14 Mar

How to talk about our Moral/Political Opponents

It’s a tricky business talking about political enemies, and indeed simply addressing most political issues, which are saturated with questions of who’s wrong/who’s right/what’s wrong/what’s right. In order to ensure we are championing our values, and not those of our opponents, it’s necessary to keep in mind at all times what our values are, and how their variations function. I’ve already made an everyday-language reinterpretation of George Lakoff’s Strict and Nurturant values, which I repost directly below. But below them I have extrapolated some new personal characteristics of their opposites, to make it clearer what us progressives need to do, and what to not do. Here are the positive statements of the two moral systems:

Strict, Authoritarian, Conservative morality

  1.  Always do what you should.
  2. Be strong. Life is a struggle. Be self-disciplined, responsible & don’t rely on people.
  3. Respect authority.
  4. Choose your path: be virtuous, be a winner. If you work hard enough, with any luck you will succeed. Losers have only themselves to blame.
  5. Value the good. Enjoy the rewards of success & reward success in others. Condemn the bad.
  6. Protect your loved-ones.
  7. Help others to be good, successful people.


Nurturing, Progressive morality

  1. Open your eyes to the world around you. Life is wonderful & people are good.
  2. Be sensitive, be caring. Love and be loved.
  3. Treat people fairly.
  4. Help those in need.
  5. Protect those who can’t protect themselves.
  6. Be good to people. Society matters.
  7. Be open. You can change for the better.
  8. Let people (including yourself) fulfil their dreams.
  9. Take care of yourself & let yourself be happy.
  10. Be strong to protect what is good.
  11. Demonstrate that you care and you will be well respected.

Now, extrapolating the opposites of the above systems, to find the characteristics of a person who would be a Moral Enemy, I come up with this:


  1. The immoral (!)
  2. The weak. The useless. The undisciplined, the dependent.
  3. The disobedient and disrepectful.
  4. Losers, complainers, the unchosen, commoners.
  5. Relativists, apologists, pushovers, nannying cosseters, do-gooders.
  6. Traitors to family, self or country.
  7. The disinterested, un-social and selfish.


  1. The wilfully ignorant, the narrow-minded, the nihilist, the misanthropist.
  2. The insensitive, the unthinking, the inconsiderate, the unkind, the unloving, the cold.
  3. The unfair.
  4. The unhelpful, the selfish.
  5. The negligent, the laissez-faire.
  6. The un-social, the impolite, the unfriendly.
  7. The closed-off, the inflexible, the dinosaur.
  8. The cynical, the negative.
  9. The self-neglecting, the self-punishing, the pessimist.
  10. The complacent, the inactive.
  11. The vain, the self-agrandising, the self-centered, the self-righteousness.

We don’t need to be more specific to see that whether we’re talking about Michelle Bachmann or George Osborne, the glove fits.

Lakoff already lists what he calls Moral Weaknesses and Moral Virtues, and his list is remarkably similar to mine, although derived by a different method and without cross-reference. This indicates to me the stability of the systems.

Lakoff’s own Nurturant Moral Weaknesses (Moral Politics chapter 5, p. 127) are: lack of social responsbility, selfishness, self-righteousness, narrow-mindedness, inability to experience pleasure, aesthetic insensitivity, lack of curiosity, uncommunicativeness, dishonesty, insensitivity to feelings, inconsiderateness, uncooperativeness, meanness, self-centeredness and lack of self-respect.

The Nurturant Moral Virtues (Moral Politics chapter 6, p. 127) are: social responsibility, generosity, respect for the values of others, openmindeness, a capacity for pleasure, aesthetic sensitivity, inquisitiveness, an ability to communicate, honesty, sensitivity to feelings, considerateness, cooperativeness, kindness, community-mindedness and self-respect.

Lakoff’s list of Strict Father Moral Weaknesses (Moral Politics p.73) is less convincing. He claims the Seven Deadly Sins fit: “greed, lust, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy and anger”.

This means the corresponding Moral Virtues are: “charity, chastity, temperance, industry, modesty, satisfaction with one’s lot, and calmness” (or possibly, “passivity”).


All this suggests that we want to be appealing to the Nurturant Moral Virtues, bringing them out in people, with the aid of the Nurturant Moral Enemies/Weaknesses as bogeymen. To use the Strict Moral Enemies/Weaknesses as bogeymen would be a big mistake, because that would unhelpfully change the frame and activate the opposing set of values. Likewise, to randomly pick a bogeyman… e.g. “bankers!” without double-checking to see which values this leads to, would be a potential mistake.

So, for example, the bankers in the “global economic crisis” narrative fit several Nurturant no-no labels, such as “unfair, cold, unkind, inconsiderate, selfish, laissez-faire, negligent”. This would seem to be good. Unfortunately, bankers, in Western society, also embody many positive Strict traits: “success (wealth), authority (wealth, success and power), industry, self-discipline (as suggested by being rich), strength (wealth, power and aggressiveness)”. Going up against the bankers is not just going up against the effects of their behaviour, or about how Nurturant progressive people see them, but it means going up against ordinary people’s admiration of all of those traits… success, authority, industry, self-discipline, strength. Remember that the vast majority of people in society innately understand and are to a large extent bound-by Strict values. This widespread passive admiration for these traits/values is, I believe, the main underlying reason why – whilst the public is largely annoyed with the bankers – there has been no decisive action to actually do anything to undermine the bankers’ status. Ultimately, I do not believe that most ordinary members of the public, affected/afflicted as they are by Strict values, really want to see a decisive attack on the bankers, because it comes too close to threatening their own values, and the psychologically easiest thing is simply to back-away from that contradiction. I furthermore believe that, sadly, the general respect in society for success, authority, industry, self-discipline and strength is significantly stronger than people’s temporary annoyance at the bankers’ behaviour. By starting a narrative that condemns bankers, I strongly believe we are asking people to pitch their annoyance with bankers against their respect for success, authority, industry, self-discipline, strength. And in that equation I believe we will LOSE. In fact, the more times we attempt that condemnation, the more times we will lose and the more times we will be asking people to subconsciously reaffirm their strict values. Therefore, it would be foolish to initiate that train of thought.

What I suggest in this situation instead is not a full-frontal assault. We can still achieve our objectives, just through a different route. While tackling the bankers head-on will precipitate the wrong conclusion in people’s minds (the more we push, the more they will reaffirm their Strict values!), there is nothing to stop us simply side-stepping potential accidental activation of Strict values, and directly activating Nurturant values. These, after all, are the values that our political opponents do not, and cannot sincerely, embody. While still talking about the global economic crisis we can talk about its effects… (something that people can sympathise and empathise with, nurturant thoughts and feelings) and contrast those with what we want… for example: to Treat people fairly, Help those in need, Protect the weak, Be good to people. Society matters… i.e. points 3 to 6 of the Nurturant philosophy. So, instead of directly attacking the bankers, we attack the effects. This involves less condemnation, less judgementalism and less anger, all of which are Strict traits. Lakoff claims that anger is a Strict Father vice, but in his list of the 7 Deadly Sins I think he has fallen a little short; I think we all know which kind of father is more likely to be angry at his children… the strict conservative authoritarian one… or the compassionate, patient, progressive one? Anger is really not a key Nurturant quality… certainly not a Nurturant virtue. Angry parents do not make good parents. Anger comes from judging, condemnation and frustration. We see plenty of anger coming from the political right.

It is possible to relieve frustration without evoking anger. I believe evoking anger per se is to unleash a powerful emotion that is uncontainable; it is inevitably going to explode in all different directions in an undesirable way. A wise man once said “anger leads to hate”. We need our political communications to produce a feeling of contentment, relief, peace, reassurance and satisfaction. A smidgen of indignance maybe, but indignance at Nurturant values not being followed. Not anger. Same topics, different angle, different values, different thoughts, different emotions.

As a general rule, we need progressive political communications to produce in the reader/listener/viewer a microcosm of the ideal nurturant personality… if only for that short space of time. If the person feels open-minded, fair-minded, considerate, sensitive, empathic, caring, community-minded and passionate about nurturant values after our communication, then that’s correct. Anything else – especially that is, the traits of Strict morality or the vices of Nurturant morality – and our communication has back-fired. We need to be very careful! But this kind of mapping and understanding of human values gives us a better chance than ever before.