Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Deep Politics: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

Once upon a time, I wrote:
To gain a deep understanding of politics, there are few writers I'd recommend more than George Lakoff.  During his lengthy tenure at University of California Berkeley, he was involved in groundbreaking work in the field of cognitive linguistics - the study of the relationship between thought and language.  Don't worry, we won't discuss anything near so dry here.  This is about Lakoff's opus, a 1996 tome called Moral Politics that claims to get inside the minds of conservatives and liberals respectively.

Lakoff's work is relevant and worth a study by anyone serious about understanding the construction of ideology for two reasons.  The first, which I won't get into as much here, is his emphasis on the use of wording and metaphors to craft narratives that invoke specific moral frameworks when communicating political ideas. He warns against using the conceptual framework of one's ideological opponents when debating contested ideas, as this gives the natural advantage to your opponent, who's framed the issue in a way that's advantageous to their world view.
I'd like to return to Mr. Lakoff and his work now, to discuss the first of those reasons here, the one I did not get into previously while discussing the Nation as Family Metaphor.  And that's the concept of cognitive framing - the mental structures that we use to see the world, and the use of language to create and advance a particular cognitive frame.  Terms like narratives are often used in the same or similar concept as frame: they denote a structured way of viewing the world that animates the positions people are more likely to take on political and social issues.

This sounds dry and academic, maybe even postmodern, and to an extent it is.  But it is also crucial to understand for those who wish to engage in dialogue with the intent on changing the world.  You will, whether you know it or not, advance a particular mental framework or social narrative, as will your opponents.  If your opponents understand this fact better than you do and are able to manipulate the concept of framing - as regressive leftists are as a result of studying post-structuralism and literary deconstruction, you will be at a huge disadvantage.  Conservatives also know about framing, and have used it to devastating advantage, such as with Newt Gingrich's infamous 1996 GOPAC memo: Language: A Key Mechanism of Control (the name really does say it all, doesn't it?)  Decades of marketing research, for both commercial and political application, has been invested in the study of cognitive framing, and you'd better believe that the powers that be use it to keen effect.

So the alt-left's main opponents are well versed in these theories. These also aren't new concepts: the use of language to create and mold reality was a major theme in George Orwell's 1984.  So this is a useful concept to understand.   

The first example that Lakoff sites in the first chapter of Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate is the oft heard term "tax relief." These two words together say more than their literal meanings suggest. Lakoff explains this frame in more detail: "For there to be relief there must be an affliction, an afflicted party and a reliever who removes the affliction and therefore a hero."  Taxation is thereby presented as something from which relief is needed.  This means of framing the issue of taxation is to the benefit of conservatives, who favor smaller government and are against state funded welfare programs for the poor.

The trap, warns Lakoff, is for social democrats to accept this core framework while arguing against conclusions derived from it.  One must not come out as being against tax relief, because this way of framing is inherently disadvantageous for the center left.  It is an uphill battle to advocate for a greater number of taxpayer funded social welfare initiatives if one buys into the framing of taxation as an affliction from which relief is needed, which one does implicitly through use of the term "tax relief." 

Better, argues Lakoff, to begin by conceiving of the issue of taxation in entirely different terms.  He describes it variously as "paying your dues, paying your membership fee in America", "what you pay to live in a civilized country" or similar concepts, all based around what citizens get for their tax dollars, rather than the burden that taxation places on citizens.  This shift in emphasis is what reframing is all about.

We can use this concept to look at contentious social issues from new angles.  Consider the highly controversial constituent elements of intersectionality, for example: white privilege, male privilege and so on.  The term "privilege" has a specific meaning that both denotes and connotes very specific concepts.  A google search of the term reveals the following definition: "A special right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people."

Like "relief", the term "privilege" makes certain presumptions.  For there to be privilege, there must be an authority with the power to bestow privilege, and that authority opts to bestow privilege based on arbitrary factors such as race, gender or sexual orientation, among others.  It is also conceivably possible for a privileged person to renounce their privilege, or for the authority granting said privilege to act in a more just and egalitarian manner. To fight against privilege is to fight for fair treatment for all, which we can also define as social justice.  One who fights can also be called a warrior.

The problem is that the term social justice warrior carries a lot of cultural baggage.  While the denotation - the literal meaning seems fair and reasonable, the connotation - subtler ideas communicated more through undertone and subtext is overwhelmingly negative.  The term invokes a frame consisting of fanaticism, zealousness, self righteousness, hypersensitivity and so on.  Why is this?  Part of the problem lies with the use of the concept of privilege to frame the issue of social inequality.

The "knapsack of privilege" consists of a bevy of benefits supposedly enjoyed by white males that are denied women and minorities: higher pay for the same work and less discrimination to actually get that work, men are raped and sexually harassed far less than women, whites are hassled by police less frequently than minorities, and so on.  To view these things as "privileges" presupposes - if only subconsciously - that someone capriciously made the decision to confer these benefits on white males and not women and minorities.  The implications are that not being raped, being paid fairly for the work one does and freedom from arbitrary police actions are not rights, but rather privileges that are unfairly enjoyed by some and not others.  Think long and hard on this.

Implied is the notion that all white males enjoy these privileges while no women or minorities do.  This subtly legitimizes an attitude of collective resentment on part of the less privileged and collective responsibility on part of the more privileged.  It is these implied resentments and this implied responsibility that formulate the subtext of a considerable volume of media informed by feminist and critical race theories, and why they provoke such defensiveness from their white male targets.

Privilege is therefore a counterproductive way of framing many issues that we now see in terms of racial and gender identity, such as sexual assault, wage inequality and abuse of police powers.  Assuming that the advantages supposedly enjoyed by white males are "privileges" implies that some authority somewhere, presumably white and male itself bestowed the advantages on white males as an act of personal favoritism (it didn't), it presumes that white males are able to individually or collectively renounce these privileges but won't (they can't) and that it is therefore acceptable for the less privileged to hate on those who are arbitrarily favored in this manner (it isn't, since it doesn't work this way in the real world.)

The self righteous militancy that the privilege frame tends to engender in those who accept it - the SJWs - also acts as a barrier to the exploration of alternative explanations for unequal outcomes. SJWs will see an attempt at a reframing of the issue as an attempt on part of the privileged to duck their responsibility for the unfair advantages that they enjoy and thereby jeopardize the morally superior status enjoyed by the SJW, and call out such actions accordingly.  Plus, many white males have, to varying degrees, internalized the privilege frame and the ensuing guilt serves to paralyze their will and bring about rapid capitulation in the face of feminist accusations of defending privilege, especially on college campuses and extremely liberal urban areas where these ideas enjoy cultural dominance.

Since the privilege framework does not effectively diagnose the true nature of the grievances, legitimate or no, that women and minorities have vis-a-vis white males, things are not likely to improve for them for so long as this framework holds.  This will intensify resentment on part of those whom this frame holds as being less privileged - and deepen their commitment to this flawed means of framing injustice, and paralyzing guilt on part of those deemed more privileged.  The end result isn't likely to be good.  Zimbabwe and South Africa present an unpleasant glimpse at where this could potentially end up.

To present a solid and defensible way reframing of social inequality in a more productive manner should be a key task of the alternative left.

Do you, dear reader, have any ideas for a more productive way of framing the issues of racial and gender equality?  Let me know in the comments.

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