Blog Post

Telling it like it ISN’T: A Strict Father Privilege

You may have noticed that factuality, consistency, and logic matter little to certain politicians and their followers. What is happening? Here I offer one useful concept for understanding this triumph of illogic.

This concept is “framing,” and particularly the “strict father” frame, as put forth by cognitive linguist George Lakoff, most succinctly in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant. Frames, Lakoff explains, are deeply embedded neural connections, subconscious mental circuitry that provides us the lenses through which to interpret the world.

In Lakoff’s theory, two opposing mental frames, both based on the overarching metaphor of “nation as family,” underlie progressive versus conservative thinking. While progressive ideology is rooted in a gender-neutral, empathetic “nurturant parent” mental frame, conservative ideology, by contrast, is rooted in a domineering “strict father” frame.

In conservative thought, according to Lakoff, the country’s leader should operate as a strict father, and its citizens as obedient children. Children are subjected to severe punishment because they must toughen up and learn to defend themselves in a mean, dog-eat-dog world. Right and wrong are absolute, and as leader, it is the father’s responsibility to determine which is which.

The strict father metaphor helps me to interpret why a female relative of mine voted for Trump, and, at a family holiday, expressed nostalgia for times when “women weren’t trying to take over the world.” Rather than risk the uncertainty of a female president who had campaigned on nurturant parent messages (such as equality for women and empathy for undocumented immigrants), she’d prefer to be subjected to the perverse yet familiar commands of a tough and unmistakably male leader (grab ‘em by the pussy and build that wall).

The strict father metaphor also sheds light on why white evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for Trump,and continue to support him. Whatever his imperfections, he embodies a conventional gender role inherent in the strict father frame, which also matches many evangelicals’ interpretations of Biblical teaching about God the Father and gender hierarchy.

The strict father metaphor also helps explain GOP determination to rush through the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh in spite of their refusal to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee two years ago. When asked last month about GOP hypocrisy in this matter, Lakoff replied that the concept of hypocrisy simply “doesn’t exist” in the strict father mindset. The strict father is always right; he DEFINES what is right simply by declaring it so.

The strict father metaphor can help us understand the appeal of Kavanaugh’s belligerent ranting and obfuscation during Thursday’s hearing.  Leaders in the strict father mold aren’t expected to answer anyone’s questions. They alone decide what’s worth discussing.

Take the strict father model of leadership to an extreme, and democracy is gone. If you believe Lakoff’s theory, as I do, you may fear that the irrational, magical thinking pervasive today could pave the way to authoritarian rule.

Most of us want a system of government that recognizes citizens as thinking adults, NOT one that relegates us to the role of obedient children, but the future offers no such guarantee. We ourselves must step up, take responsibility, and choose leaders who agree to be held accountable to reality.

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