George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist now retired from the University of California at Berkeley, introduced many of us to the idea that metaphoric moral frames shape our political thinking. Lakoff concludes his 1996 Moral Politics with an epilogue on the problems posed for public discourse when most of us assume we can neutrally discuss public policy. Instead, explains Lakoff, political language is always laden with moral judgements that remain invisible to most of us as we listen, speak, or argue. There is no such thing as neutral, objective political dialogue:
“Conservative and liberal political positions are impossible to compare on an issue-by-issue basis. Instead, understanding a political position on an issue requires fitting it into an unconscious matrix of… morality… There are no neutral concepts and no neutral language for expressing political positions within a moral context…. (N)ews reporting assumes that concepts are literal and nonpartisan. But concepts, and the language that expresses them, are typically partisan, especially in the moral and political spheres… To use language of a moral or political conceptual system is to use and to reinforce that conceptual system… (T)he very nature of political discourse in this country makes it difficult to discuss the relationship between morality and politics at all. The separation of church and state has implicitly left the church as the institution that is seen as guarding morality. It has been assumed that all political discussions are issue-oriented and morally neutral.” (Moral Politics, pp. 384-387)
One must read Lakoff’s book to learn about the moral frames he believes are juxtaposed in the politics of the right and the left, but Lakoff’s thesis that our political language is never neutral surely speaks, more than 20 years after he published Moral Politics, to the proliferation of politically polarized news media and to rancorous accusations today from right and left about biased media and fake news. Lakoff’s thesis ought to remind us to pay close attention to the biases implicit in the words we hear in public discourse.
I thought of Lakoff last week, when a news reporter delivering a supposedly unbiased story on immigration casually adopted the language of the Trump administration to describe immigrant families in America bringing grandparents or siblings to this country. We all know families who have, quite legally for many years, brought their loved ones as immigrants to our communities. But the reporter, seemingly without any awareness of her bias, adopted the anti-immigration and anti-immigrant term, “chain migration.”
Then there was the fine piece about political language in Sunday’s NY Times: Who’s Able-Bodied Anyway?. The reporters comment on growing use of the term “able-bodied” as a condition to preclude public assistance or as a test for health care eligibility: “The ‘able-bodied’ are now everywhere among government programs for the poor, Republican officials point out. They’re on food stamps. They’re collecting welfare. They’re living in subsidized housing. And their numbers have swelled on Medicaid, a program that critics say was never designed to serve them. These so-called able-bodied are defined in many ways by what they are not: not disabled, not elderly, not children, not pregnant, not blind. They are effectively everyone left, and they have become the focus of resurgent conservative proposals to overhaul government aid, such as one announced last month by the Trump administration that would allow states to test work requirements for Medicaid. Able-bodied is not truly a demographic label, though: There is no standard for physical or mental ability that makes a person able. Rather, the term has long been a political one. Across centuries of use, it has consistently implied another negative: The able-bodied could work, but are not working (or working hard enough). And, as such, they don’t deserve our aid… In Washington, ‘able-bodied’ has retained its moral connotations but lost much of its historical context. The term dates back 400 years, when English lawmakers used it the same way, to separate poor people who were physically incapable of supporting themselves from the poor who ought to be able to. Debates over poverty in America today follow a direct line from that era.”
So what about “public education”? Has it begun to take on the connotations of the other public programs that are thought to be only for those who are not able-bodied—the kind of people conservatives condemn as living in “public housing” or who are on “public assistance”? Have people begun to absorb Betsy DeVos’s admiration for parents with the gumption to go out and shop for a school that will more perfectly suit each child’s needs or each parent’s wishes? Should we admire those with the will to try to escape to something that a mere “public” school cannot provide? The biases I worry about here admire individual grit and associate “public” with something less—something that parents might accept if they are just takers and are too lazy to look around.
I worry that we have begun to permit one of our society’s longest and most admired institutions to be tarnished by the political linguistics of people who idolize markets and choice and everything private. By contrast as public institutions, public schools protect students’ rights by law and promise access for all students to appropriate services for their educational needs. Too often, we who believe in the public schools neglect to point that out.
Here is the Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker in a 2016 interview about the positive role of government—the institution that represents the public. Hacker focuses on the positive role of government—the public—for the economy, and he identifies the role of public education as central to that public benefit: “The mixed economy is the effective combination of government authority and private markets… The mixed economy made us not just richer in terms of material wellbeing, but also vastly richer in terms of health and education… The United states led the world in massively increasing educational levels with the creation of universal high school and then the encouragement of college degrees. Additionally, there was the investment in science and research that began in the 1930s and really blossomed during and after World War II… The combination of the right political conditions and the development of science and knowledge, in part because of the increased public investment, allowed private actors and public leaders to capitalize on the opportunities created by an increasingly prosperous and interconnected society.”
Hacker blames growing inequality and the growing power of financial and business elites since the 1970s for widespread loss of faith in the role of government: “It’s true, of course, that Americans are much less trusting of government than they were in the past. The decline began in the late 1960s, accelerated in the ’70s, and has reached a point, now, where only a small minority of Americans say they trust the government to do what’s right…. I think the shift in the broader ideology around government has been led by business and political elites. We went from an industrial economy to a financial economy… Business associations moved dramatically to the right. The Business Roundtable moved from supporting the mixed economy along with the larger interests of the business community to being much more focused on CEOs’ bottom lines. The Chamber of Commerce became closely tied to the Republican Party and effectively a lobbyist for hire for narrow business interests. And Charles and David Koch, committed libertarians, created their own network that rivals now the Chamber of Commerce in size. They created a set of advocacy organizations and lobbyists who push for a small-government philosophy.”
It is important to note that one of the members of the Kochs’ elite circle, Betsy DeVos, who founded, funded and chaired the Koch-friendly American Federation of Children, has now become the fox guarding the hen house. As U.S. Secretary of Education, DeVos is responsible for overseeing the federal government’s role in supporting the 90,000 public schools across America that continue to serve 50 million students. As Betsy DeVos persistently extols the individual parents who shop around in her imagined market place of privatized schools and as she disparages the need for a public system of education, we need to listen to her rhetoric for what George Lakoff would call its moral connotations. Her philosophy of education represents a political-moral frame that idealizes the role of the family and the private marketplace but derides any sort of public system.
In his recent work Hacker reflects more generally on government’s role in general for balancing the power of markets. Here are the words of another political philosopher, the late Benjamin Barber, who sought to define the meaning and importance of the concept of the public specifically in the context America’s creation of a vast system of public schools:
“Through (school) vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)