This is an excerpt from DeSmog founder Jim Hoggan’s latest book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse, published by New Society Publishers.
I first began reading the works of linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff about 15 years ago and I was struck by the Berkeley professor’s now famous ideas about what he calls frames. In public relations our stock in trade is messaging, because our role is to create understanding by combining maximum clarity with supreme brevity. We work in the world of sound bites and elevator pitches that are designed to be short and pithy, and we rarely have the time or budget to delve into frames or deeply moving narratives.
When I started writing I’m Right and You’re an Idiot I wanted to better understand the difference between messages and frames, so I would know how frames work and be able to explain how to manage them. I wanted to better understand how they relate to the mechanics of public debate, and especially how frames impact facts and scientific evidence in public discourse, or when shaping opinion.
When we met, Lakoff described frames as metaphors and conceptual frameworks that we use to interpret and understand the world. They give meaning to the words we hear more than the other way around, because words don’t have objective meanings independent of these metaphors. Frames are structures of thought that we all use every day to determine meaning in our lives; frames govern how we act. They are ultimately a blend of feelings, values and data related to how we see the world.
We can’t think without frames, Lakoff explained. “Every thought you have, every word is defined in terms of a frame. You can’t say any word that’s meaningful without it activating a frame.” Frames permeate everything we think and say, so the people who control language and set its frames have an inordinate amount of power.
Lakoff stressed that if you do a bad job of framing your story, someone else will likely do it for you and his comments reminded me of something my mentor in the PR business, Mike Sullivan, once said: “If you don’t tell them, someone else will—and it will be bad.” What Mike meant was if you are an unwilling or ineffective communicator, you leave yourself wide open to someone else doing serious damage.
A frame is a way of looking at the world that is value laden, and like a metaphor it conjures up all kinds of thoughts and emotions. Jackie Kennedy used a frame when she referred to her life as Camelot. “Ethical oil” and “tax relief ” are also frames. Such words evoke subconscious images and meanings, as opposed to factual statements such as “10 million scallops are dead,” a headline that appeared in February 2014 in a Vancouver Island newspaper.
What came to be called Climategate was an international campaign to discredit scientists on both sides of the Atlantic just before the 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change. It took the momentum to set targets out of the conference. I was astonished to see how a group of legitimate climate scientists, with stacks of peer-reviewed evidence on their side, could lose debates to a group of people who had none — all because of a lens created by mischief-makers. Clearly, Climategate was a battle of frames versus facts, and the frames won.
The truth is, facts alone don’t change minds, said Lakoff, who wrote a book called Don’t Think of an Elephant, which explains how to frame political debates in terms of values not facts.
He believes that the progressive community contributes to confusion in the public square because of an outdated understanding of reason and consequent lack of persuasive communication. During our interview, he told me that progressives need a mental model that goes beyond cold, logical messaging that’s directly correlated to reality — a model which should embrace metaphors, a marriage of emotion and logic.
Liberals have an unemotional view of reason that dates back to French philosopher Descartes. Lakoff explained that when conservatives want to go into politics they study business, marketing and what makes people tick, whereas progressives study political science, law and public policy. Progressives don’t study cognitive science, neurology or how the brain works. “They learn a false view of reason that goes back to the 1600s…that says reason is conscious, logical and unemotional.”
It wasn’t long ago that risk communications experts, who study the power of facts, also assumed that giving people more information and evidence would ensure they made better decisions. But research shows facts don’t change minds, at least not in the way we think they do.
Lakoff said cognitive and brain science research has shown that reason is not rational without emotion, without an over-lay of values to make sense of facts. Simply put: frames trump facts.
“We have thousands of metaphors structuring our brains,” he told me. “We think in terms of them all the time and they’re not random, they’re not mythical, they’re things that allow us to get around in the world. We have to use them. Words aren’t neutral.”
They are the structure we use to think.
We should all have a commitment to the truth, he continued, but not let an understanding of facts overwhelm our job, which is to change the brains of people out there. “Every time you argue, you change your brain. Every time you tell somebody something else, you’re changing brains, because everything you think is physical; it’s all in the circuitry of your brain.”
But just speaking the truth isn’t enough to convince people of new ideas. If facts are to make sense and be perceived as urgent, they must be framed in terms of deep, deep values.
George Lakoff ’s advice is short and sweet: To be an effective communicator get clear on your values and start using the language of values. Drop the language of policy. “People do not necessarily vote their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values.” He believes so-called inaction and apathy should warn progressives that the conservatives are winning the communications battle between moral imperatives: “It’s time to decide, either we are all in this together or it’s every man for himself.”
Progressive morality says citizens act responsibly to provide infrastructure, education, health care, transportation and basic research for one another. Progressives constrain stock markets and protect bank accounts. They believe that private profit depends upon public provision. Conservatism is all about personal responsibility. The importance of public services is minimal when compared with the benefits of private enterprise. Conservatives promote stock markets and regulate banks. They believe that human effort creates wealth.
Of course some people are conservative about some things and progressive about others. Lakoff calls this bi-conceptualism. It means you can have both moral systems operating in your brain at the same time, each inhibiting the other from time to time. The more active one is, the stronger it gets, and that’s where language and communication come in. It’s also why media in influences matter so much, as do the ways we communicate.
In politics and social issues, frames are hierarchically structured and at the top of that hierarchy are the moral frames. So the question often is: Is this a frame where citizens care about each other, act responsibly and where there is a robust sense of what’s good for all? Or is the frame telling us that someone believes they have the freedom to access their own self-interest but need not care about the interests of others?
When it comes to environmental issues, Lakoff explained that these conflicting moralities are tied to two very different ideas of our relationship with nature. For progressives: We are a part of nature and dependent on the environment. Nature has inherent value. For conservatives: We are separate from and dominant over nature. Nature’s value is determined by its direct utility to people. Lakoff was quick to note that this is a simplification because most people aren’t ideologues, and bi-conceptuals are generally open to persuasion in either direction. The moderate has no ideology.
Every word is defined by an individual frame. A frame is a neural circuit. A neural circuit is made up of connections of neurons joined together by synapses. When a circuit is activated the synapses get stronger. If that circuit inhibits another circuit, then that other circuit’s synapses get weaker. When the synapses are stronger, it is easier to activate an idea in someone’s mind and therefore easier for it to spread to other issues. “So, repetition is what strengthens synapses. And it doesn’t matter if it is accurate.”
Suppose you’re a conservative, he said, and you want to create a frame that fits your moral system, but let’s suppose it has nothing to do with truth. You may be saying, for example, that cutting corporate taxes will create jobs. We know that’s false. Corporations are making more profits than ever before, are not hiring people because they’re outsourcing work, reaping the benefits of cheap labor in other countries or using more technology. They’re not “creating jobs.” So this is a false statement. But if conservatives call themselves job creators and repeat it over and over, people will think that cutting corporate taxes will create more jobs. The words are like a recurring jingle, stimulating a synapse and creating a thought pattern. That frame is activated over and over, and every time it is reactivated it grows stronger.
I asked Lakoff if it’s possible to set the record straight. Every time we say, “those are not job creators,” do we step into the job creator frame and imprint it again? By outlining facts, even in a logical statement of contradiction, do we always help reinforce the other side’s point of view?
Yes, he said. You lose the persuasion battle when you consistently step into your opponent’s frame; it reinforces their morality and their argument in the minds of your audience. The way to respond is to not mention the other frame. Only mention yours. Always start with your frame and stay in it. Always be on the offensive; never act defensively.
Framing is a system that has evolved because it works for every-day life, said Lakoff. “Free will is not totally free. It is radically constrained by the frames and metaphors shaping your brain and limiting how you see the world. Those frames and metaphors get there, to a remarkable extent, through repetition in the media.”
Everything you have learned is stored physically in your brain, he stressed. Every frame is in a brain circuit, every metaphor is in a brain circuit, every image is in a brain circuit. Your whole moral system is in your brain. If you hear something that doesn’t fit with what’s in your brain, it will go in one ear and out the other unless you are the type of person who remembers things that don’t quite fit and worries about them. But most people don’t.
Progressives must realize that their old-fashioned view of reason is false — that Descartes and the information injection theory of communication have not panned out.
More information about Jim Hoggan on I'm Right and You're an Idiot.
Image: George Lakoff/George Lakoff