Contested concepts in the news
Sept 19, 2011 – George Bush used the words “freedom”, “free” and “liberty” 49 times in his 20-minute speech at the 2004 Republican Convention. The defining frame of Bush’s administration was “defending freedom”.
Freedom is a “contested concept” – it means different things to different people. It has a simple “uncontested core” (a central meaning everyone agrees on), but mostly it consists of blanks that need to be filled in with frames and metaphors.
For example, everyone agrees that coercion and harm interfere with freedom. At a visceral level, if you restrain or injure someone, you are interfering with their bodily freedom of movement. Beyond this basic level, the meanings of “coercion”, “harm” and “freedom” are contested. Take recreational drug use. Is it liberating or harmful? The blanks need filling in.
By “blanks”, I don’t mean the facts and particulars, but the value systems activated via conceptual metaphor and frames. The battle to fill in the blanks is being won by the right – conservative media, corporate thinktanks, etc. This isn’t about “spin”. It’s about how we conceptualise at the level of “common sense”.
The Mirror asked: “How can 59,017,382 people be so dumb”? But it’s (mostly) not a question of intelligence. If a person is unaware of their own deep frames and metaphors, then they’re unaware of the basis for their moral and political choices. One’s frames and metaphors define the range of one’s “free will” – you can’t will something that you can’t conceptualise.
The conceptual blanks get filled in to a scary degree by media repetition. Conduct your own experiment to confirm this: next time there’s some “shocking” news all over the front pages, ask a few relatively intelligent, moderate people for their views on the news story. Then stand back and observe how little of what they say doesn’t originate in mass-media framing (in a typical case, and I don’t mean the basic “facts” that we naturally rely on media to provide).