How we see what we ‘know’

Sometimes I think I missed my calling as a linguist, because I’m so fascinated with framing and the power of language to shape our understanding of our world.

Of course, I’m interested not objectively or academically, but from my perspective as one who hopes to use language to influence how people see, think about, and, subsequently, work to change reality.

So, I guess, in retrospect, I’m in the right line of work after all.

I recently reviewed Diana Kendall’s Framing Class: Media Representations of Wealth and Poverty in America for use in my advanced advocacy practice course (we’ll be reading a selection this semester, although I may use it more extensively in the future, with our revised course syllabus), and I am struck by how much of our ‘knowledge’ is mediated through the lenses through which we get our information: primarily social relationships/networks and mass media.

And, of course, information shapes not just what we ‘know’ (despite the title of this post), but also what we feel, which, for the purposes of prompting action, is probably even more significant.

We know that frames matter. They make sense of the world around us. They draw our attention to certain elements of a situation at the expense of others. They change how what’s inside the frame appears.

And, as the book illustrates with tons of examples (known to many readers, probably, but, because I am a notoriously non-consumer of popular media, were not familiar to me), the way we see poverty–and, just as importantly–wealth, is definitely ‘framed’.

When it comes to rich people, Kendall identifies six frames:

  • Consensus (wealthy people are just like us, which serves to diminish the role of class demarcations)
  • Admiration (they are generous and caring people)
  • Emulation (the wealthy (as a monolithic class, no less!) personify the American dream
  • Price-tag (the wealthy believe in the ‘gospel of materialism’ (p. 29))
  • Sour-grapes (they are unhappy and dysfunctional)
  • Bad-apple (some wealthy people are scoundrels–which, significantly, frames the system that produces wealthy ‘bad apples’ as working, if not for these rogue actors, instead of correctly situating the problems primarily within the structures that incentivize greed)

We absorb these frames and, importantly, we reproduce them, too. The news reports on the stock market even though very few Americans own stock, instead of reporting on how to obtain unemployment benefits, far more useful to most during the past several years. And we take that as normal, even as a ‘given’. In nonprofits, we exalt the philanthropy of our wealthy donors instead of questioning a system that produces some with so much. We fawn over ‘rags to riches’ stories because they seem to give credence to our stubborn belief in an American dream that has largely vanished. We console ourselves that we ‘know’ wealth, and what it means, through our supposed identification with fictional or far-off wealthy people, and so we are less cognizant of the corrosive effects of extreme concentrations of wealth on our very national existence.

And, of course, we frame poverty, too.

We focus on individuals, leading many casual news consumers to believe that, inexplicably, people are repeatedly making the bad choice to live in dangerous neighborhoods, go without health care, and send their children to inferior schools. We shake our heads but may not connect the dots. Conversely, when we zoom out to focus on statistics, hunger and poverty can seem like numbers games, instead of cruelties with very real consequences. Sometimes, because poverty doesn’t fit any one reporter’s ‘beat’, and because it doesn’t lead nicely to conclusion at the end of the column inches, we just ignore it. We especially fall into patterns of frames when writing and talking about mothers receiving welfare. Almost without exception, they are lazy, hyperfertile, childlike, or bad parents…or all of the above. We overemphasize incidences of poverty among people of color, because that’s what–and who–Americans think of when they think ‘poor’. We link poverty and deviance, often ignoring the ways in which following the rules can lead to the same tragic outcomes.

We frame the working class, even when we’re not at all certain what that is or who belongs there. Those who work for a living but fail to get ahead are shady–as is often the case with portrayals of organized labor–one-dimensionally heroic, caricatures, or on a downhill slide in the new economy, outwitted by technological change. Their human failings are treated differently than the wealthy’s, because they don’t have money to fall back on to cushion the consequences of their bad decisions. And, notably, media representations of working-class and working-poor individuals tend to be about them, rather than with them–notably missing is any real effort to include their own voices, hopes, fears, or opinions in the coverage.

Which leaves, then, really, the middle class, largely defined in terms of its position relative to other classes: aspiring to spend as much as the upper classes, disdainful of those in poverty, alternately aligned with or competing against working-class Americans who may be their neighbors or even their family members.

I read the book, as usual, through my lens of motherhood, in addition to my social policy perspective, thinking about how my children will come to understand who they are and where they fit and how distorted those pictures are in our highly unequal economy. I hope that, for my students and my own kids, raising questions about why we think we know what we’re seeing, and how the filters at work affect us, at least raises the right questions.

And, maybe, moves us to write our own stories.

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2 responses to “How we see what we ‘know’

  1. I agree, I think language is important. I think it really impacts our culture. I talk a lot in my trainings for practicum about how our language about social problems/oppressed groups can really play a role in setting the culture and how we respond to social problems.

    Even in the domestic violence movement, a statistic that is often quoted is, “Every 9 seconds, a woman is battered.” That kind of bothers me a little because 1) It takes the abuser out of the problem and it isn’t really accountable language, 2) the language of “battered woman” takes on that identity for her and makes it sound like that consumes all of who she is.

    • Awesome point, Adele, about the language in that statistic and what it does–and does not–communicate. I was thinking about you in regards to this this morning, and about how we can reclaim the rhetorical ground around less visible disabilities, as you pointed out in your other post. I am going to remember this example, too–thanks for sharing!

      Melinda Lewis melindaklewis@gmail.com 816.806.6094

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