Sunday, November 09, 2008

Barack Obama Activated Our Natural Empathy and Cooperation

The Republicans didn’t have a chance against Obama given the context of fear from which Americans wanted to escape. According to neuroscience, we all hold to a greater or lesser extent two moral world views---conservative and progressive. Sometimes, we hold both at the same time on an issue-specific basis. These modes of thought are hard-wired into our brains through biology and experience. They literally “light up” and drive our behaviour, often unconsciously, depending on the language, images and stories of the world around us.

Applying the world view contexts to the presidential election results, the financial crisis coupled with a myriad of legacy issues (war in Iraq and climate change, for example) tipped the balance towards empathy and cooperation. Since Barack Obama’s language of hope and change related closely to the latter, his stories appealed across a broad spectrum of people who were ready for a change. His messages, so different from the fear, coercion and isolationism of the last eight years, activated en masse the progressive moral world view of millions of American voters and people from all walks of life around the world.

As Professor George Lakoff, a distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley describes in The Political Mind, the differences between the two moral world views are like a nurturing versus a strict parent. The nurturing parent models empathy, responsibility for oneself and others and the strength to carry out those responsibilities. The strict parent model, on the other hand, is concerned with authority, obedience, discipline and punishment.

In political terms, the progressive view champions caring—taking responsibility, acting courageously and powerfully. The role of government is to protect and empower—a social justice model. That means having in place a range of supports for community life beyond the hard services such as police, fire, the military, roads and well-run financial and legal systems. The softer services figure prominently in the government’s agenda---a social safety net, clean water, safe food, accessible health care and education, disaster relief, consumer and worker protection and environmental stewardship, etc...

Unlike the nurturing side of the progressive view, conservative thought politically is concerned with obedience to authority—knowing right from wrong and being loyal within a hierarchy. The role of government is to protect us from evil and minimize constraints such as regulations, taxes, unions, and certain anti-individual freedom laws. This model of government is more laissez faire.
In reality, each one of us and our political leaders link these different world views in a variety of combinations. What holds sway for voters is contingent on the situation and how it impacts our emotional needs. For Obama, the “perfect storm” of issues matched his generally progressive philosophy and acumen at mobilizing people, that is, engaging and empowering individuals and groups in managing their own wellbeing in tough times.

Now that the cheering has subsided, we are left wondering whether this cool, calm and seemingly centred and caring president-elect is who he seems to be. He has yet to create the data which will prove one way or the other. Academics have taken to analyzing his language and thoughts (contradictory) and comparing and contrasting his apparent attributes to former presidents. He compares well to Kennedy, Lincoln, Roosevelt (Franklin D.), Reagan and Clinton. The pundits are conducting their post-mortems in minute detail looking for any signs of what is to come.

One of them reflects the “morning after the party feelings.” Our very own Rex Murphy of CBC TV and the Globe and Mail believes that “Hillary woke Mr. Obama out of his dangerous complacency and gave him a taste of humility—not a welcome flavour…to the Obama palate.” Murphy goes on to explain that “she found his weak spot---the patrician element in him, the high yuppie disdain.” “She also taught him that some people in politics go for the jugular.” So, who will we see? The humble Obama from which empathy and caring arise or the patrician, overly cool Obama?

In that few get training in how to be a president in advance of landing the job, like most leaders, he’ll be learning as he goes. He and we will find out who he is as the issues are confronted and dealt with.

We can be certain though that he will be more curious, open and collaborative than his predecessor based on his track record. That’s good news. In that empathy and “real” reason” are both needed, we might see Hillary again working with not against Obama. For her many supporters, that will be a welcome outcome.

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