Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Framing the Debate

Framing – What is it?
Framing is an aspect of argument which takes advantage of the fact that words evoke frames (such as images or other information). Even negating a frame results in invoking it, thus telling someone not to think of an elephant results in them. . . thinking of an elephant.

Linguist and Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff , who teaches at Berkely, California (and has a distinctly Democrat leaning political view point), uses this exact example as the title of his book , “Don’t think of an elephant!” (Pub: Chelsea Green) and gives the practical example of Richard Nixon who, during the Watergate crisis, memorably said “I am not a crook” at which point everybody thought of him as a crook !

Lakoff describes this as a key aspect of framing- When arguing, do not use the language of the other side- it will use a frame and that frame won’t be the one that you want.

George Lakoff (source)

Another example given is that of the phrase “tax relief” used by George W Bush. Lakoff considers the framing for the word “relief” and comments that “For there to be relief, there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction, and is therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent “

Furthermore, “A conservative on TV uses two words, like tax relief. And the progressive has to go into a paragraph-long discussion on his own view. The conservative can appeal to an established frame, that taxation is an affliction or burden, which allows for the two-word phrase “tax relief”. But there is no established frame on the other side. You can talk about it, but it takes some doing because there is no established frame, no fixed idea already out there.”

Perhaps, if the Democratic party had been airing adverts for years to construct their frame, it would now be easier for them to argue their case. Lakoff gives an example of the kind of ad that might have put across a different perspective on taxes, ““Our parents invested in the future, ours as well as theirs, through their lives. They invested their tax money in the interstate highway , the internet, the scientific and medical establishments, our communications system, our airline system the space program. They invested in the future, and we are reaping the tax benefits, the benefits from the taxes they have paid. Today we have assets – highways, schools and colleges, the Internet, airlines that come from the wise investments they made.”

Or the following :
“Taxation is paying your dues, paying your membership. If you join a country club or a community centre, you pay fees. . . otherwise (it) won’t be maintained and will fall apart. People who avoid taxes, like corporations that move to Bermuda are not paying their dues to this country. It is patriotic to be a taxpayer. It is traitorous to desert our country and not pay your dues”

US Interstate - built by taxes (source)

Lakoff comments that if you are faced with an opponent who is being disingenuous, you should point out what their real goal is and then reframe. For example, suppose he starts touting smaller government. Point out the conservatives don’t really want smaller government. They don’t want to eliminate the military, or the FBI, or the Treasury and Commerce departments, or the nine-tenths of the courts that support corporate law. It is big government that they like. What they really want to do away with is social programmes – programs that invest in people, to help people help themselves. Such a position contradicts the values the country was founded on – the idea of a community where people pull together to help each other.”

In a nutshell, Lakoff recommends the following four guidelines for political debate:
Show respect, Respond by reframing, Think and talk at the level of values, Say what you believe

Capacity Building
Lakoff describes how the differing priorities of the conservative and liberal political groups has resulted in the conservatives dominating the media. He comments that “In the right’s hierarchy of moral values, the top value is preserving and defending the moral system itself. If that is your main goal, what do you do? You build infrastructure. You buy up media in advance. You do things like give fellowships to right wing law students to help them through law school”.

He elaborates on this by pointing out that “The right wing think tanks get large block grants and endowments. Millions at a time. . . These institutions build human capital for the future. . . the interns are building lifetime networks. . . These are social networks that will pay dividends for years and years. The conservatives who built the think tanks are not dumb people.”

In contrast, progressive foundations focus on providing direct services to people in need and are focused on providing the most help for the most people – and on ensuring that no money is wasted.

The Conservative Mindset
Lakoff describes the conservative mindset as being the “strict father model” which views the world as a place where people compete to succeed and where there are winners and losers. Critically, this mindset believes that, if people are disciplined and pursue their self-interest in this land of opportunity, they will become prosperous and self-reliant.

When translated to government social programmes, this mindset believes that “It is immoral to give people things they have not earned, because they will then not develop discipline and will become dependent and immoral. . .if there are a lot of progressives in Congress who think that there should be social programmes, and if you believe that social programmes are immoral, how do you stop these immoral people. It is quite simple, what you have to do is to reward the good people - the ones whose prosperity reveals their discipline and hence their capacity for morality – with a tax cut, and make it big enough so that there is not enough money left for social programmes. By this logic, the deficit is a good thing. As Grover Norquist says “It starves the beast”’

Activating Models
Most people have both “strict father” and “nurturant” models to some degree. Thus, liberals are able to understand a John Wayne movie, whilst conservatives are able to understand a program like the Cosby Show. In addition, many people have different models in different aspects of their lives, for example “Reagan knew that blue-collar workers who were nurturant in their union politics were often strict fathers at home. He used political metaphors that were based on the home and family , and got them to extend their strict father way of thinking from the home to politics.”

An example of how this is done is given in the form of Frank Luntz, a conservative language expert. One of Luntz’s recent books of language guidlelines commented that the science was increasingly going against the conservative position on global warming, but that this could be countered by using the right language. “People who support environmentalist positions like certain words. They like the words “healthy”, “clean”, “safe” because these words fit frames that describe what the environment means to them. Therefore, says Luntz, use the words healthy, clean and safe whenever possible, even when talking about coal or nuclear power plants”

It’s the values, stupid !
Many politicians believe that if they just tell people the facts, then people will act according to their best interest and vote for them.

Yet, this is not what happens. For example ”In the 2000 election, Gore kept saying that Bush’s tax cuts would go only to the top 1% and he thought that everyone else would follow their self-interest and support him. But poor conservatives still opposed him.”

Cognitive scientists such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown , that people do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. Instead, they often vote their identity, or values, or who they identify with.

Results of the 2000 US election (source)

Foreign Policy
Regarding the “collateral damage” the has come with Us military adventures since 9/11, Lakoff comments that ““The argument the killing civilians in retaliation would make us as bad as them works for liberals, not for conservatives. The idealistic claim of the Bush administration that is the they intend to wipe out all terrorism. What is not mentioned is that the United States has systematically promoted a terrorism of its own and has trained terrorists, from the contras to the mujahideen, the Honduran death squads and the Indonesian military. Will the US government stop training terrorists? Of course not. It will deny that it does so. Is this duplicity? Not in terms of conservative morality and its view of good versus evil and “lesser evils (such as collateral damage and support for dictators)”. Indeed, Newt Gingritch has commented on the Fox network that “Retribution is Justice”.

Lakoff further describes the Iraq invasion as being viewed by the Bush administration as an invasion that “furthers our self-interest in controlling the flow of oil from the world’s second largest known reserve, and in being in the position to control the flow of oil from central asia. This would guarantee energy domination over a significant part of the world. The United States could control oil sales around the world. And in the absence of alternative fuel development, whoever controls the worldwide distribution of oil controls politics and economics”

Thought it might be worth mentioning one of the most powerful examples of framing that BFTF has ever heard...

It comes from the Submarine Thriller "Crinson Tide" starring Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, who play the Captain and Lt Commander respectively.

At one point they are having a formal dinner with the other officers and Washington is being quite cagey with some of his answers to questions, which provokes Hackman into saying the followng line :

"I don't mean to suggest that you're indecisive, Mr. Hunter. Not at all. Just, uh... complicated."

And, of course, what pops up in the viewers mind, despite Hackmans protestations, is that Hackman views Washington as being "indecisive".