Saturday, November 26, 2011

Politics, Language and Thought

As I look at conservative and liberal politicians, pundits and lay commentary, a pattern begins to emerge in which certain attitudes and cognitive "styles" seem to be more common to one side or the other.

The right seems to like certainty - as opposed to nuance, "masculine" forceful presentation and domineering conviction - as opposed to "feminine" softness and passive listening, or "openness". These seem strongly associated with traditional versus progressive social identities.

My guess is that many conservatives might disagree with that framing. Would they see any truth to it, though? Just by looking at the type of personal styles and approaches to governing and speaking, are there any patterns that they might see between liberal/conservative attitudes and personal presentations, especially that have policy consequences?

I think I see evidence for my framing. I also think you can find a lot of the language both partisan sides use that supports it as well. Conservative and liberal citizens seem to have divergent ways they see and talk about the world. 

George Lakoff, a liberal linguist who has done much to popularize this discussion, at least on the left, identifies a set of words significant to partisan politics, drawn from speeches and writings.  Among conservatives, the following words are given primacy:
character, virtue, discipline, tough, strong, self-reliance, self-reliant, individual, responsibility, backbone, standards, authority, heritage, competition, earn, hard, work, enterprise, property, reward, freedom, intrusion, interference, meddling, punishment, traditional, dependency, self-indulgent, elite, quotas, breakdown, corrupt, decay, rot, degenerate, deviant, [and] lifestyle.
And among liberals:

social, forces, expression, human, rights, equal, concern, care, help, health, safety, nutrition, dignity, oppression, diversity, deprivation, alienation, corporations, corporate, welfare, ecology, ecosystem, biodiversity, [and] pollution.
However, a study of the actual use of these words in political ads failed to find much of a correlation between the identified conservative language and conservative ads.  However, there did seem to be a correlation between identified liberal language and liberals campaign ads.  The author hypotheses that this need not undermine Lakoff's thesis, but rather illustrate the different dynamics involved in the efficacy of political advertising.

I've been reading this paper that looks at how psychologists and sociologists have tried to examine the issue over the past half century. However I'm pretty skeptical of their findings. For instance, they seem to want to suggest that there are personality types that lead to conservative or liberal thinking. Yet the personality types they identify are rather vague: conservatives = more conscientious, liberals = more "open to new ideas". But it would seem that conservative or liberal thinking leads to these dispositions. Furthermore, the tribal, identity-driven aspects of liberal and conservative communities reinforce norms that foster these dispositions. For instance, in one part of the study they cataloged the possessions of self-identified conservative and liberal grad students, and found correlations, such as more liberal students having more ethnic music in their CD collections. Yet are these students really more "open" people, or are they part of a liberal identity that has pushed them to go out and explore ethnic music? This normative pressure may indeed result in them being more "open" to different ideas, either cultural, political, etc., and thus seem to be more "open" people, but it doesn't necessarily tell us anything about an innate personality. Likewise, their findings that conservative rooms tended to be cleaner and have more sports memorabilia would seem to be evidence of conscientiousness and preference for tradition, yet these too are cultural, normative artifacts.

I'm curious how conservatives would see the issue. The psychological and sociological research appears to have been dominated by liberal researchers. Yet there is something to culture, ethnicity, normal and political partisanship. If not innate (likely), there do seem to be quite different normative pressures involved. Especially as society seems to have become more polarized, I think it is an important issue to investigate. As people become more politically polarized, both in community networks and even geographically, these norms would seem to be even more self-reinforcing. There almost seem to be many structural inevitabilities at work. Is this pattern a natural evolution of a heterogenous, democratic, wealthy nation, in which people's natural, tribal inclinations are perpetuated by their ability to self-select into political and cultural tribes?

No comments:

Post a Comment