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Head, heart, guts and gonads: Getting down and dirty in the rhetoric war

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | December 20, 2010

It is pretty obvious that progressives will not fight for their beliefs. The very fact that we have jettisoned “liberal” in favor of “progressive” (because some people made fun of the former term) illustrates the point. But what is even more unfortunate is that, even when progressives fight, we cannot do so effectively. There are some crucial facts about what constitutes an effective rhetorical strategy that progressives seem not to be aware of, and that unawareness is deadly.

There are four places in the body to which speakers can direct their case: the head, the heart, the guts, and the gonads. The left likes to argue to the head; conservatives know that the further down you go, the more persuasive you will be.

The head is the seat of logic; when we argue to the head, we use the language of science and rationality: studies show; the facts demonstrate; statistics prove. We avoid expressions of involvement or feeling as somehow tainted, so we adopt the passive voice: It has been suggested. Our vocabulary is heavy with Latin, and our examples are abstractions. Head-directed arguments tend to focus on impersonal concepts, ideas distant from hearers’ own daily experience, so when progressives talk about “morality,” their examples have to do with bankers and corporations — not most people’s daily lives.

The heart is the locus of feeling: sentimentality and compassion. Arguments directed to the heart are about the things we feel strongly about, that tug at our identification as members of a group — Americans, Christians — without our clearly knowing what those connections really are. Talking to the heart involves the use of words like loyalty, democracy, freedom, and patriotic. Progressives can appeal to the heart, too: the most effective arguments about the dangers of global warming make use of photos of cuddly polar bear cubs and waddling penguins, which also tug at the heart. But conservatives use heart-language to better effect.

Arguments directed to the guts are about fear: especially, at this moment, fear of loss and perhaps shame, mobilizing a childhood sense of helplessness. So words like job, home, and money — particularly in negative contexts — are potent here. – Isms often mobilize fear: Terrorism, communism, and socialism work very well at this level: even though many hearers don’t have clear notions of what these words mean, they sound scary and un-American, diminishing our sense of self. Like related forms of “othering” — racism and its relatives in all their many noxious forms — they serve to bring “us” together — albeit in a misdirected and dangerous way — and make us want to fight the vague but threatening “them.”

And finally, at the bottom, there are the gonads. Arguments directed there make use of our need to define ourselves in terms of clear sexual identities: men are one thing, women are the other, and transgressing the gender boundary unleashes all kinds of primal and infantile, necessarily wordless, terrors. One of the first things children learn is whether they are a little girl or a little boy, and from a very early age the penalties for crossing the gender line are often heavy. So even for adults, any sort of public behavior or belief that seems likely to make that line more easily crossed is likely to rekindle those wordless childhood fears and render logical arguments worse than useless. So discussion of abortion, gay rights, and gay marriage always bog down because traditionalists can’t hear the progressive argument. The Bible says becomes the all-purpose rejoinder to everything, even when in fact the Bible says no such thing. “The Bible says” is the voice of parental authority, terrifying children into adhering to the norms. “Why? Because I said so, and I am your father.” There is no meaningful rejoinder to that. In arguments directed to the gonads, “morality” is a very different word than in arguments directed at the head. “Morality” here is about thou-shalt-nots, about Sodom and Gomorrah, about the deeply personal and very concrete things each of us hides even from ourselves. So when the progressive rhetorician utters the word “morality” to refer to large and impersonal concepts, the hearer is apt to hear it as referring to these deep-down concerns, and the primal fear the word evokes makes it impossible to hear the head-argument.

So what’s a progressive rhetorician to do? Keeping at the level of the head seems right to us — decent and fair and intelligent. Moving down below is appealing to the least attractive and least evolved aspects of the species, and surely it is insulting to do so. But when our conservative counterparts do precisely this, their audience does not seem insulted — they respond with enthusiasm and agreement.

We need to develop a style and a vocabulary that make head-arguments as inevitable and graspable as those aimed deeper down. This is no easy project, because it involves changing how persuasive political discourse works. But I hope it can be done — it has to be done.

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

Comments to “Head, heart, guts and gonads: Getting down and dirty in the rhetoric war

  1. Relative to Robin’s new Theory of Brain Devolution we now have a new
    Theory of Brain Region Evo/Devolution:

    Java Man: EAT-RUN-HIT

    Neanderthal Man: HUNT-MAKE TOOLS-BUILD

    Modern Man (v.20C): CHARISMA-IMAGE-SARCASM

    Robin Man (v.21C Decentralized Brain): HEAD-HEART-GUTS-GONADS

    Final version?: EAT-RUN-HIT

    (Java, Neanderthal, Modern versions thanks to science cartoon on brain evolution by Sydney Harris)

  2. FYI, other most important facts of life that must also be considered for optimum applications of “head, heart, guts and gonads” are documented in:

    CALIFORNIA Magazine article “Global Warming: Can We Adapt in Time?” by Sandy Tolan in the September October 2006 “Global Warning” issue:

    http://alumni.berkeley.edu/news/california-magazine/september-october-2006-global-warning/global-warming-can-we-adapt-time

    For instance, one most important fact of life documented by evolutionary biologists Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich in their 1989 book, “New World New Mind.”:
    “Although we are evolving, our mental machinery will not change biologically in time to help us solve our problems.”

  3. Dear Professor Lakkof, Thank you for writing these very thoughtful observations. The need to define a visceral rhetoric for progressives to use has long been one of my interests. I’m not sure if I have an answer to the challenge you posed at the end of your article. Still, reading your piece made me think of the way we discuss undocumented (head) vs. illegal (gut) immigration. I’ve long believed that immigration policy is a difficult thing for progressives to discuss precisely because the other side responds with arguments that dismiss logic in favor of a skewed morality (The “Well, ain’t they illegal after all!” attack). As we just saw with the defeat of the DREAM Act in the senate, it is difficult for progressives to make an effective argument for revising restrictive immigration policy when the collective consciousness of our population has been seemingly subjected to a campaign of fear that fixes an unredeemable criminal identity on students who are only trying to better their plights. While one side focused on the statistical contributions students would eventually make (head), the other warned of the specter of another amnesty (gut). I agree with you that we must find a better way to engage in a reasoned debate. This is why I believe that only through a focus on compelling personal narratives of immigration that policy change will come; we need to appeal to the heart in order to capture the minds. Immigrant stories, even undocumented ones, are part of the mass collection of narratives that explain how all of us became “American.” These stories “show” the material and emotional hardships specific immigrants experienced in order to become new Americans. When framed that way, when showing the visceral details that immigrants live on a day-to-day basis, then maybe we can impact policy.

  4. “So what’s a progressive rhetorician to do?” Modest proposal if I may: Present facts with the head and argue their consequences from down below. Yes! This means checking the ego at the door and go for the jugular. It’s a matter of deciding what we want: winning the argument or preserving our, ahem, shall we say, virgin self-image. I’d like to present an example of what I mean. Context is about civilian v. military tribunals for judging terrorists, a topic that has been extensively torched by napalm-like rhetoric. Now, the facts prove that civilian tribunals have gained many more convictions than the military commissions following prosecutions for terrorism charges. For instance, here is a (partial) list of terrorists convicted in civilian courts and actually incarcerated in the US: 1) Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted, 1996, U.S. District Court (before then-U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey) — plotting terrorist attacks on the U.S. (currently: U.S. prison, Butler, North Carolina); 2) Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted, 2006, U.S. Federal Court — conspiracy to commit the 9/11 attacks (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado); 3) Richard Reid, convicted, 2003, U.S. Federal Court — attempting to blow up U.S.-bound jetliner over the Atlantic Ocean (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado); 4) Jose Padilla, convicted, 2007, U.S. Federal Court — conspiracy to commit terrorism (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado); 5) Iyman Faris a/k/a/ Mohammad Rauf, convicted, 2003, U.S. Federal Court — providing material support and resources to Al-Qaeda, conspiracy to commit terrorist acts on behalf of Al Qaeda (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado); 7) Ali Saleh al-Marri, accused Al Qaeda operative — convicted October 2009 to 8 years in prison for providing material support for Al-Qaeda 8) Masoud Khan, convicted, 2004, U.S. Federal Court — conspiracy to commit terrorism as part of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Islamic jihad (currently: U.S. prison, Terre Haute, Indiana); 9) John Walker Lindh, convicted, 2002, U.S. Federal Court — providing material support to the Taliban (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado). 10) Abdul Kadir just convicted last week. Compare that to the very thin gruel coming from Gitmo (Omar Khadr and this Australian I can’t recall the name right now) and that’s it! These facts have never prevented the Reich-wingers to forcefully argue, with an intensity bordering on the maniacal, that military commissions ought to be the way to go since it’ll secure more and harsher convictions, contrary to the facts, presented above. Now that the head part has been satisfied, it is time to let the hormones speak, so the argument can be won no contest, by technical KO. The only thing progressive rhetorician would now have to do is to systematically “show the score”, i.e. how many terrorists have been convicted in civilian courts v military commissions (the facts) while mercilessly hammering the supporters of military commissions with arguments like: “Let me get this straight! Civilian Courts are sweeping the floor and you want to stop something that works so well! Why? Do you hate America? Why do you want to help and abet terrorists, huh? WTH is your problem?” In a word; serve them a taste of their own medicine for a change, with the added bonus that facts are on our side. He! He!

  5. This is quite brilliant. The recent survey indicating that Fox news viewers are more misinformed, and the role of counterfactual demagogues like Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh support the author’s thesis that progressives aim too high on the anatomy. I hope the Democrats figure this out before the next election.

  6. Professor:

    Good to see the team embarked on another helpful exercise. When you figure it all out, please let us know.

    Best wishes for the holidays from an over-taxed, rendered conservative by decades in the real world of work, Berkeley grad who is still happy to pay taxes and make contributions to support alma mater. Our merry band of progressives needs a place to be cared for and fed.

    Vince

    • Hi Vince,

      We honor your service. Don’t let anyone tell you that the American salaryman isn’t the best-suited and best-supported unit in the field, period.

      Thanks for your warm wishes; know that we will do our best to live up to your expectations. Go Bears!

  7. Robin, how did you forget the amygdala?

    For instance, the following headline activated my amygdala with a new enemy to hate:

    “GOP Denies 9/11 First Responders Benefits”

    The GOP thus activated my brain to remember that there is always some group to hate, I was born into a world when the enemy were fascists, as an adult the enemy were communists, and now in my final years the enemy are Al-Qaeda and GOP terrorists.

    Thus I regret most of all that evolutionary biologists are totally correct to conclude that our brain has never evolved enough to save humanity from the failures of our head, heart, guts and gonads.

  8. Rhetorical devices are available to people of all political persuasions. I notice the times in which liberals make emotional appeals, but perhaps that is because they annoy me more. For instance, all the complaining about estate or “death” taxes has totally disregarded the fact that a huge majority of people who have significant fortunes also have estate planning, trusts, charitable remaindered trusts and exemptions of up to five million. Preservation of capital seems to be abhorent to most of your respondents, but it an essential part of the job creating capitalist economy. Would we really want to recreate the failed centrally planned economies of eastern Europe? Forty years of scarcity and pollution? Most of the time people seem to adjust to their economic situation without the level of anger we see today. When our financial future seems more secure– and I include mine in that estimate — that level of concern and interest should go away.

  9. The dirtiest thing in politics for the past twenty years has been the attacks on Sarah Palin and her family. It is a self serving myth that liberals are more civil and polite in their discourse. There is absolutely no evidence for this argument.

    • Dear Bill,

      Do you know what Luntz and Boehner are doing while they wait to tee off?
      They’re laughing about you. You’re the one keeping their beds feathered.

  10. Dear Professor Lakkof,

    Thank you for writing these very thoughtful observations. The need to define a visceral rhetoric for progressives to use has long been one of my interests. I’m not sure if I have an answer to the challenge you posed at the end of your article. Still, reading your piece made me think of the way we discuss undocumented (head) vs. illegal (gut) immigration.

    I’ve long believed that immigration policy is a difficult thing for progressives to discuss precisely because the other side responds with arguments that dismiss logic in favor of a skewed morality (The “Well, ain’t they illegal after all!” attack).

    As we just saw with the defeat of the DREAM Act in the senate, it is difficult for progressives to make an effective argument for revising restrictive immigration policy when the collective consciousness of our population has been seemingly subjected to a campaign of fear that fixes an unredeemable criminal identity on students who are only trying to better their plights. While one side focused on the statistical contributions students would eventually make (head), the other warned of the specter of another amnesty (gut).

    I agree with you that we must find a better way to engage in a reasoned debate. This is why I believe that only through a focus on compelling personal narratives of immigration that policy change will come; we need to appeal to the heart in order to capture the minds.

    Immigrant stories, even undocumented ones, are part of the mass collection of narratives that explain how all of us became “American.” These stories “show” the material and emotional hardships specific immigrants experienced in order to become new Americans. When framed that way, when showing the visceral details that immigrants live on a day-to-day basis, then maybe we can impact policy.

  11. “So what’s a progressive rhetorician to do?”

    Modest proposal if I may: Present facts with the head and argue their consequences from down below. Yes! This means checking the ego at the door and go for the jugular. It’s a matter of deciding what we want: winning the argument or preserving our, ahem, shall we say, virgin self-image.

    I’d like to present an example of what I mean. Context is about civilian v. military tribunals for judging terrorists, a topic that has been extensively torched by napalm-like rhetoric.

    Now, the facts prove that civilian tribunals have gained many more convictions than the military commissions following prosecutions for terrorism charges. For instance, here is a (partial) list of terrorists convicted in civilian courts and actually incarcerated in the US:

    1) Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted, 1996, U.S. District Court (before then-U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey) — plotting terrorist attacks on the U.S. (currently: U.S. prison, Butler, North Carolina);

    2) Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted, 2006, U.S. Federal Court — conspiracy to commit the 9/11 attacks (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado);

    3) Richard Reid, convicted, 2003, U.S. Federal Court — attempting to blow up U.S.-bound jetliner over the Atlantic Ocean (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado);

    4) Jose Padilla, convicted, 2007, U.S. Federal Court — conspiracy to commit terrorism (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado);

    5) Iyman Faris a/k/a/ Mohammad Rauf, convicted, 2003, U.S. Federal Court — providing material support and resources to Al-Qaeda, conspiracy to commit terrorist acts on behalf of Al Qaeda (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado);

    7) Ali Saleh al-Marri, accused Al Qaeda operative — convicted October 2009 to 8 years in prison for providing material support for Al-Qaeda

    8) Masoud Khan, convicted, 2004, U.S. Federal Court — conspiracy to commit terrorism as part of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Islamic jihad (currently: U.S. prison, Terre Haute, Indiana);

    9) John Walker Lindh, convicted, 2002, U.S. Federal Court — providing material support to the Taliban (currently: U.S. prison, Florence, Colorado).

    10) Abdul Kadir just convicted last week.

    Compare that to the very thin gruel coming from Gitmo (Omar Khadr and this Australian I can’t recall the name right now) and that’s it!

    These facts have never prevented the Reich-wingers to forcefully argue, with an intensity bordering on the maniacal, that military commissions ought to be the way to go since it’ll secure more and harsher convictions, contrary to the facts, presented above.

    Now that the head part has been satisfied, it is time to let the hormones speak, so the argument can be won no contest, by technical KO.

    The only thing progressive rhetorician would now have to do is to systematically “show the score”, i.e. how many terrorists have been convicted in civilian courts v military commissions (the facts) while mercilessly hammering the supporters of military commissions with arguments like:

    “Let me get this straight! Civilian Courts are sweeping the floor and you want to stop something that works so well! Why? Do you hate America? Why do you want to help and abet terrorists, huh? WTH is your problem?”

    In a word; serve them a taste of their own medicine for a change, with the added bonus that facts are on our side.

    He! He!

  12. You hit the nail on the head. The Democrats were like deer in the headlights this past election cycle. They had no clue how to campaign against Republicans and Tea Partiers. They didn’t even try appealing to the head. They just gave up, even though they could have used many “head” arguments to counter outrageous claims against them. The trade unionists used to provide the guts and gonads arguments and sensibilities to the Democrats, but now that the unions are dominated by less agressive service sector and government employees, the Dems are in trouble. The blue collar vote is trending Republican and will stay there until the Democrats recognize they are a political party, not a policy party.

  13. I think it is outside social acceptability to fight hard and dirty on the progressive side. Liberals are polite and nice (even if they practice white flight and send their kids to private schools). I am progressive but grew up in a rough neighborhood and the polite / nice thing has seemed to me to be a sort of apology for being prosperous, with the means to separate yourself from those who really have to struggle.

    Nowadays, we are all less secure and the potential for conflict is rising, but the nice liberals don’t have the skills or values to fight hard and dirty – either to keep what they’ve got, or to change society.

    So I offer the following as an example. This comes directly from a blog exchange I was involved in recently. (Blogs are great for developing your rhetorical fight skills.) The exchange was about the individual mandate, and the general project of extending health care insurance to the uninsured.

    My tactic: go very strong, provoke a response, then cut them off at the knees.

    Me:
    We don’t have health care for all because we are a country of hate, and these arguments against the individual mandate are just that – hate, being spewed by those who love the existing system…

    Which is based in hate. It kills tens of thousands a year (who can’t afford health insurance) and bankrupts millions. In any other prosperous country, haters would not have the moral legitimacy to kill and kill and kill tens of thousands of their fellow citizens through the abuse of the health care ‘system’ . They would be jeered out of the political debate, because the toll in orphans and family destruction and overall death would be understood to be unconscionable.

    Why do these arguments have moral legitimacy? I think it is because those who promulgate them have not been vilified as the scoundrels they are.

    Blood runs through our streets – and these scoundrels are at fault. This is only the truth. I’ve had such death and destruction in my family and workplace. I am sick of the lies, and I am sick of the sullen, selfish, disgusting resentment that defines the American ‘character’

    TeaPartyDude:
    Hey you, its not out of hate. You are not a child. You are an adult. You need to recognize that the government isn’t your mommy and daddy. The world is tough. You need to educate yourself and work really, really hard. If you do, you will achieve the American dream. You can’t sit in your apartment, eat ding-dongs. collect welfare, have sex and reproduce like rabbits and expect the government (i.e. through tax payments by people like me) to support you. The hard working productive members of society reject this. Its time for you to do your fair share and support yourself INCLUDING health care. GROW UP!!!! THE WORLD DOESN’T OWE YOU ANYTHING.

    Me:
    Amazing that people are lecturing me about being tough.
    I am as tough as I need to be, and more. I am the one that started my own business, that has published books and has a patent. What have you got?

    Clue to the clueless: I’ve been in the cold cruel world and I’ve used that experience to make certain well founded judgments. I also am not scared of data and analysis of data, unlike the Tea Party fright club.

    One of the entrepreneurs I worked for committed suicide because of health care debts. Dude had the highest computer science score in the country the year he took the GRE. Brilliant guy. There are too many stories like that in my circle.

    We treat our people like trash. That description may fit you but even if it does, that approach on a general scale results in a waste of human potential that damages our country as a whole.

    You may think, because you are trash, that you are justified in turning this country into a trash heap: sick, broke, and jobless. You are mistaken. You are also a foul excuse for a human being.

    TeaPartyDude:

    Me again, commenting:
    You can see from the above how progressives have totally ceded the moral ground on health care. It’s beyond absurd that the right wing came up with illusory ‘death panels’ and we didn’t hit them on the beyond belief true death toll from lack of health care insurance. What weakness on our part, it’s astounding. My fear is, because we failed to go for the Moral High Ground, we may yet lose all of this health care reform.

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