A few minutes ago, I asked my Dad whether he studied any linguistics at University. He explained that he had wanted to, but when he tried to enroll, the lady at reception told him that the discipline hadn’t yet been invented. When I consulted Wikipedia about this, I discovered that the study of linguistics first emerged in 8th century India which led me to ask, “Dad, how old are you?”
What Dad meant was that modern linguistics, embodied most famously in the work of Noam Chomsky, has really only been a standalone field of inquiry since the sixties. Before that, my father explained, the study was focused on grammar – which explains why he is prone to using sentences like “losing to the Wallabies is something up with which I will not put” and sending back text messages with punctuation corrected.
I have been thinking a lot about linguistics as a field of study lately. Along with rhetoric, ethics, logic, philosophy generally, psychology (beavioural and social) and even biology and physics, linguistics is on the list of things I should know something about but don’t. It is a long list which, oddly , grows longer the older I get. I often find myself wading in the shallows on my own pathetic intellect, howling at some intractable issue or other: “ I would need to understand something about linguistics (or physics or logic…) to really understand you, you complex son of a bitch”. It is as if am walled in by my own inadequate education and, just importantly, too lazy, fat and stupid to scale the walls. When I say a version of this to people, they always say things like “there’s nothing stopping you going back to do some study”, to which you feel bound to say something like “yeah, I guess not” but what you’re really thinking is “oh, for fuck’s sake: do you really think I am going to give up a regular income to spend 30K a year to sit in lecture theatres surrounded by impossibly hot young people who will be cross-checking my name against the sexual offenders list by sundown?” So, no, I am far too immature to subject myself to the humiliation of becoming a mature student.
My thoughts returned to linguistics last night while watching the televised debate between Len Brown and John Banks, the two main contenders in the new Auckland Super City Mayoral race. (There has been a major consolidation of local government in the Auckland region, meaning the new Mayor will oversee a municipality of 1.5 million –a third of NZ’s population.) The debate itself was a totally uninspiring affair, but it was the first time I had seen these candidates on the same stage or, indeed, turned my mind at all to this campaign.
I was struck by the stunning clarity of choice between the candidates — not on policy (neither said anything compelling or believable about anything) but governing style. The Brown versus Banks contest is surely the most clear-cut example of the Lakoff model of political discourse ever witnessed. George Lakoff, a brilliant linguist and author of Moral Politics, believes that modern politics boils down to a contest between “strict parent” (conservative) and “nurturing parent” (liberal). He argues that the right have prevailed in US politics (and, he implies, elsewhere) because they have been more comfortable in their metaphorical skin. By always fighting against their nurturing instincts to appear “tough”, Lakoff argues, liberals have effectively surrendered. When elections come down to a choice between a bona-fide father figure on the right and a gender-confused mummy in daddy’s clothing on the left, the result is predictable enough: John Kerry.
Lakoff rejects, therefore, the prevailing orthodoxy in centre-left politics – that, in order to win, our candidates must neutralize conservative advantages on law and order and security. Instead, he suggests liberals embrace their nurturing persona with pride, and will find a treasure-trove of potent metaphors therein. Get in touch, Lakoff tells his fellow lefties, with your inner-girl’s blouse.
He would argue that Obama’s victory went a long way to proving his point – McCain was undeniably a daddy figure, and Obama never felt compelled to drive around stupidly in a tank or get in a pub fight – but there are plenty who would argue that there were many other factors at play in that most extraordinary election.
The Auckland mayoral race could be seen as an epic test of Lakoff’s powerful theory. Never have two candidates embodied the stereotypes envisaged by a single academic with such precision. They are like Lakoff’s lab rats. Banks is a uber-Daddy, alpha-dog: brash, arrogant, in-charge, fuck off and leave my wife alone, if I ever see you on my property again I will empty my firearm into your corpse. Brown is the personification of the maternal politician: oozing empathy and sincerity in equal measures, caring and compassionate, please make yourself at home, don’t tell your Father but here’s $100 to tide you over. Both try to militate against their instincts and pretend they are nice and inclusive (Banks) or capable of tough-minded arse-kicking (Brown), but not hard and not at all effectively. I have searched high and low, but to no avail, for a transcript of the debate. This is my best recollection of one of the key exchanges.
Banks: Look, this new super-city is a huge and complicated enterprise. We need to keep things tight, in budget and under control from day one.
Brown: Yes, but this is a question of leadership style, and we need to ensure that Aucklanders are made to feel part of this endeavour, and not trampled over.
Banks: What Aucklanders don’t want is to be trampled over by taxpayer-funder namby-pamby do-gooders from South Auckland.
Compere: Mr Banks, I think you will find you said that out loud.
Banks: What? Oh shit.
Brown: Well, there are the true colours of Mr Banks. He is a bully and a thug.
Banks: Listen, Auckland, you may not like me, but you know you need me.
Brown: Don’t listen to him, people of Auckland. He’s a brute. Come, let’s hug and think of happy thoughts.
Banks: It’s time to turn off the lights.
Fades to black
Len Brown’s poll lead has dissolved in the past two months. He is now neck and neck with Banks, whose voters (rich white people) are far more likely to fill in their ballot papers than Brown’s, who are decidedly less white and far less rich. Advantage Banks, sadly.