This is last, part 5, of a 5 part series.

George Lakoff’s ‘Strict Father

In ‘Don’t think of an Elephant‘ and ‘The Political Mind’, Lakoff attempts to describe the link between our values, what they are based in, and our political views.

To do that we have to go back to the beginning of our experiences as human beings and that means our experiences in a ‘Family’.

Every single one of us experienced early life in a family.  That family might be the ‘ideal type’ of the nuclear family beloved of advertisers,  or it might be a ‘reconstituted family’ including second wives/husbands. Sadly, a few grow up in social services care experiencing a ‘family’ of a very different type. The family is an ‘agent of primary socialisation’ in sociological terms – this means we learn social norms, values, behaviours and attitudes as well as a host of other things such as language and modes of dress. The family then is a foundational social experience and our experiences of families provide us with ways of thinking about how we should live together as couples, families and within wider society.

Some of us are for capital punishment, capping welfare and social security, a strong military and intervention, using force if necessary, to secure the nation’s interests abroad. We might also consider that those who use the railways, or universities, should be the ones to pay for them rather than taxpayers. The same goes for health in that we should learn to take responsibility and pay for services when we need them. The nanny state should be made redundant and that taxes should be ‘relieved’ or cut to the bone.

The link between our family experiences and our politics is not very clear. We may even think there is no link at all,  and that our social and political views are arrived at after some due consideration and the application of rational thought.

Lakoff however argues that the family provides us with at least two experiences which then act as unconscious metaphors for life:

  1. The Strict Father.
  2. The Nurturing Parent.

Lakoff’s Frames

These two models of family life provide us with ‘frames’  – ‘mental structures that shape the way we see the world‘  Frames provide us with language and values, they shape our policies, the organisations we devise, what we consider is good bad, moral or immoral. Lakoff’s work follows on from Ervin Goffman who discussed our use of frames in ‘Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (1974).

To over simplify perhaps, this is to say that we all hold both frames, strict father – nurturing parent, in our heads but one may be more dominant than the other. We then approach political and social life and use these frames to explain and give meaning to what we are experiencing and to what we value.

Right wing conservatives tend to have a ‘strict father’ frame while those on the Progressive Left tend to have a ‘nurturing parent’ frame.  Thus, issues such as social security will be seen by referring back to those frames, and in so doing we will use particular language  such as ‘striver v skiver’ and invoke values that accord with those frames to explain and gain meaning for issues such as  ‘social security’.

Lakoff’s point is that over the past three decades or so the conservative right have been able to get their frame accepted in the media, by political parties and even in the general population while those of the progressive left have been unable to articulate their frame – ‘the nurturing parent’.  The right has done so by spending billions in think tanks, universities, books, articles, research grants, professorships…..

The Strict Father Frame

So what are the features of the ‘strict father’ ?

This frame is based on a set of assumptions:

  1. The world is a dangerous place and always will be, because evil exists.
  2. The world is hard and difficult because it is competitive.
  3. There will always be winners and losers.
  4. There are absolute right and wrongs.
  5. Children are born bad, in that they only want to do that which feels good rather than that which is right.
  6. Children therefore have to be made to do the right thing.
  7. This world therefore needs a strong strict fatherwho can: protect the family in a dangerous world; support the family in a dangerous world and teach children right from wrong.

These assumptions draw upon centuries of religious teaching from patriarchal Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that puts ‘God the (strict)Father’ at the top of the social and universal hierarchy. Early capitalist development in Europe and in the United States was founded upon these principles and found expression in the laws enacted at the time, for example the poor law in England.

Children are required to be obedient, because the strict father has moral authority – originally derived from God – as the head of the house: patriarchy. The only way to teach obedience is through punishment for wrong doing until the child can internalise discipline to do what is right.  A striver has this internal discipline while a skiver does not. Without punishment, there would be no moral authority and the social order would collapse. Moral hazard is invoked as a justification for imposing strict social policies and for not introducing supportive systems. Moral hazard arises when individuals (skivers) or institutions (e.g. trade unions) do not take on the full consequences and responsibilities of their actions. In doing so they have a tendency to act less carefully than they otherwise would.  This might result in someone else bearing responsibility for the consequences of those actions.

The morality of internal discipline has another affect. Discipline is required to be successful in a competitive difficult world; discipline results in self-reliance and prosperity. Wealth is a result. Therefore wealth is a marker of discipline and therefore wealth and morality become linked. Those who are wealthy  – the 1% – deserve to be because of their internal discipline and self-reliance. Those who are on benefits deserve their poverty because of their lack of discipline and self-reliance.

This frame is unconscious, part of our brain structure, and is not invoked explicitly in political discussions. When using the language that arise from this frame,  the frame is invoked and reinforced. Conservatives know this,  and hence do not rely on reason or facts to make their case – they invoke the language of the frame and talk about their values. In so doing, they reinforce the strict father frame.

The strict father knows that adults must bear responsibility, and are no longer entitled to his protection as they should have learned right from wrong. Jonathan Haidt provides a more detailed description of the origins of moral foundations in ‘The Righteous Mind’ and Jordan Peterson in ‘Maps of Meaning’ tries to explicate grand narratives that provide meaning to human groups. The strict father metaphor may be one of those narratives.


In the previous 4 blogs I have outlined just some of the key concepts and writers who point towards a darker future.

We have four descriptions of what an authoritarian approach to life might be. Lakoff and Adorno root their analysis in cultural psychological development, and especially in childhood for Lakoff. Adorno attempts to measure the characteristics while Lakoff only hints at its development. Orwell distinguishes between defensive patriotism and power hungry nationalism rooted in emotion. Eco’s list builds on the earlier work and clarifies for our times what it might look like. The chief danger is that financial capitalism and globalisation has produced a tiny number of winners and a much, much larger number of losers, and the ‘left behind’. Most people in the Brexit heartlands do not possess a class analysis, as the teaching of social class went out of fashion if it was ever in, and this even applies in sociology. They don’t or cannot exercise meta reflexivity to question their own values and assumptions, while traditional values of authority, sanctity, liberty and loyalty provide  – proto fascist? – fertile soil for nationalism and fascism to flourish within fractured social systems. Thoughtlessness abounds, dominant frames provide near hegemonic meaning for many social groups, part of their lifeworld colonisation, which if not countered, could result in the lights going out across Europe.

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