Friday, April 16, 2010

Lakoff explains framing of issues!

What does it mean "to frame an issue?"

This article by George Lakoff provides clear examples of how framing an issue can cause people to either support or oppose it. The article then explains the neurolinguistic basis of the different decisions. First an example of how framing changes voting decisions.

This is the first item:
[But]the NY Times reported last month on a NYT/CBS Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell poll on whether "homosexuals" or "gay men and lesbians" should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats said they support permitting gay men and lesbians to serve openly. Fewer Democrats however, just 43 percent, said they were in favor of allowing homosexuals to serve openly. That's a 36 percent framing shift on the same literal issue, but not surprising since the words evoked very different frames, one about sex and the other about rights. Newsworthy for the NY Times, but hardly earthshaking.
This is the second item:
But a recent poll by David Binder, perhaps the premier California pollster, showed a framing shift of deep import for Democrats -- a shift of 69 percent on the same issue, depending on the framing. It was noteworthy not just because of the size of the framing shift on the main question, but because the shift was systematic. Roughly, around 18 percent of voters showed that their values are not fixed. They think BOTH like liberals and conservatives -- depending on how they understand the issue. With a liberal value-framing, they give liberal answers; with a conservative value-framing, they give conservative answers. What is most striking is that conservatively framed poll questions are all too often written by Democrats thinking they are neutral. The result is a Democratic move to the right for what are thought to be "pragmatic" reasons, but which are actually self-defeating.

Here is the background.

California is the only state with a legislature run by minority rule. Because it takes a 2/3 vote of both houses to either pass a budget or raise revenue via taxation, 33.4 percent of either house can block the entire legislative process until it gets what it wants. At present 63 percent of both houses are Democrats and 37 percent are far-right Republicans who have taken the Grover Norquist pledge not to raise revenue and to shrink government till it can be drowned in a bathtub. They run the legislature by saying no. This has led to gridlock, huge deficits from lack of revenue, and cuts so massive as to threaten the viability of the state.

Unfortunately, most Californians are unaware of the cause of the crisis, blaming "the legislature," when the cause is only 37 percent of "the legislature," the 37 percent that runs the legislature under minority rule.
The extended discussion in the article provides some of the subtle political implications of this situation.

Then the author goes on to explain the neurological basis for this kind of frame-shift.
There are two political value-systems that voters have, call them Pro and Con. (You might think them as Progressive and Conservative, though no overall views are tested in the poll.) About 40-to-45 percent have a consistently Pro-worldview. About 35-to-40 percent have a consistently Con worldview. About 18 percent have BOTH worldviews, and the understanding provided by language can trigger one or the other, resulting in a shift.

Now things get really interesting. The DBR poll found a way to test this explanation. The respondents to the poll were asked if they found the pro- and con-arguments convincing or unconvincing. On the battery of pro-arguments, an average of 57 percent found the pro-arguments convincing and 38 percent found them unconvincing.

On the battery of con-arguments, 57 percent found the con-arguments convincing and 41 percent found them unconvincing. The same high percentage -- 57% on average -- who were convinced by the pro-arguments were also convinced by the con arguments! As in the shift found in the support for the initiatives, the wording resulted in a shift of about the same magnitude.
The author of this article, George Lakoff, is discussing one poll in depth in order to explain what liberals are doing wrong politically. I strongly suggest reading the entire article as well as looking at the detail of his examples which I have not included here. His final conclusion is an important takeaway for all of us who want to keep the America that lives up to the aspirations of the Constitution.
I have been arguing over the past decade and a half that progressives need to build a communication system of their own to (1) express the values they really believe in, to (2) to communicate the truth, (3) to use their own values-based language to show the moral significance of those truths, and (4) avoid communicating conservative beliefs they do not hold, especially by avoiding the language of conservatism. The poll results just discussed reflect the failure of progressives to do so.

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