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Archive for the ‘George Lakoff’ Category

Populist right – the mass appeal of “strict father” framing

trump-top-compGeorge Lakoff’s book, Moral Politics, popularised the idea that ‘rightwing’ politics stem from a particular moral worldview, which Lakoff called “strict father framing”. Lakoff’s work unearthed, as it were, the cognitive root of prototypical “conservative” beliefs on a wide range of issues (from gun control to economics, from sex and abortion to war and the death penalty).

When I first read Moral Politics, it felt like a series of lightbulbs switching on inside my head. This was partly because I’d spent a lot of time modestly satirising ‘rightwing’ media views (eg for my Anxiety Culture zine), and I’d been particularly interested in tabloid newspaper obsessions with “spiralling crime”, “scroungers” and “red tape” obstructions to free-market “competitiveness” and “efficiency”. I didn’t know what united these particular ‘rightwing’ obsessions, but there seemed to be a common mindset behind them. Simply labelling them ‘rightwing’ or ‘conservative’ didn’t tell you what these views had as a common thread.

Lakoff’s cognitive theory seemed incredibly good at explaining and predicting the ways in which these views form – and how they all fit together – on all kinds of unrelated issues. The other side of the theory (nurturant framing), meanwhile, provided insights into my own ‘progressive’ views.

Why the rise of the populist right?

I’ve explained in a previous piece why I tend not to buy the “standard” explanations for the victories of Trump and Brexit. It’s not that mass hardship, inequality and animosity towards “establishment elites” (etc) aren’t big factors. It’s just that they don’t account for the mass appeal specifically of populist right (including hard-right) views. Over 60 million Americans voted for a billionaire who has expressed beliefs ranging from the ominously authoritarian to the violently fascist. This didn’t happen by default.

Before Brexit, in 2015, the Conservatives were voted back into UK government after years of painful economic austerity instituted by… the Conservatives. At the time, the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade documented how the rightwing press had “played a significant role in the Tory victory”. Although never expressed in the following terms, the role they played was to put a nationalist variant of “strict father” framing all over their front pages, regularly, on issues such as immigration, “stolen” jobs/benefits and interfering foreigners (eg EU bureaucrats). Meanwhile, Barack Obama said part of Trump’s success was down to “Fox News in every bar and restaurant in big chunks of the country”.

But beyond documenting mass discontent with the status quo and stating that the ‘rightwing’ media played a role, what else…?

No ‘leftwing’ model to explain ‘rightwing’ mass appeal?

For obvious reasons, most ‘left’/’liberal’ commentators don’t want to talk in terms of the “ignorance” or “stupidity” of the masses. They also don’t want to portray the majority as bigots (or “deplorables”), or patronisingly assert that the gullible public has been “brainwashed”. So what does that leave?

Most of the explanations I’ve read have simply concentrated on blaming “the liberal media”, the greed and aloofness of establishment elites, the failures of the Democratic campaign, the “liberal media”, the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton and the “liberal” media.

Did I mention “the liberal media”? I’m not even sure what that term commonly refers to anymore. Obviously something homogeneous and bad. Trump supporters, the ‘alt-right’, Corbynistas and the ‘radical’ left all seem to agree on the fungible awfulness of “the liberal media”.

But none of this explains the appeal of a specifically hard-right alternative. For that we need something else. Lakoff’s Moral Politics offers the best model that I’ve seen, to date, for understanding this phenomenon – and it has the advantage of being rooted in cognitive science. Even better, it gives us precise keys to understanding political language as well as worldviews. And it doesn’t require any postulating of mass stupidity, immorality or bigotry in order to account for the mass appeal of “the other side”.

I think the “strict father” frame thesis provides important clues to what is happening right now – crucial for the ‘progressive’ ‘left’ to understand. If you don’t have time to read Lakoff’s Moral Politics (or his shorter Don’t Think of an Elephant!), here’s my summary of how the “strict father” frame fits together. I’ve kept it non-technical and left out the jargony cognitive linguistics – it just gives an outline, a flavour of the frame itself…

The “strict father” frame

“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

Lakoff makes the case that conservative moral 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).

In the ‘strict father’ moral frame, the world is regarded as fundamentally dangerous and competitive. Good and bad are seen as absolutes, but children aren’t born good – they have to be made good through upbringing. 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.

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.

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.

‘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.

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. To give an example of how different moral hierarchies lead to conflicting political views, consider welfare. From the ‘progressive’ viewpoint, welfare is generally regarded as morally good – the notion of a social ‘safety net’ appeals to a moral hierarchy in which caring and compassion are primary values. Strict conservatism, on the other hand, tends to view welfare not just as an economic drain, but as immoral. You get a sense of this when it’s framed as “rewarding people for sitting around doing nothing”. Here are the steps in ‘strict’ moral logic which lead to the view that welfare is immoral:

1. “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).

2. “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”. 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.

trump_book3. “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. (Donald Trump uses typical ‘strict father’ framing on the issue of welfare. He believes that benefits discourage people from working: “People don’t have an incentive,” he said to Sean Hannity during his campaign. “They make more money by sitting there doing nothing than they make if they have a job.”).

“Might is right”

In ‘strict father’ 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”.

‘Erosion of values’ & ‘moral purity’

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

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? (This framing has taken scaremongering forms in the Brexit and Trump campaigns).

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

There’s a lot to fear from the perspective of ‘strictness morality’: the world’s a dangerous place, there’s immorality and “evil” lurking everywhere – an ever-present threat from the “foreign” and “alien”. And any weakness that you manifest will be punished. Even the good, decent people are competing ruthlessly with you, judging you for any failure.

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.

Rightwing media (tabloid newspapers, Fox News, etc) 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 us at a synaptic level. The fear/alarm framing receives continual reinforcement, triggering the ‘strict father’ worldview, making the model more active, more dominant in our brains.

Update (23/1/2017) – see George Lakoff’s comments on Trump’s inaugural speech. Lakoff says “Trump is a textbook example of Strict Father Morality”, but he also gives some clues on Trump’s weaknesses and how to defeat him (for example, Trump is already a “betrayer of trust” – seen as a big sin in strict father morality).

Written by NewsFrames

December 16, 2016 at 9:34 am

Facts, frames & “post-truth” politics

post-truth-top-compSome pointers on how frames fit into the debate about “post-truth”, “post-factual” politics, etc.

Frames vs “facts”

We think and reason using frames and metaphors. The consequence is that arguing simply in terms of facts—how many people have no health insurance, how many degrees Earth has warmed in the last decade, how long it’s been since the last raise in the minimum wage—will likely fall on deaf ears. That’s not to say the facts aren’t important. They are extremely important. But they make sense only given a context. (George Lakoff, Thinking Points; my bold emphasis)

Cognitive science tells us that when facts contradict a person’s worldview (their conceptual “framing” of various issues), the facts will probably be ignored and the frames/worldview kept. Knowing that frames typically trump facts doesn’t devalue facts. The knowledge just makes us more aware of what’s going on.

When a person’s conceptual frames don’t mesh well with evidential “reality”, the evidence that doesn’t fit the frame will likely be ignored, overlooked or dismissed. This way of “thinking” differs fundamentally from the classical view of “reason” as applied empirically (eg in scientific method) – in which factual evidence is allowed to challenge, refute and ultimately transform our beliefs about the world.

The lesson from this is that publicising the facts about any issue may not be sufficient to change people’s minds. And no political viewpoint has a monopoly on “objectivity”. Everyone tends to ignore or dismiss the facts which are inconvenient to their worldviews. And everyone tends to find an abundance of “evidence” or “proof” which supports their worldviews. These processes occur because of the way our brains conceptualise with metaphors and frames – resulting in the creation of our personal reality-tunnels, to which we become “attached” (in a physical sense, neurologically).

What can we do about this? We can attempt to become more aware of the process, and thereby make allowances for it – both in our own thinking, and in “reading” the messages we’re subjected to on a daily basis from the mass media.

“News” as story – not facts

No “newsworthy” event (or non-event) has “meaning” without a conceptual frame. We need frames to make sense of anything. As Lakoff et al point out, we don’t think in terms of neutral “facts” – our thoughts aren’t strung-together facts. We require frames to provide “meaning” to facts. Journalists instinctively know this; much of the “news” is presented as narrative frames – taking the form of a story (often with simplistic attribution of causes, heroes and villains, crisis, drama, etc).

How we tend to frame events will depend on our worldviews, our hierarchies of values, etc. Inevitably this will bring into play the “deep” moral frame structures in our psyches. When we read a newspaper story, however, a frame has already been selected for us in advance. If it’s a common news frame (ie one reinforced through repetition over many years), it may seem entirely normal, appropriate and “true” with respect to the “hard facts” (if any) reported. But at the same time it may induce a “tunneling” – or cognitive blinkering – effect, in which crucial “aspects” of the newsworthy event are excluded from our consciousness.

Example frame: “corporation”

This occurs not just with news “events”, but with political and social institutions and abstractions – and indeed any players, roles, entities, etc, involved in the news story. Consider, for example, the notion of a corporation or big firm. It’s an entity that features often in stories on jobs, in which the frame is perhaps “job creation” or “job loss”, etc. The corporation is the creator of jobs, the “engine of productivity”, etc, within that frame.

Now consider the frame favoured by, say, Noam Chomsky: corporations as unaccountable private tyrannies. Both of these frames (corporations as job-creators and corporations as private tyrannies) might be more or less “supported by the facts” – they’re both “true” in that sense. But, of course, they evoke (or invoke) two very different sets of ideas in our minds regarding the reality or “meaning” of corporations.

The way the “news” is often framed, through repetition, means that one set of “meanings” takes prominence over others. This isn’t “bias” in the usual, narrow sense in which media critics use that term. Neither is it primarily about battles between different sets of opposing “facts”. It’s more fundamental than that, and requires that we understand the new cognitive fields of frame semantics, conceptual metaphor and moral-values systems.

Media metaphors

Political frames are communicated by the seemingly everyday language of newspaper headlines and editorial copy. Metaphors activate (in our brains) the frames to which they belong, and this mostly occurs without us noticing.

Media metaphors structure our experience of “the news” and “public mood”, etc – but not just in the sense of “spin” or “propaganda”. Conceptual metaphor isn’t something that’s extraneous to “straightforward factual thinking”. Rather, it’s central to thought – without such metaphors, we couldn’t reason about complex social issues at all.

Newspaper headlines often use metaphors of direct causation 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, many rightwing ideologues regard any “move” towards “free market” economics as taking the “path” to democracy).

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. […] But rationalism also comes with several false theories of mind. […]

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. (George Lakoff, Thinking Points; my bold emphasis)

Written by NewsFrames

December 6, 2016 at 1:51 pm

Deeper into framing

excerpts-frame1-comp24 June 2016 – I have a lot more to say about media framing, but I’m taking an extended break from posting. For now, I leave you with some excerpts from my modest little book, Lazy Person’s Guide to Framing (the Kindle version of which is now available at an extremely reasonable price on Amazon).

I still see a common misunderstanding of framing – that it’s “just” a kind of respectable spin, all about language, slogans and persuasion. But it’s more about how we think and conceptualise. Metaphoric frames structure our ideas and concepts, yet our use of frames is mostly unconscious and automatic – which is why it seems crucial to get a better understanding of how they influence “public” thought and debate via the mass media.

I’ve chosen some excerpts from my book which point towards this “deeper” aspect of cognitive frames. (Actually, they’re excerpts from an earlier draft of the book – the final published version was edited and polished up) …

Excerpts

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.

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.

Repetition can embed frames in the brain, and frames define our “common sense”. Existing frames don’t change overnight. One thing you’ve probably already noticed in the mass media is repetition – the same phrases and notions are repeated over and over. It hardly matters whether you’re agreeing or disagreeing – what matters is that certain frames are used, while others are excluded. This reinforces certain worldviews – physically, in the brain – by strengthening neural connections in readers/listeners.

Frames vs “facts”

Cognitive science tells us that when facts contradict a person’s worldview (their conceptual “framing” of various issues), the facts will probably be ignored and the frames/worldview kept.

When a person’s conceptual frames don’t mesh well with evidential “reality”, the evidence that doesn’t fit the frame will likely be ignored, overlooked or dismissed. This leaves a partial, blinkered view of the “facts” – which reinforces the existing worldview. In extreme cases (eg the ideological belief that “market forces” always produce the optimum outcome for humanity) the high-level beliefs are sustained by ignoring or denying a large portion of the available low-level facts.

This way of “thinking” differs fundamentally from the classical view of “reason” as applied empirically (eg in scientific method) – in which factual evidence is allowed to challenge, refute and ultimately transform our beliefs about the world.

The lesson from this is that publicising the facts about any issue may not be sufficient to change people’s minds. And no political viewpoint has a monopoly on “objectivity”. Everyone tends to ignore or dismiss the facts which are inconvenient to their worldviews. And everyone tends to find an abundance of “evidence” or “proof” which supports their worldviews. These processes occur because of the way our brains conceptualise with metaphors and frames – resulting in the creation of our personal reality-tunnels, to which we become “attached” (in a physical sense, neurologically).

What can we do about this? We can attempt to become more aware of the process, and thereby make allowances for it – both in our own thinking, and in “reading” the messages we’re subjected to on a daily basis from the mass media.

What is conceptual metaphor?

A large part of our thinking is metaphorical, even at a basic level. For example, we generally think of “more” as “up”. We say, “the price has gone up”. This is a simple orientational metaphor, which is grounded in our experience of observing things rise as they increase (eg water in a container). But we also think of happiness as up, and sadness as down. Undecided is “up in the air”; decided is down, “settled”. We think of importance as up, eg “higher up in the firm”, and we “look down” on those we disapprove of. But there’s no necessary real-world connection between an upwards orientation and “happiness”, “undecided”, “important”, etc. The connection is metaphoric, but also synaptic – and mostly unconscious.

The cognitive scientist, George Lakoff, has catalogued in detail how certain metaphorical frames are repeated in politics to influence our opinions. His most commonly cited example is the phrase “tax relief” (which was repeated over and over by the George W Bush administration):

“When the word tax is added to relief, the result is a metaphor: Taxation is an affliction. And the person who takes it away is a hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy. This is a frame. It is made up of ideas, like affliction and hero.” [Lakoff, Don’t think of an elephant, p4]

Political frames (including corporate propaganda) are communicated by the seemingly everyday language of newspaper headlines and editorial copy. Metaphors activate (in our brains) the frames to which they belong, and this mostly occurs without us noticing.

Media metaphors

Media metaphor & "public mood" Media metaphors structure our experience of “the news” and “public mood”, etc – but not just in the sense of “spin” or “propaganda”. Take the Times headline (see image) as an example: “Women desert Tories as economic pain hits home”. Regardless of whether its claims are factually accurate, we’re given a series of metaphors shaping our thoughts in non-trivial ways  (the most basic of these, “hits”, is a primary metaphor for direct causation, which I look at in more detail later on). Without such metaphors, we couldn’t reason about complex social issues.

Newspaper headlines 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.

Conventional media criticism highlights the dangers of factual inaccuracy, distortion, misrepresentation, “spin”, “propaganda”, “bias”, etc. One might remove all these dangers, but still have a media which shapes thinking in a certain way. In fact, “balance” (or elimination of “bias”) often describes a single metaphorical frame – with “balanced” coverage between one side asserting the frame, and another negating it, or simply inverting it. (Negating a frame reinforces it, of course, as when Richard Nixon announced to the American people, “I’m not a crook,” prompting everyone to think of him in terms of a criminal frame).

More crucial than the “bias”/”balance” dichotomy (in framing terms, at least) is metaphorical pluralism – applying multiple metaphors/frames (ie diverse inferential structures) to a given issue. As individuals, most of us would probably recognise this as the “healthy norm” – it gives our thinking richness, and helps to prevent dogmatism, intolerance, etc. Mass media (and also, it should be said, some “alternative” media) tend to work against this pluralism – through metaphorical narrowing and repetition (a good example is media framing of the “unemployed” – on both right and left).

The cognitive unconscious

The new "unconscious"The term “cognitive” has two different meanings. In traditional philosophy, it refers only to conceptual or propositional thought. But in cognitive science, “cognitive” also includes physical, bodily processes which underlie our conscious experience, and all the mental operations involved in making sense of it. The vast majority of these processes and operations are “unconscious”.

This isn’t the Freudian or Jungian “unconscious” – it’s something new in scientific terms (research-wise, starting around the 1970s). It owes more to empirical research than to sexual/poetic insights (of Freud, Jung etc).

The “cognitive unconscious” has huge implications for philosophy and psychology. And also for “media studies”. Take, for example, newspaper headlines. More often than not, they consist of a mixture of metaphor and abstraction (as in the example, above left – an “establishment” [abstraction] “on the rack” [metaphor]. From these we construct a representational “reality” of sorts – courtesy of frames in our brains. But we’re generally not aware of our own creative role in this.

From the Western philosophical tradition, we’ve inherited a “faculty” theory of reason, which holds that reason is a separate faculty in its own right – separate from sense-perception, etc. This is supposedly what makes us “human”. Cognitive science has shown this to be false. To give one example, our fundamental concept of causality is shaped – shaped – by the fact we have muscles which we use to exert force.

We don’t, and can’t, have full control of the categories we use in our reasoning. Although we learn new categories, we can’t consciously make major changes to the main category systems forming our “cognitive unconscious”. 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 looking for bananas).

The extent to which metaphor structures our experience is one of the more staggering findings in cognitive science. Metaphor isn’t just about language; it’s how we think. We constantly import inferential structure from one conceptual “domain” to another – without being aware of the process. Without this metaphorical mapping, our thinking on any given topic would be practically non-existent.

Moral framing

“Time is money”, as described above, 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.

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”.

With his book, Moral Politics,  George Lakoff popularised the idea that conservative and progressive politics use different moral framing systems, both based on family metaphors. Some people find this “family” notion trite or reductive, but a deeper exploration of Lakoff’s thesis reveals it to be incredibly rich and successful at explaining and predicting the ways in which conservative and progressive views form – on all kinds of unrelated moral issues. For example, to take a USA case, what is the cognitive link between stereotypical conservative positions on abortion and, say, gun control? Lakoff’s thesis enables us to answer such questions.

“Family” frames

Lakoff makes the case that conservative moral 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.

Frames & 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.

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.

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.

‘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.

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.

Enemies everywhere, everything a threat

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.

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…

“News” & political frames

Any “newsworthy” event requires a conceptual frame in order for us to make sense of it. As some cognitive scientists point out, we don’t think in terms of neutral “facts” – our thoughts aren’t strung-together facts. We require frames to provide a “meaning” to facts (or, as Lakoff puts it, “we think and reason using frames and metaphors”). Journalists instinctively know this, which is why much of the “news” is presented as narrative frames – taking the form of a story (often with heroes and villains, crisis, drama, tragedy, etc).

How we tend to frame events will depend on our worldviews, our hierarchies of values, etc. Inevitably this will bring into play the “deep” moral frame structures in our psyches. When we read a newspaper story, however, a frame has already been selected for us in advance. If it’s a common news frame (ie one reinforced through repetition over many years), it may seem entirely normal, appropriate and “true” with respect to the “hard facts” (if any) reported. But at the same time it may induce a “tunneling” – or cognitive blinkering – effect, in which crucial aspects of the newsworthy event are excluded from our consciousness.

This occurs not just with news “events”, but with political and social institutions and abstractions – and indeed any players, roles, entities, etc, involved in the news story. Consider, for example, the notion of a corporation or big firm. It’s an entity that features often in stories on jobs, in which the frame is perhaps “job creation” or “job loss”, etc. The corporation is the creator of jobs, the “engine of productivity”, etc, within that frame. Now consider the frame favoured by, say, Noam Chomsky: corporations as unaccountable private tyrannies. Both of these frames (corporations as job creators and corporations as private tyrannies) might be more or less “supported by the facts” – they’re both “true” in that sense. But, of course, they invoke two very different sets of ideas in our minds regarding the reality or “meaning” of corporations.

News frames ensure, through repetition, that one set of “meanings” takes prominence over others. This isn’t “bias” in the usual, narrow sense in which media critics use that term. Neither is it primarily about battles between different sets of opposing “facts”. It’s more fundamental than that, and requires that we understand the new cognitive fields of frame semantics, conceptual metaphor and moral-values systems. I’ll now attempt to shed some light on this process by looking at some examples of UK media stories from the perspective of framing.

“Lazy consumers” & “benefit tourists”

I’ll start with a couple of new phrases – as the problem with old, well-established expressions of frame structures is that they tend to become invisible “common sense”, and thus more difficult to see as frames. The processes involved should be easier to see with new expressions.

Consumers too lazyOn the important topic of people not being able to afford their energy bills, the Times (17/9/2011) led with the “news” that a minister had an opinion about consumers. Specifically, Chris Huhne, then Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, said that, “Consumers must take some of the blame for high energy bills because they cannot be bothered to shop around for the best deals”.

Everyone who glanced at the Times headline (eg at the supermarket or newsagent) will have seen a message about “lazy consumers” which is not the result of a poll or a scientific study. It’s someone’s opinion, and it’s a frame. Alternative frames that weren’t used include: lack of transparency in fuel costs and overcharged consumers (which convey something about market failures). Ofgem (the regulator) talked of “consumers bamboozled by complex and unfair pricing”.

But the Times gives us “lazy consumers”. So, the implication is that the competitive market works just fine – it’s customer idleness that’s to blame. A standard “left” response to this might be that it’s biased corporate “propaganda” – indeed the Labour party focused on “profiteering energy companies”. The old (non-frames) style of media criticism would perhaps use facts and figures in an attempt to show that the Times piece was misleading or fallacious. But, suppose the facts and figures do demonstrate that there’s a sizeable reduction in fuel bills to be achieved by “shopping around”, and that only a small percentage of people use the cheapest suppliers at any given time?

Looking at it from a framing perspective, we can immediately see that the “laziness” moral frame is perhaps the key aspect. This taps into (and reinforces) existing political narratives which equate financial difficulty with laziness or “lack of enterprise”. Less obviously, it also invokes the authoritarian or “strict father” moral system in our brains – on a subject which otherwise might more “naturally” elicit sympathy and concern.

The “lazy consumers” framing completely excludes one possibility – which is that many people are too busy, too overworked, too burdened with more pressing problems, to sit down and change their energy suppliers on a regular basis (regular enough to keep up with the fast-changing market). Note that if you substitute the word “lazy” with “overworked”, you get “overworked consumers”, which makes no sense, as it doesn’t fit any existing frame (people are overworked, consumers simply shop). One could write a book about the “consumer” frame in its own right, but it’s sufficient to note here that combined with “laziness” it triggers the strict-judgmental moral system.

"Benefits tourists"

A different expression, but one which activates the same high-level moral system in our brains, is “benefit tourists”. This is a relatively new formulation, which I first noticed in the headlines in 2010. The fact that it has become a well-established political and media phrase over the course of just a few years indicates that it’s easily comprehended in terms of existing frame structure (eg the combination of the “welfare” and “cheating” frames).

“Brussels sues UK to let in ‘benefit tourists’” — Daily Telegraph, 30 September 2011

“An open door to benefit tourists: EU warns Britain it can’t stop thousands more migrants claiming welfare handouts” — Daily Mail, 28 September 2010

“Plan to curb ‘benefit tourism’ … David Cameron announces a crackdown” — BBC News, 27 November 2013

“Tourist” is, of course, a frame in its own right. There are clearly defined roles and scenarios in the tourist frame: A tourist isn’t looking for work; a tourist is not from around here; a tourist seeks pleasure, a tourist is travelling, a tourist is not escaping from hardship or persecution, or building a new life; a tourist is exploring, sight-seeing or relaxing (ie not looking for work), and perhaps she/he wears sunglasses and a stupid grin.

On the level of facts, some studies have found “benefit tourism” to be largely a myth. Dominic Casciani, a BBC Home Affairs correspondent, cites some of this research (BBC News, 27 November 2013). He asked what the evidence was for widespread benefit tourism, and concluded:

“The answer is that there is very little – and it is an extremely complex picture. That does not mean that benefit tourism doesn’t exist – but what’s clear is that the evidence points strongly in the direction that people migrate to find work or for family reasons. They are less likely to up sticks to cross borders – or even continents – just for a weekly giro.” Dominic Casciani, BBC News, 27 November 2013

Of course, this won’t stop newspapers headlining with the phrase. Every time they use the word, “tourist”, they activate a frame whose unstated inferences (about the motives and behaviours of migrants who receive benefits) reinforce the ‘strict’ conservative moral worldview.

“Flatlined” economy

"Flatlined" economyAnother expression that’s become widespread in recent years is economic “flatlining”.  The Guardian, for example, used the headline (6/10/2011): “PM tells Britain ‘to show some fight’ as economy flatlines”.

“Flatlined” is a medical metaphor for clinical death. When mapped onto economic metaphors of “flatness” (“flat” growth, “flat” demand, etc) we have a frame. The frame affects how we think about “the economy”. Labour minister, Harriet Harman, used the “flatlining” metaphor in BBC’s Question Time (22/9/2011) in a revealing context. An audience member had queried the premise that economic “growth” was necessary. Harman replied by saying the deficit can’t be cut “if the economy is flatlining”. She didn’t expand on this.

In a way, Harriet Harman didn’t need to expand, because the frame provided its own set of inferences: lack of growth is “flatness”, and “flatness” is death, and death is to be avoided. The inferences here are metaphorical, unstated and unconscious. Excluded (by metaphor, not by conscious thought) is consideration of the ways in which a lack of economic “growth” might be beneficial.

Note that “flatness” is not literal in any economic sense. It’s a metaphor enabling us to think about statistical abstractions – it appears only on graphical representations of accumulations of data. We need such metaphors in order to be able to think at all about complex or abstract issues – but we also need to be aware of the consequences of using a particular metaphorical frame. What does it focus our attention on? What does it hide? What inferences does the metaphor smuggle in under our noses?

Worldviews & “deep” frames

In previous chapters, I’ve provided an overview of moral frame structures, and given some examples of common headline frames. I’m now going to explore two of the biggest “stories” of the 21st century, to date, from the perspective of “deep” frames-based worldviews.

The Iraq war, which began in 2003, and the 2008 global financial collapse were so momentous and calamitous that it seems absurd to think of them as mere “stories” – as if narrative structure can be imposed on all the complex ways in which countless millions of lives have been affected. And, yet, such frames (eg simple moral narratives) were – and still are – used to “explain” and “report” the causes, effects and resulting aftermaths.

We weren’t brought up to think in terms of frames, metaphors and different moral worldviews. We tend to acquire, instead, the idea that there is only one “common sense”, and that it is (or should be) more or less the same for every sane, rational person. Of course, this is a false notion. Common sense is determined by the “deep” cognitive frames that we acquire, and what one person regards as “common sense”, another may regard as ideology or immorality. With issues such as the financial crisis and the Iraq war, views are often polarised, with each side talking past each other, not understanding each other, and ultimately regarding each other as either deluded, dishonest or just fundamentally evil. And yet the people on different sides do have one important thing in common: they see their own positions as essentially rational and morally right.

So, a progressive-leaning person may wonder: How can those on the right see themselves as having a rational, moral position on the economy, austerity, Iraq, etc? That’s a question I’ll attempt to answer in the next two chapters. [Those chapters aren’t included in these excerpts].

Framing vs “Orwellian language”
– the fallacy of Enlightenment reason

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”
– George Orwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the main ideas I want this book to get across is the link between fear-inducing framing and “authoritarian” moral systems. I’ve already described how the “strict father” morality depends on – and promotes – a view of the world as essentially dangerous and threatening. Of course, there are genuine large-scale threats (international conflicts, natural and man-made disasters, etc) to be faced, but the fearmongering frames one sees most often in the media – especially in the rightwing tabloid press – typically concern things which many people consider to be “closer to home”. It’s these frames – and their effects – that I’ll explore in the concluding chapter.

Written by NewsFrames

June 19, 2016 at 12:28 am

UPDATES – Overweening Generalist, ‘Degrowth’, RAW, ‘ego depletion’

I’ve combined a couple of “Updates” posts into one here (as the menu was getting a bit messy).

April 18, 2016:-

1. A new piece from one of my favourite websites, the Overweening Generalist blog, which comments on (among other things) an article I wrote about Robert Anton Wilson and George Lakoff (the longer version of the piece published at Disinfo.com).

It contains some brilliant observations and comments – give it a read: George Lakoff and Robert Anton Wilson and the Primacy of Metaphors (Overweening Generalist)

2. I’ve just seen a new paper from Ecological Economics journal (April 2016), from Stefan Drews and Miklós Antal, titled Degrowth: A “missile word” that backfires? It discusses the “degrowth” campaign/slogan from the perspective of cognitive framing, and references a piece that I wrote on the subject. Full text (PDF) here.

April 8, 2016:-

1. My Disinfo.com article about Robert Anton Wilson was originally much longer than the one I submitted to Disinfo. I’ve posted the original, longer piece (over 2,000 words) right here, along with a much bigger image.

2. I’ve previously written about “ego depletion”, a seemingly well-supported phenomenon in psychological studies (Daniel Kahnemen cites the work in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow). But as this fascinating new article claims, “An influential psychological theory, borne out in hundreds of experiments, may have just been debunked”.

Nassim Taleb commented on Twitter, ‘Fortune tellers are about 50% right. With psychology it seems worse. Hypocritical to call this “science”‘. That seems an interesting debate in its own right. Input/feedback welcome, as always…

Rather than leave you hanging on that question of whether psychology should be considered science, I’ll give you a few links with some quality input:

  1. A discussion on BBC Radio 3 between Rupert Read and Keith Laws, which tackles this question. Starts 35 minutes in, and I found it fascinating (the debate continued on Twitter, and Rupert made some interesting comments on that debate here).
  2. Since this debate brings up figures such as Popper and Kuhn, why not invite the whole party, to get an idea of what’s going on – Feyerabend, Lakatos and others are here at this Overweening Generalist piece. (It even includes a reference to Robert Anton Wilson, making it more topical with regard to my other update, above. Not bad, considering.)

Written by NewsFrames

April 18, 2016 at 11:21 am

RAW: new article for Disinfo

22 March 2016 I’ve written an article for disinfo.com about the resurgence of interest in Robert Anton Wilson’s ideas. As well as looking at a couple of new RAW-related books, it continues the theme I’ve already written (briefly) about – on the harmoniousness between RAW’s mutiple-model neurosemantics and Lakoff’s Frame Semantics.

I shortened it from my original 2,000 words to 1,200 (which is Disinfo’s preferred maximum article length), but I’m pleased with the result, and think you’ll enjoy it. (The accompanying photo is of my Robert Anton Wilson “stash”). Here is the article:

http://disinfo.com/2016/03/raw-resurgence/

raw-photo-disinfo-comp

Written by NewsFrames

March 22, 2016 at 11:11 am

Lakoff on “growth” & “degrowth” frames

growth-degrowth-postgrowthGeorge Lakoff was recently asked if he thought economic “degrowth” framing was any use, and he immediately replied: “No, it isn’t…” (the video is here – Lakoff’s comment starts 49/50 minutes in). I originally wrote the following article for OpenDemocracy as a readable, non-technical summary of “growth” and “degrowth” frames. I repost it here now, as it sheds light on Lakoff’s recent brief comments…

Outside governments and corporations, the pursuit of economic growth is no longer taken for granted – some commentators are challenging the orthodoxy. But the “growth” concept has deep roots, and in its absence we have what George Lakoff calls “hypocognition”, a lack of established frames enabling us to think differently about the economy.

The “growth” frame shapes economic thinking along metaphoric lines – “natural” organic growth being the source of the “more is growth” metaphor. As Michael White points out (in Metaphor and economics: the case of growth), this isn’t just a convention of language: “[W]hen economists and journalists deal with economic performance, the metaphoric sense of growth is highly active”.

What this means is that various ideas are imported automatically – and largely unconsciously – from the “growth” metaphor into our attempts to think quantitatively about “the economy”. For example:

  1. Growth tends to be conceptualised as natural and good. This deeply positive sense is universal, and is imported into our conception of quantitative increase in economics via the metaphor. It’s not just a superficial “surface language” matter.
  2. Conversely, absence of growth is conceptualised as bad and unnatural – eg due to adverse conditions, or to interference with the natural process. The list of examples of economic metaphor expressing this fundamentally negative, unnatural aspect of “no-growth” seems endless in our culture. One interesting example is economic “flatlining”, in which “flat growth” metaphorically signifies death. The negative connotations of no-growth aren’t overt here – they’re entailments of the metaphor.

So deeply established is the “natural growth” metaphor (and its negative obverse) that we might find it hard to think in positive terms about “the economy” without it. Or, as Anna Gustafsson puts it (in The Metaphor Challenge of Future Economics), “We may even have difficulties in conceptualizing a society not built upon growth; this is visible in our language.”

Both “growth” and “the economy” are what Lakoff calls ontological metaphors. They enable us to think about multifarious phenomena (eg all the things “of value” that people do) in terms of “discrete entities or substances of a uniform kind”. The price we pay is to be stuck with crude, reductive logic, eg growth/no-growth. And it doesn’t help much to change the definition of “Gross Domestic Product” (GDP), or to divide “the economy” into sectors – it simply applies the same logic to slightly different, or smaller, entities.

Of course, there have been many conventional criticisms of GDP as a “measure” – eg that it confuses different types of “growth”, and doesn’t reflect (unequal) distribution, environmental damage, etc. These criticisms have been around for a while – some of them were made by Simon Kuznets, the economist who originally developed the ideas behind GDP. “Economic growth” was first adopted by governments as national policy objective after the introduction of GDP (1940s-1950s) – not for its own sake, but as an approach towards achieving “full employment”. Peter Victor, an ecological economist, has argued (Nature, 18/11/2010) that because “growth”, as a government objective, is a relatively new notion, “dethroning it seems less improbable.”

From a cognitive frames perspective, that seems optimistic. “Growth” is a “deep frame” – its use in economics goes back at least as far as 18th century classical economics (although not as government policy). But, most significantly, it’s been a key feature of business propaganda for decades, since political strategists first noticed that “economic growth” and market ideology are mutually reinforcing. That means the frame has been hammered into our skulls relentlessly – in all kinds of ways, without pause – for much of our lives.

“Growth” frame reinforces market logic

Market ideology holds profit maximisation to be a moral good, and interference in the market (eg by government) to be a moral ill. Both notions combine easily with the “economic growth” frame. Firstly, with the idea of total increase as a “natural” good, regardless of the divisions, characteristics or manner of distribution of that increase; and, secondly, of interruptions or interferences with “growth” viewed as unnatural and inherently nefarious.

Market logic on labour is reinforced by the notion of “growth”, also. This regards labour as “a natural resource or commodity, on a par with raw materials”, to quote Lakoff and Johnson (Metaphors we live by), who argue that uniformity – or interchangeability – is implied by the metaphor of labour as material resource. Overall “productivity growth” is the criterion – the well-being of the worker doesn’t enter into the equation.

Another aspect of market ideology reinforced by the “growth” frame is the heroic individualist entrepreneur fairy tale. “Growth” as a personal or individual-business metaphor seems unproblematic, but when we conceive of “the economy” as an object with an attribute of “growth”, the entrepreneur idea extends to it “naturally” because of the “good growth” frame. This is the myth that practically all “growth” comes from entrepreneurial enterprise, which is heroically fighting against “unnatural” interference (eg from “do-gooders”, Green activists, etc).

In fact, corporate market ideology and “economic growth” framing seem so closely intertwined that the mutual reinforcement appears seamless and invisible – unless it’s pointed out. Perhaps the most obvious example for most people would be “trickle-down economics” – the idea that as long as “the economy” is “growing”, all those minor inconveniences like mass poverty and corporate monopoly will “naturally” sort themselves out.

“Degrowth” and “post-growth”

The labels, “degrowth” and “post-growth”, obviously express little more than negation of “growth”. Lakoff advises that direct negation of a frame merely activates that frame, although this might seem like a trite formula to those who fervently oppose any further “economic growth”. And judging by the frequent use of these “de-” and “post-” terms in Green projects and proposals, Lakoff’s advice has either been overlooked or misunderstood. As a result, the negating labels tend to communicate the very idea of “growth” that market ideology thrives on.

A better frame? – Wealth as well-being

“[T]here is a crucial movement toward a new economics – an economics of well-being, in which the Gross Domestic Product is replaced by an overall indicator of well-being. This new perspective is directly counter, in many ways, to the narrowly imagined concept of economic growth.” (George Lakoff, Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment)

Promoting an economics based on well-being and its indicators has the advantage, from a cognitive frames perspective, that wealth as well-being is a very deeply rooted – and universal – metaphoric frame. Our original conceptions of “wealth” are inseparable from expressions of well-being. The problems of hypocognition posed by negation of “growth” thus seem partly averted when we shift our economic focus onto well-being.

To give a ‘concrete’ example: Work evaluated in terms of the well-being of the worker, as opposed to employment policy made on the sole basis of boosting “growth”. If economic ends are primarily framed in terms of well-being, not abstract “growth”, this makes sense. The subjective experience of the worker is barely considered at all by governments and corporations fixated on “growth”. With well-being central to economic thinking, things like leisure and quality of life “naturally” come to the fore – they’re assigned a value that was always excluded by the “economic growth” frame.

Written by NewsFrames

December 7, 2015 at 1:06 am

Tabloid stereotypes – typifying classes by worst-cases

Daaily_Express-19-09-2014Sept 19, 2014 –Today’s Daily Express headline is a particularly nasty example of an irresponsible tabloid practice. Most people would probably (and rightly) think of it as demonisation of a class of people – by constant publication of nightmare cases whose attributes are in no way typical of the class (“migrants”, “benefit claimants”, etc) assigned by the newspaper.

Apologists for the Express might argue that the headline is factually correct (assuming the details have been reported correctly). But the point is how “facts” and “news” about sensational single cases can be framed in a way that distorts probability judgments, warps logic and incites hatred/fear regarding the class of people referred to.

Prototype Theory: distorting our judgments

Prototype Theory, in cognitive science, looks at the internal structure of categories/classes, and how single class members can stand for the class itself. It offers a useful explanation of what’s going on here (ie how the Express is fucking with our heads, precisely).

Our minds create various kinds of prototype for a given category/class. For example, a typical case, an ideal case and a nightmare case. We tend to use the “typical case” prototype in our inferences about what we consider “normal” (eg statistically, probabilistically) for a category, or class, of people.

Problems arise with something called a “salient exemplar” (a well-known case that stands out for us, for various reasons – including sensationalist media coverage. The tabloids are full of them). The salient exemplar tends to distort our probability judgments about a given class of people if it’s conflated with, or affects our perceptions of, the “typical case”. This can happen quickly, and without much conscious awareness – eg as a result of the repeated media coverage (of the salient exemplar), we have “reflex” associations and responses to the “migrant” frame.

The Express (and it’s not just the Express) knows it would get into trouble with a “KILLER BLACK”, “KILLER GAY” or “KILLER JEW” headline. But it knows it can get away with “KILLER MIGRANT”, just as it knows that it can get away with portraying the class of “welfare recipients” in terms of the “vile” “cheat” salient exemplar. The examples are endless – see my Curious repeating headlines in the Daily Express for a selection).

It isn’t new, of course. Lakoff (in The Political Mind) discusses the uproar that started in 1976, when Ronald Reagan referred to a “Welfare Queen” who had supposedly received $150,000 in government handouts and was driving a “Welfare Cadillac”. As it turned out, nobody could find this person – it appeared to be a made-up stereotype. As Lakoff puts it, “Reagan made the invented Welfare Queen into a salient exemplar, and used the example in discourse as if it were the typical case.” (The Political Mind, p160)

Misleading Vividness fallacy

I mentioned, above, how sensationalist tabloid framing warps logic regarding classes of people. There’s a fallacy in logic known as “Misleading Vividness“, eg the belief that the occurrence of a particularly vivid event (eg a terrorist bombing) makes such events more likely, despite statistical evidence indicating otherwise. Misleading Vividness has strong psychological effects because of a cognitive heuristic called the availability heuristic. There’s a lot of material already available on cognitive heuristics (as a result of the popularity of the work of Daniel Kahneman and others). I think it would be a fruitful area of research to combine this field with that studied by Lakoff et al, particularly with emphasis on media coverage and its effects. In the words of Nassim Taleb (quoted by New Scientist some time ago), media coverage is “destroying our probabilistic mapping of the world”.

 

Written by NewsFrames

September 19, 2014 at 1:00 pm