Thursday, September 09, 2004

Framing in Politics

George Lakoff has interesting ideas on the reasons for the rise of the radical right-wingers to power in the United States. He thinks that the radical right is excellent in framing:

Language always comes with what is called "framing." Every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework. If you have something like "revolt," that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing. That's a frame.
If you then add the word "voter" in front of "revolt," you get a metaphorical meaning saying that the voters are the oppressed people, the governor is the oppressive ruler, that they have ousted him and this is a good thing and all things are good now. All of that comes up when you see a headline like "voter revolt" — something that most people read and never notice. But these things can be affected by reporters and very often, by the campaign people themselves.

Framing is present in almost all political slogans that I can think of, and Lakoff is right that the Republicans have mastered this skill. This, in turn, has led the Democrats to fight a largely defensive battle withing the same frame; a struggle that is doomed to failure. Consider the conservative framing in the term "tax relief". Here's Lakoff on this term:

The phrase "Tax relief" began coming out of the White House starting on the very day of Bush's inauguration. It got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for "relief." For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going. So, add "tax" to "relief" and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain.
"Tax relief" has even been picked up by the Democrats. I was asked by the Democratic Caucus in their tax meetings to talk to them, and I told them about the problems of using tax relief. The candidates were on the road. Soon after, Joe Lieberman still used the phrase tax relief in a press conference. You see the Democrats shooting themselves in the foot.

This quote is from an older interview with Lakoff and he points out that the Democratic usage of this term has now declined. But that is not really enough; the framing should be changed. For example, "paying your bills" or "sharing the common costs" or something cleverer but in the same vein would evoke a different frame about taxes.

And consider the most famous current term with framing issues: "the war on terror". This, according to Lakoff, is why the Republicans are controlling the issue of how to address terrorism:

You've said that progressives should never use the phrase "war on terror" — why?
There are two reasons for that. Let's start with "terror." Terror is a general state, and it's internal to a person. Terror is not the person we're fighting, the "terrorist." The word terror activates your fear, and fear activates the strict father model, which is what conservatives want. The "war on terror" is not about stopping you from being afraid, it's about making you afraid.
Next, "war." How many terrorists are there — hundreds? Sure. Thousands? Maybe. Tens of thousands? Probably not. The point is, terrorists are actual people, and relatively small numbers of individuals, considering the size of our country and other countries. It's not a nation-state problem. War is a nation-state problem.

All this made me think about the framing that anti-feminists also employ so cleverly. "Feminazi" is a very good example. It picks up the beginning from the term "feminist", but then appends it to a term which has enormously obvious framing intentions: "nazi". The nazis were an authoritarian rule bent on death.

This framing casts feminism as an anti-freedom movement, a movement to control and to kill. It leaves out the struggles for equality and freedom for women that the initial term "feminist" might convey. This is quite a preposterous reframing of a term. Nevertheless, the reframing has been successful, perhaps beyond the most ambitious dreams of Rush Limbaugh, the inventor of feminazism.

I even think that the now slightly stale term "political correctness" might have been created by some clever conservative playing with frames. My guess is that he (I'm pretty sure that it was a he) started with "civil rights" and then sought for the closest synonyms for each term which would sort of say the same except negatively. Though in some ways p.c. doesn't fit well into the framing theory, in other ways it's an excellent example of it as it allows the frame to be whatever the listener picks. Thus, a rabid racist or sexist hears the term as containing all that crap about equality and fairness which can therefore be attacked by just piping up with p.c. accusations, whereas a conscience-stricken liberal hears in the term only the most extreme exaggerations of attempts to be sensitive to various group issues. Then both can agree that political correctness is really bad!

But what is really fascinating about political correctness is how very upside-down it turns the world. In reality, of course, what is politically correct is that which those who hold political power prefer. So in the United States to be p.c. should mean to be for the values of Christian fundamentalists and neoconservatives. Yet nobody calls them politically correct...