis and I'm pretty sure that he has directed the same ire at corpus folks. Your discussion implies unfairly that linguists were given a choice working with real data or introspective data and chose the latter. This really misrepresents the way the field has developed.
I don't think I'm quite as guilty of this point as LJ feels, but I'll concede that nonspecialists might infer from the article that all was sweetness and light until Chomsky deliberately introduced a horrifically bad idea of a research method into the field. I think it's fair to say that I showed a clear bias towards linguists doing work in the computational and historical fields, and longtime readers know that I place much more confidence in their results than those of theoretical syntacticians who pooh-pooh corpus based work. This could have been drawn out in more detail, but doesn't affect my point that it's an inferior method for getting inside other people's heads, a point which LJ implicitly acknowledges.
Finally, LJ writes that:
You may argue that regardless of Lakoff's use of data in his linguistic work, he is using introspective data for his work on political rhetoric. But that obscures the essential problem of doing work in political rhetoric along the lines Lakoff does in that how does one delimit the corpus of political rhetoric? Would only public speeches be included? Would Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Al Sharpton, Michael Moore be included in such a corpus? Since it is not possible to have a delimited corpus in the way that corpus linguistics operates, all that is left is introspection.
There are two points being made here, only one of which I agree with. Constructing a corpus of representative political speech requires a lot more thought and effort than anyone could reasonably be expected to have undergone for a project like that presented in Moral Politics. It's not fair to fault Lakoff for not having found answers to all of the technical questions posed here.
But I deny the second point, that because a corpus is difficult to construct, introspection is all that's left. As I noted in Part II, there is little quoting from the political sources to suggest familiarity with the actual rhetoric. I need to correct myself on one point; I wrote that:
Aside from Bennett's books, the rest [of Lakoff's conservative references] aren't even cited in the body of Moral Politics.
This is incorrect; in fact, there is a single citation from one of Rush Limbaugh's books. Leaving alone that technical detail, it is simply not credible that because assembling a corpus of statements on affirmative action is difficult, Lakoff is justified in speculating on what a hypothetical Ku Klux Klansman might have to say about it. Lakoff has set himself a high standard by arguing that political philosophers' works are defective in their lack of empiricism, and claiming to redress it by saying "My job here is to describe how people make sense of their politics, not how they should". Lakoff nowhere demonstrates that he is describing how even one or two actual individuals make sense of their politics, never mind any larger groups. Parts III and IV of the review contain a number of examples drawn from a sampling of political writers and institutions; while they are by no means representative of all conservatives or all liberals, they suffice to illustrate the broad parameters of the political programs in question. Had Lakoff held himself to even that standard, he would not have come in for such harsh criticism on empirical grounds as I subjected him to.
In conclusion, I thank the readers who took the time to read through a very lengthy series of posts and address the arguments in good faith -- or who graciously chose to keep any invective private. I am very appreciative of the fact that many people were referred to the articles from sites where discussion is sometimes carried out at higher temperatures, and yet the comments left here were largely respectfully written. As I expressed to Michael Erard during the interview, I regret that Prof. Lakoff is not a "happy warrior" -- one capable of fighting the good fight, and then going out for drinks with his opponent. I am immensely pleased to see that many of my readers are.