For me the Friday Room has been a learning process and a formulation of ideas. The posts that I have made seem to be leading towards something that current fashion calls “reframing the narrative” I suggest that this is of central importance in the future of politics. What follows is my take on this; my personal “narrative”, still developing.
The term “frame” originated in cognitive psychology. It is the frame of reference, which is the complex set of unquestioned beliefs and values held by the person in therapy. The idea is that the therapist attempts to help that person to find beliefs that enable them to rethink negative thoughts, turning them into positive ones (1).
There is the, rather cliched, scene in films where you see a close up of some of the characters acting in a manner that is inconsistent and maybe shocking. The camera pulls back to reveal that that this is happening on a film set. The significance of the character’s actions is changed completely by this, literal, reframing.
The idea been taken up with enthusiasm in mediation and advertising and of course, with a vengeance, in politics (2).
The idea of reframing is similar to the idea of a “paradigm shift” in science(3).
Also, if I understand correctly, it is similar to the idea of changing the “cultural hegemony” as proposed by Gramsci.
Ken Loach’s The Spirit of 45 can be seen as an exercise in framing. It puts in our minds the spirit of optimism and cooperation immediately after the war and the story of the great reforms that were achieved, with the hope that we people put aside the frames of factionalism and go on to tackle the problems of today in this spirit.
Establishing a new frame does not mean attacking existing frames. We need to put the “Economic Growth or we are sunk” the “Socialism vs Capitalism is all that matters” and the “Go Green or we are doomed” frames to one side. It is not that they are wrong but for the constituency we really need to engage: the disillusioned, sometimes Tory- or even UKIP- voting majority, they are an immediate and total turn-off. (If there was anything the Left Unity movement needs to take on board, it is this.)
In the discussion of how public services should be run we should establish the frame of Proper Governance. Who is going to stand up and say they are in favour of improper governance? It means that we can move away from a sterile ideological argument to a grown-up discussion about whose benefit services are to be run and how to achieve effective oversight.
In the discussion of economics let us develop the frame of Better Markets. In this markets are part of civilisation as we know it and a Good Thing; but, let it be acknowledged, there are problems. Not that there is a single monolithic problem but the general acceptance that markets are human inventions and of course they can and do go wrong. Then the idea that markets can be changed, that there may be better ways of doing things and particularly that markets are not magic, can become not just palatable but obvious.
An important frame is that excessive inequality is unequivocally a Bad Thing. Linking it with corruption is a powerful narrative: We all know that corruption is Bad, that corrupt nations are less prosperous. Add to this that more unequal nations are also less prosperous. Corruption and inequality work together.
Establishing a frame is not about providing solutions; that follows. It is about asking the right questions.
An overall frame is the suspicion of ideologies and in particular a complete rejection of any movement that seeks to impose ideals by force or stealth: Communism, Nationalism, Islamism, Fascism, Socialism, Liberalism and, above all, Market Fundamentalism. This last should be generally accepted as just another dodgy panacea.
Ideologies are for children looking for a parent figure or holy text with simple instructions on how to achieve utopia. In my frame we are adults and recognize that life is complicated and we want to survive the best we can. There is no ideal state to be reached, no end of history. There are many issues where there is no single all-encompassing solution. Sometimes we can make big improvements in small steps. Often we need to look at things differently.
An example is given of a father and a disobedient teenage daughter. The therapist got the father to see the daughter not as a child being naughty, which is bad, but as a young adult beginning to develop her independence, which is good.
Politicians use the form: “X is the case” followed by “which is why we have done Y”; X is a statement of the obvious, such as “we must have Growth”, which puts into the mind of the listener the context which the speaker wants the action to be judged.
An example of when framing was needed was when an impressive array of climate scientists presented to the American Congress with what they saw as a very persuasive case for climate change, They were dismayed to find their efforts seemed only to inflame the scepticism of the sceptics. However, this outcome did not surprise those who study how people form their opinions. They would have suggested framing in the form of providing a positive context, for example by presenting climate change as an opportunity through the creation of “green jobs”
Framing is also implicit in formulating questionnaires. The questions: “do you want a reduction of tax coupled by a reduction of government spending?” and ” do you want spending on the NHS increased even if it means higher taxes?” will tend to produce different answers even though they are essentially the same question.
For example, the idea that the earth went round the sun rather than being fixed, is just another way of looking at the same facts but it makes it much simpler to understand the motion of the planets. Also relativity and quantum theory provided means of interpreting otherwise baffling observations.