Framing: Thug, Terrorist, Pirate, any Difference?
I have been reading some articles about the problem of introducing to the public an idea about which they are unfamiliar. I think that one problem we have and one that political parties has mastered, as displayed in recent elections, is how to better manipulate public opinion.
Data acquires significance only when it is mapped into some kind of pattern. The pattern consists of facts and ideas bundled in a format know as scripts, frames, and schemata. These frames (I will use this label) are data and ideas that are attached to a general idea. An example might be the word ‘relief’. . “Here's the frame: In order to give someone relief, there has to be an affliction and an afflicted party -- somebody who's harmed by this affliction -- and a reliever, somebody who gives relief to the afflicted party or takes away the harm or pain. That reliever is a hero. And if someone tries to stop the person giving relief from doing so, they are a bad guy. They are a villain. They want to keep the affliction ongoing. So when you use only one word, "relief," all of that information is called up. That is a simple conceptual frame.” Quotes from George Lakoff
“Then there's metaphorical thought. We all think metaphorically. When you add "tax" to "relief" to give you the term "tax relief," it says that taxation is an affliction. That's a new metaphor. Then, using the metaphor, anyone who gets rid of the taxation -- the affliction -- is a hero, and anybody who tries to stop him is a bad guy.” Quotes from George Lakoff
It is psychologically difficult to disturb an established mapping because of habit and it is difficult to start a new mapping because it is difficult to remember a new mapping and it is difficult to recognize the new relationships.
We are all subjected to habitual thinking. Information that does not fit into some established frame tends to be easily forgotten. Information that fits well into an established frame will be remembered well.
The “War on Terror” is no more. It has been replaced by the “global struggle against violent extremism.”
The phrase “War on Terror” was chosen with care. “War” is a crucial term. It evokes a war frame, and with it, the idea that the nation is under military attack – an attack that can only be defended militarily, by use of armies, planes, bombs, and so on. The war frame includes special war powers for the president, who becomes commander in chief. It evokes unquestioned patriotism, and the idea that of lack of support for the war effort is treasonous. It forces Congress to give unlimited powers to the President, lest detractors be called unpatriotic. And the war frame includes an end to the war – winning the war, mission accomplished!
The war frame is all-consuming. It takes away focus from other problems, from everyday troubles, from jobs, education, health care, a failing economy. It justifies the spending of huge sums, and sending raw recruits into battle with inadequate equipment. It justifies the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. It justifies torture, military tribunals, and no due process. It justifies scaring people, with yellow, orange, and red alerts. But, while it was politically useful, the war frame never fit the reality of terrorism. It was successful at consolidating power, but counterproductive in dealing with the real threat.
Colin Powell had suggested “crime” as the frame to use. It justifies an international hunt for the criminals, allows “police actions” when the military is absolutely required, and places the focus and the funding on where it should go: intelligence, diplomacy, politics, economics, religion, banking, and so on. And it would have kept us militarily strong and in a better position to deal with cases like North Korea and Darfur.
But the crime frame comes with no additional power for the president and no way to hide domestic troubles. It comes with trials at the international court, giving that court’s sovereignty over purely American institutions. It couldn’t win in the administration as constituted.
The abstract noun, “terror”, names not a nation or even people, but an emotion and the acts that create it. A “war on terror” can only be metaphorical. Terror cannot be destroyed by weapons or signing a peace treaty. A war on terror has no end. The president’s war powers have no end. The need for a Patriot Act has no end.
It is important to note the date on which the phrase “war on terror” died and was replaced by “global struggle against violent extremism.” It was right after the London bombing. Using the War frame to think and talk about terrorism was becoming more difficult. The Iraq War was declared won and over, but it became clear that it was far from over and not at all won and that it created many new terrorists for every one it destroyed. The last justification – fighting the war on terror in Iraq so it wouldn’t have to be fought at home — died in the London bombing.
We have a similar problem with the use of the word “pirate” when speaking of the bandits taking control of ships and their crews and then demanding ransom from the ship owners. How do we now take the romanticism framed in the word “pirate” from these thugs who are really just common criminals?