Suitable for Framing?

It's a funny thing about the term "framing:" The more it gets used, the less we seem to understand what it means. Three years after George Lakoff emerged from academia to help make framing a household word among progressive activists, most of us are now thoroughly confused about what a frame is, or how to distinguish a frame from a slogan, message or spin. Consider this recent teaser for AlterNet's new blog, Echo Chamber:

Some current frames: The president broke the law by authorizing spying; this Republican Congress is the most corrupt in history; Alito is an extremist judge who will set the country back decades and can still be defeated. Are these frames working? Are they the right message? Stay tuned to the Echo Chamber to find out.
More accurate questions would have been: Are these frames? Are they messages? Is there a difference?

What we learned from Lakoff early on is that framing begins at a deep conceptual level. It is really about how we understand the world and our place in it; how we define problems and solutions; how we organize ourselves to achieve our goals; and how we talk about all of it.

Despite attempts to fight the tide, framing has come to mean finding better words and images to communicate with various audiences (the president broke the law by authorizing spying). The problem (and I think it's serious), is that we're proposing "frames" that are actually messages within frames, that evoke frames of which we remain oblivious. In the name of fixing a problem (we don't have a clue what the frames are in which we're operating) we're actually perpetuating it.

I think getting this right matters, because what framing really points us to is a deep rethink that forces us to challenge our assumptions and identities and that will require a reorganization of many of our efforts. It is not sloganeering, messaging or spinning, all of which leave our assumptions, identities and institutions comfortably in place.

Genuine re-framing is the hard work that progressives will have to do if we are to have any hope of offering a serious challenge to right-wing domination of American politics. It is the work that must precede message framing: Message framing without deep conceptual reframes is like hanging pictures in a house in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward right now. Without exposing the mold and the rot, taking things down to the foundations where necessary, and then framing new walls, windows and doors, we're not going to build a home that will last.

What will this hard work involve? For starters we'll need to identify and then question some of our underlying core assumptions. A prime example: The assumption that we can build an effective counterweight to conservative and corporate hegemony from the conglomeration of several different issue or identity-based "movements."

We now have decades of experience with this theory -- that if each issue movement does a good job, then it will all come together in some bright tomorrow. But despite the massive growth of progressive "civil society," we're no closer to the birth of a genuine movement than we were 25 years ago. Only by exposing the fallacy will we be free to think differently, to focus on articulating our goals in terms of shared American values, to be explicit about building a majoritarian movement.

There has never been any illusion that any of the academic theorizing about framing made sense without organizations and leaders who could do the real work of reframing. But this gets very tough, because if we do this right, it has to mean challenging basic assumptions about what the problems and solutions are, and this may in turn demand radical rethinking of our organizations and alliances.

For example, we might be less sanguine about leaving the issue of global warming to the environmental experts if, instead of understanding it in terms of too much carbon in the atmosphere, we thought about it in terms of solutions, including:

  • The potential for a transition to a clean energy economy.
  • The creation of millions of high-skill, high-wage jobs.
  • Taking responsibility for our common future.
  • Developing and sharing new technologies with the developing world.
  • The transformative effects of energy democracy versus energy domination.

To suggest a genuine reframe inevitably means we'd actually have to think about letting go, not just of identities, but also the thinking behind multimillion-dollar institutions on which many of us depend for a living. This is why I think most of the mainstream reframing efforts now under way will stop well short of what's needed. The framing experts have proven unwilling or unable to lay out the unvarnished truth about what's at stake, and even if they did, our large institutional leaders won't, and probably can't, make the kind of changes necessary; they may have too much invested in the status quo to be the change we want to see in the world.

This will leave the real work to those on the margins, where change usually takes place. And this is exactly where it's happening. For example, the best of the metro advocacy and organizing groups are challenging the narrow confines of traditional issue categories. They are working on the things that are of primary concern to their communities and developing broader visions of what those communities can be. They're bringing labor, community and faith groups together and linking up to build real power in some of the largest states. These organizations don't need framing experts to urge them to let go and move on. They're operating in new and effective ways without needing to do a lot of explaining (other than to funders, who remain a problem); it just makes sense.

While the mainstream groups and their consultants seek to contrast "conventional frames" and "new frames" within each traditional issue category, the best of the new work turns the tables: Forget the categories, focus on cross-cutting solutions that appeal to broad audiences, and then begin to build a bigger movement by bringing together folks who are open to busting out. This is genuine reframing, in my understanding, as opposed to setting out new policy proposals or messages within the existing categories.

This all points to the possibility of a new movement that will manage the alchemy that has eluded us for so long: to be greater than the sum of our parts. We can't underestimate the magnitude or the challenges involved in what we're trying to accomplish. And I'm convinced that we make it infinitely more difficult if we fail, at the outset, to challenge our assumptions, beliefs and identities. Only then will we be able to build a new politics in which environmental, social and economic justice activists, business people, civil rights organizers, health care reformers, children's advocates, labor unionists, peace campaigners, veterans and all the rest of us will find a home.

This is what framing really needs to be about for progressives: bringing these elements and elements we haven't even imagined yet into a new movement that includes us and transcends us.

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