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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Conservative framing of welfare

dailyexpress-19-01-2015Jan 22, 2015With each example seen in the media (and not just in the rightwing tabloids) it’s tempting to see conservative framing of welfare as simply crass, vicious and stupid. But that doesn’t help us understand why demonisation of benefits recipients seems popular with large sections of the public (witness the popularity of the Benefits Street style TV shows and the rise of UKIP, etc). A cognitive frames approach helps us to get a better insight into the phenomenon…

The differences between “conservative” and “progressive” (or “liberal”) views on welfare have little to with fact and logic. It’s more about opposing metaphorical framing on morality. This framing underlies much of the “social” policy of the right.

1. Conservative view of social welfare:

Welfare seen as essentially “immoral” because:

  • It’s viewed as encouraging “dependence” on the government, and so is against the morality of self-reliance & self-discipline.
  • It’s not given to everyone, so it introduces competitive unfairness, an interference with the “free market”, and hence with the “fair” pursuit of self-interest (part of the morality of reward and punishment).
  • Since it’s paid for by tax, it “takes” money from someone who has earned it, and gives it to someone who hasn’t (against the morality of rewarding self-reliant, self-disciplined people).

Note the particular moral emphasis here: self-reliance, self-discipline, reward and punishment. George Lakoff has documented at length how these values are central to conservative framing (eg in his books, Whose Freedom? and Moral Politics). Moral differences don’t just concern different ideas about “good” vs “bad” – they’re about conflicting hierarchies of values. Liberal/progressive views hold “empathy”, “care”, etc, as primary in moral terms, with self-discipline and self-reliance secondary in moral importance. The inverse is true for conservative (or what Lakoff calls “strict father”) morality.

This doesn’t imply crude either/or reductionism or simplistic stereotyping of people. Different value-hierarchies may apply for a given individual depending on the domain she/he is conceptualisng. For example, some people describe themselves as socially liberal but economically conservative.

Rightwing strategy (via think-tanks & conservative media) has been to repeatedly use the metaphorical language of “strictness” on domains which may have been traditionally framed more in terms of looking after others – ie caring. The economic value-hierarchies of the businessperson thus gradually replace a moral scheme in which notions such as “social security” and “safety net” represented primary values. This entails a moral shift, a change in what’s regarded as normal, acceptable “common sense” (and also, according to some cognitive scientists, an accompanying physical change in our brains).

To quote Lakoff’s Moral Politics:

The basis of the classification of successful businessmen as model citizens is very deep, as we have seen. It is the principle of the Morality of Reward and Punishment, which is at the heart of Strict Father morality. To place restrictions on that principle is to strike at the heart of conservative ethics and the conservative way of life. Placing restrictions on moral people who are engaged in moral activities is immoral. (Chapter 12)

Welfare, government regulation, etc, are thus seen as immoral interferences in a moral system of rewarding “success” in a competitive world. This framing encompasses, in obvious ways, the system 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.

Under this moral frame, cuts in welfare (etc) are not just seen as a temporary measure of “austerity” (eg until the economy recovers) – they’re seen as a moral imperative for all time, since the alternative is viewed as fundamentally immoral.

2. Conservative view of corporate welfare:

But what about corporate welfare? Given the above reasoning, shouldn’t conservatives view that, also, as immoral according to this framing?

Corporate welfare not (immediately) seen as immoral because:

  • Those receiving it are pre-conceptualised as self-reliant and self-disciplined in the entrenched iconography of the heroic, hard-working, successful “wealth creator”. Under the conservative moral accounting metaphor, they are seen as deserving.
  • The comparison between corporate welfare and social welfare thus doesn’t work on most conservatives (at least not without years of reframing), because the heroes and demons in the conservative worldview are based on “deep” cultural metaphors reflecting the primary morality of self-discipline and self-reliance. This takes the form of: “Why shouldn’t the best people be rewarded – their success demonstrates their self-discipline”, etc.

For a more in-depth look at moral-political framing systems, please see our Essentials of Framing.

Written by NewsFrames

January 22, 2015 at 9:26 am

12 Responses

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  1. This analysis is interesting and enlightening; of course, what is difficult for many people who up to 2010 supported the Liberal Democrats, like myself, is that, by going into coalition with the Tories, they have signed up to this illiberal, Conservative frame; hence their dramatic loss of support; it is as if they have lost their moral compass; they are now trying to regain it by highlighting the empathy frame, but I think that it is too late, unless they make drastic changes to their leadership–including Vince Cable as well as Nick Clegg.

    John Dakin

    January 22, 2015 at 4:06 pm

    • Another way of looking at that is that the Liberal Democrats were very good at positioning themselves as being liberal, when in fact they were at best “socially liberal but economically conservative” – as mentioned above. The Liberal Democrats tended to thrive in small ‘c’ conservative communities, where people had little objection to a person being gay, but were fiscally conservative.


      January 23, 2015 at 11:54 am

      • That’s a very good point, although the economic conservatism only applies to a section of the Liberal Democrat Party, the Orange Bookers; but this is economic liberalism, also espoused by the Tory Party since the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and the influence of Sir Keith Joseph and others; in any case, I think the positioning you mention has become harder since they joined the Coalition. It is harder for them to maintain that they uphold the virtues of empathy and compassion.

        John Dakin

        January 23, 2015 at 12:55 pm

  2. How exactly are people who inherited great wealth self-reliant?
    How are people who manage to survive on measly benefits not incredibly self-disciplined?
    Has George Lakoff ever explained this?


    January 22, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    • You are absolutely right; however this is the way both are perceived according to this Conservative frame; and of course, this is translated into popular discourse, with phrases such as “hardworking families” (used by Labour as well as Conservatives) and the image of unemployed people lying in bed while their employed neighbours go to work. In fact, many politicians come from privileged backgrounds which gave them a lift up; that includes Ed Milliband; an exception, of course, is Alan Johnson; but when Labour gained power in 1964, such people were far more common.

      John Dakin

      January 22, 2015 at 4:48 pm

    • Good points. People who inherit wealth aren’t seen as self-reliant, which is why the notion of inherited wealth is not something that’s talked about much in conservative PR. The only exception is when defending the right to keep inheritance – ie to not pay tax on it. In that case the argument again turns to the self-reliance of those who originally “created” that wealth. Why shouldn’t they do as they please with their deserved wealth – including passing it onto their offspring (without the government pilfering part of it).

      On the self-discipline of surviving on little, that is also part of the rags-to-riches mythology (again, the frame of self-reliance & self-discipline = great moral good). But just “surviving” isn’t good enough in this narrative, especially in the long-term. They should be building sucessful businesses like all those entrepreneurs who started with nothing. Nonsense, of course – but that’s the deeply-entrenched framing in our culture.

      In a way, emphasising the self-discipline of those on benefits just reinforces the conservative frame. Some people aren’t self-disciplined according to the narrow economic definitions of others. They thus suffer great stigmatisation.


      January 22, 2015 at 5:00 pm

      • Your comment reminds me of Bounderby in Hard Times, who tells a story of his own rise from neglect and impoverishment  which is exposed as untrue when his mother turns up.

        John Dakin

        January 22, 2015 at 5:12 pm

  3. As always, an excellent piece: lucid and still ahead of its time. One point:

    >The economic value-hierarchies of the businessperson thus gradually replace a moral scheme in which notions such as “social security” and “safety net” represented primary values. This entails a moral shift, a change in what’s regarded as normal, acceptable “common sense” (and also, according to some cognitive scientists, an accompanying physical change in our brains).<

    It's my understanding – and Lakoff's – that all of this has to do with neural circuits in the brain. Just reading your piece, or finding out your name or reading the back of my cereal box as I try to wake up changes my brain. Major clusters of neural circuitry "know" about nurturing attitudes and behavior; other competing circuitry "knows" about Authoritarianism. This is all fleshed-out, big-time, by Lakoff's colleague at Berkeley, Jerome Feldman, in his highly readable book _From Molecules to Metaphor_.

    I read everything from this wonderful blog, and, as I see it, it all has metaphorical frames, which are PHYSICALLY instantiated in our brains, as the underpinning. This is not metaphysical stuff; it is physical. Neurons and neural clusters are embodied, and when they're buzzed with language, they activate. Sorry if this all seems too dramatic!

    Aram Jahn

    January 26, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    • That’s very kind of you, thanks. And you make a great point on physical “instantiation”. (I haven’t read Feldman’s book yet – thx for the tip).

      Years ago I read a fascinating book by Ernest Rossi, called ‘The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing’. He went into a lot of detail on how our ‘opinions’ and ‘outlook’ (etc) in a given moment are “embodied” (to use Lakoff’s term, not Rossi’s – the latter, as far as I can remember, used the terminology of Ericksonian hypnosis combined with more technical neurological jargon) – and change as our “mind-body states” change.

      So, for instance, when we’re “depressed” we might have a set of opinions and memories which we simply don’t access when we’re happy, and vice-versa. And in ‘altered’ states, the logic of our opinions changes. And, of course, if we’re in a constant state of anxiety, not only don’t we “think straight”, but (according to Lakoff) the conservative moral frames tend to get “activated” in our brains, more than they would without all that anxiety.

      I’ve noticed, though, that some (influential) people who agree with most of Lakoff’s work on semantics/language are put off a bit by the neuroscience – the physical brain-change apsect – which they see as unnecessary “scientism”. For me the physical-brain aspects seem the best model to explain why, for example, some ways of thinking seem so persistent in us, despite our best attempts to eradicate them. To really “change your mind” mostly seems like the long-term effort required to build muscle or learn physical skills (at least in terms of repetition/persistence required).


      January 27, 2015 at 10:43 am

      • Brian: You remember Rossi well. I think he was ahead of his time. Robert Anton Wilson turned me on to The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing, and I’ve returned to it many times since I first read it.

        Your observation about certain readers of Lakoff being put off by the neuroscience: aye! Tis a meaty issue, but where do they think ideas come from? Some Platonic disembodied Realm? I do think many well-educated liberals who read Lakoff shy away from the neuroscience because it feels too conspiracy-theory-ish. And as Lakoff has pointed out time and time again, far too many educated liberals are living in the Enlightenment’s “disembodied” and “pure” rationality…which doesn’t exist! The brain stuff? What? Are we getting too close to talking about what we write or say is LITERALLY changing peoples’ brains?

        Best to return to clean, pure, Kantian rationality. Or worse?: “Cartesian common sense.”

        Even though Vico knew about how metaphors govern and/ control thought, as you know, the term has largely been under the poet’s purview. And poets and other literary types have always and usually openly sought to seduce their readers. Now that we know how metaphors REALLY work, we’re all “poets” in a sense. That is, if we’re in the game. Hell, I’m doing it right now…

        Aram Jahn

        January 30, 2015 at 7:41 am

  4. Cool, I’d love to see a post about the power-grab of the male feminist framing of “sexual agency” in response to the conservative framing of sexual purity or even a comprehensive unpacking of the liberal “anything that would be a foil to conservatism is morally good” framing in general that allows for the latter specific phenomenon (see Perez Hilton “slut-shaming” defense tweets)


    January 29, 2015 at 11:51 pm

    • the former specific phenomenon*


      January 29, 2015 at 11:51 pm

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