Say what? What we mean when we talk

"American women don't wear knickers­ they're not in style." I was standing on a sidewalk in London, outside our apartment, chatting with my English neighbor. Her eyes opened wide at what I'd just told her. Why was she was so surprised? I figured I'd better elaborate.

"Actually, they've never been the style for women," I said. "And American men haven't worn them since the Revolution."

I'd seen this woman leaving her house the previous evening dressed up in velvet knee-britches. She looked great, and I wondered why I hadn't seen anyone back home dressed like that.

As you likely know, "knickers" is the British-English word for ladies' underpants. But this was 1981, before the expression about getting one's "knickers in a twist" made its way across the Atlantic, and I had no idea that the word meant anything other than old-fashioned knee-britches, the kind Mr. Jefferson wore.

I've just discovered that I've been having countless "knickers"-type misunderstandings right here on my home turf. Enlightenment arrived in the form of a book that's a veritable Rosetta Stone for understanding the differences between America's feuding conservatives and liberals.

The author is linguist George Lakoff­ but it's not his superficial Don't Think of an Elephant book. It's a far meatier tome entitled Moral Politics.

I thought I had a firm grip on what is and isn't moral. Fool that I am, I assumed my fellow Americans shared those values. Compassion, fairness, social responsibility­ those are core American values, right? Behaving morally involves the ability to imagine myself in other people's shoes, and to do something to make their lives better, fairer, healthier– whether they're related to me or not.

The sole reward is knowing I've done the right thing and made the world a better place. Do I fall short of these ideals? You bet. But they give me something to aim for.

Turns out, that's my take on morality because I'm a typical bleeding-heart liberal. For a conservative, morality ain't nothing like that, according to Professor Lakoff. Being moral, in the parallel universe of conservatism, is about being self-disciplined– and the way you become self-disciplined is through competition.

External rewards and punishments are central to achieving self-discipline and therefore essential to a moral society. (This explains why conservative Christians cannot conceive of how an atheist or agnostic­ or anyone who does not believe in the existence of hell­ can possibly get through a day without robbing a bank or killing someone. Because, if you're not afraid of God's punishment, what's stopping you?)

And because competition and rewards are the basis of this moral structure, money necessarily goes to the "best" people. Those with the most money are the most moral people of all. To take money away from these obviously self-disciplined, good people is to punish them. Therefore, taxes are immoral.

During his acceptance speech at the 1992 Republican convention, Dan Quayle, commenting on the practice of taxing the rich at a higher rate, said, "Why should the best people be punished?" The applause that followed was deafening.

The first time I heard that quote, I had absolutely no idea what Quayle was talking about. It was English, that I knew for sure. But "best" people? "Punished"? Huh? In light of Lakoff's explanation, I now get it.

If you're poor, you are not among the "best" people. Your poverty is a result of your immorality. If only you were self-disciplined, you, too would be rich. And by providing social programs such as Head Start to take care of your children for you, or food stamps to stop your hunger (or your children's hunger), we're taking away the punishment for your obvious lack of self-discipline. And without the punishment, how could you possibly muster the self-discipline to climb the ladder of success?

This explains why our conservative Congress has been trying to reduce the deficit by taking money away from food-stamp programs, Head Start, and Medicaid, and why they won't even talk about ending the generous tax breaks for the rich. They believe, in their heart of hearts, that social welfare programs are conceived in immorality.

So when Democrats try to appeal to the conscience of conservative Republicans by saying, "How can you give this money to the wealthiest one percent when millions of Americans have no medical care and don't have enough food to feed themselves and their families?" they're met with silence and blank stares.

We both speak English, but we're talking past each other because in the moral lexicon of American conservatives, a term like "food stamps" says "evil." To liberals, it indicates compassion. Evil, for liberals, is turning your back on the needs of the sick, the hungry, and the homeless.

This is just one example in a book filled with forehead-slapping moments. I kept turning the pages and muttering, "Who knew?"

When I hear of more cuts in social programs, I'll no doubt continue to get my proverbial knickers in a twist, but now I'll know exactly why it's happening.