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How the news is framed & how it affects your brain

Archive for the ‘Fearmongering’ Category

Establishment TV – BBC’s “authority” frame

bbc-news-fearJune 13, 2013 – It’s comforting to know there’s enough money available for states to build giant secret surveillance systems, even though there’s not enough for less important things like healthcare, transport and social security.

On the creepy, disturbing spying thing, politicians have assured us that “law-abiding citizens” have nothing to worry about. They say this with a straight face, which must take some doing. I’d like to think most people are wise to the “joke”, but I doubt that’s the case. A recent poll shows high public ignorance (and/or indifference) regarding Iraqi war deaths, and I suspect the same may be true with the authoritarian “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” stuff.

Or, to put it another way, most people I talk to in the statistically “real” world – ie away from the minority of Guardian readers, leftwing academics/activists, contrarians, kinky weirdos, Zen masters, eskimos, etc – seem to welcome more CCTV, more police, more surveillance, more control, more authority…

Why? Presumably because they feel more threatened by criminal or “antisocial” individuals than they do by state or corporate institutions. To be more specific, they fear being burgled, mugged, knifed, spat at, terrorised, etc, more than they fear being herded, coerced, arrested, incarcerated or surveilled by employees in uniforms or suits. This is possibly due to a nurtured form of trust in the “essential goodness” of the authorities (more on this below).

Much has been written about the contributing effects of sensationalised tabloid crime “news” on people’s psyches – ranging from a tendency to overestimate the risk of crime (and “terrorism”), to anxiety disorders such as the fear of going outside. (It should be noted in this context that the Daily Mail, Sun, Mirror, Express, etc, have far higher circulations than the Guardian, which broke the NSA whistleblower story).

Less has been said about an equally important facet of the above: trust in authority (whether state or corporate). And, as far as I’m aware, nobody has documented a particular speciality of the BBC: the “good cops – good authorities” framing. So, I’ll attempt to do that here…

BBC’s “Good Cops / Trust in Authority” frame

The sociologist, Erving Goffman, found that social situations and institutions are shaped by mental structures (frames) which determine conventionalised behaviour in those situations/institutions. So, for instance, the hospital frame has certain roles (doctor, nurse, orderly, patient, visitor, etc), locations, props and expected actions (taking temperature, reading charts, operations, etc).

Such frames have a logic defining relationships, hierarchies and appropriate/inappropriate behaviour and procedures. Visitors bring flowers for patients, surgeons perform operations, but they don’t empty bedpans. Occupied hospital beds are in wards, visitors wait in the waiting area, not in the operating theatre, etc. Even if you’ve never been in a hospital, you acquire a large part of this frame through depiction of “hospital life” on TV (in dramas, documentaries, etc).

So, what frames do we have for the policing activities of “the authorities”, and where do these frames get reinforced? Well, we have several, but one in particular seems to be reinforced much more frequently than the others. Here it is in a nutshell:

Good cops/authorities

Frame logic: Individuals are victimised or disadvantaged by the actions of bad, criminal, irresponsible, antisocial types. The “authorities” come to the rescue, in the form of police or other official types with police-like powers. The cops deal with the bad people and protect the good people. (There’s also a “terrorism” variant of the frame, with similar structure, but differently defined roles).

Frame inferences: The cops/authorities are essentially good; the perpetrators are bad; the victims are usually innocent. The authorities maintain order and harmony; the villains disrupt it. Order is a system; bad individuals disrupt order (note the good system / bad individuals dichotomy).

Here’s a partial list of TV series I’ve compiled. They’re “fly on the wall” documentaries, and are usually shown in prime time (mostly on BBC). They all strongly reinforce the above frame. Such series have been broadcast on a regular basis for decades. To repeat: on a regular basis for decades. Literally hundreds of hours of ‘prime time’ TV beamed into our skulls:

Traffic cops
Crimewatch UK
Drunk and Dangerous
(police tackling drunks)
Car Wars
(Tactical Vehicle Crime Unit)
Sky Cops
(helicopter patrols)
Customs & Excise Cops
Forensic Cops

On the Fiddle
(welfare fraud policing)
Motorway Cops
Clampers
(car wheel clampers)
The Tube
(London’s underground police)
Animal Cops
Airport
(airport police)
A Life of Grime
Traffic Wardens
Rogue Traders

Bailiffs
Transport Cops
Seaside Rescue
Cops, Robbers and Videotape
Shops, Robbers and Videotape
(variation on a theme)
Girl Cops
War at the Door
(housing officers & RSPCA)
Dumping on Britain
(Environment Agency)
Rail Cops
Cops with Dogs
Cars, Cops and Bailiffs
The Planners are Coming
(Planning Police)
Saints and Scroungers
(investigating benefits claimants)
Cars, Cops and Criminals (series of hour-long documentaries)
The Lock Up (about officers in custody suite of police station)
Send in the Dogs (police & their dogs)
Car Crime UK

Framing effects

The above TV shows often seem like the state equivalent of TV ads for banks – friendly, “you can trust us” PR. “Coercion is something that only bad individuals do to you. The system is there to protect you from it”. As always, repetition of the frame is key, together with relative absence of frames with fundamentally different inferences (eg the system itself as threat). So, Magna Carta is being dismantled, illegal wars are fought in your name, video surveillance is everywhere, your internet activity is monitored, you’re lied to by government on a daily basis – but you needn’t fear, because you know that the authorities are essentially good.

One thing I find disturbing about these programmes is that when “members of the public” are shown complaining, they’re typically presented as unreasonable, hostile or slightly insane – as if you must be mentally disturbed (and probably a danger to society) if you object to the way the authorities are protecting you.

Robert Anton Wilson once remarked that TV is full of cop shows, and that you never see shows about landlords. Before you think the reasons for that are “obvious”, you might want to pause and think some more… Anyway, the above phenomenon (all those fly-on-the-wall cop documentaries) is rarely commented upon by media critics, even though – like tabloid crime sensationalism – it probably fills up a lot more “public” head-space than does Guardian commentary on state abuses of power.

Written by NewsFrames

June 13, 2013 at 8:36 am

Media-free zones – avoiding toxic “news”

media-free-zone
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…


news-is-bad-for-you“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.

clear-channel2The 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)

Sources:
1. The Guardian, 22/10/96
2. M&SFS Head of Marketing, 1990

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

April 25, 2013 at 8:19 am

A Daily Mail front page you won’t see…

daily-mail-03-04-13-rowlingApril 8, 2013JK 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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%).

Daily_Mail_3_4_2013

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).

Written by NewsFrames

April 8, 2013 at 8:35 am

Curious repeating headlines in the Daily Express

express-dejavuJan 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:Daily_Express_24_1_2013

1. Weather/floods
2. Health/illness
3. The EU/Euro
4. Pensions
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):

express-headlines
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:

express-headlines-02

Written by NewsFrames

January 24, 2013 at 8:53 am

Essentials of framing (merged version)

This is a longish intro to the topic of framing – based on key themes in the work of cognitive scientist George Lakoff. (It merges three shorter pieces into one article).

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups,
parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“It’s because they’re stupid. That’s why
everyone does everything.”
– Homer Simpson

Frames are mental structures which shape our worldviews. They’re largely unconscious, but are revealed by the language we use. For example: “time is money”. This isn’t just a figure of speech – we conceive of time as a commodity, and the frame is activated by common phrases: “don’t waste my time”, “spending time”, “borrowed time”, “running out of time”, “I’ve invested a lot of time in it”, etc.

“Time is money” ↔ anxiety

This metaphorical conception of time isn’t universal – it doesn’t exist in all societies. Some cultures have no conception of “efficient use of time”.

The “time is money” frame has certain negative consequences (stress, insecurity, short-termism, etc) – in addition to the positive things claimed for it by business managers and orthodox economists. In fact, most anxiety seems to result from how we metaphorically conceive of our projected future. More on this later.

“Time is money” is a fairly obvious metaphorical frame. Less obvious is that morality is also routinely framed in terms of money transactions. We say that a person is “discredited” (their moral “credit” is withdrawn) when shown to be untrustworthy. We speak of “profiting” from good (ie moral) experience; we ask if a given course of action is “worth it”. The qualitative realm of morality is transformed into a quantitative one by conceptualising it in terms of accounting. If someone does you harm, you “pay them back”; if you treat me well, I am “in your debt”, etc.

Getting revenge

This type of framing has everyday implications. Suppose you are harmed or disadvantaged by someone’s “immoral” (or inconsiderate) actions. We may not see ourselves as the type of people who seek revenge, but it’s likely we think in terms of “paying someone back”. As a “balancing of the books” this can be seen as a moral good – a legitimate punishment. The morality of retribution is usually associated with conservatism, but it’s generally understood (ie accepted) because of the accounting framing. The fact that you “automatically” think along these lines may cause anxiety and cognitive dissonance if you don’t regard yourself as “that kind of person”.

Framing “work”

There are two common metaphors for work: as obedience and as exchange. In the work-as-obedience frame, there’s an authority (eg the employer) and there’s obedience to the commands of authority (ie work). This obedience is rewarded (pay). In the work-as-exchange frame, work is conceptualised as an object of value which belongs to the worker. This is exchanged for money.

Different consequences apply depending on the type of framing. In the obedience frame, the worker is expected to make personal sacrifices out of “loyalty” to the employer. This may help to explain why workers are giving £29 billion in unpaid overtime to their companies each year.

Why do so many workers tolerate a situation in which income is dependent on obedience? Perhaps it’s because their family upbringing involved the same kind of situation – eg they were expected to perform tasks out of obedience to parents. In other words, the work-as-obedience frame is a familiar part of their neurology, even though it may be disadvantageous in job/business settings.

‘Strict father’ syndrome

Lakoff argues that different types of family upbringing explain many moral and political frames. He makes the case that conservative values are based on a “strict father” upbringing model, and liberal (or “progressive”) values on a “nurturant parent” model. We all seem to have both models in our brains – even the most “liberal” person can understand a John Wayne film (Lakoff uses Arnold Schwarzenegger movies as examples of the ‘strictness’ moral system).

An adult might lean towards strictness in raising her own children, while demonstrating nurturant values in her professional life, or vice versa. Conservative politicians talk about “family values” all the time – even when there are more important issues (eg war, economy) to be addressed. What do family values have to do with these bigger issues? One suggestion is that by repeatedly talking about family values (to certain audiences – eg working-class Christians, in the US), the radical-right manages to activate the strictness frame for other domains (eg economy, welfare, crime, foreign policy, etc) – where it might not “naturally” (or traditionally) apply.

Frame semantics & fear

“Fear triggers the strict father model; it tends
to make the model active in one’s brain.”

– George Lakoff, ‘Don’t think of an elephant’, p42

In the ‘strict’ frame, the world is regarded as fundamentally dangerous and competitive. Good and bad are seen as absolutes, but children aren’t born good in this worldview – they have to be made good.* This requires that they are obedient to a moral authority. Obedience is taught through punishment, which, according to this belief-system, helps children develop the self-discipline necessary to avoid doing wrong. Self-discipline is also needed for prosperity in a dangerous, competitive world. It follows, in this worldview, that people who prosper financially are self-disciplined and therefore morally good.

This framing complements, in obvious ways, the ideology of “free market” capitalism. For example, in the latter, the successful pursuit of self-interest in a competitive world is seen as a moral good since it benefits all via the “invisible hand” of the market. In both cases do-gooders are viewed as interfering with what is right – their “helpfulness” is seen as something which makes people dependent rather than self-disciplined. It’s also seen as an interference in the market optimisation of the benefits of self-interest.

*Note: In some Christian versions of strict-father framing, children are believed to be born bad – not just “no good”, but “evil”, ie tainted with Original Sin. St Augustine (according to Bertrand Russell) “really believed new-born children to be limbs of Satan”. All the more need for punishment.

Strictness Morality & competition

A ‘reward & punishment’ type morality follows from strictness framing. Punishment of disobedience is seen as a moral good - how else will people develop the self-discipline necessary to prosper in a dangerous, competitive environment? Becoming an adult, in this belief-system’s logic, means achieving sufficient self-discipline to free oneself from “dependence” on others (no easy task in a “tough world”). Success is seen as a just reward for the obedience which leads ultimately to self-discipline. Remaining “dependent” is seen as failure.

[You may want to pause here. Can you see things differently from the strictness scheme? Or do no logical alternatives seem immediately obvious to you?]

Competition is an important premise of Strictness Morality. By competing in a tough world, people demonstrate a self-discipline deserving of reward, ie success. Conversely, it’s seen as immoral to reward those who haven’t earned it through competition. By this logic, competition is seen as morally necessary: without it there’s no motivation to become the right kind of person – ie self-disciplined and obedient to authority. Constraints on competition (eg social “hand-outs”) are therefore seen as immoral.

‘Nurturant’ framing doesn’t give competition the same moral priority. ‘Progressive’ morality tends to view economic competition as creating more losers than winners, with the resulting inequality correlating with social ills such as crime, deprivation and all the things you hope won’t happen to you. The nurturant ideal of abundance for all (eg achieved through technological advance) works against the primacy of competition. Economic competition still has an important place, but as a limited (and fallible) means to achieving abundance, rather than as a moral imperative.

While nurturant morality is troubled by the fear of “not enough to go around for all”, strictness morality is haunted by the fear of personal failure, individual weakness. Even the “successful” seem haunted by this fear.

‘Moral strength’

Central to Strictness Morality is the metaphor of moral strength. “Evil” is framed as a force which must be fought. Weakness implies evil in this worldview, since weakness is unable to resist the force of evil.

People are not born strong, the logic goes; strength is built through learning self-discipline and self-denial – these are primary values in the strictness system, so any sign of weakness is a source of anxiety, and fear itself is perceived as a further weakness (one to be denied at all costs). Note that these views are all metaphorically conceived – instead of a force, evil could (outside the strictness frame) be viewed as an effect, eg of ignorance or greed – in which case strength wouldn’t make quite as much sense as a primary moral value.

It’s usually taken for granted that strength is “good” in concrete, physical ways, but we’re talking about metaphor here. Or, rather, we’re thinking metaphorically (mostly without being aware of the fact) – in a way which affects our hierarchy of values. With “strictness” framing, we’ll give higher priority to strength (discipline, control) than to tolerance (fairness, compassion, etc). This may influence everything from our relationships to our politics and how we evaluate our own mental-emotional states.

That might sound a little dramatic and a bit academic – until we see what’s happening in the real world on Fox News.

‘Authoritarian’ moral framing

We’re constrained by ‘social attitudes’ which put moral values in a different order than our own. Moral conflicts aren’t just about “good” vs “bad” – they’re about conflicting hierarchies of values.

“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”
– George W. Bush

“If you can’t be polite to our guests, you have to sit at the kiddies’ table”
– Hannibal Lecter

For example, you mightn’t regard hard work or self-discipline as the main indicators of a person’s worth – but someone with economic power over you (eg your employer) might…….

→ “Laziness is bad”
Under ‘strictness’ morality, self-indulgence (eg idleness) is seen as moral weakness, ie emergent evil. It represents a failure to develop the ‘moral strengths’ of self-control and self-discipline (which are primary values in this worldview). At this point you might want to reflect on how much the Puritan work ethic has affected your life in terms of hours spent in “productive employment” (or “pointless drudgery”).

→ “Time-wasting is very bad”
Laziness also implies wasted time according to this viewpoint. So it’s ‘bad’ in the further sense that “time is money” (see above). Inactivity and idleness are seen as inherently costly, a financial loss. People tend to forget that this is metaphorical – there is no literal “loss” – and the frame excludes notions of benefits (or “gains”) resulting from inaction/indolence.

“Welfare is very, very bad”
Regarded (by some) as removing the “incentive” to work, welfare is thus seen as promoting moral weakness (ie laziness, time-wasting, “dependency”, etc). That’s bad enough in itself (from the perspective of Strictness Morality) – but, in addition, welfare is usually funded by taxing those who work. In other words, the “moral strength” of holding a job isn’t being rewarded in full – it’s being taxed to reward the “undeserving weak”.

Thus welfare is seen as doubly immoral in this system of moral metaphors. Of course, others would argue that the “disincentive” to work is provided not by welfare but by work itself – or rather by its long hours, soul-crippling tedium and low pay…

But that’s a different kind of framing.

“Might is right”

In ‘Strict Father’ (ie ‘Authoritarian’) morality, one must fight evil (and never “understand” or tolerate it). This requires strength and toughness and, perhaps, extreme measures. Merciless enforcement of might is often regarded as ‘morally justified’ in this system. Moral “relativism” is viewed as immoral, since it “appeases” the forces of evil by affording them their own “truth”.

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists… I think you have to destroy them. It’s the only way to deal with them.” (Dick Cheney, former US Vice President)

There’s another sense in which “might” (or power) is seen as not only justified (eg in fighting evil) but also as implicitly good: Strictness Morality regards a “natural” hierarchy of power as moral, and in this conservative moral system, the following hierarchy is (according to Lakoff’s research) regarded as truly “natural”: “God above humans”; “humans above animals”; “men above women”; “adults above children”, etc.

So, the notion of ‘Moral Authority’ arises from a power hierarchy which is believed to be “natural” (as in: “the natural order of things”). Lakoff comments:

“The consequences of the metaphor of Moral Order are enormous, even outside religion. It legitimates a certain class of existing power relations as being natural and therefore moral, and thus makes social movements like feminism appear unnatural and therefore counter to the moral order.” (George Lakoff, Moral Politics, p82)

In this metaphorical reality-tunnel, the rich have “moral authority” over the poor. The reasoning is as follows: Success in a competitive world comes from the “moral strengths” of self-discipline and self-reliance – in working hard at developing your abilities, etc. Lack of success, in this worldview, implies not enough self-discipline, ie moral weakness. Thus, the “successful” (ie the rich) are seen as higher in the moral order – as disciplined and hard-working enough to “succeed”.

If that seems no more than just a cynical rationalisation for greed and privilege, consider the notion of the Protestant roots of capitalism (nicely summed up here by Encyclopædia Britannica):

Protestant ethic, in sociological theory, the value attached to hard work, thrift, and efficiency in one’s worldly calling, which, especially in the Calvinist view, were deemed signs of an individual’s election, or eternal salvation.

German sociologist Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–05), held that the Protestant ethic was an important factor in the economic success of Protestant groups in the early stages of European capitalism; because worldly success could be interpreted as a sign of eternal salvation, it was vigorously pursued.

As someone whose views tend to fall into the left-libertarian category, I got attracted to this field (Cognitive Linguistics, Frame Semantics) because it provides a way to understand right-authoritarian thinking/morality (which I don’t “condone” any more than I condone drowning puppies en masse). The usual temptation – on the left – is to regard the ‘other side’ as immoral or amoral, lacking in any moral sense, driven only by greed, etc. But that’s close to viewing ‘them’ as subhuman – and before long you’re thinking in authoritarian-style, yourself.

Of course, none of this means that Lying Bastards & crooks are scarce in the political realm…

‘Moral decay’ & other fun metaphors

Media hysteria sometimes calms down a little (eg when the focus is on the decent, respectable people, rather than the bad people**). But it only takes one horrible crime to set it off again. Then we have: “moral decay”, “erosion of values”, “tears in the moral fabric”, a “chipping away” at moral “foundations”, etc. It shouldn’t be surprising that these metaphors for change-as-destruction tend to accompany ‘conservative’ moral viewpoints rather than ‘progressive’ ones.

If True Moral Values™ are regarded as absolute and unchanging (which seems the case with ‘Strict Father’, ie ‘Authoritarian’, moral schemes), then change to the way we think about moral issues must be seen as a threat. And since standards do change in society over time (for numerous reasons, and whether we like it or not), advocates of Strictness Morality see moral decay everywhere, and may believe that “society is going to hell” (or “turning to shit”) – they might even yearn for some Golden Age, a mythical time before things started “degenerating”.

“Moral Purity” & “Moral Health”

Associated with moral ‘decay’ is the metaphor of impurity, ie rot, corruption or filth. This extends further, to the metaphor of morality as health. Thus, immoral ideas are described as “sick“, immoral people are seen to have “diseased minds”, etc. These metaphorical frames have the following consequences in terms of how we think:

1. Even minor immorality is seen as a major threat (since introduction of just a tiny amount of “corrupt” substance can taint the whole supply – think of water reservoir or blood supply. This is applied to the abstract moral realm via conceptual metaphor.)

2. Immorality is regarded as “contagious”. Thus, immoral ideas must be avoided or censored, and immoral people must be isolated or removed, forcibly if necessary. Otherwise they’ll “infect” the morally healthy/strong. Does this way of thinking sound familiar?

In Philosophy in the Flesh, Johnson & Lakoff point out that with “health” as metaphor for moral well-being, immorality is framed as sickness and disease, with important consequences for public debate:

“One crucial consequence of this metaphor is that immorality, as moral disease, is a plague that, if left unchecked, can spread throughout society, infecting everyone. This requires strong measures of moral hygiene, such as quarantine and strict observance of measures to ensure moral purity. Since diseases can spread through contact, it follows that immoral people must be kept away from moral people, lest they become immoral, too. This logic often underlies guilt-by-association arguments, and it often plays a role in the logic behind urban flight, segregated neighborhoods, and strong sentencing guidelines even for nonviolent offenders.”

Enemies everywhere, everything a threat

So, to conclude, there’s a lot to fear from the perspective of ‘Strictness Morality': the world’s a dangerous place, there’s immorality (and indeed “evil”) all over the place, lurking everywhere, ready to jump out at you. And any weakness that you manifest will be punished. Even the good, decent people are competing ruthlessly with you, judging you for any failure.

“That’s not Charlie the Tuna out there… it’s Jaws.”
G. Gordon Liddy (US shock-jock)

In a way, this moral framing logically requires that the world is seen as essentially dangerous. Remove this premise and Strictness Morality ‘collapses’, since the precedence given (in this scheme) to moral strength, self-discipline and authority (over compassion, fairness, happiness, etc) would no longer make sense.

Tabloid newspapers appear to have the function of reinforcing the fearful premise with daily scaremongering – presumably because it’s more profitable than less dramatic “news”. But this repeated stimulation of our fears affects our brains at a synaptic level. The fear/alarm framing receives continual reinforcement.

And pretty soon that’s how we start to think…

** ‘Decent, respectable people': the ones in suits with money and power; the authorities.
‘Bad people': potentially everyone else; insignificant but awkward types, you & me.

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

September 10, 2012 at 8:30 am

‘Moral decay’ & other fun metaphors

(Essentials of framing – Part 3)

Media hysteria sometimes calms down a little (eg when the focus is on the decent, respectable people* rather than the bad people*). But it only takes one horrible crime to set it off again. Then we have: “moral decay”, “erosion of values”, “tears in the moral fabric”, a “chipping away” at moral “foundations”, etc. It shouldn’t be surprising that these metaphors for change-as-destruction tend to accompany ‘conservative’ moral viewpoints rather than ‘progressive’ ones.

If True Moral Values™ are regarded as absolute and unchanging (which seems the case with ‘Strict Father’, ie ‘Authoritarian’, moral schemes – see Parts 1 & 2), then change to the way we think about moral issues must be seen as a threat. And since standards do change in society over time (for numerous reasons, and whether we like it or not), advocates of Strictness Morality see moral decay everywhere, and may believe that “society is going to hell” (or “turning to shit”) – they might even yearn for some Golden Age, a mythical time before things started “degenerating”.

“Moral Purity” & “Moral Health”

Associated with moral ‘decay’ is the metaphor of impurity, ie rot, corruption or filth. This extends further, to the metaphor of morality as health. Thus, immoral ideas are described as “sick“, immoral people are seen to have “diseased minds”, etc. These metaphorical frames have the following consequences in terms of how we think:

1. Even minor immorality is seen as a major threat (since introduction of just a tiny amount of “corrupt” substance can taint the whole supply – think of water reservoir or blood supply. This is applied to the abstract moral realm via conceptual metaphor.)

2. Immorality is regarded as “contagious”. Thus, immoral ideas must be avoided or censored, and immoral people must be isolated or removed, forcibly if necessary. Otherwise they’ll “infect” the morally healthy/strong. Does this way of thinking sound familiar?

In Philosophy in the Flesh, Johnson & Lakoff point out that with “health” as metaphor for moral well-being, immorality is framed as sickness and disease, with important consequences for public debate:

“One crucial consequence of this metaphor is that immorality, as moral disease, is a plague that, if left unchecked, can spread throughout society, infecting everyone. This requires strong measures of moral hygiene, such as quarantine and strict observance of measures to ensure moral purity. Since diseases can spread through contact, it follows that immoral people must be kept away from moral people, lest they become immoral, too. This logic often underlies guilt-by-association arguments, and it often plays a role in the logic behind urban flight, segregated neighborhoods, and strong sentencing guidelines even for nonviolent offenders.”

Enemies everywhere, everything a threat

So, to conclude from Parts 1, 2 and the above – there’s a lot to fear from the perspective of ‘Strictness Morality': the world’s a dangerous place, there’s immorality (and indeed “evil”) all over the place, lurking everywhere, ready to jump out at you. And any weakness that you manifest will be punished. Even the good, decent people are competing ruthlessly with you, judging you for any failure.

“That’s not Charlie the Tuna out there… it’s Jaws.”
G. Gordon Liddy (US shock-jock)

In a way, this moral framing logically requires that the world is seen as essentially dangerous. Remove this premise and Strictness Morality ‘collapses’, since the precedence given (in this scheme) to moral strength, self-discipline and authority (over compassion, fairness, happiness, etc) would no longer make sense.

Tabloid newspapers appear to have the function of reinforcing the fearful premise with daily scaremongering – presumably because it’s more profitable than less dramatic “news”. But this repeated stimulation of our fears affects our brains at a synaptic level. The fear/alarm framing receives continual reinforcement.

And pretty soon that’s how we start to think…

See also:
Part 1 of this article
Part 2 of this article

* ‘Decent, respectable people': the ones in suits with money and power; the authorities.
‘Bad people': potentially everyone else; insignificant but awkward types, you & me.

Written by NewsFrames

May 17, 2012 at 8:12 am

Anxiety-inducing frames

This is an updated (& much rewritten) version of an article published by the Guardian in 1999,
which I originally wrote for the Idler magazine. (Graphics here are mine)…

Smiling is compulsoryIn every job interview I’ve had, I’ve struggled to give the (false) impression that I was applying out of free choice & enthusiasm (rather than financial dilemma & survival anxiety). Telling the truth rarely helps in these matters, and most interviewers wouldn’t want to hear it.

Financial anxiety turns most of us into useful idiots. In the everyday world of tedious wage slavery, useful idiots can be identified by their claim to like their jobs (I don’t mean the lucky few who really love their jobs). When so many people seem to “enjoy” being economic slaves, or at least pretend to, one suspects something beyond deluded sentimentality – something sinister and pathological.

We’re living in an anxiety culture and we’re driven by fear. For 1 in 7 people, it’s of clinical severity (15% of people in England suffer from an anxiety-related mental disorder). A Mental Health Foundation report (2009) found that 77% of people say they are more frightened than they used to be, and 66% have fear/anxiety about the “current financial situation”.1

The MHF report criticises politicians, public bodies, businesses and the media for what it calls “institutionally-driven fear”, fuelled by scaremongering use of “most calamitous scenarios” on issues such as crime, terrorism, the economy, etc. (Incidentally, I was amused to see that the MHF report cited my 1999 Guardian article* as a source for: “60% of employees suffer from feelings of insecurity and anxiety, with 43 % having difficulty sleeping because of work worries” – a finding I’d quoted from a 1995 ITV documentary, World in Action).Mail & Express fearmongering

Yuppies-in-adverts redux

The picture that emerges seems at odds with the grinning, self-assured yuppie reality beamed into our living rooms during commercial breaks. It’s a cliché, but advertisers still present a world where “normal” people smile perpetually while driving their expensive new cars. The result is that we feel abnormal and humiliated driving old cars or taking buses. No one is immune from these social-comparison anxieties, not even the marketers themselves (surveys show advertising executives to be “plagued by self-doubt and insecurity”2).

There are strong vested interests in keeping public anxiety at a high level. Anxious people make good consumers – they tend to eat/drink compulsively, need more distractions (newspapers, TV, etc) and more buttressing of their fragile self-image through “lifestyle” products. The financial services industry (insurance, savings, etc) makes billions from our financial insecurities. The unsubtle targeting of our fears is evident in adverts for everything from vehicle recovery services and private health care to chewing gum and mouthwash.

Employers benefit if workers fear losing their jobs – fearful people are less likely to complain, and tend to be more suggestible and compliant. Politicians cite “public fears” as justification for freedom-eroding legislation; insecure populations show a tendency to favour the authoritarian rhetoric of “strong leaders”. In a word, governments and corporations gladly reap the harvests of high public anxiety.

The Daily Scare

According to the Mental Health Foundation report, 60% of those who think that “people are becoming more anxious or frightened” blame it partly on “the impact of the media”. Anxiety can be induced in a population by constantly focusing on the threat of things like crime and terrorism in an exaggerated way. (I wrote the article before the financial collapse; it’s possible that with an emphasis on economic perils, crime isn’t currently hyped so much).

Mirror "Yob Rule" - 2011 riotsIn a MORI poll conducted in the early 1990s, half of those questioned believed that tabloid newspapers have a vested interest in making people more afraid of crime. In 1995, the makers of Frontline, a Channel 4 documentary on crime, requested interviews with the editors of the Daily Mail, Mirror, Sun, Daily and Sunday Express, Today, People and Star, to ask how they justified their sensationalised crime coverage. They all refused to be interviewed.3

Unfortunately, many people believe the crime hype (belief seems to correlate with acceptance of the conservative “moral breakdown” framing). A third of elderly women fear going outside their homes, but only one in 4,000 will be assaulted.4 Statistically, the elderly and young children are the groups least at risk from attack – but because newspapers repeatedly cover crimes victimising the vulnerable, they seem more common than they are.

One effect of our over-stimulated fears is widespread paranoia. Consider this news item from the Independent newspaper: “Teachers have been warned not to put sun cream on young pupils because they could be accused of child abuse”. These warnings were then criticised by cancer charities. Skin-cancer risk versus child-abuse accusation risk. Welcome to Anxiety Society.

Most fear/worry results from what we’ve been thinking rather than external events. We’re immersed in anxiety-inducing belief systems which we regard as perfectly normal. Exposure to these fearful worldviews starts in early childhood, before we’ve developed intellectual defences, and it continues in school, where we learn to be obedient, economically-frightened grown-ups.

Anxiety-inducers

Your home is at risk...“Fear triggers the strict father model; it tends
to make the model active in one’s brain”
5

– George Lakoff

One of the most insidious anxiety-inducers is a sort of secular equivalent of “original sin” – the belief that, in essence, you’re “lacking” or “not good enough” and must redeem yourself with hard work and suffering. This “no pain, no gain” worldview manifests as the idea that you’re infinitely undeserving – that reward, ie happiness, will always be contingent upon the endurance of unpleasant activity (eg work).

It makes life seem a burden rather than an adventure, it’s exploited to the maximum by big business, and it makes you feel guilty.

This deep-seated mindset can be subverted with psychological gimmicks. For example, try believing that you deserve to be paid for doing nothing. Dismiss the notion that you have to “earn” anything. You earned your life by being born – now you deserve to relax. Quit your job and go on holiday, or call in sick as often as possible. Remove all forms of guilt from your mind. Go to extremes of laziness and indulge yourself deluxe-style every day. (When re-reading this paragraph, it seemed almost “blasphemous” in the current austere climate. I originally intended it as partly serious, partly ironic).

‘False responsibility’ framing

Another insidious anxiety-inducer to watch out for is the belief that you should be responsible. This puts people under tremendous strain. You don’t choose your genetic makeup or the conditions in which you grow up, yet all the unfortunate things that happen are supposed to be your fault.

In most cases, the de facto function of “individual responsibility” is social conformity. Society holds you accountable if you don’t comply with its definition of your responsibilities. The attraction of “responsibility” is that it allows people total conformity without removing the facade of heroic individuality – it’s the kind of concept that advertisers dream about.

This “responsibility” tends to see everything as a problem needing a solution – usually involving endless work. Pushed too far, it undermines progress towards desirable conditions such as increased leisure. Intelligent attempts to drastically cut average working hours, for example, are resisted on the basis that it’s irresponsible. (Similar, perhaps, to the Puritanism that H.L. Mencken described as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”).

Trust the expertsSometimes it might make more sense to pay people to stay at home – as Buckminster Fuller noted when attempting to quantify the amount of fossil fuel we burn whilst travelling to pointless jobs. But politicians – the experts on responsibility – see joblessness as the ultimate irresponsible lifestyle. It never occurs to them that their idea of responsibility might not be universal.

Thus, a real and massive problem – how to distribute wealth humanely in a wealthy technological (ie automated) society – becomes as unsolvable as the mythical “moral breakdown” when it’s framed in terms of jobs & joblessness (with all the social anxieties that this framing triggers).

“Fear triggers the strict father model”. In Lakoff’s terminology, the “strict father model” refers to the deep cognitive frames which form the moral worldview of rightwing “conservatives”. In effect he is saying that people tend to think in more conservative (and less progressive) terms to the extent that they are being frightened.

Footnotes

*My original Guardian article was published on 8 October, 1999, in the Guardian’s ‘Editor’ pull-out supplement. The text is available online here.

1. The Mental Health Foundation’s April 2009 report, titled In the Face of Fear, which “reveals a UK society that is increasingly fearful and anxious”.
2. Quoted from The Times, 22 November 1996.
3. Frontline, Channel 4, 4 October 1995.
4. Sunday Times, 6 August 1995.
5. Lakoff, Don’t think of an elephant, page 42.

Written by NewsFrames

March 14, 2012 at 9:20 am

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