“You write to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. …The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” 1 —James Baldwin
Recently I had the privilege of speaking to a bright young group of university students participating in the Redfish School of Change (http://www.schoolofchange.ca/), based here in my own village of New Denver. I was asked by Redfish Director Nadine Raynolds to participate in a panel with Lorna Visser, principal with Carmanah Strategies, a fundraising firm for NGOs; and Dan Woynillowitz, Director of Strategy and Communications at the Pembina Institute. Redfish alumni are top of the crop students who are taking the six-week intensive program as a summer semester component of their environmental studies courses at UVic. Raynolds, who conceived the Redfish program, realized that if those working in the environmental field were to have any real connection to the land, they would have to get out and experience it.
Students are required, for example, during a group canoe trip on Slocan Lake to camp on their own for 24 hours. They are also required to put academic theory into action by conceiving and carrying out a Community Action Program. One young woman had the great idea of Conversation Teas in her community to help bring people together to share ideas. Others wanted to use more effective media strategy in support of the Stop Enbridge Pipeline campaign, and hence were very interested in what I had to say about Professor George Lakoff’s work (see below). While here they assisted with the Slocan Lake Stewardship Society’s restoration work on New Denver’s shoreline and Kohan Memorial Garden. I worked and shared meals with the students for a day at the Kohan and was consistently impressed with the character, intelligence and dedication of these young men and women. They asked relevant, probing and thoughtful questions and were eager to learn from older people.
I want to thank Nadine, her assistant Ryan Hilperts, and all the students for an experience that lifted me out of despair over the state of the world, if only briefly. Certainly we face critical challenges in the 21st century. But with such intelligent, articulate and dedicated young people going out to meet those challenges, I feel we at least have a hope.
To read my story on Redfish in the July 11, 2012 Valley Voice (page 15), go to http://valleyvoice.ca/valley-voice-online/
Framing the Debate: The Presentation
While I’m speaking, I don’t want you to think of a Spirit Bear. I’ll explain later.
Naturally my interest in this discussion is based on my experience as a writer, a journalist and a poet. So the use of language is critically important to me. It’s every bit as important to anyone seeking progressive change—whether it’s in the fields of social, environmental or any other kind of positive advocacy.
When I came up with the idea of the Convergence Writers’ Retreat to help writers focus their skills on social justice, I was careful to call it “Writing for Social Justice,” not “Writing for Social Change.” Why? Because for many conservatives, “change” is not seen as a positive value but rather something that threatens their world view.
Words have power. One of the reasons we’ve seen such a massive swing back toward the ultra-right in recent decades is because conservative think tanks realized this a long time ago. What they realized, as cognitive linguistic expert George Lakoff (http://georgelakoff.com/) has written in Don’t Think of an Elephant, is that words evoke frames—value systems. Conservatives have become experts at using metaphors that evoke frames. Meanwhile those of us on the Left got trapped in the thinking of the 1960s and ’70s, that, like the real estate mantra—it’s all about location, location, location—that change is all about education, education, education. It’s a strategy that has failed. Only a tiny percentage of the population responds by considering information carefully before making a decision. 2
As Lakoff explains, this makes the fundamental error commonly taught in political science courses, the theory of the ‘rational actor.’ i.e. That people—both as nations and individuals—act rationally in the service of their best interests. Yet over and over again voters have been duped into voting against their own best interests: shooting down universal medicare, cutting welfare programs for the poor, increasing tax cuts to the richest One Percent.
Why? First of all we’re far less rational creatures than we care to admit. And secondly, all of us, based on our family histories, come with a built-in set of values and assumptions. These make up what Lakoff calls our basic ‘frames’ through which we see the world. Very much like a religious doctrine, this becomes a fallback position, a fail-safe for every issue we encounter in the world, requiring no conscious thought or effort. No matter what the issue, we simply react according to our conditioned responses or stock set of answers.
Conservatives understood this early in the wake of the social progress that swept the world during the 1960s and sought to reverse the trend. In Don’t Think of an Elephant, Lakoff uses the example of the Bush Jr. campaign, during which the phrase “tax relief” was repeatedly used. This is a metaphor: it assumes that taxes are a burden, evidence of government oppression, and that the person bringing relief from taxes is a hero. Anyone wanting to maintain the taxation status quo then becomes an enemy, a “tax and spend liberal.” (Another frame-evoking metaphor.)
This awareness of ‘framing’ extends to strategy: conservatives have become experts at setting traps for those on the Left. I’ll give you a recent example: with the current federal government omnibus budget bill and cuts to the environmental legislation, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews dubbed environmentalists “terrorists” with a “radical agenda.” What happened? NGOs across the country rushed to defend themselves: “We are NOT terrorists!” The problem is summed up in the title of Lakoff’s book. Once the frame has been invoked, you can’t un-invoke it by protestations of innocence: you’ve fallen into the trap and allowed your opponent to set the terms (the ‘frame’) of the debate. (Remember President Nixon: “I am NOT a crook!”) 3
Sierra Club Canada director John Bennett thought he was being clever by calling a spade a spade: “First we’re radicals, then we were agents of foreign socialist billionaires, and now we’re terrorists. This is just a classic smear campaign to marginalize environmental voices in Canada,” he said. (Vancouver Observer, February 10, 2012, www.vancouverobserver.com) 4
The problem is, for those to whom Toews and the Conservative government were actually speaking—those who share their ideology—the frame of ‘eco-terrorist’ was already set. Far better, Lakoff explains, to “know your values and frame the debate” yourself. In the digital age, that means being extremely media savvy. To Lakoff’s dictum I’ve coined my own phrase: “First out of the gate frames the debate.” This is why former BC NDP leader Carole James was such a lame duck: it often took her days to respond to Liberal media releases. By then the debate is already conceded to the opposition. 5
Of all the progressive media, only the Georgia Straight picked up on this in its article of April 19, 2012—the first time I’ve seen Lakoff’s ideas quoted in Canadian media. Referring to the battle over the Enbridge pipeline, political commentator Donald Gutstein wrote: “Lakoff has some advice for Gateway opponents: it is better to respond with an entirely new frame, one that sets out your message and doesn’t repeat that of your opponent.” 6
In the “eco-terrorist” case, NGOs may not have had sufficient warning that this attack was coming. But rather than respond by defending themselves, a more effective response is to set your own terms of reference or ‘frame.’ For example: “I won’t dignify that accusation with a response. We are pro-family and that means protecting the environment for future generations of Canadians.” Or in the case of taxation: “Our taxes support civilization.”Or: “Like schools? Paved roads? Libraries? Support fair taxation.” Etc. etc.
So I hope you haven’t been thinking of a Spirit Bear during my presentation. You have? Well, you can be forgiven. It’s neurologically impossible. That’s the point. Once stated, the beast has been brought into the room. So let it be you who chooses which animal the conversation focuses on—whether elephant or Spirit Bear.
1. Quoted by Mary Pipher, Writing to Change the World, Riverhead Books (Penguin USA), New York, 2006, p. 24.
2. Lakoff, George, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, The Essential Guide for Progressives, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2004.
3. Vancouver Observer.com: http://www.vancouverobserver.com/sustainability/2012/02/10/are-canadian-environmentalists-terrorist-threat
4. Vancouver Observer.com, ibid.
5. Lakoff, George, Don’t Think of an Elephant! ibid.
6. Georgia Straight.com: http://www.straight.com/article-662921/vancouver/harper-repeats-republican-lines-energy?page=0%2C0