After Bernie Sanders’ eight hours of keeping it real on the U.S. Senate floor on Friday, I was sent an essay by Jack Whelan entitled the Battle for the Commonplace Center in which he uses the work of George Lakoff to argue – correctly – that Progressives lose battles to the Right precisely because they don’t understand the process of creating compelling messages that will ultimately win over the American public.
Lakoff describes this as “framing” – which is quite distinct from reasonableness, as Whelan describes – and it’s a concept that the left has to grasp instead of wallowing in the losses of this past November.
What is framing?
A good starting point for thinking about framing is actually to draw upon the notion of “being framed” in the criminal sense, as described well by Joe Brewer of Cognitive Policy Works.
An example is the reaction to the word ‘frame’ as if it meant “I was framed!” The conceptual model for being framed is one of a malevolent person placing blame for wrongdoing on another person who is actually innocent. In this context, to “use frames” is to intentionally mislead people into believing that a good person has done something wrong. The listener is naturally cautious about incorporating frames into their practices because they see the use of ‘frames’ as malicious and deceptive.
When someone is “framed” in the criminal sense, it means that someone has constructed a narrative about them that makes them appear to be guilty even if they are actually innocent. There’s a clear overlap here between resonance and reason, but what Brewer is describing is the construction of that message that makes people believe something about a person that is not true. And to paraphrase the wisdom of Dave Chappelle, being accused of something you simply did not do can be infuriating, to say the very least.
Brewer’s entire article is worth reading, but the point is that we all have a network of associations in our minds and what frames do is create message that activate those associations which can sometimes override reason. As a meta example here, a fan (or, in my case, maybe disciple) of Chappelle will have a very different response to the last paragraph than someone who’s never heard of him – they might immediately associate his name with humor and “get the reference” to his entire joke about being framed and perceive that line as a dose of levity amidst a discussion about cognitive stuff. However, while that is funny to me, the reference might be lost on people who simply don’t have that reference (or for some bizarre reason don’t like Chappelle).
Here’s what seems to be lost on the left, particularly if you watch cable news: in social interactions, we often assume that because we have things in common with people we spend time with we also have common “frames of reference”. Dropping these little esoteric or subtle references adds richness to the interaction by not having to explain as much – thus making dialogue more efficient – as well as a level of exclusivity that sort of establishes an identity for that social circle relative to the world or a level of intimacy. Over time, shared experience leads to common understandings and more opportunities and resources for framing.
Conversely, in politics – and this is Whelan’s point – you have to find frames that resonate with people who might not have common ground, not to mention common experiences. It’s a much more difficult task and a fundamental principle of rhetoric is that the burden is on the speaker, not the audience. It’s not about reasoning things out with people because different experiences will result in different ways of sensemaking. It’s about finding things that resonate with some fundamental human sensibility, sometimes in an effort to “short-circuit” reason.
What Lakoff establishes in his book Don’t Think Of An Elephant is that conservatives have poured money into think tanks to create and refine sophisticated messages (or political framing) since Richard Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. An example – though not necessarily a direct result – is Nixon’s usage of “the silent majority” in the 1968 presidential election, which was used explicitly to challenge socially conservative U.S. citizens to reject the challenge to the status quo posed by a vocal minority contingent in the 60′s. It’s brilliant framing because at the time it had wide appeal to people who might have disliked the changes occurring in U.S. society but had no way of coming together around that without being cast as “bad people” (e.g. “racists” or “warmongers”).
Perhaps the benefit to that as compared to saying, “Reject the vocal minority” is obvious – a positive frame gives people something to latch onto and lays the path for an agenda (e.g. uphold the values of the silent majority, which are a, b, c, and “elephant”). A negative frame gives people something to stand against without establishing a message of what they should stand for (e.g. reject the values of the vocal minority, which are a, b, c, and “elephant”). If you rely on negative frames, you implicitly agree to allow the other side to set the terms of the debate – if they say “elephant!” and you say “Don’t think of an elephant!”, then you’re both ultimately still talking about elephants without any alternative.
With that, now fast forward to the present and the video above advocating for people to “Drop the I-Word”, which clearly articulates the power of words – as it opens, “Calling people illegals feeds a hate machine and hurts our nation’s future.” Both media and politicians who have described migrants as “illegals” have exploited fundamental human feelings of economic insecurity and racialized fear by framing a group of people’s existence as criminal. And that framing perpetuates hate toward the targeted Latino demographic that leads to violent acts and speech.
Framing is thus not only important on the Senate floor, but also in the culture of a society.
And this campaign is actually a lens to look at framing in a number of ways.
On the one hand, although this campaign appeals to reason, it also clearly demonstrates the power of framing and the difficulty of undoing it: the “right-wing” individuals who use the I-word will still short-circuiting that reason with anxiety, fear, and hate in spite of this campaign. It’s a noble campaign and one absolutely worthy of supporting because indeed we should stop labeling people in ways that perpetuate hate. Yet although the argument is reasonable, on the surface, it seems to leave us with an open question: if media and politicians are screaming, “Illegals!” how effective is it for human rights advocates to say, “Drop the I-word”?
On the other hand, the goal of this campaign is not purely rhetorical, though it makes a rhetorical claim about the harms associated with using the term “illegals”; the goal of this campaign is to compel people to act and by framing the use of the term “illegals” as the precursor to violence, it does that effectively. At the end of the video and their campaign it’s clear that their message is get people topersuade the media to stop using the I-word – which they are using at an increasing rate – in order to contribute to the larger goal of respecting the humanity of those who cross our border.
There is a conceptual tension between rhetoric and action in this particular case that is difficult to resolve in the abstract. What will ultimately matter is whether they mobilize enough people to accomplish this particular goal which is to end the use of a word that dehumanizes people.
But it’s also easy to see from this very campaign how in general, without a clear alternative message, the dominant message remains at the forefront of people’s minds and places the burden on the audience to seek alternatives, which in turn makes it more difficult to bring people together in common cause, much less change hearts and minds.
Progressives need to begin taking framing more seriously because unfortunately their reasoning, no matter how strong, isn’t shared everywhere.