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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

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Anti-news (or “assorted gibberish”)

time-importance-self

Time, importance & you

What’s your first thought after waking? I don’t mean “impressions”, memories, dream fragments, etc – but rather your first “active” thought. I would guess it might involve a notion of “your” “self” in time, according to some criterion of “importance”. For example: “I’d better get up or I’ll miss the train”. Or: “Oh, shit, I shouldn’t have said that to her over dinner”.

Much of our basic-level thinking seems to take this form: personal self in time, with its priorities. Meditators might call it “needless projection into past and future” or “mental noise”, with the implication that it sucks (“normal consciousness”, that is – ie what Buddha called “suffering”, or the near-equivalent in his language).

This compulsive personal-self-in-time thinking seems metaphorical, by necessity. And the “enlightened” take on it (or at least the way this is communicated) also seems metaphorical by necessity. The difference lies in the type of metaphorical conception.

For example, consider all the things you have to do (or think you have to). It’s endless – one thing after another. If you think of your self doing those necessary/important (but mundane) things in time, it probably seems like a burden, a struggle – ie physical (muscular) metaphors. It doesn’t help that we routinely conceive of importance as weight, and time as space – eg “the weighty issues I have to tackle in the week ahead of me”. The gravity of the situation. It’s heavy, we need “light relief”, and we need to “let go”.

Just reading the various metaphorical conceptions for “normal” daily work seems enough to depress – a bit of a downer. So, I’ll stop there and move up to the more  “enlightened” framing. Here are some possible variations and alternatives for the “enlightened” metaphor: illuminated, light or clear / spacey, spaced-out or high, in high spirits, walking on air / stillness, tranquility, serenity, “peace” or silence / “presence”, “awakened” / acceptance or “surrender” / “non-attachment”, wholeness, unity, melting, relief, etc.

If “enlightened”/”transported”-frame language doesn’t trigger “shifts in consciousness”, then everyone who has ever read a “spiritual” or “mystical”/religious book, or listened to a guru, swami, priestess, shaman, etc, has “wasted their time”. (Over the centuries, that’s a lot of time-wasters – and a colossal amount of wasted time, if you add it all up. Use a calculator, and be sure to count double if two people were wasting the same time-period). Maybe a systematic shift in metaphorical framing “alone” can, and does, alter “consciousness” – sometimes drastically. But perhaps you already knew that if you regularly watch TV “news”?

State-metaphor non-translation (or “gibberish”)

Headlines_24_to_28_Jan_2014WARNING: Gibberish alert! I have notebooks of ideas that I jot down whenever my mental state seems sufficiently “altered” that burden, struggle and anxiety have disappeared from my view. (I don’t mean drug-etc extremes, just a “shift” from “normal” mental distraction/”noise” to noticeably different “quiet”, “clear”, “luminous”, and/or “still”, etc, experience – select whatever metaphors you prefer. This more often, and more effortlessly, happens to me in extended news-free and work-free zones).

These jotted ideas don’t translate easily into “reasonable” “logical” discourse – unless you start with premises which turn conventional notions of “time”, “self” and “importance” upside-down. Which is to say that conceptions of my personal self’s past and future (and the accompanying thinking) lose importance relative to a more “direct” experience of what the present moment “contains” (with no importance given to any inclination to alter it or “move” to the next moment).

That sounds kind of academic/abstract/trivial until you consider that the near-complete “dissolving” of a sense of burden, struggle and anxiety accompanies this distinct metaphorical-conceptual shift. Whenever I try to write some coherent piece based on these ideas, I feel dissatisfied with the result, as if the act of writing it down has turned it into gibberish. If you’ve read this far, you probably know what I mean.

To compensate for the above lapse, I suppose I’d better write something serious/respectable, so…

“Metaphorical genome project”

philosophy_in_flesh-blurb“Their ambition is massive, their argument important… the authors engage in a sort of metaphorical genome project, attempting to delineate the genetic code of human thought.”The New York Times

That’s from the back-cover of Philosophy in the Flesh, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It refers to the notion that we think in metaphor, that “Metaphors construct our realities” (as the NYT reviewer puts it), and the book’s main theme: that because our basic conceptual metaphors and frames (the “building blocks” with which we think) derive from bodily experience, we must regard our minds as necessarily “embodied” – not in the trivial sense that you need a physical brain in order to think, but in the profound sense that the structure of our thinking (its categories, linguistic forms, “logic”, etc) comes from the body. To give one example, our fundamental concept of causality is shaped by the way we use our muscles to exert force. Much of what we regard as conceptual inference is built from basic metaphors arising from sensorimotor inference (eg the stuff that goes on in our nervous systems as we swing through the trees or aim the catapult in Angry Birds).

Based on some of the research that’s been going on in cognitive science, this has fairly radical implications for the “Western philosophical tradition”. Or to borrow the words from another blurb for the book (I’m lazy that way), it follows that:

“The Cartesian person, with a mind wholly separate from the body, does not exist. The Kantian person, capable of moral action according to the dictates of a universal reason, does not exist. The phenomenological person, capable of knowing his or her mind entirely through introspection alone, does not exist. The utilitarian person, the Chomskian person, the poststructuralist person, the computational person, and the person defined by analytic philosophy all do not exist.”

Talking of metaphorical genome projects, there’s an Index of conceptual metaphors available listing some of the Lakoff-type research mapping metaphorical domains.

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

January 28, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Populist framing, left & right

populist-helloDec 10, 2013Down with the elites! Here’s my Hello! magazine* article on:-

♦ Populist ideological tendencies
◊ Evidence/proof & “corporate media”
♦ Noam Chomsky (and/or Russell Brand)
◊ Populist moral frames
♦ Right-Left political scale
◊ Nietzsche’s “master” & “slave” moralities
♦ Populist intolerance

Political “populism” seems insidious when it tends towards the ideological – specifically, ideology which blames a single group or class for social and economic disasters. It’s easy to see on the right, with the rise of UKIP, etc. It also seems noticeable in “radical” left populism.

Of course, we need to understand why it’s more “ideological” than “rational” to assign blame in a generalised way. (“It’s the immigrants”; “it’s the welfare layabouts“; “No, it’s the elites; it’s the Liberal Establishment; it’s the corporate media…”).

David Hume wrote that a wise person “proportions his belief to the evidence”, and critics of conspiracy theories like to quote something similar (from Marcello Truzzi): “An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof”. We should, of course, demand the same strict standard of evidence/proof for populist political claims as we do for conspiracy theories. While the latter may seem “extraordinary” in the sense of outlandish, the former seem just as extraordinary in the sense of oversimplistic, over-generalising, reductive.

boris-piechartPopulists of both left and right do, of course, cite specific proof – eg of corporate corruption or “benefits fraud”, etc – to make their broad diagnoses sound credible. But, the wider the populist net of blame, the more dubious the belief that the generalisations are supported by the individual cases. These populist claims then seem more like panchrestons than “rational” inferences.

Language structure may further distort perceptions. Robert Anton Wilson cited the phrase, “White men own all the corporations” (which he heard from a Hispanic radical on TV**) – a simple over-generalisation, which also invites “logical” misinterpretation, since our brains may easily compute it as: “All white men own the corporations”. There may be evidence to support a quantified statement with a more precise wording (eg: “95% of US corporations are owned by a tiny minority of white men”), but populist language is characterised more by dramatic and emotive over-generalisation than by accurate quantification and precision. Thus, “X caused Y” is routinely “understood” to mean “All X caused Y”, including cases where X refers to “immigrants”, “people on benefits”, “liberals”, “corporations”, “the media”, “feminists”, “white men”, “Jews”, etc.

“Corporate media”

“The media” represents a special case of this logical confusion. A lot of spurious, toxic nonsense comes from “the media” – false arguments for war, whitewashing of Our Glorious Leaders, demonisation of the poor, etc. So, assigning generalised blame to the “corporate media” – eg: “the [generalised] media is to blame for all this toxicity” – seems justified at first glance. But the logic doesn’t work the other way around: “All people in the media are responsible for the [generalised] toxicity”.

No amount of material condemning “the media” (and there is a lot of it) justifies this logical reversal, whether directly stated or implied by imprecise language. Noam Chomsky, who has cited a large amount of evidence to back his own claims about western states, corporations and their media, warned against using such material for populist/ideological claims. In his academic work, Chomsky has railed against what he sees as “ideology” inherent in the social sciences, as contrasted with his own approach (“For Chomsky, the only channels of communication that are free from such ideological contamination are those of genuine natural science”, writes radical anthropologist, Chris Knight).

corporate-media-stoogesBut those who have followed in Chomsky’s political footsteps often make highly generalised claims about “western” states and “corporate media”, and it’s easy to see how such generalisations have become “contaminated” by a reductive ideology that’s far from Chomsky’s scientific ideal. For example, I’ve witnessed some Chomskyite media critics repeatedly denounce George Monbiot (and other “liberal media” columnists) as “corporate” – as if by attaching that word to him they somehow attribute a generalised essence of corporate “pathology”, infecting everything he writes. This, to me, typifies the ideological mode of “criticism” favoured in sections of the populist “radical” left.

A lot of what I consider populist criticism of “the media” or “corporate media” seems interchangeable between “left” and “right” – and between “credible” and “crackpot”. I recently saw a media critic’s tweet referring to media tributes for Nelson Mandela, which said: “When a deeply corrupt, violent, greed-driven media system is applauding as one, it’s vital to question what they’re doing and why”. On the face of it, the notion of a monolithic, acting-as-one media system could come from right or left. Logically, it could even come from the KKK. It’s only the “corrupt, violent, greed-driven” wording that marks it as a “radical left” variant.

(I note that in football matches across the country there was a literal “applauding as one” in tribute for Mandela – by hundreds of thousands of non-corporate individuals with diverse backgrounds/beliefs. But I’ve no idea what that signifies. Perhaps no more than a general awareness of a human being who endured 27 years in prison and who then became symbolic of positive change, etc).

Incidentally, I found the above “Corporate Media Stooges” image on a web-page titled ‘Corporate Media’, which explains that six corporations “control the flow of most of the information in the United States of America”, and that “The Corporate Media is the main conduit for government disinformation, propaganda and distractions”. This is from a website called ‘End Times Prophecy Report’ – which doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.

Right-left political scale

The_Sun_populismI’ve written at length about the “authoritarian” moral frames of the right which shape the contents of conservative tabloid newspapers. These rely on fearmongering and the reassuring rhetoric of “strong leaders”, presented as “uncompromising” and “tough”. Simplistic either-or narratives apparently have a big appeal in times of anxiety and disorientation caused by economic, technological and social shifts.

It’s generally assumed that the hard right and radical left are at “opposite ends” of a linear scale (with “moderates” in the middle) – ie that their thinking couldn’t be more different. But this seems mistaken in the case of populism. The populist frames of the supposed “extremes” of right and left share many striking similarities, including some of the language used (the “liberal establishment”, for example, being a fungible bad group for both).

The Euclidean right-left scale, with political extremes at opposing “ends”, is a misleading metaphor, according to George Lakoff. Even the most “progressive” minds can, at times, shift into “authoritarian” or “reactionary” modes of thinking. And populist moral framing, with its either-or logic and double binds, may bring about such shifts.

Populist moral frames

“The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
— Oscar Wilde

Some frames are issue-specific; others work at a “higher” level, across different issues. Rightwing Conservative examples of the latter include “moral strength“, “toughness”, “self-reliance”, “discipline” (eg “strong military”, “tough on crime”, “get the scroungers back to work”). Uncompromising either-or values – no “soft” grey in-between. (This is part of what George Lakoff has written about under the heading “Strict Father framing“, and which I’ve written about in more detail here).

The populist “radical” left has its own uncompromising moral framing – with the focus on “Moral Truth”, purity (and “straightforward” “simplicity”), largely as a reaction to oppression by the powerful. The same Aristotelian either-or logic applies: No grey areas; “Tell the simple Truth”. The straight facts versus the corruption, deceit and greed. Either the decency, wisdom and truth-telling of “ordinary people” or the lies of the elites. (The millions of “ordinary people” who choose to buy The Sun and Daily Mail every day don’t fit comfortably into this binary scheme, it seems).

Cartoon from Prometheus RisingThe “Truth”, for the populist “radical” left, belongs exclusively to the ordinary, struggling peopleparticularly those who have been told the True Facts™ about their situation. By definition, the Truth cannot be found in the corporate/establishment system.

To summarise and (over-)simplify: morality (for the populist right) belongs to those in power who maintain order. Morality (for the populist left) belongs to those who are oppressed by that power/order.

Nietzsche’s moral frames

Those who have read Nietzsche’s writings on “master” and “slave” moralities may recognise a roughly similar dichotomy to the above. Nietzsche wrote of the Christian slaves under the Roman empire – his psychological take was that in their state of powerlessness, the only way the slaves could assert any superiority was in a “moral” (eg spiritual) sense. This they did by inverting the existing social value system – making strength/power bad/evil, and compassion/pity good.

Nietzsche argued that the slaves’ “moral” values arose from resentment and fear – that they used moral conduct as a sort of passive-aggressive weapon of revenge, since they weren’t in a position to express their hostility directly. Their “Moral Truth” consisted of redefining the actions of others (against them) as Evil – ie morality as reaction.

The revolt of the slaves in morals begins in the very principle of resentment becoming creative and giving birth to values – a resentment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action, are forced to find their compensation in an imaginary revenge.
(Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, Dover editions, p19)

nietzsche-cartoon-scanIn this Nietzschean psychology/framing, the slave morality succeeds when the master starts to see himself from the slave’s perspective – as morally reprehensible. To avoid guilt, he then feels obliged to “do good” from the slave’s perspective – ie adopt the slave morality. You can see it as a kind of “moral” contagion, operating through disguised resentment and intolerance. In modern terminology, you might call it a ‘successful’ meme or virus.

Incidentally, Nietzsche didn’t despise kindness or trivialise suffering (which his own life was filled with). Rather, he makes a psychological point about values such as compassion used as a prop or mind-fuck. His wrath is directed mainly at the priests, who, from a position of relative power, promote the slave, or “herd”, morality. My point about over-generalisation also applies here.

Populist intolerance

“To ascribe predicates to a people is always dangerous.”
— Nietzsche, 1873 note, published in Kaufmann’s The Portable Nietzsche, p41

“Once one leaves pure mathematics, the ascription of
predicates to groups always introduces fallacy.”

— Robert Anton Wilson, No Governor #8, Nov 1985

Populist intolerance seems obvious on the right (against “scroungers”, “skivers”, immigrants, etc), and some surveys show a “hardening” in social attitudes along these lines. My digressions on Nietzschean psychology and “Moral Truth” point to the less obvious forms of intolerance that I see in the populist “radical” left.

The function of “evidence” for populist ideology is to illustrate what’s already known to be The Truth. This is a simple matter when you confuse abstract groups and either-or logic with messy reality. Evidence which doesn’t support the approved “truth-telling” is to be seen as “clearly not credible”. And the people who cite such evidence must be regarded as “suspect” in some way – eg dupes or agents (“trolls”) of the other side.

Thus, many influential media editors, TV presenters, etc, dismiss certain views/facts as “leftwing campaigning”, and many populists of the “radical” left dismiss nearly everything appearing in the “corporate” media (the items which aren’t dismissed are classed as “fig leaves”). New ideas and original ways of thinking tend not to arise in this mental environment. Why would they, when The Truth is already known, and when genuinely radical conceptions tend not to fit within old abstract groupings and binary classifications?

It’s all become like Zinn and Chomsky but without the immense bodies of hard data these older guys use to back up their screeds. There’s no more complex, messy, community-wide argument (or “dialogue”); 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)

* This is not a Hello! magazine article.
** Language, Logic & Lunacy, from Email to the Universe, p66
◊ The two cartoons are from Prometheus Rising, by Robert Anton Wilson, and Nietzsche Beginner’s Guide, by Roy Jackson, respectively. (I recommend both books).

Written by NewsFrames

December 10, 2013 at 9:26 am

Cop TV – BBC’s creepy crime porn

britain-on-fiddle[Update: My email exchange with the programme’s presenter]

Nov 7, 2013 – BBC1’s Britain on the Fiddle – yet another of those “cop” documentaries, filmed from the viewpoint of the authorities. Good cops vs bad people. Bad individuals. Not bad systems, bad government/institutions, bad concentrations of wealth/power.

Part 1 was shown at 9pm last night, and lasted an hour. There are more to come – all about good authorities vs bad people (specifically, in this case, “benefits cheats”). I see it as porn for petty authoritarians – people who get off on the Daily Mail. Some of its “factual” claims seemed dubious to me, but I’ll leave that for other commentators to unravel. What I’m interested in here is the conceptual frame which affects our thinking on “the authorities”.

As I’ve noted before, a ‘good authorities/bad people’ frame has been beamed into our skulls for years by primetime TV shows:-

Traffic cops, Crimewatch UK, Drunk and Dangerous, Car Wars, Sky Cops, Customs & Excise Cops, Forensic Cops, On the Fiddle, Motorway Cops, Clampers, The Tube (London’s underground police), Animal Cops, Airport (airport police), A Life of Grime, Traffic Wardens, Rogue Traders, Bailiffs, Transport Cops, Seaside Rescue, Cops, Robbers and Videotape, Girl Cops, Shops, Robbers and Videotape (variation on a theme), War at the Door (housing officers & RSPCA), Dumping on Britain (Environment Agency), Rail Cops, Cops with Dogs, Cars, Cops and Bailiffs, The Planners are Coming (Planning Police), Saints and Scroungers (investigating benefits claimants), Cars, Cops and Criminals, The Lock Up (on police station’s custody suite), Send in the Dogs, Car Crime UK.

crimewatch2That’s just a partial list of actual TV programmes and series – there have been many more variations on the theme over the last two decades, mostly on BBC1 in the primetime evening slot when people are relaxing after a hard day at work (unless they’re “benefits cheats” out joyriding in their new BMWs).

If this sounds like a “conspiracy theory”, then I’m happy. But, really, it’s no more so than Noam Chomsky’s claim that power-elites want to distract everyone from the important issues with spectator sports (actually, that does sound like a conspiracy).

The thing is, I’ve been conducting informal polls ever since I noticed the preponderance of this primetime ’emergency services’ porno. I quiz people on whether they’ve watched the latest ‘Motorway Cops’ or ‘Clampers’ or ‘Cops with Dogs’. And nobody will ever admit to liking this stuff (the only exception was one person who guiltily confessed to enjoying ‘Crimewatch UK’).

So who in the BBC (or MI5 or NSA – I’m joking, of course) decides that we’re going to watch this tedious authoritarian drivel on such a regular basis? Who commissions it on our behalf? We rarely – or never – see programmes about rampant government fraud, corporate tax avoidance or high-level corruption in the city (as documented for years by Private Eye magazine). We don’t get regular documentaries on how much the banks are costing us in bailouts right now (the bailouts didn’t end, they just continued). Of course we don’t.

crimewatch_ukWhat we get is good authorities vs bad people. Bad individuals – not so different from you and me (except for the real crooks, the “scum”. Of course). And if you ever find yourself in a situation where you are UP AGAINST the authorities (even on a relatively minor matter, and perhaps through no fault of your own) you will see the frame in action – but not in an entertaining or enjoyable way like on ‘Girl Cops’ or ‘Shops, Robbers and Videotape’. Because the frame has certain entailments which are not in the best interests of individuals minding their own business. I’m understating things here.

“Good cops/authorities” frame

Here’s the frame logic: We’re all victimised or disadvantaged by the actions of bad, criminal, irresponsible, antisocial people. The “authorities” come to the rescue, in the form of police or other official types with police-like powers. The cops deal with the bad people and protect the good people. Frame inferences: The cops/authorities are essentially good; the accused and suspect are bad; the victims are usually innocent. The authorities maintain order and harmony; the villains disrupt it. Order is a system; bad individuals disrupt order (note the good system / bad individuals dichotomy).

Police-tvA common occurrence in the above TV “documentaries”, which dramatise this frame, is that an accused or “suspect” individual, or somebody shown as under investigation, “is” always “obviously” “guilty”. I’ve never seen an exception to this – it seems to be a “game rule”, a condition of the frame. It works dramatically, as the cops chosen to appear always seem nice, decent, reasonable people, whereas the “suspects” apparently get chosen for their potential resemblance to Daily Mail stereotypes of bad people (“cheats”, “spongers”, “migrants”, “druggies”, etc).

Another creepy aspect of this BBC Police Porn is that when the “suspects” are shown complaining, they’re typically (and convincingly) presented as unreasonable, hostile or slightly insane – as if you must be mentally disturbed (and probably a danger to society) if you object to the way the authorities are “assisting” you. This is “good TV” for armchair fascists – you can almost hear the target audience’s resonse: “The pathetic, despicable whining, whinging scum – get a fucking job, and stop using your disability as an excuse”. I don’t think the BBC presenters realise what Frankenstein’s monster they are creating with the regular evocation of this frame.

I’m sure many BBC viewers get a thrill from watching bureaucrats and cops spy on suspect people with sophisticated surveillance technology – before closing in to arrest or caution them (the “money shot” in porn terms). And I wouldn’t want to spoil their fun. It’s like a British Establishment version of 24, but with Alan Partridge replacing Kiefer Sutherland, and with poor, struggling, stressed-out people on benefits as the terrorist threat.

Written by NewsFrames

November 7, 2013 at 9:34 am

“The young lack grit”

Daily_Mail_21_8_2013Aug 21, 2013 When I saw this Daily Mail headline (this morning), I thought: With all we know about the economic malaise and its causes, what would conservative ministers and newspapers focus on? Of course: that youngsters lack “grit”.

It seems such obvious, clichéd BS to “us” – and I recall Noam Chomsky explaining that he doesn’t criticise rightwing newspapers because it’s “too easy” (he focuses instead on “liberal” media).

And yet… The Daily Mail has millions of readers. Millions more see its prominent headlines (while at the supermarket or newsagent). And we know that conceptual frames work mostly unconsciously – “below” our awareness. And that repetition affects us “deeply” at this “level”.

(To put it another way: Professor Chomsky might find it “too easy” communicating his criticisms of rightwing media to fellow Chomskyites, etc – but how easy would he find it communicating those criticisms to Daily Mail readers?)

true-grit

I don’t have time to write this (I’ve got a river to swim, a mountain to climb and a crap-job interview* to attend), so I’ll limit myself to a brief jotted note:

“Grit” (synonym: “firmness of character”) keys into a “moral strength” metaphor/worldview – part of the “strict” (ie authoritarian) morality which has been linked with conservative thinking. I wrote about this here.

* Not really. I don’t “waste my time” on such things any more. My “character” doesn’t need any “building”, thanks. And if it did, the last place I would go to “build” it is a God Damn job (said in a John Wayne voice).

Alternative headlines:
YOUNG LACK JOHN WAYNE’S EYE-PATCH
WANNABE WAGE SLAVES GRIT THEIR TEETH
WINTER RISE IN ROAD-GRITTING JOBS

Written by NewsFrames

August 21, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Žižek on Lakoff

zizek-on-lakoffAug 13, 2013Chomsky and Žižek, two giants of the intellectual “left”, had a public spat recently. It was covered by national newspapers, and commentators commented on it. Indirectly, it led me to something Žižek wrote about George Lakoff, and so I thought I’d CASH IN* on the Žižek interest with my own blog post…

In the same way that Chomsky dismisses Žižek’s output after (apparently) reading little of it, Žižek is fairly dismissive of Lakoff’s work on framing – based on what seems to be a limited knowledge of it.

One can understand this. If you’re dismissive of somebody’s ideas (Chomsky repeatedly says Žižek’s amount to “posturing”) then it’s unlikely you’ll invest much time on reaching a fuller understanding of them – unless you make a career of “critiquing” them. Apparently this kind of (inevitably somewhat ignorant) dismissiveness affects even the smartest and most erudite thinkers.

“Superficial” Lakoff detour

Žižek writes about Lakoff in the middle of a long article. And it’s a bit of a detour from the piece’s main topics (eg Žižek’s criticisms of political theorist Ernesto Laclau):

The interest of [Lakoff’s] project for us resides in the fact that it shares a series of superficial features with Laclau’s edifice: the move from political struggle as a conflict of agents who follow rational calculations about their self-interests, to a more “open” vision of political struggle as a conflict of passions sustained by an irreducibly metaphorical rhetoric. (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)

I think the key words here are “superficial features”. Lakoff certainly warns against the belief that people vote from “rational calculations about their self-interests”. But does he instead see “political struggle as a conflict of passions”? Not to my reading. Lakoff writes that separation of emotion from rational mental activities is due to a false distinction. Rather, “rationality requires emotion” (The Political Mind, p196-197). Lakoff’s work is more about the role of unconscious frames, narratives, conceptual metaphor, prototypes, etc, in creating moral worldviews and political ideologies. (Drew Westen, a fellow neuroscientist, places more of an emphasis on emotion in politics than Lakoff does).

Next up from Žižek:

Lakoff’s concrete analyses oscillate between amusing apercus on how everyday rhetorical phrases are bundled with unspoken assumptions […] and rather primitive pseudo-Freudian decipherings – say, apropos 9/11, he wrote: “Towers are symbols of phallic power, and their collapse reinforces the idea of loss of power.” […] Lakoff reaches here the high point of the absurdity of his pseudo-Freudian symbolistic reading… (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)

(An “apercu” is an outline or insight).

zizek-guideŽižek makes a big issue of this Freudian stuff. But I’ve read many of Lakoff’s books, and this is the only example of a Freudian description I can remember. And Lakoff provides it as just one example (“Phallic imagery”) in a list of different types of metaphorical thought. That’s all. So I think Žižek is wrong (and perhaps unfair and disingenuous) to claim Lakoff “oscillates” between “pseudo-Freudian decipherings” and other stuff. Žižek continues:

In view of this naïve Freudism, it should not surprise us that, for Lakoff, the central organizing metaphors go back to warring visions of “idealized family structure”: conservatives see the nation as a family based on the “strict father model,” […] As it was already noted, both the “strict father” and the “nurturing parents” model are family models, as if it is impossible to detach politics from its familial fantasmatic libidinal roots. (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)

Okay, so after exposing Lakoff’s “naïve Freudism” (by quoting, out of context, a single, uncharacteristic Freudian example from Lakoff), Žižek would have us believe that Lakoff’s Moral Politics thesis is down to his “pseudo-Freudian symbolistic reading”, etc. Well, the best I can do here is to recommend that you read Lakoff’s Moral Politics for yourself (as it seems that Žižek hasn’t read it). Or, alternatively, you can read my summary of it here.

Fast and Loose

Žižek next quotes Senator Richard Durbin (a supporter of Lakoff), via a New York Times article, which states:

Durbin said he now understood, as a result of Lakoff’s work, that the Republicans have triumphed ”by repackaging old ideas in all new wrapping,” the implication being that this was not a war of ideas at all, but a contest of language. (The Framing Wars, New York Times, 17/7/2005)

Žižek then comments that “Insofar as he endorses such a reading of his thesis, Lakoff doesn’t take seriously enough HIS OWN emphasis on the force of metaphoric frame, reducing it to secondary packaging”.

But it’s clear from the next paragraph of the NYT piece that Lakoff doesn’t endorse such readings. (Žižek unfortunately doesn’t include the NYT source reference in his footnotes – his readers would have to find it themselves). Here’s that next paragraph which Žižek presumably overlooked:

The question here is whether Lakoff purposely twists his own academic theories to better suit his partisan audience or whether his followers are simply hearing what they want to hear and ignoring the rest. When I first met Lakoff in Los Angeles, he made it clear, without any prompting from me, that he was exasperated by the dumbing down of his intricate ideas. He had just been the main attraction at a dinner with Hollywood liberals, and he despaired that all they had wanted from him were quick fixes to long-term problems. ”They all just want to know the magic words,” he told me. ”I say: ‘You don’t understand, there aren’t any magic words. It’s about ideas.’ But all everyone wants to know is: ‘What three words can we use? How do we win the next election?’ They don’t get it.” (The Framing Wars, New York Times, 17/7/2005)

“Shallow sentimental rhetorics”

There’s one aspect of Žižek’s take on Lakoff which I half-agree with, sort of. When Lakoff does succumb to pressure to supply short progressive slogans (which isn’t often), the result sometimes seems, subjectively, fairly “weak” and “sentimental”. (However, in certain cases, Lakoff’s framing suggestions have been shown, by polling results, etc, to be successful). Žižek’s explanation for this “weakness” is interesting:

… the liberal formula consists of general feel-good phrases nobody is against […] – what only happens is that violent-passionate engaging rhetorics is replaced by shallow sentimental rhetorics. What is so strange here is that Lakoff, a refined linguist, specialist in semantics, can miss this obvious weakness of his positive formula […] it lacks the antagonistic charge of designating a clear enemy, which is the sine qua non of every effective mobilizing political formula. (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)

A wider, deeper reading of Lakoff’s work would show Žižek that political sloganeering is but a small part of it, reluctantly offered. As for “designating a clear enemy”, Lakoff is clear: the enemy is the giant, massively-funded rightwing messaging machine, acting through the mass media, to saturate our brains with hard-right/conservative frames, narratives, metaphors – repeatedly for years, repeatedly for decades – on almost every issue. The enemy is ignorance of how much this takes place outside of our awareness due to the largely unconscious aspect of conceptual frames.

Don’t Think of an Inadequate, Dismissive, Partial Reading

I often see views attributed to Lakoff which seem very far removed from my own readings of his work. In most cases, I assume it’s due to a quick and/or partial reading of Don’t think of an Elephant (or a few of Lakoff’s online pieces) which, to the restless/careless reader, confirms their preconceived notions about what framing is “all about” (ie “spin”, “quick fixes”, “superficial wordplay”, “playing the conservatives at their own game”, etc). And, naturally, having determined how “shallow” it all is, they don’t read or reflect further.

Lakoff’s conclusion is that, instead of abhorring the passionate metaphoric language on behalf of the couple of rational argumentation and abstract moralizing, the Left should accept the battle at this terrain and learn to offer more seductive frames.  (Slavoj Zizek, Against the Populist Temptation)

* I’m joking. Not only do I not get paid, I pay WordPress so that you don’t have to see their ads.

Written by NewsFrames

August 13, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Framing poll questions & results

crimepollJuly 10, 2013Research has shown that metaphors shape the way people reason about social & political issues – with most folk having no awareness that metaphors are influencing their thinking. This is relevant to polling, of course.

For example, one study found that if crime is framed metaphorically as a “virus”, survey respondents proposed “investigating the root causes… eradicating poverty and improving education (etc)”. But, when crime is framed as a “beast”, participants prefer enforcement and punishment.

Notably, in this study, there was only a one word difference (“virus”/”beast”) in the questions asked. Most participants said the crime statistics (which were included in the question, and the same in both cases) influenced their reasoning most. The authors of the study remarked: “These findings suggest that metaphors can act covertly in reasoning.”

“Majority say X”
“Majority say NOT X”

YouGov tested how a question’s wording shapes responses by asking different groups essentially the “same” question (but with different wording). For example:

  • “The BBC licence fee costs £145.50 a year. Do you think this is good or bad value for money?”
  • “The cost of the BBC licence works out at 40p a day. Do think this is good or bad value for money?”

Since 40p x 365 = £146, you’d expect roughly similar responses. In fact there was a massive difference. The poll asking the first question found that twice as many people thought the BBC was bad value (27% good, 54% bad). The poll using the second question found a majority saying the BBC was good value (44% good, 36% bad).

There’s no obvious difference in terms of metaphor here, but the large shift in response suggests that different cognitive frames are activated in each case – perhaps the larger (yearly) sum “reminds” people of money they need (eg to pay utilities bills). Work in ‘behavioural economics’, by the likes of Dan Ariely, has catalogued similar examples.

Here’s another example, reported by the New York Times, of a simple change in poll wording that dramatically changed the responses:

“Seventy-nine percent of Democrats said they support permitting gay men and lesbians to serve openly [in the military]. Fewer Democrats however, just 43 percent, said they were in favor of allowing homosexuals to serve openly.” (NYT, 11/2/2010)

As has been commented, this example probably isn’t surprising, as the wording evokes different frames, one about human rights, and the other about sex.

Framing poll results

So, small changes in wording can produce very different responses. And that’s just in the question asked. What about different framings of the results (eg by the news media)? Peter Kellner, the journalist & President of YouGov, makes the following comment:

The results frequently arouse media interest. Indeed we are often commissioned to ask stark questions in order to generate bold headlines and stark findings […]. It’s not that these headlines or allegations are wrong, but they are often too crude. A single question, or even a short sequence of questions, will seldom tell us all we need to know. (Peter Kellner, 24/10/2011)

But it’s not just the mass media which promotes simplistic conclusions based on crude polling. The “public interest” website, Spinwatch (of all people) recently did something similar…

Even SpinWatchers spin?

A Spinwatch blog commented on a poll which asked people in the UK to estimate the number of Iraqis who “died as a consequence of the war that began in Iraq in 2003”. The poll itself seems genuinely shocking: 59% of the respondents estimated that fewer than 10,001 Iraqis died as a result of the war.

An obvious question: Where did these low estimates originate? – since they are far lower than figures reported from Iraq Body Count or the Lancet-published surveys, etc. (Or were they just ignorant guesses from people too embarrassed to select the “Don’t know” option?)

Unfortunately, the poll doesn’t provide any answers to these questions, as it was limited (for cost reasons) to just two poll questions, neither of which indicates sources of estimates or media preferences of respondents, etc. But this didn’t stop the Spinwatch blogger from making a sweeping conclusion:

“The poll results are a striking illustration of how a ‘free press’ imposes ignorance on the public in order to promote war.” (Spinwatch, 4/6/2013)

Of course, it doesn’t follow. The poll says precisely nothing about the press. The blogger’s conclusion that the press “imposes ignorance” is based on his own presumptions about the effects of the press – not on the poll findings.

I return to notion that the press “imposes ignorance” below.

(Spinwatch published a follow-up piece with some media searches, apparently showing unbelievably few mentions of the Lancet Iraq studies – eg only 13 results for “All English Language News”, since 1/12/04, from a Lexis-Nexis search. This is clearly wrong, and, in fact, the last paragraph – of an addendum to the piece – briefly notes that “searching ‘Lancet AND Iraq’ with Lexis Nexis turns up 2602 articles since December 1, 2004”. But the Spinwatch author doesn’t present this as a correction to his earlier seemingly botched search-term format which yielded just 13 articles. Rather, he writes: “As with any search, the results can be tweaked by modifying search terms slightly”!)

Causal metaphors – a digression

Reports of poll results (in common with headlines in general) often use direct causation metaphors to frame complex social issues. All such metaphors have their own logic, which is transferred from the physical realm of force to the more abstract social realms of institutions, politics, beliefs, etc. The effect is inescapably “reductive”, but not necessarily illegitimate (some metaphors – and their imported logics – are more appropriate than others). Here are some examples of such metaphorical causal expressions:

  • Public generosity hit by immigrant wave
  • 72% believe Iraq on path to democracy
  • Obama’s leadership brought the country out of despair
  • Majority fear Vietnam will fall to communism

Each of the causal logics here is different – for example, the notion that one country “falls” to communism, while another takes the right “path” (to democracy). Of “falling to communism”, Lakoff & Johnson remark (Philosophy in the Flesh, p172) that the ‘domino effect’ theory was used to justify going to war with Vietnam: when one country “falls”, the next will, and the next – unless force (military might) is applied to stop the “falling”. The metaphor of taking a “path” has very different political entailments. A nation might not even resemble a democracy, but if it chooses the “right path”, it “deserves” US military and economic “aid”, to help overcome any obstacles put in its “way”. (Incidentally, rightwing ideologues regard any “move” towards “free market” economics as taking the “path” to democracy).

The different types of causal logic resulting from each metaphor may seem obvious when spelt out like this. But the point is that the reasoning in each case is evoked automatically by the metaphorical frame; it takes effect without being spelt out, without being “made conscious”. Rather, the logic – including political inferences – is an entailment of a frame that’s simply activated by the language used.

“Imposes ignorance”

The notion that the press “imposes ignorance on the public” is also metaphorical (although this perhaps isn’t as obvious as in the above examples). The question is whether we regard it as valid and appropriate for 21st century media – given the increasing levels of information access. It takes less than a minute, for example, for anyone with an internet connection to google “Iraq war deaths”. Such a search immediately returns the BBC article, Iraq war in figures, which cites Iraq Body Count, UN-backed IFHS, and Lancet studies, and their figures.

(BBC headlined with the 2006 Lancet study – on BBC1 News and BBC2 Newsnight – on the day of its publication, published a “question and answer” piece with one of the study’s authors (Les Roberts) and conducted an investigation – using a Freedom Of Information request – showing that the government’s scientific advisers privately stated that “The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to ‘best practice’ in this area”.)

None of this fits the notion of a media which “imposes ignorance on the public”. That’s not to say that the “news” media isn’t a determining factor in “public ignorance” (in various complex ways – several of them explored in the cognitive framing literature and in the work of Tversky, Kahneman and others on heuristics and biases, etc). But to conceive of it as forceful restriction (“imposes”) seems a fundamental misunderstanding of how the media works in the 21st century – not to mention how people acquire knowledge and form opinions in an information-saturated world of competing frames.

The Spinwatch piece notes that “Rumsfeld AND Iraq” yielded more search results in a 3-week period than “Lancet AND Iraq” did over 8.5 years – and the author concludes that, “There is simply no honest way to absolve the establishment media for imposing ignorance on the public”. But if there were a simple (inverse) correlation between number of media mentions and public ignorance, you’d expect the “public” to be relatively knowledgable about what Donald Rumsfeld said and did regarding Iraq.

That would take another poll to determine, but I suspect that public indifference/ignorance on Iraq (if that’s what the above poll illustrated) extends to what Rumsfeld said and did – regardless of the media’s apparent over-representation of Rumsfeld.

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

July 11, 2013 at 8:02 am

Establishment TV – BBC’s “authority” frame

bbc-news-fearJune 13, 2013 – It’s comforting to know there’s enough money available for states to build giant secret surveillance systems, even though there’s not enough for less important things like healthcare, transport and social security.

On the creepy, disturbing spying thing, politicians have assured us that “law-abiding citizens” have nothing to worry about. They say this with a straight face, which must take some doing. I’d like to think most people are wise to the “joke”, but I doubt that’s the case. A recent poll shows high public ignorance (and/or indifference) regarding Iraqi war deaths, and I suspect the same may be true with the authoritarian “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” stuff.

Or, to put it another way, most people I talk to in the statistically “real” world – ie away from the minority of Guardian readers, leftwing academics/activists, contrarians, kinky weirdos, Zen masters, eskimos, etc – seem to welcome more CCTV, more police, more surveillance, more control, more authority…

Why? Presumably because they feel more threatened by criminal or “antisocial” individuals than they do by state or corporate institutions. To be more specific, they fear being burgled, mugged, knifed, spat at, terrorised, etc, more than they fear being herded, coerced, arrested, incarcerated or surveilled by employees in uniforms or suits. This is possibly due to a nurtured form of trust in the “essential goodness” of the authorities (more on this below).

Much has been written about the contributing effects of sensationalised tabloid crime “news” on people’s psyches – ranging from a tendency to overestimate the risk of crime (and “terrorism”), to anxiety disorders such as the fear of going outside. (It should be noted in this context that the Daily Mail, Sun, Mirror, Express, etc, have far higher circulations than the Guardian, which broke the NSA whistleblower story).

Less has been said about an equally important facet of the above: trust in authority (whether state or corporate). And, as far as I’m aware, nobody has documented a particular speciality of the BBC: the “good cops – good authorities” framing. So, I’ll attempt to do that here…

BBC’s “Good Cops / Trust in Authority” frame

The sociologist, Erving Goffman, found that social situations and institutions are shaped by mental structures (frames) which determine conventionalised behaviour in those situations/institutions. So, for instance, the hospital frame has certain roles (doctor, nurse, orderly, patient, visitor, etc), locations, props and expected actions (taking temperature, reading charts, operations, etc).

Such frames have a logic defining relationships, hierarchies and appropriate/inappropriate behaviour and procedures. Visitors bring flowers for patients, surgeons perform operations, but they don’t empty bedpans. Occupied hospital beds are in wards, visitors wait in the waiting area, not in the operating theatre, etc. Even if you’ve never been in a hospital, you acquire a large part of this frame through depiction of “hospital life” on TV (in dramas, documentaries, etc).

So, what frames do we have for the policing activities of “the authorities”, and where do these frames get reinforced? Well, we have several, but one in particular seems to be reinforced much more frequently than the others. Here it is in a nutshell:

Good cops/authorities

Frame logic: Individuals are victimised or disadvantaged by the actions of bad, criminal, irresponsible, antisocial types. The “authorities” come to the rescue, in the form of police or other official types with police-like powers. The cops deal with the bad people and protect the good people. (There’s also a “terrorism” variant of the frame, with similar structure, but differently defined roles).

Frame inferences: The cops/authorities are essentially good; the perpetrators are bad; the victims are usually innocent. The authorities maintain order and harmony; the villains disrupt it. Order is a system; bad individuals disrupt order (note the good system / bad individuals dichotomy).

Here’s a partial list of TV series I’ve compiled. They’re “fly on the wall” documentaries, and are usually shown in prime time (mostly on BBC). They all strongly reinforce the above frame. Such series have been broadcast on a regular basis for decades. To repeat: on a regular basis for decades. Literally hundreds of hours of ‘prime time’ TV beamed into our skulls:

Traffic cops
Crimewatch UK
Drunk and Dangerous
(police tackling drunks)
Car Wars
(Tactical Vehicle Crime Unit)
Sky Cops
(helicopter patrols)
Customs & Excise Cops
Forensic Cops

On the Fiddle
(welfare fraud policing)
Motorway Cops
Clampers
(car wheel clampers)
The Tube
(London’s underground police)
Animal Cops
Airport
(airport police)
A Life of Grime
Traffic Wardens
Rogue Traders

Bailiffs
Transport Cops
Seaside Rescue
Cops, Robbers and Videotape
Shops, Robbers and Videotape
(variation on a theme)
Girl Cops
War at the Door
(housing officers & RSPCA)
Dumping on Britain
(Environment Agency)
Rail Cops
Cops with Dogs
Cars, Cops and Bailiffs
The Planners are Coming
(Planning Police)
Saints and Scroungers
(investigating benefits claimants)
Cars, Cops and Criminals (series of hour-long documentaries)
The Lock Up (about officers in custody suite of police station)
Send in the Dogs (police & their dogs)
Car Crime UK
Behind Closed Doors (police tackle domestic abuse cases)
The Sheriffs Are Coming (‘fly on the wall documentary series following High Court enforcement officers’)

Framing effects

The above TV shows often seem like the state equivalent of TV ads for banks – friendly, “you can trust us” PR. “Coercion is something that only bad individuals do to you. The system is there to protect you from it”. As always, repetition of the frame is key, together with relative absence of frames with fundamentally different inferences (eg the system itself as threat). So, Magna Carta is being dismantled, illegal wars are fought in your name, video surveillance is everywhere, your internet activity is monitored, you’re lied to by government on a daily basis – but you needn’t fear, because you know that the authorities are essentially good.

One thing I find disturbing about these programmes is that when “members of the public” are shown complaining, they’re typically presented as unreasonable, hostile or slightly insane – as if you must be mentally disturbed (and probably a danger to society) if you object to the way the authorities are protecting you.

Robert Anton Wilson once remarked that TV is full of cop shows, and that you never see shows about landlords. Before you think the reasons for that are “obvious”, you might want to pause and think some more… Anyway, the above phenomenon (all those fly-on-the-wall cop documentaries) is rarely commented upon by media critics, even though – like tabloid crime sensationalism – it probably fills up a lot more “public” head-space than does Guardian commentary on state abuses of power.

Written by NewsFrames

June 13, 2013 at 8:36 am

Endless “austerity” framing

cameron-austerityApril 29, 2013 – The “austerity” frame currently dominates political and economic debate. How do we usefully describe the cognitive frame (as opposed to the calculated spin, sales pitch or rationalisation)? Here’s one view:

In conservative ideology, “austerity” isn’t a temporary economic measure, it’s a permanent moral imperative.

[Update, 14/11/13 – In the last few days, David Cameron has called for “permanent” austerity, to the surprise of many commentators.]

We’re talking about a cognitive frame

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.

guardian-27-03-13This 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:

  1. Poverty/joblessness is viewed as moral failure of the individual.
  2. “Austerity” is the moral discipline that will punish these failures.
  3. 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)

Written by NewsFrames

April 29, 2013 at 8:20 am

Iraq War Framing for Dummies

iraq-war-for-dummiesMarch 12, 2013The 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)

“I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” (Alan Greenspan, Former Chair of Federal Reserve)

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.

Cartoon by Carlos Latoff - click for his blog2. 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.

iraqi-most-wantedThe 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)

Iraq-cost-benefitThe “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.

Faux Darwinism

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

newsweek2_12As 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”

newsweek2_08A 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.

Antiwar frames

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.

Written by NewsFrames

March 12, 2013 at 9:19 am

“Lesser of two evils”

Voting dilemmas & framing

“Choosing the lesser of two evils isn’t a bad thing. The cliché makes it sound bad, but it’s a good thing. You get less evil.”
— Noam Chomsky (attributed)

Every few years, we get a vote. We call it “democracy”, and it’s so important that we’ll even bomb other countries into adopting a pretense of it. So, please indulge me by considering this “framing” dilemma:-

Imagine: For decades, governments (regardless of party) aid the rich, blame the poor, start wars, erode basic freedoms, etc – all the nasty fascistic/unprogressive* stuff. The only real voting “choice” is between different “party presentations”, eg:

• Party 1: “Progressive is good. We’re progressive.” [Second claim is false]
Party 2:Unprogressive is good. We’re unprogressive.” [Second claim is true]

Accepting that this is just a fairy tale from my imagination (and nothing to do with reality), who would you vote for? (Assume you’re forced to vote).

Many would probably vote for Party 2 on the basis that at least it’s not lying about progressive ideals (among other things). I encountered something like this during the Bush/Gore US election – some on the left would say: “Let Bush win! At least his fascist tendencies are out in the open”.

To continue with the malign fairy tale, Party 2 wins and promotes the “unprogressive is good” message relentlessly. Fear, intolerance, competition. Everything is framed in that way for decades, until people lose the cognitive ability to conceptualise in progressive frames. The authoritarian/unprogressive becomes “common sense” and “normal”.

The unprogressive policies were always a given with both parties (for “structural” fairy tale reasons – The Evil Corporation™, etc). But the dominant framing wasn’t a given. Only Party 2′s framing has warped people’s minds to the effect that even “working class” people are starting to think in the frames/metaphors previously used only by the wealthy conservative.

(The heroine/hero of the tale ponders the significance – if any – of this to the “lesser of two evils” voting dilemma…)

Luckily it’s only a nightmarish fantasy. In the real world, minds don’t get warped – people think for themselves, with facts and stuff. Of course. Still, it’s disturbing to see cognitive scientists like George Lakoff having similar fantasies. In his nightmare, conservatives have been…

“…instilling their worldview and their deep framing over thirty-five years – changing a lot of brains, and by repetition, making those changes permanent. […] As a result, progressive messages don’t take root, because the soil was prepared for conservative messages, not progressive ones.”
(Lakoff, The Political Mind, p239)

* I’m not keen on the term “unprogressive”, but I tried using other terms, and they didn’t quite work in this context.

UPDATE (24/10/2016) – Noam Chomsky has now co-written a full rationale for “voting the lesser evil”. It’s available here and also on Chomsky’s official site, here.

Written by NewsFrames

October 24, 2012 at 8:04 pm