The Public Eye Magazine - Spring 2006

Framing Our Values Better

As staff members of the Rockridge Institute, the progressive think-tank where Dr. George Lakoff is a Senior Fellow, we appreciate the invitation William Gamson and Charlotte Ryan extended to discuss the nature of framing, and its importance in the progressive movement [“Thinking About Elephants: Toward a Dialog with George Lakoff,” by William A. Gamson and Charlotte Ryan, Fall 2005]. However, be warned: it may turn out to be one of those boring discussions where everyone agrees with everyone else.

Gamson and Ryan explain frames with laudable clarity and considerable accuracy— no easy task, as we’ve discovered. We agree with their description of frames as unconscious mental structures that give “coherent meaning to what is happening in the world.” Frames develop into “common sense” both through our interactions with the world around us, and through cultural reinforcement transmitted through repetition. Once established, frames govern our interpretations of events, telling us what the important parts are and, in the case of politics, determining the credibility of information provided and of the messengers providing it.

The difficulty inherent in understanding framing has resulted in many misconceptions. Some think of framing as a sort of alchemy by which a carefully-crafted slogan is effortlessly transmuted into policy victories. These shortcuts simply don’t exist. However, the deeper modes of reasoning that people use to evaluate policy can change, after a great deal of time, money and passion have been devoted to the effort.

In fact, we follow in the footsteps of many progressive reframers who prove that concerted efforts can alter policy by way of framing. The successes of the feminist, civil rights, and environmental justice movements have inspired our work from Day One. Those long-term reframings serve as examples of what is possible when the objectives of progressivism as a whole are understood to make common sense. We imagine a future in which feminism, environmentalism and labor rights are each seen as aspects of a broader philosophy, because the connections between issues and to core values have been highlighted by organizations and leaders working on them.

Furthermore, as Gamson and Ryan point out, framing the debate is not the same as winning the debate. For that, you need collaboration between activists, policy professionals, organizers, media mavens and, yes, intellectuals. We’re cognitive linguists, so we focus on the relationship between language, ideas, and intellectual infrastructure. This should not be seen as a slight to other components of the progressive ecosystem, but rather as an attempt to optimize division of labor. We’re contributing to the movement the best way we know how: by understanding and then better articulating our common values so that the general public realizes those values as the governing principles of our nation. That articulation will be a success contingent upon our working with and alongside others.

By the same token, we hope progressives recognize the importance of giving thematic consistency to disparate policy issues. Both progressives and conservatives have flourishing grassroots movements—but only conservatives have an established network of “umbrella” policy groups that link the general themes of their philosophy together. That’s the shortcoming we’d like to address, but we can’t do it alone. We’re glad Gamson and Ryan share our belief in the importance of collaboration and unity.

Dan Kurtz and Anat Shenker-Osorio,
The Rockridge Institute

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