Thursday, September 23, 2004

On the Framing of Framing

Lindsay Beyerstein at "Majikthise" has a great response to my framing post. As she notes:

Lakoff is simply arguing that liberals need to devote more effort to packaging their ideas into attractive rhetorical/metaphorical soundbites. He got tired of watching conservatives win media debates by saying "I'm for tax relief." and "My opponent supports the death tax." Nobody wants to be against relief, nobody wants to be seen pushing a death tax.

Liberals need vigorous counter-framing to highlight our beliefs and values. Framing doesn't have to be deceptive or simplistic. I happen to believe that taxes are more like the dues of an exclusive club than like a disease from which one deserves relief....

Ironically, I think "welfare" was a great liberal frame back in the day. Eventually, even the best frames become dead metaphors. Nowadays, "welfare" is losing its original positive connotation and even becoming perjorative (eg "welfare bum". "welfare queen"). That's why we have to keep thinking up new ones.

And I certainly have to concede all this; my criticism was a bit loose and unguarded. Nonetheless, the point I primarily intended remains. I think I might be able to clarify it by looking at it indirectly:

1) The way progressives are framing the issue of framing itself is a bad way to do it.

This in two ways:

a) First, They Need to Link to Experience: Lakoff's example of taxation is a case in point. Lakoff repeatedly speaks as if the primary reason people consider tax reduction to be 'tax relief' were that they keep hearing it over and over again. But unless one just meant that people are using the label because they've heard it before, this seems to be simply false. People do use the words they hear; and it is the case that this has some influence on their thought. But it doesn't explain why they pick up some such phrases so easily and just ignore others. There is, I think, a very good reason to think that the reason 'tax relief' was picked up so quickly and easily was that it fits what people, rightly or wrongly, already felt tax reduction to be. For one thing, the view that taxation is a burden of some sort goes back a long, long way. The value of the notion of 'framing' is that it puts in a clear way the consequences of characterizing something inappropriately, i.e., the problems that arise when you characterize bad things as if they were good and good things as if they were bad. But this can only be applied if people don't use it as an excuse to avoid seeing why people are so ready to characterize some things the way they are.

In other words: instead of starting with trying to reframe the issues, progressives should start with people's actual experiences, and look into what it is in people's experiences that makes it seem so fitting for so many to talk about burdens and relief. Lindsay is right to bring up dead metaphors; but the difference between dead metaphors and living metaphors is that people simply use dead metaphors as labels, but use living metaphors as somehow appropriate. If they have no experience of something they receive a metaphor about, they (if they accept it) take it as appropriate on trust. However, if they do have experience of it -- and it is certainly the case that people have experience of taxation -- they will also often reject metaphors that seem inappropriate to that experience, and accept metaphors that seem appropriate. (It's always possible, of course, that people are simply making errors about what actually is appropriate to their own experiences; but this, again, is something that can only be seen by looking at people's actual experiences.) What worries me on this point is that progressives, so excited about 'framing', have not yet been able to characterize it in such a way that would distinguish it from euphemism. And the reason is that they have not taken this opportunity to look at the fact that most political policies get interpreted through a mix of good and bad experiences for many, many people. Suppose we stopped calling taxes 'taxes' and started calling them 'national dues'. The question that has to be asked is: would people start liking taxes better, or would most of them start hating the whole notion of national dues? And this can't be answered without looking first at what people actually experience and seeing how to make that better.

b) Second, They Need to Stop Framing It as Manipulative: And they do frame it as manipulative; the discussion in this Crooked Timber post from a few weeks back is a case in point. In what way do they frame it as manipulative? They focus on trying to get a psychological effect rather than trying to meet with people where they are, and where their experiences are. Thus the post talks about "creating a psychological barrier to opposition". This meets up, of course, with my first concern: Instead of looking at why real people are, because of their experiences, finding conservative tropes plausible, the conversation slips into talking about how to make it impossible for people to disagree with you. Instead of listening in on a genuinely progressive gameplan, we start getting, by an unfortunate crossing of wires, the next Doubleplusunthink project from Minitrue in Orwell's 1984.

2) What we need is not a new progressive vocabulary. What we need are new progressives, that is, progressives who are genuinely progressive in how they approach the entire issue. That means that they must be personalist, concerned with policies not in the abstract but in the concrete ways they affect real, living, breathing human beings. They must be ready to recognize that a lot of good policies have the problem that they often leave experiences that seem bad if not put in the larger context, and sometimes even experiences that are genuinely bad; and dealing with this should always be the first concern of progressives. It is out of this, and this alone, that the best, and most genuinely progressive, framings of the situation will come; they certainly will not come out of a label war. But it looks like liberals are heading for a label war.

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