Saturday, July 23, 2016

Values come first

George Lakoff has an article on Huffington Post about how our brains work and what this has to do with the rise and popularity of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America.  There is much food for thought in this article.  Because of my love of languages and the phenomenon of language, I was struck by one section:

Direct causation is dealing with a problem via direct action. Systemic causation recognizes that many problems arise from the system they are in and must be dealt with via systemic causation. Systemic causation has four versions: A chain of direct causes. Interacting direct causes (or chains of direct causes). Feedback loops. And probabilistic causes. Systemic causation in global warming explains why global warming over the Pacific can produce huge snowstorms in Washington DC: masses of highly energized water molecules evaporate over the Pacific, blow to the Northeast and over the North Pole and come down in winter over the East coast and parts of the Midwest as masses of snow. Systemic causation has chains of direct causes, interacting causes, feedback loops, and probabilistic causes — often combined.
Direct causation is easy to understand, and appears to be represented in the grammars of all languages around the world. Systemic causation is more complex and is not represented in the grammar of any language. It just has to be learned.

Direct versus systemic causation and grammar: fascinating.  Many of my readers will remember, with varying emotions, the practice of diagramming sentences in order to understand the syntactic relationships among words. I loved sentence diagrams because I lucked out; my brain instinctively twigged to the way words were relating in sentences so this was easy, made sense, and was fun.  It is not so obvious for most people and I suspect the vast majority would prefer to keep sentence diagrams locked away in distant memory.

In English we show the structure mostly with word order, prepositions, and conjunctions.  In a highly inflected language like Latin, word order can be extremely flexible because the endings of the words indicate their functions. "Femina videt canem" means "The woman sees the dog." "Feminam videt canis" means "The dog sees the woman."  Same word order, different endings.  Whether the concept is expressed in sequence or inflection, one element (the subject) acts upon the other (the object).  The direct causation is very clear and easily grasped.

Lakoff asserts that that no language has a grammar that expresses systemic causation.  Whether that generalization is absolutely true, I do not know.  He is the linguistic expert; I am an amateur lover of languages.  His statement matches what I have encountered in Indo-European languages (Germanic, Romance, Greek, Armenian) and what very little I know of Ural-Altaic and Semitic languages (Turkish and Hebrew).

Do I have any grammatical way to express the Buddhist concept of interdependent co-arising?  Everything that is happening right now is interrelated with everything else and nothing has a single causation.  Cause and effect are no longer sharply delineated. At this point we move into a Zen approach where the archer, the bow, the arrow, and the target are all one; none of them may be understood as independent of the others.  As Lakoff says, this understanding may be learned but it is not embedded in our grammar.  The way in which we arrange sounds or written symbols to express thought does not support such complexity; it is expressed not grammatically but in an abstract conceptual manner.  We can learn it, we can understand it, but the basic structure of language must be transcended for this to happen.

The progressive world view is rooted in the nurturing parent model, not the authoritarian parent model of the conservative world view, and the former is a more complex, systemic approach.  It is less instinctive, less simplistic, yet it is also embedded in the most basic human experience, that of family.  Trump follows the easier path: simple solutions to challenges we may know to be complex but which he describes, in a way that has easy and powerful appeal, as being simple.  He has no need to explain how; he simply asserts and reassures that he can do it, he will do it, and we will rejoice in it.  How nice for everyone, and it sounds as though it requires no effort from the citizenry, no cooperation and hard work from various segments of our government, no struggles with centuries of history and the intricacies of geopolitics.  Everyone will sit down with the Donald, because he tells them to, and he will convince them of what must be done, and they will all do it.  How easy is that?

After illustrating ways in which someone can use the unconscious power of how we understand the world and ourselves to manipulate us, specifically illustrating this with what Trump has done, he concludes that even if Trump loses he will have changed the way Americans think.

Reporters and commentators are supposed to stick to what is conscious and with literal meaning. But most real political discourse makes use of unconscious thought, which shapes conscious thought via unconscious framing and commonplace conceptual metaphors. It is crucial, for the history of the country and the world, as well as the planet, that all of this be made public.

Lakoff urges us not to rebut the negative but to assert the positive, to speak to values, to build on the best and most universal aspects of our history and what matters to us all.  The latter part of his article shows us how progressives can address the challenge of Trump in a manner that might actually touch all segments of our society.

I commend the article to your attention.

--the BB