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“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?)


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:

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
(car wheel clampers)
The Tube
(London’s underground police)
Animal Cops
(airport police)
A Life of Grime
Traffic Wardens
Rogue Traders

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

“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

Essentials of framing (merged version)

This is a longish intro to the topic of framing – based on key themes in the work of cognitive scientist George Lakoff. (It merges three shorter pieces into one article).

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups,
parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“It’s because they’re stupid. That’s why
everyone does everything.”
– Homer Simpson

Frames are mental structures which shape our worldviews. They’re largely unconscious, but are revealed by the language we use. For example: “time is money”. This isn’t just a figure of speech – we conceive of time as a commodity, and the frame is activated by common phrases: “don’t waste my time”, “spending time”, “borrowed time”, “running out of time”, “I’ve invested a lot of time in it”, etc.

“Time is money” ↔ anxiety

This metaphorical conception of time isn’t universal – it doesn’t exist in all societies. Some cultures have no conception of “efficient use of time”.

The “time is money” frame has certain negative consequences (stress, insecurity, short-termism, etc) – in addition to the positive things claimed for it by business managers and orthodox economists. In fact, most anxiety seems to result from how we metaphorically conceive of our projected future. More on this later.

“Time is money” is a fairly obvious metaphorical frame. Less obvious is that morality is also routinely framed in terms of money transactions. We say that a person is “discredited” (their moral “credit” is withdrawn) when shown to be untrustworthy. We speak of “profiting” from good (ie moral) experience; we ask if a given course of action is “worth it”. The qualitative realm of morality is transformed into a quantitative one by conceptualising it in terms of accounting. If someone does you harm, you “pay them back”; if you treat me well, I am “in your debt”, etc.

Getting revenge

This type of framing has everyday implications. Suppose you are harmed or disadvantaged by someone’s “immoral” (or inconsiderate) actions. We may not see ourselves as the type of people who seek revenge, but it’s likely we think in terms of “paying someone back”. As a “balancing of the books” this can be seen as a moral good – a legitimate punishment. The morality of retribution is usually associated with conservatism, but it’s generally understood (ie accepted) because of the accounting framing. The fact that you “automatically” think along these lines may cause anxiety and cognitive dissonance if you don’t regard yourself as “that kind of person”.

Framing “work”

There are two common metaphors for work: as obedience and as exchange. In the work-as-obedience frame, there’s an authority (eg the employer) and there’s obedience to the commands of authority (ie work). This obedience is rewarded (pay). In the work-as-exchange frame, work is conceptualised as an object of value which belongs to the worker. This is exchanged for money.

Different consequences apply depending on the type of framing. In the obedience frame, the worker is expected to make personal sacrifices out of “loyalty” to the employer. This may help to explain why workers are giving £29 billion in unpaid overtime to their companies each year.

Why do so many workers tolerate a situation in which income is dependent on obedience? Perhaps it’s because their family upbringing involved the same kind of situation – eg they were expected to perform tasks out of obedience to parents. In other words, the work-as-obedience frame is a familiar part of their neurology, even though it may be disadvantageous in job/business settings.

‘Strict father’ syndrome

Lakoff argues that different types of family upbringing explain many moral and political frames. He makes the case that conservative values are based on a “strict father” upbringing model, and liberal (or “progressive”) values on a “nurturant parent” model. We all seem to have both models in our brains – even the most “liberal” person can understand a John Wayne film (Lakoff uses Arnold Schwarzenegger movies as examples of the ‘strictness’ moral system).

An adult might lean towards strictness in raising her own children, while demonstrating nurturant values in her professional life, or vice versa. Conservative politicians talk about “family values” all the time – even when there are more important issues (eg war, economy) to be addressed. What do family values have to do with these bigger issues? One suggestion is that by repeatedly talking about family values (to certain audiences – eg working-class Christians, in the US), the radical-right manages to activate the strictness frame for other domains (eg economy, welfare, crime, foreign policy, etc) – where it might not “naturally” (or traditionally) apply.

Frame semantics & fear

“Fear triggers the strict father model; it tends
to make the model active in one’s brain.”

– George Lakoff, ‘Don’t think of an elephant’, p42

In the ‘strict’ frame, the world is regarded as fundamentally dangerous and competitive. Good and bad are seen as absolutes, but children aren’t born good in this worldview – they have to be made good.* This requires that they are obedient to a moral authority. Obedience is taught through punishment, which, according to this belief-system, helps children develop the self-discipline necessary to avoid doing wrong. Self-discipline is also needed for prosperity in a dangerous, competitive world. It follows, in this worldview, that people who prosper financially are self-disciplined and therefore morally good.

This framing complements, in obvious ways, the ideology 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.

*Note: In some Christian versions of strict-father framing, children are believed to be born bad – not just “no good”, but “evil”, ie tainted with Original Sin. St Augustine (according to Bertrand Russell) “really believed new-born children to be limbs of Satan”. All the more need for punishment.

Strictness Morality & competition

A ‘reward & punishment’ type morality follows from strictness framing. Punishment of disobedience is seen as a moral good – how else will people develop the self-discipline necessary to prosper in a dangerous, competitive environment? Becoming an adult, in this belief-system’s logic, means achieving sufficient self-discipline to free oneself from “dependence” on others (no easy task in a “tough world”). Success is seen as a just reward for the obedience which leads ultimately to self-discipline. Remaining “dependent” is seen as failure.

[You may want to pause here. Can you see things differently from the strictness scheme? Or do no logical alternatives seem immediately obvious to you?]

Competition is an important premise of Strictness Morality. By competing in a tough world, people demonstrate a self-discipline deserving of reward, ie success. Conversely, it’s seen as immoral to reward those who haven’t earned it through competition. By this logic, competition is seen as morally necessary: without it there’s no motivation to become the right kind of person – ie self-disciplined and obedient to authority. Constraints on competition (eg social “hand-outs”) are therefore seen as immoral.

‘Nurturant’ framing doesn’t give competition the same moral priority. ‘Progressive’ morality tends to view economic competition as creating more losers than winners, with the resulting inequality correlating with social ills such as crime, deprivation and all the things you hope won’t happen to you. The nurturant ideal of abundance for all (eg achieved through technological advance) works against the primacy of competition. Economic competition still has an important place, but as a limited (and fallible) means to achieving abundance, rather than as a moral imperative.

While nurturant morality is troubled by the fear of “not enough to go around for all”, strictness morality is haunted by the fear of personal failure, individual weakness. Even the “successful” seem haunted by this fear.

‘Moral strength’

Central to Strictness Morality is the metaphor of moral strength. “Evil” is framed as a force which must be fought. Weakness implies evil in this worldview, since weakness is unable to resist the force of evil.

People are not born strong, the logic goes; strength is built through learning self-discipline and self-denial – these are primary values in the strictness system, so any sign of weakness is a source of anxiety, and fear itself is perceived as a further weakness (one to be denied at all costs). Note that these views are all metaphorically conceived – instead of a force, evil could (outside the strictness frame) be viewed as an effect, eg of ignorance or greed – in which case strength wouldn’t make quite as much sense as a primary moral value.

It’s usually taken for granted that strength is “good” in concrete, physical ways, but we’re talking about metaphor here. Or, rather, we’re thinking metaphorically (mostly without being aware of the fact) – in a way which affects our hierarchy of values. With “strictness” framing, we’ll give higher priority to strength (discipline, control) than to tolerance (fairness, compassion, etc). This may influence everything from our relationships to our politics and how we evaluate our own mental-emotional states.

That might sound a little dramatic and a bit academic – until we see what’s happening in the real world on Fox News.

‘Authoritarian’ moral framing

We’re constrained by ‘social attitudes’ which put moral values in a different order than our own. Moral conflicts aren’t just about “good” vs “bad” – they’re about conflicting hierarchies of values.

“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”
— George W. Bush

“If you can’t be polite to our guests, you have to sit at the kiddies’ table”
— Hannibal Lecter

For example, you mightn’t regard hard work or self-discipline as the main indicators of a person’s worth – but someone with economic power over you (eg your employer) might…….

→ “Laziness is bad”
Under ‘strictness’ morality, self-indulgence (eg idleness) is seen as moral weakness, ie emergent evil. It represents a failure to develop the ‘moral strengths’ of self-control and self-discipline (which are primary values in this worldview). At this point you might want to reflect on how much the Puritan work ethic has affected your life in terms of hours spent in “productive employment” (or “pointless drudgery”).

→ “Time-wasting is very bad”
Laziness also implies wasted time according to this viewpoint. So it’s ‘bad’ in the further sense that “time is money” (see above). Inactivity and idleness are seen as inherently costly, a financial loss. People tend to forget that this is metaphorical – there is no literal “loss” – and the frame excludes notions of benefits (or “gains”) resulting from inaction/indolence.

“Welfare is very, very bad”
Regarded (by some) as removing the “incentive” to work, welfare is thus seen as promoting moral weakness (ie laziness, time-wasting, “dependency”, etc). That’s bad enough in itself (from the perspective of Strictness Morality) – but, in addition, welfare is usually funded by taxing those who work. In other words, the “moral strength” of holding a job isn’t being rewarded in full – it’s being taxed to reward the “undeserving weak”.

Thus welfare is seen as doubly immoral in this system of moral metaphors. Of course, others would argue that the “disincentive” to work is provided not by welfare but by work itself – or rather by its long hours, soul-crippling tedium and low pay…

But that’s a different kind of framing.

“Might is right”

In ‘Strict Father’ (ie ‘Authoritarian’) morality, one must fight evil (and never “understand” or tolerate it). This requires strength and toughness and, perhaps, extreme measures. Merciless enforcement of might is often regarded as ‘morally justified’ in this system. Moral “relativism” is viewed as immoral, since it “appeases” the forces of evil by affording them their own “truth”.

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists… I think you have to destroy them. It’s the only way to deal with them.” (Dick Cheney, former US Vice President)

There’s another sense in which “might” (or power) is seen as not only justified (eg in fighting evil) but also as implicitly good: Strictness Morality regards a “natural” hierarchy of power as moral, and in this conservative moral system, the following hierarchy is (according to Lakoff’s research) regarded as truly “natural”: “God above humans”; “humans above animals”; “men above women”; “adults above children”, etc.

So, the notion of ‘Moral Authority’ arises from a power hierarchy which is believed to be “natural” (as in: “the natural order of things”). Lakoff comments:

“The consequences of the metaphor of Moral Order are enormous, even outside religion. It legitimates a certain class of existing power relations as being natural and therefore moral, and thus makes social movements like feminism appear unnatural and therefore counter to the moral order.” (George Lakoff, Moral Politics, p82)

In this metaphorical reality-tunnel, the rich have “moral authority” over the poor. The reasoning is as follows: Success in a competitive world comes from the “moral strengths” of self-discipline and self-reliance – in working hard at developing your abilities, etc. Lack of success, in this worldview, implies not enough self-discipline, ie moral weakness. Thus, the “successful” (ie the rich) are seen as higher in the moral order – as disciplined and hard-working enough to “succeed”.

If that seems no more than just a cynical rationalisation for greed and privilege, consider the notion of the Protestant roots of capitalism (nicely summed up here by Encyclopædia Britannica):

Protestant ethic, in sociological theory, the value attached to hard work, thrift, and efficiency in one’s worldly calling, which, especially in the Calvinist view, were deemed signs of an individual’s election, or eternal salvation.

German sociologist Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–05), held that the Protestant ethic was an important factor in the economic success of Protestant groups in the early stages of European capitalism; because worldly success could be interpreted as a sign of eternal salvation, it was vigorously pursued.

As someone whose views tend to fall into the left-libertarian category, I got attracted to this field (Cognitive Linguistics, Frame Semantics) because it provides a way to understand right-authoritarian thinking/morality (which I don’t “condone” any more than I condone drowning puppies en masse). The usual temptation – on the left – is to regard the ‘other side’ as immoral or amoral, lacking in any moral sense, driven only by greed, etc. But that’s close to viewing ‘them’ as subhuman – and before long you’re thinking in authoritarian-style, yourself.

Of course, none of this means that Lying Bastards & crooks are scarce in the political realm…

‘Moral decay’ & other fun metaphors

Media hysteria sometimes calms down a little (eg when the focus is on the decent, respectable people, rather than the bad people**). But it only takes one horrible crime to set it off again. Then we have: “moral decay”, “erosion of values”, “tears in the moral fabric”, a “chipping away” at moral “foundations”, etc. It shouldn’t be surprising that these metaphors for change-as-destruction tend to accompany ‘conservative’ moral viewpoints rather than ‘progressive’ ones.

If True Moral Values™ are regarded as absolute and unchanging (which seems the case with ‘Strict Father’, ie ‘Authoritarian’, moral schemes), then change to the way we think about moral issues must be seen as a threat. And since standards do change in society over time (for numerous reasons, and whether we like it or not), advocates of Strictness Morality see moral decay everywhere, and may believe that “society is going to hell” (or “turning to shit”) – they might even yearn for some Golden Age, a mythical time before things started “degenerating”.

“Moral Purity” & “Moral Health”

Associated with moral ‘decay’ is the metaphor of impurity, ie rot, corruption or filth. This extends further, to the metaphor of morality as health. Thus, immoral ideas are described as “sick“, immoral people are seen to have “diseased minds”, etc. These metaphorical frames have the following consequences in terms of how we think:

1. Even minor immorality is seen as a major threat (since introduction of just a tiny amount of “corrupt” substance can taint the whole supply – think of water reservoir or blood supply. This is applied to the abstract moral realm via conceptual metaphor.)

2. Immorality is regarded as “contagious”. Thus, immoral ideas must be avoided or censored, and immoral people must be isolated or removed, forcibly if necessary. Otherwise they’ll “infect” the morally healthy/strong. Does this way of thinking sound familiar?

In Philosophy in the Flesh, Johnson & Lakoff point out that with “health” as metaphor for moral well-being, immorality is framed as sickness and disease, with important consequences for public debate:

“One crucial consequence of this metaphor is that immorality, as moral disease, is a plague that, if left unchecked, can spread throughout society, infecting everyone. This requires strong measures of moral hygiene, such as quarantine and strict observance of measures to ensure moral purity. Since diseases can spread through contact, it follows that immoral people must be kept away from moral people, lest they become immoral, too. This logic often underlies guilt-by-association arguments, and it often plays a role in the logic behind urban flight, segregated neighborhoods, and strong sentencing guidelines even for nonviolent offenders.”

Enemies everywhere, everything a threat

So, to conclude, there’s a lot to fear from the perspective of ‘Strictness Morality’: the world’s a dangerous place, there’s immorality (and indeed “evil”) all over the place, lurking everywhere, ready to jump out at you. And any weakness that you manifest will be punished. Even the good, decent people are competing ruthlessly with you, judging you for any failure.

“That’s not Charlie the Tuna out there… it’s Jaws.”
G. Gordon Liddy (US shock-jock)

In a way, this moral framing logically requires that the world is seen as essentially dangerous. Remove this premise and Strictness Morality ‘collapses’, since the precedence given (in this scheme) to moral strength, self-discipline and authority (over compassion, fairness, happiness, etc) would no longer make sense.

Tabloid newspapers appear to have the function of reinforcing the fearful premise with daily scaremongering – presumably because it’s more profitable than less dramatic “news”. But this repeated stimulation of our fears affects our brains at a synaptic level. The fear/alarm framing receives continual reinforcement.

And pretty soon that’s how we start to think…

** ‘Decent, respectable people’: the ones in suits with money and power; the authorities.
‘Bad people’: potentially everyone else; insignificant but awkward types, you & me.

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

September 10, 2012 at 8:30 am

Misconceptions about framing

My last post brought up some comments which reminded me of common “misconceptions” about Frame Semantics. Here are some extracts from George Lakoff’s book, Thinking Points, which will hopefully clarify things a little…

Frames and Brains

“Framing” is not primarily about politics or political messaging, or communication. It is
far more fundamental than that: Frames are the mental structures that allow human
beings to understand reality—and sometimes to create what we take to be reality.
But the discovery and use of frames does have an enormous bearing on politics.
Given our media-obsessed, fast-paced, talking-points political culture, it’s critical that
we understand the nature of framing and how it can be used.

Political framing is really applied cognitive science. Frames facilitate our most basic
interactions with the world—they structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way
we reason, and they even impact how we perceive and how we act. For the most part,
our use of frames is unconscious and automatic—we use them without realizing it.

Erving Goffman, the distinguished sociologist, was one of the first to notice frames
and the way they structure our interactions with the world. Goffman studied institutions,
like hospitals and casinos, and conventionalized social behavior, like dating and
shopping. He found something quite remarkable: Social institutions and situations are
shaped by mental structures (frames), which then determine how we behave in those
institutions and situations.

To describe this phenomenon, he used the metaphor of “life as a play.” For instance,
consider the hospital frame, with its clearly defined roles: doctor, surgeon, nurse,
orderly, patient, visitor, receptionist, janitor, and so on. There are locations where
scenes play out: the operating room, the emergency room, the recovery room, the
waiting area, and patient rooms. There are props: the operating table, scalpels, bandages,
wheelchairs, and so on.

The hospital frame also has an internal logic, because there are fixed relations and
hierarchies among the roles: Doctors are superior to nurses, who are superior to
orderlies; all surgeons are doctors, but not vice versa; surgeons perform operations in the
operating room.

Conversely, the hospital frame rules out certain behavior, because it determines what
is appropriate and what isn’t: Orderlies or visitors do not perform operations; surgeons
don’t empty bedpans; operations are not performed in the waiting area; visitors bring
flowers to the patients, but surgeons don’t bring flowers to orderlies.

All of us know thousands of such frames for everyday conventionalized activities,
from dating to taking buses to getting money at an ATM to eating at a restaurant.
Many frames come with language that is meaningless outside that frame: surgeon,
emergency room, waiter, bus driver, PIN. Without operations, a surgeon would be
meaningless. Just as a waiter would be without restaurants.

Political disputes are sometimes about how frames interact and whether one frame
takes priority over another. Can the FBI search a congressman’s office for evidence of
corruption? That is, does the administration frame include law enforcement jurisdiction
over Congress?

Frame structures also appear on a smaller scale. Charles Fillmore, one of the world’s
great linguists, has studied how everyday frames work at the level of sentences. The verb
“accuse,” for example, is defined with respect to an accusation frame, with semantic
roles: accuser, accused, offense, and accusation. The accuser and accused are people (or
metaphorical people, like corporations), the offense is an action, and the accusation is a
speech act, in particular, a declaration. The offense is assumed by the accuser to be bad,
that is, illegal or immoral, and the accuser is declaring that the accused did perform the

Lessons from Cognitive Science

1. The use of frames is largely unconscious. The use of frames occurs at the neural level,
so most people have no idea they are even using frames, much less what kind of frames.
Thus, the conservative message machine can impose its frames without the public—
progressive or not—being aware of them. For example, the “war on terror” frame has
been imposed by conservatives but used by independent journalists and even by many
progressives without much comment. In another area, Time magazine ran the headline
“Illegals!” for a feature article on immigration. Democrats have used the “tax relief”
frame without being aware that it undercuts their own views.

2. Frames define common sense. What counts as “common sense” varies from
person to person but always depends on what frames are in the brain and how frequently
they are used and evoked. Different people can have different frames in their brains, so
“common sense” can differ widely from person to person. However, in getting their
frames to dominate public discourse, conservatives have changed “common sense,” and
progressives have been letting them get away with it. Progressives should become
conscious of framing that is at present accepted unconsciously as “common sense” but
that hides the deep problems.

3. Repetition can embed frames in the brain. One of the funniest bits on Jon
Stewart’s The Daily Show is video clips it runs of right-wing leaders and spokespeople
using the same words over and over on the same day. The technique of repetition of the
same words to express the same idea is effective. The words come with surface frames.
Those surface frames in turn latch onto and activate deep frames. When repeated over
and over, the words reinforce deep frames by strengthening neural connections in

The problem of rationalism

Understanding frame analysis means becoming aware of one’s own mind and the minds
of others. This is a big task. We were not brought up to think in terms of frames and
metaphors and moral worldviews. We were brought up to believe that there is only one
common sense and that it is the same for everyone. Not true. Our common sense is
determined by the frames we unconsciously acquire, and one person’s common sense is
another’s evil political ideology. The truths that have been discovered about the mind
are not easy to fathom, especially when false views of the mind get in the way.

The discovery of frames requires a reevaluation of rationalism, a 350-year-old
theory of mind that arose during the Enlightenment. We say this with great admiration
for the rationalist tradition. It is rationalism, after all, that provided the foundation for
our democratic system. Rationalism says it is reason that makes us human, and all
human beings are equally rational. That is why we can govern ourselves and do not have
to rely upon a king or a pope to govern us. And since we are equally rational, the best
form of government is a democracy. So far, so good.

But rationalism also comes with several false theories of mind.
• We know from cognitive science research that most thought is unconscious, but
rationalism claims that all thought is conscious.
• We know that we think using mechanisms like frames and metaphors. Yet
rationalism claims that all thought is literal, that it can directly fit the world;
this rules out any effects of framing, metaphors, and worldviews.
• We know that people with different worldviews think differently and may reach
completely different conclusions given the same facts. But rationalism claims
that we all have the same universal reason. Some aspects of reason are
universal, but many others are not—they differ from person to person based
on their worldview and deep frames.
• We know that people reason using the logic of frames and metaphors, which
falls outside of classical logic. But rationalism assumes that thought is logical
and fits classical logic.

If you believed in rationalism, you would believe that the facts will set you free, that
you just need to give people hard information, independent of any framing, and they
will reason their way to the right conclusion. We know this is false, that if the facts
don’t fit the frames people have, they will keep the frames (which are, after all,
physically in their brains) and ignore, forget, or explain away the facts. The facts must
be framed in a way to make sense in order to be accepted as a basis for further reasoning.

If you were a rationalist policy maker, you would believe that frames, metaphors,
and moral worldviews played no role in characterizing problems or solutions to
problems. You would believe that all problems and solutions were objective and in no
way worldview dependent. You would believe that solutions were rational, and that the
tools to be used in arriving at them included classical logic, probability theory, game
theory, cost-benefit analysis, and other aspects of the theory of rational action.

Rationalism pervades the progressive world. It is one of the reasons progressives
have lately been losing to conservatives.

Rationalist-based political campaigns miss the symbolic, metaphorical, moral,
emotional, and frame-based aspects of political campaigns. Real rationality recognizes
these politically crucial aspects of our mental life. We advocate getting real about
rationality itself, recognizing how it really works. If you think political campaigns are
about laundry lists of policies that have no further symbolic value, then you miss the
heart of American politics. [End of excerpt]

I’m aware that this will probably lead to further misconceptions (“Are you saying we should just be irrational?”, etc). Such is the way with new “paradigms” (I’m not keen on this word, but how else to highlight that this isn’t just a new surface gloss?). It takes a while for the non-familiar to sink in. But, one step at a time…

Written by NewsFrames

July 9, 2012 at 8:49 am

Framing for “radicals”

A view I often encounter is that Lakoff’s Frame Semantics is not politically “radical” enough. Take this review of Lakoff’s book, Whose Freedom? (from CounterPunch), which argues that Lakoff ignores “any facts or analyses that suggest the problems of an unjust and unsustainable world may be rooted in fundamental systems, such as corporate capitalism and the imperialism of powerful nation-states”.

CounterPunch’s reviewer, Robert Jensen, seems (to me) hostile towards Lakoff throughout, and I see indications that he hasn’t read Lakoff’s book very thoroughly (for example, he claims incorrectly that Lakoff “makes no mention” of the distinction “between negative freedom […] and positive freedom”).

But, putting that aside, what is Jensen’s main problem with Lakoff’s approach? Jensen first makes some good points about the US Democratic party, but Lakoff’s book is not really about the Democrats (except for the illustrative examples cited). Jensen then returns to the same criticism that he started his review with:

Though this critique may seem harsh, it is a friendly one. I agree with many of the policy prescriptions that Lakoff labels as “progressive,” though I would want to push his analysis to the left and move past the predictable and uninspiring liberal ideology. I would highlight the more fundamental issues around illegitimate systems and structures of power, primarily the corporation in capitalism and the nation-state in the imperial era. (Outside the Frame, Robert Jensen)

So: “structures of power”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, the “nation-state” – these are the “fundamental” issues/systems for Jensen (and for many others who use the same terminology). Jensen writes that Lakoff’s approach is “shallow” for (allegedly) not addressing these fundamentals.

But, to my reading, Lakoff does address these issues – repeatedly and “deeply”. Except, he doesn’t do it in Jensen’s preferred terminology. For example, Lakoff goes to the roots of conservative (including corporate) beliefs in the so-called “free market” system (more on this below). He analyses how states and state power are conceptualised in terms of cognitive frames, and provides a more thorough account of the ideological underpinning of rightwing (including “imperialistic”) policy than any other researcher I’ve come across.

It’s worth pointing out that Jensen’s “fundamentals” (“structures of power”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, “nation-state”) are abstract nouns. They seem useful abstractions to me, but we should always remember that they are words, pointers. The realities they point to – unimaginably huge, complex aggregations of countless human actions – can be “addressed”, “mapped”, “encoded”, conceptualised in many ways. Pluralism demands that they are, so let’s not restrict ourselves to any particular lexicon. (Another author who explores Jensen’s “fundamental” issues in depth and detail – but without adopting, or relying on, the lexicon of “imperialism”, etc – is Greg Palast. See, for example, his excellent book, ‘The Best Democracy Money Can Buy’).

So, where does Lakoff’s work come in? For a start, it gives us a better understanding of our own cognitive mapping of this fundamental stuff. We become more adept at distinguishing the “map” from the “territory”. We see how our views (and those of people who oppose us), on a range of diverse topics (eg economics, international conflict, various social issues, etc), fit together from an internal “moral logic”. One example Lakoff provides to illustrate this is the question: Why, in the US, do conservative positions on, say, abortion, correlate with support for “punitive war” or capital punishment or opposition to social programmes for reducing child mortality? There’s no obvious, “rational” explanation – and no other field of research has seriously attempted to provide answers (especially not empirically-based ones).

Frame Semantics, metaphorical framing, the cognitive-linguistic mapping of “political” views (whatever you want to call it) gives us rich insights into how our “moral” and “political” concepts form and function at the “deeper” levels of what the researchers call the “cognitive unconscious“. To me, there’s a beautiful irony in Robert Jensen’s evaluation of this approach as “shallow”.

As noted above, Lakoff’s book deals directly with types of framing relevant to Jensen’s “fundamental” issues. Take the section on ‘Economic Freedom’ in which Lakoff writes at length on frames which form the ‘Economic Liberty Myth’ – ie the metaphorical rationale “behind” what Jensen calls the “structures of power” and “corporate capitalism”.

For example, this myth unites the following ideas in a complex moral frame:

  • “Free markets are natural and moral”
  • “Competition naturally maximises efficiency”
  • “Private industry is more efficient than government”
  • “Regulation reduces market efficiency”
  • “Everybody with sufficient discipline can succeed”
  • “Market discipline is natural; regulation is unnatural”

Lakoff shows how these moral-economic frames tend to accompany other ‘conservative’ positions on seemingly unrelated matters (eg foreign policy, war, “domestic” issues such as welfare, etc) in a systemic way. Unlike the rhetoric-heavy “radical” churnalism which is so often found on the pages of CounterPunch, it’s based to a large extent on empirical work, eg research in conceptual metaphor – a truly “radical” field (in the sense of new, original, groundbreaking and “getting to the roots” of things).

Perhaps if Lakoff hadn’t done this pioneering work – perhaps if he’d just stuck to repeating reified abstract terms (“structures of power”, “Power-elites”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, etc), and citing evidence which “confirms” the destructiveness of whatever we assign to these loose categories (not difficult to do) – then perhaps smart, radical guys like Robert Jensen would welcome him with open arms: One Of Us.

Written by NewsFrames

July 5, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Framing, distraction & “willpower”

“If quantum mechanics [metaphorical framing] hasn’t
profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet”.

— Niels Bohr (quote vandalism mine)

One of my overreaching aims for this blog is to spark enthusiasm & “eureka” moments. Unfortunately, familiarity with the term “framing” seems to give a false sense of “knowing all about it” for many people (especially busy journalists). Epiphanies (intellectual orgasms, sort of) will never occur with that bored, weary, “been there, done that” mindset – there are many new thrills and unpredictable insights to enjoy with this subject…

Particularly stimulating to me is recent scientific research on “willpower” and “self-control” – coming at it from my perspective of metaphorical framing, that is. “Willpower” is a Victorian metaphor which had (until recently) gone out of favour with psychologists:

As Victorians fretted over moral decay and the social pathologies concentrated in cities, they looked for something more tangible than divine grace, some internal strength that could protect even an atheist.
They began using the term willpower because of the folk notion that some kind of force was involved – some inner equivalent to the steam powering the Industrial Revolution.
(Baumeister & Tierney, ‘Willpower’)

The “force” and “energy” type metaphors (for ‘self-control’) have now come back into fashion among academics, it seems – thanks to some fascinating scientific research on “willpower depletion” (or “ego depletion”), etc. I’ll be summarising these findings in a short series of News Frames posts, but, meanwhile, if you have enough willpower to tear yourself away from Twitter and read a book, I’d recommend a couple of very readable popularisations of the topic: Willpower – Rediscovering our Greatest Strength, by Roy Baumeister & John Tierney, and Maximum Willpower: How to master the new science of self-control, by Kelly McGonigal.

Both books offer practical tips while giving an overview of the science. What they don’t do is join up with Lakoff-style research on cognitive semantics to provide a bigger and even more stimulating picture. That’s a picture I hope to modestly sketch out in a few articles (since nobody else seems to be doing it). As a taster: Lakoff has documented how we tend to think of self-control using metaphors of object control (eg inferences regarding forced movement of an object are applied to our abstract notion of “self”. This is noticeable in common expressions: “Have you been pushing yourself too hard lately?”).

“Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think”.
— Niels Bohr

And, of course, it all dovetails (with enough ingenuity or bluffing on my part) with the equally important topic of media distraction – and how it’s probably damaging your brain. Years ago – before I was aware of either Lakoff’s work or the new science on ‘willpower’ – I wrote a brief piece called The Distraction System for my Anxiety Culture project. In it, I use the phrase: “tap into a reservoir of potential concentration” – which, at the time, seemed a dubious metaphor (I liked the sound of it, so left it in). Baumeister’s recent work indicates that far from being dubious, the “reservoir of potential concentration” metaphor seems a good ‘fit’ for what the recent scientific research tells us about the processes involved.

More to follow on this topic…

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

May 30, 2012 at 12:47 pm