N E W S • F R A M E S • • • • •

About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Behaviour modification empires for rent

Of all the “what the hell is going on?” type books that I’ve read in the last few years, the one I rate highest is Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts.

The title undersells this book’s importance, to my mind. After all, it’s neither self-help nor “clickbait” – it’s not like “10 arguments for quitting sugar”. I regard it more as an absolutely essential collection of insights (from a Silicon Valley insider) about why basic democratic and progressive norms seem to be undermined as a consequence of how social media works.

“But for the moment we face a terrifying, sudden crisis…
Something is drawing young people away from democracy.”
(Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments…)

Algorithm Politics & mass manipulation of humans

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.”
Former Facebook vice president of user growth (quoted by Lanier)

Jaron’s book argues that while we should generally embrace the internet, we need to urgently reject what he calls “BUMMER” (his acronym for the destructive core of social media, short for “Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent”).

BUMMER is a sort of high-level business plan in which the end-users of social media are the product, not the customer (that’s why social media is free to use). The real customers are those who want to modify your behaviour in some way. The basic argument is that, statistically, social media algorithms boost certain negative aspects of human communication, since that’s what maximises engagement with the platform (thus maximising profit for the social media companies).

The algorithms don’t care how they maximise user engagement – it happens automatically (continually “optimised”), and it just so happens that tribalism and nasty adversarial conflicts tend to engage people more efficiently than, say, pleasantly reasonable discourse does. Nor do the algorithms care if the result is user addiction (with its related mental health problems).

“Social media is biased, not to the Left or the Right, but downward. The relative ease of using negative emotions for the purposes of addiction and manipulation makes it relatively easier to achieve undignified results. An unfortunate combination of biology and math favors degradation of the human world. Information warfare units sway elections, hate groups recruit, and nihilists get amazing bang for the buck when they try to bring society down.

“The unplanned nature of the transformation from advertising to direct behavior modification caused an explosive amplification of negativity in human affairs.” (Lanier, Ten Arguments…)

As the book frames it: “Social media is turning you into an asshole”. I’m reminded of the quote provided by Robert Anton Wilson at the beginning of his chapter on “The SNAFU principle” in Prometheus Rising:

“…the peculiar nature of the game…makes it impossible for [participants] to stop the game once it is under way. Such situations we label games without end.” (Watzlawick, Beavin, Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication – full quote here)

As for those who want to modify your behaviour, they range from advertisers to malign (and often secretive) parties seeking to amplify hatreds or swing elections. (Lanier doesn’t shy away from tackling emotive/controversial topics, such as Russian state exploitation of social media for disruptive purposes).

“Remember how it became cool in some liberal circles to cruelly ridicule Hillary, as if doing so were a religion? In the age of BUMMER you can’t tell what was organic and what was engineered.

“It’s random that BUMMER favored the Republicans over the Democrats in U.S. politics, but it isn’t random that BUMMER favored the most irritable, authoritarian, paranoid, and tribal Republicans. All those qualities are equally available on the left.” (Lanier, Ten Arguments…)

(Remember when Facebook promoted the “trending news” that “most doctors polled” had “serious concerns” about Hillary Clinton’s health, including the suggestion, in a poll question, that Hillary was a “flaming psychopath”? This “news” originally came from a rightwing group, AAPS, that promoted conspiracy theories, including that “vaccines cause autism“. It was also promoted by Trump and Wikileaks).

Lanier’s book is so entertainingly readable, and so rich in insights (and in things you really need to know about), that there’s probably not much point in my writing about it further, other than to say read the whole thing for yourself. The bottom line is that the algorithms constantly monitor, via our online responses, preferences, framing, etc, the adaptive unconsciouses of hundreds of millions of people on an individual, targeted level (via their personalised social media feeds and searches), instantaneously in real time – modifying behaviour and thus changing brains physically, at the neural level, in ways we’re not conscious of, and at the whim of parties who don’t have our best interests in mind.

As for those algorithms, Lanier remarks that they’re among the best kept secrets on the planet – more carefully guarded than NSA or CIA state secrets. But it’s worth quoting at length one example of how the book describes them as working:

“Black activists and sympathizers were carefully cataloged and studied. What wording got them excited? What annoyed them? What little things, stories, videos, anything, kept them glued to BUMMER? What would snowflake-ify them enough to isolate them, bit by bit, from the rest of society? What made them shift to be more targetable by behavior modification messages over time? The purpose was not to repress the movement but to earn money. The process was automatic, routine, sterile, and ruthless.

“Meanwhile, automatically, black activism was tested for its ability to preoccupy, annoy, even transfix other populations, who themselves were then automatically cataloged, prodded, and studied. A slice of latent white supremacists and racists who had previously not been well identified, connected, or empowered was blindly, mechanically discovered and cultivated, initially only for automatic, unknowing commercial gain – but that would have been impossible without first cultivating a slice of BUMMER black activism and algorithmically figuring out how to frame it as a provocation.

“BUMMER was gradually separating people into bins and promoting assholes by its nature, before Russians or any other client showed up to take advantage. When the Russians did show up, they benefited from a user interface designed to help ‘advertisers’ target populations with tested messages to gain attention. All the Russian agents had to do was pay BUMMER for what came to BUMMER naturally.” (Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments…)

Update: I recommend watching The Great Hack (a new Netflix documentary), as it makes some of the same points that Lanier does about the urgency of the situation. It covers the threat to democracy posed by the new kind of “weapons grade” psychological propaganda that’s researched (and used) by entities such as Cambridge Analytica and SCL, using social media data mining, etc.

By the way, I’m aware that descriptions of this material (including my own, probably) sometimes sound a bit like paranoid sci-fi melodrama. Even the more sober reports often add to that effect. Read about the interventions of SCL Group (Cambridge Analytica’s parent company) in the 2010 elections in Trinidad and Tobago, for instance.

Written by NewsFrames

November 15, 2019 at 2:05 pm

Interview with Wereldwijd 297 magazine

Wereldwijd 297 magazine

(May 2019 interview, covering Anxiety Culture, New Age, bullshit jobs, Brexit, alt-political categories, right-left anti-establishment convergence, Lakoff’s semantic framing, Mueller report & Russian interference.) 

Elif: I first spoke to you in the early noughties, after Channel 4 (UK national TV broadcaster) had a show which featured your zine, Anxiety Culture. One of the things I remember is the “Messages from the adverts”, where you said the two underlying messages were “You are not good enough” and “There is something wrong with you”. Do you think that’s even more the case with social media now? It seems to be creating anxiety and mental health problems for young people.

Brian: Yeah, you’re not interesting or clever or experienced enough. And even if you think you are, you’re not getting enough recognition and appreciation. So you’re constantly trying to fix a perceived lack. It’s endless, and designed to be addictive by social media platforms, with their dopamine hits. I’m assuming young people aren’t taught intellectual or emotional self-defences against it in school.

Elif: Not as far as I’m aware. The usual academic studies still take priority.

Brian: Ironically, I think some of the New Agey type of self-help books contain the best solutions, from a behavioural perspective. The kind of books that most people I know sneer at, mostly with good reason. You just have to suspend disbelief when reading them, not take them too literally and ignore the obvious crud. Then pick out the good ideas. For example, the artificial (at first) practice of feeling grateful regardless. So you become the source of recognition and appreciation for others, regardless – instead of trying to grasp those things from others. Obviously if you’re the source, for others, of what you thought you lacked from others, the sense of lack is sweetly nullified. The problem is that the New Agey books might frame the basic idea with the kind of sappy language that most people probably reject (“all the love you need is already within you”, etc).

Elif: What I also liked about Anxiety Culture was the undermining of the Puritan work ethic, particularly the simple graphic détournement of business clipart, for example the ‘Crap Job Watch UK’ stickers. Have you by any chance read David Graeber’s new book, Bullshit Jobs? It’s based on some of the same ideas you were writing about back then.

Brian: No, but I read his earlier essay about bullshit jobs [Strike magazine, 2013], which expanded on the notion of pointless jobs to great effect. I think he was one of the people behind Occupy Wall Street? Ironically, I remember the guy who ran the biggest radical left website, ZNet, writing an article for the Guardian in which he says the main focus of the Occupy movement should be “full employment”!

Elif: What do you think of Occupy’s slogan, “We are the 99 percent”?

Brian: Well, it refers to wealth concentration, but it makes no sense if you’re talking about the distribution of political opinion. There’s no uniformity of political view uniting the 99%. It was more like 50/50 on the support of Trump, Brexit, etc. Those fine margins behind victory are important – easily exploited. I think this is where pundits like Glenn Greenwald get it so wrong. Greenwald’s view is that Trump/MAGA, Brexit, “yellow vests” movements, etc, are popular expressions of the economically hurting masses against establishment elites. It’s a nice, simple frame, like the 99% vs the 1%. But reality makes a mockery of it.

Elif: What do you mean?

Brian: Take the idea that Brexit was a popular mass revolt against elites. In fact, the Brexit campaign was funded by elites and planned by elites. It was promoted by rightwing media with billionaire proprietors. The promoters of Brexit didn’t see it as a 99% vs 1% issue. Through their voter research they realised it’s 51%/49% against what they want. So they find ways to swing things in their favour at those fine margins. The voter support for Brexit wasn’t primarily – or even disproportionately – from the economically struggling, the “left behind”. According to the detailed voter survey statistics I looked at, there’s more of a basis to think that support for Brexit was primarily – or at least disproportionately – from people who already held “conservative” viewpoints on trigger issues such as immigration.

acpainting-small

To support the notion that Brexit was essentially an anti-elite movement, Greenwald wrote that “media elites in the U.K. were vehemently united against Brexit”. But that’s completely wrong. In fact, over 65% of UK national newspapers (by circulation) campaigned in favour of Brexit. The Daily Mail, Sun, Express, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph were all for Brexit. The BBC is supposed to be neutral but gave endless airtime to Nigel Farage and UKIP. Not to mention that UK tabloids have been pumping out scaremongering anti-immigrant and anti-EU headlines on an almost daily basis for decades.

Glenn also recently wrote that “rightwing nationalism is on the rise all over the democratic world because impoverished masses see no viable alternative”. That seems a strange notion to me. Logically, it’s like saying the poor see Fascism as more viable than NO Fascism. Not just in isolated cases, but as a sweeping generalisation. [Note: I explain this point in the comments section below – B.]

Elif: What does Noam Chomsky say?

Brian: Chomsky says “if you have any moral understanding, you want to keep the greater evil out”. That was in a recent interview. He immediately added that he “didn’t like Clinton at all, but her positions are much better than Trump’s on every issue I can think of”.

E: You moved on from the subject matter of Anxiety Culture to focus on semantic framing with your News Frames blog and Kindle book, but your output seems to have slowed, with only one new post last year, and none since. Have you changed direction again? What have you been up to?

B: I’ve been sidetracked by mundane issues, the most notable being that I collapsed with a cardiac arrest while out walking. I was then confined to hospital for a month waiting for open heart surgery. I’ve fully recovered now, though.

E: My god! Were you aware of a problem beforehand?

B: No, it was totally unexpected. No warnings, no symptoms. I’m basically slim, fit and healthy. It wasn’t a heart attack – my heart just stopped because of a problem with the aortic valve. It needed four shocks to bring me back, apparently.

E: Were you with someone at the time who could get help?

B: No, I was on my own, walking along the north Wales coast. Luckily, one of the first people to pass by was an off-duty policewoman who knew exactly what to do. I was quickly airlifted to hospital. But it was a close thing.

E: Did you have any “light at the end of the tunnel” experiences?

B: Ha! Not that I remember. Although when I finally came around in hospital after the cardiac arrest, it was a strange state of mind – alert and present, but non-personal and completely unconcerned. After the later heart surgery it was more like I would have expected coming out of anaesthesia. By the way, Britain’s National Health Service – the NHS – seems world-class to me. It’s one state institution that should never be taken for granted by anti-establishment types, left or right. Fuck Nigel Farage. Anyway, shall we continue to the next topic…

E: Ok. A few years ago, the Independent newspaper published your article about political categories such as “alt-left”. What’s striking from this is how these categories – mere labels – cause such confusion in the first place, before one even gets started on the debate. How do you see the framing of political categories – left, right, centrist, liberal?

B: “Right” and “left” apparently originated as references to political groups on different sides of a room – eg aristocrats seated on the right, commoners on the left. The problem arises when you imagine that this right-left convention implies a linear scale with two ends, a centre, and degrees of distance from the centre. This linear metaphor doesn’t work for political views, because, as Lakoff says, “there’s no ideology of the center”. A so-called “centrist” is just someone who has “leftwing” views on some issues and “rightwing” views on others.

E: What about liberals?

B: I remember, in the 1990s, rightwing US radio talk-show hosts whipping up hatred of “liberals”, generally, and of the Clintons, specifically. Now you see the same hatred of “liberals”, and of Hillary Clinton, from some influential sections of the “left”. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say “hatred”.

This apparent anti-liberal convergence of “hard right” and “radical left” on some issues has led to the notion of a “horseshoe” effect, in which the right-left linear scale bends in the shape of a horseshoe, bringing the extreme ends close together. But I think that’s a rubbish metaphor, like “centrist”.

E: How would you explain the convergence using Lakoff’s political framing theory?

B: The anti-liberal framing comes from a “conservative” moral stance. The clue’s in the “tough” language of disgust with “soft” “weak” “compromised” liberals. Even when this comes from “radical leftists”, it sounds like tough “strict father” framing. The anti-liberal “convergence” looks as if it stems from this moral revulsion against what’s seen as morally weak – fence-sitting or corrupted, compromised “liberals”, middle-of-the-road “spineless” equivocating “centrists”.

This moral revulsion against liberals tends to arise on different issues for “left” and “right”. So, in that sense, it’s not really shared – it’s not a real convergence. The “left” might see liberals as morally weak and compromised for succumbing to corporate, pro-war interests, etc. The “right” might see them as weak for phony political correctness or “not standing up for America’s interests”, or whatever.

E: Why is disgust at weakness specifically a conservative frame?

B: Strength is a primary value in the conservative moral hierarchy. It’s more important than, say, empathy or tolerance. The reverse is the case with progressive liberal morality. You could never pass yourself off as progressive with slogans like “might is right” or “full-spectrum dominance”! In the UK, the Conservatives constantly repeated the phrase “tough on crime” and always accused the left of being “soft” on crime. And it worked, because people would then see the issue in terms of strength versus weakness, which favoured the conservative positions of tougher prison sentences, “zero tolerance”, etc. John Major, the former Conservative Prime Minister, advocated “more condemnation, less understanding” – with “understanding” framed as weakness in the context of crime prevention.

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists”. Why not? “Because compromising with evil is a position of weakness”. But it worked in Northern Ireland and South Africa. Any stance perceived as morally weak and compromised goes against the conservative moral hierarchy in which moral strength and moral purity are primary. The progressive liberal morality has an entirely different emphasis, in which negotiation and compromise can be framed in terms of positive moral qualities, social responsibility and empathy – it’s less about strength and weakness, per se.

[Note: Re-reading this, it occurs to me that readers will think, “If conservatives are so big on moral strength and purity, why do they put up with Trump, who is the embodiment of corruption and moral turpitude?”. I think the answer is probably that Trump frames everything he does in terms of winning and strength, and without shame. And this sort of overrides the perception of corruption for many – but not all – conservatives. It’s for a similar reason that many conservatives tolerate ruthless big business. I’ve written about this elsewhere – eg here and here. – B]

E: Where does the framing of “the establishment” fit into this?

B: Frank Luntz, the US rightwing’s language guru, used to advise Republicans to “always blame Washington”. Whatever the issue, whatever the complaint, always blame the complacent, compromised DC establishment. This framing was repeated constantly for decades by the right, by Fox News, etc. I think people have heard it so much, without challenge, that it’s become sort of taken-for-granted. It now comes also from commentators on the left. The Twitter accounts of Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald are good examples – it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that most of their tweets tend to put the blame, regardless of the issue, on establishment DC “libs” and “Dems”.

I think it’s a huge boost for Trump & co to have their anti-liberal messaging reinforced by influential figures of the “left”. It’s fairly well-known that Trump publicly praised Wikileaks over a hundred times in the run-up to the election – far more than he praised anyone else. Trump Junior has now taken to “liking” and sharing Glenn Greenwald’s tweets.

E: So the convergence between Trump’s MAGA “right” and “radical left” manifests as anti-liberal, anti-establishment framing. That also sounds like a libertarian position. How do libertarians fit into Lakoff’s scheme of things?

B: Lakoff says that, allowing for variations, a libertarian by most “standard” definitions is a few steps removed from mainline conservatism. The main difference is that the libertarian’s focus on non-interference by government leads to a strong advocacy of civil liberties. So, a libertarian might oppose government restrictions on pornography, drugs, etc – contrary to conservative morality. Otherwise, libertarian positions tend to reflect what Lakoff calls the “strict father” morality of conservatives – ie self-reliance, self-discipline and individualism valued above the “liberal” morality of nurturance, empathy and interdependence. That’s why libertarians seem to hold conservative views on welfare, gun control, taxation, social programs, etc.

E: But the civil liberties advocacy looks more like liberalism.

B: Lakoff argues that it’s a superficial similarity – that libertarians encourage civil liberties advocacy for very different reasons than liberals. It seems more of a mind-your-own-business individualism – which springs from strictness morality according to Lakoff’s thesis. Ask a libertarian and a liberal whether civil liberties should routinely include the right to own and use a gun. You will likely get two different answers reflecting very different moral focuses.

E: And what about non-interventionism in foreign conflicts? That looks like another convergence between libertarians, the alt-right and anti-war leftists.

B: There’s a big difference between anti-war views based on progressive morality (universal empathy, humanitarianism) and so-called “non-interventionist” views based on fairly narrow nationalist cost-benefit considerations. Whenever you see people lauding, say, Tucker Carlson, for his “non-interventionism”, remember that he described Iraqis as “semi-literate primitive monkeys” and said they should “just shut the fuck up and obey” the USA.

E: What do you make of reactions to Mueller’s report, from the perspective of framing?

B: Trump framed the Mueller investigation as a “hoax”. So did Glenn Greenwald, incidentally. Trump also framed it as a sort of coup against him by the “Deep State”. And so did Greenwald! Exactly the same language. Obviously it wasn’t a hoax. And if it was a “Deep State” coup, then I guess we’re still waiting for it to remove Trump. Mueller concluded that Russia’s interference in the US election was “sweeping and systematic” in ways that violated US criminal law. He concluded it was a sophisticated multi-pronged operation to “amplify political and social discord” and to help Trump.

E: But was it successful? Did it really help Trump win?

B: Well, you can’t measure its “success”, as there’s no way to quantify its effects distinct from all the other factors in voting. Trump turned this to his advantage by saying Russian interference had no effect on voting outcomes. But there’s no evidential basis for that assertion.

E: Just as there’s no evidential basis to assert that it tipped the balance in Trump’s favour. So is it all scaremongering over nothing? You mention Glenn Greenwald – who said the Democrats and the liberal media essentially cooked up the scandal to hide their own failures. And he points out that Russia isn’t alone in trying to influence foreign elections – the US does it all the time.

B: I think we should be concerned about the undermining of democracy, whoever is doing it. I don’t see it as necessarily scaremongering – although I’m old enough to remember when the “reds under the bed” stories about British union leaders did look like media scaremongering.

Voter “influence” technologies are evolving, becoming more sophisticated and effective, using new approaches in psychological profiling, cognitive linguistics, military-developed programs, mining vast databases of personal information on political biases, semantic triggers, etc, with constantly improving targeting on social media. And it’s available to the highest bidders, to unscrupulous parties. Why wouldn’t that raise alarms? I’m glad people such as Carole Cadwalladr are investigating it in the UK and elsewhere.

E: Thanks for your time, Brian!

Written by NewsFrames

May 23, 2019 at 12:32 pm

Witch-hunts – the social media trend

salem-comp

I wrote the original of this article before Twitter existed – for Anxiety Culture in 2006. It recently got a lot of hits, prompting me to re-read it. I think its relevance has increased over the last decade, since Twitter, Facebook, etc, seem diabolically suited to spreading rumours and smears – much more so than the “email and self-publishing” that I referred to in the original (updated here to mention social media).



“What started as a legitimate effort by the townspeople of Salem to identify, capture and kill those who did Satan’s bidding quickly deteriorated into a witch hunt” (from Army Man, a satirical US zine)

Global village McCarthyism

“Witch-hunts” occur through various media. The newsreel and TV coverage of the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings (1947) raised anti-Communist hysteria to a national level. The Internet – social media, blogs, email lists, etc – now provides the means for fast-spreading “global village” rumour/smear campaigns. Marshall McLuhan’s ideas on the media “retrieval” of obsolesced social phenomena, etc, seem relevant here, so that’s where we begin…

“The medium is the message”

McLuhan’s aphorism, “the medium is the message”, loses its subtlety if read as meaning that content doesn’t matter. Content matters, of course, and a medium can be seen as content – eg the medium of thought as content of speech; the medium of speech as content of radio; radio as content of the web, etc.

Media criticism often describes how content is edited and “framed”. In the case of TV, you might experience the framed content in the same way you experience a strong emotion – ie you are captured by it, or lost in it. Stepping back from content requires awareness of different levels of media within media. In terms of “news”, low-level “facts” may be accurately recorded, but their selection and framing at a higher level provides a different type of content/medium (eg a “report”, editorial content). This, in turn, reflects, but doesn’t necessarily reveal, a higher level still (eg a “news” policy for coverage of a given subject).

People generally engage with mid-level content/media – eg TV news reports about “rising crime”. The low-level facts may be unremarkable, but their selection and framing provides emotion-rousing content, while the high-level editorial decisions are unknown to the viewer. As McLuhan put it, “The ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind”.

Mid-level content/media is the hardest level to pin down as inaccurate or “biased”. Low-level facts can be shown to be inaccurate, and high level “bias” can be demonstrated by statistical analysis, but mid-level content/media generally proves more slippery. Independent, dissident “alt” mid-level content/media may be just as slippery as its mainstream opposition.

Side-stepping the gatekeepers

In his book, Digital McLuhan (Routledge, 1999), Paul Levinson gives a brief history of “gatekeepers” (those who control and regulate the flow of information). The logic of gatekeeping, whether by church, state or corporate media, “is that information is like a food or drug, which […] requires inspection or certification before it can be made available to the public. To offer information unvetted is, on this reasoning, to risk poisoning the public.” (Levinson, chapter 10). Of course, gatekeeping implies that media outlets aren’t “free”, but controlled by authority-hierarchies, whether economic-political or ideological in some other form.

The web has allowed people to bypass gatekeeping (although access to a computer/device is required – a sort of economic gatekeeping). But evolution of media doesn’t necessarily result in the diminishing power of gatekeepers. Professor Levinson points out that new media may “retrieve” (to use McLuhanite terminology) aspects of earlier media which favour the gatekeepers, as for example radio “retrieved” aspects of family/tribal “media” (verbal, one-way, from a father-figure/elder to an obedient tribe), allowing Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt and Churchill to effectively deliver monologues into the homes of passive listeners who couldn’t answer back.

Recipe for a witch-hunt

New media may also “retrieve” non-gatekeeping, but otherwise insidious, social effects. Prior to the web, “rapid response” letter-writing was used by campaigning groups to raise issues with governments, institutions, etc. A primary message of this medium was (as also with mass demonstrations) the sheer number of people expressing a view ignored by the powerful. Email (and then Facebook, Twitter, etc) extended this type of campaign and, importantly, made it easier to target individuals and small groups as well as gatekeepers. But the medium’s message is fundamentally altered by this change of target. A mass demonstration held outside a powerless individual’s private home would convey a different message than one held outside government buildings. Social media campaigns targeting individuals or small groups may have the effect of “retrieving” unpleasant aspects of earlier media – eg the unstoppable effectiveness of “village” rumour campaigns, “witch-hunts”, or forms of “degradation ceremonies” as described by sociologist Harold Garfinkle. The dark flip-side of McLuhan’s “global village” metaphor.

The ingredients necessary for a “witch-hunt”, in sociological terms, include a perceived threat to “moral boundaries”, availability of a vilifiable target (individual or group) and a social ritual which makes the threat tangible and which clarifies the roles of those involved (eg a “degradation ceremony”). Social media seem particularly suited to the kind of “shaming” that rapidly escalates into full-blown witch-hunts. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Jon Ronson, 2105) describes some of the disturbing examples.

Ressentiment “morality”

“There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena”
(Friedrich Nietzsche)

“Those who do battle with monsters must take care that they do not thereby become a monster”
(Friedrich Nietzsche)

When a new and powerful medium (eg web, social media) unites people in their frustrations against the gatekeepers (eg newspaper and TV news editors), but doesn’t have the desired impact on those gatekeepers (who’d probably rather defend their privileged positions), what happens next? Readers of Nietzsche might think there’s a likelihood that those susceptible to “ressentiment” would wage campaigns which focus on the “immorality” of their opponents. These campaigns would predictably aim at easier targets than the chief gatekeepers – eg individuals with a perceived taint-by-association, groups which don’t have the “correct” beliefs, those who blur the “moral boundaries” which are seen as separating the “evil” gatekeepers from everyone else.

By “ressentiment”, Nietzsche meant the hidden revenge motive within the “altruism” of the powerless – he had in mind the Christian slaves of the Roman Empire who “turned the other cheek”, but with the satisfaction of believing their oppressors would eventually burn in hell. Clinical psychologists might label this tendency as “passive-aggressive”. Many idealistic Marxists similarly harboured the comforting thought that the bourgeoisie would also burn, but here on earth (ie come the revolution), not in hell.

(In Prometheus Rising, Robert Anton Wilson makes the interesting observation that occult jargon classes this passive-aggressive psychological tendency as “psychic vampirism”. Perhaps this explains the energy-draining effect of getting into an argument with – or worse, becoming a target of – someone in “altruistic” ressentiment mode.)

Written by NewsFrames

June 21, 2018 at 8:04 pm

“Weaponised” political framing – do you really know which side you’re on?

weaponised-trump-halftone-newsframesIn the early 1990s, years before I had an internet connection, I read The Hacker Crackdown – an insightful journalistic account (by pioneer cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling) about the paranoid, heavy-handed reaction of the US authorities towards young computer hackers. From the countercultural perspective of the time, the hackers were seen as the “good guys”. (More on Sterling’s take on current events below…)

Fast forward to late 2017:- Recently leaked emails show that Wikileaks sought political favours from Donald Trump in exchange for helping his presidential campaign. Evidence for complex, multi-pronged Russian interference in the 2016 US election has become overwhelming, seemingly irrefutable. Reality Leigh Winner languishes in jail, largely unknown and unpraised, unlike Edward Snowden. Unfortunately for her, the NSA document she allegedly leaked (which documented attempts by Russia to hack US election infrastructure) didn’t reinforce the preferred narrative of the two prominent co-founding editors of The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill,  who, as a result, appeared to be less-than-enthusiastic relayers of the “persecuted whistleblower” story in this case.

Their narrative – fairly relentlessly pushed by Glenn Greenwald on social media – held that “the whole Russia thing” was largely a hysterical conspiracy theory promoted by “libs” and “Dems” seeking to blame anyone but Hillary Clinton for her election loss. Greenwald has also (until now) aggressively defended Julian Assange against accusations of collaborating with the Trump campaign and/or Russia.

Greenwald, Scahill and many other mutually-referencing influential left social-media commentators use a collection of old, familiar ‘left’ tropes to frame the unfolding events. Namely:

1. Anti-establishment vs The Establishment (“liberal” establishment in this case)
2. “Ordinary people” vs The Elite
3. Heroic outsiders/whistleblowers vs The Corporate Media
4. Unjustly maligned “official enemies” vs The Malign Western/US “Deep State
5. Etc…

These binary political frames/categories, which I once found valid enough for high-level commentary, now look indurated – they seem inadequate for making sense of the fast-moving fractal-like chaos and complexity evident in 21st century political culture. At worst, I see these frames placing a kind of archaic tribal drag on attempts at a more sophisticated, empirical, up-to-date understanding of the political-social-media transformations occurring. Being simple, binary and readily internalised as “true reality”, they also seem prone to being co-opted and “weaponised” by starkly unprogressive interests. The obvious case in point: billionaire businessman Donald Trump, with funding and help from billionaire hedge fund CEO, Robert Mercer, ran successful sub-campaigns based on these traditionally ‘left’ anti-elite, anti-establishment, anti-media frames.

(The same appeared largely true of Brexit. I’ve written previously on how Glenn Greenwald and others bought the whole “left-behind ordinary people” anti-elite framing of the Leave campaign – apparently because it confirmed and reinforced the ways they were already thinking/generalising about politics from the perspective of these overworn ‘left’ tropes).

Weaponised: floating signifiers & hyper-generalisation

One problem of old-skool* ‘left’ political framing is a certain overuse of big floating categories (“liberal”, “elite”, “establishment”, “media”, etc) onto which pretty much anything nefarious can be projected. A demagogue’s populist rhetoric – parroting such hypnotic signifiers – easily sets up angry either-or, them-&-us territorial binary framing – but aligned with the demagogue’s interests. Steve Bannon used this type of rhetoric a lot during the Trump campaign and earlier (“There is a growing global anti-establishment revolt against the permanent political class at home, and the global elites that influence them, which impacts everyone from Lubbock to London” – Bannon to NYT, 2014). Breitbart, RT.com and Infowars, etc, also used it, blurring the lines between anti-establishment ‘left’ and so-called alt-right.

Why would you want to reinforce this framing? Unfortunately, a lot of influential ‘left’ commentators spend much of their time doing just that – overgeneralising about “libs”, “Dems” and “mainstream media”, as if these were bad uniform actors or fungible entities, and as if assigning inherent nefariousness to these big group abstractions were an act of deep truth-telling. There almost seems to be a tacit conceit that this constitutes true radical-left activism. I regard it as radical stupidity when it reinforces the “weaponised” political memes designed to put someone like Trump in power.

“Ordinary people” vs The Elite

As the story goes, “ordinary people” were fed up with the elite-run system. Trump, and Brexit, triumphed because of uprisings of discontent which united regular folks against the establishment elites. As a logical extension of this story, we shouldn’t be blaming Trump/Brexit for the long-standing evils/failures of the establishments which led to Trump/Brexit – our wrath should instead still be directed at those establishments (which are now in a battle with Trump/Brexit).

The Occupy movement expressed “the ordinary vs the elite” in terms of the 99% vs the 1%, which makes sense if you’re talking about the distribution of wealth. But it makes no sense if you’re talking about the distribution of political opinion. There is no uniformity of belief within the 99% – no common viewpoint which explains material discontent in political-value terms. The 99% – the “regular folks” – remain just as bitterly divided as ever when it comes to values/viewpoints/allegiances. The statistical correlations between things such as income level, class and voting preference remain just as weak and questionable as ever – even in the age of Trump/Brexit.

With so little empirical support for this “ordinary people” story, why do influential ‘left’ commentators argue as if this framing represented the real truth? You can validly argue, in the case of Brexit, that the Leave campaign in fact appealed to nationalist elitismthe British vs the non-British. That’s a fundamentally different framing than “ordinary people united against elites”. The rightwing UK tabloids have been full of this xenophobic, divisive elitism for years – in the form of endless attacks on immigrants, European bureaucrats and politically-correct liberals, etc.

Trump’s appeal to social elitism

Trump used “ordinary guy” anti-elite rhetoric, but his campaign spent a lot of time connecting with various subcultures (sizeable in voter numbers/influence) that have their own particular forms of social elitism. According to Joshua Green’s book, Devil’s Bargain, Steve Bannon’s business background gave him (Bannon) insight into the huge online communities that formed the audiences of sites such as Breitbart:

“Yet Bannon was captivated by what he had discovered while trying to build the business: an underworld he hadn’t known existed that was populated by millions of intense young men (most gamers were men) who disappeared for days or even weeks at a time in alternate realities.”

“While perhaps not social adepts, they were smart, focused, relatively wealthy, and highly motivated about issues that mattered to them, their collective might powerful enough to wreck IGE’s business and bend companies such as Blizzard to their will. As he would later confirm, this luciferous insight gave him an early understanding of the size and strength of online communities, along with an appreciation for the powerful currents that run just below the surface of the Internet. He began to wonder if those forces could be harnessed and, if so, how he might exploit them.” (Joshua Green, Devil’s Bargain)

Bannon took it further, according to Green. He “envisioned a great fusion between the masses of alienated gamers, so powerful in the online world, and the right-wing outsiders drawn to Breitbart by its radical politics and fuck-you attitude”. Bannon said that Fox News’ audience was geriatric and that political campaigns needed to connect with this younger demographic, with its own form of in-group elitism.

Angela Nagle has a wonderful take on the elitism of various online communities that supported Trump. In her book, Kill All Normies (chapter 7), Nagle first mentions the ubiquitous framing of Trump’s victory as reflecting the views of “ordinary people” who felt “left behind” by aloof liberal elites. She cites Thomas Frank as one of the most insistent purveyors of this frame – but then she turns this idea upside-down:

“Although the idea that ordinary people felt alienated by political correctness was not uncommon in right-wing rhetoric, there was also quite a remarkable shift from a subcultural elitism to a sudden proletarian righteousness, or even a bit of noblesse oblige, as though the right had been making Thomas Frank’s argument all along. In reality they had been making pro-inequality, misanthropic, economically elitist arguments for natural hierarchy all along.” (Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies)

As Nagle remarks, before the “ordinary people” narrative became common on these ‘new right’ online communities, Milo Yiannopoulos could be seen in photo-shoots wearing a “Stop Being Poor” T-shirt (a quote from Paris Hilton, apparently). Nagle argues that while Trump’s supporters are busy rewriting history, it’s important to remember that Trump’s young rightwing online “vanguard” had long been characterised by “an extreme subcultural snobbishness toward the masses and mass culture”.

“Anti-establishment” weaponised memes

I’m old enough to have partaken (at least remotely) in the left cyber-utopianism that flourished in the 1980s and early 1990s. This brings me back to Bruce Sterling and the reading I submersed myself in at the time (mainly to provide an escape from a tedious 9-5 office job). Timothy Leary, having been at the heart of the psychedelic revolution, was now writing – ahead of his time – about the liberating potential of personal computers; Robert Anton Wilson was writing genius-level surreal social satire with an eye towards progressive change aided by technology. R.U. Sirius produced an impressive magazine called Mondo 2000 – an entertaining journal of this techno-utopian current.

The subversive, countercultural “question authority” type memes seemed sweeter back then. Even the notion of “fake” mostly had an innocent ring to it, to me at least. Conspiracy was fun to think about. Russian meddling was merely “reds under the bed” paranoia – seen mostly in conservative newspapers or spy novels, perceived by most as something quaint from an earlier era.

It seems a bad idea to exaggerate the new 21st-century Putin type of Russian influence – one wouldn’t want to blame it for all the weirdness happening in elections. But, equally, it seems a really bad idea to be in denial about it – or to play down its importance – given the abundance of evidence for it on countless fronts. Consider something I stumbled across from R.U. Sirius recently (from a conversation with Douglas Rushkoff):

“If you follow some of the ideological discourse from people who are really influential in Russia, it’s postmodernism and Operation Mindfuck in the service of amoral raw power and political strategy. I know secondhand that there are people in Putin’s mindtrust who have read their Leary and their Discordianism and so forth and they are following a chaos strategy for disrupting the American consensus… or however you want to phrase the collapsing neoliberal order. And not collapsing towards a good end.” (R.U. Sirius, in conversation with Douglas Rushkoff)

This brings us to another point made by Angela Nagle – that 60s/70s-style countercultural transgression created a kind of void into which any ideology can now flow, as long as it appears anti-establishment and contemptuous of mainstream values. Nagle argues that whilst it was originally “left-cyberutopians” who were optimistic about the shift from old establishment-media control of politics to “leaderless user-generated social media”, the reality of this has enabled the right, not the left, to take power:

“The online environment has undoubtedly allowed fringe ideas and movements to grow rapidly in influence and while these were left leaning it was tempting for politically sympathetic commentators to see it as a shiny new seductive shortcut to transcending our ‘end of history’. What we’ve since witnessed instead is that this leaderless formation can express just about any ideology even, strange as it may seem, that of the far right.” (Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies)

Tearing down is easy

The emerging digital, decentralised media and politics make disruption and destabilisation easy to achieve. This appears to be the Pandora’s Box of 21st century politics – as Bruce Sterling puts it, these modern disruptive movements are “fatally easy to assemble” and “almost never have the aim of promulgating rational programs for legislative action”. But the changing technological landscape enables such movements to seize power shockingly quickly and relatively cheaply.

Tearing down, taking apart, dismantling, removing, sweeping away, “draining the swamp” – these metaphors seem to be favoured by both alt-right and radical left, with regard to an existing establishment/system seen as rotten to the core. The framing isn’t about building or progress in Karl Popper’s sense of piecemeal democratic improvement – it’s about take-down, dissolution, “cleansing” and “purity”. The binary frames listed above (eg anti-establishment vs establishment) tend to reinforce these stark either-or, all-or-nothing approaches to politics.

Bruce Sterling – who is certainly no apologist for western imperialism/hegemony – puts it this way:

It’s the same phenomenon over and over, just with different branding: the Arab Spring, Occupy, Gezi Park, Euromaidan, the Ukrainian Civil War, Brexit, and now Donald Trump – except the last two have garnered legislative power. These miasmas appear anywhere save for the managed democracy of Russia and inside the Great Chinese Firewall, which is why both those powers now concentrate on spreading mayhem outside their borders. And whenever they do, they’re always electronically rapid. This means that they are spontaneous and therefore rantingly demagogic, unprepared for power, and tend to be poorly thought-through. Their political results are generally awful. (Bruce Sterling, Notes on the 2016 US election)

The bottom line, for me, is that progressive ‘left’ framing needs to evolve, starting with the big hackneyed tropes I describe above. As Angela Nagle eloquently concludes (in Kill All Normies): “When we’ve reached a point where the idea of being edgy/countercultural/transgressive can place fascists in a position of moral superiority to regular people, we may seriously want to rethink the value of these stale and outworn countercultural ideals.”

(*As for my own unfashionable old-skool ‘left’ stances: I ferociously opposed Bush’s Iraq war – back when Glenn Greenwald supported that catastrophic invasion. I campaigned for Universal Basic Income back in the 1990s, when it was unfashionable and largely seen as hopelessly utopian. Contrast that wonderfully positive, progressive idea with the horribly libertarian nastiness that Edward Snowden expressed in 2009, when he wrote that the elderly “wouldn’t be fucking helpless if you weren’t sending them fucking checks to sit on their ass and lay in hospitals all day”. Choose your heroes carefully.)

Note: I’ve also put this article on Medium.com

Written by NewsFrames

November 22, 2017 at 12:55 am

The “alt-left” – what my Independent article left out

 

My preferred title was “Confessions of a 1990s alt-leftist”

After Donald Trump condemned the role of the “alt-left” at Charlottesville, a flurry of articles appeared claiming “there’s no such thing as the alt-left” – that it’s a “myth” created by the right and/or “centrist liberals” to discredit the left.

That’s the opening sentence of my Independent article. My intention for that article was to point out some errors – historical and semantic – behind claims that “alt-left” is a recently-invented bogus label. I wouldn’t normally have bothered going to the length of writing an article about this, but everything I read – from the Washington Post to influential bloggers such as Glenn Greenwald – seemed to be telling me that it was wrong and bad to use the “alt-left” label. Here’s a typical example of what I mean, from Jill Stein, the US Green Party presidential nominee:

My article, as it turned out, contained only the historical point (origins and development of “alt-left”/”alt-right” usage). My related argument about semantic confusion was left out – so I’ll expand on that a bit here. For illustrative purposes I had included the above Jill Stein quote, contrasted with the following statement from Cynthia McKinney – a previous US Green Party nominee for president. (The editor at the Independent didn’t want me to include these quotes, unfortunately).

McKinney’s statement preceded Trump’s “alt-left” remark; Stein’s came after it – so these examples provided a striking “before and after” contrast, in terms of semantic usage. Stein’s statement (and the many others that echoed it in newspaper columns, political commentary websites, prominent social media accounts, etc) communicated the following logic:

1. ‘All uses of “alt-left” are pejorative/scurrilous.’
2. ‘All uses of “alt-left” are devoid of validity.’
3. ‘Ergo, you shouldn’t use the term “alt-left”.’

This doesn’t strike me as an accurate – or useful – mapping of the semantic territory, to say the least. The McKinney quote provided a recent example of non-pejorative use, and I provided others which go back to the 1990s. Furthermore, many uses of both “alt-left” and “alt-right” seem, to me, both pejorative and valid (again, I provided examples in my article).

Consider the possibility that the over-reaction over the “alt-left” label, although triggered by Trump’s use of the term, has little to do with any implied “equivalence” between “alt-left” and “Nazi”. I don’t imagine that figures such as Stein and Greenwald are really worried about being mistaken for white supremacists. I think their reaction possibly owes more to the valid uses of “alt-left” as a pejorative label for some of the views they express.

Wikileaks (ie Julian Assange), Greenwald, Stein and many others (loosely self-identified as “left” in some sense) are often criticised for reinforcing the talking points of Trump through framing, emphasis and selection of examples. This criticism seems important to me given the huge audience that these commentators reach through social media. Their particular anti-liberal/anti-Dem framing, which is often (as I mention in my article) combined with “establishment conspiracy”-type memes common to the so-called “alt-right” (as epitomised by Breitbart and Infowars) should, to my mind, be highlighted, given its prominence and media influence. “Alt-left” seems a valid descriptive label for this purpose.

 

Written by NewsFrames

August 31, 2017 at 8:42 am

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 mass appeal of a specifically hard-right alternative (the 60+ million who voted for an Infowars-style bigot presumably counts as “mass appeal”). 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 inherent bigotry in order to account for the mass appeal of hardline rightwing views of the type that Trump and his circle espouse.

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