Friday, July 22, 2011

Metaphorical Conflicts: Budget, Arguments & Belief

By Gary Berg-Cross

Who will win the budget battle? It’s a war of words. Which side has conquering strategy and the troops to take control? Just now this is the type of warlike phrasing heard around the debate ceiling limit. It’s an argument without reasonable compromise, which in turn can have consequences.

It’s a PR ware but also bit of a conflict of wills and intentions and has its war-like tactics and strategies. Based on experience and leveraging their philosophies each side has developed approaches to “win” the argument. Metaphorically it can seem a bit like a sports contest (or even a war) and takes on some of their trappings. I worry about the consequences when pragmatic reasoning is pushed out of the conversation. We have to understand that there is a deep reality behind the current language since it isn’t just Shakespeare that speaks in metaphors. In Metaphors We Live linguist George Lakoff, and philosopher Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are not late embellishments of thoughts that make them vivid and persuasive. They are essential mental tools that actively shape our perceptions, knowledge and understanding. So thinking of debate as a "war" for example, leads to one set of expectations as how the back and forth will proceed. It may also shape how we see the post-debate world.

War IS like an argument in that you can win or lose. It is therefore easy to see a person on the other side of an argument as the enemy just as we do in a real war. And facts and arguments, like territory can be attacked and defended. We can say:

Your facts/claims are indefensible

If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and draw up a new line of attack. The we can say

She attacked the weak points in his argument.

In argument as in war we gain and lose some resource, capital or ground. To be effective we plan and use strategies as well as tactics. And we project the likelihood of success as in:

If you take that strategy, he'll wipe you out.

Many of the things we do in arguing are then partially structured by the concept of war. Once we are talking like this we push others into the metaphor and often away from some reality. The following are examples that further illustrate the metaphor of debate or argument as a form of war:

My criticisms were right on target.

This demolished his whole argument.

My father always won the family arguments.

She shot down all of my arguments.

It’s OK if these actually reflect some underlying reality, but often they do not. People who argue for a literal interpretation of the Bible for example, can use such triumphal language. Such phrasing of hot conflict is often amplified by opinion leaders and echo chambers that push ideological (or religious) positions. There are many sides to this debate but to a secular rationalist it has elements that mix war metaphors along with irrational ideological and religious infused moral arguments. Certainly there are different ideological positions about competing interests, the value of tax breaks for the wealthiest, the value of direct government help to the unemployed. And invoking religious teachers and traditions to build support for political positions is not unusual as some just simply ask, “what Jesus would do?” There are even many views on that. To be fair, the religious community is divided on which side to come down on in this debate. Nationwide, about 4,000 pastors signed a letter entitled “Listen to Your Pastors ” which expressed a degree of charity. The letter was circulated around the Capital by Sojourners, a D.C.-based Christian social justice organization. It advised politicians not to cut welfare and charity programs for the poor and cited some history:

It wasn’t spending on the poor that caused this deficit. Half of it was financing two wars off the books without paying for them and tax cuts to the wealthiest,... Let’s get our house in order, but not on the backs of our poorest people.”

Good for them, because history and topics like the cost and value of war seem out of mind in this debate. A causal analysis of the history events and who did what leading to our deficit seems not to be part of the context for the negotiation going on. It certainly isn’t part of conservative talking points. It’s more like a walking case of selective amnesia that says:

“Let's forget for the moment who and what got us here. Yes, we didn’t pay for a war or two. We worked through the Clinton surplus and reduced taxes so our deficits rose by the trillions. Let forget all that and talk about Social Security. Yes, I know that it been running a surplus, but isn’t it evil since it is social?”

Besides the ID-evolution and pro-government vs. anti-government arguments the current debate also reminds of atheist-religious debates. We’ve probably all seen, heard or participated in arguments between people from the religious community and the atheist/secular community. Both can be highly motivated. From a distance there are parallel motivations and views. Each sees the other side as having serious defects. Followers of traditional religions faiths see rationalism, secular humanism, atheism and the like as a life threatening illness that needs be cured and they have that cure as laid out in sacred texts interpreted by special people. They are motivated to go forth and evangelize and save the unbelieving. They also believe that religions offer wisdom based on very old thinking that makes it true today and well, for all time. Jim Sleeper called this pre-political view a Godhead one and used a 1980 quote from James Lucier, assistant to conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms in 1980 represent the position.

"The liberal leadership groups that run the country -- not just the media but also the politicians, corporate executives ... have been trained in an intellectual tradition that is ... highly rationalistic. That training excludes most of the things that are important to the people who are selling cars and digging ditches. The principles that we're espousing, have been around for thousands of years: The family ..., faith that ... there is a higher meaning than materialism. Property as a fundamental human right ... and that a government should not be based on deficit financing and economic redistribution ... . It's not the 'new right' - people are groping for a new term. It's pre-political."

There’s lots not to agree with in this belief. Non-believer “beliefs” are otherwise and arise from different sources, often more contextualized. They also have to pass a gauntlet of rational analysis and empirical inquiry. Based on resulting facts and reasoning they can obviously see religious people as having problems with rationality and the role of evidence. This is what they (we) see that needs “curing” or at least progressively improving. That’s one reason that atheist and agnostic arguments are often broad educational improvement efforts aimed at straightening others out. Unfortunately on the current budget debate we’re running out of time for education. Conservatives remain dug in with moral, religious and ideological positions. It’s more like a war where whatever happens will have impacts over a vast period of time and the impacts are usually bad. Even among people that are portrayed as centrists seeking a “compromise” there is a lack of realistic thinking. Economist Dean Baker, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, made this point recently when analyzing the “Gang of Six” proposal, which takes some aim at social security. Baker points out that about 1/3rd of retirees are almost completely dependent on Social Security. Meaning that any SSN cuts will seriously be felt by that group, and it will in turn affect the economy. They will have less ability to purchase what they need when we need to stimulate the economy. Yet the Gang of Six obviously proposes to cut Social Security and ignoring relevant evidence and economic reasoning. We have been pushed into politically practical compromises that are not economically pragmatic.

Another parallel. It starts with metaphoric language but fooling ourselves, deceiving others, hiding the truth and making workable compromise too difficult a mountain to climb all had its consequences.

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