Framing racism

by Andy Gregg, Chief Executive, Race on the Agenda.

Yesterday I went to a presentation by George Lakoff – the author of “Don’t think of an elephant! Know your values and frame the debate”. He is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California and specialises in understanding how we can use language to change the way in which debates and ideas are framed. We looked at how the issue of migration might  be reframed so as to accentuate its positive elements and to challenge the framing of migration as about numbers and “people feeling  rather swamped” – as Margaret Thatched put it in the 1980s.

Key to his argument is that arguing (as we “progressives” almost always try to do) on the basis of facts and evidence is seldom sufficient to influence the way in which those who are against migration tend to frame their arguments. For them the debate is not about facts but about feelings – confronted with unequivocal facts about numbers, contribution to the UK economy and other evidence,  they often simply just refuse to believe any of it. Most people for example continue to believe that there are far more asylum seekers arriving in the UK then there actually are and that the percentage of UK residents from  BAME backgrounds is much higher than it actually is. They are not readily convinced by figures provided by the Government or indeed anyone else – if these run counter to their presuppositions.  The framework within which they perceive the issue of migration – “Britain is full”, “they all want to come here”, “we are a soft touch” and so forth, are much stronger determinants of their views than any merely factual evidence to the contrary could ever be.  We sometimes think that we have won the argument by citing more accurate and authoritative statistics – far from it.

According to Lakoff, what we need to do instead is to try to reframe the terms of the debate to avoid reinforcing their unconscious fears and instead to accentuate the positive impact migrants have on life in the UK. We need to celebrate the roles, responsibilities and risks  they take on in leaving their countries of origin and seeking to make a new life in the UK.

For Lakoff,  everything we understand is a matter of framing. And what counts as a fact depends on the frame used in understanding it.The fact that all politics is moral and that political framing uses largely unconscious moral framing is not widely recognized. He argues that “progressives” or “liberals” tend to espouse a belief in enlightenment reason and the rational actor model. We tend to assume that rational thought consists of consciously-used classical logic about self-interest, with language as neutrally describing the world. This is an inadequate theory of reason and language, which leads to many liberals thinking that what is moral is universal and can be taken for granted, and that all one has to do is present the facts and people will reason to the right conclusion. It keeps not happening. This theory of reason often leads liberals to misunderstand framing as just a matter of words, a search for slogans, when it is really the study of the moral basis of policy and the deep truths on which policy is based.

Conservative communication specialists know better, since they have often studied marketing and marketing professors know that people really think in terms of frames, metaphors, images, narratives, and emotion. Although Lakoff concedes that we are slowly catching up, we are still way behind the conservatives when it comes to two things: expressing the nature of the moral and political divide, and stating the very general deep truths that link moral principles to specific policies.

All this set me thinking about why it is that we have not yet really found effective ways to explain what we mean by our core concept of institutional or systemic racism. Everyone understands what it means for individuals to speak or act in overtly racist ways. There is a direct relationship between what is said or done (the racist incident) and how the recipient is made to or expected to feel. However, the outcomes experienced by different population groups (take for instance young, black men) are clearly affected by discrimination within the institutions in which they find themselves – schools, employment, the health system, policing etc. This can be so without the need for any conscious or identifiable acts of overt racism by individuals. We have not been so good at explaining that this form of racism often has a deeper and more serious affect on people’s lives then the overt racism of the street or the football terrace. For Lakoff  systemic causation (whether used to explain global warming or institutional racism) tends to be a feature of the arguments of the progressive side as we see ourselves as enshrined in communities and dependent on others with ties of mutual solidarity and cooperation. Simple or direct causation tends to be used more effectively by the right – deriving as he sees it from a hierarchical and authoritarian view of life where the market is able to put a price on any aspect of individual human activity that it thus deems important - where there is “no such thing as society” (Thatcher again). 

One thing is clear – we need to find new ways to reframe the narrative about  racism if we are to ensure that we have the tools necessary to challenge and overcome it.