Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Name of the Frame Is the Name of the Game

Too many fascinating (albeit worrisome) things are happening in the realm of American politics right now. The pace of events easily outstrips our ability to process issues. Yet, process them we must, in a robust yet civil debate where we try to make sense of our world and hash out differences like adults. This is, as Twitter friend Andy Hutchins told me earlier today, “the lifeblood of progress… of life, really.”

I have too darn much sportswriting to tend to (which has been delayed long enough), but matters of war, peace, race, rights, prison, and due process are too important to leave unattended. I simply have to devote some time in this space to the American situation before the next six weeks, which are going to kick my butt. Yes, I’m going to talk about U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, but I’m going to also talk about Rand Paul and prison terms for sex offenders as well. These are three distinctly different topics, but I hope the attempt to connect them will make sense within a specific context.

NOTE: Before going any further, please note the trajectory and parameters of today’s post: I’m not going to hash out the particulars of these topics so much as I will talk about them as manifestations of our challenge as we move forward. I won’t try to resolve these debates so much as I’ll identify their tension points and make light of our nation’s acute need to confront difficult questions with open-minded civility. When *this* blogsite – with its own missional foundation – hosts a political discussion, the main purpose is to facilitate meaningful and respectful conversation among people with distinctly different viewpoints. Once again, the purpose of this blog – when it talks about politics, not (necessarily) sports – is not to win or even advance an argument, but to promote a way of carrying ourselves in the midst of contentious debate.

On with the show, then…

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One of the macro-level realizations I’ve made in recent Twitter discussions – the sources of the essays I occasionally write – is that the Left and Right violently clash on so many occasions because they each fail to locate the center and source of the other side’s argument. Let’s be clear: I certainly have my own views of what’s right and wrong, but again, we must intellectually set that aside in this context, because the main point is to promote understanding, and not agreement or political conversion. (Spiritual and attitudinal conversion, yes, but not political or ideological conversion.)

Why do we fail to locate and identify the heart of the other side’s argument in a political debate? It’s because Left and Right both work from a different set of operating assumptions, a different ground of being. The Left will generally (not always, but for the most part) seek and promote the essence of what ought to happen in society; the Right will seek the doctrinally or structurally appropriate mechanism which will allow human beings to choose an ideal outcome for themselves. The Left more often stresses the human person’s unlimited ability and potential to develop, while the Right more often emphasizes the consequences of choices and actions when they prove to be harmful to society.

The Left is more optimistic or positive about human nature, the Right not nearly as much. The Left, though, views social forces as significant and substantial in their effects on the behavior of persons. The Right is generally more dismissive of social forces and promotes a culture of personal behavioral responsibility.

Read over those distinctions again. They are indeed generalizations (note the word “generally”), but is the core assessment fundamentally wrong in any of those cases? If you examine the above statements, there is at once both a consistency and a sense of contradiction about them.

First, let’s unpack the Left just a little bit: One could say that if a lefty promotes essence over doctrine, why does s/he not emphasize the substance of a person’s actions the way a conservative seems to do? With respect to the second set of distinctions, if a lefty has a more positive view of human nature, why wouldn’t s/he endorse a pure form of libertarianism on the order of what Rand and Ron Paul would advocate?

For the Right, you can basically flip those questions around: If a righty promotes doctrine over essence, why is there comparatively little allowance – at least on the surface (it’s surely more complicated when you get down to brass tacks) – for social forces that must be factored when doctrines/rules/laws are formulated? And if a righty takes a more negative/skeptical view of human nature, why such an insistence on allowing free will to run its course, given the sinful/fallen nature of human beings? Shouldn’t a skeptic of human nature be more inclined to restrain/check that nature in the defense of greater goods?

See how complex this stuff is? The scary part is that we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface.

When we – on opposite sides of the political divide – fail to locate the source and center of our opponent’s views, we will consistently fail to identify the motives we bring to the table. Information has its place in a debate, but the Left and Right constantly see that information in a different light. The attempt to do what is good and right is something we all share, but since our frameworks and first principles are different, we’ll regularly continue to assign different meanings and values to certain outcomes and actions.

In the realm of foreign policy, the Left’s first principle and animating idea is that people shouldn’t be killed unless there is absolutely no other choice and all options for diplomacy have been reasonably and comprehensively exhausted. The Right’s grounding and formative principle is that Islamic extremists already possess a mindset and intent that are beyond any and all possibility of redemption or negotiation, which means that human events have already carried America to a point where all other options have indeed been exhausted.

On the matter of Rand Paul, the Left sees, filters and frames the Kentucky Republican’s words through the prisms of the Civil Rights Movement, race, and the reality of the Jim Crow South, which then leads much of the mainstream Left to condemn Mr. Paul in the strongest possible terms and view him as a dangerous loon. The Right, in contrast, filters and frames Paul’s words through the prism of public-private domain, which touches on the rights of individuals to do what they please within private spheres of existence and influence. If everyone saw Rand Paul’s remarks through the prism of race, he’d be uniformly condemned and laughed off the political stage. If everyone saw Paul’s remarks through the prism of public-private tensions, he’d be widely seen as a misunderstood figure who needed more time and space in which to elaborate on a worthwhile set of viewpoints. Can we begin to understand why there is such a pronounced and extensive disconnect between the Left and Right in America?

On the matter of prison terms for sex offenders – brought to the public’s attention this week by a Supreme Court ruling – the Left will stress the need for rehabilitation and for every person to be given at least the chance of a new life IF s/he takes steps in the direction of self-reformation and transformation. The Right will emphasize the need to lock up a sex offender and throw away the key, given the truly awful, violent and violating nature of rape and sexual molestation. Predictably, it’s hardly surprising that – on a different but related issue – liberals oppose the death penalty while conservatives support it.

If we all saw prison/punishment issues through the need to decrease violence, we would all agree with a Left-based approach on the matter. If we all perceived incarceration issues from the standpoint of meting out justice in response to an act which forfeited individual rights and represented a declaration that a person is not fit to live in the midst of society, we would adhere to the Right and its fundamental position.

Can we see how the Left and Right – both sincerely intentioned – are ultimately identifying the heart of their causes and the core of their belief systems in different places and with divergent points of emphasis? Flowing from this, can we then take the step of beginning to realize what sets off our opponents and thereby represents a foremost obstacle to the development of meaningful and productive political conversation?

Language – any language – has code words. We might often use words we *think* are innocuous, but when a political or ideological opponent sees them, that opponent hears something different… and decidedly negative.

When a liberal invokes the Christianity of an American soldier who kills an Afghan citizen (even if it’s by mistake), a conservative’s antennae will immediately shoot up in a defensive posture, meaning that the value of a Leftist critique of war will be entirely lost on the ears of a Christian conservative reader whom the Leftist ought to want to convert.

The above principle applies very much in the other direction when the religion being discussed is Islam, and the topic is not soldiers in Afghanistan, but a terrorist incident in the United States or a violation of a young girl’s rights in Pakistan. The insistence of the Right on seeing Muslim extremists as the main problem, when a mere reference to “extremist religion” would suffice, gives liberals the impression that conservatives have it in for Muslims and for Islam in general.

We can think of so many other instances and issues in which two sides use code words to –at the very least – frame the issue in their own terms and, in particularly nasty situations, get a rise out of an opponent. There are certain themes and established narratives which so clearly irritate and inflame the other side, and any attempt to immediately invoke such narratives represents not a discussion starter, but a discussion ender.

The Left is tired of being told by the Right that it is going to go to hell. The Right is tired of being told by the Left that it’s a bunch of intolerant racists. The Left is tired of being told that it murders babies. The Right is tired of being told that it loves Wall Street. The Left flinches with profound discomfort whenever a conservative accuses it of being intolerant and hostile to free speech. The Right acquires a bunker mentality whenever American soldiers are accused of wrongdoing in war zones.

One could go on and on. The bottom line is that we have become so accustomed to political arguments and phrasings in America that the freshness and virtue of criticisms has been lost. We’re numb to the value of what an opponent has to say; we continue to absorb only the critical and harsh aspects of what our opponents tell us. We’re so fatigued and beaten-down by the other side’s criticisms that we can’t identify the merits of the ideas they’re actually trying to promote.

We don’t need to convert other people in America or anywhere else; that’s futile and unrealistic, for one thing. Moreover, a core part of being human is that we respect others’ differences, which are wrapped up in the realization that we have different journeys which shape our evolution. We have to get along with other people of good will and sincerity who see things differently. The well-being of our nation – and of the neighbor next door who disagrees with us – depends on it.

There’s more to say on this overall issue, especially in relationship to the topics I’ve briefly touched on – U.S. soldiers in war, Rand Paul, and sex offenders. Another post will follow in the next few days, and after that, a forced break from political writing will have to begin.


  1. Framing (and resonance) is such an important issue.

    Ironically, the Rand Paul issue might exemplify the value of framing due to his inability to simply frame a nuanced issue - liberals have spent so much time branding civil rights as an inherent good that any attempt to critique it creates dissonance with something that unreflectively seems as fundamental as gravity.

    This is squarely Berkeley linguist George Lakoff territory - "Metaphors we live by" and "Don't think an elephant". The way our minds work is based upon a network of "metaphors" or frames that our minds rigidly commit to over time. So then later if someone tries to shift the discourse by activating one of those "metaphors", it's almost impossible because due to the resonance of not just one specific issue, but an entire network of associated meaning.

    In that situation, there is no longer such thing as "listening" - it's all manipulation. It makes sense that political candidates would draw upon these things when campaigning for office. But it's reprehensible for a journalist to do so in my mind -- it's inherently anti-intellectual and just further degrades whatever discourse exists in our public fora.

  2. Matt, I completely agree with your overall point, however, if you will permit me, I would like to critique one of your examples.

    Your example of sex offender imprisonment (after the prison term is over) doesn't really work here. For one thing, purely antidotally, I saw very few people on the left protest that decision, though I'm not as well-read as you (in terms of leftist blogs). And most of my conservative/libertarian friends agreed with the dissent, which would have ruled AGAINST the imprisonment. But more to the point, who were the two DISSENTING justices in that opinion? None other than Justices Scalia and Roberts, the two most conservative/libertarian justices on the court. I think what's really at work here isn't your "law and order Republican" v. "bleading heart Democrat" dichotomy, but a more complex set of principles and assumptions. Yes, I think that the Right tends to want harsher sentences and views the criminal justice system as more punitive, and yes, I think the left thinks more in terms of rehabilitation, but that's really not what this case was about. A better example would have been the OTHER case released that day (no life sentences for minors.) That would have better illustrated your point.

    The sex offender case was really about Due Process and government power. The liberals (and shockingly IMO, Alito and Roberts) sided with giving the government power over a person without (adequate, IMO) due process. The conservatives (Thomas and Scalia) sought to limit the government's power once the offender's time had been served. That case, and the left/right assumptions behind it, was really more about how much power should government have over the individual. I don't know any conservatives/libertarians that would object to harsher sentences for sex offenders, but many conservatives/libertarians are very wary of allowing the government to deny a person liberty AFTER the sentence has been completed.

    Just food for thought. I know it doesn't address your central point, but it was worth noting.

  3. Sorry, just realized that I should have said that Scalia and THOMAS were the dissenting justices, not Scalia and Roberts. Roberts agreed with the majority.

  4. Nate, John:

    Good points both.

    John, with respect to your points, I should have been more precise in saying exactly what it was that I was addressing. It was indeed the sentencing part, not so much due process; I wandered off the reservation there - good catch on your part.

    It's interesting that when certain events flow and converge in just such a manner, discussions burst forth in so many ways on so many levels. Twitter - Tuesday through today - crackled with intensity and a lot of very stimulating thought.

  5. Oh, and in answer to one of your conundra, I can't answer from the Leftist's perspective because it would be incoherent or contradictory, but the Right's answer is easy: "If human beings are fundamentally good, no government is necessary; if they are fundamentally bad, any government, being composed of human beings, would be bad also." -- Fred Woodworth