We’re all at least a little Bi

Labels are problematic, sometimes they do more harm than good. The fact is that we begin our labeling as babies as we sort our world into categories. As language is introduced, literal labels get attached along with our new experiences and sounds. We can’t help but organize and categorize everything that falls into our realm. Trying to talk about our social, fiscal, and political culture can be tricky because there are so many aspects and none of them neatly organized. This is how we’ve come up with the political labels of “progressive” or “conservative”.

They are totally inadequate.

Many of us (myself included) get aggravated at a broad brush treatment of political affiliations. Inevitably, someone you align with on some issues says something really dumb about that or a related issue and tarnishing your “team”‘s name. No one practices a pure ideology and almost no one believes in one.  We all harbor “strict father*” characteristics – the traits associated with conservatism, and “nurturant parent*” characteristics – those characteristics associated with progressivism. Many times when we are offended at the thought of being included in some unsavory subset, the details of an otherwise agreeable position have gone awry. At least by our judgement.

As mentioned on Monday, we are continually making value judgements and comparing them to our individualized value systems. These value priority systems are what amounts to “normal” for us. When we think of an issue, we may feel SF (strict father) or NP (nurturant parent) attitudes as a sort of a blanket treatment of an issue, or we might switch between SF or NP feelings about varying specifics of an issue. The “strict father” and “nurturant parent” models were used by George Lakoff in explaining his research in cognitive linguistics around political thought (see their definitions here).

For example, SF attitude here:

At work I am quality control. I judge each product according to criteria and if they don’t pass, I reject the product and send it back to the team it came from. If I send back more than 10% of a team’s production, I write up a report that recommends the team leader be demoted or fired. Without our system, quality would get too lax and our company’s reputation would suffer. I want to be part of a strong company and keep my job; I am a tough QC judge.

The same person at home with NP attitude:

At home I love hearing about my kid’s day, they are so excited to see me, it gives me a boost as soon as I get home. Lately the youngest has been having “accidents” at preschool and feels bad, I just tell him that we all make mistakes and that practice makes perfect. The older one has gotten into the habit of throwing a tantrum every time you put green food on their plate. Kids! Go figure. I guess all you can do is love them and do the best you can.

This switch from a SF worldview to a NP worldview is called being bi-conceptual.  We have all grown up with different patterns of bi-conceptualism – a parent who is strict in one area, permissive in another. Even in the same subgroup you might feel bi-conceptual because different values come into play for different aspects.

For example:

Birth control pills are modern day tools that women use to control their own destiny.

There is no way my daughter is going on birth control pills, she’s not ready for grown up issues.

We are talking about birth control, but in the first example, the general concept is around validating birth control’s existence, the author feels NP around it. In the second example, we are specifically talking about a young woman. The author gets protective as the authority over the daughter and makes decisions on behalf of the daughter; the author feels SF around their daughter. When talking about these two issues combined, the SF feelings about the daughter override the NP feelings about birth control.

There are endless examples of how we mish mash the layers of our lives and issues we feels strongly about. Even an issue that we are crystal clear on  – let’s say abortion or gun rights – may have a caveat that outlines a circumstance in which our nearly absolute opinion falls away – such as a different opinion on abortion when rape or incest is involved, or a belief that some background checks or weapon restrictions are reasonable.

The end result of these layers of life and opinion is that we are all bi-conceptual. We can all relate in some way to “being” that strict father or that nurturant parent.  Our culture mistakes this for being a “moderate”. Moderates are extinct.  You might take an average of hot and cold temperature data reports and come up with something lukewarm, but that does not mean that you can actually find a lukewarm temperature in the data.

Governance of this country is based on trying to please moderates, but what is actually happening is that politicians are toggling between issues that heat up different segment of the voting base to be SF or NP.  This methodology get folks fired up and cooled down pretty regularly in the wings of the parties, but where the governing happens, we more likely get compromises that almost no one is excited about (read about things that make you go “meh” here).

Groups that do not settle for this moderate- pleasing platform -often cloaked as “compromise” – are frequently rewarded by getting stronger.

SF and NP are generally the stand in prototypes for conservatives and progressives. SF is a personification of the authoritarian model, NP is a personification for an empathetic role model. This loosely extrapolates to Republicans and Democrats.

The approach to an issue can also fall into these prototypes (this was not put forth by Lakoff), so a progressive can get “strict father” about environmentalism or another of their pet issues, and a conservative can act as “nurturant parent” around one of theirs.

All of the subgroup categorizations can get confusing really fast, especially when you are trying to evaluate a representative in government at election time. To save time and energy, we lump those that mostly get SF activated into the conservative/Republican camp and those that mostly get NP activated into the progressive/Democratic camp. We have acquiesced to a system dominated by two parties and so this is what we get – the appearance of polarization in a multitude of sub-issues, where none exists.

It behooves a candidate to get the base whipped up, it garners them attention. It behooves a media outlet to encourage polarization because “fireworks” sell more ads than peaceful, educational programming. It behooves corporations to encourage infighting in the citizenry because then folks are distracted from whatever shenanigans might be happening to the country’s laws, treasury, and resources.

I wish there were a better way to talk about our political opinions and differences than slapping labels on people. As I said, it is inadequate. One of the consequences of getting “dumbed down” is that we have no patience; we need shorthand for everything. It is perfectly fine to correct someone who is assuming your affiliations incorrectly, conservative or progressive – you know your opinions best – but, realize that perhaps you have moved away from your “home team”, and are feeling your bi-conceptualism.  Don’t be trapped, or afraid of the labels. Claim them! They are what make you unique, like our political identity thumbprint.

And you thought I was going to say we are all bi-sexual. That’s a topic for another day.

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