Faced with controversial and increasingly complex and politicized topics like climate change, inequality, immigration, education, personhood, abortion, marriage, healthcare, criminal justice reform, or even government attempts to regulate media, we too often excuse ourselves with: “I don’t know what to think about this.”
In fact, the problem might be: “I don’t know how to think about this within the framework of what I know already.”
Enter George Lakoff, the American cognitive linguist and philosopher best known for his thesis that, in our increasingly complicated age of “too much information,” how we think about important issues is significantly (and increasingly) influenced by the central metaphors used by politicians, pundits and the media industry generally to explain complex phenomena.
According to Lakoff, information about local and international events is increasingly being framed in linguistic constructions that influence an individual’s attitude toward newsworthy events. “When you think you just lack words to describe an issue” writes Lakoff, “what you really lack are ideas. Ideas come in the form of frames. When the frames are there, the words come readily.”
By “frames” Lakoff is describing how we try to correlate what we know with new information — stuff we did not know or think about until now.
That process can be tricky and open to deception.
He instances the misleading term “tax relief” favoured by politicians seeking election. For there to be relief of any kind, Lakoff points out, there must be several ideas in play: an affliction, an afflicted party and a reliever who removes the affliction and is therefore a hero.
So here’s the challenge for educators: If, as adults, we sometimes do not know how to “frame” our thoughts about potentially divisive topics, how can we, as educators and parents, help today’s information-rich adolescents structure their own responses to the 24/7 news of fresh adversity and outright conflict, the meat and potatoes of today’s media?
A better example of misleading “framing” is the tendency of the media to frame certain socio-political events such as a protest or street demonstration or even a pandemic outbreak as being best described in “war” terms, which, somebody thinks, we might understand.
The “war” metaphor is inevitably employed by someone who has never experienced war — but that’s another story.
Referring to the COVID-19 virus as the “enemy” and the fight as a “war,” Trump said: “One day we’ll be standing up here and say: ‘Well, we won.’ ”
Diplomatic relationships between Asian countries are not explained as complex cultural, economic, social and political issues but as a “war.”
“Japan used to beat China routinely in wars,” Trump explained “You know that, right? Japan used to beat China, they routinely beat China.”
Trump further characterized protesters as “professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa and others” with whom his government is “at war.”
Retired U.S. marine general James Mattis, who has personally been involved in an actual “shooting” war or two, sought to clarify and correct this kind of “framing” by saying “we must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace’ or that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate.’ ”
But in fact, to frame and oversimplify everyday practices in “war” terms has become more common every day.
Frank Gifford, a Hall of Fame halfback turned broadcaster, once said: “Pro football is like nuclear warfare. There are no winners, only survivors.”
Football, a sports event and, essentially, a game for athletes has the “blitz,” the “bomb,” “blowing away” an opposing team.
Less physical events are also framed in “war” terms. Union leaders commonly refer to members as being “in the trenches.”
Perhaps the most egregiously misdirected metaphor, which diverted real solutions for years, was “the war on drugs.”
In describing intellectual debate, the underlying metaphor, according to Lakoff, is often that an argument is not a coherent series of reasons, statements, or facts intended to support or establish a point of view, but is “war,” i.e., “he won the argument,” “his points were right on target” and “we wiped them out.”
So here is where education in 2020 has new responsibilities — helping students distinguish between “frames” of thinking intended to persuade or mislead and frames intended to clarify meaning and the truth of the matter.
In his influential 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, Lakoff proposes that “frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world.” They shape the goals we seek, he says, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as the outcome of our actions.
This is getting a little closer to what could become the basis for a current events senior high school course in Politics and the Media.
New material everyday could focus on Lakoff’s notion that when we successfully reframe public discourse as based on fact, not metaphor, we change the way we see the world and develop understandings of current events within a framework of verifiable explanation.
That alone would be a major change for today’s kids in how they view the world.
Geoff Johnson is a former Superintendent of Schools. firstname.lastname@example.org