It’s All About the Framing

A recent report in Salon quotes Frank Luntz as being “very scared” of Occupy Wall Street. Luntz, for those who don’t know, is the GOP “messaging” genius who came up with terms like “death tax” to rebrand the estate tax, and who urges Republicans to abandon use of the word capitalism in favor of terms like “economic freedom.” His concern about OWS is obvious: the movement threatens to re-frame the debate–to shift the focus to the undeniable hardships created by lax regulation coupled with unbridled greed.

As George Lakoff demonstrated in “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” framing is a powerful tool. We all have mental “frames,” culturally transmitted worldviews that act as lenses through which we view reality. Those of us who teach try to expand those mental paradigms, enlarge the lens, so that students can see and consider facts they might not otherwise encounter. Understood as an inevitable consequence of human socialization, the act of framing is descriptive of our mental processes–and morally neutral.

What isn’t morally neutral is the use of framing to distort reality, to push people’s “buttons,” to obscure relevant information and harden, rather than relax, our worldviews. The hired guns who do this for the political parties are not concerned with reality–they are concerned with winning. So social programs become “giveaways,” feminists are always “strident,” and concerns about social justice are “socialism.”

I think it was Tallyrand who said that “words are given to man to conceal his thoughts.” ┬áThe ability to name things is an essential tool of communication. The ability to mis-name things is a weapon employed by the amoral.


  1. A telecomm professor of mine — in the running for best teacher I ever had — wrote a paper called “Metaphors as Midwives.” I’ve been mentally feasting on the potency of that title ever since.

    The idea is that the metaphors we use to think of things very much shape what those things ultimately become. For example, Marconi’s thinking of radio as “wireless telegraph,” really limited the use of radio early on. Only when they switched to a “broadcast” metaphor did applications become more apparent. At the time of the paper, I think there was a concern about the implications of the “information superhighway” metaphor for the Internet.

  2. The real story here is that Luntz was speaking to the Republican Governors Association on how to oppose the Occupy Wall Street movement. Who do the GOP Governors represent? The comfortable 1% or the vast majority of their constituents, the 99% ?

  3. Frank Luntz didn’t coin the term “death tax.” My father, a farmer, and other farmers like him have referred to it as the death tax as long as I can remember. I realize many liberals could care less whether the families of generations of farmers have to sell off their family farms to pay the inheritance taxes owed to the government, but that’s exactly what happens all too often. The big city banksters who have been defrauding all of us are buying up all the farm land in the Midwest and driving up land values. Imagine that.

    I met Frank Luntz at a leadership conference in Washington as a high school student. He had to ask the first question of every speaker at the conference and thought he was smarter than everyone else in the room. Before the conference was over, he was the most hated boy in the room. Newt Gingrich is the one who decided he was someone who should be listened to when he ascended to the speakership and moved him to the front of the class. I don’t know which is worse–listening to him speak or looking at his terrible hair piece.

  4. Lakeoff is so right on. Nixon’s “Silent Majority”
    and portrayal of anti-war demonstrators as
    unpatriotic and unwashed is returning in similar portrayals of the OWS demonstrators even though they are much more difficult to categorize philosophically.

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