Thursday, August 16, 2007

The higher (or lower?) language

It's quite clear by now that much of our national discourse on topics ranging from gay marriage to Iraq to global warming takes place not in terms of facts but in the more powerful language of emotional associations, in terms of ideology. Framing counts for more than facts (as Republicans seem to understand better than Democrats, for some reason), in part because of the power of modern media to spread simple messages and sound bites far and wide, and their inability or unwillingness to act as honest interpreters of framing strategy.

In a New York Times essay that I never got around to writing, I had intended to argue that the proper role for the media in today's world ought to be as "censors" of a sort, or exposers of framing. For example, rather than merely providing a forum and promulgating Republican claims that war opponents "hate America" or are "helping the enemy," the press ought to provide independent assessment and comment on how such attacks aim to frame the war debate in a way favorable to Republicans. And vice-versa for Democrats. When Hillary Clinton attacks Obama for saying nuclear weapons should be off the table in pursuing terrorists, the press shouldn't merely repeat her words that "Presidents since the Cold War have used nuclear deterrents to keep the peace, and I don't believe any president should make blanket statements with the regard to use or non-use." Comment ought to focus on the obvious Clinton strategy of trying to paint Obama as being "unpresidential" and inexperienced. Reporting (sadly quite a lot of it) that quotes political figures without commenting on the frames they're attempting to establish really is mere stenography.

If you have a spare hour, I highly recommend this podcast of an entertaining and deeply informative lecture at Xerox PARC by Geoffrey Nunberg of the University of California, Berkeley. Entitled The Paradox of Political Language, this is the abstract:

There's a paradox in modern attitudes about political language. Left and right may disagree as to which expressions count as deceptive packaging and which are merely effective branding, but both sides acknowledge that the American public is particularly susceptible to linguistic manipulation. Yet it's also fair to say that there has never been an age that was so wary of the mischief that language can work or so alert to the dangers of political euphemism and indirection. How did we come to this point? Are political and public figures really more mendacious than they used to be, or does it reflect a changing media role or an increasingly polarized political climate? Why is widespread sophistication no impediment to the misleading use of language, and why do many of the most successful linguistic maneuvers pass our radar undetected?

Actually, I hadn't really intended to post on this subject, but it came to mind this morning when reading a spirited opinion piece by Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times. If you don't think framing and metaphor can help alter the terms of a debate, read this:

If we learned that Al Qaeda was secretly developing a new terrorist technique that could disrupt water supplies around the globe, force tens of millions from their homes and potentially endanger our entire planet, we would be aroused into a frenzy and deploy every possible asset to neutralize the threat.

Yet that is precisely the threat that we’re creating ourselves, with our greenhouse gases. While there is still much uncertainty about the severity of the consequences, a series of new studies indicate that we’re cooking our favorite planet more quickly than experts had expected...

That's effective framing.


MaryKaye said...

I had intended to argue that the proper role for the media in today's world ought to be as "censors" of a sort, or exposers of framing...

Dream on. That might be their proper role as some see it. The media, instead, carved out their role as the megaphone for White House talking points. And, darned cunning talking points they were, too.

Kate said...

While effective framing might help--that Al Quaeda scenario, for example--I have come to believe that humans are just not evolutionarily prepared to comprehend this kind of threat.

For hundreds of thousands of years, selection has favored humans who consume all available resources, have lots of babies and wipe out their enemies. The strength of these behaviors continue to make it very, very hard for some humans to adapt to the reality of global climate change. I'm not sure that framing the danger differently will make much of a difference.

Who am I? said...


I fear you are right. I do think we'll eventually make some significant changes, but eventually may be a very long time...and it will take world cataclysm to stir serious action.

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