George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and professor of
linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is academically
most famous for his 'ideas about the centrality of metaphor to human
thinking, political behavior and society.' He says empathy is a
foundation of morality and of progressive values.
George is the author of many academic and politically
His latest book is The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking
and Talking Democratic. 'A compact handbook on partisan political
discourse, with a blueprint for how liberals can switch from playing
defense against conservatives to launching a stronger offense.' Basing
the discourse on the foundational value of empathy.
America was founded on a moral system and that system starts
with empathy. Sub Conference:
(Thanks to Mike Epstein for doing the transcription.)
Hi, itís Edwin Rutsch, and these are
dialogues on how to build a culture of empathy, and today Iím here with
George Lakoff. Thank you for joining me, George.
GEORGE LAKOFF: A pleasure to be here
Edwin. Always a pleasure.
EDWIN RUTSCH: Great, and let me just
give a little introduction. So youíre a cognitive linguist and
professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and
also Wikipedia says youíre most famous for your ideas on the centrality
of metaphor to human thinking, political behavior and society.
And youíre an author of quite a few
books. They seem to break down in two different categories. One is
academic books, and a couple of them are called Philosophy in the
Flesh and Metaphors We Live By. And then youíve got a whole
series of books that are political books, and there are books like A
Political Mind, Whose Freedom?Moral Politics, and
Donít Think Of An Elephant. I happen to have a couple of them right
here. Some pretty thick, and some thinner.
And the latest, Iím coming to that.
So the latest is a little blue book The Central Guide to Thinking and
Talking Democratic. Is there more by way of introduction about your
background and academic and political interests?
GEORGE: Sure. Let me first hold
up a book. Thereís the little blue book. Now, what Iím doing now is
working on the way that the physical brain does thought and language.
How do you get thought and language out of neurons?
And Iíve been working with a group at
the International Computer Sciences Institute for the last 25 years on
neuro computation and cognitive linguistics putting it together with
work on neuroscience and on experimental psychology. That has borne
incredible fruit. Weíve learned a lot about how the brain does thought
and language and especially metaphor. And that is going to be written
up this summer. So Iím working on a book with ______ OíRyan, who heads
the AI group over at ICSI.
The other part of this has to do with
metaphor. Back in 1978 I made a discovery jointly with one other person
who did it independently. And what we found was that metaphor is not a
matter of language, but of thought. We think metaphor but Ö And since
then weíve worked at the details of that. There are certain metaphors
that arise before you learn language Ė just by being in the world.
And we have a neuro theory of how
that works, so that just having a brain thatís connected to the body
allows that, and that explains what ďembodied cognitionĒ, that is that
your ideas are not abstract, that they are tied to your body, to how you
move in the world and how you perceive and understand in general how
your emotions are. All of those things are structuring the system of
concepts that you use to think with.
And many of those are metaphorical.
And the metaphors are the most complicated kinds because they use other
modes of thought. So you break down the types of thought that there
are. Metaphors use them all, and thatís not obvious, but
thatís what weíve been showing.
So by studying metaphor we are able
to study the most complex thought and answer the question ďhow is it
possible for the physical brain Ė 100 billion neurons and a quadrillion
connections Ė how is that possible, how does that give you thought and
And we have an initial answer to
that. So thatís cool. Thatís what I get to do otherwise.
And the other applications that
relate to politics, one is to literature, obviously, but also to
philosophy. It turns out each philosopher has a set of metaphors they
take literally. And then they carry their reasoning out perfectly. And
that is in the book called Philosophy In The Flesh.
And then there is a book called
Where Mathematics Comes From where Rafael Nunez and I work out the
foundations of mathematical understanding. So to understand
mathematics, and any mathematician understands, it turns out that
embodied cognition, together with metaphor, allows you to understand
higher mathematics, understand forms of infinity, exponentials Ė things
like that. And imaginary numbers, infinite numbers, and so on.
It turned out to be metaphorical,
only precisely mathematically specify those metaphors. So thatís done
in a book called Where Mathematics Comes From. Thatís what I do
in my day job.
EDWIN: Thatís really such
fascinating work. So youíre really like studying the physical workings
of the brain and the neurons and how it relates to all these different
fields and to language and to linguistics. So that kind of brings us to
your book, The Little Blue Book.
What we want to talk a bout here is
how can we go about building a culture of empathy, and your book seems
to be related to that topic.
GEORGE: Oh, itís essentially
related to that topic. When I work on moral politics and was looking
for the foundation of conservative and liberal thought, I didnít
understand conservatism at all. And so I said why is it that
conservatives have the collection of ideas that they have. Why are they
against abortion but for a flat tax or against taxation. What does
taxation have to do with abortion. Why are they against environmental
regulation. What does that have to do with abortion. Why are they for
tort reform or for owning guns. What does owning guns have to do with
And then I realized that I had the
opposite views, and I set out to try to understand this by studying my
field, linguistics. You know I study political science and how people
think. And what I discovered is that there are two moral systems behind
this based on two notions of the family.
We have the metaphor of the family.
And that metaphor takes strict father families and nurturing parent
families and wraps them onto conservative ideology and progressive
ideology. And those ideologies apply to different domains. To the
market, to religion, to foreign policy, to all sorts of things.
And that turns out to explain the
differences. And then when we got into the neuroscience of this, it
turns out, of coursed, that a great many people, probably most people,
have both systems, and are partly conservative and partly progressive.
Conservative in some areas and progressive in others. And thereís an
explanation for this in the brain. Which is that when you have two
neural circuits Ė one for conservative ethics and one for progressive
ethics. And they contradict each other.
They way that works is by a mechanism
called mutual inhibition, the activation of one inhibits the other. And
then the more one is used, the stronger it gets and the weaker the other
gets. And conservatives have been taking advantage of that.
Now what does empathy have to do with
all of this? Everything. Because America was founded on a moral
system, and that moral system starts with empathy. It says citizens
care about each other Ė they have empathy for each other, and they act
on that. They donít just sit around being empathetic. They act by
forming with themselves and others a government that creates a concept
of the public.
What the public is Ė the public
provides provisions for everybody. Obviously schools, you know, public
health measures, food safety measures, clean air, clean water, sewers.
But also things like electrical systems, power grids, for example, rural
electrification. Or transportation systems, systems in which you have
air traffic controller systems, things of that sort. The Federal
Communications Commission sets up communication systems.
These are systems that we all need.
And it turns out that every private enterprise uses the public and
depends on it. And e very private person having a decent private life
depends upon the public.
So imagine what your life would be
like if none of that existed? It would sort of be like living in
Somalia or you know, some other place where you donít have necessarily
roads that are maintained and built. And you donít necessarily have
electric grids and all of these things.
This is absolutely necessary, and it
starts with empathy.
EDWIN: Okay, youíre saying that
empathy is this kind of foundational value that progressive values are
based on. So how are you defining empathy? What is your kind of
working definition of what empathy is?
GEORGE: Well, empathy arises
physically. Empathy is a physical phenomenon. And thatís whatís
interesting about neuroscience. This was discovered in Italy, back in
the early 1990ís, by Professor Rizzilattiís group there. And Iíve
worked with the group, and Iíve worked with Vitorrio Balezi, who is one
of the discoverers. And what we did Ė Vitorrio came to Berkeley for a
couple of months, and we took the primary data that they had on this.
What they discovered was this Ė they were worked with macaw monkeys.
They had trained the monkeys to do certain tasks, like pressing buttons
or peeling bananas, or crunching peanuts and eating the peanuts, and so
And they had probes in the monkeysí
brains that went down into whatís called the pre-motor cortex. Itís the
part of the brain that choreographs complex actions. And what they were
able to do was to show what parts of the brain were active when the
monkey did each of these things.
That worked fine. And then one day
they were working on this, somebody took a lunch break, went out, came
back, saw a pile of bananas, started peeling a banana, and all of a
sudden, one of these brains started acting Ė the computer that was tied
to its third brain, and what they found out, was that when the
experimenter peeled the banana, the banana peeling
(12:10) in the monkeyís brain.
So what that suggested, and what they
later confirmed was that the same neurons that were involved in acting
were involved in perceiving this same action. This has to do with
moving your face and muscles in your body, because your emotional system
is tied to your body. There is a physiology of motion that has been
studied since the 1950ís. Paul Ekwin did the original work, and now
We know what the body does when
you're feeling certain emotions. We know where the brain is active when
youíre feeling those emotions, and so on. And it turns out that you can
tell basically, mostly, what other emotions people are feeling. Are
they happy, said, or depressed? Are they feeling pain, etc.
You can tell my looking at someone if
there is some extreme emotion they have. And thatís a very important
You can also tell if theyíre in the
middle of some motor program, i.e., suppose they go pick up a glass of
water as if to take a drink, you expect them to take a drink, because
thatís what your motor program would do.
So, the idea of empathy is this:
that you have a physical ability to connect with other people, to see
what they are doing with their body as if it were your body. And then
to see what their muscles are doing, and your brain automatically
connects those to the emotional regions to give you a sense of what
their emotions are, as if they are your emotions.
Now there are also parts of the brain
that distinguish between yours and theirs.
EDWIN: Youíre talking about the
inhibition, that you can know that your actions Ė thereís a separation
between your action and others.
GEORGE: The reason for that is when
the motor neurons are firing, they fire somewhat les when you see
someone else than when you are doing it, although they are firing when
you see someone else. And actually, itís more complicated than that.
Only 30% of them work exactly this way, and the other 70% do much more
complicated interesting things that Galazi and I have studied, figured
out, and written up.
Now, thereís also a set of neuron
near there called the c0notical neurons. And theyíre called conotical
because they work on what are called ďconotical actionsĒ. For example,
if you peel a banana, that is the normal thing that you do with a
banana. You donít normally stick a banana in your ear or step on it, or
put it on your nose, or whatever.
So this fire, when you eat or see a
banana, or you does a conotical action on a banana. Okay. And itís not
just bananas Ė itís anything else. So it is a set of neurons for
connecting you to the world in terms of the normal things you do when
you experience in the world.
And you can see that we evolved to
have this. We evolved to interact with the world, with the physical
world in normal ways. So we actually have parts of our brain that
connect us socially or emotionally to other people and to the physical
And those parts of the brain can be
either enhanced by being raised in the right way, or can be killed off
by being raised in the wrong way. And thatís a very important thing,
that is the way you are raised and what kind of family youíre in and
what your parents do have everything to do with whether youíre going to
be an empathetic person and whether you are going to have a respect for
objects in the world and for nature itself.
And those are very important things
to know. And that physical basis is the basis for not just progressive
thought but the basis for American democracy. The alternative to that
in terms of the idea of democracy is the conservative view. And on the
conservative view, democracy is about liberty, the liberty to seek your
own well-being and your own self-interest without being responsible for
the well-being or self-interest of anybody else. That is, everything is
a matter of individual responsibility, not social responsibility.
EDWIN: Can we take a step back? In
terms of mere neurons, as Iím waving my hands here, youíre seeing my
hands waving, and your body, your neurons are firing as if you are
waving your hands as well. So thatís what the empathic connection is,
is on how sensitive you are on picking up your acknowledgment with your
head waving, a shaking.
GEORGE: Thatís right. Iím
acknowledging by moving my head, and youíre getting that.
EDWIN: Yeah, and then I know, youíre
getting what Iím saying. So we have kind of this connection, a kind of
GEORGE: Itís also a metaphorical
connection. The major metaphor for communication is the communication
is sending ideas to someone else through some conduit, and what you are
doing is tracing out that conduit with your hands. This was discovered
back in 1980 by researchers doing work on gesture, and they discovered
there are metaphorical gestures. And now there is a whole field that
studies metaphorical gesture.
EDWIN: So then itís the actions turn
into a metaphor, and then the other person can kind of pick up that
metaphor, and it creates an experience for them. Kind of a viscerally
felt emotional experience.
GEORGE: And language can do the
same. Language too can create visceral emotional experiences, which is
why people read novels or go to movies or watch TV shows, or whatever.
Language or images can do that for you. And whatís interesting is that
they can create in your brain, since all of that, every idea that you
have is physical in a neural circuit. Every metaphor is physical in a
neural circuit. Every narrative, everything you understand is there in
a neural circuit in your brain.
Now whatís interesting is those
circuits can be activated independent of whatí external. You can
imagine things. So thereís a great discovery that was made, first by
Martha Fara at the University of Pennsylvania where it turns out that
the same neural structures that are there used for seeing and moving in
the world are also used for imagining. And the same neural circuits for
feeling are also used for imagining. So that you can imagine things and
put them together. So imagine a flying pig, okay?
Weíre ďpigasusĒ, wear the wings.
Well, you know where the wings are. They are attached to the sides of
the back, right? And you know where is the snout, itís facing where the
beak of the bird would be, etc. What you are doing is putting together
the structure of a bird and the structure of a pig, and youíre creating
a flying pig, even though pigs canít fly.
Now, this is not the only way you can
get a flying pig. You could also have super swine, which is a cake, and
as it thaws out, like that, right? And I think the main thing is that
you can imagine this.
Now it turns out dreams work the same
way. I have a study some years back of the metaphorical structure of
dreams. What I showed is the normal metaphor system is there
interacting with your everyday concerns to structure your dreams. And
then the dreams have to do with the activation of those metaphors and
your concerns and your emotional concerns in your everyday life. And
that gives rise to the emotional and cognitive structure of dreams and
the linguistic structure of dreams, internally.
One of my students, Beth Ford Friend,
did a dissertation in the divinity school in Berkeley where she looked
at religious visions. You know, St. Teresa of Avila, for example, and
others. And what she found is that they were metaphorical as well.
And that what was involved is they put together existing conceptual
metaphors, that is circuits in the brain to give them an experience
coming from the inside.
And when you have that experience
coming from the inside, which you attribute it to being external, as
when people hear voices which are generated from the inside. That is
the brain can generate knowledge, inferences, ideas and so on, and this
supplies to politics as well and to human relationships, to
relationships with your loved ones, with your family, with friends, and
So it turns out empathy is right at
the center of all of these issues.
EDWIN: Well thatís why Iím kind of
delving into the definition of it, because Iíve looked at this for some
time now, and there seems to be a lot of different use of the word
empathy. So Iím really trying to get a sense of clarity around what
empathy is. So there seems to be two parts to it, what youíre saying.
One, it seems to be based on that
mirror neuron where weíre mirroring. And the second part is kind of an
imaginative, and I think the academics might call it cognitive empathy
or perspective taking. Is that the second part of how youíre seeing it?
GEORGE: Theyíre not separate. They
have the same mechanism in the brain. Thatís what is interesting.
Theyíre not different. From the perspective of how the brain works,
they are one phenomenon. That is, it is perspective taking, which means
you can activate the same circuits that would be involved in interacting
with someone else. And that you can imagine it, and maybe interacting
with an imaginary person. Or with your image of what God would be. Or
something like that.
So the idea is that you have empathy
of all sorts, but there is one mechanism for it. And what gives rise to
the multiple definitions is our folk theory of how the brain works, or
how the mind works, which is our folk theory, which is that our thoughts
are abstract Ė they are separate from the body.
And that is false. As soon as you
understand how thought actually works physically, then you see that
there is really one mechanism. And from a scientific point of view,
there is just one empathy.
EDWIN: So itís like a perspective,
so-called perspective taking, is really just kind of imagining someone
else as using all that mirror neuron circuitry, basically, to activate
all those feelings and experiences.
GEORGE: But in doing that youíre
activating that circuitry. So youíre actuating an imaginative version
of mirror neuron circuitry, where youíre imaging perceiving, youíre also
imaging acting, moving your body. And youíre also imagining the
function that go along with the physiology of emotion.
EDWIN: Okay, so if we want to build
a culture of empathy, what we are wanting to do is basically to enhance
that process. And there are all different kinds of blocks, maybe, to
that process of connecting, with each other.
GEORGE: Right. And let me tell you
some of the blocks. When you look at the strict father model of
morality, which is the basis of conservative thought. It is based on
the notion of a strict father family. Now, the basic Ė and thatís a
So the question is where does our
morality come from? From the same place, it turns out. Our morality
has to do with well-being, our well-being and the well-being of others
who we can connect with. So the very notion of morality involving our
well-being which has to do with neural circuitry in our brain plus the
neurotransmitters, the chemicals emitted in the brain because of the
action of that circuitry and that also cause the action of the
circuitry. They are intimately connected.
That is the basis of all moral
systems. That is, when we grow up as a child, we experience well-being
in certain contexts and ill-being in others. And those contexts give
rise to a metaphor called understanding of morality.
For example, you are better off if
you eat pure food than if you eat rotten food. So morality is purity,
and immorality is rottenness. Some things are rotten in the state of
Denmark. Some things are rotten things to do. You have purification
rituals around the world.
Or every one-year-old knows that it
is better to stand up and walk on two legs than to have to crawl on the
ground. So morality is uprightness, and immorality is being low-down,
underhanded, and, you know, being a snake in the grass, etc. Right?
You have the idea that youíre better
off if you have the things you need than if you donít. Right? So, that
gives rise to the idea that well-being is wealth, and ill-being is
poverty. Poor John, you know. This world for being poor is used also
for having ill-being, for not having well-being.
And that gives rise to the notion of
well-being as wealth and accounting gives rise to a complex metaphor of
moral accounting. If I do you a favor, you owe me one, how can I ever
repay you, etc. If you hurt me, then I can repay you in kind, or I can
hurt you back, or you can make up for it, and, you know, you can
recompense me, and so on.
So moral accounting is part of that.
And a big part of it has to do with the family. That is, you are better
off generally if your parents nurture you than if they donít. So
morality is nurturance. Youíre better off if you listen to your parents
than if you donít. So morality is obedience to legitimate authority.
That notion of morality, obedience to
parents and legitimate authority, gives rise to a strict father family.
The other metaphor gives rise to a nurturing parent family. Those
metaphors arise just by living in the world. They arise because two
parts of your brain Ė one with well-being and one with some other
experience Ė are activated together.
When they are activated together,
activation spreads to find the shortest pathway between them, and
neuro-learning will create a metaphor which is that pathway. So that
you will learn metaphors from morality before you even learn to talk.
And then the language will follow suit.
But you learn those so early and they
are shaped in your family. And so the question of whether you Ė and
everyone will learn both of them. And the question is which one is
enhanced and which one is not enhanced. If you are neglected or beaten
from the time you are born, one thing will happen. And if you are loved
and cuddled and taken care of, another thing will happen.
And those are really crucial in all
of these circumstances.
EDWIN: So itís like how are we
fostering empathy within children from the very beginning. Thatís kind
of what you are looking at.
What about the aspect of fear as a
block? Because it seems that fear is something Ė empathy seems to need
some kind of open awareness to be able to take in others. And fear can
kind of shrink that awareness.
GEORGE: Well, fear is, you know, one
of our natural emotions, and it has to do with homeostasis that is in
the body, that is maintaining safety. So if you have fear, what that
does to maintain safety is to shut down empathy with your attacker. Now
if youíre attacker is your parent, then you know, the possibilities for
empathy are cut down to a large extent. And that makes it more
So, yes. What that does Ė fear has
the mechanism of shutting down empathy with the person you fear. And,
again, itís mutual inhibition.
EDWIN: So, thereís mutual inhibition
in the sense that if we have circuitry of empathy and wanting to connect
Ė and thatís kind of like a natural capacity we have Ė that we also have
a circuitry for fear and protection that shuts down the empathic
connection with others.
GEORGE: Right. Exactly. So itís
very important to overcome that fear and to cultivate that empathy. And
I canít stress how important childhood is. By the time you are five,
half of your neuro connections die. Now that leaves you a lot. I mean,
you are born with 100 billion neurons, each neuron has between 1,000 and
10,000 connections. So you are born with about a quadrillion
connections in your brain, half of them die by the time you are five,
depending on your experience, the ones that are least used die off. So
it still leaves you with a half quadrillion. And there are lots of
changes that can occur after five.
But what happens between birth and
five shapes your brain. And thatís why early experience is the most
important determinant of the possibilities for empathy.
EDWIN: Thereís a whole movement that
Iím just becoming aware of how attachment, early attachment training,
the importance of mirroring the child and being present, and holding,
and that physical connection, and that reflecting of the child.
GEORGE: Thatís right. If you go
back to my book on moral politics back in 1996, there is a chapter on
raising children, and a whole chapter on attachment theory. And what
attachment shows, then, has been elaborated since then, but more
confirmed, that early attachment is extremely important in building
And that this started from the study
of killers. It started in England. They tried to figure out how
killers were brought up, and they were largely brought up without
empathy, you know, without attachment. And thatís a major finding.
So this is extremely important.
Attachment theory in raising children is a very important part of
raising children. Abuse theory, you know, what is the opposite. How
are children abused? And children are often abused when they are
punished for doing things that are wrong. When they are physically
punished, etc., as opposed to when they are positively reinforced for
doing things that are right. You can do that either way, and thatís a
very important difference.
So, these are crucial differences in
childhood for building empathy. And whatís interesting here is that the
word empathy is sometimes confused Ė largely by conservatives Ė with
sympathy. Since they donít believe in empathy, then they may have less
of it. And thatís another question. Do they have less empathy? There
are people who claim they do, and I donít know whether that is true or
not in terms of the science of it. I suspect it may be, but I donít
There is a very important finding,
which is that conservatives have in-group nurturance. That is, they
take care of the people in their group, but not out of their group. And
this is certainly true in the military. In the military, you form
teams, and people take care of each other on the team, but theyíre
fighting against people outside of the team. And thatís a very common
situation, where you take care of people in your tribe, and you fight
against people outside of your tribe, historically in terms of that.
So this, again, a complexity that you
find. Itís not that conservatives never have any empathy for anybody.
They may very well have empathy for their friends and neighbors. They
may very well have empathy for people in their group.
EDWIN: So weíre talking about
in-group and out-groups of empathy. Itís like who do we have empathy
for? Is it for our families? Is it for people with similar political
beliefs? Is it for people with the same religion, the same ethic
group? And so there is this whole dynamic of how we can open ourselves
for empathic connection. And maybe who we fear and see as the other.
GEORGE: ÖI think thatís right. I
think thatís really important to see that thatís the case, that the
issue of empathic connection and what blocks it is at the center of all
social life. And political life.
EDWIN: Iím talking about metaphor
in doing these dialogues, and youíve done about 110 of them so far. Iím
starting them off actually by asking what is your metaphor for
empathy? And itís amazing. Everybody has a different metaphor, and
there is a typical metaphor, you know, standing in someone elseísí
shoes, looking through someone elseís eyes.
For me, empathy is like a cornucopia,
in the sense it opens the door to a wide variety of feelings and
experiences more than I would have just on my own. So Iím wondering
what is your metaphor of empathy?
GEORGE: Well, first dose. Yours has
to do with the effect, causal effects rather than the direct experience,
and the others have to do with the direct experience of having someone
Now that has to do with another
metaphor system, just a metaphor system for the self. If you want to
read a bout these metaphor systems, the book to look at is Philosophy of
the Flesh by myself and Mark Thompson. Itís a large easier read book,
but itís large because it goes into all the stuff in very great detail.
But again, itís easy to read and fun. And it goes through all the
metaphors, from morality and for everything else, and for the self.
And the basic understanding of the
self is the difference between your locus of consciousness and the rest
________36:55. And your locus of
consciousness is usually understood as separate from the rest of your
body, so that one distinction is you versus your body. Another is you
versus your social morals, you know, or you versus some other person
inside you. So you can be fighting with yourself and so on.
And those, there is a whole set of
those metaphors, almost two dozen, that we have for understanding who we
are. And those metaphors are going to be used in understanding empathy
So the question is, can you project
your conscious experience, your consciousness, your ďsubjectĒ into
someone else. And when you do that and can truly understand where it
would be to be in someone else, thatís one way of understanding empathy.
Why? Because what mirror neurons are
doing is connecting your ___________
37:53 to see what it would feel like
to see someone else, and understand their emotions and understand what
theyíre doing as theyíre doing it.
So in essence, the experience of
projecting into someone else is given by the neuro neurons.
EDWIN: So, itís kind of like
connecting to my own experience of what it feels like to have a wide
variety of feelings, kind of taking that experience and kind of
GEORGE: Right. Bu I think the most
important thing to understand is that this is a scientific finding. It
has to do with actual neuroscience. And, you know, itís not at all
surprising that it is a scientific finding. And itís not one of these
things that are hippie-dippie, or something like that. Not at all.
They have to do with the most basic of human connections.
EDWIN: Yes, so it used to be a lot
of this talk was ki8nd of based on philosophy and now itís like itís
taking it out of that realm, and also maybe mysticism. And now itís
grounding it in this is actual physical science of this is what is
actually happening in our minds and body.
And you didnít talk about your
metaphor that you personally have for what empathy is like. Do you have
a personal metaphor?
GEORGE: Well, itís not just one. I
think putting yourself in someone elseís shoes, seeing the world through
someone elseís eyes. I mean, those are very, very appropriate ones,
and they work very well.
Taking someone elseís viewpoint is
another one. That viewpoint metaphor has to do with another metaphor,
which is knowing is seeing, where you understand something by seeing
something thoroughly. And if you take someone elseís viewpoint, youíre
seeing something really from someone elseís view, thereby understanding
things the way they would according to that metaphor.
So that involves putting two basic
metaphors together, the metaphor for the self and the metaphor for
knowing is seeing.
Iím sorry to give you all the
analysis of this.
EDWIN: Thatís okay. Thatís what
science is about. Itís really fine interviewing artists, because they
kind of pop those metaphors up just, you know, this day is slow
40:25??? Metaphors. I love them
too. Theyíre a lot of fun.
GEORGE: Theyíre wonderful.
Metaphors are what shape your brain and shape your understanding of the
world. And interesting artists are people who have understandings of
the world that go beyond everyone elseís normal understandings of the
world. Which means extending metaphors.
And thatís great. Thatís a wonderful
aspect of human experience.
EDWIN: Okay, so Iím really spending
a lot of time on this empathy part, you know, the definitions. So
thanks for bearing with me. I think itís so foundational to everything
else that youíre building up about the understanding of how progressive
and conservative morality works. And understanding the dynamics. So
maybe we could start going into that more. Kind of step by step.
So weíre at the point where we want
to foster a sense of connection between this empathic connection. And
thee are things that are blocking it, and youíre saying that
conservatives in some way are blocking the empathic connection? They
have a different sense of morality?
GEORGE: Well, they have a very
different theory of morality. So if you look at conservative family
models, you have a strict father family where first, the father is the
ultimate authority. He knows right from wrong, and what he says goes.
And he knows more than anybody else, and his authority cannot be
Secondly, in a family where there is
a wife, and a strict father, the role of the wife is to uphold the
authority of the father, and to follow that. That, of course, isnít
always true in a family, but this is the ideal case of the strict father
Now, of course, if there is no father
around, then the mother can take the strict father role and be a strict
mother in a single parent family. Or not. They can be either way.
Also, as I said, some people are
partly nurturing and partly strict. Now in a strict father family which
is just about that, the role of the father is to teach children right
from wrong. And the assumption is that children want to do what feels
good, and that thatís bad. They donít know right from wrong.
And the role of the father is to
punish them when they do wrong. And it has to be painful enough so they
will want to avoid the punishment and learn the discipline of not doing
So, part of this is the father has to
punish the child painfully enough so that they will get the discipline
to have moral discipline.
EDWIN: Could we step back a little
bit, in the sense that with empathy, with me, Iím looking at a culture
of empathy which is everybody listens to everybody else to the maximum
amount, empathizes with everyone else. There is maximum empathy from
you to me, from me to you, to our families, to the whole of society, in
that no one left out. And then if you are talking about the strict
father, youíre saying who gets heard in this situation. Right? Who is
the one who is going to be heard among us? Is that right?
GEORGE: Who is going to be obeyed.
And who is going to do the punishing. Who is going to use force. In a
strict father family, it is a moral obligation of a strict father to
punish the children so that they will become moral beings and get
discipline. And if they have discipline, then they can go out in the
world and prosper. And if therefore, someone isnít prospering, then
they donít have discipline, they canít be moral, so they deserve their
poverty, which is part of conservative thought.
So this is a major part of the strict
father family. Itís also the case that what youíre supposed to do is
foster discipline in a child. If the child rebels still, then the child
has bad character Ė there is something wrong with the child. Right?
And that they therefore arenít deserving. Their will should be broken.
And thatís the way itís done in conservative child rearing manuals.
Youíre supposed to break the will of the child to obey the legitimate
And that goes along in politics with
a punitive view of prisons, of sentencing, and so on. You know, i.e.,
rather than trying to make someone into a better person, you punish
them, which assumes that is what makes them into a better person.
EDWIN: So itís like the family
model, the inner personal model is getting reflected at a societal and
political level. Then personal interaction is being manifested at that
You know, youíre saying that with the
strict father, hereís the rules, hereís the discipline. And isnít part
of that about that itís a dangerous world, that we have to close
ourselves off, we have to follow through because there is so much danger
out in the world, and this is the best way of addressing that danger?
GEORGE: Thatís exactly right. If
you go back to the Reagan era and the hearings about Iran Contra, the
very first thing that was said in those hearings by the conservative
witnesses is that this is a dangerous world Ė repeated over and over.
This is a dangerous world.
And that whole set, as soon as you
say that, what you are doing is bringing up fear and blocking empathy.
Itís the very first thing that happens. And thatís a very important
Now one thing that is important in a
nurturant parent family is a nurturant parent also wants to get the
children to be disciplined, to do things so they that are not harmed and
do not harm other people.
But you do that through empathy.
That is, empathy can provide a form of internal discipline when you have
a responsibility to help other people, and to empathize with them. So
that you can build a positive discipline rather than a negative
And there are whole books now on
child rearing called positive discipline. Very important to have
positive discipline via empathy.
So a lot of conservatives will think
that the only way to be disciplined is by being punished. And this is
simply not true. The best way is to be disciplined by thinking about
other people and acting responsibly for them as well as for themselves.
EDWIN: So in discipline, if someone
has done harm to someone, itís like you can punish them and give them
pain and suffering so that they hopefully donít do it again, or you can
someone find a way to empathically restore empathic connection. And
there is a whole process out there Ė restorative justice Ė what I would
call restorative empathy, which are processes for getting people who
have done harm to each other to create a circle process and have
dialogue and reconnect with each other.
GEORGE: Yeah. I think thatís
right. And itís very important.
EDWIN: It seems to me that what you
are talking about, really the core part is the relationship between fear
and empathy, and how it relates. Do we nurture fear, and how we deal
with fear, and how do we nurture this connection between people, this
empathic connection. And with the fear being something that makes us
close off, and empathy, which is something open that connects us.
GEORGE: Well, fear is real. And
important that we evolved to have fear in the right ways. There are
things that we should fear. There are times when you shouldnít have
empathy. If somebody is trying to kill you, you should fear them, and
stop them. Thatís real. And attacks are going to happen. Other people
will grow up without empathy. Thatís inevitably going to happen when
you have parenting that is neglectful or harmful. That will happen. Or
So, thatís real in the world. And
you should have fear in the right ways. You should have fear about
global warming. Now fear may shut off the empathy cord of the world.
And that you donít want to do.
What you want to do is to address the
real fear by saying, look at how we connect with the world. And we have
to act positively on that. Just promoting the fear is not going to
promote the empathy needed to address global warming.
EDWIN: You have written this book,
The Little Blue Book, and itís based on what weíre talking about here on
empathy and how Democrats and progressives can do more to frame their
language so that it fosters empathy and fosters connection.
GEORGE: Thatís right. The idea is
this. The conservatives have framed just about every issue, because
they have a greatly superior understanding of the role of morality in
politics, whereas the Democrats have largely been thinking about the
role of policy in politics.
And all policies are based on
morality. All politics is moral. Politicians say, do what I say
because itís right, not because itís wrong or doesnít matter.
So itís all based on morality. The
q1uestion is, is it conservative morality or progressive morality. And
the conservatives have gotten their framing and their language out
there. All words are defined relative to frames. And the frames in
politics are all defined relative to moral systems.
So every policy that a conservative
or a progressive has is understood relative to their understanding of
hat is moral. Now if you adopt other peopleís language, you adopt their
frames and strengthen their moral system in you. That is, youíre
changing your brain and the brains of other people.
So what you want to do is to
strengthen the moral systems based on empathy. And that means not using
other peopleís language. Not just taking their language and negating
it, as if you could logically argue agai8nst it. This isnít about
logic. Itís about understanding.
And what usually happens is that
conservative framing hides a deep truth in various areas. So in
economics, the first deep truth is the private depends on the public.
You shouldnít be just privatizing.
The second one is that the public is
there to carry out moral responsibilities. So you might privatize
practical things, like building roads. You might hire local
contractors, and you should. Thatís practical privatization.
But thereís moral privatization that
should never happen. You shouldnít turn over moral issues to private
companies for their wealth. For example, you shouldnít have private
prisons where the prisoners lives and health are there because of
companies trying to make money. And therefore, what theyíll do is cut
down on prison guards, and conditions. And people will die and be
harmed by that.
But itís not just prisons. Itís
schools. You donít just shut down public education and privatize it.
EDWIN: So what weíre really looking
at is how do we create a language of empathy, basically. How does every
policy relate to fostering, nurturing, promoting empathy. And how do we
have a language that can articulate that.
GEORGE: But the language is
secondary to the ideas. The question is how do we understand what ideas
about various ideas, like education, or the environment, flow from
empathy, rather than from self-interest, and just trying to maximize
your short-term profits. Right? How do you do that. How does it flow
from caring about other people, rather than having a strict father
morality that has to do with how women are treated in society.
It has everything to do with male
empathy for women. And thatís crucial. Every issue has to do with
empathy. And with understanding the issues, the political and social
ideas that flow from empathy. And then you can get a language of
empathy. And when you do that, you undermine the conservative ideas.
EDWIN: So you were talking about
self-interest. So, in a way, self-interest is about how do I shut off
my empathy for others and just focus on whatís going on inside myself.
I know that this has gone on for
about an hour, so I donít want to keep you. I donít know if you have
other appointments. I could go on.
I want to say that in my kind of
exploration of existence, life, my quest for what are values, and
progressive values, I was highly influenced your work. So itís just
such a pleasure to talk to you about empathy, the nature of empathy.
So I feel like it could go on for hours, exploring this. And perhaps we
can have other dialogues. But weíve gone on for an hour, so I donít
want to go over the time.
GEORGE: Itís a real pleasure to talk
with you, always. And I have to say that I deeply admire you for taking
up this most central part of our connection to other beings, our
connection to the world, and the way our politics is run. And by
devoting yourself to a culture of empathy. I think itís one of the best
things one can do in life. And thank you for that.
EDWIN: Well, thank you for taking
the time to share your thoughts on this, and I look forward to future
discussions, and working together to build a culture of empathy.
GEORGE: Absolutely. Thank you.
EDWIN: Bye, George.
Author of many
Latest book The
Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic
About his research and work
research on: how
the physical brain does thought and language
how do you get
ideas and language out of neurons?
working with group
at International Computer Science Institute
computation and cognitive linguistics
learned a lot
about how the brain does thought and language
Metaphor - we
think metaphorically - even before language
ideas are not
abstract but tied to the body
modes of thought
Metaphor uses all
modes of thought - most complicated
how do neurons
give you thought and language?
How does this
relate to philosophy, literature, politics
metaphors used for
mathematics as well
Little Blue Book: and how it's related to building a culture of empathy?
I was looking at
the foundation of liberal and conservative thought
conservative have the collection of ideas they have?
We found two
different moral systems based on notions of the family.
most people have
both systems and are partly conservative and partly progressive
explanation for this in the brain
two circuits in
the brain and what happens when they contradict each other.
inhibition - activating one inhibits the other.
the more one is
used - the stronger it gets and the weaker the other gets
conservatives have been taking advantage of that.
8:20 What does empathy have to do
with all of this? Everything!
America was founded on a moral
system and that system starts with empathy.
it says citizens
care about each other - they have empathy for each other
they act on that
- they don't just sit around and be empathic
they act by
forming a government that creates a concept of the Public
provides provisions for everyone, roads, bridges, etc. etc
this is absolutely necessary and
it starts with empathy
10:15 Your saying
that empathy is what progressive values are based on,
How are you defining
empathy? What's your working definition?
Empathy is a
discover in Parma Italy, in the eraily1990s
by Vittorio Gallese and group
premotor cortex and motor neurons
neurons involved in acting are involved in perceiving the same
has to do
with moving your face and muscles and body,
emotional system is tied to your body,,
move the physical and we feel the emotional
physicality of the emotions has been studied, Paul Ekman did the
what the body does when we feel certain emotions
what parts of the brain are active with those emotions
It turns out
you can tell grossly what emotions other people are feeling
happy, sad, depressed, pain,
tell by looking at someone if there's some extreme emotions they
very important thing
also tell if they are in the middle of some motor program
picking up a glass of water to take a drink
The idea of
empathy is this.
You have a
physical ability to connect with other people
what they are doing with their bodies as if it were your body.
to see what their muscles are doing, and the brain
automatically connects them to the emotional regions to give you a
sense of what their emotions are, as if they were your emotions.
There are also parts of the brain that distinguish between yours and
neurons fire somewhat less intensely when we see someone else
doing an action than when your actually doing it.
complicated than that, only 30% of them work exactly this way.
neurons - fire when you do an action sequence
a set of
neurons for connecting you to the world, in terms of the normal
things you experience in the world.
see we evolved to have this.
to interact with the physical world in normal ways
So we have
parts of the brain that connect us socially and emotionally to other
people and to the physical world.
parts of the brain can be either enhanced, by being raised in the
right way or can be killed off, by being raised in the wrong way.
and that is a very important thing. The way you are raised. What
kind of family you are in. What your parents do, has everything to
do with whether you are going to be an empathetic person.
physical basis is the bases for not just progressive thought but
the basis of American democracy.
alternative to that, in terms of democracy, is the conservative
view. That democracy is about liberty. The liberty to seek your
own well being and your own self interest without being
responsible for well being or self interest of anybody else.
Everything is a mater of individual responsibility, and not social
Taking a step back to mirror neurons. modeling mirror neurons with
waving hands. We have a connection.
also a metaphorical connection
metaphor for communication is sending ideas to someone else through
some conduit and your tracing out that conduit with your hands.
discovered back in 1980 by researchers doing work on gestures.. They
discovered there are metaphorical gestures. Now there's a whole
field that studies metaphorical gestures.
actions turn into a metaphor? A visceral felt emotional
do the same. can create visceral felt emotional experiences.
people read novels, go to movies
and metaphor is physical in a neural circuit
you understand is in a physical neural circuit in your brain
Imagination: the circuits can be activated independent of what
neural structures that are used for seeing and moving are also used
neural circuitry for feeling is also used for imagination
flying pig. where are the wings? where is the snout
are doing is putting together the structure of a bird and a pig
creating a flying pig, even though pigs can't fly
also create super swine with a different structure
work the same way - study of the metaphorical structure of dreams
metaphor structure is interacting with your everyday concerns to
structure your dreams
visions - are also metaphorical
an experience coming from the insides and you attribute it to
people who hear voices which are generated from the inside
can create inferences, knowledge, inferences, ideas and this applies
to politics and human relationships.. relationships to your
loved ones, family, friends.
It turns out that empathy is
right at the center of all of these issues.
Definition of empathy, mirrored and imaginative empathy?
they are not
separate. they are the same mechanism in the brain
they are not
different from the perspective of how the brain works they are
taking means that you can activate the same circuits that would be
involved in interacting with someone else.
and it may
be interacting with an imaginary person or image of what god might
You can have
empathy of all sorts, what gives rise to the multiple definitions is
our folk theory of how the brain and mind works. The folk theory is
that our thoughts are abstract, that they are separate from the
body, and that is just false. As soon as you understand how thought
works physically, you see that there is really one mechanism. From a
scientific point of view, there is just one empathy.
like the perspective taking is imagining someone else, and using the
mirror neuron circuitry to activate the feelings?
that you are activating that circuitry.
activating an imaginative version of mirror neuron circuitry.
are imagining perceiving and your imagining acting, moving your body
and therefore imagining the emotions that go along with the
physicality of emotion.
24:15 If we
want to build a culture of empathy, what we want to do is enhance that
process and there's all kinds of blocks to the process?
let me tell
you some of the blocks
look at the strict father model of morality, which is the basis of
conservative thought, it's based on a notion of a strict father
family. and that's a moral system. The question is, where does our
morality come from. The same place it turns out.
has to do with our well being and the well being of others.
we experience well being and ill-being in different contexts
contexts give rise to a metaphorical understanding of morality
your better off if you each pure food than if you eat rotten food.
is purity - immorality is rottenness
versus obedience metaphors
learn metaphors for morality, even before you learn to talk
language will follow suite
learns both of them;
question is which one is enhanced and which one is not enhanced.
neglected of beaten from the time you are born, one thing will
if you are
loved and cuddled - another thing will happen
really crucial in all of these circumstances
how do we foster empathy in children from the very beginning.
What about the aspect of fear as a block to empathy?
fear is a
natural emotion, it has to do with homeostasis in the body that
down empathy with your attacker,
attacker is your parent - then the possibility for empathy are
fear has the
mechanism of shutting down empathy with the person you fear
So it's very
important to overcome that fear and cultivate that empathy
and I can't
stress how important childhood it.
time your 5, half of your neural connections die
happens between birth and 5, shapes your brain
early experience is the most important determinant of the
possibilities of empathy
I'm just becoming aware of early attachment and mirroring of the baby
Moral Politics there's a chapter of raising children
chapter on attachment theory
attachment is extremely important in building empathy
with the study of killers - they tried to figure out how killers
were brought up
largely brought up without empathy.
theory is a very important part of raising children
theory. what is the opposite - how are children abused?
are physically punished when they do things that are wrong.
being positively being reinforced.
empathy is sometimes confused, especially by conservatives with
conservatives have less empathy? in terms of the science of
it? I don't know.
- conservatives have ingroup nurturance, they take care of people in
their group, but not out group
certainly true in the military. You form teams and people take care
of each other, but they're fighting people outside.
that conservatives don't have empathy for anybody. They may very
well have empathy for their friends and neighbors
Ingroup and out groups
the issue of
empathy and what blocks it is at the center of all social life.and
been asking people about their metaphors of empathy, and for them to
come up with one on their own that's not the common one of standing in
some one else's shoes or looking through their eyes. Everyone comes up
with very different metaphor. For me, empathy is like a cornucopia, it
opens a door to a wide variety of feelings and experiences. What is
your metaphor of empathy?
look at those.
Yours has to
do with the causal effect, rather than the direct experience.
have to do with the direct experience or having someone else's
that has to
do with another metaphor system that has to do with the self.
Philosophy in the Flesh, looks at metaphors.
of the self and locus of copiousness
is seen as
separate from your body.
dissociation is you versus your body
your social roles
some other person inside you
whole set of these metaphors, almost 2 dozen for understanding who
metaphors of self will be used to understand empathy metaphorically
question is, can you project your conscious experience, your
consciousness, called subject, into someone else.
you can truly understand what it would be like to be in someone
else, that's one way of understanding empathy. Why, because your
mirror neurons are connecting your emotionally to see what it
would be like to be someone else and understand their emotions.
Also understand what they're doing it as they're doing it.
essence, the experience of projecting into someone else is given by
the mirror neurons.
important part of this is that it's a scientific finding. It has to
do with actual neuro science.
A lot of this used to be based on philosophy and perhaps mysticism and
now we have the science of what's physically happening in our mind and
body. What is your metaphor?
and eyes metaphor. are very appropriate ones. they work very
someone else's view point is another one.
viewpoint metaphor has another one which is knowing - and seeing
understand something by seeing something thoroughly
involves putting two basic metaphor together.
metaphor for self and the metaphor for knowing and seeing
metaphpr are a lot of fun.. interviewing artists they just pop up new
metaphors all the time
are what shape the brain and shape the understanding of the world
interestingly artists have an understanding of the world that go
beyond everyone else's normal understanding of the world. Which
means they are extending metaphors.
is great. it's a wonderful aspect of human experience.
you saying that conservatives are blocking empathy, and have a
different sense of morality?
they have a
different theory of morality.
father morality, he knows right from wrong. what he says goes, he
knows more than everyone else and his authority can not be
2. the role
of the wife is to to uphold the authority of the father.
the role of
the father is to teach children to do what's right,, children want
to do what's bad.
be step back for a minute.. For me, I want to build a culture of
empathy, where there is maximum empathy between all people. So with a
strict father system, it's about who will be heard among us?
heard, but who is going to be obeyed. and who is going to do the
who is going
to use force
in a strict
father family there's a moral obligation to punish the children so
that they become moral beings.
if they have
discipline, they can go out in the world and prosper,
should be broken to obey the authority
the idea is
that punishment makes them into a better person
45:30 - so
the family model then gets reflected at a societal and political
strict father about it being a dangerous world and we have to close
ourselves off because we have to protect ourselves and address (or
fight) the danger?
the Regan era and the Contra hearings, the first thing what was
said was that this is a dangerous world. repeated over and over
as soon as
you do that, your bringing up fear and blocking empathy.
very first thing that happens. and that's a very important thing.
that's important in the nurturant family, is that they want the
children to be disciplined.
so that they
do things so they are not harmed and do not harm others.
but you do
that through empathy.
can provide a form of internal discipline, when you have a
responsibility to help other people and empathize with them.
you can build a positive discipline rather than a negative
whole books now on child rearing called positive discipline.
a lot of
conservatives will think that the only way to have discipline is by
the best way
is to be disciplined by thinking of other people and acting
responsibly for them as well as for yourself.
someone has done harm, you can punish them and give them pain
and suffering. so they hopefully don't do it again. Or you can find a
way to restore empathic connection. And there's a whole process out
there, restorative justice or what I would call restorative empathy,
to help restore connection.
yes, I think
that is right and very important.
that the core is how empathy and fear relate.
fear is real
to have fear in the right ways, there are things we should fear.
times when you shouldn't have empathy.
is trying to kill you, they should stop
going to happen, there will be people who grow up without empathy.
have fear in the right ways.
fear about global warming
want to have fear turn off the empathy for the world, and that's not
what we want to do.
we want to
address the real fear.
promoting the fear is not going to address the global warming
Blue Book is then based on what were talking about here on how
democrats and progressives can do more to frame there language so that
it fosters empathy and connection.
conservatives have framed just about ever issue because they have a
greatly superior understanding of the role of morality in politics.
democrats have been thinking about the role of Policy which is based
politics is moral
politicians say, do what I say because it's right, not because it
question is, is it conservative morality or progressive morality
want to do is strengthen the moral systems based on empathy.
means not using other peoples language.
their language an negating it as if you could logically ague
isn't' about logic, it's about understanding
usually happens is that conservative framing hides a deep truth.
economics, it's that the private depends on the public
is there to carry out moral responsibilities.
shouldn't turn over moral issues to private companies
what we are looking at, is how to create a language of empathy.
How does every policy relate to fostering, nurturing and promoting
And how do we have a language that can articulate that?
is secondary to the ideas,
is, how do we understand what ideas about various, like
education or the environment flow from empathy, rather than
self-interest and just trying to maximize your short term profits.
how does it
flow from caring about other people rather than having a strict
has to do with empathy and understanding the ideas.
political and social ideas that flow from empathy and then you can
get a language of empathy and when you do that, you undermine the
gone for about an hour and you have other appointment so I don't want
to go over our time?
It's a real
pleasure to talk with you always, and I have to say, I deeply admire
you for taking up this most central part of our connection to other
beings, our connection to the world and the way our politics is run
and by devoting yourself to a culture of empathy. I think it's one
of the best things one could do in life and I thank you for that.
forward to future discussion and working together to build a culture
The following video clips are excerpts of the
sections on empathy from various talks. Each clip is followed by a written outline.
Untellable Truths - Huffington Post Democrats need to unite behind a simple set of moral principles and
to create an effective language to express them. President Obama in his
campaign expressed those principles simply, as the basis of American
democracy. (1) Empathy -- Americans care about each other.
Responsibility, both personal and social. We have to act on that
Presidents can have a discourse-changing
power if they know how to use it and care to use it. But they cannot do
it alone. If there is a teachable communication moment for President
Obama, this is it. Bring back "empathy" -- "the most
important thing my mother taught me." Speak of "empathy" for "people who
are hurting." Say again how empathy is basis of democracy ("caring for
your fellow citizens"), how we have a responsibility to act on
that empathy: social as well as personal responsibility. Bring the
central role of empathy in democracy to the media. And make it clear
that personal responsibility alone is anti-patriotic, the opposite of
what America is fundamentally about. That is the first step in telling
our most important untellable truths. And it is a necessary step in
loosening the conservative grip on public discourse.
How Brains Think
4th International Conference on Foreign Language Teaching and Applied
Linguistics, May 2014, Sarajevo
(old and new understandings of reason)
Mr. Lakoff talked about
the future of the Democratic Party and progressive policy
issues. He spoke on the last day of a progressive political...
to viewer comments and questions. George
Lakoff is the author of [Don't Think of an...
As part of the first YearlyKos convention titled,
"YearlyKos: Uniting the Netroots," members of the first panel
talked about communicating progressive ideas at the grassroots
level. Topics included political...
In the second panel discussion, "Deceiving
Images: The Science of Manipulation," Frank Luntz and
others talked about how political candidates use language.
Lakoff explains that liberals and conservatives have
different world views which determine their positions on
President Obama's second
intellectual move concerns what the fundamental American values are. In
Moral Politics, I described what I found to be the implicit, often
unconscious, value systems behind progressive and conservative thought.
Progressive thought rests, first, on the value of empathy--putting
oneself in other people's shoes, seeing the world through their eyes,
and therefore caring about them. The second principle is acting on that
care, taking responsibility both for oneself and others, social as well
as individual responsibility. The third is acting to make oneself, the
country, and the world better--what Obama has called an "ethic of
excellence" toward creating "a more perfect union" politically.
Historian Lynn Hunt, in
Inventing Human Rights, has shown that those values, beginning with
empathy, lie historically behind the human rights expressed in the
Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Obama, in various
interviews and speeches, has provided the logical link. Empathy is not
mere sympathy. Putting oneself in the shoes of others brings with it the
responsibility to act on that empathy--to be "our brother's keeper and
our sister's keeper"--and to act to improve ourselves, our country, and
The logic is simple: Empathy
is why we have the values of freedom, fairness, and equality -- for
everyone, not just for certain individuals. If we put ourselves in the
shoes of others, we will want them to be free and treated fairly.
Empathy with all leads to equality: no one should be treated worse than
anyone else. Empathy leads us to democracy: to avoid being subject
indefinitely to the whims of an oppressive and unfair ruler, we need to
be able to choose who governs us and we need a government of laws.
Obama has consistently
maintained that what I, in my writings, have called "progressive" values
are fundamental American values. From his perspective, he is not a
progressive; he is just an American. That is a crucial intellectual
The Sotomayor nomination has given radical conservatives new life. They
have launched an attack that is nominally aimed at Judge Sotomayor. But
it is really a coordinated stealth attack -- on President Obama's
central vision, on progressive thought itself, and on Republicans who
might stray from the conservative hard line.
There are several fronts: Empathy, feelings,
racism, activist judges. Each one has a hidden dimension. And if
progressives think conservative attacks are just about Sotomayor, they
may wind up helping conservatives regroup.
If you live in California (one out of
eight Americans does), then join the California Democracy Movement. If
you live elsewhere, form your own democracy movement and unite with us.
The principles are simple, and they are Obama's: Democracy is
about empathy - caring about your fellow citizens,
which leads to the principles of freedom and fairness for all. Empathy
requires both personal and social responsibility. The ethic of
excellence means making the world better by making yourself better, your
family better, your community better, and your nation better. Government
has two moral missions: protection and empowerment for all. To carry
them out, government must be by, for, and of the people.
2014-01-27 - SOTU 2014: The Cognitive Power of
"Beyond material power, the president has even greater power --
cognitive power -- and he hasn't used it much. Cognitive power is the
power to put important ideas in people's minds by shaping public
discourse. He has the unique power to change how America thinks simply
by discussing crucial ideas over and over.
American democracy is based on empathy -- citizens
caring about other citizens and working through their government to
provide public resources for all, making both decent lives and
flourishing markets possible. He used to speak of empathy as "the most
important thing my mother taught me." But he was misinterpreted by
conservatives and dropped this most central idea. He started talking,
as Elisabeth Warren has so eloquently, about the crucial nature of
public resources, but he messed up once ("You didn't build it") and
stopped. He needs to take up that theme, get it right, and repeat it
in every speech."