In the frame

Can the messages that anti-welfare reform campaigners use re-enforce public support for the welfare reforms they oppose?  Can the way stories are told about disability hate crime undermine our efforts to change attitudes to disabled people?

Recently I’ve been hugely fortunate to have been exposed to some of the leading thinking on the influence of values in the way we each interpret the world around us and how these shape (and can be influenced to shape) public opinion.

The opinions we hold and attitudes which guide them are underpinned by our deeply held values.  Evidence finds that while we all possess a wide range of different values at all times, some of these values are stronger than others at different moments, or throughout, our life and can be ‘ignited’ by our circumstances and experiences and by frames and metaphors embedded in words or stories that we encounter in the news and elsewhere.

Evidence finds that so strong are these values – embedded in our intuitive minds – that we search out information to confirm them, and information which conflicts with them will largely go unheard or be rejected. Our rational minds are typically unable to overcome them. These values underpin our attitudes and opinions to a range of apparently disconnected issues meaning that the mere association of one issue with another (such as talking about Europe in conjunction with human rights, or immigration in conjunction with benefits) can influence our opinions towards them.

In his book ‘Don’t think of an elephant – know your values and frame the debate’ Professor George Lakoff recounts how: ‘While under pressure to resign during the Watergate scandal, (Richard) 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.’  Similarly, when Professor Lakoff recently visited the UK he noted how welfare cuts campaigners re-enforced government and media misinformation regarding benefit fraud merely via the act of rebutting the statistics because in doing so they kept the frame of ‘fraud’ in the public mind.   He suggested instead that campaigners might highlight the 99.3 per cent honesty rate among benefit claimants and contrast this with other areas of life, such as MP’s expenses.

If we wish to achieve public support for a particular goal – for example, to prevent the further cutting of social security benefits – it is critical to understand the values that are more likely to underpin support for social security spending and entitlements and to seek to develop frames and metaphors which are more likely to ‘ignite’ these values.   It is equally important to avoid using frames and metaphors which ignite or re-enforce values which may disincline people to be supportive of this goal.

Effective political communicators – especially on the right – are experts at speaking to and seeking to ignite particular values while suppressing others through the use of frames and metaphors.  For example, those arguing for deficit reduction have likened a government budget to a household budget in arguing that we should ‘live within our means‘ despite government budgets and household budgets being entirely different from one another. The government’s ‘housing benefit – under occupation of social housing’ policy has been framed as a ‘bedroom tax’ by its opponents and as the abolition of a ‘spare room subsidy’ by its supporters, each seeking to ignite or confirm different values to shape opinion.  George Osborne’s use of the image of a ‘neighbours curtains closed when you’re on your way to work’ was a deliberate attempt to seek to ignite particular values in relation to welfare reform.

Evidence finds that frames and metaphors which instil fear typically move people towards extrinsic values such as social power and security. This is why the politics of fear is so central to political strategies that are seeking to win support for benefit cuts, immigration controls, curbing human rights laws and so on.  Campaigners who are against such things are however also capable of igniting values which undermine their own cause. For example, climate change campaigners who talk in apocalyptic terms about the earth’s future may perversely push people away from the very values – care for others and the environment – necessary to achieve the changes in human behaviour that are required to overcome it.

This suggests strongly that if we want to deepen the values necessary to build support for public spending on social security or other public services we need to engage in the politics of hope and find ways to ignite more positive values regarding universalism and human welfare.

I’m sure a few people reading this will at this stage find the words ‘no shit Sherlock’ passing through their minds.  But the implications are potentially greater than might first be obvious. Words can ignite particular values even when not intended.  Anti-welfare reform campaigners use various frames and metaphors to convey vulnerability, scale and gravity with the intention of grabbing attention (and with some success). Yet by employing language and metaphors regarding ‘war’ and ‘attack’ and by highlighting death and hostility its messages may have the potential unintended consequence of re-enforcing the same values as do those about ‘scroungers’ and ‘closed curtains.’  Entirely different aims can lead to the same ultimate result through the use of frames and metaphors which drive people towards more unhelpful values.

Similarly, while on the one hand it is positive that criminal incidents involving disabled people now enjoy much greater media coverage, the way these incidents are covered often appears rooted in frames and metaphors regarding social breakdown, insecurity and criminality.  While campaigners on disability hate crime may themselves begin with a commitment to equality and respect for human rights, the values which these horrific stories ignite are almost certainly not those which create the social conditions in which the values which help embed such commitments can find currency.  How the story of disability hate crime is told is critically important in being able to address its underlying causes if, as the Observer editorial said yesterday ‘brutal deaths must alter attitudes to disabled people’. Attitudes towards disabled people do not form in a vacuum and are rooted in values which link together people’s attitudes to a range of issues. It is entirely possible that the values ignited by the way stories of disability hate crime are told are also ones which create the social conditions in which hostility towards disabled people is more likely to take root.

This is also why narratives which link disability hate crime to welfare reform hold the potential to be particularly unhelpful. Not only is it a fear-based narrative (‘they’re coming to get you’), neither issue offers a positive association from which the other can benefit.  Making associations between welfare and criminality on the one hand, and between victims of disability hate crime and welfare on the other seems unlikely to assist in helping us to make progress on either (especially given the evidence in support of these associations is entirely anecdotal).

Values matter enormously in shaping our attitudes and opinions.  The words and stories we use or hear possess frames and metaphors which can ignite or depress our values intentionally or otherwise.  If we want to build a society which respects the rights of disabled people to an adequate standard of living, to be safe and to achieve their full potential, we need to learn how to ignite the values that matter, and avoid igniting those that will ultimately do harm.

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One thought on “In the frame

  1. Pingback: Refreshing the disability rights agenda – a future imagined | Making rights make sense

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