Good change in the world

Framing and Free Speech: are we letting the alt-right win the battle of wits?

In his 2004 book, Don’t Think of An Elephant, American linguist George Lakoff described the power of “framing” – the use of commonly understood metaphors, or narrative constructs, to describe issues or events in a way that makes sense to people, and means they will be more easily convinved of a contrary world view.  Thus, “tax relief” is a frame that presents taxation as something that we need “relief” from, and is therefore negative (rather than a public good). Anyone who uses the phrase “tax relief” presents a negative rather than neutral or even positive view of tax, simply through the use of this frame.

In his book, Lakoff demonstrates that conservatives have used framing to powerful effect in the fight for the middle ground in United States politics.  They have used frames such as “tax relief” or “pro life” so effectively that policy debates are all argued on their terms, and on their territory. To use a football metaphor, they are always playing the home game, making their opponents’ task so much harder.

We are seeing the power of framing playing out here in New Zealand now, and the New Zealand media and commentariat – and even many in the liberal movement – are playing into conservatives’ hands.

The classic case in point is the response to Auckland Mayor Phil Goff ‘s decision not to allow far-right Canadian activists Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux to hire a Council venue for their event.

Apparently as a result of this, (although, of course, it could just be that they couldn’t be arsed) Southern and Moyneux have elected not to travel to New Zealand.

The situation has resulted in a storm of discussion, and at its core – prompted by a tweet from Southern – is the accusation that their  freedom of speech has been supressed.

Let’s be clear.  The refusal to rent a public venue to these people is not a supression of free speech.  No one has stopped them from speaking, and they are free to find a private venue to spread their views.  It’s also not – as one commentator has written – evidence that liberals are “afraid” of opposing views.  It is a rational rejection, by the ratepayer-funded public body, of misogyny, homophobia and racism and the harm that they bring.

But like mud, the accusations stick, and are flung about by people with sympathy for the Canadians’ views and – more surprisingly and unfortunately more powerfully – by some of those who oppose them.

There are two dominant and damaging frames at play here, that we would do well to notice and challenge.

The first is the framing of liberals as fearful and weak, unable to tolerate dissent or opposing views. The word commonly used, which has its origin in American political discourse, is “snowflakes”. This framing is rolled out every time liberals challenge hate speech or stand up against misogyny, racism and homophobia.  In standing up against these things Liberals are – the framing goes – showing themselves to be weak, emotional, feminine, and (therefore) unworthy.

The second framing relates to freedom of speech.  When a conservative viewpoint is coherently and strongly challenged, the conservatives claim supression of free speech.  With this framing they are redefining the concept of “freedom of speech” as a right to say whatever they like without consequence.

It’s a false equivalence, but it’s an incredibly powerful frame, simply because free speech is so precious, and especially to liberals.

By allowing the debate about the views of people such as Southern and Molyneux to be conducted within this frame, liberals demean their own arguments.  When the media buys into this framing, doing so tips the playing field of debate in favour of the conservatives.

This matters because the frames are false.  They go against all evidence, comtemporary or historical. It is not liberals who shut down the right to free speech; there is no evidence that liberals are afraid to engage in debate on important political and social topics. It is not liberals who sue at the drop of a hat, when their perspective are challenged.

And it matters because the frames give the conservative agenda a free ride: say “snowflake” or “free speech” and your job is done.  You do not need to rally intelligent arguments, you do not need to debate the real issues.  It’s like dark magic, it’s misdirection, drawing the audience’s eye from the real issue (the rise of indefensible and harmful alt-right ideologies).

This is the approach being deployed in New Zealand now by Southern and Molyneux, and taken up by the likes of Don Brash, and which media and commentariat alike are falling for.

As Lakoff said, the progressive movement needs to create its own powerful narratives and frames, and stop allowing conservatives to set the agenda.

And the media would do well to watch for dishonest frames and guard against them.

What’s at risk here is not freedom of speech – and certainly not the freedom of speech of our privileged classes.  What’s at risk is our ability to strongly and assertively challenge bigotry and hatred. And we risk enabling a media context in which lies can win over truth, here in New Zealand as they are in America.




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