Read an ExcerptFraming 101: How to Take Back Public Discourse
— january 21, 2004 —
On this date I spoke extemporaneously to a group of about two
hundred progressive citizen-activists in Sausalito, California.
When I teach the study of framing at Berkeley, in Cognitive
Science 101, the first thing I do is I give my students an exercise.
The exercise is: Don’t think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do
not think of an elephant. I’ve never found a student who is able to
do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an
image or other kinds of knowledge: Elephants are large, have
floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with circuses, and so on.
The word is defined relative to that frame. When we negate a
frame, we evoke the frame.
Richard Nixon found that out the hard way. While under pressure
to resign during the Watergate scandal, Nixon addressed the
nation on TV. He stood before the nation and said, “I am not a
crook.” And everybody thought about him as a crook.
This gives us a basic principle of framing, for when you are
arguing against the other side: Do not use their language. Their
language picks out a frame—and it won’t be the frame you want.
Let me give you an example. On the day that George W. Bush
arrived in the White House, the phrase tax relief started coming
out of the White House. It still is: It was used a number of times
in this year’s State of the Union address, and is showing up more
and more in preelection speeches four years later.
Think of the framing for relief. For there to be relief there must
be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the
affliction and is therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the
hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent relief.
When the word tax is added to relief, the result is a metaphor:
Taxation is an affliction. And the person who takes it away is a
hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy. This is a
frame. It is made up of ideas, like affliction and hero. The language
that evokes the frame comes out of the White House, and it goes
into press releases, goes to every radio station, every TV station,
every newspaper. And soon the New York Times is using tax relief.
And it is not only on Fox; it is on CNN, it is on NBC, it is on
every station because it is “the president’s tax-relief plan.” And
soon the Democrats are using tax relief—and shooting themselves
in the foot.
It is remarkable. I was asked by the Democratic senators to visit
their caucus just before the president’s tax plan was to come up in
the Senate. They had their version of the tax plan, and it was their
version of tax relief. They were accepting the conservative frame.
The conservatives had set a trap: The words draw you into their
That is what framing is about. Framing is about getting language
that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary—
and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.
There was another good example in the State of the Union
address in January. This one was a remarkable metaphor to find in
a State of the Union address. Bush said, “We do not need a permission
slip to defend America.” What is going on with a permission
slip? He could have just said, “We won’t ask permission.” But
talking about a permission slip is different. Think about when you
last needed a permission slip. Think about who has to ask for a
permission slip. Think about who is being asked. Think about the
relationship between them.
Those are the kinds of questions you need to ask if you are to
understand contemporary political discourse. While you are contemplating
them, I want to raise other questions for you.
My work on politics began when I asked myself just such a question.
It was back in the fall of 1994. I was watching election
speeches and reading the Republicans’ “Contract with America.”
The question I asked myself was this: What do the conservatives’
positions on issues have to do with each other? If you are a conservative,
what does your position on abortion have to do with your
position on taxation? What does that have to do with your position
on the environment? Or foreign policy? How do these positions
fit together? What does being against gun control have to do
with being for tort reform? What makes sense of the linkage? I
could not figure it out. I said to myself, These are strange people.
Their collection of positions makes no sense. But then an embarrassing
thought occurred to me. I have exactly the opposite position
on every issue. What do my positions have to do with one another? And
I could not figure that out either.
That was extremely embarrassing for someone who does cognitive
science and linguistics.
Eventually the answer came. And it came from a very unexpected
place. It came from the study of family values. I had asked
myself why conservatives were talking so much about family
values. And why did certain values count as “family values” while
others did not? Why would anyone in a presidential campaign, in
congressional campaigns, and so on, when the future of the world
was being threatened by nuclear proliferation and global warming,
constantly talk about family values?
At this point I remembered a paper that one of my students had
written some years back that showed that we all have a metaphor
for the nation as a family. We have Founding Fathers. The
Daughters of the American Revolution. We “send our sons” to
war. This is a natural metaphor because we usually understand
large social groups, like nations, in terms of small ones, like families
Given the existence of the metaphor linking the nation to the
family, I asked the next question: If there are two different understandings
of the nation, do they come from two different understandings
I worked backward. I took the various positions on the conservative
side and on the progressive side and I said, “Let’s put them
through the metaphor from the opposite direction and see what
comes out.” I put in the two different views of the nation, and out
popped two different models of the family: a strict father family
and a nurturant parent family. You know which is which.
Now, when I first did this—and I’ll tell you about the details in
a minute—I was asked to give a talk at a linguistics convention. I
decided I would talk about this discovery. In the audience were
two members of the Christian Coalition who were linguists and
good friends of mine. Excellent linguists. And very, very good
people. Very nice people. People I liked a lot. They took me aside
at the party afterward and said, “Well, this strict father model of
the family, it’s close, but not quite right. We’ll help you get the
details right. However, you should know all this. Have you read
I said, “Who?”
They said, “James Dobson.”
I said, “Who?”
They said, “You’re kidding. He’s on three thousand radio stations.”
I said, “Well, I don’t think he’s on NPR. I haven’t heard of him.”
They said, “Well, you live in Berkeley.”
“Where would I . . . does he write stuff?”
“Oh,” they said, “oh yes. He has sold millions of books. His
classic is Dare to Discipline.”
My friends were right. I followed their directions to my local
Christian bookstore, and there I found it all laid out: the strict
father model in all its details. Dobson not only has a 100-to-200-
million-dollar-a-year operation, but he also has his own ZIP
code, so many people are writing to order his books and pamphlets.
He is teaching people how to use the strict father model
to raise their kids, and he understands its connection to rightwing
The strict father model begins with a set of assumptions:
The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there
is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is
competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an
absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the
sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right.
Therefore, they have to be made good.
What is needed in this kind of a world is a strong, strict father who
What is required of the child is obedience, because the strict father is
a moral authority who knows right from wrong. It is further assumed
that the only way to teach kids obedience—that is, right from wrong—
is through punishment, painful punishment, when they do wrong. This
includes hitting them, and some authors on conservative child rearing
recommend sticks, belts, and wooden paddles on the bare bottom.
Some authors suggest this start at birth, but Dobson is more liberal.
“There is no excuse for spanking babies younger than fifteen or eighteen
months of age” (Dobson, The New Dare to Discipline, 65).
- Protect the family in the dangerous world,
- Support the family in the difficult world, and
- Teach his children right from wrong.
The rationale behind physical punishment is this: When children do
something wrong, if they are physically disciplined they learn not to do
it again. That means that they will develop internal discipline to keep
themselves from doing wrong, so that in the future they will be obedient
and act morally. Without such punishment, the world will go to hell.
There will be no morality.
Such internal discipline has a secondary effect. It is what is required
for success in the difficult, competitive world. That is, if people are disciplined
and pursue their self-interest in this land of opportunity, they
will become prosperous and self-reliant. Thus, the strict father model
links morality with prosperity. The same discipline you need to be moral
is what allows you to prosper. The link is the pursuit of self-interest.
Given opportunity and discipline, pursuing your self-interest should
enable you to prosper.
Now, Dobson is very clear about the connection between the strict
father worldview and free market capitalism. The link is the morality of
self-interest, which is a version of Adam Smith’s view of capitalism.
Adam Smith said that if everyone pursues their own profit, then the
profit of all will be maximized by the invisible hand—that is, by
nature—just naturally. Go about pursuing your own profit, and you
are helping everyone.
This is linked to a general metaphor that views well-being as wealth.
For example, if I do you a favor, you say, “I owe you one” or “I’m in
your debt.” Doing something good for someone is metaphorically like
giving him money. He “owes” you something. And he says, “How can
I ever repay you?”
Applying this metaphor to Adam Smith’s “law of nature,” if everyone
pursues her own self-interest, then by the invisible hand, by nature, the
self-interest of all will be maximized. That is, it is moral to pursue your
self-interest, and there is a name for those people who do not do it. The
name is do-gooder. A do-gooder is someone who is trying to help
someone else rather than herself and is getting in the way of those who
are pursuing their self-interest. Do-gooders screw up the system.
In this model there is also a definition of what it means to become a
good person. A good person—a moral person—is someone who is disciplined
enough to be obedient, to learn what is right, do what is right
and not do what is wrong, and to pursue her self-interest to prosper and
become self-reliant. A good child grows up to be like that. A bad child
is one who does not learn discipline, does not function morally, does not
do what is right, and therefore is not disciplined enough to become prosperous.
She cannot take care of herself and thus becomes dependent.
When the good children are mature, they either have learned discipline
and can prosper, or have failed to learn it. From this point on the
strict father is not to meddle in their lives. This translates politically into
no government meddling.
Consider what all this means for social programs. It is immoral
to give people things they have not earned, because then they will
not develop discipline and will become both dependent and
immoral. This theory says that social programs are immoral
because they make people dependent. Promoting social programs
is immoral. And what does this say about budgets? Well, if there
are a lot of progressives in Congress who think that there should
be social programs, and if you believe that social programs are
immoral, how do you stop these immoral people?
It is quite simple. What you have to do is reward the good
people—the ones whose prosperity reveals their discipline and
hence their capacity for morality—with a tax cut, and make it big
enough so that there is not enough money left for social programs.
By this logic, the deficit is a good thing. As Grover Norquist says,
it “starves the beast.”
Where liberals and fiscal conservatives take Bush’s huge deficit
as bad, right-wing radicals following strict father morality see it as
good. In the State of the Union address in January 2004, the president
said that he thinks they can cut the deficit in half by cutting
out “wasteful spending”—that is, spending for “bad” social programs.
Are conservatives against all government? No. They are
not against the military, they are not against homeland defense,
they are not against the current Department of Justice, nor against
the courts, nor the Departments of Treasury and Commerce.
There are many aspects of government that they like very much.
They are not against government subsidies for industry. Subsidies
for corporations, which reward the good people—the investors in
those corporations—are great. No problem there.
But they are against nurturance and care. They are against social
programs that take care of people. That is what they see as wrong.
That is what they are trying to eliminate on moral grounds. That
is why they are not merely a bunch of crazies or mean and
greedy—or stupid—people, as many liberals believe. What is even
scarier is that conservatives believe it. They believe it is moral.
And they have supporters around the country. People who have
strict father morality and who apply it to politics are going to
believe that this is the right way to govern.
Think for a minute about what this says about foreign policy.
Suppose you are a moral authority. As a moral authority, how do
you deal with your children? Do you ask them what they should do
or what you should do? No. You tell them. What the father says,
the child does. No back talk. Communication is one-way. It is the
same with the White House. That is, the president does not ask;
the president tells. If you are a moral authority you know what is
right, you have power, and you use it. You would be immoral yourself
if you abandoned your moral authority.
Map this onto foreign policy, and it says that you cannot give up
sovereignty. The United States, being the best and most powerful
country in the world—a moral authority—knows the right thing
to do. We should not be asking anybody else.