September 24th, 2006

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Recommended link; gender and language...

I know many of you already check "Language Log" every day. But just in case you don't, I want to strongly recommend Mark Liberman's article there on the question of whether women or men are more talkative -- including especially his discussion of some of the so-called "scientific" writing on the subject of gender and language, not to mention gender and "the brain." The article is at .
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Linguistics and politics and metaphors, oh my....

When the dominant metaphor is The Government Is A Strict Father Family, it's okay...

... for the president to say "Everybody else has to obey the laws except me; I'm allowed to violate them," because the Strict Father always knows best.

... to cheat and lie in elections, because children -- even adult children -- really can't be expected to understand what sort of government they need, and it's the Strict Father's responsibility to see to it that they do get the sort of government they need.

... to insist that the president has never made a mistake and never will, because the system will collapse if people don't have absolute faith in him to always know best and always be right, and it's far more important for the system to be buttressed by that faith than it is for the truth to be known.

Exactly the same things hold when the dominant metaphor is The Government Is A Nurturant Parent Family. The "because" clauses will be different, but the results will be the same. For example, it's okay to cheat and lie in elections, because it's not fair to children -- even adult children -- to inflict on them the burden of understanding what sort of government they need. Somebody has to make the decisions that will make certain that they get the sort of government they need, hard as that is; since children clearly aren't able to do that, the burden falls on the Nurturant Parent to do it.

As long as the dominant metaphor is The Government Is A Parent -- no matter what variety of parent -- there's no escaping this consequence. In the Strict Father version the president [and the president's minions] have too much power because the Strict Father is always right and it's his responsibility to enforce what's best for the children. In the Nurturant Parent version the president [and the president's associates] have too much power because -- although the Nurturant Parent isn't always right and is willing sometimes to negotiate -- the final decision and responsibility always has to rest with him/her/them. No matter how much tweaking gets done in the wording, government-as-parent is always going to mean a government that has too much power.

It has been proposed in some of your comments and posts that the solution is to discard the metaphor that goes The Nation Is A Family. I don't think that's possible; I think we've reached a point where what we're dealing with is not a metaphor but a factual definition. Metaphors are negotiable; factual definitions are inherited. I believe that "Humankind is a family" is a factual definition rather than a metaphor, that we're all members of a family on this little planet together with a finite amount of resources to be managed and maintained and allocated, and that as long as humankind is a family nations can only be, by definition, branches of that family.

What I like about applying Ault and Muder's Inherited Obligations/Negotiated Commitments model to this mess is that it doesn't require that the government be a parent. Instead, all of the family roles are available to fill the roles of president [and president's minions/associates/colleagues] in the government. It seems to me, personally, that at this moment that possibility has put the children in those powerful roles -- but that unfortunate option is built into the Ault/Muder models. If the members of the family get careless and sloppy and lazy, or if they simply lose their minds, it can happen. That's called freedom, and it goes with believing that the people of a nation can be trusted to choose the sort of government that is best for the family.