Monday, August 15, 2005

Notes on Framing

Since I've been ranting about reframing ID, I suppose it makes sense to put down some thoughts about what 'framing' is.

NB: I'm not an expert in this. I'm only presenting this to give you the gist of how your hearts and minds can be swayed, and to give terms by which you can express the frustration at how some quite ridiculous notions appear to be gaining public support. For a more in depth discussion, I refer you to George Lakoff's book 'Don't think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate'.

So, with profuse apologies to the course presenter to who's notes I'm interpreting, here we go:
In his discussions on Oration, Socrates defined three modes of address:
  • Logos (appeal to reason)
  • Pathos (appeal to emotion)
  • Ethos (appeal to belief)
These modes represent an insight, not on how your argument is delivered, but how it is likely to be received. It is important to realise that.

Quite often, when you are developing a presentation, you will be discussing it internally (especially if you're the shy introverted, geeky type, like YT). While good for defining the logical structure of your argument, this risks falling into the trap of presenting it to yourself, in terms that persuade you, not those whom you're addressing.

Unfortunately, this mode of address (logos), while it is essential for backing up your case with facts and figures, is a complete turn off to the audience. It is too abstract to engage the forebrain.

What does make people sit up and take notice is the appeal to emotion: a sense of the dramatic. You probably realise from writing classes that a good story always started with a bang! What holds for a story also holds for a debate. Indeed, it is a good idea to think of it as a story! By presenting your 'fact and figures' as characters in a play, you will be able to engage your audience far more effectively.

Where does 'ethos' fit in? Systems of belief are effectively immutable (oh, they might change over time, but the process is relatively slow). A good argument will handle this by avoiding any references that may impinge on the beliefs of the audience, and milk any cases it can make that supports those beliefs.

Which brings us to 'framing'.

What happens here is that the orator seeks to impose filters on the discussion so that the audience hears the argument presented in ways that make them inclined to agree with her. This is done by:
  • presenting all your supporting arguments in a manner that appeals to pathos (and ethos, if you can)
  • presenting all opposing arguments in ways that trangress ethos.

What is truly subversive about a well framed argument is that the technique works on the opposition as well! They may not end up agreeing with, but they will find it frustrating that they don't seem to have an effective argument.

Take the 'debate' currently being waged on 'Intelligent Design'. The proponents don't present facts, they present a case that someone is taking care of things: a comforting thought to anyone raised in even a marginally religious background. They claim that ID and NS are both 'theories' (a qualitative, if naive, comparision), and therefore should be given equal time. Simultaneously, the so-called 'wedge' document portrays scientific teaching as undermining morality. (Horror! How can something that undermines morality be defended?)

So, how have they framed the debate?
  • They present an idea with *appeal*.
  • They portray the alternative as 'just an idea' as well.
  • They portray the backers of the opposing idea as immoral
How is it being countered? By facts! Learned rebuttals that flagellates can be modelled in fewer steps than the IDer guys and gals claim. Dignified sniffs that ID isn't scientific because it can't be disproved. Scientists and geeks may follow this, but the average being on the Clapham omnibus?


Simple naysaying this stuff is precisely what a framed argument anticipates, and only serves to strengthen its underlying appeal to the audience. Indeed, all the IDers really want at the moment is attention. They have succeeded.

To many readers, there may well seem to be something not quite honest about this. Especially since that traditional basis of a scholarly debate: logos, has been relegated to the back benches. In truth, logos is critical for underpinning and backing an argument: indeed, it is likely to be the very thing that persuaded you to take up the cause in the first place! However, logos isn't so good on the initial offence. You need ethos to 'shock and awe'. The justifications can be used to hold the ground you gain afterwards.

Framing is a powerful tool of persuasion, and it is being used effectively by those whom I have lumped under the banner : 'Culture of Lief'

But it is only a tool, one that can be used by anyone, and which can be used to counter itself ('reframing')

For a discussion on how this can be achieved (and for examples other than ID), I refer you to
Nick Carney's article in New Matilda. who also refers to George Lakoff's book.

It's a pity the Democrats didn't


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