Archive for the ‘Metaphor’ Category
April 29, 2013 – Over the past few days, I’ve been pondering the “austerity” frame, which currently seems to dominate political and economic debate. How to describe it as succinctly as possible? The best I can come up with is this:
In conservative ideology, “austerity” isn’t a temporary economic measure, it’s a permanent moral imperative.
It’s like the “war on drugs”. No matter how overwhelming the evidence of failure, it will still be pursued as policy, because the alternative is routinely framed as immoral (see below for examples). The Wikipedia entry on economic austerity won’t tell you anything about this moral dimension, and most economics pundits will tell you little. Analysis of front-page newspaper stories and political speech can, however, tell us much…
Every day we’re presented with a false moral dichotomy: Austerity vs X. What is X? It’s both the disease whose cure is austerity, and the only available alternative to austerity. And it’s framed as being essentially immoral. X is “government waste” on “dependency culture”, “something-for-nothing culture”, “living beyond one’s means”, “spiralling welfare spending”, “benefit cheats”, “benefit tourists”, etc. Recipients of state “handouts” are placed on the moral spectrum somewhere between idle fecklessness and fraud/theft.
This is the moral-metaphorical framing which has usurped the facts and figures. It doesn’t matter to the frame that the real costs of both welfare fraud and legitimate unemployment benefits (etc) are relatively low. As George Lakoff, puts it, “frames trump facts”. Another way of putting it is that evidence-based reason is unlikely to prevail while moral outrage against X is triggered by headlines every few days.
The austerity frame combines with the economy-as-household metaphor, which Paul Krugman has described as follows:
The bad metaphor – which you’ve surely heard many times – equates the debt problems of a national economy with the debt problems of an individual family. A family that has run up too much debt, the story goes, must tighten its belt.
The result of this combination is that we think of austerity in terms of household activity (working, spending, borrowing, etc). This has two damaging consequences. First, it gives a false idea of how national economies work (as Krugman explains). Second (and most relevant here), it makes us think of economic-failure’s causes and solutions in terms of household behaviour. The problem with this is that household metaphors don’t fit the actions of banks which led to the financial collapse, or the steps which still need to be taken against the banks.
When economy-as-household metaphors are used repeatedly with the austerity frame, it becomes difficult to discuss the role of the banks – especially when communication is limited to soundbites. Opposition politicians tend to opt instead for the path of least resistance: “tough on welfare”. Or they repeat the “getting people back to work” line. Unfortunately, even the latter reinforces moral “austerity”. Why? Because worklessness is presented as the problem – particularly the behaviour of individuals and households with regard to “finding work”. The logic is as follows:
- Poverty/joblessness is viewed as moral failure of the individual.
- “Austerity” is the moral discipline that will punish these failures.
- Austerity means people can’t be “dependent” on benefits – they must alter
their behaviour and “get back to work”.
The real giveaway about “austerity” is that not everyone is subjected to it. Those most deserving of austerity’s pain and punishment (eg banks and bankers) have escaped it. The financial institutions that are more dependent on state handouts than all “benefit scroungers” put together exist in a different compartment of media/political debate. After all, they are wealth-creators, job-creators – they are respectable, they wear suits, they make tons of money, and they reward political parties with it in various ways. This means they have the right kind of discipline. They don’t need the moral discipline of austerity. That’s reserved for the dirty scrounging peasants who are viewed as too feckless and idle to get a job.
The bottom line is that most conservative ideologues don’t really want austerity to end any more than they want the “WAR ON SCROUNGERS” headlines to end. Both are an integral part of the same conservative frame (or “ideology”). It isn’t new – the recent Philpott “vile product of welfare UK” case is preceded by countless others. In 1976, Ronald Reagan referred to a “Welfare Queen” who had supposedly received $150,000 in government handouts and was driving a “Welfare Cadillac”. The media could never find this person – it appeared to be a made-up stereotype.
Lakoff explains in technical terms why such stereotypes are readily adopted by our brains (“Prototype Theory”, “salient exemplars”, etc), but it boils down to existing “deep frames” which have been repeatedly reinforced:
Of course, what made this [stereotype] possible were strict father framings. First, there was the conservative logic that morality requires discipline, discipline in the market leads to prosperity, and lack of honest prosperity means laziness, lack of discipline, and therefore immorality. The Welfare Queen myth fit the frame – and would not have worked if it had not. (Lakoff, The Political Mind, Chapter 9)
March 12, 2013 – The war on Iraq was planned and sold with metaphorical framing. The bombs and deaths weren’t metaphors, but the discourse was – and still is – largely metaphorical.
“Liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk”
- Kenneth Adelman (Defense Policy Board, 13/02/02)
In an essay published in 1991, George Lakoff listed the following as among the main metaphors in the cognitive framing of war:
• War as business
• State as person (“National interest”)
• “Rational Actor” model & Faux Darwinism
• Fairy Tale of the Just War (“Rescue” or “self-defense”)
The first three listed occur repeatedly in the thinking of strategists, foreign policy advisers, international relations experts, etc – who almost certainly regard this thinking as natural and literal (rather than metaphorical).
The fourth listed (“Fairy Tale of the Just War”) is the metaphorical frame used to justify the war to the public. A different frame is used when a war is initiated by an official enemy: War as Crime (murder, assault, rape, theft, etc). Finally, the military has its own additional framing, which occasionally appears in media discourse, eg: War as Medicine (“surgical strikes”), War as Competitive Game, etc.
War as Business
The idea that war serves state/corporate interests seems commonplace, but killing for power & profit appears - to virtually everyone – as such an abhorrently immoral notion, that it must be denied (eg by politicians and other “respectable” people of influence). Thus, the connection between, say, OIL and the invasion of Iraq, whether dismissed or acknowledged, isn’t couched in such terms.
“The action has nothing to do with oil or any of the other conspiracy theories put forward”
(Tony Blair, speaking to parliament on Iraq)
The War as Business frame allows strategists, politicians, etc, to think/talk about war (mostly away from the public gaze) in terms of “rational” “costs” and “gains”. It’s a way of thinking that probably seems “natural” to the participants, as it relies on metaphorical conceptions they’re familiar with – from “conventional” politics, business and economics. Here’s a brief description of how it fits together…
1. In market economics, it’s “natural” to think of individuals pursuing their own “self-interest” according to the “rational actor” model – eg weighing up “losses” against “gains”, deciding whether a given action is “worth it” in quantifiable terms of accounting. Pursuing one’s self-interest in a competitive world is regarded as a good thing – a rational thing – in this economic worldview.
2. A nation has no literal “self” or “self-interest” – it’s an abstraction (defined in various terms). However, we routinely use a Nation as Person (or State as Person) metaphor to think about these “national” abstractions. One example is thinking about “national interest”. Inferences from market economics are mapped onto “national interest” as if it’s isomorphic to the economic “self-interest” of a person.
3. An important feature of this metaphorical framing is what it hides – what it excludes from attention – when the metaphors are routine and unconscious. To give an extreme example, the business section of the New York Times referred to the first Gulf War as having been a “bargain” (since the “costs” of the war were regarded as low – these “costs” were “US assets” and didn’t include the lives of Iraqis or the damage to Iraq).
Could paying for the Persian Gulf war prove as easy a ride for Americans as fighting it?
(‘The Big Spoils From a Bargain War’ – New York Times, 3/3/91)
There’s a lot of money to pay for this… oil revenues of Iraq could bring between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years… We’re dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction. (Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defense Secretary, 27/3/03)
State as person
The self-interest of a person is to be healthy, strong, etc. In the State as Person metaphor, the “national interest” is to be economically healthy and militarily strong. Relentlessly pursuing one’s self-interest is seen as “rational” in market economics, and it’s regarded as rational for a state to always maximise its wealth and military power. Not only is it “rational” in this metaphorical system – it’s also regarded as a moral good. The nation-person standing on its own feet, fending for itself – unlike the “weak”, “undeveloped” nations which haven’t successfully pursued their national interest, and which are thus reliant on handouts (“aid“, etc).
“They [US forces] are there as an expression of the American national interest to prevent the Iranian combination of imperialism and fundamentalist ideology from dominating a region on which the energy supplies of the industrial democracies depend.” (Henry Kissinger, 18/01/07)
What is hidden by the State as Person metaphor? Divisions of religion, ethnicity or economic class within a nation, plus ecology, human suffering, etc. A stark example is the effects of sanctions imposed on Iraq – sanctions which require the State as Person metaphor to make sense of them as “moral discipline” or “punishment”. This metaphorical frame hid the reality of the catastrophic effects of sanctions on countless human beings.
The State as Person metaphor is also used to justify war in terms of a hero battling a villain for a good cause. Here, the metaphorical narrative takes the form of “self-defense” or “rescue” in what Lakoff calls the “Fairy tale of the Just War” (more on this below). The absurdity of applying a predicate such as “villainous” or “threatening” to the Iraqi people doesn’t register in a debate premised on the Saddam-nation metaphor.
Textual analysis of media coverage of the Iraq war showed the terms “Saddam” and “Saddam Hussein” occurring more frequently than “Iraq”, “Iraqi people”, etc. See, for example, Semantic framing in the build-up to the Iraq War, Harmon & Muenchen, 2009).
“Rational Actor” model
Colin Powell (then Joint Chiefs head) started the hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (on the first Gulf War) by giving congress-members a tutorial on the Rational Actor model and the ideas of Carl von Clausewitz. This provided the framework in which most of the discussion took place.
In the hearings, the Rational Actor model, with its cost benefit analysis, took center stage. The possible ”losses” could only be American ”assets”: money, American casualties, equipment. Iraqi civilian lives came into the discussion only because there might be a publicity loss.
(Metaphorical Thought in Foreign Policy, George Lakoff, 1999)
The “Rational Actor” model, in economics, holds that it’s irrational to act against your self-interest. In the State as Person metaphor, the nation-self pursues its “self”-interest (ie “national interest”), maximising its assets/gains and minimising costs/losses. When this frame is applied to war, vital moral and social issues, impacting millions of people, may get excluded or reduced to cost-benefit calculations and game theory (eg as taught in courses on International Relations).
Since Iraqi civilians were not “our” assets, they couldn’t be counted as “losses”. The only way for the slaughter of Iraqi people to be regarded as a “cost” in this frame would be as bad PR, since public relations is regarded as a political and military asset. The tendency to think in this way (ie this metaphorical system dominant) would result from – among other things – being taught/trained about international politics in terms of Clausewitz’s ideas:
Clausewitz was a Prussian general whose views on war became dominant in American foreign policy circles during the Vietnam War [...] Clausewitz is most commonly presented as seeing war in terms of political cost-benefit analysis: Each nation-state has political objectives, and war may best serve those objectives. The political “gains” are to be weighed against acceptable “costs.”
(Metaphor and War, George Lakoff, 1991)
Incidentally, Colin Powell was against the first Gulf War, evaluating the gains as not worth the costs – ie not profitable in quantifiable terms of “national interest”. Rationality is profit maximization in this metaphorical system.
In Metaphorical Thought in Foreign Policy, Lakoff points out that so-called “realism” in international politics is saturated with faux-Darwinist metaphors – evolution seen as the survival of the strongest, rather than as, say, a broad matter of adaptation to ecological niches (which is not necessarily about “strength” or killing).
This frame of the competition of strength in a dangerous world combines with the above “Rational Actor” metaphor. So, not only is it “rational” to compete ruthlessly in one’s national-self-interest, it’s also natural survival instinct. An entailment of both metaphors is that “might is right” – strength (including military strength) is seen as a primary moral good. (See my article, Essentials of Framing, on how this fits into the conservative “Strict Father” perspective on morality).
Rational Actor and faux-Darwinism combine in the metaphor of Competition as Predation, which takes the form of commonplace expressions such as “it’s a dog-eat-dog world”, “it’s a jungle out there”, “you’ll be eaten alive”, etc. Thus, Kenneth Waltz, one of the most influential scholars in the field of international relations, writes (with apparently little awareness of the metaphorical nature of the claim) that:
“[States] are unitary actors who, at a minimum, seek their own preservation and, at maximum, drive for universal domination.” (Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, 1979)
The Fairy Tale of the Just War
As mentioned above, the “Fairy Tale” is used to justify war to the public. In this frame, there’s a villain and a hero – the villain is evil, and the hero is “left with no choice” but to engage the villain in battle, and thus restore the “moral balance”. The “moral balance” in this scenario is that the heroic, rational “democratic” nations remain militarily powerful, etc, while the villains are “disarmed”. Order and harmony are thereby restored.
The villains must be disarmed, as otherwise they could victimise the hero (self-defense scenario) or the people the hero is defending (rescue scenario). The hero makes sacrifices, undergoes difficulties, has “tough decisions”, etc. And, of course, the hero acts honourably by going out of his way to avoid harming innocent bystanders, whereas the treacherous, immoral villain doesn’t care who gets hurt. (It’s not difficult to figure out what bloody realities this framing excludes).
A study by Luther and Miller, Framing of the 2003 U.S.-Iraq War Demonstrations, found that the frames used by pro-war groups were: “Threat from WMD” and “Fighting for Freedom and Democracy”. These correspond, respectively, to the “self-defense” and “rescue” versions of the Fairy Tale frame. A similar mixture of self-defense and rescue frames were used to justify the first Gulf War. President Bush (senior) first used the self-defense narrative (Saddam had “a stranglehold on our oil pipeline”), but a national poll, in October 1990, indicated that Americans would support a war framed as a “rescue”. The next day, the Bush administration dropped the “self-defense” PR, and adopted the “Rape of Kuwait” metaphor – the US, as hero, would rescue the innocent victim, Kuwait.
As these examples show, the Fairy Tale of the Just War (especially self-defense) doesn’t necessarily conflict with the War as Business frame. Both use the State as Person metaphor. The “logical” implications of the two frames are different, however. For example, the Fairy Tale has the following metaphorical entailments: 1) heroes don’t negotiate with evil villains – they defeat them; 2) The real victims are those victimised by the villain, not by the hero; 3) There’s a clearly defined “ending” when the villain has been defeated (eg symbolised by the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue). And so on.
Strategic goals / “Humanitarian mission” / “War on Terror”
A war on Iraq was advocated as early as 1997 by members of the Project for the New American Century (including Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz), who later shaped the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration. The neoconservative plan was to make economic and strategic gains in the Middle East, including control of oil reserves, establishing military bases and “opening up” markets for US corporations. War was the means. Justification for war, following 9/11, was provided by the metaphorical “war on terror”.
“You can’t distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam.”
- George W. Bush, 26/9/02
“The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror.” – George W. Bush, 1/5/03
The “war on terror” narrative included both versions of the Fairy Tale of the Just War. America and its allies were supposedly “threatened” by WMD and “terror” (self-defense) – and a “humanitarian intervention” was needed to “spread democracy” and “liberate” Iraq from evil tyranny (rescue). Frank Luntz, the rightwing language guru, had recommended that the Iraq War be referred to as the main front in the “war on terror”, and Fox News repeatedly used “war on terror” as a headline when showing scenes from Iraq.
A position against war may be based on the likely “costs” exceeding the “gains”, as in the Rational Actor model (and this may include “costs” not usually considered under “national interest”, eg wider ecological costs, social and psychological costs, etc). As Lakoff points out, the cost-benefit calculation of “national interest” is a zero-sum system: “costs” to “them” count as “gains” for “us”: “Dead human beings went on the profit side of our ledger”. But outside of the national-interest frame, a calculation of “costs” can work differently.
More often, opposition to war is based on a moral position which excludes political and economic dimensions (particularly cost-benefit metaphors). War as Crime is a moral metaphor that is often used when a war is started by an official enemy (as in the above example, “Rape of Kuwait”). In the case of Iraq in 2003, opponents of the invasion pointed out that it was illegal under international law (hardcore advocates of the war argued otherwise). Human Rights is another approach, with its own complex metaphorical framing.
Although we can’t help using metaphors and frames to think about issues as complex as “international relations”, we can distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Death, dismemberment, pain and starvation are not metaphorical. In war, those who suffer these realities usually have no say in the cost-benefit calculations which decide their fate.
Nov 14, 2012 – Last week was officially ‘Living Wage‘ week (UK) - and only the most committed sadist would object to a campaign to raise the wages of the working poor. But, for me, the framing was wrong, and served to reinforce some deeply conservative ideas about “jobs” and “income”.
For example, the Living Wage Foundation states in big letters on its homepage that: “We believe that work should be the surest way out of poverty.”
The “surest way”? What are they thinking? Are we living inside a Dickens novel or something? (No wonder we’re seeing a rise in regressive measures such as workfare). In the technological 21st century, only a small fraction of total wealth is generated by human labour (and the fraction seems to be dwindling all the time, according to Jeremy Rifkin’s book, The End of Work) – I see no logical or economic sense in making “work” a condition for having a living income.
And I see no “moral” sense in the idea that work “should” be the “surest way” out of poverty. I’m not even certain what that means, since there’s nothing very “sure” about jobs these days – regardless of wage levels.
If this were a TV debate, I’d probably get drowned out by “orthodox” economics-talk from both left and right. The right talks about “job loss” resulting from raising incomes; the left counters with statistics about minimum wage, etc. But both accept the aim of getting as many people as possible “into work”. It’s like a superstition.
This “orthodox” economics reflects Victorian (or earlier) frames and metaphors (eg see economist Paul Ormerod’s work in this regard*). And, going back to Charles Dickens, you can see the whole worldview described (and seemingly subtlely satirised) in his novel Hard Times: the “self-made man”, the “dissipated, extravagant idler”, time as commodity, escape from poverty through hard work, etc.
More than a century later, we’re still labouring under the notion that “work” will cure the malaise caused by any economic “crisis”, personal or global. So, when the economy is brought to its knees by a corrupt/greedy financial sector, the answer is to get everyone “back to work”… until the next financial collapse (which is never caused by idleness).
Of course, there are good cognitive reasons why we think in this limited way. In our own personal experience (replayed thousands of times in our brains), “work” produces direct, tangible results, while inactivity leaves work to be done. Repetition in our nervous systems creates the appearance of a universal principle: that “wealth” (in a broad sense) comes primarily from work.
This framing might be appropriate for barter of turnips and chickens – or even, at a stretch, for Victorian mills (if you ignore how the created wealth was distributed). But how can it be suitable for thinking about an economy in which only a small percentage of the total wealth is “produced” or “earned” from present-day human work? (Estimation of ‘total wealth’ should include technological production, infrastructure and land-use, scientific know-how, accumulation of the common wealth of centuries of past human labour – which should be distinguished from current-work “productivity”. It’s the “commons”, the “public” – it’s vast).
Ponder this figure: In just over a decade, the Credit Default Swap market grew from nothing to $54 trillion. That’s close to the total GDP of the planet. Our cognitive frames for human “work” just don’t apply here. (Credit Default Swaps were a main – and diabolical – cause of the recent global financial collapse. They are a type of derivative – they resemble insurance against defaults on loans, but streamlined, packaged, computerised – on an industrial scale, but without human “work” production.)
I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work. (Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness)
The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income. (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Chaos or Community)
* “as the twentieth century draws to a close the dominant tendency in economic policy is still governed by a system of analysis inspired by the engineers and scientists of the Victorian era”. (Paul Ormerod, The Death of Economics).
◊ The graphic above is from my spoof charity website, NSPCO
Graphics by NewsFrames
“the Left’s been infected, too.”
- David Foster Wallace
“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”
- attributed to Niels Bohr
Nick Davies did us all a favour by popularising the term “churnalism“. Now, with one word, we can refer to a common, insidious media process without having to resort to vague terms such as “propaganda”. (That term has its uses, of course).
Most talk of churnalism seems to focus on “mainstream” media and corp/gov PR, but there’s also a “radical” churnalism (eg of the left). For example, if a popular dissident figure publishes a piece on a newsworthy issue, it will likely be republished, reposted, reblogged, facebooked, retweeted, mass-emailed, etc, to an audience of hundreds of thousands. And it soon acquires an “authoritative” status (almost as if it’s been peer-reviewed by a panel of Nobel Prize-Winning Saints). This seems to happen almost every day.
Given that most of my readers, like myself, probably regard most of this “radical” content as somehow on the side of “good” (to the extent that it opposes warmongering, power-hungry, profit-obsessed interests, etc) what comes next may be a little hard to take. David Foster Wallace put it eloquently:
As of 2003, the rhetoric of the enterprise is fucked. 95% of political commentary, whether spoken or written, is now polluted by the very politics it’s supposed to be about. Meaning it’s become totally ideological and reductive: The writer/speaker has certain political convictions or affiliations, and proceeds to filter all reality and spin all assertion according to those convictions and loyalties.
Everybody’s pissed off and exasperated and impervious to argument from any other side. Opposing viewpoints are not just incorrect but contemptible, corrupt, evil. Conservative thinkers are balder about this kind of attitude… But the Left’s been infected, too. (David Foster Wallace, interview)
You don’t have to look far – in blogs, Twitter, newspaper comment sections, etc – to see what DFW refers to. It looks as if the “ideological and reductive” aspects thrive most in the fast, unreflecting, copy-n-paste, repost, retweet, mass-mailing environment characteristic of churnalism (“radical” or otherwise). But let’s pause here…
Questioning the status quo has always needed time. Changing your thinking requires time away from economic demands of work and “productivity”. Noam Chomsky pointed out that you can’t undermine conventional pieties in a 15-second soundbite – you need more time. But you need more time, also – much more – to arrive at a state in which you are capable of “undermining” (or even just fundamentally questioning) your own thinking.
Why would you want to undermine your thinking? Well, isn’t that exactly what we demand from others who fundamentally disagree with us? Whether they’re “mainstream” journalists, bloggers or drinking buddies with the “wrong” opinion – we want them to see how deeply wrong they’ve got it. (“You’d have to be an idiot to believe that…”, etc).
We expect those who disagree with us to “be reasonable”, “face the facts”. But it doesn’t work that way, even when the “facts” seem clear-cut and verifiable. It usually takes more than grudging admission of factual error to get someone to change their “position”. We don’t think in facts – our thoughts aren’t strung-together facts. Every “fact” requires a frame to make sense of it (or, as Lakoff puts it, “we think and reason using frames and metaphors”). What we’re really demanding of our political, ideological or informal ‘opponents’ is that they change their worldviews, their cognitive framings (ie their “position”), to more closely match ours.
Imagine such a thing being demanded of yourself. Most of us, even if we had the inclination to seriously question our own “positions”, probably wouldn’t have the time to do a good job of it. For a start, you’d have to trace back through all the “authorities” you accepted since childhood, and ask yourself which claims you checked, and which you took on faith – and whether there were any alternatives you overlooked, etc. A huge task. There are too many other things urgently demanding our attention. So, for now, it’s more convenient (and fairly satisfying, “politically”) to just do a bit of reposting, retweeting, reblogging: “RT new Pilger piece on Assange. I haven’t got time to read it properly, but he always says it better than I could”, etc.
“The meme is the basic unit of cultural transmission, or imitation.”
- Richard Dawkins
There are several different versions of “meme”, but since Dawkins coined the term, I’ll stick with his biological definition. Memes compete with one another to replicate themselves in our minds. A “good” meme is one which spreads easily throughout a population. A good meme doesn’t necessarily imply a “good idea” (eg in the sense of high-quality information) – it’s just good at spreading. As Richard Brodie (author of Virus of the Mind) puts it:
Truth is not one of the strong selectors for memes.
Making sense is a selector… (Richard Brodie)
In other words, people are quick to accept flawed ideas which “make sense” (to them) over accurate-but-challenging ones. Other “strong selectors” for memes (as noted by Brodie, who cites evolutionary reasons) include: Crisis, Danger, Approval, Mission, Authority.
“Radical” discourse isn’t immune from this – one sees the same meme ‘selectors’ here: enemies, heroes, crisis, experts, the battle against nefarious forces, etc. The presence of these elements – more than accuracy, perspicacity, insight, originality, etc – determines the “success” of the “radical” idea/meme, according to memetics.
Continuing with David Foster Wallace:
… political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying. (David Foster Wallace, interview)
If the “other side” is seen as corrupt/evil, then this “relentless black-and-whitening” makes sense as being uncompromising. You don’t compromise with evil. In some “radical left” circles I’m familiar with, “radical” has become a measure of the ability to see things “clearly” and starkly in black and white. This seems to precisely mirror (albeit inverted) the “authoritarian” moral logic of what Lakoff calls the “Radical Right”: no room for moral grey, intolerance of “moral contamination”/relativism, and hatred and/or distrust of “liberals” (whatever that term connotes).
What does “radical” mean?
Several different uses for the word ‘radical’ seem widely accepted. It comes from the Latin “radix”, for “root”. Literally “of the root”, but used in the metaphorical sense of “root” as “origin”, “source”, “basis”, “foundation”, etc – and also “primary”, “essential”, “fundamental”.
The term has acquired various political uses/”meanings” – eg via the metaphorical notion of “change from the roots”, as in “affecting the foundations”, fundamentally (rather than superficially) “reformed”, etc. Also, “extreme” – it was once used to describe those belonging to the “extreme section” of the British Liberal party (early 19th C.), etc. Ominously, UK and US governments/authorities increasingly seem to regard “radical” as synonymous with “terrorist”.
Other (better established) synonyms (n. & adj.) for radical include: “avant-garde”, “original”, “iconoclast”, “revolutionary”, “cardinal”, “primal”, etc. Bear those in mind for what follows…
My earliest “intellectual” influences (as a student) were Jung and Surrealism, not Chomsky or Socialist Worker, and this probably explains my perception (or bias) that most of what passes for “radical” in the political realm (via alt-churnalism and meme-spread) looks pretty much the opposite of what’s defined above as “radical” (with the possible exception of “radical” as synonym for “extreme”).
I see little that’s “radical” in copy-n-pasting (or social-media linking, etc) of recycled variations on a “relentlessly black-and-whitened” line whose main function is to identify and denounce the enemy (eg corporate/Western-state) in a tough and uncompromising – but hackneyed – way. (I wouldn’t describe anything I’ve written as “radical”).
With a similar thought in mind, I once tweeted (to nobody in particular):
To me, “radical” is primarily a measure of originality, not of intensity (or frequency) with which you equate “corporate” with “bad”.
“Nothing to do with originality”? After I pointed out the etymology of “radical” and “original” (root is metaphor for origin/source; originality refers to non-derivative origin/source), Medialens replied again:
Which kind of illustrates what Twitter is good for.
(At the other end of this spectrum, a Guardian piece titled ‘Britain’s 50 new radicals’ seemed to confuse “radical” with “entrepreneur”. See the resulting complaints in the Guardian comments section).
“Radical”: How do you measure information?
“the more probable the message, the less information it gives.
Clichés, for example, are less illuminating than great poems”
- Norbert Wiener, on Cybernetics and Society
With the above, Norbert Wiener simplified Claude Shannon’s equation for quantifying the information contained in a message. In Information Theory, it’s a measure of unpredictability – the information in a message equals the negative of the probabilities that you can predict what comes next. In short, the easier it is to predict, the less information it contains. Dante meets Bosch in a crack lounge.
Thus, as Wiener puts it, great poems contain more information than clichés. Political speech/discourse tends to be among the most predictable & clichéd of all communications – whether it’s hard right, “liberal” or “radical” left. Churnalism of all kinds appears to increase this predictability.
Given a version/definition of “radical” in terms of information, as above (ie unpredictable, non-derivative, original), then what typically passes for “radical” in the political realm looks, to me, like nothing of the sort.
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.
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”.
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.
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
In a previous post I looked at research on “ego depletion” and “low willpower” (eg exhausted “self-control” type metaphors). This one casts a glance at the “moral licensing” effect…
‘Moral licence’ refers to our increased tendency to act ‘immorally’ if we’ve already displayed our ‘moral’ rectitude. For example, one pioneering study showed that people are more likely to express racial prejudice, sexism, etc, “when their past behavior has established their credentials as nonprejudiced persons.”
Another study found that people give less to charity if they’ve just thought about themselves in terms of positive traits (Sachdeva, Iliev, Medin; 2009). Another showed that folks are more likely to cheat in a maths test if they’ve just recalled a time when they acted morally (Jordan, Mullen & Murnighan; 2011). Yet another found that “people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products”.
The list of research is quite long – it seems a well-established phenomenon. (Several examples are mentioned in this meta-study/review).
‘Self-control’, ‘Willpower’, etc
What does moral licensing have to do with “willpower”? Consider the report of soaring sales of Big Macs after McDonald’s added healthier items to its menu. As Kelly McGonigal (in Maximum Willpower) puts it:
“whenever we have conflicting desires, being good gives us permission to be a little bit bad. Importantly, this is not just a matter of running out of blood sugar or willpower. When psychologists ask people about their licensed indulgences, the indulgers report feeling in control of their choices, not out of control. [...]“
“most people think of all forms of self-control as a moral test. Giving in to dessert, sleeping late, carrying credit card debt – we use them to determine whether we are being good or bad.” (McGonigal, Kelly; Maximum Willpower. Macmillan)
We might think of it as a reasonable balancing of the “good” and “bad” (eg the healthy & unhealthy), but it often doesn’t work out that way. The aura of goodness (eg the thought of eating a salad, a good intention) is apparently enough to ‘license’ us to indulge (or act immorally) – as long as that prior moral goodness is our own (the research consistently shows little or no licensing effect when subjects are simply “primed” with thoughts of moral behaviour unassociated with their own actions).
Thus, moral licensing apparently ‘tricks’ us into acting against our “best interests” while we’re framing things in terms of ‘self-control’. A popular metaphor for this process is ‘self-sabotage’.
‘Highbrow’ vs ‘Lowbrow’ consumer choice
Many of our spending decisions seem tinged with morality. Buying frivolous or luxury items comes with feelings of guilt and “self-indulgence”. According to moral licensing logic, decisions which establish a person’s ethical credentials should provide a licence for indulgence. Some research seems to support this:
“We show that prior choices, which activate and boost the self-concept, are likely to subsequently license more self-indulgent choices. We propose that licensing can operate through an expression of intent to be virtuous, which reduces negative self-attributions associated with the purchase of relative luxuries.” (Khan & Dhar, 2005: ‘Licensing Effect in Consumer Choice’)
In a later study (Khan & Dhar, 2007), participants chose a free film rental from a list containing both ‘highbrow’ (eg Schindler’s List) and ‘lowbrow’ (eg Bruce Almighty) films. A separate group had rated the highbrow films as more virtuous. It turned out that participants were more likely to choose a ‘lowbrow’ film if they were aware that the same choice would be repeated in a week’s time (relative to participants who were not aware of the future choice). Here’s how the authors of the study explain this:
“Our account proposed that the optimistic belief in one’s ability to choose a virtuous option in the future reduces the anticipated guilt arising from not exercising self-control and choosing a vice in the present.” (Khan & Dhar, 2007; ‘The Effect of Future Choices on Self-control’)
Whore-addicted Christian evangelists &
Some occupations have a built-in supply of moral righteousness. So, who can blame the evangelical Christian pastor who ended up robbing banks to fund his addiction to expensive whores (true story). Or the ‘zero tolerance’ cop gone bad? Or the adulterous ‘family values’ politician, etc?
Incidentally, self-discipline and self-control top the hierarchy of moral importance in the conservative “strict father”, or “authoritarian”, moral framing system. I wrote about this here. I won’t draw any inferences about this with regard to moral licensing. I just mention it in passing…
On the other hand, I think of the unpleasant ‘passive-aggressive’ behaviour of certain altruistic, compassionate campaigning groups who wear their altruistic compassion like a badge. Again, no inferences drawn, and mentioning no names. I’m probably just imagining it.
Moral Licence vs Cognitive Dissonance
All of this brings up a tricky question: When does previous ‘moral’ behaviour license, and when does it constrain people to act consistently with those past ‘good’ actions? Cognitive dissonance theory would seem to predict the opposite of moral licensing – ie that people feel uncomfortable acting in a way that’s inconsistent with how they already view themselves.
Merritt, Effron & Monin (2010) suggest that it depends on whether the previous ‘moral’ behaviour is framed as “commitment” (eg to a task we identify with) or “progress” (on a task we’re obligated to do) – with the former being less likely to result in moral licensing. They cite the classic 1975 study (Miller, Brickman and Bolen) which found that children who were told repeatedly that they were “tidy” littered less than a group who were told that they should be tidy. They comment: “It appears that the labeling made children feel committed to neatness rather than licensed to litter”.
A different way of putting it is provided by Kelly McGonigal:
“Moral licensing turns out to be, at its core, an identity crisis. We only reward ourselves for good behaviour if we believe that who we really are is the self that wants to be bad. From this point of view, every act of self-control is a punishment, and only self-indulgence is a reward. Moving beyond moral licensing requires knowing that who we are is the self that wants the best for us – and the self that wants to live in line with our core values. When this happens, we will no longer view the impulsive, lazy or easily tempted self as the “real” us. We will no longer act like someone who must be bribed, tricked or forced to pursue our goals, and then rewarded for making any effort at all.” (McGonigal, Kelly; Maximum Willpower. Macmillan)
Did you get that? “Identity crisis”, “Who we really are”, “the self that wants to be bad” vs “the self that wants the best for us”? If it’s not confusing enough already, let me quote gratuitously from Lakoff & Johnson on the ‘structure of the subject-self metaphor system’:
‘Our metaphoric conceptions of inner life have a hierarchical structure. At the highest level, there is a general Subject-Self metaphor, which conceptualizes a person as bifurcated [forked, in two parts]. The exact nature of this bifurcation is specified more precisely one level down, where there are five specific instances of the metaphor.’ (Philosophy in the Flesh, by Lakoff & Johnson).
Okay, that’s enough of that for now. But you get an idea of where this is headed…
Meanwhile, here’s Paul Calf reflecting on self-control:
My last post brought up some comments which reminded me of common “misconceptions” about Frame Semantics. Here are some extracts from George Lakoff’s book, Thinking Points, which will hopefully clarify things a little…
Frames and Brains
“Framing” is not primarily about politics or political messaging, or communication. It is
far more fundamental than that: Frames are the mental structures that allow human
beings to understand reality—and sometimes to create what we take to be reality.
But the discovery and use of frames does have an enormous bearing on politics.
Given our media-obsessed, fast-paced, talking-points political culture, it’s critical that
we understand the nature of framing and how it can be used.
Political framing is really applied cognitive science. Frames facilitate our most basic
interactions with the world—they structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way
we reason, and they even impact how we perceive and how we act. For the most part,
our use of frames is unconscious and automatic—we use them without realizing it.
Erving Goffman, the distinguished sociologist, was one of the first to notice frames
and the way they structure our interactions with the world. Goffman studied institutions,
like hospitals and casinos, and conventionalized social behavior, like dating and
shopping. He found something quite remarkable: Social institutions and situations are
shaped by mental structures (frames), which then determine how we behave in those
institutions and situations.
To describe this phenomenon, he used the metaphor of “life as a play.” For instance,
consider the hospital frame, with its clearly defined roles: doctor, surgeon, nurse,
orderly, patient, visitor, receptionist, janitor, and so on. There are locations where
scenes play out: the operating room, the emergency room, the recovery room, the
waiting area, and patient rooms. There are props: the operating table, scalpels, bandages,
wheelchairs, and so on.
The hospital frame also has an internal logic, because there are fixed relations and
hierarchies among the roles: Doctors are superior to nurses, who are superior to
orderlies; all surgeons are doctors, but not vice versa; surgeons perform operations in the
Conversely, the hospital frame rules out certain behavior, because it determines what
is appropriate and what isn’t: Orderlies or visitors do not perform operations; surgeons
don’t empty bedpans; operations are not performed in the waiting area; visitors bring
flowers to the patients, but surgeons don’t bring flowers to orderlies.
All of us know thousands of such frames for everyday conventionalized activities,
from dating to taking buses to getting money at an ATM to eating at a restaurant.
Many frames come with language that is meaningless outside that frame: surgeon,
emergency room, waiter, bus driver, PIN. Without operations, a surgeon would be
meaningless. Just as a waiter would be without restaurants.
Political disputes are sometimes about how frames interact and whether one frame
takes priority over another. Can the FBI search a congressman’s office for evidence of
corruption? That is, does the administration frame include law enforcement jurisdiction
Frame structures also appear on a smaller scale. Charles Fillmore, one of the world’s
great linguists, has studied how everyday frames work at the level of sentences. The verb
“accuse,” for example, is defined with respect to an accusation frame, with semantic
roles: accuser, accused, offense, and accusation. The accuser and accused are people (or
metaphorical people, like corporations), the offense is an action, and the accusation is a
speech act, in particular, a declaration. The offense is assumed by the accuser to be bad,
that is, illegal or immoral, and the accuser is declaring that the accused did perform the
Lessons from Cognitive Science
1. The use of frames is largely unconscious. The use of frames occurs at the neural level,
so most people have no idea they are even using frames, much less what kind of frames.
Thus, the conservative message machine can impose its frames without the public—
progressive or not—being aware of them. For example, the “war on terror” frame has
been imposed by conservatives but used by independent journalists and even by many
progressives without much comment. In another area, Time magazine ran the headline
“Illegals!” for a feature article on immigration. Democrats have used the “tax relief”
frame without being aware that it undercuts their own views.
2. Frames define common sense. What counts as “common sense” varies from
person to person but always depends on what frames are in the brain and how frequently
they are used and evoked. Different people can have different frames in their brains, so
“common sense” can differ widely from person to person. However, in getting their
frames to dominate public discourse, conservatives have changed “common sense,” and
progressives have been letting them get away with it. Progressives should become
conscious of framing that is at present accepted unconsciously as “common sense” but
that hides the deep problems.
3. Repetition can embed frames in the brain. One of the funniest bits on Jon
Stewart’s The Daily Show is video clips it runs of right-wing leaders and spokespeople
using the same words over and over on the same day. The technique of repetition of the
same words to express the same idea is effective. The words come with surface frames.
Those surface frames in turn latch onto and activate deep frames. When repeated over
and over, the words reinforce deep frames by strengthening neural connections in
The problem of rationalism
Understanding frame analysis means becoming aware of one’s own mind and the minds
of others. This is a big task. We were not brought up to think in terms of frames and
metaphors and moral worldviews. We were brought up to believe that there is only one
common sense and that it is the same for everyone. Not true. Our common sense is
determined by the frames we unconsciously acquire, and one person’s common sense is
another’s evil political ideology. The truths that have been discovered about the mind
are not easy to fathom, especially when false views of the mind get in the way.
The discovery of frames requires a reevaluation of rationalism, a 350-year-old
theory of mind that arose during the Enlightenment. We say this with great admiration
for the rationalist tradition. It is rationalism, after all, that provided the foundation for
our democratic system. Rationalism says it is reason that makes us human, and all
human beings are equally rational. That is why we can govern ourselves and do not have
to rely upon a king or a pope to govern us. And since we are equally rational, the best
form of government is a democracy. So far, so good.
But rationalism also comes with several false theories of mind.
• We know from cognitive science research that most thought is unconscious, but
rationalism claims that all thought is conscious.
• We know that we think using mechanisms like frames and metaphors. Yet
rationalism claims that all thought is literal, that it can directly fit the world;
this rules out any effects of framing, metaphors, and worldviews.
• We know that people with different worldviews think differently and may reach
completely different conclusions given the same facts. But rationalism claims
that we all have the same universal reason. Some aspects of reason are
universal, but many others are not—they differ from person to person based
on their worldview and deep frames.
• We know that people reason using the logic of frames and metaphors, which
falls outside of classical logic. But rationalism assumes that thought is logical
and fits classical logic.
If you believed in rationalism, you would believe that the facts will set you free, that
you just need to give people hard information, independent of any framing, and they
will reason their way to the right conclusion. We know this is false, that if the facts
don’t fit the frames people have, they will keep the frames (which are, after all,
physically in their brains) and ignore, forget, or explain away the facts. The facts must
be framed in a way to make sense in order to be accepted as a basis for further reasoning.
If you were a rationalist policy maker, you would believe that frames, metaphors,
and moral worldviews played no role in characterizing problems or solutions to
problems. You would believe that all problems and solutions were objective and in no
way worldview dependent. You would believe that solutions were rational, and that the
tools to be used in arriving at them included classical logic, probability theory, game
theory, cost-benefit analysis, and other aspects of the theory of rational action.
Rationalism pervades the progressive world. It is one of the reasons progressives
have lately been losing to conservatives.
Rationalist-based political campaigns miss the symbolic, metaphorical, moral,
emotional, and frame-based aspects of political campaigns. Real rationality recognizes
these politically crucial aspects of our mental life. We advocate getting real about
rationality itself, recognizing how it really works. If you think political campaigns are
about laundry lists of policies that have no further symbolic value, then you miss the
heart of American politics. [End of excerpt]
I’m aware that this will probably lead to further misconceptions (“Are you saying we should just be irrational?”, etc). Such is the way with new “paradigms” (I’m not keen on this word, but how else to highlight that this isn’t just a new surface gloss?). It takes a while for the non-familiar to sink in. But, one step at a time…
A view I often encounter is that Lakoff’s Frame Semantics is not politically “radical” enough. Take this review of Lakoff’s book, Whose Freedom? (from CounterPunch), which argues that Lakoff ignores “any facts or analyses that suggest the problems of an unjust and unsustainable world may be rooted in fundamental systems, such as corporate capitalism and the imperialism of powerful nation-states”.
CounterPunch’s reviewer, Robert Jensen, seems (to me) hostile towards Lakoff throughout, and I see indications that he hasn’t read Lakoff’s book very thoroughly (for example, he claims incorrectly that Lakoff “makes no mention” of the distinction “between negative freedom [...] and positive freedom”).
But, putting that aside, what is Jensen’s main problem with Lakoff’s approach? Jensen first makes some good points about the US Democratic party, but Lakoff’s book is not really about the Democrats (except for the illustrative examples cited). Jensen then returns to the same criticism that he started his review with:
Though this critique may seem harsh, it is a friendly one. I agree with many of the policy prescriptions that Lakoff labels as “progressive,” though I would want to push his analysis to the left and move past the predictable and uninspiring liberal ideology. I would highlight the more fundamental issues around illegitimate systems and structures of power, primarily the corporation in capitalism and the nation-state in the imperial era. (Outside the Frame, Robert Jensen)
So: “structures of power”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, the “nation-state” – these are the “fundamental” issues/systems for Jensen (and for many others who use the same terminology). Jensen writes that Lakoff’s approach is “shallow” for (allegedly) not addressing these fundamentals.
It would be easy to dismiss Jensen’s Counterpunch review as a mixture of ignorance and animosity towards Lakoff, but Jensen is a journalism professor for chrissakes, and he expresses a viewpoint which I’ve encountered with many other “radical leftist” folk who use a similar lexicon of political “fundamentals” (and with whom I probably share a lot of common ground).
So, what’s going on here?
Well, firstly, it’s worth pointing out that these “fundamentals” (“structures of power”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, “nation-state”) are abstract nouns. They seem useful abstractions to me, but they refer to unimaginably huge aggregations of unimaginably complex, countless human “realities”.
I’m often not sure what’s going on in my own head second by second – so don’t expect me to know what “imperialism” refers to – beyond some crude model in my brain, some metaphorical framing. (But don’t worry – whatever it is, I’m opposed to it). We tend to reify these terms.
(Note for “true radicals”: Please don’t misunderstand me here. In drawing attention to the cognitive “dangers” of such high-level abstract nouns/labels, I’m not “playing down” the very real, massive-scale bloodshed and human suffering that those who use these terms are themselves trying to draw attention to.)
And that’s where Lakoff’s work comes in. For a start, we gain a better understanding of our own internal mapping of this stuff. We become more adept at distinguishing the “map” from the “territory”. We see how our views (and those of people who oppose us), on a range of diverse topics (eg economics, international conflict, various social issues, etc), fit together from an internal “moral logic”. One example Lakoff provides to illustrate this is the question: Why, in the US, do conservative positions on, say, abortion correlate with support for capital punishment or opposition to social programmes for reducing child mortality – ie publicly-funded prenatal and postnatal care programmes for impoverished mothers? (America apparently has the highest rate of infant mortality in the industrialised world). There’s no obvious, commonsense explanation – and no other field of research has seriously attempted to provide answers (especially not empirically-based ones).
Frame Semantics, metaphorical framing, the cognitive-linguistic mapping of “political” views (whatever you want to call it) gives us rich insights into how our “moral” and “political” concepts form and function at the “deeper” levels of what the researchers call the “cognitive unconscious“. To me, there’s a beautiful irony in Robert Jensen’s evaluation of this approach as “shallow”.
Lakoff’s book in fact deals with types of framing directly relevant to Jensen’s “fundamental” issues (“structures of power”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, etc). Take the section on ‘Economic Freedom’ in which Lakoff writes at length on frames which form the ‘Economic Liberty Myth’ – ie the metaphorical rationale “behind” what Jensen calls the “structures of power” and “corporate capitalism”.
For example, this myth unites the following ideas in a complex moral frame:
- “Free markets are natural and moral”
- “Competition naturally maximises efficiency”
- “Private industry is more efficient than government”
- “Regulation reduces market efficiency”
- “Everybody with sufficient discipline can succeed”
- “Market discipline is natural; regulation is unnatural”
Lakoff shows how these moral-economic frames tend to accompany other ‘conservative’ positions on seemingly unrelated matters (eg foreign policy, war, “domestic” issues such as welfare, etc) in a systemic way. Unlike the rhetoric-heavy “radical” churnalism which is so often found on the pages of CounterPunch, it’s based to a large extent on empirical work, eg research in conceptual metaphor – a truly “radical” field (in the sense of new, original, groundbreaking and “getting to the roots” of things).
Perhaps if Lakoff hadn’t done this pioneering work – perhaps if he’d just stuck to repeating reified terms (“structures of power”, “Power-elites”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, etc), and citing evidence proving that these abstract nouns refer to the major destructive “forces” on the planet (not difficult to do, really) – then perhaps smart, deeply radical guys like Robert Jensen would welcome him with open arms: One Of Us.
June 13, 2012 – Most of us seem prone to distraction, which suggests a problem with summoning “willpower”. This appears to be “social” – part of “fitting in”. To make things worse, it seems that advertisers and the media conspire to have us associating distraction with… pleasure.
We can’t think about this stuff without metaphor. We could talk about “real” things: serotonin, dopamine, etc – but we’d have to use metaphor eventually. So, distraction appears outside us, but then becomes “internalised” and “self-reinforcing”. After a busy, distracting day, we try to relax by distracting ourselves further (eg by watching TV news). Eventually our own minds become distracting.
It might seem like a problem. But then we start thinking in terms of mental “discipline”, ”vigilance”, “self-denial”, etc – “solutions”. Or we might invoke management jargon, with its emphasis on “control”, “efficiency”, “planning”. Vigilance! Regimen! Abstention! It sounds like an anal-retentive’s lexicon. Surely there’s another way..?
Luckily, the blossoming fields of neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology are not ignoring “willpower”. On the contrary, they’re producing truckloads of fascinating research – including new(ish) ways to think about it…
“Self-control” & “ego depletion”
The term “ego depletion” seems to have taken off, having appeared in thousands of scientific papers. Its popularity in the field seems due to its usefulness in “explaining” a wide assortment of behaviours reflecting poor “self-control”.
The basic idea is a sort of energy model (or metaphor) of “self”. The “energy” gets depleted and needs to be replenished, and this determines our available “willpower”. The researcher who coined the phrase “ego depletion” says he used the term “ego” as a kind of homage to Freud’s insights regarding the old “libido” energy-model of self.
One of the early studies on ego depletion (the ‘Radish & Chocolate’ experiment) raised the question: Why would the act of resisting chocolate-chip cookies lead to poor perseverance in trying to solve a geometry puzzle? (The experiment had compared the geometry-solving perseverance of a group of tempted radish-eating students to that of both cookie-eating and hungry – but untempted – students).
One of the authors of the study, Roy Baumeister (with co-author John Tierney), commented:
The old folk wisdom about willpower appeared to be correct after all, unlike the newer and fancier psychological theories of the self. Willpower looked like much more than a metaphor. It seemed to be like a muscle that could be fatigued through use. (Baumeister & Tierney, ‘Willpower’)
Of course, in thinking about it as a “power”, or as “like a muscle”, we’re still in the realm of conceptual metaphor. Baumeister later uses the metaphor of a willpower “stock”, “supply” “reservoir” and “source of energy”:
1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.
You might think you have one reservoir of self-control for work, another for dieting, another for exercise, and another for being nice to your family. But the radish experiment showed that two completely unrelated activities – resisting chocolate and working on geometry puzzles – drew on the same source of energy, and this phenomenon has been demonstrated over and over. There are hidden connections among the wildly different things you do all day. You use the same supply of willpower to deal with frustrating traffic, tempting food, annoying colleagues, demanding bosses, pouting children. (Baumeister & Tierney, ‘Willpower’)
If you don’t yet see the significance here of metaphor, consider that while the “fatigued muscle” and “drained reservoir” metaphors might both be useful ways to think about these aspects of “self”, muscles behave very differently from reservoirs. We can’t think about “self-control” without metaphor, and it’s fine to use multiple, diverse metaphors (we do it all the time without noticing), but each conceptual metaphor has its own set of inferences. You can’t strengthen a reservoir through exercise, although you can fill it back to its original level.
‘Ego depletion’ has been described by researchers as like an illness with no symptoms – a condition which doesn’t “feel” like anything. But it seems there are tell-tale signs, the most obvious being a tendency to react (emotionally) more strongly to all sorts of things, plus intensified desires and appetites. As Baumeister & Tierney put it, “Ego depletion thus creates a double whammy: your willpower is diminished and your cravings feel stronger than ever”.
You may have noticed, for example, that you get irritable when you’re trying to quit some habitual/addictive behaviour. Or you find yourself craving junk food. Or perhaps you just get disheartened and depressed more easily than usual. In the ego-depletion thesis, these behaviours/states result from placing demands on your ‘stock’ of willpower – the same stock which is used for controlling thoughts, emotions and other “impulses”. The increased irritation (or craving or other reaction) is often the very thing which causes you to abandon your attempt (to quit smoking, or whatever is demanding more ‘willpower’ than usual).
People usually associate willpower with so-called “impulse control” (the ability to resist temptations such as alcohol, tobacco and chocolate) or “performance control” (focusing your attention, persevering with a task, etc), but not with control of thoughts and emotions.
We tend to use “computational” metaphors for “rational thought” – we conceive of thinking as being about information processing rather than “energy resources”. And yet controlled thinking (eg trying to solve a difficult geometry puzzle) drains your ‘willpower’ reservoir, according to the scientific research on ego-depletion. How is this relevant to anything? Well, while we might make allowances for poor “performance” when we feel completely “drained” (ie exhausted), we probably don’t imagine that fluctuations in our “energy levels” affect how we “rationally” think.
Consider the study (‘Extraneous factors in judicial decisions’) which found that judges were more likely to be lenient in granting parole if they’d just had a snack break. The judges themselves weren’t aware that pausing for a sandwich affected their “rational” decision-making processes.
The slightly “drained” pre-snack judges tended to go for the less risky option (keeping the prisoners locked up) – compared to their decisions made after refreshments. As the study’s authors (Danziger, Levav & Avnaim-Pesso) write:
We have presented evidence suggesting that when judges make repeated rulings, they show an increased tendency to rule in favor of the status quo. This tendency can be overcome by taking a break to eat a meal, consistent with previous research demonstrating the effects of a short rest, positive mood, and glucose on mental resource replenishment. (‘Extraneous factors in judicial decisions’)
Or, in the words of Baumeister & Tierney, “Decision making depletes your willpower, and once your willpower is depleted, you’re less able to make decisions”.
Of course, decisions on more important matters, such as going to war, are taken on a much more “rational” basis – they don’t depend on snacks. Of course. (See Oliver Stone’s film, W., for more details…).
Boost Your Willpower!
This is about you. Want to give up smoking, increase your concentration? Wouldn’t the ladies be more impressed if you had a larger attention span? Are you wasting your days on Twitter? And what about managing your anger and irritation more effectively? Do you think people haven’t noticed how argu-mental you seem at times?
It’s all about this “ego depletion” thing. And did you know that, according to this theory, activities such as meditation can strengthen your willpower? I’ll try to explain, but right now there’s a car alarm going off outside, and I can’t concentrate. Those noisy bastards, no consideration for others… who’d want to steal their piece-of-shit car anyway… [etc]
(To be continued…)
quantum mechanics [metaphorical framing] hasn’t
profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet”.
– Niels Bohr (quote vandalism mine)
One of my overreaching aims for this blog is to spark enthusiasm & “eureka” moments. Unfortunately, familiarity with the term “framing” seems to give a false sense of “knowing all about it” for many people (especially busy journalists). Epiphanies (intellectual orgasms, sort of) will never occur with that bored, weary, “been there, done that” mindset – there are many new thrills and unpredictable insights to enjoy with this subject…
Particularly stimulating to me is recent scientific research on “willpower” and “self-control” – coming at it from my perspective of metaphorical framing, that is. “Willpower” is a Victorian metaphor which had (until recently) gone out of favour with psychologists:
As Victorians fretted over moral decay and the social pathologies concentrated in cities, they looked for something more tangible than divine grace, some internal strength that could protect even an atheist.
They began using the term willpower because of the folk notion that some kind of force was involved – some inner equivalent to the steam powering the Industrial Revolution.
(Baumeister & Tierney, ‘Willpower’)
The “force” and “energy” type metaphors (for ‘self-control’) have now come back into fashion among academics, it seems – thanks to some fascinating scientific research on “willpower depletion” (or “ego depletion”), etc. I’ll be summarising these findings in a short series of News Frames posts, but, meanwhile, if you have enough willpower to tear yourself away from Twitter and read a book, I’d recommend a couple of very readable popularisations of the topic: Willpower – Rediscovering our Greatest Strength, by Roy Baumeister & John Tierney, and Maximum Willpower: How to master the new science of self-control, by Kelly McGonigal.
Both books offer practical tips while giving an overview of the science. What they don’t do is join up with Lakoff-style research on cognitive semantics to provide a bigger and even more stimulating picture. That’s a picture I hope to modestly sketch out in a few articles (since nobody else seems to be doing it). As a taster: Lakoff has documented how we tend to think of self-control using metaphors of object control (eg inferences regarding forced movement of an object are applied to our abstract notion of “self”. This is noticeable in common expressions: “Have you been pushing yourself too hard lately?”).
“Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think”.
– Niels Bohr
And, of course, it all dovetails (with enough ingenuity or bluffing on my part) with the equally important topic of media distraction – and how it’s probably damaging your brain. Years ago – before I was aware of either Lakoff’s work or the new science on ‘willpower’ – I wrote a brief piece called The Distraction System for my Anxiety Culture project. In it, I use the phrase: “tap into a reservoir of potential concentration” – which, at the time, seemed a dubious metaphor (I liked the sound of it, so left it in). Baumeister’s recent work indicates that far from being dubious, the “reservoir of potential concentration” metaphor seems a good ‘fit’ for what the recent scientific research tells us about the processes involved.
More to follow on this topic…
Graphics by NewsFrames