BY BILL DILLON
My title for this post comes from an incident I witnessed about 60 years ago when I was a college undergraduate working evenings as a cashier in a supermarket. A young mother came through my checkout aisle with her six-year-old and four-year-old boys. The boys got into an altercation over something and the six-year-old hit the four-year-old. The mother wheeled around and with a openhanded swing slapped the six-year-old full across the face while barking, ”I’ll teach you to hit.” When she left I turned to the teenager who had bagged her groceries and said, “She’s teaching him to hit all right – swing from the shoulder, not the elbow, and bring your hand flat across the side of the face.”
Her intentions were obviously good: teach the boy not to hit. However, it was what she did, not her words, that taught the real lesson. It’s safe to assume that when that boy had children of his own, he would indeed hit them just as his mother had taught him. Her positive intention to teach a good lesson probably set in motion a negative outcome and that was not at all what she desired.
What does this tell us about how to best respond to the current political state of affairs? Watching that mother lash out at her son had evoked an immediate response in me. I’d thought “By God, I’d like to give her a taste of her own medicine.” Then I realized that my response to what she’d done was every bit as negative as her response to her son. And, had I acted on it, I would have achieved just as negative an outcome as she had. We seem to have an impulse-driven default setting to react negatively to negative incidents. That reaction fails to lead us toward our desired outcome or to move things in the direction we’d like them to go.
There are many negative events to react to these days. If some of our leaders are busy modeling the kind of country we do not want, how should we respond? What kind of country do we want? What values do we stand for and how do we wish to be governed? If getting angery and hitting back won’t help redirect things, what will?
In the years since I worked in that supermarket, I’ve learned the importance of staying focused on the outcome I desire and not to let my default setting take over and make me meet negative with negative. It has also been useful to find ways to widen my perspective, to work to understand what is going on in difficult situations.
George Lakoff, a cognitive psychologist from Berkeley, has carefully described the differences between our two polarized national groups. He provides an approach that might help us to understand each other, reclaim the political narrative, and lead us toward becoming more of the nation everyone wants.
The essential elements of Professor Lakoff’s approach are as follows:
There are two very different worldviews that trigger the current cavernous red/blue split in our nation; both have underlying beliefs and values that provide the moral bedrock supporting their worldviews.
- A progressive vision which purports that democracy depends on citizens caring about each other and taking responsibility both for themselves and the larger community. It requires a commitment to the common good: to public infrastructure, education, health, transportation, and policing, as well as access to food, clothing, and shelter for all.The common good is seen as that which benefits society as a whole as well as the individual and parts of society.
- A conservative vision which purports that democracy is about liberty, individual responsibility, and self-reliance. In this, the freedom to fulfill one’s self-interest predominates and there is a diminished focus on the interests of others.This implies a minimal public system and a maximal private system. Free market capitalism without interference from government regulation is advocated.
We must reframe the political debate to highlight and combine the shared underlying values of both worldviews: fairness, freedom, equality, responsibility, integrity, and security. The new Administration’s rhetoric is currently framing the political debate and is filled with anger, fear, and uninformed self-interest. What Is Needed Now is to view the national argument in the way Lakoff does. Then, with a better understanding of both perspectives, there is hope that these two world views could be taken off the battlefield. They could be seen not as opposing approaches but as valuable, although different, positions that could find workable compromises and cooperate in ways that would benefit the whole nation. Individual responsibility being inseparable from social responsibility, we could strongly support the public good, our common-wealth.
If this is a discussion that you’d like to learn more about, I’d recommend three books by George Lakoff that succinctly articulate this value-driven approach:
- THE LITTLE BLUE BOOK, The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic
by George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling
- THINKING POINTS, Communicating Our American Values and Vision
by George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute
- THE ALL NEW DON’T THINK OF AN ELEPHANT!, Know Your Values and Frame the Debate
by George Lakoff
Bill Dillon is a retired educator, psychotherapist, organization development consultant, and a member of Veterans for Peace, Chapter 100. He lives (and plays the guitar) in Juneau, Alaska.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org