Us vs. Them: The Politics of Direct Causation

I often find myself asking why, if so much of what is happening in the political arena seems to go against some of my most basic human values, does it coincide with what seem to be other people’s most basic human values? Everyone I would expect to disagree with the current administration’s policies is eerily quiet and even the media, whom I have come to rely upon to dramatize even the least little issue in the name of selling advertising, appears to be preternaturally tongue-tied.

George Lakoff has addressed this issue in a way that is clear and understandable. In his 2006 book, Whose Freedom?, Lakoff gives a detailed look at what are essentially two separate world views. One is framed by direct causation and the other by systemic causation. Lakoff uses a family to differentiate these views and describes direct causation as akin to “strict father morality”. Systemic causation, on the other hand, more closely fits the framework of “nurturant parent morality”.


“Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea” (George Lakoff)

For those who view the world primarily through a lense of direct causation life is relatively simple. Issues tend to be black and white and answers are readily apparent. In the “strict father” framework the explanation for why a person is not successful in, say, business boils down to a few basic, directly causal, reasons. The person might lack desire, he might lack the skills, he might be lazy, he might be trying to defy authority, or he may lack the internal discipline to get the job done. The solution for all of these potential problems can be summed up with a basic “kick in the pants”, “nose to the grindstone” approach.

Unfortunately, some of us tend to clutter our thinking with the extraneous baggage of complex systems. Environmental and social factors such as education, access to resources, and socialization become part of the equation. For proponents of direct causation this way of thinking can be dismissed as “just so many excuses”. The environmental issue of saving the owls is a good example of Lakoff’s premise. Those in the direct causality camp have succeeded in framing this debate as one of us vs. them. “What is more important, the well-being of people or saving some trees for a few owls?”

In reality this complex environmental issue is not really about men vs. owls. The owls are symbolic of land that will be able to support a traditional ecosystem. The issue encompasses clean water, fresh air, and carbon dioxide breathing trees that will make the land enjoyable for men and owls alike.

There is no doubt that some of us make things too complex, while others tend to over simplify. The danger that Lakoff has identified is when truly complex issues are allowed to be framed in oversimplistic terms. Once the debate has been allowed to be seen as simply men vs. owls or the United States vs. terrorists those who have manipulated the terms of the debate have, essentially, gained control over the issue.

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