7. The Strict Father Model

In Chapter 5, I discussed the “nurturant parent” model that George Lakoff says underpins much progressive thought. Here, again from Don’t Think of an Elephant!, is its conservative equivalent, the “strict father” model:

The strict father model begins with a set of assumptions:

  • The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore, they have to be made good.
  • What is needed in this kind of a world is a strong, strict father who can protect the family in the dangerous world; support the family in the difficult world; and teach his children right from wrong.
  • What is required of the child is obedience, because the strict father is a moral authority who knows right from wrong. . . .
  • A good person—a moral person—is someone who is disciplined enough to be obedient, to learn what is right, do what is right and not do what is wrong, and to pursue her self-interest to prosper and become self-reliant. A good child grows up to be like that. A bad child is one who does not learn discipline, does not function morally, does not do what is right, and therefore is not disciplined enough to become prosperous. She cannot take care of herself and thus becomes dependent.

The strict father model, Lakoff says, “assumes that the world is and always will be dangerous and difficult, and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who has to support and defend the family, tell his wife what to do, and teach his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful punishment—physical discipline that by adulthood will develop into internal discipline.”

This is pure “survivalist” mentality, and couldn’t contrast more with the self-actualized individual described in Chapter 1:

• The self-actualized person is independent, while the “good child” in the strict father model is obedient.

• The self-actualized person is born good, while the child in the strict father model is born bad.

• The self-actualized person feels at home in the world, while the strict father model views the world, and other people, as difficult and dangerous.

The strict father model is based on fear, but a different kind of fear from those discussed in Part III. Those fears—fear of change, fear of failure and fear of success—are mostly a fear of self: a fear that you don’t have what it takes to succeed, or can’t handle what life throws at you. The strict father model mostly fears others. The strict father model explains why so many conservative policies tend to ignore, or even punish, those who struggle economically, while rewarding those who succeed, even if their success is achieved dishonestly. The model presumes that people struggle not because they have been the victims of bad luck or societal inequity, but because they disobeyed the rules. It is therefore not only right, but obligatory, that they be punished, both for their own, and society’s, good.

The Wages of Conservative Fear . . . and Progressive Courage

The fear-based strict father model also explains a wide range of dysfunctional behaviors we associate mainly with the Right2, including bigotry, self-segregation into sterile and isolationist suburbs, and a propensity for joining authoritarian churches and other organizations. Oh, and let’s not forget the Right’s fabled antipathy to sex, and especially gay sex, unmarried sex and young sex. (Lakoff points out that these happen to be the kinds of sexual relationships that most directly subvert the strict father model.3) The Right has also traditionally hated interracial sex, but progressives have succeeded in defeating racism to the extent that, these days, few even on the Far Right will own up to that hatred, at least in public. The Right also routinely employs fear-mongering and hate-mongering as explicit strategies for gaining and keeping power. For decades, the main “enemy” the Right “protected us” against was Communism.

In Don’t Think of an Elephant!, Lakoff points out, “Fear and uncertainty . . . naturally activate the strict father frame in a majority of people, leading the electorate to see politics in conservative terms.” He also writes:

The vehemence of the culture war provoked and maintained by conservatives is no accident. For strict father morality to gain and maintain political power . . . the conservatives need the support of many of the poor. That is, they need a significant percentage of the poor and middle class to vote against their economic interests. . . . Their method for achieving this has been cultural civil war . . . pitting Americans with strict father morality (called conservatives) against Americans with nurturant parent morality (the hated liberals), who are portrayed as threatening the way of life and the cultural, religious, and personal identities of conservatives.

We currently see this strategy being used not just by America’s homophobic and xenophobic Right, but by the Muslim world’s fascists.

I am certainly not saying that everyone on the Right, or every Right-wing ideology, is motivated strongly by fear; or that everyone on the Left, or every Left-wing ideology, isn’t. Nor am I saying that the Left is immune to authoritarian, hierarchical, isolationist, hateful or puritanical thinking. That would be a ludicrous statement to make in the wake of Stalin and Mao, not to mention the histories of the Communist Party USA and the New Left. The Left, like the Right, is comprised of people in varying stages of self-actualization; and it is perhaps inevitable that some people on the Right are going to be more self-actualized—and, hence, more nurturant—than some on the Left. Like all models, Lakoff’s are simplified representations of a more complex reality, and hence should be used as generalized guides, not infallible doctrines. Lakoff himself points out that most people will use both models at different times, although the more you “tilt” toward the Left or Right, the more one model or the other will tend to predominate in your thinking.

Nor do I ignore the obvious point that many of the choices we progressives make have the potential to make our lives harder, and therefore presumably less happy, at least in the short term. There’s nothing like standing out in the wind and rain, getting yelled at by passers-by during a demonstration, to brighten your day, after all. . . . And certainly there are plenty of conservatives who remain innocently or deliberately unaware of—or aware of but uncaring of—the inequities and injustices of the system that props them up. As such, they live in a kind of blissful ignorance and affluence unavailable to most progressives.

And yet, despite the innate difficulties of the progressive/activist life, and despite the pervasive anti-progressive propaganda out there, we—meaning you and I—have chosen to live our lives as progressives and as activists. Ask yourself why, and I think you will see that it’s not simply because we believe our vision of the world is truer or more moral, but because we see our lifestyle as offering greater opportunities for happiness and self-actualization. Keep that in mind when the going gets rough, and always remember that, if a time comes when the lifepath you’ve chosen for yourself is making you unhappy, you have the ability to choose another. That is the ultimate luxury of all, and it only available to those of us who live lives not grounded in fear.