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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Frames-based autopsy of Trump/Brexit calamities

trump-farage-top-comp23 Nov 2016On 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.

“Ordinary people”

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 vote 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.

UPDATE (23/6/2017) – Ironically, Nick Clegg’s reported take (in The Guardian) on the Brexit vote and the rise of rightwing populism has a far greater ring of truth to it than Glenn Greenwald’s (particularly with respect to the role of the rightwing tabloid UK press).

Written by NewsFrames

November 23, 2016 at 9:22 am

Deeper into framing

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

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

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


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

This metaphorical conception of time isn’t universal – it doesn’t exist in all societies. Some cultures have no conception of “efficient use of time”. The “time is money” frame has certain negative consequences (stress, insecurity, short-termism, etc) – in addition to the positive things claimed for it by business managers and orthodox economists.

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

Frames vs “facts”

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

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

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

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

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

What is conceptual metaphor?

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

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

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

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

Media metaphors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cognitive unconscious

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

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

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

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

We don’t, and can’t, have full control of the categories we use in our reasoning. Although we learn new categories, we can’t consciously make major changes to the main category systems forming our “cognitive unconscious”. Much of what we regard as conceptual inference is built from basic metaphors arising from sensorimotor inference (eg the stuff that goes on in our nervous systems as we swing through the trees looking for bananas).

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

Moral framing

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

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

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

“Family” frames

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

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

Frames & fear

“Fear triggers the strict father model; it tends to make the model active in one’s brain.”
– George Lakoff, ‘Don’t think of an elephant’, p42

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

This framing complements, in obvious ways, the ideology of “free market” capitalism. For example, in the latter, the successful pursuit of self-interest in a competitive world is seen as a moral good since it benefits all via the “invisible hand” of the market. In both cases do-gooders are viewed as interfering with what is right – their “helpfulness” is seen as something which makes people dependent rather than self-disciplined. It’s also seen as an interference in the market optimisation of the benefits of self-interest.

Strictness Morality & competition

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

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

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

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

‘Moral strength’

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

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

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

‘Authoritarian’ moral framing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enemies everywhere, everything a threat

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

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

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

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

“News” & political frames

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

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

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

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

“Lazy consumers” & “benefit tourists”

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Benefits tourists"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Flatlined” economy

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

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

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

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

Worldviews & “deep” frames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by NewsFrames

June 19, 2016 at 12:28 am

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

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

April 18, 2016:-

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

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

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

April 8, 2016:-

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

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

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

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

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

Written by NewsFrames

April 18, 2016 at 11:21 am

RAW: new article for Disinfo

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

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

http://disinfo.com/2016/03/raw-resurgence/  (Link is now dead – see below*)

*Web Archive copy of above disinfo.com page here.

*UPDATE (Aug 2019): Disinfo.com seems to have closed down, so the original link above is now dead. There’s a longer version of the article here.


Written by NewsFrames

March 22, 2016 at 11:11 am

Media criticism – the state it’s in

bookshelfHaving 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?

1. “Sub-Chomskyan”

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…)

Written by NewsFrames

February 25, 2016 at 10:26 am

Robert Anton Wilson & framing – a few notes

robert-anton-wilson-framingWilson was heavily influenced by General Semantics – in particular, Alfred Korzybski’s book: Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Several writers who I find important or interesting in various ways (William Burroughs, Neil Postman, Robert A. Heinlein, etc) were influenced by Korzybski, although General Semantics seems to have picked up a reputation as “pseudoscience” in some circles, perhaps partly because of misrepresentations by some of its critics (or the fact that it seemed to have appeal for L. Ron Hubbard).

Most often when Wilson cites Korzybski, he’s making a point about how common prejudices and bigotries arise from – and are perpetuated by – confusions inherent in the structure of everyday language. These confusions of the map (symbolic language) with the territory (“reality”) manifest as over-generalisation, various logical fallacies, etc – but they’re difficult to spot unless you go looking for them. There’s an article here, from ETC: a review of general semantics, which discusses George Lakoff’s work on framing from the perspective of General Semantics.

Another theme that repeatedly comes up in Wilson’s writing is metaphor. For example, in the chapter, Models, Metaphors and Idols, from The New Inquisition, he writes that to want something is, metaphorically, to be empty – “want” and “vacant” coming from the same root – and that talking of desires as “appetites”, etc, expresses the same metaphor. He goes on to write that even the word, “the”, is a metaphor which assumes the world really is divided up according to the categories we assign to it.

This approach to metaphor, not as something peripheral, a mere flourish of language – but as central to thought, a fundamental mechanism of mind, strikes me as similar to that of Lakoff, et al, in the field of cognitive linguistics. In other words, it seems to me that Wilson is talking about conceptual metaphor, although the more precise work in that field is probably too recent to be referenced in Wilson’s books (Wilson had been thinking about Korzybski’s ideas since the 1950s, whereas the earliest work on conceptual metaphor from Lakoff was published in 1980: Metaphors We Live By). Still, there are some references to “framing” in its wider sense scattered throughout Wilson’s work – for example this excerpt from Cosmic Trigger volume 2 (scanned from p236-7 of my copy). [“Huge Berserk Rebel Warthog” is an anagram of George Herbert Walker Bush, aka Bush senior]:


The aspects of Robert Anton Wilson’s writings which he called “guerilla ontology” or “model agnosticism” intersect and dovetail in very interesting ways with the frames-based view of cognition and language, particularly in the area I’ve labelled metaphoric pluralism. This is something I’ll write about in more depth in the future (possibly in book form, with respect to Robert Anton Wilson’s ideas).

“The Western World has been brainwashed by Aristotle for the last 2,500 years. The unconscious, not quite articulate, belief of most Occidentals is that there is one map which adequately represents reality. By sheer good luck, every Occidental thinks he or she has the map that fits. Guerrilla ontology, to me, involves shaking up that certainty. I use what in modern physics is called the “multi-model” approach, which is the idea that there is more than one model to cover a given set of facts. As I’ve said, novel writing involves learning to think like other people. My novels are written so as to force the reader to see things through different reality grids rather than through a single grid. It’s important to abolish the unconscious dogmatism that makes people think their way of looking at reality is the only sane way of viewing the world. My goal is to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism about everything. If one can only see things according to one’s own belief system, one is destined to become virtually deaf, dumb, and blind. It’s only possible to see people when one is able to see the world as others see it. That’s what guerrilla ontology is — breaking down this one-model view and giving people a multi-model perspective.”Robert Anton Wilson: Searching For Cosmic Intelligence – interview with Jeffrey Elliot (1980)


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January 14, 2016 at 2:00 pm

Lakoff on “growth” & “degrowth” frames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Growth” frame reinforces market logic

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

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

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

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

“Degrowth” and “post-growth”

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

A better frame? – Wealth as well-being

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

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

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

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December 7, 2015 at 1:06 am

Glenn Greenwald’s generalisation on “British journalists”

british-journos-compAug 26, 2015I wrote a brief piece a while ago about the dangers of certain high-level generalisations – obvious in racism, sexism, etc, but not so obvious in other cases. This is another short post along similar lines. It uses, as an example, a recent (and to my mind incredible) generalisation about “British journalists” by Glenn Greenwald.

Greenwald, a journalist with over half a million Twitter followers, recently tweeted (Greenwald has since deleted over 27,000 tweets, including those I’d linked to here):

“I’ve never encountered any group more driven by group-think and rank-closing cohesion than British journalists.”

This wasn’t a one-off – Glenn has generalised before about British journalists, and even “Brits” in general. For example:

“Tribalistic Brits have spent centuries proclaiming their superiority & the inferiority of Others. You learned well.”

“The more authoritarian their own country becomes, the more Brits love to lecture the world on Freedom…”

Of course, he’s making points about certain aspects of “British” culture/history – presumably to do with certain ruling or privileged “elites”. But why generalise to “Brits” (which in this context implies some sort of homogeneity corresponding to nationality)? There’s a difference between validly categorising a person or group as “British”/”Brit”, and, on the other hand, generalising that “Brits” (or a large subsection, eg “British journalists”) behave in a certain way. Twitter restricts you to 140 characters, but it should be possible to make his points (whatever they are) while avoiding pernicious – and absurd – overgeneralisations.

When challenged about his “British journalists” generalisation by a “British journalist”, Greenwald responded: “I’m speaking generally and culturally. As is true for all such observations, there are many, many exceptions”. Well, of course, but at what point does “speaking generally” become overgeneralisation leading to insidious nonsense? Does this not occur when the “exceptions” outnumber the cases conforming to the generalisation? “British journalists” denotes a very large and diverse group. I certainly see evidence of “group-think and rank-closing cohesion” among lots of groups which share certain beliefs, educational backgrounds, etc – some sections of the BBC, for example (if we’re talking about journalists). But to extend the generalisation to every journalist who just happens to be British? Does that seem reasonable? I think not, even if one allows for “many, many exceptions”, and even if one has the excuse of writing in Twitter shorthand.

It’s become a cliché to say, “try substituting the word ‘Jews’ in that generalisation”, and I don’t really approve of this, unless you do it not to compare obviously incomparable cases, but to simply highlight the illogic of high-level generalisations with regard to labelling/categorising large groups of people and making inferences about “their” behaviour/beliefs. Slightly less emotively, you could instead try substituting other national generalisations into Greenwald’s tweet: “the Irish”, “the Pakistanis”, etc, to illustrate the dangers of this type of thinking.

In fact, you don’t need to, because several respondents to Greenwald’s generalisation about “British journalists” offered their opinions about “journalists” of other nationalities. So, apparently, “Italian”, “Swedish”, “Irish”, “Dutch”, “Scottish”, “Australian” or “USA” journalists are as bad as “British journalists”, depending on your viewpoint or prejudices. Glenn says he agrees that “Americans” are “not far behind” “British journalists”.

So, fifteen years into the 21st century, intelligent folk with relatively progressive views are still making these types of generalisations about people based on their nationality. To repeat: no doubt “group-think” and “rank-closing cohesion” does exist among actual (ie linked), and necessarily smaller, groups of journalists – as opposed to “groups” defined merely by national abstraction. It’s the same with so-called “conspiracy” groups: lots of relatively little “conspiracies” – or “interest groups” – obviously compete in the real world. But the big fungible conspiracies only seem to exist in imagination – and in the abstractions of language.

By the way, the official Wikileaks Twitter account (2.68 million followers) responded to Greenwald: “Imagine if New York, LA and Chicago were in DC for a thousand years. That’s London. One giant inbred suck-fest.” In the course of my everyday life, if I overheard someone refer to “London” as “one giant inbred suck-fest”, I’d assume they were deranged and quickly walk on. But this is Wikileaks, so perhaps I should consider the context and regard what they say as a Substantive Contribution Made By Experts?

Update (5/11/2015)

I just noticed this new tweet from Greenwald. I note that for a very long time, Seumas Milne has been a central part of that “Characteristically Homogenous” “British Media” (he’s been an editor at the Guardian for years):


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August 25, 2015 at 10:33 pm

Top 3 nonsensical frames of the Corbyn debate

corbyn-framesAug 14, 2015As if we need more comment about the Labour leadership. The following views haven’t been expressed anywhere else, however (at least not with this emphasis on framing) – so, for what it’s worth…

1. “Only a Labour party of ‘the centre’ will have popular support”

The political “centre” is a myth – it presumes a midpoint on a metaphorical linear scale between right and left. There’s no midpoint between conservative and progressive frames. What “centre” really means in practice is that you’ve adopted conservative frames/policies on around 50% of the issues – probably because of the view that this will gain votes. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – if you reinforce those conservative frames by adopting them, it’s not surprising that they become regarded as “normal” or “common sense” over time.

2. “Corbyn is a ‘throwback’ to some previous dark age”

Political “common sense” – a perception of what’s “normal” or “popular” – contains, in 2015, more conservative frames, and fewer progressive frames, than in, say, 1970. Reintroducing progressive framing into political debate will be difficult, but it seems crucial in order to avoid increasing domination of “public” political debate by conservative framing.

3. “Labour faces ‘annihilation’ if Corbyn becomes leader”

The next UK general election is not until 2020. A lot can happen before then. With a “centrist” Labour party which adopts conservative framing on more and more issues – in the belief that it must do so to stay “centre” and popular – progressive framing will atrophy further, conservative views will seem more like the “popular norm”, “common sense”, etc. How to combat this tendency? By introducing progressive framing as a matter of urgency. What, exactly, is at risk of annihilation? The Labour party as an institution, or the progressive ideals/frames that it originally stood for?

Written by NewsFrames

August 14, 2015 at 1:01 pm

Posted in Corbyn, Labour, linear scale

Nafeez Ahmed’s smear piece on IBC – part 2

ibc-nafeez-ahmed-part-2-compJuly 23, 2015Earlier this year, Nafeez Ahmed made some absurd conspiracy-flavoured allegations about Iraq Body Count (IBC). I responded in part 1, highlighting his errors and double standards. I’ve waited a while before writing anything more, partly because of responses such as the following (which made me want to shave my head, adopt the upside-down lotus position and chant for Universal Love):-


One good thing, however, was that George Monbiot read my article and promoted it on Twitter – it ended up being read by a lot of people. The following is an update, with some additional comments on recurring witchhunts.

The Bourne Ultimatum or the boring facts

A few days after my article got exposure via Twitter, Nafeez Ahmed posted a long response (which Monbiot described as “a frantic attempt to justify unfounded assertions/associations stretched beyond breaking point”), and tweeted this link to it:

ahmed-monbiot-tweet-7-6-2015“Hiding” war casualties? To me this statement seems right up there with “Elvis is living in my neighbour’s fridge”. Perhaps Ahmed could point to data on all the casualties that Monbiot and IBC are “hiding”? Or perhaps not – he appeared to “clarify” his position in yet another, later diatribe:

“While there is no indication that IBC has deliberately undercounted violence in Iraq…”
(Nafeez Ahmed, ‘IBC: undercounting death with pro-war cash’) – My emphasis

So, to summarise Ahmed’s position, there’s “no indication” that IBC has “deliberately undercounted” while “hiding Iraq war casualties” for the purpose of “undercounting death with pro-war cash”!

The comic absurdity of this stuff is exceeded only by Ahmed’s description of an apparently sinister “off-the-record” meeting organised by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP):

“In January 2007, Colin Kahl and John Sloboda were together in Washington DC at an off-the-record USIP panel, where Sloboda delivered a presentation about IBC’s views of the Iraq War death toll at an off-the-record USIP panel.”

secret-meeting6xEverything that Ahmed tells us about the meeting was already on the public record, including IBC co-founder John Sloboda’s presentation (which is on IBC’s website). The USIP web page for this event lists participants, subjects discussed, and helpfully tells us that it was “off-the-record”.

After informing us that IBC’s John Sloboda was “together” with Colin Kahl (a villainous US propagandist in Ahmed’s narrative) at the meeting, Nafeez Ahmed informs us that Les Roberts (co-author of the ‘Lancet’ Iraq studies) was also a participant – and thus, presumably, also “together” with Kahl in the same sense that Sloboda was. But not to worry, because, as Ahmed tells it, Les Roberts was “outnumbered at the USIP meeting three-to-one”. By “outnumbered”, I don’t think Ahmed means Roberts was forced to participate against his own free will. But you never know – perhaps he was bound and gagged by the “US Army counterinsurgency sub-contractor”, Michael Spagat. (Those are the actual words that Ahmed has used to characterise Prof Spagat, in case you were wondering).

Who needs Jason Bourne? Less amusingly, Ahmed tells us that John Sloboda “disavowed his own anti-war credentials” at the off-the-record USIP meeting. In his earlier piece, Ahmed writes that Sloboda did this “sycophantically”, and that his “statement before USIP and its pro-war panel contradicts the IBC’s official rationale”.

I find this kind of thing from Ahmed not only misleading, but gratuitously so. He is referring to a part of Sloboda’s presentation which is published on IBC’s website. I’ve heard Sloboda make a similar argument before, in the early days when IBC was sometimes characterised by pundits as ideologically “antiwar” in a politically “biased” sense (eg: “a hard-left anti-war group with a clear agenda“). Sloboda in fact makes it clear that IBC is “passionately opposed” to the Iraq war, but that he doesn’t impose any kind of ideological conformity on his colleagues (“where individual IBC members stand on other wars is a matter for them and them alone”). I see nothing “sycophantic” about this, and, in any case, it’s not tailored to “USIP and its pro-war panel” as Ahmed seems to insinuate. It also – obviously – doesn’t “contradict” IBC’s rationale (which states that “War’s very existence shames humanity”) as Ahmed obtusely asserts.

So, Ahmed is hopelessly wrong to say that Sloboda “disavowed his own anti-war credentials”. Perhaps Ahmed thinks that one acquires such “credentials” by conducting ideological purges to ensure that one’s colleagues have the “correct” beliefs?

Ahmed’s new falsehoods

Ahmed adds new falsehoods in his two response pieces. He’s also quietly corrected some of his earlier errors (the ones I’d pointed out). For example, he withdrew his claim that “USIP selected IBC for funding” and backed away from what he’d implied about IBC’s own funding (“My story does not claim that the IBC as an institution received funding from US and European governments…”). But then, in his latest piece, he goes back to claiming (falsely) that USIP funded IBC and that, “In total, four pro-war governments are currently involved in funding IBC and IBC personnel since 2009, none of which has been declared in the scientific journal articles related to the Iraq War by IBC authors.”

Related to these new falsehoods, Ahmed also misrepresented what I wrote (he’s now removed this):

In Brian Dean’s defence of IBC, which received a resounding endorsement from Dougherty, Dean claimed repeatedly that the IBC had not received any funding from the governments of the US, Switzerland, Germany or Norway.

He’d asserted this near the start of his piece, setting me up, as it were, for the revelations to follow which would contradict the claim he’d (wrongly) attributed to me. Remarkably, even his supposedly new revelations are false. IBC openly discloses some recent (2015) German government funding on its “About” page, which I’d linked to – but none of the government agency (eg USIP) funding which Ahmed makes claims about went to IBC (it was specifically for work by ORG/Every Casualty, eg research into international law as it applies to casualty recording, globally – not restricted to Iraq).

These supposed revelations, which Ahmed introduces in his latest piece, are based entirely on his reading of (and lack of fact-checking regarding) a “10th Anniversary Impact Report” by The Funding Network (TFN), which has been publicly available since 2012, and which contains a one-page case study titled “Iraq Body Count”. Ahmed seems to get excited about this because of the blurring of distinctions between “IBC” and “ORG” in the case study. He jumps to erroneous conclusions – all of the claims from Ahmed’s piece that I’ve underlined here are false.

Ahmed’s misrepresentations

Ahmed’s long response frequently misrepresents me, and it would take a long time to correct every case. I’ll restrict myself to a few examples – the clearest and (to me) most annoying ones…

At one point, Ahmed declares that, “The problem is that Dean is either lying, or plain dumb. Burnham’s Afghanistan study was not about mortality rates as such in Afghanistan (Ahmed’s bold emphasis). This was in response to a point I’d made about double standards, in which I cited a study of post-invasion Afghanistan, by Gilbert Burnham, which suggested a huge number of lives saved from health improvements. The study contains a whole section on child mortality-rates – indeed the page I linked to, which summarises this section of the study, talks explicitly about the mortality rates that I’m referring to. Ahmed somehow missed this, looked up the wrong study (the page I’d linked to summarises two separate studies) and formed the wrong conclusion – that I was “either lying, or plain dumb”. (On the basis of his mistake, he also referred to my point as “flagrant lies”).

The next example makes me think Nafeez Ahmed has a low estimation of his readers. Here’s a paragraph from his original article which I’d quoted in full. Please read it carefully:

Spagat’s early career connections to IREX and NCEEER, both conduits for US State Department propaganda operations, as well as to Radiance Technology, USAID, and USIP, raise serious ethical questions, as well as questions about the reliability and impartiality of his work, and that of IBC.

I noted that despite the obvious irrelevance to IBC of Spagat’s “early career connections to IREX and NCEEER” (which Ahmed wrote at length about), Ahmed asserted here that it raises “questions about the reliability and impartiality” of IBC’s work. I noted this because it’s precisely what Ahmed asserts in the above paragraph. In response, Ahmed simply denies that he asserts it:

Um, no I don’t, but if you quote repeatedly and entirely out of context, even English language night school won’t help you.

Presumably Nafeez hopes his own readers aren’t paying full attention to what he’s written?

The final example is clearest when shown as a graphic (click to enlarge to readable size). It concerns another point about double standards – this one involving an undisclosed OSI grant for “public education” relating to the 2006 Lancet Iraq study. The example demonstrates that no matter how careful I was to get the detail right, it didn’t matter, because Ahmed simply asserts something that isn’t true:-


Recurring witchhunts

One of the things I’ve found creepy about Nafeez Ahmed’s recent attacks on IBC is that the ludicrous, unsupported, overstretched allegations about Pentagon “propaganda” and “whitewashing war-crimes”, etc, sound similar to the rhetoric from another campaign against IBC – the one started in 2006 by Medialens (which I wrote about here). Medialens claimed that IBC was “providing powerful propaganda for people responsible for horrendous war crimes”, but the supposed basis for this claim was nothing to do with IBC’s funding. Initially, Medialens’s main (and false) premise was that IBC was a “Western Media Body Count” (and thus inherently propagandistic), although Medialens later shifted their focus to other forms of “criticism” (eg deriding IBC as “amateurs” in emails to journalists).

The term, witchhunt, is overused, but I think there can hardly be a clearer case than we have here. George Monbiot was right to characterise it that way:

monbiot-witchhuntNot only is it sustained, recurring, and based on assertion and moral outrage rather than evidence – it also takes the form of morally pre-framed allegations in search of anything that can be used, or spun, as reinforcement. It’s the already-pointing finger looking for an excuse to point. Any excuse. That’s why you have the same allegation of pro-war “propaganda”, but periodically recurring with a different “reason” for that allegation each time. (And it doesn’t even make sense – IBC’s tally of violent deaths approximately matches a violent deaths estimate from the 2013 UCIMS epidemiological study, which was vaunted as an improvement on the 2006 Lancet Iraq study. If you can’t refute the detailed case that IBC makes on this – and nobody has, to my knowledge – then you don’t even have a shaky premise as an excuse for a witchhunt).

You’d think Medialens would have learnt their lesson after all the things they got so badly wrong on IBC previously – but they’ve been the main cheerleaders for Nafeez Ahmed’s wild conspiracy theories and smears. Recall for a moment that Ahmed alleged, with no supporting evidence, that “the IBC’s directors are selling casualty recording as a way to legitimize military operations, and increase the effectiveness of counter-insurgency responses to armed resistance”.

This really is through the looking glass.

Note (2/8/2015): One thing I left out of the above (since I credit my readers with having a decent memory) is the point about USIP funding of Gilbert Burnham (lead author of the 2006 ‘Lancet’ Iraq study), which I brought up in part 1 to illustrate the double standards underlying these attacks on IBC. So, after making extreme, and probably libellous, claims about IBC based on his assertions about USIP funding, etc, Nafeez Ahmed, in his response, dismissed as a “non-issue” the fact that his own sources have been funded by USIP – including Burnham, who has repeatedly collaborated with USIP on conflict research, including on Iraq. Ahmed had to bend over backwards to make this seem a “non-issue” in Burnham’s case, after he made it such a big issue with IBC.

Written by NewsFrames

July 23, 2015 at 7:53 am