How Liberals and Conservatives Miscommunicate

Image: ABC News

At this moment in time there is probably little need to point out how divided and polarized our country is — particularly in the realm of politics and social affairs. On both sides of the aisle, people are variously puzzled, outraged, and mystified by those with differing values and viewpoints. Facts, figures, and argumentation seem to have little effect toward changing minds — it is almost as though we speak different languages. Though there are calls for “unity” and the building of bridges, little such progress is apparent; rather, there is a tendency to silo one’s self with those of like mind.

Why has this situation become so seemingly intractable?

In his landmark book “Don’t Think of An Elephant”, UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff makes an important observation about the way values — often unstated and unconscious — frame the way one experiences the world and the conclusions one draws about it. Failing to acknowledge such differing reference frames forms the basis of much misunderstanding and miscommunication.

Lakoff’s thesis addresses the mental “software” from which thoughts and beliefs are formed. These are the values, perceptions, and interpretations programmed into the psyche through early-life enculturation within one’s family and immediate community. Yet software is generally amenable to reprogramming. The seeming unbridgeability of the above divide suggests a still more fundamental dynamic may be active.

The Nature of Language

When people speak different languages, it is easy to understand why miscommunication would occur. A subtler cause of miscommunication may occur however when people nominally speak the same language, yet use and process language in fundamentally different ways.

I propose the above may be the essence of the liberal/conservative divide. Briefly stated, in the Liberal camp, language is generally used as a means to convey information whereas for Conservatives, language is commonly used as a tool to achieve an effect. The central concern in the first case is “Is it true? Is it factually accurate?” whereas for the latter it is “Was it effective? Did it achieve the desired outcome?” (Note that this is not an absolute, hard-and-fast distinction. We all occasionally use either style. The key lies in which style predominates when engaged in critical or emotionally-charged communications.)

In the first case, a mental perception is translated into words, then expressed to another, who unpacks the words and ideally forms a similar perception — which he or she may then agree or disagree with. In the second case, through social conditioning, one learns that a set of phonemes, uttered in a certain sequence, can produce a desired outcome.

This distinction is easy to overlook because, in the most cases, the result is the same. “I’d like a glass of water, please” produces the same result whether one interprets it as information about another’s inner needs and desires, or simply as an appropriate action to take in response to a verbal sequence.

Truth, Lies, Facts, Alternative Facts

Regarding major issues of the day like climate change or healthcare, those on the Left regularly trot out lists of facts, figures, and reasoning which seem to point to compelling, inescapable conclusions and a recommended course of action. Additionally, considerable effort is expended to document contradictions, hypocrisy, and flat-out falsehoods (“lies”) coming out of the current Administration — expecting this to damage support. The Left is then mystified when the response from the Right is a yawn or a sneer. Such frustration often leads to counter-productive conclusions about the basic intelligence or moral fiber of the other — which of course only deepens the divide.

Yet like the parable of the six blind men and the elephant, “reality” often depends significantly upon the reference frame through which one views a situation. In light of the earlier mentioned distinction, for a Leftist, a wrong, craven, malicious statement is something deliberately untrue; something intended to deceive. In contrast, for the Rightist, a “bad” statement is simply ineffective at achieving an objective. For the one, the ultimate evil is a “lie” whereas for the other, it is simply a verbal tool that was unsuited to the job at hand.

As an example of the latter, consider the oft-repeated statement by the current Administration that “global warming is a hoax”. The objective basis for this statement is rarely inquired about. It is implicitly understood that its purpose is essentially to maintain the status quo on energy policy and to deflect the push for alternatives — “effect” rather than “information”. When such a statement loses its power to achieve the intended effect, the appropriate response is to try another. Accordingly, the theme then becomes about jobs or reigning in regulatory bureaucracy or state’s rights — whatever works in place of the former. From this perspective, these are not lies or inconsistencies but simply various potential paths toward a goal.

Several older memes also illustrate this principle rather clearly. Recall the Gulf war era exhortation to “support the troops”. Objectively, there is little the average citizen can do to offer such support, beyond sending a postcard or a box of cookies. However, the phrase was quite effective in silencing debate about the wisdom or effectiveness of the military actions undertaken at the time. Apart from any literal meaning, no one wants to be identified as someone who “fails to support the troops”.

Similarly, the phrase “job creators” was effective for a time in deflecting pressure for the return to a more progressive income tax structure — despite the dearth of evidence to support such a cause-and-effect relationship.

The Basis of Trump’s Enduring Support

What accounts for this difference in the use of language? Those who write about the history of human thought and culture often cite the work of historian and philosopher Jean Gebser, who described these as evolving through a series of stages: archaic, magical, mystic, mental, and integral. A salient feature of this progression is the belief about where the ultimate power and agency in the world essentially resides.

The general trend through these stages is the view of such power as moving from sources external and distant to humankind, to those more personal. Accordingly, down through history, we see such power attributed to cosmic deities, spirits, and nature, then on to avatars, priests, and shamans, to kings and tribal chiefs, to heads of state and captains of industry, to the individual “self-made man” — and finally to a community of peers.

A particular psychology and social philosophy follows from each of the above. In the earlier stages where power is seen as outside the individual, there tends to be a focus on hierarchies and institutions of authority, and deference to the same — and a general distrust of the common man. Conservative philosophy appears generally aligned with these stages — perhaps explaining why the emphasis on religion, law-and-order, force, punishment, and control features so prominently in Conservative ideology.

In the earlier stages, though essential agency was believed to be outside the individual, the affairs of nature and man were thought to be influence-able under some circumstances by special language: magical spells, incantations, mantras, chants, prayers and the like — — especially when delivered by a trust authority. Words themselves were sometimes thought to carry special power to alter reality. (Note for example that central texts which form the basis of the prominent Western religions attribute the very creation of the cosmos to a reified “Word”.)

Even today, words from a respected authority — a king, a priest, a leader, pundit, or expert — can often inspire and reassure people, even in the face of a conflicting reality. In extreme cases like the Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate incidents, people may be induced en masse to follow a leader even to their own demise.

Echoes of the above appear to be evident today, especially in much of the messaging and policies of the political Right. Conservative positions are frequently promoted from a variety of sources using identical language (some of this likely attributable to Conservative messaging impresario Frank Luntz.) Late-night talk shows entertainingly string together clips of various officials parroting identical phrases about smoking-guns-that-become-mushroom-clouds, “liberal media”, “Regulators”, “job-killers”, a Treasury that is “broke” among others.

“Lock her up!” and “Build that wall!” were popular chants during the 2016 campaign. These memes were effective at energizing the electorate, yet no one seems earnestly upset that they apparently will not come to come to pass. Once again, effect rather than formal, policy.

Language and Metaphysics

This early-stage belief in the power of words carries an implication, whether conscious or unconscious, that fundamental reality is somewhat malleable — that words do not merely interpret reality but can actually shape it, if properly delivered. Accordingly, whether it is a literal belief, a metaphor, or simply a style of communication, there seems a tendency among Conservatives to “stick to the story” — as though a particular reality about climate or inequality or healthcare can be created if a common message is rigidly adhered to. Perhaps it does not matter whether or not the speaker believes in the literal alteration of the physical world so long as “reality” as perceived by his or her audience can be managed.

The point of the above is not to characterize any particular political philosophy as primitive. Most of us utilize various stages of thought at one time or another. The key however is to be aware and deliberate about which mentality prevails when potentially life-changing, world-changing policies are being decided.

Responding to Trump — the Problem With Resistance

In response to the current Conservative political leadership, the overwhelmingly popular theme on the political Left is “resist”. However, in light of the above discussion, this response may well be misguided and ultimately self-defeating. To the degree that power, authority, and effective ability are the admired characteristics on the Right, “resistance” only affirms and validates that power. It implies subordination to a greater authority. Further, whereas a word like “defeat” indicates a final, decisive outcome, “resistance” is something one attempts but may or may not succeed at.

The latter point has been amply illustrated by the recent special elections to fill posts vacated by conservative Trump appointments. Leftist candidates lost all of these elections, despite record spending in the case of the Ossoff/Handel contest in Georgia. As a strategy, apparently “resistance was futile”.

In this sense, the Progressive movement would do well to expend less effort in attempting to prove facts, flaws, and falsehoods (the Left’s reference frame) and speak to the Right in their own language of power and effectiveness. Simply put: Trump’s base does not care whether or not he is a liar, but they would likely be distressed to find that he is weak, ineffective, afraid, can’t get the job done, big talk but can’t deliver. The latter is likely the reason for the urgency with which the Administration and their Congressional backers are attempting to rush through bills pertaining to immigration, healthcare, and other matters. Inability to enact policy begins to suggest a weak leader.

Unfortunately, the need to maintain a public perception of power may also lead to rash, excessively forceful policing and military actions. More unfortunate still, if the display of power is the central objective, even a misguided, potentially illegal action can serve.

Beyond Resistance

Certainly, bad proposals and policies must be countered as they arise. Yet at best, this is only half the needed response. An oppositional, exclusionary politics that depends upon tarring particular leaders or denigrating classes of “deplorable” citizens only cements division and ensures that a majority of citizens (losing party plus nonvoters) effectively have no representation in government.

Equally if not more important than opposing bad policy is the need to offer a better alternative — one that can actually inspire and excite a party’s base — and ideally one that makes sense to citizen-voters of all political persuasions. Despite the differing reference frames on the Left and Right, can we envision a society wherein every citizen is considered valuable and treated as such? Can we envision governmental structures that support and encourage each citizen to fulfill their potential to make their best contribution back to society? And how might we speak to each other in this regard?

Bridging the Divide

When two camps process language in different ways and see the world through fundamentally different lenses, is there any hope for sympathetic communication and common ground? As a starting point, we might acknowledge that, if miscommunication is occurring, if we are speaking past each other, simply turning up the volume and vehemence is not likely to help. We might further pause to understand (or at least acknowledge) the differing frame of values and concerns that motivate the thinking and behavior we find puzzling.

Yet beyond division and animosity, beyond language itself, it is important to realize that we are a social species that has co-evolved with some common needs and aspirations: we all want to feel safe and secure. We all want to enjoy and benefit from the richness of the world around us. We all seek the companionship of others and hope to feel loved and valued by them. We all want the opportunity to realize our unique talents and to be appreciated for them. We all would like to believe that our existence matters — that the world is somehow better off for our having existed.

If we start from premises such as these, and acknowledge that others may have different ways of describing them, and see different paths toward achieving the same, perhaps we could better learn how to support each other — and the conflict and division could begin to heal.

Much human conflict and strife is likely due to a belief that the above needs simply cannot be met for all — that, as in ancient times, the world continues to be a place of scarcity and threat wherein “more for you” must mean “less for me”. In such case, ultimately security seems to lie only in our ability to compete, dominate, control, and “win”. These operating principles then become codified in our major institutions, thus impeding our ability to respond to the changing landscape. The irony is that in today’s world, the wealth, knowledge, and technology created by these same institutions could render such existential threats a thing of the past, were these resources applied with greater vision, intelligence, and compassion.

At the change of major historical eras, chaos often reaches a maximum as the reigning paradigm, having run its course, begins to break down — thus making way for the new to emerge. It is a peculiarity of our species that chaos can call out both the best and the worst aspects of our nature. Accordingly, we may continue to fight over the proverbial deck chairs on an ecological Titanic … or we might see these times as an opportunity to step up to a new phase in the evolution of our institutions and of society at large, thereby creating a world which calls out the best in all of us. May we opt for the latter.




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