Lakoff 1, Pinker 0

George Lakoff responds to Steven Pinker’s review of Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea. Highlights include shocking charges of deception or incompetence on both sides. This is the only paragraph of vitriol-free prose I could find in the review, and since it’s mostly summary I’ll include it here:

Lakoff’s theory is aimed at explaining a genuine puzzle: why the various positions clustering in left-wing and right-wing ideologies are found together. If someone is in favor of laissez-faire economics, it’s a good bet the person will also favor judicial restraint, tough criminal punishment, and a strong military, and be opposed to expansive welfare programs, sexual permissiveness, and shocking art. Conversely, if someone is an environmental activist, it is likely that he or she will favor abortion rights, homosexual marriage, and soak-the-rich taxes. At first glance these positions would seem to have nothing in common. Lakoff argues that the two clusters fall out of the competing metaphors for the family, with the strict father demanding personal responsibility of his wayward children and punishing them when they misbehave, and the nurturant parent showing empathy and emphasizing interdependence.

Of course, Pinker goes on to claim that Lakoff’s model of these clusters is prejudiced and simplistic… which is of course the point. I find the ‘nurturant parent’ a little absurd, myself, but as a metaphorical frame it does explain quite a lot. But Pinker goes on to supply warmed-over arguments fromm Political Philosophy 101, which contrast corruption with perfectibility and limited sight with utopian vision. These are increasingly irrelevant to the neoconservative movement, where utopian vision is decried domestically, but celebrated as good foreign policy, and humans are fallible and greedy unless they happen to claim to be born-again Christians. Take the tragic example of Iraq, for instance, which suffers under the same social engineering and lack of regulation and policing that conservatives claim cannot work here at home.

More interesting are the various academic arguments about cognitive linguistics. From these two articles, you’d think there was no disagreement between the two at all, except that Pinker subscribes to some market-driven version of social Darwinism. In his reply, Lakoff asserts that each of Pinker’s critiques are fully considered by his theory, and that often they are nearly direct quotes. He goes on to ask:

What is one to make of Pinker’s essay? Why would he repeatedly attribute to me the opposite of what I say? I can think of two explanations. One is that he is threatened and is being nasty and underhanded — trying to survive by gaining competitive advantage any way he can. The other is that he is thinking in terms of old frames that do not permit him to understand new ideas and facts that do not fit his frames. Since he can only understand what I am saying in terms of his old frames, he can only make sense of what I am saying as being nonsense — the opposite of what I actually say. That is, since the facts I cite don’t fit his frames, his frames stay and the facts are adjusted to fit them. I don’t know Pinker well enough to know which is true, or whether there is some third explanation.

It’s a rousing example of public intellectuals debating in the public sphere. And it’s fun. Check it out.

Dom and I drop some more “science” on crime

Sentiments of Rationality is at it again. Dom seems to have convinced himself that conservatives are actually right about criminal justice, since they care about victims and safety more than liberals, and trust their authority figures. He goes on to suggest electric shocks in order to speed punishment and reduce incarceration time. Here’s the gist:

If we want to deter crime, then, we can do so effectively by viewing it as an educational problem that requires cultivation of the proper habits, ones which are pro-social and lead to fuller self-development of individual, i.e., more freedom in a positive sense.

I’m glad Dom continues to push this line of argument vis-à-vis  conservatism and criminal justice, because it’s clearly fruitful. I’ve gotten two posts out of it, myself! However, anyone who’s really fascinated by modern crime and punishment should read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Though I often suspect Foucault of just the critically-edged nostalgia that troubles some of Dom’s interlocutors, it’s still the first book to differentiate the modern situation from the same old conversations that philosophers have been having since Socrates demanded a full pardon and a daily coolness stipend. Then, if you want to keep at it, take a look around the internet at prison statistics and the sorts of things that generally trouble “corrections officers” and prison reformers. I recommend the Prison Policy Intiative, this neat blog, or what the man himself says on the subject.

With nearly 80,000 inmates in the NY State system, (which is the only system I’ve encountered professionally) much of the concern surrounds costs and efficiency, as well as the injustices that efficiencies create. As with any discourse, getting your head around general moral principles won’t help you much when you’re faced with a rusty, decrepit system with out-of-control costs. It’s more fun to talk about in the abstract, though….

So: in Arendtian fashion, I take issue with the paternalization of the state. Unlike schools, prisons generally deal with fully-formed adults. Much of what Dom says might apply to juvenile detention, except that we generally assume that more leniency is required for minors. (Maybe that’s the root of the problem: if we could only draw and quarter a few teenage rapists, perhaps the rest would fall into line… but I’m just kidding, really.) Dom actually uses an elementary school example to make his point:

Some children have a nervous tendency to repeatedly tap their pen or pencil on their desk, making it difficult for others to concentrate. The most effective approach to dealing with this behavior would probably be a (literal) slap on the wrist, but even if we avoid corporal punishment entirely, it still seems the most reasonable response would be to punish the children in some other way (maybe even just telling them to stop, which puts a social pressure on them).

However, what some teachers have begun doing is giving the students drinking straws to tap instead. The problem is taken as some inflexible given, a natural disorder which requires educators to accommodate students rather than vice-versa. But this is bad for everyone involved. The child is reinforced in a bad behavior that, outside of the protective school environment, could lead to other bad consequences. Meanwhile, we have to take extra time and effort to see to the children’s “special needs”.

This pencil-tapping analogy threw me for a loop. I guess it’s meant to be an exemplar of our impotent, libertine educators, but I think that it’s a fatally bad example in this conversation. To go from that to “regularly administering electric shocks to prisoners over the duration of their sentence” seems like a major jump. (They are used, and inevitably cruelly and for the inappropriate enjoyment of the corrections officers) It suggests to me that he might be letting the examples do some of his reasoning for him.

Yes, I agree we should spank our children. But should we spank our adults? It seems to be poorly argued to say that the one follows from the other. We spank children in order to make them into responsible subjects; having become responsible subjects (who refuse to respond to authority), adults require different treatment. Just think about your own habits, and how much more difficult they are to change than they once were. Many claim that criminals put themselves in this diminutive position vis-à-vis the state by committing crimes. Yet they cannot argue this, through syllogistic and valid reasoning, so instead they talk around the problem, through the analogies Dom describes. They attempt to enforce a paradigm of criminal juvenality by constantly asserting the primacy of examples drawn from parenting and education. Meanwhile, the state gains tremendous powers to discipline and control the lives of its citizens, and becomes increasingly paternalistic.

I meant what I said in my last post: the truly criminal are lost to us. Lock them up, torture them, kill them, it doesn’t matter, because they won’t ever become good. But let’s not for a second pretend that the state is so trustworthy that it won’t find a way to extend its oversight of criminals to increasingly banal parts of our everyday lives. Drug use, sexual deviance, political dissent, whatever strikes the political fancy: the capacity of the legislature to criminalize activites is unlimited. We’d best be sure that the pseudo-criminals that bad governments produce aren’t tortured along with the bad people we’d like to see punished.