Interpreting Obama’s Bad Press on Syria — Part I: George Lakoff’s Interpretation


    [ABS: The premise of this two-part series is that the press has been inappropriately, or at least excessively, dumping on Obama for the course he’s taken on Syria. I believe Lakoff’s ideas, below, provide one valid piece of the explanation. I’ll soon be posting some of my own thoughts, which I think add another dimension to the picture.]

    Here’s the essence of Lakoff’s article, which appears in Huffington Post:

    Every language in the world has a way in its grammar to express direct causation: a local application of force that has a local effect in place and time…

    No language in the world has a way in its grammar to express systemic causation. You drill a lot more oil, burn a lot more gas, put a lot more CO2 in the air, the earth’s atmosphere heats up, more moisture evaporates from the oceans yielding bigger storms in certain places and more droughts and fires in other places: systemic causation.

    … Systemic causation cannot be experienced directly. It has to be learned, its cases studied, and repeated communication is necessary before it can be widely understood.

    To President Obama, “Syria” is not primarily about direct causation. It is about systemic causation as it affects the world as a whole. It is about preventing the proliferation of poison gas use and nuclear weapons. It is about the keeping and enforcement of treaties on these matters….But the president has not made this clear, and he could not possibly do it in one speech, given that most people don’t viscerally react to systemic causation, and many don’t understand it at all.

    As a result, the president’s logic of limited bombing is not understood: he wants to bomb to prevent the systemic effect of the use of poison gas, not to stop the direct killing via other means, which we cannot stop.

    Lakoff’s interpretation makes good use of cognitive psychology.  I think he captures part of the problem. I will offer, shortly, an additional interpretation which will seek to illuminate another dimension of President Obama’s bad press, drawing on the kind of psychology that deals with emotions and symbolic communication that are the province of clinical psychology.