Stick or Twist?
3rd April 2019
Reframing # 2
5th April 2019

Framing and Reframing have been receiving lots of publicity recently. Indeed it has been said that this is perhaps the most significant topic in our drive to restore Scotland to its natural state as a sovereign nation, playing its full part on the world stage. Framing in one form or another has been extensively studied, researched and indeed applied for over a century. Unfortunately its main proponents have been the members of the establishment, both here and in the US. Billions have been spent by the right wing promoting establishment frames, to the extent that most people consider them normal. This is the challenge facing us in persuading people to support self-determination for Scotland.

So, what is framing? Framing is the basis of propaganda, and reframing is the breakthrough means of combating propaganda. In our live sessions and workshops we say to people “Don’t think of an elephant!”. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of people immediately think of an elephant, despite having been asked not to think of one.

So why is it so difficult not to think of an elephant? It is because the brain has no way of not doing something. Tell someone “Don’t look now” and they inevitably turn round and look. If you want someone not to look round, then tell them to do something positive, for example, “Keep looking straight ahead at me.”

Recent advances in cognitive science and neuroscience show that we think in terms of frames,  which are mental constructs, such as our representation of an elephant, and also physical, consisting of networks of neurons. Those who have studied psychology may know frames as schema or schemata. 

Frames are hierarchical and we use them to understand the world around us. For example if your highest level frame is that you are better than others, perhaps because you were always told this, then you will automatically frame your interactions with people who are not “one of us” to be condescending. Mostly we are unaware of the frames we are using; indeed it is a bit like the scene from the film The Matrix where most people did not realise they were plugged into a machine.

It is worth noting that the term frame used in this context is not the same as that used in psychotherapy or in opinion polling. 

Reframing is used in certain branches of psychotherapy where the patient is asked to have two parts of his or her personality talk to one another and reframe how they see a situation. For example, the person may be feeling depressed, and be encouraged by the therapist to “talk to himself or herself” about how to reframe the situation more positively.  

In opinion polling, framing and reframing are used to refer not only to the wording of the question but to the sequence in which questions are asked. Both have been demonstrated to influence the responses given, to the extent that reversing the order of identical questions can sometimes even reverse the response given. Of course there are regulations against this type of direct “push” polling, but it demonstrates that opinion polls are not necessarily the reliable indicator that they are presented as. 

So, words are defined by fixed frames, we use frames in thinking, frames come in hierarchical systems, and political frames are defined in moral terms, where “morality” is very different for conservatives and progressives. 

Progressives have a moral view of democracy. Democracy is about citizens caring about each other and acting responsibly both socially and personally. This requires both empowering the public and protecting everyone equally. Both private success and personal freedom depend on this.

The opposite “moral” view, is that democracy provides the freedom to seek one’s self-interest and ignore what is good for others. That view lies behind the Wall Street  and City ethic of the Greedy Market, as opposed to a Market for All, a market intended to maximise the well-being of the majority. The Greedy Market view leads to a hierarchical view of society, where success is always deserved and lack of success is moral failure. The rich are moral, and they not only deserve their wealth, they also deserve the power it brings. This is the view that prevails in Westminster.

The groundbreaking work of Professor George Lakoff shows that these are the only two moral views in politics. Many if not most people have some of each, which we explore in our workshops, since it is the key to understanding how to gain the support of people who are not currently supporters but could be. If you read any of Professor Lakoff’s work on framing, you will see that he defines such people as biconceptuals. 

You may well be thinking, interesting, but so what? Well the reason this is important is that Voters vote their Values, not their Best Interests. If this were not the case, then the right wing would never be elected in the US or the UK, where the vast majority of people are voting for parties whose policies are directly against their own interest! Just take a moment to think about this. If we do not promote the congruence of our values with the explicit or latent values of the public, then we have little chance of persuading people to support self-determination.

So to recap, a frame is the context we subconsciously put around something in order to decide what it means. It is as if we are drawing a boundary around it which includes part of our experience and excludes the rest. Whatever is inside the boundary, we use as the context to make sense of the thing or event, and whatever is outside the boundary is ignored.

Recent advances in neuroscience, particularly the use of fMRI brain scans, shows that the networks of neurons in the brain grow every time that they are triggered. This is true whether you are practising a piece of music, working on your golf-swing or indeed thinking about an issue In general, every time a frame is activated, it gets stronger, yes, actually physically stronger in the brain. You activate a frame by using it, repeating it, accepting it and, counter-intuitively, denying it! Attempting to rebut a frame merely makes it more firmly embedded!

This is perhaps the most important lesson to appreciate – negating a Frame makes it stronger. This is what Trump did so well in his infamous Twitter battles. He would make a claim, usually extreme and ill-founded, and his opponents would retweet it, denying the claim. Every retweet strengthened the original Trump frame!

This cannot be stressed too strongly. In our own movement, I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people not only using establishment frames but stating them and then negating them, believing that they are “rebutting” a point. People who do this are helping our opponents. Do not do this! This bears repeating: never, ever, repeat, deny, or accept an establishment frame.

For example, the establishment and the mainstream media frequently talk about the NHS as if there were only one integrated service for the United Kingdom. Of course that is not the case and never has been since the inception of NHS Scotland after the second world war. Scotland had been operating a publicly funded health service in one form or another for 35 years before everything was brought together under the NHS Scotland umbrella. This was not the case in England, where the model had been mainly based on private medicine. It is one of the successes of establishment framing that they have claimed credit for setting up “the NHS” as if it applied uniformly throughout. Note that the actual title in Scotland is NHS Scotland, however this still does not make clear that it is a totally separate, independent health service. We recommend never using the term “the NHS” instead reframe as the Scottish Health Service. 

But what happens when a solid fact comes up against a strongly held frame? Do people change their frame as a result? Actually, no, in such a situation, previously held frames and beliefs become stronger! This is particularly true if the evidence is from a publication, a video, a broadcast or from a person perceived as an opponent. We will explore the significance for this in campaigning later in the article.

In summary, Frames trump Facts, pun intended!

But does that mean that we cannot change someone’s existing Frames? No, but it does mean that we need to be face-to-face, one-to-one, in order to have any chance of communicating and persuading them. Not only that, but in order to combat the establishment framing, we need to be consistent in our reframing. It is no good coming up with a dozen different ways of reframing one establishment frame, for overall this will then have zero effect. We must reframe consistently, so that the reframe can become established in the population as a whole, as people share the reframe. To this end we have developed a Reframing Lexicon, and this will form the basis of our training workshops for activists.

So, how does reframing apply to campaigning? First of all, let’s look at a common concept which I am sure all of you know – Triage. If you are like me, you have experienced medical triage either directly or for a family or friend, but how many of you know the origin of the term? It comes from the French verb trier meaning to sort (into categories). Triage was developed at the end of the 18th century by Napoleon’s first Chief Surgeon and later extended and used by all military. Nowadays it is used in everything from emergency disaster evacuation management to hospital A and E. 

Let’s consider why triage was developed. Prior to triage, medics would treat the most seriously wounded first, then those screaming for help. Unfortunately by the time they got to the others, they often found that they had died, even though they could have survived had they been treated first! Triage introduced the concept of assessing casualties before treatment. 

Casualties were sorted into three categories:

  1. Dead or dying. You might call a chaplain over, but other than that, you ignore them.
  2. People who will survive without your help. They may be in pain, but your priority is to treat the third category first.
  3. Those who will die without your help. This is where you start.

Triage immediately increased the survival rate in the field, but what has this got to do with campaigning? Well, how many of you have seen an activist talking animatedly with someone, spending twenty minutes, half an hour or even longer talking to them, and at the end saying something like “She just wouldn’t listen to reason!” In the meantime, how many people could you have talked to that might have given you a chance to engage positively with them?

So you must use triage in campaigning – the medical categories we spoke about translate to Lost Cause, Supporters and Open to Persuasion. Of course the difficulty is, how do you tell the difference? Apart from Union Flag avatars, photos of the queen and so on, we need to know how to qualify the people we are talking to. 

Now if you are part of a campaign team such as a local YES group you may already have built up a profile of people in your area. If so, you should have no difficulty in picking out those that you need to spend time with first. But what if you are just talking to someone on the street, in a cafe, in the pub or out walking the dog? Let me share with you a great way to qualify the other person. I’ll give you an example.

One day recently I was out with the dog, and one of our neighbours was in his garden. Let’s call him Keith. He is retired, well off, drives an expensive car and works hard in his garden. We were chatting about the effort needed to keep a lawn looking good when he brought up the subject of Independence:

“Of course Scotland could never be financially viable on its own”.

“That’s interesting Keith, may I ask you how you arrived at that conclusion?”

“Oh, in my previous job I had access to all the figures and believe me, as an accountant, there is no way that Scotland could afford to be independent.”

“Just supposing for a moment that I could demonstrate to your satisfaction that Scotland not only could be, but actually is, financially viable, would you support independence?”

“Absolutely not!!”

“May I ask you why you think that?”

“Can’t stand Nicola Sturgeon!!!”…

Clearly at this point you have identified a Lost Cause. Although over time, and with many interactions it could be possible to persuade Keith of the merits of independence, is this really a good use of our time? Remember Margo Macdonald prior to the 2014 Referendum, when she asked that every one of us seek to persuade at least one other person of the merits of our case. That was a very perceptive remark by a remarkable lady, and it remains valid to this day. With what we know about reframing, working continuously to talk to people, seeking to qualify and persuade those open to persuasion, is a key method which plays to our strength, the sheer number of activists on the ground.

So use the “Just supposing…” technique to establish if someone is really asking for information or is just wasting your time. Once you have received a positive response, then of course go ahead and provide the information if you judge that it is required, or at least provide a link to it or to someone who will give it to them. A word of warning: do not use this technique if you have no way of answering their question!

On campaigning in general, please note that if you do not use reframing in your contacts with people, then providing them with facts contrary to their frames not only will not persuade them to change frames, but actually reinforces their existing frames. This is sometimes called the Backfire effect. This means that campaigning without reframing is helping the opposition!

We are in the process of scheduling train the trainer workshops and have signed up a significant number of qualified people to be trainers so that we can roll this out across the country. As part of this training package we have a Lexicon of Terms, in the form of an explanation, and then a quick reference guide of Don’t say that, Instead say this. It is important to stress that reframing is a skill, and merely knowing about it is not sufficient to become proficient in reframing in practice. We aim to provide training to activists to practise reframing, and to be confident in using the appropriate reframing terms. Reframing is a skill which can be learned, and is not merely a handbook of terms.

Just to close, I would like to share with you one of my favourite reframes which we developed for the All Under One Banner Glasgow march, you may have seen it flying proudly on the Wings stall or in the Facebook meme which we distributed. 

Choose Scotland – Big Enough. Smart Enough. Rich Enough.

Note that the sequence, Big…Smart…Rich is deliberately not in the same order as the establishment frame, in order to minimise the risk of triggering the original trope.

Reframing Works. Join us in returning Scotland to its natural state.