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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Framing vs “Orwellian language”

big-brother-newsframes-smApril 24, 2014Orwell’s fiction ‘memes’Newspeak, doublethink, Big Brother, etc – still sound resonant to me, but his famous essay, Politics and the English Language, seems outdated (and wrong) in important respects. Of course, you can’t blame Orwell for not knowing what cognitive science and neuroscience would discover after his death – most living people still have no idea how those fields have changed our understanding of language and the mind over the last 35 years.

Orwell’s essay is premised on a view of reason that comes from the Enlightenment. It’s a widespread view that’s “reflexively” still promoted not just by the “liberal-left” media and commentariat, but also by the Chomskyan “radical left”. And, as George Lakoff and others have been at pains to point out, it’s a view of reason which now seems totally wrong – given what the cognitive/neuroscience findings tell us.

I’ll return to Orwell in a moment, but, first: Why does the Enlightenment view of reason seem wrong? Well, it’s an 18th-Century outlook which takes reason to be conscious, universal, logical, literal (ie fits the world directly), unemotional, disembodied and interest-based (Enlightenment rationalism assumes that everyone is rational and that rationality serves self-interest). It follows from this viewpoint that you only need to tell people the facts in clear language, and they’ll reason to the right, true conclusions. As Lakoff puts it, “The cognitive and brain sciences have shown this is false… it’s false in every single detail.”

From the discoveries promoted by the cog/neuro-scientists, we find that reason is mostly unconscious (around 98% unconscious, apparently). We don’t know our own system of concepts. Much of what we regard as conceptual inference (or “logic”) arises, unconsciously, from basic metaphors whose source is the sensory and motor activities of our nervous systems. Also, rationality requires emotion, which itself can be unconscious. We always think using frames, and every word is understood in relation to a cognitive frame. The neural basis of reasoning is not literal or logical computation; it entails frames, metaphors, narratives and images.

So, of course: we have different worldviews – not universal reason. It seems obvious, but needs repeating: We don’t all think the same – only a part of our conceptual systems can be considered universal. So-called “conservatives” and “progressives” don’t see the world in the same way; they have different forms of reason on moral issues. But they both see themselves as right, in a moral sense (with perhaps a few “amoral” exceptions).

Many on the left apparently find this difficult to comprehend. Given the Enlightenment premise of universal reason, they think everyone should be able to reason to the conclusion that conservative (or “Capitalist”) positions are immoral. All that’s needed, they believe, is to tell people the unadorned facts, the “truth”. And if people won’t reason to the correct moral conclusions after being presented with the facts, that must imply they are either immoral or “brainwashed”, hopelessly confused or “pathological”.

Few people have exclusively “conservative” or exclusively “progressive” views on everything. We all seem to have both modes of moral reasoning in our brains. (The words “conservative” and “progressive” may seem somewhat arbitrary, inadequate categories, but the distinct “moral” cognitive systems which they point to seem far from arbitrary – see Lakoff’s Moral Politics). You can think “progressively” in one subject area and “conservatively” in others, and vice-versa. And you might not be aware that you’re switching back and forth. It’s called “mutual inhibition” – where two structures in the brain neurally inhibit each other. If one is active, it will deactivate the other, and vice-versa. To give a crude example, constant activation of “conservative” framing on, say, the issue of welfare (eg the “benefit cheats” frame) will tend to inhibit the more “progressive” mode of thought in that whole subject area.

It’s a fairly common experience for me to chat with someone who seems rational, decent, friendly, etc; and then they suddenly come out with what I regard as a “shocking” rightwing view – something straight out of, say, UKIP – a view which they obviously believe in sincerely. This shouldn’t be surprising given the statistical popularity of the Daily Mail, Express, UKIP, etc, but it always conveys to me – in a ‘visceral’ way – the inadequacy of certain left/liberal assumptions about how reasonable, “ordinary” (as opposed to “elite”) people are “supposed” to think.

Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’

To return to Orwell and his essay – he writes that certain misuses of language promote a nefarious status quo in politics. For example, he argues that “pretentious diction” is used to “dignify the sordid process of international politics”. He says that “meaningless words” such as “democracy” and “patriotic” are often used in a consciously dishonest way with “intent to deceive”. The business of political writing is one of “swindles and perversions”; it is the “debasement of language”. For Orwell, it is “broadly true that political writing is bad writing”, and political language “has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”.

Much of this still seems valid (nearly 70 years after Orwell wrote it) – and some of the examples of official gibberish that Orwell cites are as amusing as what you might see in today’s political/bureaucratic gobbledygook. But it’s the cure that Orwell proposes which embodies the Enlightenment fallacy (and which Lakoff, for example, has described as “naive and dangerous”):

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them… Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning… (George Orwell, Politics and the English Language)

Orwell then provides a list of simple rules to help in removing the “humbug and vagueness” from political language (such as: “Never use a long word where a short one will do”). He states that “one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language”, and that, “If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of [political] orthodoxy”.

What are the fallacies here? Well, most obvious is the notion that political propaganda can be resisted with language which simply fits the right words to true meanings, without concealing or dressing anything up. Anyone who has studied effective political propaganda will tell you that it already does precisely that. The most convincing, persuasive propaganda, rhetoric or political speech seems to be that which strikes the reader or listener as plain-speaking “truth”. In many ways, the right seems to have mastered this art.

The fallacy comes from the Enlightenment notion that because people are rational, you only need to tell them the “plain facts” for them to reason to the truth. We know, however, that facts are interpreted according to frames. Every fact, and every word, is understood in relation to a frame. To borrow an example from my previous article, you can state that “corporations are job creators”, and you can state that “corporations are unaccountable private tyrannies”. Two different frames, neither of which consists of “debasement” of language or factual deception. Rather, it’s a question of activating different worldviews.

Orwell’s notion of letting “the meaning choose the word” seems to imply that our “meanings” exist independently of the semantic grids and cognitive-conceptual systems in our brains. Again, this comes from the Enlightenment fallacy – that there’s a disembodied reason or “meaning” which is literal (or “truth”), and which we can fit the right words to, in order to convey literal truth. It seems more accurate to say that we need conceptual frames to make sense of anything – or, as the cognitive scientists tell us, we require frames, prototypes, metaphors, narratives and emotions to provide “meaning”.

A lot of political/media rhetoric does seem to conform to Orwell’s diagnosis, and its language can probably be clarified by his rules and recommendations. But it’s not this “vague”, “pretentious”, “deceptive” type of rhetoric or propaganda that worries me most. What worries me is the rightwing message-machine’s success (if we believe the polls/surveys) in communicating “plain truths” to millions by framing issues in ways which resonate with people’s fears and insecurities – and which tend to activate the more “intolerant”, or “strict-authoritarian” aspects of cognition, en masse.

Written by NewsFrames

April 24, 2014 at 8:40 am

10 Responses

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  1. Very interesting. What do you think of his constructed language, Newspeak? Is that born of enlightenment assumptions?


    April 24, 2014 at 11:14 am

    • I think Newspeak shows a more sophisticated understanding of political language than Orwell’s essay, even though it’s “only” fictional. It doesn’t reproduce the naive Enlightenment assumptions of the latter. It’s more to do with Orwell’s ideas about a language which doesn’t require much thought – just automatic responses, like a machine code. Or as Orwell himself put it: “Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak”.

      Unfortunately, a lot of people (particularly amateur media critics like myself) use the term ‘Newspeak’ in a sort of generic way, as if it’s synonymous with “propaganda”. But this misses both the subtle and the unsubtle aspects of Orwell’s creation. It just becomes another general-purpose term to bash the *other* side with. Their lies, their propaganda, their Newspeak. Our truth, our clarity, our simple, transparent facts (aka our bullshit).


      April 24, 2014 at 11:59 am

  2. Building on your essay, you may be interested in this book (which Lakoff contributed to) that critiques Orwell’s essay on politics and language based on all that has been learned since it was written:

    What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics


    Joe Brewer
    Former Research Fellow of Rockridge Institute

    Joe Brewer

    April 24, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    • Thanks, Joe – I wasn’t aware of that book; I’ll definitely be checking it out. (It’s also great to have someone from the Rockridge Institute posting here.)


      April 24, 2014 at 3:57 pm

  3. I would like you to explain how cognitive science establishes empirically the ‘reality’ of the existence and use of, by all humans, of ‘frames’ or ‘prototypes’, etc. I read Erving Goffman’s (difficult and self-referential) Frame Analysis in its entirety and it made the same point. Are you aware of any contribution by the then extant cognitive science literature on his . . . framing of the analysis of ‘experience’ in terms of ‘frames’?

    I would also like you to establish, factually-empirically, the connection you seem to take as self-evident, between a left-liberal-progressive political/ideological stance and what you rather vaguely present as an Enlightenment based image of universal reason. Phenomenology in all its varieties did ‘occur’, did it not? It did have an impact on our ‘learned’ understanding or framing of consciousness, ratiocination, reality, etc. Gestalt psychology did develop, did it not? We have indeed ‘objectivists/realists’ and ‘constructivists’, have we not? What you describe as the allegedly left-liberal-progressive ‘prejudice’ is nothing but the ‘natural attitude’ to the ‘paramount reality’ of the lifeworld, to the reality of everyday life’, according to Schutz and Berger and Luckmann.

    In your own presentation, the ‘it’, the ‘issue’, the ‘reality’ which you present our minds as ‘apprehending’ via different and at times incommensurate, but always language-mediated ‘frames’, is itself, as such, also thus ‘mediated’. When we speak of how we think and talk about ‘corporations’, ‘corporation’ itself is not some self-speaking ‘object’. In order to make your point about the difference that different frames make, you have to (provisionally, at least) assume (and assume that your readers also assume) that the ‘it’, the ‘object’ to which frames are addressed/applied remains the self-same.

    Check out L. E. Hazelrigg’s — Is There a Choice between ‘Constructionism’ and ‘Objectivism’?

    For Berger and Luckmann – see http://perflensburg.se/Berger%20social-construction-of-reality.pdf (the first couple of post-introductory chapters which deal with the philosophical, phenomenological prolegomena, should be particularly interesting).


    April 24, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    • Thanks, GrkStav, for your thoughtful comment. Where to begin? Probably best with a quote from Korzybski: “I have said what I have said; I have not said what I have not said.”

      Apart from a few general points on the research (on empirically establishing frames, prototypes, etc – see below), I find it difficult to field your questions, since they appear not to refer directly to what I’ve written (you don’t cite any sentence of mine, just isolated words). So I feel as if you’re addressing something that someone else has written. Where, for instance, do I say – or remotely imply – that “corporation” is a “self-speaking ‘object'” (whatever that means)?

      On the point about general “left-liberal-progressive” adherence to certain Enlightenment-based ideas about reason, of course it’s a generalisation with exceptions – the most notable exception, in this context, being Lakoff himself (since you could include him in the “left-liberal-progressive” class).

      You throw Berger and Luckmann at me, as if they undermine or contradict what I’ve written. Maybe they do, somewhere. But it’s not evident to me how, from what you’ve written. Far from it.

      If you’re interested in the empirical research on frames, conceptual metaphor, etc, a good starting point would be the most recent work of Lakoff and his colleagues, such as Srini Narayanan et al, and the research they, in turn, cite. A lot of advances have been made in the four decades since Goffman’s ‘Frame Analysis’.


      April 24, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    • Grkstav, do you not recognise the general adherence to Enlightenment ideals by left-liberal media (it’s even more overt with Chomsky, who explicitly adheres to the things referred to above, particularly a Cartesian take on reason).

      Here’s a comment in the “facts are sacred” Guardian which put it well:

      “The Guardian is a case in point. It is the archetypal example of ‘liberals doing it wrong,’ in its naive adherence to the Enlightenment ideal, resulting in a belief in a public discourse consisting of rational, fair and even-handed debates based on neutral words and facts (“facts are sacred”). ”



      April 25, 2014 at 9:36 am

  4. I think you may be a bit too soft on Orwell. I still remember the crushing sense of shock when I first read this pitiful piece of cliched garbage that is his essay. My sense is that he got lucky with ‘newspeak’ and ‘double speak’ not because of some special insight he had but simply because he was describing what others were pointing to at the time. Ever since I read that essay I’ve not paid any attention to Orwell as a thinker.

    However, I don’t think he was wrong because of something he didn’t know that we now know. Lots of people would have known that language decay cannot be linked to political decay – it requires a moment’s reflection and not seven decades of mostly unrelated research. Yet, this nonsense still comes up all the time trotted out by cliche mongers in the chattering classes. Of course, Critical Linguistics started from the same point and still hasn’t shaken off the stigma. It is the one strength of Chomsky, that he does not engage in simplistic language-action links. Neither does Lakoff (although he is susceptible to that reading). But I cannot shake the sense that he’s not written anything new on the subject since Moral Politics.

    However, I would like to see some substantiation of the 98% unconscious cognition claim. I am pretty sure that there is no research that can even hint at a meaningful quantification. Partly because it’s not at all clear that unconscious’ is just one type of things. It could cover automaticity, unrecoverability, intentionality, suggestibility, cognitive pathology, perceptual modularity and many other things not easily summarized by some sort of -ity – tacit knowledge, presuppositio. I’ve been working on the concept of Frame Negotiation for a while (see here http://metaphorhacker.net/2011/03/are-we-the-masters-of-our-morality-yes/ and here http://www.slideshare.net/bohemicus/frame-negotiation-markets-local-knowledge-and-centralized-justice) and my research seems to indicate that it is the constant interaction between foregrounding and backgrounding aspects of our cognition that matters here.

    Dominik Lukes

    April 25, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    • Some great points there, Dominik – thanks for taking the time to post. Yes, I imagine that how they empirically quantify what’s “unconscious” is open to dispute, to say the least of it. Thanks also for the links.


      April 25, 2014 at 6:50 pm

  5. I think you’re absolutely right about where the real danger lies. Look at what Nigel Farage has been saying and writing. None of it – none at all – is anything like what Orwell describes. And yet it is powerfully persuasive with a lot of people. Nick Clegg showed that you can’t win an argument with Farage by trying to calmly recite a lot of facts.

    Samantha Caldwell

    April 25, 2014 at 7:21 pm

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