How To Talk To A Conservative

By Liz Massey, July 2017 Issue.

If nothing else, last November’s elections taught us that the American “culture wars” are a literal, ongoing reality. The biggest and most destructive bombshell from the election, of course, was the ascendancy of a trust fund baby turned reality show star to the Oval Office. A lot of progressives are still recovering from the whiplash and asking, “How could things go so wrong, so fast?”

Many of us in the LGBTQ community know that the ramp-up to this catastrophic turn of events started well before 2016. The modern conservative movement is just over 50 years old, and they’ve used most of the past few decades to pour substantial amounts of money and energy into perfecting their rhetoric. We have often played the role of scapegoat for the conservative right wing, with our relationships and identities being framed as a threat to everything holy, patriotic or moral.

All too often during this era, the Democrats have, at best, countered conservative talking points with weak, tepid alternatives that mostly play off how conservatives have framed the issue. But, thankfully, cognitive linguistics professor George Lakoff has been churning out helpful books for more than 20 years that deconstruct the language the right uses to achieve their policy victories, and that propose ways in which progressives can catch up and win the idea-framing war.

Framing 101

Being able to frame issues in terms of progressive values matters because, especially in a state like Arizona, it’s impossible to avoid contact with conservatives. They are our neighbors, our relatives, our bosses and our elected officials. If we truly want to see things like full LGBTQ equality, universal healthcare, economic justice and environmental sustainability to come to pass, we will have to get our hands dirty and talk to people who think differently than we do.

Lakoff, in his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” says that conservatives and liberals have distinctly different worldviews, and understanding how those worldviews influence their behavior is crucial. It will come as no surprise to any queer person who has experienced religious rejection to hear that conservatives believe in the “strong father” paradigm. It’s a patriarchal system that fights to preserve white straight male privilege (because they believe that is the “natural order of things”) and punish those who rebel against those rules. Life is unsafe and under constant threat in the strong-father mindset; being competitive and a “winner” is crucial to coming out on top.

By contrast, the progressive worldview maps to a “nurturing parent” model, that emphasizes empathy, responsibility to self and others, and working together to achieve common goals. The bridge between these two divergent camps comes through the fact that many people have a worldview that is a mix of strong father and nurturing parent; those people Lakoff calls “bi-conceptuals,” and they are the people progressives can successfully influence.

How to frame the debate and win

One of the key mistakes that Democrats and other progressives make over and over again, Lakoff says, is that they believe facts will save the day. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“You cannot win by stating the true facts and showing that they contradict your opponent’s claims,” he writes. “Frames trump facts. His frames will stay and the facts will bounce off.”

So how do we start constructive conversations with conservatives that help us make progressive ideals a reality? Lakoff offers some good advice in relatively simple terms.

1. Show Respect

Most Americans are a mix of strong-father and nurturant-parent worldviews. If you want to influence someone, embody nurturance by practicing empathy with their current point of view.

2. Respond By Reframing

ALWAYS take a political issue and present it through your values. Don’t spend your energy refuting the opposition’s talking points. Instead, start a reframing conversation with words like, “Wouldn’t it be better if ...” followed by your vision of what should be happening.

3. Think and Talk at the Level of Values

As mentioned earlier, voters and lawmakers DO NOT change their belief system when confronted with facts. Facts matter, but staying true to one’s values and thinking in a way that remains consistent with one’s identity matter much more.

4. Say What You Believe

Even if your position is not very popular, state your position based on your authentically held values.

It can be very frustrating right now to tilt against the mighty windmills of propaganda that conservatives have built. But it’s worth it. As Lakoff reminds us, “Our values [are] the best of traditional American values. We win with civil discourse and respectful cooperative conversation. Why? Because it is an instance of the nurturant model at the level of communication, and our job is to evoke and maintain the nurturant model.”

In other words, LGBTQ progressives don’t have to use tools that are in conflict with what the movement stands for in order for us to win; we just have to use the best of our values to the utmost of their potential.

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