Framing Climate Change

As with global warming, the phrase climate change fails to convey the urgency of the situation. Although it might be appropriate in scientific descriptions of climate, when used in politics, it sounds as if there’s nothing to be done except prepare for it. That false and morally wrong because we can respond more effectively to the climate crisis, and failing to do so would be irresponsible.

As discussed in the global warming post, two possible alternatives are to frame the issue as the climate crisis and the planet having a fever that we must treat.

What do you think? Is climate change a good phrase for progressives that want to protect ourselves and future generations? Or should we use a different one?

Framing Global Warming

In The Political Brain, Drew Westen correctly points out that the phrase global warming does not convey the urgency of the problem:

“Warming” has positive connotation, suggesting, at worst, the need for a little extra sub block. “Greenhouse gases” sound like a problem a florist might worry about as Valentine’s Day approaches or something generated by tainted spinach. And for most people, dire warnings about the ocean getting a degree or two warmer let to little more than the thought, “Good, maybe the ocean won’t be so cold on Memorial Day weekend.”

But two features of [Al] Gore’s presentation [An Inconvenient Truth] changed all that. The first was his evocative choice of words. He talked about a “climate crisis”–a phrase with very different connotations than “global warming”–and he ended the film with stirring words about the earth that were anything but abstract: “This is our only home.

The climate crisis is an emergency that demands swift action. As Grist.org reported in 2009, the scientific journal Nature  specified a “safe operating space for humanity” with indicators estimating how close to Earth’s boundaries for supporting life we are.

Check out the thermometers in the Grist article! They show that Earth is already past the tipping points for “climate change” (another phrase to avoid), biodiversity loss, and the nitrogen cycle and have reached tipping points for ozone depletion and ocean acidification.

In addition to talking about climate crisis, progressives should use the title of the thermometer graphic: “The planet has a fever.” When someone has a fever, he or she needs care and needs it now, not when we can fit it into our schedule.

A great thing about the fever metaphor is that it doesn’t matter who caused the fever; what counts is accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment. When denialists claim, "Well, we don't know for sure that human activity is changing the climate. It could be something else.", progressives could reply, "What matters is that the planet has a fever and we know what to treat it. We mustn't let the fever get worse. It's an emergency!"

What do you think? Does global warming need a reframe? What do you think of “climate crisis” and the fever metaphor? What would you suggest?

Framing Taxpayers

Because we have responsibilities in many areas of life, Americans perform many roles. One of life’s complexities is that sometimes these roles have interests that conflict with one another. For example, as a taxpayer, our desire is for the lowest possible tax bill. However, as motorists, we want our streets and highways in good repair, which could mean higher taxes.

When extreme conservatives try to minimize the public sector, partly by emphasizing government debt, they exalt Americans’ taxpayer role above the others. We should remember that taxpayers include corporations as well as human beings, so it’s important to clarify who extreme conservatives are talking about when they talk about taxpayers.

But even more important, progressives should reframe the debate by talking about the other roles we perform and how they could be harmed by maximizing the taxpayer’s desire for minimum taxation.

For example:

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Americans perform many roles. In politics at least, the role of citizen can encompass roles such as parent, neighbor, taxpayer, consumer, employer, worker, investor, and volunteer.
  • As parents and others that love children, will our public schools have the funding they need?
  • As citizens, will we be able to participate in elections and public meetings, visit public parks, drive on safe streets, enjoy police and fire protection, and benefit from wise urban planning and transportation systems, or will tax cuts be used to reduce our access to these public goods?
  • As workers, will the government protect our rights if we suffer discrimination or unacceptable working conditions, or will tax cuts have left the government too weak to help?
  • As employers, will the police and fire departments protect our property, or will we have to hire our own security?
  • As consumers, will we enjoy safe food and other products, or will tax cuts mean that corporations can sell us dangerous stuff?
  • As investors, will we have accurate information about where we’re putting our money, or will tax cuts mean that banks and other companies can deceive us?

Of these roles, I consider that of citizen as including all the others. Therefore, when extreme conservatives talk about us as if we were one of the smaller roles, we should reframe the debate to the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of citizenship and how easily they could be lost.

What do you think? Am I overreacting about talk of taxpayers? What roles have I left out?

Framing Homeland Security

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Empires tend to view their homelands as the privileged center and other territories as less privileged.

If I could, I would rename the Department of Homeland Security. To my mind at least, the word homeland belongs to the vocabulary of empire, not democracy. For example, Hitler considered Germany to be his nation’s “fatherland” and therefore the center of his empire, not the limit of his empire. After World War II, Stalin created the Eastern Bloc in part to protect the Russian “motherland.” The name Department of Homeland Security implies that the United States is a global empire that distinguishes between its “homeland” and countries outside the “homeland” but that nonetheless it rules.

This thinking privileges the “homeland” over other areas that the government sees as within its jurisdiction. While US government generally must give its citizens (i.e. people born or naturalized in the “homeland”) due process when suspected of crimes, laws now allow Uncle Sam to execute foreigners (and sometimes citizens) that he suspects of terrorist crimes with drones without due process when they are outside the “homeland.” This double standard denies the idea of universal human rights. (See, e.g., Article 3 and Articles 5-10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

I’d like DHS renamed as the Department of Public Safety. This name removes the hint of imperialism while asserting the responsibility and ability to protect the public.

What do you think? Should DHS get a new name? If so, what should it be?

Framing Sequestration

According to Dr. Paul M. Johnson, sequestration  is the withholding of funds from government agencies by the US Treasury that exceed a cap set in current law. The effect is to limit the funds available to Federal agencies.

In today’s sequestration debate, the process is being used to automatically cut government spending nearly across the board. George Lakoff points out that, although the current sequestration was intended to be distasteful to liberals and conservatives alike, it serves a major goal of extreme conservatives: “maximal elimination of the public sphere”.

Even though it looks likely that a deal reducing sequestration cuts for two years will pass Congress, sequestration isn’t going away. Therefore, it’s important that progressives reframe this debate so that Americans can see what’s immoral about this budget-slashing.

A great place to start is to talk about progressive views of government and public resources, which are under attack everywhere. Dr. Lakoff sums it up like this:

The public sector makes business, the nonprofit sector, and family life possible. Eroding the public sector puts all of these at risk.
The public sector makes business, the nonprofit sector, and family life possible. Eroding the public sector puts all of these at risk.

Progressives tend to believe that democracy is based on citizens caring for their fellow citizens through what the government provides for all citizens — public infrastructure, public safety, public education, public health, publicly-sponsored research, public forms of recreation and culture, publicly-guaranteed safety nets for those who need them, and so on. In short, progressives believe that the private depends on the public, that without those public provisions Americans cannot be free to live reasonable lives and to thrive in private business. They believe that those who make more from public provisions should pay more to maintain them.

I’ll add (as Lakoff has elsewhere) that from a progressive perspective, protection of citizens’ rights, health, safety, and opportunity to prosper is a moral mission of government in a democratic society. Shirking these responsibilities is wrong and deprives citizens of our right to enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

After framing government in terms of progressive values, it’s time to reframe what is now known as “the sequester.” This term makes it sound like the issue is dollars. The same is true for budget cuts and automatic spending cuts. Talking about money keeps the focus on the conservative narrative of out-of-control government spending. Progressives should avoid such language and frame the issue as the government’s responsibility to protect Americans’ lives, liberty, and wellbeing.

I’m not sure what phrase should replace “the sequester” and would love to hear your suggestions. Here are some ideas:

  • budget cuts for the 99% but not the 1%
  •  the shirking (e.g. “We cannot allow the shirking to continue because Americans’ lives, freedom, and wellbeing are in the balance.”
  •  irresponsible
  •  billionaire’s budget
  •  the increasing-inequality budget
  •  the inequality budget

What do you think?

Framing Pensions

One reason it’s important for more Americans to understand framing is that it’s so easy to use words and phrases that sound neutral but actually contain ideological bias. Do you know if journalists are taught framing theory in college? If you have knowledge or experience with this, please let me know. I think journalists should be taught this if they aren’t already.

The phrase I have in mind is “unfunded pension liabilities.” If you search online for this phrase, you’ll find it in countless articles.

This probably is a politically-neutral term among accountants. After all, in accounting, a liability is just a minus on the spreadsheet. For example, my phone bill is a monthly liability in my budget. That doesn’t make it bad; it just means it needs to be paid.

The words "unfunded" and "liabilities" add unfortunate connotations to "pension."
The words “unfunded” and “liabilities” add unfortunate connotations to “pension.”

But since conservatives have made government debt a major issue, the words unfunded and liabilities when applied to pension serve the conservative narrative of reckless overspending by government. Because the word liability does mean bad and risk to be avoided in the world where we non-accountants live, it implies that pensions are somehow bad. This reduces resistance to abolishing pensions and replacing them with retirement-savings plans that may or may not provide the hoped-for income in retirement.

Given a nationwide campaign against pensions, it’s important to reframe the issue. What should progressives say when, e.g., the mayor of Omaha argues that pensions should be replaced with 401(k)s and 403(b)s?

As George Lakoff argues in this latest Huffington Post article, “Pensions are delayed payments of wages for work already done, and taking away pensions is theft.” The wages have been delayed to increase the workers’ security in retirement. To ensure that retired workers have a measure of financial security is a way that we Americans support each other and ensure broadly-shared prosperity. To renege on pensions is is irresponsible and wrong, and we should say so.

When well-meaning people (or pension opponents) say “unfunded pension liability,” we could say, “The liability isn’t the pension but the failure to fund the pension. We have to ensure that retired workers get what they’re owed and can enjoy the freedom and security they’ve earned in retirement.”

How do you think progressives should defend pensions?

Framing Babies

What dark times these are when the plain Anglo-Saxon word baby has to be reclaimed from politics! But as George Lakoff points out in The Little Blue Book, baby is one of several important English words that have to be reclaimed from the anti-women’s rights crowd.

Life begins at conception. This means a  fertilized egg is a baby. Babies are children and citizens. Therefore, personhood, childhood, and citizenship begin at conception. Therefore, ending pregnancy for any reason  is infanticide.While no one disputes that “life begins at conception,” what needs to be disputed is the radical claim that this means that personhood, citizenship and childhood begin at conception. This is false and dangerous.

Although we sometimes speak affectionately of an unborn child as “baby” and sometimes even name it while in the womb, it becomes a baby at birth when the umbilical cord is cut. That’s why we call birth “having a baby.” We do not call conceiving a child “having a baby” because we don’t have it until it’s born. That is when personhood, childhood, and citizenship begin. That has always been my understanding of the word baby.

Why does this matter? Because it is the false claim that the unborn are already babies that is the basis for the emotionally powerful but logically untrue slogans “Abortion is murder” and “It’s not a choice; it’s a child.” The claim that the unborn are already babies also is the basis for efforts to pass laws defining citizenship as beginning in the womb. These efforts threaten the rights of women to make important choices about their lives that belong to them and not to state or church.

Drew Westen, author of the excellent The Political Brain, points out in that book that logically refuting such an argument isn’t enough.

Imagine the following: I’m running for office and debating my opponent. My opponent thunders, Abortion is murder and I reply, No, it isn't because it isn't a baby until birth. I lose, hands down. This is because my opponent’s slogan carries moral, emotional power that arouses even people that don’t agree with it. My reply is a factual quibble that stirs no one’s soul.

For this point to have moral force that moves people’s hearts, it would have to be made in a story that frames the issue in terms of progressive values. Drew Westen accurately describes the fetus as a potential person that becomes more like a baby as pregnancy progresses and notes that this evolution is why Americans are more supportive of restrictions on late-term abortions than on earlier ones. He proposes the following as a principled stand on abortion:

Abortion is a difficult and often painful decision for a woman to make. It’s a decision only she can make, based on the dictates of her own conscience and faith, not on the dictates of someone else’s. But except under exceptional circumstances, such as rape, incest, or danger to her health, she should make that decision as early as she can, so she is not aborting a fetus that is increasingly becoming more like a person. (The Political Brain, p. 184).

This avoids the word baby and emphasizes the woman’s conscience, faith, and responsibility to decide early. What do you think? Is it important to be careful about the using the word baby, or am I overreacting? What do you think of Westen’s statement above?