20 Aug

The Olympics are over. But their legacy of conservative brain-change has just begun

The races are run, the results are in. But what was and will be the cognitive cost of the London Olympic Games? And in what way might the games influence the moral and political attitudes of a generation?

At the Green Words Workshop my colleague Rupert Read and I explore how moral values are generated and communicated, and how they move from the outside world into the depths of the human brain.

We want to be positive about the Olympics, but it seems likely that the deep unconscious frames and metaphors that they subtly transmit will have real consequences in moving political beliefs to the Right. Here’s our analysis.

We can start by comparing the values and reality of the Olympics against a list of “Nurturant” (left wing/progressive) and “Authoritarian” (right wing/conservative) moral values. My re-interpretation of these values, and their original form as set out by cognitive linguist George Lakoff, can be found here.

Let’s take my reader-friendly version of the Authoritarian values in turn:

“1.  Always do what you should.”

This is essentially about rules. In conservative morality rules and authority and the word “should” are the most important thing, as opposed to “like” or “want” or “need”. It might not be the first thing you think about but the Olympics intrinsically and inevitably promote this value (we will look later, for the sake of fairness, to see if Olympic values also promote the opposite or whether there are any redeeming features). The Olympics are nothing if not about rules. Consider: each sport is defined and separated from every other sport. Each has its own categories, measurements and internal rules. Most sports discriminate between men and women. Some don’t allow you to compete if you are of the “wrong” sex. Step half a foot over the line (as British relay runners did) or half a bicycle wheel (as British cyclists did), and you are disqualified. Of course this is “fair” and fairness is a key precept also in Nurturant progressive values. But progressive fairness is about making sure people’s needs are addressed. Conservative fairness is about referring back strictly to the rules so that you can be firmly judged as either good or bad. It’s not the “good” fairness. Do we sound like we don’t understand sport? Maybe. But it depends on your definition of sport. If you want sport to be actually “sporting” or anything like fun, as Rupert writes that he would like it to be, then you would be following progressive priorities. To enforce the rules regardless of fun is “necessary” for professional sports, but it’s not “sporting”.

Next: “ 2.    Be strong. Life is a struggle. Be self-disciplined, responsible & don’t rely on people.”

The Olympics is also all about this. The whole narrative of a race is that it is competitive: that it is a struggle against other people for a scarce resource (the medal). The need for self-discipline and inner strength goes without saying. Strength is used not to help other people, unless they are the same tribe – sorry, team – as you, but to beat them. Even linguistically, let alone cognitively, we are practically fighting. Media accounts use phrases such as “ferociously fought”. These metaphors – of competition and scarcity and attack and violence – if and when transposed to the economic and political arena, are a conservative wet dream, and a progressive moral nightmare.

“3.    Respect authority.” We won’t dwell on this, but suffice to say the authorities cannot be circumvented, the judges will always have the last say, and more than anything: you are being judged, assessed and probed for an honest test of your (inner moral) strength. Like God, the judges see everything, and the only way to win their approval is to play completely within their rules. This is a horrible analog for religion and when applied politically, it equals – I’m sorry to say – totalitarianism, and indeed the surveillance state.

Furthermore, the Olympics and its bosses are authoritarian in other ways: prepared for example to strip an athlete of medals for participating in marketing during the games.

“4.    Choose your path: be virtuous, be a winner. Be pure and whole in your commitment. If you work hard enough, with any luck you will succeed. Losers have only themselves to blame.”

It’s starting to look like I wrote these priorities to fit with the Olympics, which I really didn’t. One of the most pernicious fallacies of conservative thought is the American Dream fallacy, which the Olympics promotes vigorously. The narrative is this: “idealistic young man dreams of becoming athlete. With hard work, sweat, vision, determination and dedication he overcomes great odds to achieve his dream, and succeeds because he had the willpower and the inner strength to do so”. During the Olympic coverage this narrative is present in every runner in every race, and is repeated verbosely in a variety of forms.

Britain’s Daily Mail tells the narrative of the Sudanese “child soldier” Lopez Lomong, competing for the USA, who during the Sydney Olympics “watched in awe as Michael Jordan won gold in the 400m for the U.S.. ‘I had a dream that changed the course of my life’ he says. ‘I would be an Olympian’… Tonight he fulfils the Olympic dream”. This is all very nice of course. We’re happy for him. But again, when applied as a metaphor for life (and it’s not just a metaphor… it is the actual story of his life: a version of it at least), it is poisonous to progressive values. Life doesn’t really work like that. The conservative narrative is: “have dream, want it really really bad, be virtuous, work hard, get what you deserve”. The problem with this is that it generates a lie with huge implications for people’s view of society: that if you conversely don’t have something, it must be your own fault, that if you’re poor, it must be your own fault, that if you lack something that you really need, it must be your own fault, that if you find yourself in a country at war then it must somehow be your own fault. Only yesterday this metaphor generated in the mind of a US congressman the idea that if you’re raped and get pregnant, it’s your own body’s fault .

It generates the conservative idea that people should not be helped lest they be “mollycoddled”. It explains why David Cameron says that he now wants schools to end the “all must have prizes” culture.

Which leads us on to our next point:

“5. Protect the good. Enjoy the rewards of success & reward success in others. Condemn the bad.”

This conservative ideal works at the level of the race, at the level of media comment, and at the level of political application. What’s more is that these ideas get under the skin and can be applied to every part of moral life, with disastrous results. Firstly, at the level of the race, winners are obviously rewarded with gold medals. Be just a fraction of a second behind the winner and you get a second-class medal. Be thankful in sport that you get that. In Britain’s appalling “First-past-the-post” electoral system, second-place gets nothing. And British conservatives exploited this very metaphor to devastating effect to help defeat last year’s referendum on electoral reform. The British public agreed that – chillingly – politics should work like sport. So don’t tell me that these metaphors and these events don’t matter. At the level of media comment, hardworking professional athletes who do not win medals are “losers”. Consider the same Daily Mail article again


She had waited 13 years for this race, and fought four years of pain and despair.

BMX star Shanaze Reade’s hopes for gold in one of the Olympics’ most ferociously fought female sports ended in tears again yesterday.

After missing the top prize at the 2008 Games in Beijing, she managed only sixth in the 2012 final.

It marked a sad finish to her Olympic quest this year – as well as failure in a poignant emotional goal… Before she started she declared: ‘I’m going to do my best for Bob.’ But yesterday she had to admit her best wasn’t good enough… It left three-times world champion Shanaze – whose 13-year career has produced injuries including a broken foot, elbow and bone at the base of her spine – with her face buried in her arms on the handlebars of her bike.

Which direction her career may now take was uncertain last night.

She suffered a long depression after her Beijing failure and looked devastated yesterday on the track.

Afterwards she said: ‘I’ve worked for four years for this and it’s over. I’ve just got to pick myself up and come back. I did everything I could. I’m just gutted I didn’t get a medal.’

Black Bob would have known what to do now though… [he] made a tape recording just before he died and asked for it to be played at his funeral. In it, he said: ‘Shanaze – never give up until you’ve achieved your dream at the Olympics.’

This story, as told by a right-wing newspaper, hits all the conservative pressure-points. Cognitively, the effect for a conservative who reads it, is pleasure, as familiar neural pathways are tickled in an interesting way. The same is true for many “bi-conceptuals” as George Lakoff calls them – people who hold both conservative and progressive values, which indeed, is almost everybody. And for those people, what a story like this does is reinforce conservative narratives, conservative framings, conservative neural pathways and hence conservative values. Reinforce, reinforce, reinforce. And these values neurally block the competing Nurturant frame, which (less glamourously) is this: “this young woman has spent her entire professional life sacrificing her mental and physical health for an abstract ideal that will not actually tangibly improve the wellbeing of anyone; nevertheless she has achieved brilliant things and yet she is still called a failure, thinks of herself as a failure and even her dead mentor went to his grave reinforcing for her the idea that she would be a failure until she had achieved an almost impossible physical goal that anyway contains some element of chance, and that it now appears she might never come close to achieving”.

For conservatives the story is incredibly romantic. The reality is likely to be, not just for progressives, but probably for the athlete’s day-to-day experience herself, very different. It sounds like I am being incredibly harsh on the athlete. But it is the conservatives that call her incredible physical achievements “sad”, “failure”, “only” and “not good enough”. Be the sixth best in the world and you’re a “loser”. Throw your shotput into the net once and you’re not a professional athlete anymore but simply an instant-replay comic moment. To apply this debilitating standard to athletes, let alone normal people is actually sick and cruel, but the conservative ideals demand it: protect the good, reward and celebrate success, condemn the bad. Bad is distorted to become not the nurturant definition of “bad” as in “creates harm” but simply “loses competitions”. The celebration of success in some quarters has been fervent, with Lord Moynihan expressing outrage that not all medal winners might be automatically honoured by the Queen. He said:  “They inspired a generation. They have brought great pride to the country and they should be honoured”. As much as Shanaze Reade coming sixth should, we are taught, be pitied.

Back at the list of Conservative values, we can dispense with the last two:

“6.    Protect your loved-ones.

7.    Help others to be good, successful people.”

They are the least important, and cannot readily be applied to the Olympics except to say that in the context, “loved ones” is tribe and tribe is nation. The Olympics inherently does a huge disservice to progressive nurturant values by reinforcing the idea of competition between nation states. Nation states, pride, and nationalism and largely irrelevant to nurturant values, because they have very little to do with an individual’s needs and hopes and desires. They are however incredibly useful for capitalism, sports events, and war.

Now let’s look at the list of Nurturant, progressive values, and see how well the Olympics score:

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 the weak.

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.

There is precious little that hooks the attention. What the Olympics certainly do, and arguably the most popular thing that the Olympics do, is to inspire. The Olympics are about dreams – even if they are about dreams with conservative narratives. Everybody can identify with dreams and their fulfilment, and it’s an emotional subject. We feel the exhaustion and despair of a losing athlete and the triumph and excitement of victory because we can empathise with them, and empathy is very high on the list (number two) of Nurturant, progressive priorities. It’s good that people have empathy. It’s good that people connect with other people. It’s truly wonderful that the Olympics produce some warm, human moments of empathy, celebration and even love. This is why people like them so much. But there’s a Trojan horse here, and inside it are the conservative values and frames, using emotions and good feelings to worm their way into your heart and the hearts of – as is repeatedly stated – “a generation”.

There are some other unfortunate features of the Olympics that I don’t want to end without mentioning. One of the highlights of these Olympics has of course been Usain Bolt. Unfortunately what this man’s incredible achievements do on an emotional and unconscious level is, we suspect, reinforce frames and narratives about not only strength and self-discipline but pre-destination to be great, the idea that some people have it, and some people just don’t. Likewise, the Paralympics, as inspiring as they are, reinforce a similar notion: that some people are just better than normal people (amazing, incredible, admirable, superhuman), and most of us are just spectating fools. The fact that Paralympians are not “able-bodied” only acts to make the ordinary able-bodied person feel ever more inferior, along the lines of “this guy can do things with one leg than I can’t even do with two. He’s just amazing. I’m so useless”. Even if such spectacles don’t make us feel consciously useless, the implication of super-humanity remains. And the sight of Oscar Pistorius running the 400 metres without any legs will hopefully inspire many disabled people. But to many able-bodied conservative-minded people, in a time of vast cuts to disability allowance and attacks on the rights of the disabled, it might well subconsciously reinforce the notion that “that South African can run the 400 metres without any legs, so why can’t Disabled Person X down the road just get a job?”.

It’s another controversial subject, but I’m going to touch on it anyway, that many “super-humans”, including Usain Bolt and many super-fast former and current American sprinters, are black. The conservative narrative tells us patronising things like “we’re happy to include these black people in our nation; we’re so proud that they can fit in and achieve our national dreams for and with us!”. My historically-informed suspicion is that seeing so many black men run incredibly fast time and time again reinforces an age-old racist idea: that black people, especially black men, are the brawn to the white man’s brains. And that is, indeed, the role that colonialism and slavery carved-out for black slaves for centuries, as sedentary white men grew rich literally off the backs of black slaves. Those sprinters are there, of course, because they are indeed the best. But to see the best in a globalised context is a rather artificial thing, taking people a long way out of their communities, regions and peer groups. Black sprinters would not necessarily stand out as black in the context of a normal community. But because community is ignored in the search for the theoretical, globalised best, strange dynamics are created which, whatever the statistically accurate answer for black sprinting prowess, are prone to conservative reinterpretation. The de-socialised, de-historicised forum of the Olympics give no political commentary on race issues, needless to say: making any differences between white and black runners appear, to conservatives at least, to be inherent racial traits.

My last point will be that by their very existence the Olympics have elevated achievement and competition into ends in themselves, which have already overridden some of the more boring real-world concerns of progressives: the cost to the public purse, the nonsensical promotion of junk food in relation to sport (burger and cola anyone?), the complete misperception that the Olympics are somehow funded by benevolent corporations when the vast majority of funding is actually public and the corporations tried their best to avoid paying taxes, the vast cost to uprooted communities of London, the disruption of people’s daily lives (not just during the games but for years now), the suffering and closed-down local businesses.

Anybody, including ourselves, who expresses dislike or distrust of the Olympics is greeted with incredulity and often disdain. I’m currently in French Polynesia and people cannot believe that as a Londoner I am not in London so that I can be blessed by the holy Games coming to my land. One Frenchman practically accused me of treason for not being in London during the Olympics, as if there was nowhere else on earth that I should possibly be, that this was a golden age for London and for Londoners, that we are the chosen people. On Tahiti I see roadside advertising encouraging me to pop into MacDonalds and get “London fish and fries” to get into the Olympic spirit. Coca Cola exhorts me, in French, to create and upload my own music to their website (why?!?).

It’s a touchy subject where emotions are involved, because anybody speaking bad of the Olympics must be against the good emotions that they give other people. But this leads to suppression of dissent because people “don’t want to hear it”. That’s more scary than being argued with: being ignored.

In summary, there are a few Nurturant elements to the Olympics and to the amazing achievements of the sportsmen and women. But all in all, Conservative values have been extremely well served by such a sustained and unified parade of exclusively Conservative narratives, and conservatives are likely to reap the cognitive and electoral rewards for years to come.

If you liked the Olympics, does that make you a conservative? Not necessarily, because most people are bi-conceptuals anyway. If you’re not concerned at all by any of the points we’ve made here, then that makes you a conservative. Above all, we all need – in fact we all deserve – to be aware of how spectacles such as the Olympic Games can and do affect our mental landscape, and how we can be sometimes subtly but unwittingly influenced by them. Knowledge is power, and knowledge of how your own brain works is a power that every person deserves to have.