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More thoughts on Lakoff and conceptual framing...

by proximity1 Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 03:51:00 PM EST

In Lakoff's view, the conservative political element has done such an effective job of «framing», that, for important segments of the public, some or many issues may be considered largely and conclusively already framed to the benefit of conservative interests and thus the openings in public consciousness for opposing views of the crux of issues are fewer and farther between than is the case for conservative views.

    Framing, then, by Lakoff's view, is a subtle process which predisposes large parts of the public to think in some desired manner.  Frames are to be thought of as accepted as by second-nature and thus too difficult for too many people to discern for themselves unless they are reminded to do so.   Fortunately,  with practice, these same people can learn to detect and counter their opponents' framing efforts and, moreover, it is in the deft use of their own concept-framing practices that  conservatives' opponents can advance their arguments just as it is in alertly detecting their opponents' framings and countering them that the best hope lies for disarming them.  


    Notes on Lakoff


    The reports of my death are greatly  exaggerated. -- Mark Twain, in a letter to the editor of a newspaper which had reported Twain's (i.e. Samuel Clemens') death

    I now have more to say about George Lakoff 's views on the issue of framing the terms of debate in political discourse, some examples of which can be found at the Rockridge Institute's website.  I recommend you read the examples linked (which are very brief and clearly presented) rather than rely on my recapitulation of their main points.

    This present little exercise in (attempted) persuasion is itself, and of necessity, an example of framing.  To frame or not to frame is not the question.  If that and the reasoning behind it are not obvious already, I hope that they shall be by the time you have read this exercise.

    Lakoff asserts, and I agree with him, that participating in the battle to frame the terms of discussion in any debate ought to be seen as a normal and necessary part of a debate.  Central to my point here is that to regard it as anything less or to present it as largely a preliminary technique apart from disputing the contentious issues themselves is simply to misunderstand its part in discourse.  Where I differ from Lakoff in the presentation of issue-framing is on where the emphasis ought to be placed and on how one ought to think about framing.  In other words, the difference is precisely one which concerns how the matter of « issue-framing » ought to be framed.

    To explain why I think his frame of reference is misplaced, let's consider some of the other  terms by which the technique of framing has been traditionally described and let's start by considering the term « frame » itself in its most common literal sense.

    A frame is, of course, a boundary, a border.  In paintings, the frame is the structure which surrounds and supports the painted canvas.  It usually contains and delimits the work with which it is associated.  For a painted canvas to extend beyond the limits of its frame would immediately strike most of us as very peculiar--though there is nothing which necessarily precludes the artwork surpassing its frame.  By the very act of its placement, the frame implies: herein is the part to which your attention is called.  Photographs are often « cropped » --that is, the image which is presented to the public is something less than the original entire image which the camera's lens captured.   Something like this could be done to most paintings--their frame could be reduced and less than the original work could be presented to the viewer.

    No graphic image and no discussion can be infinite in their extent. They are by necessity a selected « view ».   In finished works of art, the artist largely determines the extent of the work; the artwork's owner can change an existing frame if he prefers but his ability to alter the size of  the artwork runs generally in the direction of reduction rather than enlargement.

    In a discussion, too, there is inevitably a frame since it's not practically possible to consider and to include every conceivable idea in any discussion.  Thus, the extent of the discussion or, in other words, its « frame » is as large as the set of ideas, of issues, allowed by those taking part.   The frame of discussion, then, is an essential and inevitable aspect of the discussion.  If all parties don't take part in determining the discussion's frame, then those which do shall set the frame for those who don't engage them in it.

    That process, that part of the discussion, has gone by a variety of names.  « Framing » is one of them but so are « setting the terms »,  « determining priorities », « focusing the issues ».  These are all other words for « framing the issues » and whatever the descriptive phrase one prefers, the essential point is the same: to argue over what are and are not properly the points at issue in the discussion.  There is nothing necessarily sinister--nor does Lakoff ascribe anything of a necessarily sinister nature--in each party trying to insist on its own ideas of what is properly inside and what outside the scope of the debate and in attempting to reject an opponent's views on that:  once more, it is impossible to include everything.  

    Lakoff emphasizes that, while conservatives have been particularly apt over the past thirty years or so at focusing the issues in a way that suits their interests, their political opposition has done very little and sometimes practically nothing to contest the conservatives' frame of reference.
I agree that in this much he is not only correct but that the point is an important one.  

  Here, in an example, Bush Is Not Incompetent, Lakoff and co-authors Marc Ettlinger and Sam Ferguson argue:


Progressives have fallen into a trap. Emboldened by President Bush's plummeting approval ratings, progressives increasingly point to Bush's "failures" and label him and his administration as incompetent. For example, Nancy Pelosi said "The situation in Iraq and the reckless economic policies in the United States speak to one issue for me, and that is the competence of our leader." Self-satisfying as this criticism may be, it misses the bigger point. Bush's disasters -- Katrina, the Iraq War, the budget deficit -- are not so much a testament to his incompetence or a failure of execution. Rather, they are the natural, even inevitable result of his conservative governing philosophy. It is conservatism itself, carried out according to plan, that is at fault. Bush will not be running again, but other conservatives will. His governing philosophy is theirs as well. We should be putting the onus where it belongs, on all conservative office holders and candidates who would lead us off the same cliff.

  Here I'm in the odd position of having to actually speak up in support of the view of House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a person I usually consider as an unmitigated disaster for opponents of Bush.

  Pelosi's view of Bush as an incompetent is not only one which is now shared by millions of Americans of varied beliefs--including, by the way, now more than a few Republicans and other former Bush supporters as well as Democrats--it is also a view which can be regarded as squarely consistent with Lakoff's idea that conservatives' conceptual framing must be met and countered by the deliberate assertion of other concepts which reframe the issues in a manner which is at once fairer, more honest and more favorable to the assumptions of Bush's opponents.  By insisting that Bush is incompetent, Pelosi can very reasonably be understood as rejecting a prime conservative framing device--namely, that it is government itself which is inept, unable to respond effectively to manifold and legitimate social needs.  Bush and conservatives who can quite well benefit from a view of government framed as inherently incompetent are then faced with the open refutation of that frame in the form of the assertion that it is Bush himself rather than government which is the actual incompetent culprit.  This has the additional advantage of not necessarily alienating the growing number of self-identified "conservatives" who have now come to see Bush himself as antithetical to their core political beliefs.

  In insisting that to properly frame this issue requires that conservative ideology, not the person of President Bush, be the frame of reference for opponents of "conservative" policies of Bush, Lakoff et al can themselves be regarded as falling into a sort of "framing trap": that of seeing Bush as indeed the implied genuine representative of what is properly called "conservative" political pratice.  Not only is that a very debatable assumption in its own right, it also marginalizes other competing--and more worthy--notions of standard conservative political practice and tends to do the same to those Americans who so define themselves and their views in contrast to the so-called conservatism of President Bush, Dick Cheney and others like them.

   What is clear, then, by the foregoing example, is that merely being well aware of and alert to the theory and pracice of political conceptual framing does not ensure that one does a good job of countering an opponent's framing practice.  

    The trouble is furthermore, I believe, that Lakoff's views tend to unduely formalize what constitutes framing and therefore to overlook or take too little account of the fact that to a great extent, all of political disputation is a continuous battle over how issues are to be framed.  Another name for framing the political issues is an old-fashioned one: political arguing.  In Lakoff's view, the conservative political element has done such an effective job of « framing », that, for important segments of the public, some or many issues may be considered largely and conclusively already framed to the benefit of conservative interests and thus the openings in public consciousness for opposing views of the crux of issues are fewer and farther between than is the case for conservative views.

    Framing, then, by Lakoff's view, is a subtle process which predisposes large parts of the public to think in some desired manner.  Frames are to be thought of as accepted as by second-nature and thus too difficult for too many people to discern for themselves unless they are reminded to do so.   Fortunately,  with practice, these same people can learn to detect and counter their opponents' framing efforts and, moreover, it is in the deft use of their own framing practice that the conservatives' opponents can advance their arguments just as it is in alertly detecting the opponents' framings and countering them that the best hope lies in disarming them.  

      I would put the same points rather differently.

      1)   In politics, if  you allow your opponents to set the priorities, and to determine how controversies are to be defined, then they shall do so and  they may gain a significant advantage over you in the public's discourse and reasoning in these issues.

   2)  The process described in 1) above, also goes by the names of «setting priorities», « focusing debate », «setting the terms of debate», or, «political disputation».

   3)  People's talents in these are greatly varied. They do better or  worse at reasoning, at  detecting their opponent's fallacies, at recognizing errors in their own or their opponent's logic, at finding, learning and marshalling the facts and evidence in their favor and in impeaching the faulty evidence presented against their case.

    4)  The more skilled, better prepared, more alert, more aware and more informed one is as compared to one's opponent, the better, generally, one can expect to do over the long run in political contests.

    5)  There is no substitute for thorough and careful thinking in discourse and in debate. Whatever techniques one employs depend first on one's basic reasoning skills and only second  on the techniques themselves.  

    6)  The  best-framed plans of mice and men are of little use if the balloting is rigged; or the mass-communications media are monopolized and corrupted; or the public has been so savagely demoralized and its trust so badly abused that it no longer respects any public authority at all;  or the very basis of any common public purpose and overriding general interest has been lost through decades of bitter and hate-filled social and political conflict which has poisoned public discourse itself.

    In conclusion, framing the issues in political discourse is a very good and a very necessary idea--just as is holding your breath when underwater without other assisted means of breathing.  If you don't take part in the issue-framing, your opponents shall proceed without you.
  But, by the same token, if you shirk altogether your part in the political life of your society,  then your issue-framing abilities and your framing-detection talents are of little or no consequence and you shall then be governed by your inferiors.

    My difference with Lakoff's emphasis might be put this way: if we applied more time, attention and effort to the factors in 2 through 6, above, the factor of « framing » would come along  with the rest of the progress.  Meanwhile, to focus on framing as the key leaves factors 2 through 6 to fester.   And issue-framing talents won't necessarily address these.

Display:
Thanks for writing this. I shall try to digest it.

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 06:06:02 PM EST

 "I shall try to digest it."

 Bon apétit!  ;^)

  Your repsonse should be read with great interest here.


"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Mon Jul 3rd, 2006 at 08:22:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks very much for discussing Lakoff and framing, as well as duly emphasizing your five points.

I'm at a lose with the matter as Lakoff turns up quite often on left-leaning blogs. What little I have read of his contentions appears to me as someone who has discovered hot water and then attempts to sell it to kettle makers. I am comforted to learn that Lakoff feels

"that participating in the battle to frame the terms of discussion in any debate ought to be seen as a normal and necessary part of a debate."

One of the main pillars of argumentation is to choose data, and organize and interpret it. It's up to one's opponent to do the same, yet he's hardly expected to choose and emphasize the same data. Otherwise, what's the use of debating? That would boil down to "let's only discuss the issue on my terms as I define them."

The bottom line is to persuade the audience. There's no way around it. Both contenders may use whatever rhetorical devices they see fit. Foremost is to appeal to the reality-principal of that specific audience, to foster a sense of empathy with one's listeners. This "framing" stuff is part of the package, the "ground floor" so to speak, but it's just as adversarial as any other argumentative technique.

Now modern media has introduced the figure of the hapless gazer. Nixon brilliantly created and defined this virtual entity with an oxymora: "the silent majority." And Nixon resorted to this mute entity as an authority that spoke through him as if he were its prophet. It would be the case to put this intangible spoiler to rest and show more respect for the intelligence of real audiences. For example, by arguing from one's own point of view.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 08:36:36 PM EST

 "Thanks very much for discussing Lakoff and framing, as well as duly emphasizing your five points."

  You're very welcome. The pleasure was mine.

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Mon Jul 3rd, 2006 at 08:23:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree with your points. Places like dKos treat framing as if it's some kind of alchemical media panacea. But if you're not getting heard at all in the first place, how you frame an issue is irrelevant.

Re: point 2, professionals hire coaches who explain how to score points and win debates. There's an entire subculture devoted to this, and the public isn't invited. (To an extent there always has been, e.g. in Rome you could make or break your own political career with some good legal grandstanding in a court case, and rhetoric and oratory were taught as formal subjects.)

There's very little about this in the public domain now. There are very few books about rhetoric (that I can find) and even fewer about practical debating and crowd influence. Given how incredibly important this is as a topic, the scarcity of this information is surprising.

Meanwhile, for those who aren't familiar with the alternative, here's the anti-Lakoff.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 10:05:15 PM EST

  Thank you, TBG, for that link.  I'll add it to my Reading List #2.

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge
by proximity1 on Mon Jul 3rd, 2006 at 08:24:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
When I read Lakoff's essay on alternet this morning my immediate reaction was to smell a rat. Lakoff has not changed sides and so it was obvious that this was at least an exercise in deflection.

Of course, he has a point to make. Conservatism is the problem and I've long suspected that George is not as dumb as he acts. Lakoff is right in pointing out that he's been enormously succesful in geting his (Cheney's) agenda adopted.

But that doesn't matter. If Lakoff wants conservatism to beocme the focus of the pushback, the right have evidently determined that such an attack would fail.

So Proximity is right to side with the otherwise hapless Pelosi. If the enemy don't want you to do it, it seems a good reason to me to keep on keepin' on.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Jul 3rd, 2006 at 03:25:18 PM EST


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