Sunday, April 22, 2007

Half Right

The problem with this whole "framing" thing is that it rests on questionable assumptions about the way things ought to be. Meteor Blades writes:

However, framing or marketing, or whatever you prefer to call it, doesn't have to be manipulative. In this world of blurbs and rapid-fire images, it seems to me we progressives are compelled to find not only the right message but the right way to deliver our message, or we might as well stick to our echo chambers.
Ey doesn't stop to question the underlying assumption that we must operate in a "world of blurbs and rapid-fire images". That's the way things are now, but it doesn't have to remain so for ever.

Obviously we've got to be able to operate in the real world. Presently this requires the production of pre-chewed, easy-to-swallow ideas; they're a necessary evil, as distasteful as that may be. Meteor rightly notes that they needn't be full of lies; effective communication is often nothing more than presenting an idea clearly and concisely. And the study of framing/marketing/whatever is eminently useful in wrecking the frames of evildoers. But the whole enterprise is like the dark side of the force*.

It's far too easy to slip from effective communication into manipulation. Consider the example that Meteor provides: "rubber-stamp Republicans". What does that mean? Nothing... absolutely nothing. It's totally bereft of any meaning. Its an empty phrase that's designed to short-circuit the critical reasoning process. No matter how you slice it, that's manipulative.

It's telling, really, that Meteor can write in the preceding paragraph that "framing or marketing, or whatever you prefer to call it, doesn't have to be manipulative", the immediately follow it up with a gem like that. I don't think Meteor is a hypocrite... far from it. I honestly don't think ey even recognizes that the phrase "rubber-stamp Republicans" is manipulative. And that, boys and girls, is a problem.

Additionally, there doesn't seem to be any long-term push towards a more substantive mode of discourse. Every time we talk in sound bites, even benign, positive ones, we provide reinforcement and validation for the whole practice of talking in sound bites. If, as so many claim, reality has a liberal bias, then wouldn't progressives benefit in the long run by encouraging people to think about issues in a more nuanced fashion? I'm not even sure how you'd go about doing that, but part of the process has to be a conscious refusal to reduce complicated issues to simple phrases. We need to, loudly and publicly, state that some issues can't be reduced to sound bites. And when the opposition does it we need to call them on it.

So let's not talk about "framing"; its a dark art that leads to taking liberties with the truth. Let's talk instead about "effective communication", with an emphasis on presenting actual ideas and not just empty phrases. Lastly, we should work on producing a culture less reliant on bite-sized ideas and more conducive to substantive discussion.


* Apologies for the Star Wars reference, but it really does seem to be an apt analogy.

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