Tag Archives: framing

No, really. Really. Words matter.

Maybe I should have been a linguist.

Because I find that I’m a little bit obsessed with language.

Specifically, the language that we use to talk about the issues that matter, and how what we say shapes what we see.

Two thoughts leaped out at me from Generation Roe, related to language:

First, how the frame of ‘pro-choice’ evokes a certain perception of how women come to abortion, and, conversely, how being, then, framed as on the other side of ‘pro-life’ triggers undesirable conflicts, too. Because it’s a very different equation, to pit ‘life’ against a ‘choice’. When the lines are drawn that way, where we end up feels different.

And, second, how we define ‘access’–to any service–is very important for marking the parameters of equity and justice and, truly, meaningful access. Because is it really ‘access’ if people are too poor to get to the service? If it’s not offered in their native language? If they don’t feel comfortable in the neighborhood where we’re located?

For me, the first of these language concerns relates to how we let others define us, and how we need to be intentional about how we describe where we stand, on a given issue. And the second is about intellectual honesty and ethically representing the limits of our own efforts, rather than using language to console ourselves unjustifiably.

One is about not allowing ourselves to be boxed in unnecessarily and inappropriately.

The other is about not giving ourselves more wiggle room than is warranted.

Words matter.

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.

Advocacy in light of confirmation bias

We have the best ideas.

I mean, okay, actually, I have the best ideas.

Right?

Unfortunately, that’s sort of the way our minds work: when we believe ourselves to be right, we seek out information that, consciously or not, affirms our ‘rightness’, even when our failure to check that reality could be, in an advocacy arena, fairly epically bad.

That’s one of the most alarming insights I gleaned from Decisive: confirmation bias means that even our most diligent research may fail to illuminate weaknesses in our proposed policy solutions, or even our framing of the problem, because we’re wired to discount that which disagrees with our way of seeing the world, and to hone in on anything that affirms it.

Today’s patterns of media consumption, of course, accelerate and exacerbate this.

In my own life, I start my mornings with NPR streaming on the treadmill, see print stories specifically selected by my Facebook friends over breakfast, and scan through blog posts highlighted by my Twitter followers, all sources explicitly selected by me because they echo my concerns.

I think we mostly know this, by now, but what struck me from Decisive is that, even when we think that we are intentionally accounting for this, we’re still not very good at overcoming confirmation bias.

Just knowing that we have this tendency does not, in other words, protect us.

And, of course, we’re not the only ones thus susceptible; those we are trying to convince/lobby have their own confirmation bias at work, and it influences how they experience the arguments we present, as well.

Not incidentally, confirmation bias is particularly a concern for folks like us, since it tends to be the strongest in emotion-laden spheres, including politics (p. 95), although, certainly, some high-profile failures suggest that even such ‘technical’ fields as engineering are not immune to the dangers of seeing things as you believe them to be, instead of how they really are.

But all is not lost.

What we need, in addition to this basic awareness of our vulnerability to confirmation bias and the importance of accounting for it (because it’s really not enough for us to just believe that we are right, even when we believe it so sincerely and vehemently), are concrete steps to counteract it, and to shape our advocacy so as to help overcome others’ confirmation biases, too.

Some ideas from Decisive that I think apply particularly well to policy advocacy:

  • Intentionally reality-test our assumptions, ideally with some small-scale experiments
  • Seek out partnerships and mentors with decidedly different ways of seeing the world, explicitly to challenge our thinking when necessary–I have seen, in my own advocacy, how important this is in the field of immigration advocacy, where our messages and tactics are decidedly improved through our collaborations (delicate as they are) with business groups and others who approach immigration reform slightly (or more than slightly) differently
  • Develop processes designed to lead us to the right questions–one of my favorites is a sort of counter-factual that asks ‘what would have to be true?’ for a given position to be true, or for a particular approach to be desirable. This can help us to explore alternative possibilities and test our own assumptions, but it can also expose ways in which slight changes in the fact assumptions could surface some new options from which we can then choose (p. 100). For example, prior to the deinstitutionalization of people with mental illnesses, what would have to be true for it to be possible to close most of the institutions providing them with service? It would have to be possible for people to manage their symptoms effectively with outpatient treatment. With the arrival of sophisticated pharmaceuticals, this set of facts emerged, and a radically new option became viable, in ways unimagined by those closest to the issue.
  • Doubt your own knowledge and question your own process–what if we asked, as a part of any policy research, “What’s the most likely way I could fail to get the right information in this situation?” What if we used this same thinking to point out to policymakers (gently) that they may not be getting the information they need, either, as a way of easing the path towards their acceptance of some of our information, over the objections of their own confirmation bias?

Where do you see, once you’re looking for it, confirmation bias in your own policy advocacy? What alternatives do you disregard out of hand, because they don’t fit your way of seeing the world, or at least your issue? How do you account for this tendency in your own analysis? How do you break through others’ confirmation bias, in your advocacy?

Messaging like a convoy

Image from Flickr, Creative Commons license

Image from Flickr, Creative Commons license

I read A LOT this summer, and I have notes about some of my insights from that reading all over my desk.

In an effort to clean off my workspace and clean out some of the thoughts swirling around my head, the next several weeks will be sort of ‘book review’ time at Classroom to Capitol. I hope that you add some new titles to your ‘to-read’ lists (mine are SO long!) and find some new ideas to seed your own thinking, as we head into fall.

Reading about Auschwitz on vacation prompts some strange looks, I’ll admit.

But it’s good mental exercise, and I found myself reflecting on more than just the obvious horror of the Holocaust, although that’s what kept me up some nights.

But this quote from Goebbels was one of the first pieces that struck me.

He described his communication efforts as relying on repetition and constant, only somewhat varied, reiteration. His technique was to ‘move like a convoy–always at the speed of the slowest vessel’ (p. xvi).

I’m not, I promise, suggesting that we strive to emulate the Nazi propagandist, it is an undeniably poignant example of the power of communication.

But that idea, that we need to be always aware of how we’re bringing people along with us, as we’re messaging, is incredibly important.

It means that racing along at our preferred speed won’t work, when what we’re trying to do is get people to adopt our lens to see the world. It means that we will leave people behind unless we’re not only scanning the horizon but also looking in the rearview mirror. It means that we can’t be afraid of saying the same thing over and over again, because that’s how we give people a chance to connect to our messages, at whatever point they encounter them.

It means that we never lose sight of the purpose of our communication, at least in an advocacy context: to share a vision of the world as it should be, and to invite others to be part of it, too.

The link between not enough and too much

For some work I’ve been doing–some for a health foundation, about the advocacy capacity of the ‘healthy eating/active living’ sector, and some for an anti-hunger organization–I’ve been spending quite a bit of time learning and talking about what food insecurity really means, and, in particular, why addressing hunger is an essential part of combating obesity.

The Kansas Association of Community Action Programs, an organization I’ve worked with a lot in the past few years, recently released their 2012 Hunger Atlas, describing what hunger looks like in Kansas, and what it means for health in the state.

And, when people hear ‘hunger’, they think skinny. ‘Hunger’ triggers visions of emaciation, even though very few people who experience hunger in the United States look like that. And those associations matter, because what people think they know influences very much how they respond, even to something as basic as our human need for food.

Anti-hunger organizations today often get push back from donors, advocates, even their own staff, when the people who seek food assistance–at pantries, commodity programs, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program eligibility sites, communal meals–don’t ‘look’ like they are hungry.

Which means we have a lot of work to do.

Because the truth is that being food insecure means that you don’t know where you next meal might come from, which absolutely shapes the decisions you make at this one.

It means that you don’t have good variety in your diet, that you’re lacking key nutrients, and that your meals are irregular, all of which can lead to being overweight. It means that your food budget is stretched, and we know which foods offer the cheapest delivery of energy. The link between obesity and food insecurity isn’t ironic, it’s inevitable, with the way that our food system is structured, whether we are ready to face that or not.

Being ‘malnourished’ means poorly nourished, and that might look like underweight, or it might look like overweight, but it certainly means unhealthy. It means a problem.

And we have to message it that way.

Until everyone has access to enough healthy, affordable food to feed their families well, we can’t even begin to pretend that obesity is a personal problem, instead of one deeply woven into the structures that shape our decisions. Obesity and hunger are not two separate issues. They are two sides of the same coin, a coin that presumes that nutrition is a commodity to be bought and sold, instead of a basic human right, and each side has tragic consequences for individuals and for society.

Obesity is a wicked problem to solve; it’s an adaptive challenge if there ever was one, one which will require us to change the way that we do almost everything.

Including fight hunger. And talk about it.

A rose by any other name…why words matter. A lot.

When we don’t want to get involved in a foreign conflict, it’s a ‘civil war’ or a ‘tragedy’, language which absolves us of our responsibility to intervene, unlike genocide, which we have a harder time ignoring.

We call it two-sided, an inevitable.

We do this with other social problems, too.

We say, ‘the poor will always be with us’, because that makes it seem like it’s not our fault, that we’re the richest country on the planet and children still lack a place to sleep and enough healthy food to eat.

We talk about breakdowns in family values as though parents are solely responsible for their children’s educational failings.

We use language that doesn’t seem as dire, because then our failure to act doesn’t seem as inexcusable.

Americans are mostly good people–I mean, individually and collectively, there are injustices that we just will not tolerate, once we recognize them as such.

So, then, actors who want to prevent outraged response are skilled at labeling problems in order to minimize the likelihood that we will rage.

A Problem from Hell featured prominently Raphael Lemkin and his struggle to coin a phrase that would capture what happened to the Armenians, Jews in Nazi Germany, and other peoples targeted for genocide, before that word existed…he understood the power of naming, and so did his opponents.

Once Winston Churchill called these targeted, mass killings, in 1941, “a problem without a name” (p. 29), Lemkin resolved that they should have one.

While, certainly, coming up with the term didn’t make genocide stop, it did–and it still does–change the calculus. For example, support for intervening in Bosnia jumped from 54% to 80% in some polls when Americans were told that what was happening to Muslims there was ‘genocide’.

And we should learn from these hard-fought lessons.

We need to name other problems that are unrecognized today. What should we call the widening class gap in higher education, for example, and the related fact that the high cost of college acts like a gate to make sure that most talented young people from low-income families can’t compete effectively with those more privileged?

And we need to make sure that names do justice to those afflicted by the ills they represent. I mean, what is the ‘feminization of poverty’? (It still pops up on spell check.)

One of the grave truths that a study of history makes clear is that we need a ‘hard principle’ that elected officials are going to weigh against other interests, if we are to prevail. We need to make it clear that the problem we want solved–poverty, or violence, or environmental destruction–is something that violates core tenets of who we are as people and as a nation.

When, in contrast, it’s a vague and squishy ill–nameless or poorly named–that we’re stacking up against constituent or special interest pressure, we’ll lose.

We need to call injustice out. By name.

Flipping Frames

My students’ favorite class period, usually, in the Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice course, is when we talk about framing.

Everybody loves reading Lakoff, right?

The fun part for me is watching their realization develop, as they consider the roots of what they have always held to be ‘true’, as, instead, socially constructed and shaped by the language we use to talk about the concepts the words represent.

We talk about how often we find ourselves slipping into language, and buying into frames, that do not fit our values. Even though we can’t afford to shore up a competing frame.

We talk about ‘tax relief’, and about how it makes no sense to talk like that.

And, as they get it, they peel away the frames that shape our thinking. They reject frames that clash with the visions we hold.

Together, we reclaim language, refuse to accept language that misrepresents or demonizes vulnerable populations, and assert new ways of talking about issues.

We talk about how talking differently can lead to thinking differently, and about how we can lead the way to new potential solutions by changing the mental cues that our words evoke.

This isn’t about blaming the media for spin, or pretending that there are magic phrases that can galvanize the public around our way of seeing the world. Instead, it’s about understanding the cognitive link between language and beliefs, and using that brain science to our advantage, in the literal war over words.

In small groups, students practice ‘flipping’ frames. They analyze how a particular policy or problem is framed today–like tax policy, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), unemployment, homelessness, or the Affordable Care Act–in policy discourse/public media, and generate alternative ways that they could be framed.

Then we assess what it would take to assert this alternative way of thinking about these issues. We talk about how we might begin this process of transition. I use examples from advocacy debates today, like the work DREAM Act youth have done around pushing media outlets to abandon use of the word ‘illegal’ to describe undocumented immigrants, about how language can drive policy.

For many of them, it’s the first time that they have really thought about how what we say, together, shapes what we think, and about the insidious ways in which language determines what is seen as a ‘problem’ and which solutions are seen as ‘feasible’.

It’s satisfying, then, when they send me media clips, by email or through social media, even years later, pointing out how language around gay rights has shifted, or questioning why we’re all talking about a ‘fiscal cliff’.

We know, from research about the powerful intersection between language and thought, that we are what we say, to a great extent.

So we have some frames that need to be flipped.