Framing

At the progressive bloggers’ panel I attended yesterday, some people (especially Jeffrey Feldman) talked about framing. In particular, they advanced the argument that using a frame the other side was already using, say “big government,” was counterproductive because it would only remind people of the existing frame. In other words, if the Democrats brand Republicans the party of big government, then it’ll just make people remember that the Democrats are for big government.

Lindsay applies the same reasoning to sexist epithets:

Calling Michelle Malkin “a cunt” is the equivalent of calling the Republicans “the party of big government”–a terrible rhetorical move whether it’s deserved or not. “Big government” is a Republican frame that Democrats have to counter with a better frame of their own. Fighting about who’s really the party of big government just helps the Republicans by reinforcing their way of looking at taxes and the state. Likewise, “cunt” and “fag” originated in a conceptual scheme where vulvas are gross and gay people are subhuman. It’s very difficult to use those insults without reinforcing the values that made the epithets make sense in the first place. An individual can sever the tie between the word “cunt” and cunt-hatred, but that doesn’t mean that word has lost its associations for its audience.

I don’t want to disagree with Lindsay too much about the application to sexist epithets, considering that I think Parachutec irretrievably lost his mind. But the only evidence I can find for the theory of activating frames is the anecdote that when I read radical critiques of liberalism that use anti-communist language (Tony Judt’s hit piece is a good example), I tend to discount them even more quickly than critiques that don’t use that language.

In the real world, inverting frames can be immensely useful. The first time ever that feminists talked in terms of privacy was when abortion became an issue in the 1970s. The more radical ones still haven’t gotten over the fact that the feminist movement made abortion rights mainstream by using language that up until then was conservative; the rest of the political landscape has accepted privacy as a liberal frame. Contrariwise, anti-feminists are using the “pro-woman” frame again; it didn’t work in the 1900s and the 1960s, but at least for now Feminists for Life has become a fairly robust organization.

The other option is to pejorate existing Republican terms. The person who popularized the term “big government” was J. K. Galbraith, who promoted it as a necessary check on big business; right-wing spin doctors then pejorated the term and used it against the Democrats. The most vulnerable point of attack is “moral values,” where the relevant soundbite is “It’s not up to the government to legislate morality” (it’d have worked better if liberals had used it after Milton Friedman, who came up with that phrasing, died).

What won’t work is frames that really don’t mean anything. In Wait! Don’t Move to Canada, Bill Scher suggests talking about a representative, responsive, and responsible government. That might work if someone like George Soros puts a few billion dollars into producing thinktanks and media channels that can actually explain to people what those mean.

Right now, “representative” sounds like some process issue, and “responsive” and “responsible” smack of “we’ll make the trains run on time.” The only Americans who care about making the trains run on time are commuters from New Jersey and Connecticut, who already vote Democratic.

Look, if you want to make liberal values resonate with people, get over the fact that John Rawls couldn’t write to a general audience if his life depended on it. “Maximal equal rights” is very stiff, but “civil liberties” and “equal rights” aren’t: “we’re for equal rights: that’s why we support affirmative action legislation to combat discrimination at work.” The principle of equality should be glossed over, if only because utilitarianism sells while categorical morality makes you look like a feel-good bleeding heart.

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