Framing: don’t think of an elephant

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In this classic introduction to framing, Lakoff argues that: "Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change." In addition, "All words are defined relative to conceptual frames. When you hear a word, its frame (or collection of frames) is activated in your brain" (p.xv). Although the book's focus is on how progressives can combat framings used by conservatives, it is also more generally relevant.

Lakoff also differentiates framing from spin and propaganda. He argues that framing is normal. Every sentence we say is framed in some way. Spin is the manipulative use of a frame, e.g., an attempt to put an innocent frame on something embarrassing to make it sound normal or good. Propaganda is also manipulative - attempt to get the public to adopt a frame that is not true and is known not to be true for the purposes of gaining or maintaining political control.

Lakoff suggests four important guidelines for dealing with opponents:

  • Show respect
  • Respond by reframing
  • Think and talk at the level of values
  • Say what you believe.

Other tips include: stand up for your values with dignity and strength; display moral outrage with controlled passion; be calm; be good humoured; hold your ground, always be on the offense, not defense; avoid the usual mistakes – don’t just argue against/negate, reframe; remember - once your frame is accepted into the discourse, everything you say is just common sense - that's what common sense is, i.e., reasoning within a commonplace accepted frame; always reframe opponents' questions rather than answering in their frame; be sincere; rhetorical questions can be useful; tell a story; be prepared; if an opponent is being disingenuous point this out then reframe.

The book provides many rich examples.

Reference: Lakoff, G. (2004). Don't Think of an Elephant! Know your values and frame the debate. The essential guide for progressives. White River Junction, Chelsea Green Publishing: Vermont, USA.

Posted: August 2015
Last modified: August 2015