N E W S • F R A M E S • • • • •

About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

‘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

3 Responses

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  1. Great series of articles – thanks very much. I find frames are hard to get a handle on and your work really helps.

    What I see easily is how the likes of the Daily Mail routinely run stories that portray non-white British and non-British people generally in a negative light.

    Its front page of May 26 was one in a long line, carrying something along the lines of “Family’s illegal immigrant drink-drive nightmare” to announce this story: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2149952/Eduard-Mereohra-Drunken-illegal-immigrant-killed-pensioner-couple-100mph-smash.html

    A drunk driver killing pensioners is of course a legitimate news story as well as being a sad human story. Neither the ethnicity/nationality or residence status of the driver changed that essential sadness.

    How would the Mail have headlined the same story featuring a white British resident as the driver? “Family’s legal resident drink-drive nightmare”? Of course not, it would have made no reference at all to the driver’s ethnicity.

    Or what if the victim had been an illegal immigrant killed by a white British resident?

    All this to say your work is very good food for thought.

    I will try, with strict Protestant uprightness, to build it into my reporting related to Fraudcast News and its conclusions about how to do, and to teach, public-interest journalism that supports real democracy.

    Patrick Chalmers

    May 30, 2012 at 10:45 am

    • Hi Patrick – good to hear from you, and thanks for your kind comment.

      I recognise what you describe in the Daily Mail. If it happened one or twice, one would be inclined to write it off as simple ineptitude (or something), but it seems to occur so often with the Mail (and Express), that it seems sinister.

      I’m reminded that the Mail’s founder, Lord Northcliffe, said his successful formula was to give readers “a daily hate”. And given the everyday difficulties and frustrations that most people have, this kind of redirection of people’s anger – on a daily basis – towards the alien, the “low other”, seems, to me, criminally irresponsible – or worse. Talk about creating a monster…

      Anyway, thanks again, and keep up the good work with Fraudcast News.


      May 30, 2012 at 11:03 am

  2. It’s a pleasure. I find it very easy to appreciate and to share the good work that you do.

    That same “monster”, as you say, has many heads, including fear, hate and intolerance. All of these break up community, separating us into unconnected fragments, all the better to exploit us one by one.

    The journalism we need builds community, it mediates in conflicts, it brings mutual understanding to parties that don’t usually meet or interact. It tells what it thinks is the truth in the humble knowledge that truth is one darn slippery thing whose nature and form depends on whose it is. Journalism’s damn difficult.

    Neither the Mail nor the Express nor most of the other corporate or state media do anything of the sort.

    All power to you.

    Patrick Chalmers

    May 30, 2012 at 11:35 am

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