What we share

Between 2012-18 I led the Thomas Paine Initiative, a strategic grant-making initiative set up to support action to shift the tide of public opinion on human rights in the UK. This is how I came to find out about and see the potential of values-based framing and became aware of the wide range of organisations and movements that were exploring how it could help them to win social change. One of the last things I commissioned was a report and event called ‘More than Words’ written and curated by Alice Sachrajda and Lena Baumgartner and chaired by Ella Saltmarshe, which brought together people from diverse backgrounds connected through their interest in narrative change. Together we explored the shared infrastructure that such work might benefit from, such as expert advice and research, and also the potential for collaboration across hitherto separate initiatives at the level of underlying shared values. That report and event sparked various people to develop what has now become the Reset Narratives project, and I’m excited to be speaking at one of their online get together’s next week about the work I’ve since led to develop a new narrative on social care.

The power of shared values

In George Lakoff’s seminal book ‘Don’t think of an elephant – know your values and frame the debate’ he argues that there are two broad value-systems in operation in America, falling into what he calls a ‘strict father model’ or the ‘nurturing parent’. Shalom Schwartz divides these into ‘intrinsic’ – pro social values and ‘extrinsic’ pro-individual values. These underlying value systems shape our views on the world and hence the policies and ideas we are likely to support and who we vote for. The degree to which these values dominate how we think and feel varies across the population, and for significant numbers of us each can be ‘dialled’ up or down through strategically framed messages and initiatives. Lakoff argued that Republicans had historically been far more adept at doing this dialling as a political strategy, focusing energy on what he calls ‘strategic initiatives’. Trump’s ‘build the wall’ is a good example, dialling up people’s extrinsic security values, which in turn helped makes popular an authoritarian leader and his right wing policies. Democrats in the USA and social democrats across the world have tended to be less effective at this, still buying into the idea that voters think and behave rationally and out of self interest in their choices. Too often, progressives present policies in ways that dial up values that are odds with what they are striving to achieve and dial down those which they need, repelling voters, something we arguably saw at the recent UK election.

It is possible for progressives to do what the right does so well though. Common Cause hypothesised that the values that would give people cause to support action on conservation and on disabled people’s rights were shared. To test this, the attitudes of a group of people on both areas were measured to establish a baseline, before they were presented with messages about conservation that had been deliberately calibrated to dial up these pro-social values. Sure enough, when attitudes were explored after exposure to the messages they had positively shifted in relation to conservation and to the rights of disabled people, despite the latter not having been mentioned.

No cause is an island

What this evidence opens up is the potential of new collaborations and coalitions rooted in shared underlying values, rather than ‘issues’. This does not mean abandoning our focus on specific areas and issues – we will always need to do this. However, by being attentive to and aligning the underlying values embedded in our communications we can – as Lakoff suggested and Common Cause proved – help win progressive shifts across the board. We can also do so by showing solidarity with one another’s campaigns. For example, the Australian Conservation Foundation came out in support of Equal Marriage with this image below, helping contribute to building public support for change while strengthening the underlying values that support conservation ‘a world where compassion and respect are at the heart of our decisions. Where we value our planet, our communities and each other.’

So what values do we share?

#socialcarefuture’s headline vision is explicitly rooted in shared values, fusing self-directiion, solidarity and belonging:

It emphasises our interconnectedness with and interdependence on one another, positioning this as the means through which we live the lives we choose to live. This marks a departure from progressive accounts of social care reform which have tended to offer – even if unintended – a highly individuated and atomistic account of people achieving ‘independence’. I’m struck that this emphasis on connection and interdependence, as well as community and place, has much in common with values underpinning new narratives around climate and migration for example.

Unlike the messaging of many organisations in the space, the headline vision does not mention social care – concentrating instead on the life that everyone should be able to lead and has reason to value. Not does it introduce ‘groups’ of people that might ordinarily be associated with social care. This is in line with good framing practice, but it is also specifically to avoid the ‘othering’ that we found in default thinking about social care. In this sense it helps tee up ideas of a ‘larger us’, rather than ‘them and us’, again sharing much in common with other narrative change initiatives. In particular, we read about how the campaigns for equal marriage had proactively made such a shift, to great success.

Our vision goes on to offer a different account of how social care works when working well. Rather than a transactional service ‘delivered to’ people, it is about drawing together formal and informal support and relationships that people can draw on to live the lives they wish to to lead, with meaning, purpose and connection. The words and sequencing here are designed to position social care as a vehicle for a better life, rather than a destination or end point, as social care is so often framed. ‘Nurturing an ecosystem’ is one of a number of metaphors that tested well (perhaps surprisingly) via our research (the others being ‘weave a web’ and acts as the glue that binds’). This part of our narrative continues with the fused values of self direction, solidarity and belonging. But I think it introduces something else, which is its implicit message about sustainability – tapping the renewable energy of our communities.

It’s about time

Looking beyond values specifically, a major challenge in communicating about social care is the distance many people instinctively feel between it and their lives. This is in part about the ‘othering’ referred to above, which makes it hard to enlist people’s support for something that appears irrelevant to them. But it also appears to be about time. That is, it is hard to communicate in a way that provokes people to imagine themselves having cause to need to draw on something in future. In fact, given the way social care is messaged today and the common mental associations peopel have, they would probably most likely not wish to imagine it at all.

I’m struck that that there may well be lessons from Ella Saltmarshe’s ‘Long Time Project.‘ While it is concerned with how to cultivate care about the impact of future climate among existing generations for those that will succeed it, I think its lessons may well be relevant to how we talk about social care, or age discrimination for example. Cracking that will help all of us understand better how to help put care for each other and our planet at the heart of how we live.

Working together

I’m looking forward to sharing #socialcarefuture’s work on 25 May (thanks Sophia Parker for clearing up that mystery). We are only going to turn the tide of populism, but mutual concern at the heart of our politics and build the future we all want through sharing our insights, our resources and our efforts.

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