Winning the Frame Game
What would you be more interested in: “employment for building new infrastructure” or “green jobs”? “Re-regulating the financial sector” or “favoring Main Street over Wall Street”? The dry, technical one or the one with a host of connotations? How we frame issues can change the way we think about them.
Cognitive linguist George Lakoff notes that people rely on metaphors, usually subconscious ones, to think about complicated issues. Different descriptions of an issue evoke different metaphors, which in turn affect public opinion. Opponents of the estate tax couldn’t get political traction against a tax that affects only the richest 2 percent of Americans. So they reframed it as the “death tax” and got enough support to lower and, for 2010, suspend it.
Six years ago Lakoff claimed that liberals were losing the “frame game.” But those working to create a fairer, more sustainable world have since generated powerful frames that are now changing mainstream debate.
Take what’s happened to the word “green” over the last few decades. It’s a simple word with a boatload of positive connotations—trees, meadows, the “go” traffic light. Due to tireless efforts of such folks as those at Green America, “green” has gradually come to connote a whole way of thinking about how to reshape our economy and the way we live.
Author and activist Van Jones linked “green” to “jobs” to frame a solution to the pressing problems of both climate change and employment. That frame bridged the concerns of environmentalists and workers, people of color and whites. It proved so powerful that politicians inserted billions of dollars into state and federal legislation for green jobs programs.
At YES! Magazine part of our mission is to frame issues to help people see the positive possibilities. Early on, we saw the power of the green jobs framing and served as a platform for Jones’ cogent message.
Let me take a couple of lesser-known examples of such framing language. Shannon Hayes recently began blogging on our website. She calls herself a “radical homemaker” because she’s stepping outside the dominant culture to live a life she finds simpler and more fun, and depends less on money and more on community. By connecting the word “radical” to “homemaker,” she transforms the old-fashioned, pre-feminist connotations of “homemaker” to evoke a cool, cutting-edge approach to family life. Her blog is proving popular, providing thousands of people a fresh way to think about how they live.
Another example is “America: The Remix,” the title of your Spring 2010 YES! Magazine. By mid-century whites in America will be a minority. For some, this is an unsettling prospect. “America: the Remix” evokes the metaphor of remixing music—updating older recordings to create a new, modern sound. Charles M. Blow, in a New York Times op-ed, picked up our “America: The Remix” phrase and from there it spread to The Wall Street Journal and other publications. Other newspapers and websites published Sarah van Gelder’s “America: The Remix” article, further spreading the positive frame on our increasingly multi-racial country.
In the comments section below, I'll post additional examples of positive frames on the changes ahead. Do you have some favorite phrases? Please join the conversation and leave a comment.
As our society approaches major transitions ahead, we may welcome or resist the changes, find them fearful or exciting. How we react will rest partly on how we frame those changes and the metaphors our words evoke. This is a great time to frame needed changes in ways that help us all embrace the best possibilities ahead.
Fran Korten wrote this column for Water Solutions, the Summer 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Fran is publisher of YES! Magazine.
- Join the conversation: Use the comment field below to share your favorite phrases and stories about the power of positive frames.
- Programming Our Vocabulary: Frances Moore Lappé on why we cannot create what we cannot name.
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