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The Weaponized Nonsense of George Lakoff

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Sometimes you read a newspaper column that starts off so pointlessly and insipidly you can’t tell whether it’s supposed to be a parody of bad writing, or the writer just wants to introduce a humorous idea but can’t find the right hook to hang it on. This happened a few days ago (April 10) in The Washington Post, with a column by one Steven Petrow.

Petrow, who appears to specialize in matters of “gay etiquette,” spent half his column rattling on about how people are hurling new insults at him these days, and they’re words he doesn’t even know. New words like . . . “libtard” . . . and . . . “SJW.”

. . . SJW? I had no clue. In a personal ad it might mean “straight Jewish woman,” but two of those don’t apply to me. So what was this snarky new gem of an insult?

Petrow probably intended to write a cute little glossary of Alt Right terms, then found out that idea has been done to death. So he went in another direction entirely and told us these “new terms” are actually a Nazi-like “coded language” that the Alt Right came up with to “control discourse.” At least, according to an authority at UC Berkeley by the name of George Lakoff.

You may never have thought of “SJW” or “libtard” as specifically Alt Right, but you’ve probably heard of George Lakoff. This Emeritus Professor of Linguistics was one of those oddball pundits who went against conventional wisdom and predicted Donald Trump’s victory last year. Lakoff supposedly based his prediction on close analysis of Trump’s speeches and tweets, which he says were carefully crafted to tug at the authoritarian heartstrings of American voters.

And according to Lakoff, Alt Right terminology is designed along similar principles:

These new words are intrinsic to the alt-right’s rise, according to Lakoff . . . He connects this to the Nazis and the coded language (prime example: “the master race”) that eventually allowed them to topple governmental institutions. “The strategy is to control discourse,” Lakoff points out. “One way you do that is preemptive name calling . . . based on a moral hierarchy.”

All this scary talk of Nazis and Herrenvolk gives the game away, of course. Lakoff is less interested here in linguistic analysis than he is in painting the Alt Right as dank and sinister. When he explains what he means by “moral hierarchy,” it’s equally unhinged, as though he’s trying to troll poor Petrow with ineffable nonsense:

“God above man, man above nature, men above women. The strong above the weak. Christians above gays,” he said . . . Lakoff emphasized that [Alt Right name-calling] is different from the Democrats’ labeling some conservatives racist, sexist or homophobic – which they do – if only because that usage is not as “canny” or strategic.

Is Lakoff just kidding around here? No, he’s perfectly serious. He really, truly is maintaining that Leftists don’t strategically weaponize language when they bully and name-call with such cant words as “racist” and “homophobic.” And while this argument is preposterous, Lakoff is one of the biggest, bullying offenders of all. The whole thrust of his esoteric, impenetrable theories of political language is that traditional “Right-wing” values ought to be regarded as pathological. In this respect he’s a throwback to Leftist and Jewish community-relations propagandists of the 1950s and ‘60s, always detecting “neuroses” or a “paranoid style” among Joe McCarthy fans, Birchers, segregationists, Barry Goldwater, and even National Review-style conservatives.

Last year’s presidential campaign gave Lakoff renewed prominence, with a golden opportunity to apply his cockeyed theories to the public character of Donald Trump. He revisited this subject again recently, on public radio’s Marketplace program (here; Lakoff begins about eighteen minutes in). In this radio talk, Lakoff describes Donald Trump as a master salesman who deliberately chooses words and catch-phrases to win over voters who have a certain type of personality aberration. This aberration leads Trump voters to prefer authoritarian personalities, particularly candidates who have what Lakoff calls a “strict-father morality” way of speaking. He estimates this segment of the electorate at about thirty-five percent, and notes that it’s close to the percentage who like President Trump in approval-rating polls.

For Lakoff, that strict-father morality theory is his Grand Unifying Principle of political behavior. It sounds interesting, but alas, whenever he tries to illustrate what he means by it, it comes out like psychobabble from a street-corner prophet. From the radio interview:

If you look at history, you see that strict fathers win . . . So you see religion won out, you have God above man, and we have conquered nature, we have man above nature, we can take anything we want for our use. Uh, you have the strong above the weak, you know, we need a strong army and so on. And that hierarchy follows from one idea, it’s not a bunch of different ideas, it’s strict-father morality as applied to all aspects of life.

The main thing is if that is your worldview and that’s your morality, that defines who you are as a person, it’s self-definition. And people don’t vote against their self-definition. Not only that, but it doesn’t matter if Trump lies to them, and they know he’s lying, because there’s a Higher Truth, which is strict-father morality itself . . . That’s why there are “Alternative Facts”!

On his Website and blog, Lakoff’s thoughts are just as indecipherable. It’s like stepping into a bottomless pit of quicksand, Leftist murk and clichés closing in about you from all sides, unbroken by any ray of reason or good sense. Last July he wrote a long essay called “Understanding Trump,” and it is little more than collocation of all the anti-Trump, anti-nationalist stock phrases we heard over and over. Trump is a bully, says Lakoff; and he appeals to people because he attacks political correctness and promotes easy answers to problems. If there are eleven million illegal aliens, Trump says they should be deported, and Lakoff is aghast at such simplicity; though he fails to propose alternative solutions to this, or any other issue.

Lakoff simply dismisses all pro-nationalist ideas, à l’outrance, on the grounds that they are popular, common-sensical, and appeal to traditional values. Again and again he locates the blame in his mystical bugaboos of “moral hierarchy” and “strict-father morality”:

There are at least tens of millions of conservatives in America who share strict-father morality and its moral hierarchy. . . For many years, such bigotry has not been publicly acceptable, especially as more immigrants have arrived, as the country has become less white, as more women have become educated and moved into the workplace, and as gays have become more visible and gay marriage acceptable. As liberal anti-bigotry organizations have loudly pointed out and made a public issue of the un-American nature of such bigotry, those conservatives have felt more and more oppressed by what they call “political correctness” . . .

Donald Trump expresses out loud everything they feel – with force, aggression, anger, and no shame. All they have to do is support and vote for Trump and they don’t even have to express their “politically incorrect” views, since he does it for them and his victories make those views respectable. He is their champion. He gives them a sense of self-respect, authority, and the possibility of power.

Does anyone take George Lakoff seriously? On the Left, his reputation has ranged from guru to wacko. In the early 2000s he was a popular speaker at Democrat candidate conclaves, brimming with theories and linguistic magic tricks that would help them start winning again. Howard Dean pronounced Lakoff “one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement” in a 2004 book-blurb endorsement. But then the Dean campaign tanked, the John Kerry play-it-safe candidacy got swift-boated, and Lakoff was out of favor.

Recounting the ups and downs of Lakoff’s fortunes, Andrew Ferguson wrote in 2006 that Lakoff was now a “stock figure of fun” in the pages of The American Prospect, while The New Republic had just “trashed” Lakoff’s latest book. Ferguson recalled that Lakoff had first reached a widespread audience in September 2001, with his bizarre essay (“Metaphors of Terror“) about the sexual symbolism of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon:

“Towers are symbols of phallic power,” Mr. Lakoff explained, “and their collapse reinforces the idea of loss of power.”

And if you think the Twin Towers were symbolically profound, wait till you get a load of the Pentagon:

“Another kind of phallic imagery was more central here,” Mr. Lakoff wrote. “The Pentagon, a vaginal image from the air, was penetrated by the plane as missile.”

Ferguson noted tartly that a man who could write such things “may be suited to many tasks, but counselor to a major political party . . . is not one of them.”

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  1. James O'Meara
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    All these “analyses” based on notions of “penetration” and whatnot make him seem a kind of left-wing version of Th. Mann’s Dr. Breisacher (based on the real Oskar Goldberger), who devotes himself to “shocking” hypotheses about religion, morality etc. so as to delight the ladies at conservative salons (and, Mann thinks, contributes to a growing acceptance of “barbarism” as the supposed root of rationality).

    There’s something archetypally Leftist in the idea that “more immigrants” means less “daddy morality” and more gay marriage. Arabs? Guatemalans? Why would any other people than SWPLs support such ideas? How could diluting the SWPLS lead to MORE SWPLism?

    I don’t think it’s conscious enough to be a “clever paradox” like Breisacher’s “reason is rooted in barbarism, so the more of the latter, the more of the former” or the Libertarian idea that insurance “causes” sickness or UI causes unemployment (it subsidies it, get it?). It’s just a refusal to look at uncomfortable reality.

    • Rabbi High Comma
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      “There’s something archetypally Leftist in the idea that “more immigrants” means less “daddy morality” and more gay marriage. Arabs? Guatemalans? Why would any other people than SWPLs support such ideas? How could diluting the SWPLS lead to MORE SWPLism?”

      They see their brown pets as less intelligent that Whites (true)….essentially the left views them as naive children, and thus in need of direction/easily-manipulated/controllable….

      “Why wouldn’t our mud hut lip plate indians vote as we instruct them? 1. We will steal (other/racist) White’s property and give them some, and 2. We’re always right about everything so of course the Squatamalans/Muslims will agree with us.”

      The left’s ideology is at its core, a jewish scheme to allow them to rule the goyim via recruitment of society’s fringes, chronically poor, and the lazy. In practice, at the level of a leftist footsoldier, it’s built upon empty feels (based in jewish rhetoric/gossip) and the endless march of “progress” (advancing jewish interests) , vs. a coherent philosophy. This lack of a guiding foundation results in the leftist viewing the mere existence of opposition to their beliefs as a personal attack, with Antifa’s violence being the most extreme example of this phenomenon. The left’s love of self-congratulation (“We’re the tolerant, compassionate, enlightened, nuanced/Anyone who disagrees with me isn’t just wrong, they’re evil”) is a defense mechanism to these “attacks”.

      However, these reality-rejecting pathologies lead the left to inevitable frustrations, narrative conflict, and cognitive dissonance when their child-like views are proven faulty (“Russia must have “hacked” the election.”). That is why, I believe, they are incapable of seeing the risks of Muslim immigration, even when the left’s lifestyles/beliefs are those most in conflict with Islam. Their ideological house of cards collapses once they begin to question any assumption. In this case, “Muslims are dumb non-Whites who just need to be fed and told who to vote for.”

      It sure is selfish…”I will continue to externalize the costs of my desire to feel good about myself.”

  2. nerf gun nationalist
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    His stuff is jewish mid-wit boomer posting straight out of “The Authoritarian Personality” and, ultimately, “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” by Reich. Same shit, depressingly different decade.

    It’s all obviously wrong on any number of levels (darwinian, to pick one from the buffet) but it’s designed to confuse credulous goys and embarrass natural conservatives into speechlessness. This is what happens when your culture is based on rhetoric rather than dialectic for two thousand years.

  3. Charles
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Calling the twin towers phallic symbols is just the act of a dried up writer stealing from another dried up and less known writer, Jean Baudrillard.

  4. Ty
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    I once trudged through Wakoff’s “Women, Fire and Dangerous Things.” Yeah, it sucked, as does he. I can’t believe there as guys still doing the “phallic” analysis anymore; I thought that was played out?

    • Proofreader
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 2:08 am | Permalink

      “I thought that was played out.” No such luck. Such ideas should be dead, but the likes of George Lakoff keep on reanimating them.

    • Greg Pandatshang
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      One of the all-time great linguistics book titles. I have never felt any need to read beyond the cover. The same goes for Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.

    • Clyde Cash
      Posted April 18, 2017 at 1:57 am | Permalink

      Was assigned to read WFDT in a Linguistics class I took here at Berkeley last Spring, and one day Lakoff came in to give a guest lecture. He ended up just sitting there talking about some “study” he conducted to try and figure out why people subscribe to conservative beliefs.

      “How can republicans be pro-life, yet still support gun ownership?” He couldn’t understand it and he went on about the topic, restating that right-wing views can’t be legitimate convictions and instead must be some abnormal phenomenon that deserves study. For being such a renowned academic, he really is no more than a clueless Leftist. Just goes to show that attempts at critical thinking lead people to weird places when they are still operating on the blue pill diet.

  5. nineofclubs
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Yes. I heard a prominent cultural Marxist whining about this ‘trendy new term’ called ‘virtue signalling’. This from someone whose stock in trade involves inventing new and ever more obscure categories of disadvantage to champion. I might add that the denunciation of ‘virtue signalling’ came after he had been accused of it.

  6. Bobby
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    Lakoff claims Leftists don’t weaponize language? He is either lying on purpose, or is so blindly stupid, that he has no right to teach anything. I could prove to bright eight graders, that leftists weaponize language. The left has become so arrogant, that weaponized language is their default way of speaking.

  7. Oleron
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    A far more insidious form of weaponizing language is what Joseph Atwill calls “Neuro-Linguistic-Programing (NLP).” I heard Mr. Atwill present this term when he was doing an analysis of “The Catcher In The Rye.” You can also apply NLP to the Bible, which induces all types of psychotic behavior in its adherents. I especially liked a comment Mr. Atwill made to Sofia Smallstorm during an interview; Mr. Atwill stated that, “When they can get you to bow your head, and pray, then they have you.” The process of auto-hypnosis kicks-in, and a self-imposed, reinforcing, conforming behavior has been established. That is why white-christian-clerics like to acquire children before the age of six for instruction, this is when the human mind is most defenseless, as it has no life experiences to draw on, the mind is closed, and the child usually loses the undeveloped faculty for critical thinking.

  8. Santoculto
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    (((Leftists))) need nurture hope for those on the left and excuses or compensations for those on the right.

    Leftists think they are perpetually different than rightists but they are the same, their most deep nightmare.

    So leftists are like partial metamorphosis from the old fashioned right to the “progressive” left. They work just like human chameleons. We have on the left who are where they are in the ideological spectrum because their support was conquered. For example most of homosexuals and even most of echologicals.

    But we have those on the left who are chameleons, they are where the power is. If the power is on the right they easily are capable to change of side. I don’t know how common they are among leftists. But seems logical to conclude they exist, they live and that in this days of ((( leftist))) hegemony they are overwhelmingly mimic those who are true believers. Interesting to note that this social camouflage seems a manifestation of evolved human capacity to mimic environment against predators while non conformists and many them who are non adapted to the new environment tend to become more easily targeted.

  9. Tim
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    “Lakoff is less interested here in linguistic analysis than he is in painting the Alt Right as dank and sinister.”

    Jewish Professor Of Linguistics Proves That Alt-Right Memes Are Veritably “Dank”

  10. Bob
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    I voted for Trump, fully aware that he was a deeply flawed candidate, because I wanted a saner foreign policy and I wanted immigration law enforced, and, ideally, a reduction in legal immigration. End of story. Trump has so far failed badly on the foreign policy, but he is allowing ICE to enforce immigration law, a breath of fresh air compared to Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Obama. Trump’s bragadocious persona and his fast and loose approach to the truth have always been negatives for me, but what could I do? — Jeff Sessions wasn’t running for president.

  11. E
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    I read his Philosophy in the Flesh and Where Mathematics Come From. Very subtle and slippery concepts, they look easy but they are profound.

    He’s a materialist and needs to be turned upside down, other than that he’s brilliant.

    I highly recommend the above two books to anyone interested in cognitive science, epistemology, logic, or object oriented programming.

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