Below is an amended version of a piece I wrote about Framing for Wonkcomms.
The conservative right studies cognitive science and work in advertising, they understand the role of emotion in generating values. The progressive left studies political science and is stuck in a phony enlightenment form of reasoning.
That’s the view of George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Linguistics at Berkeley and the go-to US expert on framing theory.
I went to a 90-minute think tank session about framing hosted by Counterpoint recently. And Lakoff made this assertion repeatedly.
But I can see through this act. In truth Lakoff is ‘framing’. He knows progressives and conservatives don’t really fall into neat categories. He is using the metaphor of education to frame what differentiates right and left political discourse about values.
Frame theory is everywhere right now. A recent report by the New Economics Foundation challenges us to devise ways of ‘re-framing’ the narrative of ‘Austerity’, a report by Compass analysed the values (aka ‘deep frames’) at the root of Ed Miliband’s Newham dockside speech in June. Counterpoint is in the middle of a programme of work exploring the influenceof framing.
Policy metaphors help frame political issues enabling even the most politically disengaged citizens to understand policy (See Hartman, Todd, ‘The Effects of Policy Metaphors onPolitical Attitudes ). Lakoff goes so far as to suggest that political framing be considered ‘applied cognitive science,’ so convinced is he of the technique’s empirical foundations (see Lakoff, G – Thinking Points, 2006)
‘War’, ‘struggle’, ‘motion’ and ‘direction’ are among the most common policy metaphors in use (for a list of political metaphors check Safire, W – Safire’s Political Dictionary)
George W Bush used the metaphor ‘Axis of Evil’ to describe states that were against the ‘war on terror’. Franklin D Roosevelt implemented a ‘New Deal’ to combat economic depression. Much political blood was spilt in 2007 and 2008 over whether to describe a $700 billion package to save Wall Street (TARP) as a ‘bail-out’ (BAD) or a ‘rescue’ (less contentious).
Recently European Central Bank policy on sovereign debt has been re-framed, the term ‘bail-in’ being deployed to normalise the removal of Cypriot people's cash deposits.
But what gives these metaphors the agency to actually change minds? Lakoff talks of the importance of ‘deep frames’ and the norms and values that underpin the way policies are framed in public discourse.
For example, the metaphor of ‘bail-out’, appeals to deeply ingrained value content (deep frames) implying the immorality, recklessness or irresponsibility of getting into debt. A ‘bail-in’, by contrast, draws on the same value content, but re-frames it in favour of personal neoliberal values of responsibility.
This touches on something contentious in Lakoff’s approach. His golden rule of framing is ‘never work with a frame set by your opponent’. On this logic, should the ECB have looked for an alternative to the ‘bailing’ metaphor? Just because an opponent has embedded an effective frame in the public consciousness, does that make it immune from hijack? Is it practical to ignore well-established frames like ‘austerity’?
An observation by philosopher Raymond Geuss questions the reliability of the assumption that values can be mobilized towards political action. He argues that people’s values are ‘usually half-baked, are almost certain to be both indeterminate and, to the extent to which they are determinate, grossly inconsistent in any but the most local contexts, and are constantly changing.’ (Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics, 2008).
I can understand think tankers wanting to instrumentalise 'framing' as a way of influencing debates. But I worry that the theory misses something about the nature of capitalist society, and the limited liberal politics at its root. The theory lacks a basic critique of capitalism itself and the role that ruling ideology and cultural norms play in the reproduction of media narratives.
An alternative approach is suggested by 'hegemonic' who commented on the piece I wrote on the Wonkcomms site.
Hegenomic said: 'Framing is a modestly interesting notion but it is actually far less profound than Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Gramsci recognised that the struggle for hegemony was a battle for ‘intellectual and moral leadership’. It was thus simultaneously a contest of ideas, which mattered, and a contest of values. The latter connected to popular ‘common sense’, the product of centuries of sedimentation in the context of domination by particular social classes (think support for austerity), and should be fought (from the progressive side) by building on the ‘good sense’ deriving from the experience of subaltern social groups (think public hostility to bankers). Political parties played the role in this context of ‘collective intellectuals’, coalescing ‘historical blocs’ of social forces behind political projects (think a ‘national health service’) while disarticulating such alliances constructed by the opposing side (think, from Thatcher’s era, the ‘right to buy’); media could in this sense act like parties too (Gramsci was thinking of the organising role historically for the British ruling class of the Times). Such hegemonic projects went beyond advancing the ‘economic-corporate’ interests of particular classes (think the limits of Labourism as conceived via the Labour Representation Committee of 1900 or the toxic association in the public mind of Cameron’s Tories with the energy companies). The Lakoff ;frame’ is quite one-dimensional by comparison.