Framing and reframing are about getting people to see a particular situation (or reality as a whole) the way that we do, and getting people to use our values and principles as the criteria to judge right and wrong in the public debate.
What do you mean by “the public debate”?
The debate isn’t about policies or legislation. It is about who the American public believes to be right or wrong on a particular issue at a particular time. We can’t just have the moral high ground. We are fighting over the public perception of who is right, and we have to work strategically to influence that perception.
Winning individual battles in the public debate is about framing: determining the context in which the discussion takes place so people use our principles, ones that reflect our values, to judge right and wrong.
The public debate as a whole is a battle between two competing belief systems: Liberal and Conservative models of right and wrong. Winning the public debate or at least moving it back toward the Left, is about getting more people to default to using our principles as the criteria to measure right and wrong. We need people to develop the habit of using Liberal frames more frequently and in more situations.
You can learn more about this in our training session: The Art of Messaging
What are worldviews?
When we talk about getting people to “see things the way that we do,” we’re talking about worldviews. They include our attitudes toward the world and the people in it, where we fit in and how we are supposed interact with it.
We also refer to these as belief systems. They include our beliefs about what is true or real, what is important (values), and what is right and wrong (moral or ethical judgment).
Our country has two main opposing belief systems, each containing countless frames with Liberal or Conservative ways of looking at just about everything. These belief systems are ingrained in us in childhood and physically exist in our brains in the form of neural networks.
Many people have only one of these neural networks. Only people with both neural networks are persuadable. In these people, activating the Liberal network with words makes it stronger.
What are our belief systems?
What do Liberals believe?
Liberals see people as inherently good and see the world as a place of abundance and opportunity. Our value system is based on empathy. We believe that while people are very different, all people have inherent worth, which is why we place a high value on equality.
We believe that people are interdependent, so we believe that society should be organized around cooperation. We believe that we can work together to improve our society for the benefit of all. Our views on the role of government reflect our belief that we’re all in this together and that we are responsible for each others’ well-being.
What do Conservatives believe?
Conservatives see people as inherently bad. They see the world as a dangerous place with limited resources, best allocated through unimpeded competition, and that the outcome of that competition accurately reflects personal virtue.
Their value system is based on the idea that if we each seek our self-interest, the cumulative effect will be what is best for all. Their views on the role of government reflect those beliefs.
How does framing work?
In any given situation, there is something we really need people to understand about it. One of the hardest parts of our jobs is nailing down what that actually is. That something is our meta-message.
The best way to communicate that meta-message is by relating it to something people already understand. The “frame” is the “something people already understand.”
“Framing“ is the process of making that connection between that frame and the situation at hand in such a way that conveys that strategically important meta-message, the “thing we really need people to understand”.
Sometimes, that relationship is a simple metaphor that transfers our message automatically. Sometimes we need to do more: we have to promote a narrative that explains how our frame relates to the situation at hand.
How do frames influence how people judge right and wrong?
Framing gets people to look at a situation in a particular context. Something that is morally right in one context can be morally wrong in another.
Putting something in a particular context can create expectations for how people should behave or change from whose perspective the situation is viewed. It can assign people to roles that are already seen as good or bad, like oppressor, hero or victim.
Frames set goals, express values and establish principles. Many actions are judged as a good or bad way to achieve a certain goal. Which goal we choose is a reflection of our values. Those values allow us to create principles which act as guidelines for how to judge behavior or decisions.
What can we do to bring the public debate back from the far Right?
Exposure to words and images causes neural activation involuntarily, whether you agree with what you are hearing and seeing or not. Repeated activation causes those neural connections to grow stronger over time whether you want them to or not.
The public debate is a war of exposure and repetition between conservatives and progressives: who can make their neural network physically dominant by activating their neural networks more frequently in persuadable people.
Whoever sets the agenda wins. The only way to get your neural networks activated more frequently is to make your frames, ideas and beliefs the subject matter of the public debate. If your frames are getting attacked, they are getting precious exposure.
We have to use every communication property we own or influence to expose the public to the words, images and ideas that activate our Liberal worldview, and stop giving so much exposure to our opponents.
What tools can I actually use to change the agenda of the public debate?
You can use frames to focus attention on one subject and block thinking about another, to narrow the focus down to a smaller frame or expand it to a larger one, to establish assumptions or expose assumptions.
You can use frames to back people into a corner, to make them defend unpopular positions, and to embarrass or inspire people into taking more morally positive stands than they otherwise would.
You can use frames to draw fire, to provoke people into attacking you in ways that give you the attention and create an argument you know you can win.
You can use frames to put yourself in an advantageous position, triangulate and claim the center, to argue for balance and “work the refs”.