George 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 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 mass 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.
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.
3. “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).
Some 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.
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, 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)
23 Nov 2016 – On Twitter, I’d predicted victories for Trump and Brexit. Nothing clever about that – you only had to open your eyes to the mass appeal of populist ‘right’ framing (what Lakoff calls the “strict father” view) and take seriously the influence of the seemingly absurd elements of the mass media that have reinforced this framing over decades.
Anti-liberalism rising… on the ‘left’
Large sections of the US/UK ‘left’ have been looking elsewhere – mostly occupied with critiquing the “status-quo” “liberal” establishments and media. It’s often difficult to distinguish this common strand of ‘left’ framing from populist-right rhetoric, and I see the ominous consolidation of a populist anti-liberal consensus, whose hyper-generalised assertions tend to benefit demagogues.
Here’s an example of what I mean, from an RT.com article by John Wight:
This is why no one should mourn the demise of the Western liberal order either in the US or across Europe. It has failed, and failed utterly, destroying communities and decimating the lives of millions at home, while creating chaos and instability across the world.
While Donald Trump’s election may not be the solution to all the damage and chaos wrought, it resounds as a rejection of cultural values that amount to lecturing a man on his lack of political correctness and manners while he is drowning in a swamp with no way out. (John Wight, RT.com, 14/11/2016)
Many influential commentators have taken a similar line. I’ll focus on examples from Glenn Greenwald and Wikileaks (Julian Assange) in what follows.
A few important points to remember:
Firstly, the rightwing conservative perspective on various issues is deeply held and very common among so-called “ordinary people” (ie non-elite rabble like you and me). As Lakoff writes, “There are at least tens of millions of conservatives in America who share strict father morality and its moral hierarchy. Many of them are poor or middle class…”. And, as a study that used YouGov survey data found, around half of Britons have “authoritarian populist” views.
Secondly, these conservative/”strict father”/authoritarian beliefs generally don’t arise out of a reaction to, rejection of, or animosity towards liberalism or liberal elites. Rather, the latter (rejection of liberal values/institutions) is typically a corollary of holding rightwing/conservative beliefs. This is explained at length in Lakoff’s book, Moral Politics.
Consider that much of Trump’s popularity arises not from “the failure of liberal establishments”, but from the fact that he expresses certain populist-right beliefs forcefully and without shame.
To put it another way, consider that the successes of Trump and Brexit resulted primarily from the culmination of decades of powerful reinforcement of rightwing frames (including animosity towards liberal “political correctness” on issues such as immigration, etc). Actual failures of “the liberal establishment” may have been factors too, although presumably they were also present as factors when Obama was elected on two occasions.
A lot of people – from Paul Dacre, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump (on the right) to Glenn Greenwald, John Pilger and Julian Assange (on the left) – have explained the Brexit and Trump victories in terms of a revolt by “ordinary people” against establishment elites – and particularly against “liberal elite” media.
Although widespread anger, frustration, etc, seemed obvious factors in the voting, I find this notion of mass revolt, or “backlash”, specifically against “liberal media” and “liberal institutions” to be unsupported by the evidence. I’ve read all the polls and studies I can find, but I see nothing in them to support this view (although that doesn’t necessarily make the view wrong).
Those making these claims – usually media types themselves – have a certain relationship (or obsession) with parts of the media which they seem to project onto the general public. Glenn Greenwald, for example, writes at length about the “petulant”, “self-serving”, “condescending”, “smug”, “self-satisfied” (etc) liberal-establishment media. It seems a valid enough subjective take on elements of that media, but Greenwald supposes that not only do masses of voters think and feel the same way, but that they base their voting choice on this supposed rebellious feeling towards an aloof establishment and commentariat.
Long before Glenn Greenwald “explained” the Brexit (and, later, Trump) victories in these terms, I heard the same “explanation” from Nigel Farage (UKIP) and Paul Dacre (Daily Mail editor). It was the routine response from Farage, Dacre, et al, whenever they were accused of fomenting xenophobia and bigotry.
Here’s an example from Paul Dacre (the framing, to my mind, is strikingly similar to Greenwald’s later piece on Brexit):
[…] the Mail constantly dares to stand up to the liberal-left consensus that dominates so many areas of British life and instead represents the views of the ordinary people who are our readers and who don’t have a voice in today’s political landscape and are too often ignored by today’s ruling elite.
The metropolitan classes, of course, despise our readers […] These people mock our readers’ scepticism over the European Union […] They scoff at our readers who, while tolerant, fret that the country’s schools and hospitals can’t cope with mass immigration.
In other words, these people sneer at the decent working Britons. (Paul Dacre, ‘Why is the left obsessed by the Daily Mail, Guardian, 12/10/2013)
Rhetoric works best if it contains at least a small element of truth. With repetition and reinforcement, the small “truth” becomes a bigger, more generalised, widely applied and accepted explanation of things. I never bought this “ordinary people” rhetoric from Dacre or Farage, and I’m unlikely to start buying it from popular voices on the left.
My experience as part of “the masses”
Where I live and roam in the UK (North West England and North Wales), the “liberal media” seems relatively invisible, eclipsed by the tabloids. Not only is there no mass backlash against “the liberal media”, there seems to be no “mass” awareness of it at all – it doesn’t appear to be on people’s radar. Perhaps the closest thing to a mass audience getting agitated at the UK “liberal media” is the reaction that (I imagine) occurred when Eddie Izzard repeatedly interrupted Nigel Farage on BBC1’s Question Time.
On the other hand, I imagine that masses of people get angry or annoyed when they read in the Daily Mail about the latest “barmy liberal political correctness”. But that’s not the actual “liberal media” they’re getting mad about – it’s mostly an invention created by the Daily Mail, which “the masses” are reading about in the Daily Mail.
Ask a random person at the bus-stop for their views on Brexit (as I did on numerous occasions) and nine times out of ten you hear the framing of the Daily Mail, Express or Sun regurgitated back to you. That doesn’t mean uniformity of opinion in terms of agreeing or disagreeing, pro- or anti-, etc. It means the issues on people’s minds, and the terms in which those issues are discussed, tend to reflect what’s in their faces on a daily basis. The tabloids are everywhere in-your-face – their print circulation dwarfs the so-called “liberal” newspapers. In addition, masses of people are exposed to their front pages at supermarkets and newsagents. For every reader of the “liberal” Guardian there are at least 23 readers of the rightwing tabloids (Sun, Daily Mail, Express).
UK media & Brexit
If Glenn Greenwald’s sweeping attribution of views and feelings to UK/US voters appears unsupported, his claim of a UK media “united against Brexit” is demonstrably wrong. Here’s what he wrote:
Though there were some exceptions, establishment political and media elites in the U.K. were vehemently united against Brexit, but their decreed wisdom was ignored, even scorned. (Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, 25/6/2016)
The exact opposite appears to be true. The Sun, Daily Mail, Express, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph were all in favour of Brexit. Counting the dailies (not Sunday editions), that’s over 65% of the circulation of national UK newspapers campaigning for Britain to leave the EU.
According to a study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which looked at 928 articles focused on the referendum, over a two-month period, “45% were in favour of leaving, with only 27% in favour of staying in the EU (19% of articles focused on the referendum were categorised as ‘mixed or undecided’ and 9% as adopting no position.)”
The Reuters Institute adds:
Positions vary greatly between newspapers. The Daily Mail included the most pro-leave articles followed by The Daily Express, The Daily Star, The Sun and The Daily Telegraph, while the newspapers including the most pro-remain articles were, in order, The Daily Mirror, The Guardian and The Financial Times.
It seems staggering that Glenn Greenwald’s long piece on Brexit doesn’t even mention the role of the rightwing tabloids in influencing the framing of the EU debate. This had been an important factor not only in the run-up to the referendum, but for years prior, in the form of regular headlines focusing on the EU and migrants in relentlessly negative terms.
The idea that the referendum result in favour of Brexit resulted from a popular rebellion against a UK media that was “vehemently united against Brexit” seems one of the most bizarre inversions of what we know, empirically, that I’ve ever read from a respected journalist on the ‘left’.
US media & the presidential election
Greenwald was on slightly better-supported ground when he said “The U.S. media is essentially 100 percent united, vehemently, against Trump”. This is another overgeneralisation, but at least it’s in the right direction (US newspaper endorsements for Hillary Clinton apparently dwarfed those for Donald Trump).
It’s interesting to note, however, that prior to the US election, Greenwald, Assange and others claimed that with a media and establishment “united against” him, Trump wouldn’t be permitted to win. Those are Julian Assange’s actual words (in an interview with John Pilger): “Trump would not be permitted to win”. Incidentally, Greenwald’s quote, in full (my bold emphasis), was: “The U.S. media is essentially 100 percent united, vehemently, against Trump, and preventing him from being elected president.”
Wikileaks’s Twitter stream, meanwhile, seemed like a de-facto branch of Trump’s campaign. Virtually its entire output, for long periods, consisted of attacks on Hillary Clinton and reinforcements of a generalised anti-liberal framing. When someone asked Wikileaks if they’d be pleased if Trump won, this was their response:
After asserting that the US media was preventing Trump from winning, Glenn Greenwald had to use a different logic to explain why Trump won (my bold emphasis):
And so, when people saw the media basically trying to coerce them or dictate to them that they should turn their backs on Donald Trump, that they should vote for Hillary Clinton, I think a backlash ensued, where people believed that the media was being unfair, and were not going to you take marching orders from these media institutions, that they also have come to regard as fundamentally corrupt. And, unwittingly, I think that played an important role, as well, in ensuring that he could win. (Glenn Greenwald, Democracy Now!, 10/11/2016)
So, rather than preventing Trump from winning, the US media “played an important role” in ensuring that he could win (by being so coercively and unfairly united against Trump, that “a backlash ensued” from the “people”). It’s pretty much the same logic that Greenwald used to explain the Brexit victory.
Meanwhile, I haven’t seen any empirical support for Greenwald’s claims that the Trump and Brexit victories were caused largely by a voter backlash against a “condescending” establishment media. Of course, that hasn’t stopped this narrative from being widely published, circulated and adopted as the “truth” by pundits across the political spectrum.
One can see why the notion is so appealing. Few people (even among liberal elites) would deny that it has at least a small degree of truth to it. And it avoids the “Trump’s supporters are all bigots” nonsense, while freeing us from the need to find another explanation for Trump’s mass popularity. Last, but not least, it appeals to a strand of anti-liberal sentiment which is already present on both ‘right’ and ‘left’.
In fact, if I were Vladimir Putin, it’s the very narrative I’d instruct my covert western media operatives to disseminate. (That’s a joke).
I have a lot of time for insightful ‘left’ critiques of ‘liberal’ media/institutions – just as long as they’re not the hyper-generalised, hackneyed kind of critiques that depend on crude reifications of “ordinary people” against homogeneous “elites” (I counted no less than 44 uses of the words “elite” and “elites” in Greenwald’s Brexit article*). The “people vs elites” frame (particularly when it’s associated with generalised contempt for “liberal” establishments and media, as is often the case in the Trump/Brexit contexts) seems to be most popular – and most effective – with populist-right movements (not just in the US/UK).
Which is why I find it so ironic (and perplexing) that Glenn Greenwald would write the following:
Elite denunciations of the right-wing parties of Europe fall on deaf ears. Elites can’t stop, or even affect, any of these movements because they are, at bottom, revolts against their wisdom, authority, and virtue. [My bold emphasis]
Is that really what these movements are, at bottom – revolts against elites? Do they not have other, more relevant, defining characteristics? Do people really sign up in droves to particularly rightwing movements and demagogues specifically because of the failures of establishment elites?
A combination of common sense, modest knowledge of cognitive frames, and some empirically based findings on Brexit/Trump voting preferences, tells me that this is not the main reason why people choose to support the hard right. One of the more interesting findings on reasons for voting preferences comes from Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at University of London, who analysed vote “predictors” – ie qualities which tell us whether someone was likely to vote in favour of Brexit, Trump, etc.
Kaufmann looked at data from the EU referendum and the US presidential primaries, and found that knowing a person’s income or class would only marginally increase the probability with which you could predict how they’d vote. In other words, inferences about voting patterns made from these basic demographics tend to be feeble at best. However, knowing something about a person’s values and attitudes (as opposed to their material circumstances) considerably increased the probability that you could predict how they’d vote. Two of the biggest predictors were a person’s attitude towards immigration and their view on the death penalty. (These attitudes, incidentally, correlate with whether a person has a strong “strict father” moral outlook, in Lakoff’s model).
One obvious way of interpreting this is that the likelihood of someone voting in favour of Brexit (or Trump) is not a measure of how badly they’ve been materially affected by the failure of elites. It’s not primarily about whether they’re the “left behind” class, the “people with nothing to lose”. On the contrary, it’s more about whether they have conservative or “strict father”/authoritarian beliefs.
Given such an interpretation of the findings, the question should perhaps be: What is it that so powerfully reinforces these ‘rightwing’ authoritarian beliefs in our society – to the point where institutions, and even our notions of “common sense”, are shifting so dangerously?
To quote Lakoff, from The Political Mind:
It is time to give a name to a practice that conservatives have engaged in for the past three decades but progressives have not. The practice is “cognitive policy.” A cognitive policy is the policy of getting an idea into normal public discourse, which requires creating a change in the brains of millions of people. […]
It is explicit, well organized, and well funded. Its aim is to change brains in a conservative direction. And it has been working.
* Including some occurrences of the word in quotes from others included by Greenwald.
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:
- 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).
- 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.)
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:
Having followed all kinds of critiques of “the media” since the 1980s, I suspect the criticism has evolved less than the media itself – at least in its prevalent forms. Each day, dire press “coverage” (or “propaganda”, “churnalism”, “a clown show” – take your pick) reminds us of the need for media criticism which isn’t as tribal – or stupid – as the media it scrutinises, yet we seem stuck with the simple-minded binary tropes we had 30 years (and more) ago: bias vs balance, public vs elites, corporate vs independent, right vs left, etc.
So, what the hell’s going on?
I see the term “sub-Chomskyan” used sometimes by those on the “right” who dislike the famous MIT professor’s politics, and occasionally by “left”-leaning commentators fed up with a genre of writing which reads like a sort of stark, zombified version of Chomsky.
The latter usage applies particularly to a widespread form of media criticism which makes overarching generalisations about “the corporate media” in a way which “owes something” to Manufacturing Consent (the classic 1988 book co-authored by Chomsky and Edward Herman). Given that the internet is currently the busiest forum for media criticism (in blogs, social media, “below the line” comment sections, etc) you could probably say that the Chomskyan (whether adept or “sub-“) variety is the most frequently voiced one.
But I wouldn’t blame NC for the current state of so-called “media criticism” any more than I’d blame JC for Xtian Evangelism or the Holy Inquisition. I suppose that what starts with a person of merit and originality often ends up with a self-righteous bunch of presumptuous acolytes or unfunny zealots. It’s true that burning people at the stake as “witches” is worse than denouncing journalists on Twitter as “corporate mouthpieces”, but you get the impression that the moral stakes are the same – corporations being up there with Satan.
(A recent tweet I saw responds to the Guardian columnist Marina Hyde by saying, “wake up, Honey”, accompanied by a picture of Manufacturing Consent).
2. Media “watchdogs”
David Foster Wallace said political discourse had become a “formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition”, and the same can probably be said for the output of various media “watchdogs” and “monitors” – at least those with political leanings (ie virtually all of them). Most of these groups boast of being “independent”, “non-corporate”, etc – which is good; but unless they have some form of “innocent” funding (or unless the people running them are financially independent – ie well-off), it follows that they’re constrained, albeit less directly, by the same economics as their more “corporate” colleagues. And they are certainly no more “objective” or “impartial” (although their particular “bias” may be seen as more virtuous – assuming you agree with their politics).
Still, they can serve a useful purpose within these limits, highlighting important problems with the so-called “mainstream” media. For several years, starting in the late 1990s, I attempted something modest along these lines myself. I sent 150 fortnightly editions of my “News & Distraction” newsletter to around 5,000 subscribers (it had been advertised in my satirical zine, Anxiety Culture), and had some minor successes – for example, getting the BBC to uphold my complaint that a BBC1 News report had “breached editorial guidelines on truth and accuracy” (not an easy matter), getting coverage on a late-night Channel 4 TV show, even a phone call from a Newsnight editor who wanted me to appear (too short notice, alas – Alice Nutter from Chumbawumba ended up doing it).
When I envisioned something more ambitious – Media Hell, a web community project to record, link and cross-index types of media fallacies using a purpose-built structured database – I quickly ran into the economic constraints that I mention above. Although I had professional experience of database design, I had no funding and (as it turned out) not nearly enough spare time. And since I saw the relational database as essential to the kind of ongoing empirical research I had in mind (I wanted to avoid being just another serial polemic/blog/alert issuer), the project soon ran out of steam.
3. Cherry-picking & lack of empirical studies
Many “independent” media critics don’t see the lack of decent empirical studies as an obstacle to promoting their viewpoints, but I regard the “scientific” approach as essential if you’re making claims about broad media trends or, say, the output of a newspaper as a whole. Much more common, unfortunately, is the Mickey Mouse style of cherry-picking (which often passes for “analysis”) – since it’s relatively easy, convenient and tempting to select precisely those press examples which “prove” one’s existing beliefs about bias and propaganda, etc.
As the volume (and in some cases diversity) of mass-media content increases, this type of cherry-picking becomes easier, while empirical studies become more time-consuming (and relatively rarer). The former becomes a kind of “confirmation bias made easy”, although it may be seen as convincing and “substantive” by those who already believe what it “confirms”.
What begins as informed opinion can rigidify into dogmatic ideology if there’s little motivation to actively seek counterevidence. And not just to seek it and record each instance, but to constantly keep in mind how our tendencies towards confirmation bias skew our evaluations of “evidence”. As Kathryn Schulz points out, in her book, Being Wrong:
“We don’t assess evidence neutrally; we assess it in light of whatever theories we’ve already formed on the basis of whatever other, earlier evidence we have encountered.”
“Sometimes, by contrast, we see the counterevidence just fine – but, thanks to confirmation bias, we decide that it has no bearing on the validity of our beliefs. In logic, this tendency is known, rather charmingly, as the No True Scotsman fallacy.”
4. “No True Scotsman” logic
So, you believe that no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge. But I present an example of a Scotsman who puts sugar on. You dismiss this by saying, “Yes, but no true Scotsman does that”. My counterevidence makes no dent in your belief.
One sees this a lot in “radical” media criticism – especially where there’s a reliance on blanket generalisations and broad class identifiers (“corporate”, “western”, “liberal”, etc). So, for instance, you believe that no radical content is allowed to appear in the “corporate media”. I list some good examples of radical articles that have appeared in the corporate-owned press, but you dismiss them as not “truly” radical.
If you dismiss counterevidence in that way, there may come a point when the question doesn’t even arise in your mind – your thinking on the issue gets replaced by a “Correct Answer” reflex. That’s how tentative beliefs turn into fixed doctrines – all the inconvenient examples which seem to contradict your belief are automatically brushed off. It’s a completely different mindset than the one you’d ideally want to bring to an empirical study. It’s “anti-scientific” in that evidence isn’t used to determine what is really going on – rather it’s carefully selected as a means to persuade others of a foregone conclusion.
This is how a certain type of media criticism becomes more and more sweeping in its assertions, until the rhetoric departs from messy reality and enters some platonic realm in which abstract generalisations about an abstract noun (the “mainstream media”) count as “hard-hitting” truth. This stuff fills my Twitter timeline every day – it reads like a rightwing caricature of “strident lefties”. It’s simplistic, even simple-minded. We learn nothing new from it; history repeats.
5. Panchrestons, overgeneralisations
“Panchreston” is a word we don’t bump into very often. The thing it refers to, however, seems very common:
Panchreston (noun): A proposed explanation intended to address a complex problem by trying to account for all possible contingencies but typically proving to be too broadly conceived and therefore oversimplified to be of any practical use.
Panchrestons in media criticism include many of those sweeping generalisations that you hear about “Western”/”establishment”/”corporate”/”mainstream” journalists. Of course, there are also high-level generalisations which are valid – but they’re usually either banal statements of the obvious, or valid by definition. It’s not a panchreston to say that the “corporate media” requires commercial revenue to survive, but I would consider it a panchreston to “explain” newspaper content largely in terms of its “corporate” attribute. That’s far too “easy”, reductive, and disconnected from messy reality. (It also seems to be very popular, but then so is “one powerful elite controlling everything” conspiracy-type framing).
(To be continued at some point…)