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.
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, something that will get them to see it the way that we do. The hardest part of our job is to nail down what that actually is. That something is our meta-message.
The best way to communicate that meta-message, is by associating it with something people already understand. The “frame” is that “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.
For example: The people who marched into the Capitol on January 6th tried to frame their actions as “First Amendment demonstrations.” They want people to take what they already understand about “the Constitutionally protected right to express dissenting political opinions” and use it to interpret what they did and judge it to be morally right.
When we frame what they did as an “insurrection,” we want people to take what they already understand about “violent attempts to overthow government” and use that to interpret what the “insurrectionists” did and judge their actions to be morally wrong.
Sometimes, all we need is a trigger word or image that transfers our message automatically. Sometimes we need to do more: we have to provide 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.
What can we do to bring the public debate back from the far Right?
Exposure to words and images makes you visualize ideas in your mind whether you want to or not, even if you vehemently disagree with those ideas.
When we use words and images that get people to see things from a Liberal point of view, we strengthen the Liberal neural networks in their brains. The more we make someone use their Liberal neural network, the stronger it gets.
The public debate is a war of exposure and repetition between conservatives and Liberals. The goal is to make your worldview dominant in the public debate, by activating your neural network 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.
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.