“I never could learn algebra,” my father said.  “Algebra uses X.  But X is God.”

I didn’t know what he meant.  For me, algebra was intuitive and thus easy.  I looked at 2x + 5 = 11 and saw x = 3.  What did God have to do with that?  My father’s statement made no sense to me at the time.  But it does now.

Why do the wealthy so often get wealthier, especially in an economic downturn?  Why is it harder for government to do good than to do bad?  Why have summers been hotter but winters seen more severe blizzards?

And why do progressives have such a difficult time discussing these and similar questions in the media or in casual conversation?  Conservatives have an easy answer to all of these questions: god.  Like racism, religion is often the “red meat” of Republican discourse.  We discussed racism Thursday and yesterday; today we’ll explore why the GOP so often and so effectively invoke religion.

Framing Complexity (The Political Mind)

This week Morning Feature has explored Dr. George Lakoff’s book The Political Mind.  Dr. Lakoff is a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at U.C. Berkeley and, as you’ll see from the link, an active Kossack.  If you’ve not read his book, it’s well worth doing.

On Thursday we began by offering a new frame for discussing Republicans’ use of race-baiting: Racism as GOP Gasoline.  Yesterday we discussed the cognitive science of how frames work in Framing Our Frames.  Today we’ll look at one of the most difficult challenges progressives face: framing complex systems and systemic causation.

The language of causes.

The key that unlocked my father’s bizarre statement about algebra came from something Dr. Lakoff wrote in an email [see note at bottom], after I’d outlined what I planned to discuss this week in relation last Saturday’s diary about we often reduce complex issues to Hero vs. Villain narratives:

Most narrative structures use direct causation. Direct causation is part of the grammar of every language. Systemic causation is not at all part of the grammar of a natural language. It can work using metaphors (e.g., society is a person, for social causation).

That struck me as odd.  Humans have dealt with complex systems at least since the dawn of agriculture.  Surely our languages must have developed some way to discuss systemic causation.  Why has it rained more this year, or less?  Why did the epidemic sweep through the village after the famine, after the war?  Why are there so many kinds of animals, some similar, some very different?  Why does sex sometimes lead to pregnancy and other times not?

Each question involves our experience of a complex system, and in most pre-scientific cultures each met with the same kind of answer: gods.  Religion was not simply a cultural bonding practice or a collection of moral teachings.  It was the catch-all answer for any unsolved mystery, the black boxes of systemic causation.  Or, as my father described it, “X is God.”

When conservatives invoke a divine answer for the questions I posed in the introduction, it’s not stupidity.  They’re using a meta-frame for systemic causation that has emerged, in some form, in almost every human culture.  If an event is the product of a complex system, we tend toward frames that anthropomorphize that system.  If there is a human being we can attach to the system, we tend to elevate him/her to Hero or Villain status (e.g.: those who hold President Obama singularly responsible for our complex legislative system).  And if there’s no human being we can attach to the system, we tend to attribute its actions to … a god.

Sprouting wings or building bridges.

As Dr. Lakoff notes, natural languages lack frames for complex systems and processes.  To explain those systems and processes, progressives’ arguments and solutions often require people to consciously follow along, step by excruciatingly exact step.  Long before we’ve reached the last leaves of our intricate logic trees, listeners have checked out …

… not because they’re stupid but because our brains don’t function on intricate logic trees that require conscious attention.  Instead we use frames – bundled idea sets including narratives, roles, objects, goals and risks, strategies, etc. – to jump from A to F-G to P-Q and arrive at Z.  If we use good frames, Z is likely to be a good answer or at least a step toward a good answer.  When we don’t have a good frame, we don’t switch into conscious, step-wise, formal reasoning.  We use whatever frames we have … and Z is likely to be very wrong.

Whether that’s how we humans should think is as irrelevant as whether we should be able to sprout wings and fly over a river to get food.  We don’t sprout wings; we build bridges.  We don’t use conscious, step-wise, formal reasoning often, nor often well; we build frames.  We progressives can complain about what human beings aren’t, or work with what human beings are.

What tangible, intuitive, and system-invoking metaphors could we progressives offer for why the wealthy get wealthier, why it’s easier for government to make mistakes than do things right, or why global warming will include more severe winter blizzards?  The frames must connect to ideas we’re already familiar with, and must intuitively guide us toward more effective solutions.  I have some ideas, but I’d like to hear yours.

We’re not going to sprout wings, so we need to build some bridges.


Note: While Dr. Lakoff and I exchanged some emails this week and I outlined what I intended to discuss, readers should not infer that he has approved or would approve of anything I’ve written.  This series is my own work, and any errors – scientific or otherwise – are mine.


Happy Saturday!