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18.5.06

Framing Opponents and the Argumentum ad Ethnocentrism

Amanda Marcotte drew a little diagram to show why double-speak is not the same as framing -- rather, it's a subset of framing used dishonestly. The fact is that all comprehensible thought is always already framed. Framing is the tool the human brain uses to make sense of the world -- to pick out what's important in our sensory inupts, to know what to actively look for, and to fill in the gaps by inference.

Nevertheless, many on the left resist the idea. They claim that speaking plainly and simply is preferrable. They balk at the idea that their way of thinking would or should need to be translated in order to make sense to people with different cultural backgrounds.

But the rejection of framing is itself a frame. It invokes the powerful idea of "people who speak the plain and honest truth" versus "people who use convoluted and tricky wordplay." This framing is particularly interesting because of the way it operates through denial of itself, like the bumper sticker that says "question authority" or the commercial that says "people who aren't influenced by ads drink Sprite." Call this the Argumentum ad Ethnocentrism.

Ethnocentrism is the claim that other people have culture, but we have common sense. It's antithetical to the values progressives ought to stand for. And it's a political loser, since people from different cultural backgrounds will easily see how progressive "common sense" rests on assumptions specific to their coastal-urban culture. The smugness of believing you spoke the unadorned truth and the sheeple are just too dumb or duped to see it is small consolation.

It would be helpful, I think, for progressives to temper their view of George Lakoff as the scholar of framing, because doing so (framing the idea of framing in this way) makes it sound like a new idea. But the basic idea behind framing is so deeply woven into the social sciences (outside of economics) that it can hardly be said to have a single progenitor (or even a single terminology). Indeed, anthropology might be said to be the study of frames. Most use of the idea in progressive discussion is on a general enough level that the detailed differences between Lakoff's concept of frames, Mary Douglas's idea of cultural bias, or Alan Fiske's relational models (for example) don't make a difference.

Perhaps another concept from sociology and anthropology can help make framing seem less threatening -- the idea of "reflexive modernization," advanced in different forms by such thinkers as Anthony Giddens and Jürgen Habermas. The modern era was characterized, in effect, by the interrogation of existing frames. Religious and proto-scientific ideas were put to the test, and it became acceptable -- even desirable -- to seek new ways of thinking rather than adhering to the old. But modernity did this by closing off its own ideas and practices to such scrutiny. It knocked down old ideologies, but it did so in the name of unmediated common sense, not in the name of a better ideology. Giddens and others argue that we must push modernity into a "reflexive" phase, in which, by turning modernity's critical tools against itself, we become self-aware about how we socially construct our world. Modernity was the recognition of bad frames, while reflexive modernization is the acceptance of good ones.

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