This piece was first posted at the now defunct US website PunditWire. I had a lot of good stuff there, now lost to civilisation. So I’ll repost updated versions of some of my pieces here, to let them linger on the Internet a while longer.
This one on ‘framing’ is GOOD.
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A key skill taught to mediators and negotiators is how to ‘reframe’ issues. This means moving the conversation to a higher level of generalisation. A form of bold simplification that (as the jargon has it) takes all concerned from their obvious Positions to less obvious Interests and Needs. And thereby creates space for strategic compromises.
Thus a haggle over compensation payments: “I think I’m hearing from you that you can be flexible on phasing these payments, but you really need certainty on the total?” The reframing question opens the idea of trading Money against Time.
Framing is all around us these days in politics. Organisation activist Saul Alinsky featured it prominently in his Rules for Radicals: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
A classic version of this is the dead cat denial. You untruthfully accuse your opponent of having a dead cat on the front doorstep (or some other seemingly bizarre offence).
When your opponent says that s/he has no idea what you’re talking about, you reply “Ah, so you’re saying that you don’t know what’s on your own doorstep?“. This insinuates that s/he is uninformed and/or dim and/or negligent.
Your opponent then exclaims crossly that all this is utterly untrue. You slyly reply “Ah – so now you’re denying that you have had a dead cat on your doorstep?” – this suggests that s/he is dishonest.
On it goes. The ensuing hoots of anger and frustration from the opponent create a general mood that this person is a bit crazy, always banging on about dead cats. After all, if there isn’t a dead cat or other dead animal there at the house somewhere, why is s/he getting so worked up about it?
You tip-toe away. Mission accomplished. A sneaky reputational frame-up.
The key technique here is, as the Americans say, going on offense. By the very act of opening the discussion on your terms, the other side is dragged on to linguistic or emotional territory that puts them at a disadvantage. And, once there, it’s strikingly hard to change the subject without looking shifty or aggressive.
Thus the Boston bombings. Scarcely has the smoke of the explosions dispersed than the framing starts, first on Twitter then in the mainstream media. It will be bad if your political opponents somehow frame the event in the public mind in a way that somehow might undermine your side’s general policy positions. So there’s no time to waste. Make a pre-emptive strike! Frame them first!
While a US conservative point of view has done its fair share of this sort of thing, sometimes to bizarre lengths (“Obama is a Muslim!”; “Obama is the Antichrist!”), those with sympathy to Alinsky’s own worldview were off to a flying start this time
We soon saw the outlandish and rightly derided piece by David Serota, “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American”. More subtly all sorts of people popped up to point out that the bombings coincided with Tax Freedom Day and Patriots’ Day. Former Obama adviser David Axelrod: “I’m sure what was going through the president’s mind is — we really don’t know who did this — it was tax day.” Not to ignore CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “It is a state holiday in Massachusetts today, called Patriots’ Day. And who knows if that had anything at all to do with these twin explosions?”
High Art dead cat dumping. To float with no evidence whatsoever a deliberately vague hint that US conservatives of some sort might be behind or complicit in the attacks, then add blithely – as if reasserting the most impeccable professional objectivity – that of course no-one yet knows anything, so it’s all just ‘speculation’. As events have shown, in this terrible Boston case those bold liberal-minded mind-games are not working out so well.
A popular framing buzzword these days is ‘fairness’. Those who rhetorically champion fairness want a double framing. First, to get it established that they – and they alone – are fair, and everyone who disagrees with them is ipso facto unfair. But second, they assert the right to decide what is fair and what isn’t, and thereby grab intellectual and emotional sway over whatever issue is up for discussion. It pretends to be about substance. It’s really about control.
Another vivid example from the hard ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum is to accuse anyone who disagrees with you of being ‘privileged’ and so disqualified from being taken seriously on the issue in question (or perhaps at all).
So if you are a white male, you should just shut up completely. White professional, able-bodied, Christian women with husbands need to ‘check their privilege’: only non-white, poor(er), disabled, non-heterosexual, non-Christian women are truly aware of oppression, and so qualified to pronounce on what society must do to address it.
This proposition gains traction because it has more than a ring of credibility: it is self-evident that given the history of the past few centuries ‘black’ people are better placed to talk about and identify racism than ‘white’ people. Likewise that women spot patronising sexist discourse and behaviour more readily than most (if not all) men.
But it also leads us inexorably to a ridiculous place, namely ever-shrinking squabbling grouplets of allegedly oppressed people demanding that they and they alone are at the ultimate oppressees and so should tell the rest of us what to do. Isn’t this just the latest iteration of bullying Leninist vanguardism wearing non-gendered undergarments?
A related form of radical political reframing drills deep into language itself, insisting that language discriminates against certain people and has to change. This change can happen. In the English-speaking world we now mock advertisements from not so long ago that used crudely sexist stereotypes and language.
But some people want to go well beyond the so-called gender binary and invent new ‘neutral’ pronouns to take gender issues out of language altogether. This (they hope) will stop any assumptions about someone else’s gender or sexual ‘tendency’. So instead of saying “She ate her orange” we all should say something like “Thon ate thon’s orange”.
The underlying point here is, once again, all about asserting hegemony over debate. “The very fact that you unconsciously use gender-oppressive language shows just how privileged you are. You have disqualified yourself from having an objective, fair view on any issue involving me. So keep quiet.”
This thinking is elitist and clumsily Anglospheric. In many languages round the world (including French, Russian, Polish, Serbian to name just four I know) ‘binary’ gender is utterly embedded in the way people talk and think, with nouns, adjectives and verbs having dozens of gender-based grammar forms. Changing that is impossible.
Conclusion for us speechwriters? Only that honest, subtle reframing of issues with a view to achieving compromise is one thing. Dishonest, subtle reframing of issues with a view to emphasizing division and grabbing power is another. Both, alas, work.