April 25, 2013
I wrote this in the 1990s (for a magazine). I’m resurrecting it here for two reasons – 1) a recent Guardian article (News is bad for you) makes similar points, and, 2) I’ve had my fill of “news” lately, and plan to practise what I preach here…
“Information anxiety” is caused by the “ever widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand”, according to Saul Wurman, who coined the term. But what makes us think we should understand any of it?
There are two common notions about “being informed”: i) it’s irresponsible not to be, and ii) it’s unsafe not to be. In other words, social consensus (which defines “irresponsible”) and basic survival anxieties (which define “unsafe”) lead to information anxiety – so perhaps it shouldn’t be underestimated as a social influence.
Most people probably feel Oprahfied to some extent – ie pressured to have opinions on everything the media defines as important. And they fear falling behind. (According to a report in the Guardian,1 nearly half the population have this fear).
This is partly due to “good marketing” – the advertisers’ and content-providers’ constant drip, drip of things you “should” know about is intended to induce anxiety, so you spend money to relieve it. (A major UK company’s marketing chief once admitted to me that his profession was concerned entirely with stimulating consumer fear and greed).2
As a selling strategy, “fear of being left out” has no limits when applied to media (entertainment/information-based) products. There’s a limit to how many cars you need, but there’s no limit to what you “should” know about.
The info-anxiety theory recommends that we find more effective ways to process information, so we can absorb more without being overwhelmed. A better approach, however, might be to simply filter out the 99.9% of information that serves no purpose for you.
How much “information” consists of people making noises to avoid listening to themselves think? Media presenters tend not to be quietly reflective. The over-representation of “loud” personalities on TV no doubt contributes to the increasingly accepted notion that “quiet introspection” is a mental illness – peaceful isolation from extroversion and media noise seems like a difficult commodity to find.
Fortunately, you don’t need a cave to escape to – you can take a holiday from info-noise without going anywhere, simply by changing a few parameters of your mental processes. This technique has existed in various forms for centuries – used by “eccentrics” who wanted to revive their faculty of thinking, as opposed to having people’s thoughts (ie reflection rather than verbal loops).
Side effects included improved imagination and weirder dreams. You might enjoy trying it:
→ For a set period (eg 1 or 2 weeks), completely avoid TV, newspapers, magazines, radio, browsing in newsagents, topical chatter, etc [2013 update: add online news & social media to the list]. This is done by refusing such stimuli any admittance to your mind.
Mass-media “information” largely consists of non-useful, vaguely entertaining distraction. Of the non-trivial, non-amusement content (eg some of “the news”), most concerns things you’re powerless to influence. (Conversely, the issues you might influence seem notably absent).
Why clutter your brain with things you can do nothing about? How can it be irresponsible or unsafe to ignore it, if (at best) it’s of no positive use to you, and (at worse) it damages your health?
2013 addition: The recent Guardian piece I mentioned makes pretty much the same points (plus several others). I recommend a good look at it. Here are a few quotes:
“Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory.”
“Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It’s not because they got older or their schedules became more onerous. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed.”
(‘News is bad for you’, Guardian, 12/4/13)
1. The Guardian, 22/10/96
2. M&SFS Head of Marketing, 1990
Graphics by NewsFrames
April 8, 2013 – JK Rowling should perhaps be given a Nobel Prize for getting a generation of kids to read books. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s generated endless amounts of tax revenue. How was this phenomenon nurtured? By a little time and space on the dole.
You’d be surprised how many successful people developed their craft on the dole. In a way, most successful corporations also require a long period on the dole. Do you think Boeing and Microsoft would have achieved commercial success without decades of state-funded research and development in aerospace and computing?
Any true wealth-generating activity requires periods of “social nurturing” which aren’t profitable. They’re not self-funding in the short term; they are dependent. (We realise this for children – we call it “education”. The money spent on it is regarded as social investment).
“Investment” (in human beings) was also one of the ideas – along with “safety net” – behind “social security”. The welfare state was created in the forties, in a post-war economy which was nowhere near as wealthy as now (imagine: computer technology didn’t exist).
But, for decades, the rightwing press, “free market” think-tanks, politicians and pundits (not just of the right) have wanted you to think differently about social security. They want you to think of “welfare” as an unnecessary nuisance which costs more than everything else combined.
To that end, a simple set of claims, accompanied by a certain type of framing, is relentlessly pushed into our brains by newspaper front pages and TV and internet screens. It has two main components:
- Vastly exaggerate the real cost of “welfare” and falsely portray it as “spiralling out of control” (how this is done is explained here and here). Misleadingly include things like pensions in the total cost when you’re talking about unemployment. (This partly explains why people believe unemployment accounts for 41% of the “welfare” bill, when it accounts for only 3% of the total).
- Appeal to the worst aspects of social psychology by repeatedly associating a stereotype (the “benefits scrounger/cheat”) with the concept of “welfare”. One doesn’t have to be a prison psychologist to understand how anger and frustration are channeled towards those perceived as lower in the pecking order: “the scum”. (According to a recent poll, people believe the welfare fraud rate is 27%, whereas the government estimates it as 0.7%).
It’s a potently malign cocktail. When imbibed repeatedly, there’s little defense against its effects. Even those who depend on benefits come to view benefits recipients in a harshly negative light (see Fern Brady’s article for examples). Those politicians who aren’t naturally aligned with rightwing ideology go on the defensive – they talk about “being tough” and “full employment“. It just reinforces the anti-welfare framing.
The strangely puritanical – and deeply irrational – obsession with “jobs”, ”hard-working families”, etc, at a time in history when greater leisure for all is more than a utopian promise (due to the maturation of labour-saving technology, etc) seems an integral part of the conservative framing – which is perhaps why many on the “left” find it difficult to provide counter-narratives.
But that would require another article. For now I’ll leave you with a short video explaining Basic Income – a fast-spreading idea which is highly relevant to the above. (Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently championed Basic Income as a “big idea” to unite the left).
Feb 14, 2013 – For Descartes, error meant believing something based on insufficient evidence. St Augustine arrived at a similar notion 1,200 years earlier, but presumably rejected it due to theological implications (eg lack of evidence supporting the doctrine of how the serpent approached Eve).
Believing stuff based on meagre evidence is what people do. And as Kathryn Schulz notes, in Being Wrong, it’s not something that we do only occasionally – we do it all the time. As she puts it, “believing things based on paltry evidence is the engine that drives the entire miraculous machinery of human cognition”.
It seems understandable that our nervous systems function in this way. How much evidence do you need to show you that bumping into things hurts? It’s not in your best interests to go around bumping into everything just to accumulate a lot of evidence that it’s painful. Once or twice is enough.
On this “physical” level, human cognition isn’t about amassing “sufficient” evidence or looking for counterevidence – it’s about efficient ways to adapt/survive. This doesn’t normally include logic, scepticism, doubt, systematic experimentation, etc. And yet it works well for dealing with a large part of our ‘reality’ (including learning language – which we’ll come to).
So, our “default” cognitive operating system doesn’t resemble our idealised view of ourselves as reasonable people who weigh the “factual” evidence. And, anyway, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere at this blog, we tend not to think in “facts” or logical propositions – mostly we think in metaphorical frames, especially on areas more abstract or complex than, say, object A bumping into object B.
This brings us to “inductive reasoning” – the act of guessing based on past experience. Unlike formal-logic “deductive” reasoning, inductive thinking yields beliefs which are only probabilistically true (not necessarily true). To cite David Hume’s famous example: How can you be certain that all swans are white if you’ve only seen a tiny fraction of all the swans ever to exist? No matter how many white swans you see, you’ll only be adding to an accumulation of evidence, rather than deducing the necessary color of swans. So, inductions can never be proven in an absolute or necessary sense, but they can be corroborated (with evidence) to the effect that they’re regarded as more likely to be true than is the next best guess. They can be falsified, ie proven wrong, however – in this case with the discovery of black swans. This business of inductive corroboration & falsification forms a large part of “scientific method” (in theory at least).
At this point, I think I’ll just quote some brief excerpts straight from Kathryn Schulz’s book (particularly from the chapter on “Evidence”), since she puts things so clearly and there’s no point in making pointless work for myself. (Schulz is particularly good on the chilling pitfalls of inductive reasoning – ‘confirmation bias’, stereotyping, etc):
“Psychologists and neuroscientists increasingly think that inductive reasoning undergirds virtually all of human cognition. You make best guesses based on your cumulative exposure to the evidence every day, both unconsciously and consciously.”
“This kind of guesswork is also how you learned almost everything you know about the world. Take language. Your parents didn’t teach you to talk by sitting you down and explaining that English is a subject-verb-object language, that most verbs are converted to the past tense by adding the suffix “-ed,”… and so forth. Mercifully for everyone involved, they didn’t have to. All they had to do was keep on chatting about how Mommy poured the milk and Laura painted a pretty picture, and you figured it out by yourself.”
“One reason the great linguist Noam Chomsky thought language learning must be innate is that the entire corpus of spoken language (never mind the subset spoken to children under four) doesn’t seem to contain enough evidence to learn all of grammar. He called this problem “the poverty of the stimulus.” In particular, he pointed out, children never hear examples of grammatical structures that aren’t permissible in their language, such as “Mommy milk poured” or “picture pretty painted Laura.” This raises the question of how kids know such structures aren’t permissible, since, in formal logic, never hearing such sentences wouldn’t mean that they don’t exist. [As logicians say, lack of evidence is not evidence of a lack.] But if we learn language inductively, the poverty of the stimulus might not be a problem after all. It’s a good bet that if you’ve been paying attention to language for four years and you’ve never heard a certain grammatical form before, you are never going to hear it. Inductively, lack of evidence actually is evidence of a lack.”
“However slapdash it might initially seem, this best-guess style of reasoning is critical to human intelligence. In fact, these days, inductive reasoning is the leading candidate for actually being human intelligence.”
“[L]eaping to conclusions is what we always do in inductive reasoning, but we generally only call it that when the process fails us – that is, when we leap to wrong conclusions. In those instances, our habit of relying on meager evidence, normally so clever, suddenly looks foolish. [...] Since the whole point of inductive reasoning is to draw sweeping assumptions based on limited evidence, it is an outstanding machine for generating stereotypes. Think about the magnitude of the extrapolation involved in going from “This swan is white” to “All swans are white.” In context, it seems unproblematic, but now try this: “This Muslim is a terrorist” – “All Muslims are terrorists.” Suddenly, induction doesn’t seem so benign.”
“If the stereotypes we generate based on small amounts of evidence could be overturned by equally small amounts of counterevidence, this particular feature of inductive reasoning wouldn’t be terribly worrisome. A counterexample or two would give the lie to false and pernicious generalizations, and we would amend or reject our beliefs accordingly. But this is the paradox of inductive reasoning: although small amounts of evidence are sufficient to make us draw conclusions, they are seldom sufficient to make us revise them.”
“We don’t gather the maximum possible evidence in order to reach a conclusion; we reach the maximum possible conclusion based on the barest minimum of evidence. [...] We don’t assess evidence neutrally; we assess it in light of whatever theories we’ve already formed on the basis of whatever other, earlier evidence we have encountered.”
“Sometimes, by contrast, we see the counterevidence just fine – but, thanks to confirmation bias, we decide that it has no bearing on the validity of our beliefs. In logic, this tendency is known, rather charmingly, as the No True Scotsman fallacy. Let’s say you believe that no Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge. I protest that my uncle, Angus McGregor of Glasgow, puts sugar in his porridge every day. “Aye,” you reply, “but no true Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge.” So much for my counterevidence – and so much the better for your belief. This is an evergreen rhetorical trick, especially in religion and politics. As everyone knows, no true Christian supports legalized abortion (or opposes it), no true follower of the Qur’an supports suicide bombings (or opposes them), no true Democrat supported the Iraq War (or opposed it)…et cetera.”
“The Iraq War also provides a nice example of another form of confirmation bias. At a point when conditions on the ground were plainly deteriorating, then-President George W. Bush argued otherwise by, in the words of the journalist George Packer, “interpreting increased violence in Iraq as a token of the enemy’s frustration with American success.” Sometimes, as Bush showed, we look straight at the counterevidence yet conclude that it supports our beliefs instead.”
“The final form of confirmation bias I want to introduce is by far the most pervasive – and, partly for that reason, by far the most troubling. On the face of it, though, it seems like the most benign, because it requires no active shenanigans on our part. [...] Instead, this form of confirmation bias is entirely passive: we simply fail to look for any information that could contradict our beliefs.”
“You don’t need to be one of history’s greatest scientists to combat your inductive biases. Remembering to attend to counterevidence isn’t difficult; it is simply a habit of mind. But, like all habits of mind, it requires conscious cultivation. Without that, the first evidence we encounter will remain the last word on the truth. That’s why so many of our strongest beliefs are determined by mere accidents of fate: where we were born, what our parents believed, what other information shaped us from our earliest days. Once that initial evidence takes hold, we are off and running. No matter how skewed or scanty it may be, it will form the basis for all our future beliefs. Inductive reasoning guarantees as much.”
Jan 24, 2013 – You’ve probably noticed the Daily Express headlines which feature the weather or some health-related story. It seems that most Express headlines fall into one of these categories:
3. The EU/Euro
5. “Migrants”, benefits, “skivers”
Exceptions seem uncommon. Okay, you get the occasional “royals” story, and there was a time when house-price rises/falls could have been added to the list. See for yourself, using the compilations of front pages, below (which I’ve colour-coded to match the above categories).
Occasionally, two of the topics are combined in one headline (see example, above left – “ALL MIGRANTS TO GET A BRITISH PENSION”).
The first collection of front pages shows every Daily Express from 18 January 2013 (top left) back to 29 October 2012 (bottom right), with all exceptions shown (uncoloured):
The latest circulation figures show the Express selling many more copies than the Times, Guardian and Independent (roughly the same number as the Telegraph, and fewer than the Sun and Daily Mail).
The next compilation of Express front pages covers the period from early August 2012 (top left) back to May 2012 (bottom right) – it’s not a complete list, and excludes some exceptions as well as other examples which conform to the above topics:
Dec 6, 2012 – Every news story requires a frame, and stories about poverty tend to reflect the politicians’ hackneyed narrative about “getting people back to work” – even though in-work poverty is rising, and even though “joblessness” seems low on the list of factors contributing to the big financial meltdown.
Over the years, I’ve found research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) useful in countering dubious claims (eg from press/pundits) about UK poverty.
How does a group such as JRF address issues which are as much about moral framing as they’re about statistics? Chris Goulden (head of JRF’s poverty team) kindly agreed to discuss poverty framing with me by email…
•News Frames: You tweeted that “Work IS the best route out of poverty – half the time”, with a link to a JRF piece of the same title. I replied: “More precisely, ‘having an adequate income’ is the best route out of poverty”.
My intention was to contrast two different poverty “frames” – one focusing on the individual’s “responsibility” (direct causation); the other on social distribution of income (systemic causation). These tend to correlate, respectively, with conservative and progressive moral frames (according to George Lakoff et al).
You mention that it’s a cliché to say “work is the best route out of poverty”. I regard it also as a strong expression of the ‘conservative’ frame which has dominated thinking about work/poverty for decades (this frame/worldview is evangelised by the “self-made man”, industrialist Mr Bounderby, in Dickens’s novel Hard Times, for example).
The figures reported by your JRF piece are very interesting, and I thought they could have been framed in a very different way. Do you (and your JRF colleagues) normally consider framing, or do you regard your material as neutral presentations of findings, etc?
•Chris Goulden: Negative attitudes among the public, in politics and in the media towards people experiencing poverty is a key barrier. I agree that a different way of framing poverty is needed if there is to be more support for initiatives to reduce it.
But I don’t think what you call the progressive, distributive, systemic etc. frame necessarily helps. Or at least, simply presenting poverty as an issue beyond the control of individuals experiencing it is not persuasive. I believe there is, and needs to be, a third way (sorry) / synthesis between structural and individualised causes of poverty that is neither solely blaming the individual nor structurally-deterministic. Ruth Lister sets this out well in her book, Poverty (2004).
The role of science, research and evidence is interesting in this context yet also challenging. We and the researchers we work with are not often as explicit as we should be our underlying values and assumptions. This applies as much in natural as in social science. A common and more effective / “truthful” frame for the production of evidence and the discussion of its implications for poverty would be extremely useful.
I’m not sure what precedents there are for reframing issues in this way that could be drawn on however?
•News Frames: I think the ‘Frame Semantics’ literature does have much to contribute, but first I’d better clarify my terms to avoid misunderstandings.
By “progressive”/”systemic” I don’t mean “beyond the control of individuals”. To me, it seems undeniable that poverty in modern society is a matter of systemic causation. At its simplest: the individual controls some factors but not others (availability of income, costs of housing, etc). So, it seems clear that we should use frames of “systemic causation”. Yet the newspaper headlines have, for decades, presented an extreme form of “direct causation” (eg that the “workshy” are to blame).
I think it’s precisely this latter frame which leads to the “negative attitudes” that you mention. And it’s not just the tabloid newspapers which feed into this. For example, “work is the route out of poverty” is an expression of the same metaphorical frame as blaming the “workshy”.
Lakoff et al have shown how, across many complex issues (from climate to war to welfare), conservative moral frames tend to use the “direct causation” metaphors (eg “Bush toppled Saddam and freed the Iraqis”). So much political debate appears to have followed this kind of direct-cause metaphorical mode, and for so long, that we usually don’t even notice it operating. (I think this is particularly the case with the issue of work/income/poverty).
But the “progressive”/”systemic” alternative isn’t at the other end of a linear scale from the “conservative”/”direct-causation”. They are just two very different modes of thought which we all have “instantiated in the neural system of our brains”. In fact, the notion of a linear political scale (eg left-right) with extremes at the ends, and “moderates” in the middle, is itself a misleading metaphor, according to the cognitive scientists. Or as Lakoff says, there aren’t really any moderates. That’s another debate, of course, but it possibly has a bearing on your point about a “third way”?
•Chris Goulden: Ok, I think we basically agree then. But by framing it as ‘systemic’ or ‘progressive’ (and I’m not sure those two are synonymous), you are implying it is beyond the control of individuals, in the same way that ‘individualised’, ‘regressive’ or ‘conservative’ imply it is only the individual actor who counts. If all parties could agree it was both structure and agency, then we could focus debate on where the balance lies and implications for policy and practice. At present, there is just division and a debate about what’s different not the commonalities of view.
And then there is the issue of the causative route – you say “the frame leads to the negative attitudes” but, in part at least, the negative attitudes lead to the frame. Which came first?
Regarding the issue of the use of cause as a metaphor, I agree that’s a general problem. The way we all talk is based on thousands of underlying assumptions and theories about the world that are more or less plausible or supported by scientific method or layers of personal experience. I don’t see how this is just a conservative moral frame. What’s the alternative? Socialist chaos theory?
However, the biggest issue remains – leaving aside what would be a better frame for poverty in this country for a moment – how do frames change and how do people who want to instigate those changes best go about it? That’s what I am really struggling with. Simply saying, as we often do in JRF reports, that there are bigger forces at play – the nature of jobs available, the cost of housing – doesn’t make people believe it and change their opinions.
•News Frames: If you think “systemic” framing implies a denial of individual “control” or “agency” (as factors), then I can see you’d have problems using it on poverty. I just hope you don’t have a “society made me do it” caricature in mind. (By the way, I don’t think “progressive” is synonymous with “systemic” – but the frames tend to correlate).
I’m talking about multiple, complex causation misleadingly reduced, via metaphor, to single, direct causation (eg “hard work leads to prosperity”) – whereas you’re talking in terms of “where the balance lies” between “structure and agency”. Your idea of “balance” appears to make sense (sort of) when you put it in those terms. But if the reality is systemic causation (as it evidently seems to be with UK poverty), then where is the “balance” between appropriate systemic framing and misleading direct-cause framing?
For example, how close are the following statements to your balance point?:
You ask why I lay the blame on conservative moral framing in particular. This comes mainly from my reading of Lakoff’s cognitive-linguistic analysis. Here’s a quote from a Lakoff article (2009) which puts this into accessible language:
“Conservatives tend to think in terms of direct causation. The overwhelming moral value of individual, not social, responsibility requires that causation be local and direct. For each individual to be entirely responsible for the consequences of his or her actions, those actions must be the direct causes of those consequences. If systemic causation is real, then the most fundamental of conservative moral—and economic—values is fallacious.
“Global ecology and global economics are prime examples of systemic causation. Global warming is fundamentally a system phenomenon. That is why the very idea threatens conservative thinking. And the global economic collapse is also systemic in nature. That is at the heart of the death of the conservative principle of the laissez-faire free market, where individual short-term self-interest was supposed to be natural, moral, and the best for everybody. The reality of systemic causation has left conservatism without any real ideas to address global warming and the global economic crisis.”
I also think Lakoff answers (much better than I could) your question on how to instigate changes in framing. He’s written books specifically on this subject. ‘Don’t think of an Elephant‘ is a good starting point, if you haven’t already read it.
Incidentally, I assume that your chicken-and-egg question (“Which came first?” – the negative attitudes or the frame?) wasn’t serious, as the context was decades of headlines blaming the “workshy”, etc. But if you are serious, I’ll return to it.
•Chris Goulden: So, maybe my joke about socialist chaos theory was actually closer to the truth than I thought? I think it’s an important point to unpick about whether “systemic” is correlated with progressive or not. I don’t see why they should be. “Systemic” is an objective description of how we think reality works. “Progressive” is a value system.
But this does go to the heart of the methods of social science, and indeed of natural science. I’ve no doubt that reality is systemic and that simple direct causes are uncommon if not non-existent in terms of explaining human behaviour. We, I hope, are taking a systemic approach in our new programme that is aiming to develop an anti-poverty strategy for the UK. It aims to show what it would be like to live in, and what it would take to reach, a UK without high levels of poverty.
I think the statement ‘work is the route out of poverty’ by itself doesn’t imply structural or individual causes. Or even non-systemic ones. We always argue that it’s not just the fault of individuals and that all our opportunities are restricted by structural circumstances. If you tried to maintain a systemic approach to all discussions about policy and practice then I fear you wouldn’t ever be able to say anything. We need heuristics not exact models of reality.
What might a systemic description of poverty and its solutions look like to you and would this frame by itself help to reduce negative attitudes? I think negative public attitudes have complex causes and are not just the direct result of decades of headlines (and there is a strong current going in the other direction). Aren’t you reverting to a ‘morally conservative/direct causation’ frame there?
•News Frames: On your last point: I think you’ve misread – or misunderstood – my remarks about “negative attitudes” (towards the poor). I wrote: “it’s not just the tabloid newspapers which feed into this”. I referred to a culturally dominant frame (on work/poverty) which has complex historic causes – eg: I mentioned Dickens’s Hard Times, which contains a virtual taxonomy of this metaphorical framing.
The frame manifests as negative attitudes to the poor (among other things) – the frame being the cognitive underpinning of the attitude. Negative attitudes towards the poor are generally inseparable from the frame of poverty as moral failure of the individual. Decades of newspaper headlines (among other things) reinforce this moral framing. I see no single, direct cause here.
I’ve already provided pointers to Professor Lakoff’s work. I think it would yield diminishing returns to revisit (again) the point about “progressive”/”systemic” correlations – at least while you’re unfamiliar with the body of research I’m referencing. However, I’ll briefly address your question on “systemic” approaches to poverty.
One obvious example is the frame of poverty as social harm. Responsible society has a moral obligation to protect people from harm. We already have the metaphor of a “safety net” – as well as numerous examples, from other domains, of public funding of public safety. Note how this contrasts with the (‘conservative’) frame of poverty as moral failure of the individual. In extreme cases of the latter, the individual’s poverty isn’t regarded as harm, but as tough medicine, or as an incentive for market discipline, etc – and the notion of a safety net (such as welfare) is regarded as immoral, since it makes people “weak and dependent” (in this moral scheme – for more details, see my ‘Essentials of framing’).
Given that you’re looking for “a different way of framing poverty” – and given that JRF seems to take a broadly “progressive” stance – I’d have thought Lakoff’s work would be of enormous practical benefit to you. If there’s a more substantial body of work on social-political framing out there, I haven’t seen it – and I’ve certainly looked.
But I’ll leave it at that, as overselling these things can be a kiss of death.
•Chris Goulden: I think it might be helpful to try to sum up where we agree and where we disagree (or are yet to agree)?
Here’s what I think anyway – let me know if you agree with what I think we agree on
- Systemic understanding and causes are better depictions of reality than direct causes
- The dominant frame around poverty in the UK is negative and a barrier to progress on effective action to reduce poverty
- A more positive framing would be helpful but it is very difficult to change this but we should try; and we should watch out for repeating negative framing in JRF’s treatment of poverty and related issues
- I need to read some Lakoff
Here’s where I don’t think we agree
- Systemic understanding naturally goes together with a ‘progressive’ approach (I don’t see how that is logically possible)
- A ‘agency within structure’ framing could be more helpful than a systemic one (although I still don’t quite get that – see point 4 above)
- Individual actions, behaviours and attitudes still matter – obviously that doesn’t just apply to people experiencing poverty, also employers, politicians, research funders etc. By trying to remove victim blaming, you risk denying agency, free choice etc.
- Within a systemic frame, direct causes still have a place (otherwise we wouldn’t be able to understand anything (“it’s all too systemic”))
•News Frames: Only one point stands out, to me, as a real disagreement. This is where you write: “By trying to remove victim blaming, you risk denying agency, free choice etc” (point 3). I certainly disagree with this. I don’t think it follows at all – and the absurd implication is that since we shouldn’t deny poverty victims free choice, we must therefore blame them for their poverty.
Here’s an alternative (“systemic-causation”) frame: Poverty as a result of multiple, complex causes, which may include the actions of the individual experiencing poverty (among other interrelated factors). Simple enough. It avoids “victim blaming” (single, direct cause); it avoids presenting work as “the route” out of poverty (single, direct cause) – but it doesn’t deny individual agency/free-choice.
Note: I offered to give Chris the final word, but he said he was happy to leave that last reply of mine as the final thing. Many thanks to him for taking the time to discuss this issue. I recommend both his regular JRF blog and his Twitter account (a good source of links to poverty studies and news articles, etc). – BD