Framing the Debate: Change vs. Justice


“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.” —James Baldwin

Recently I had the privilege of speaking to a bright young group of university students participating in the Redfish School of Change (, 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.

The beautiful and still pristine Slocan Lake, the ‘classroom’ for this year’s Redfish School of Change students. Photo courtesy Nadine Raynolds

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.

The Summer 2012 class of Redfish School of Change: our best and brightest.
Back row: Charlotte Wyatt, Ahsan Syed, Stephanie Hubbard, instructors Ryan Hilperts and Brenda Beckwith, Emma Wilson, Georgia Klap, instructor Nadine Raynolds, John McClelland; Middle row: Eric Gibbs, Robyn Knight, Amanda Cook, Carly Aasen, Rosie Child, Marjan Navab-Tehrani; Front row: Josh Lambert, Kailee Hirsche, Miriam Mahaffy, Seonaid Duffield, Grace McCaffrey; Front (lying down): Taylor McLeod. Photo courtesy Nadine Raynolds

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

Framing the Debate: The Presentation

While I’m speaking, I don’t want you to think of a Spirit Bear. I’ll explain later.

The ‘Spirit Bear’ represents a genetic rarity only found on the British Columbia coast and Alaska.

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.

Professor George Lakoff has broken new ground with his understanding of how linguistics affects politics. Courtesy

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 ( 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.

Don’t Think of an Elephant was written by Lakoff to be a layperson’s summary of his theories—and required reading for progressives. Courtesy

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, 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

With these young people, to quote the pop song, ‘The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades’. Photo courtesy Nadine Raynolds

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

4. Vancouver, ibid.

5. Lakoff, George, Don’t Think of an Elephant! ibid.

6. Georgia

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
This entry was posted in Activism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Framing the Debate: Change vs. Justice

  1. Ryan says:

    What a great blog, Art! Thanks so much for your enthusiasm for Redfish and for providing the text for the great talk you gave. Can’t wait for more conversations in the future!

  2. Andrew Simpson says:

    Another very thoughtful and interesting piece. I very much accept that language is an important way political debates can be steered. As Humpty Dumpty said a word can mean “just what I choose it to mean.”
    And the Right have seen far more quickly which words are “to be master.”

    Over here the Left during the late 70s and early 80s clung to a socialist vocabulary which not only sounded dated but missed the point that the tide had gone out for the ideas and vision which they expressed.

    We still addressed each other as comrade and spoke of “nationalizing the commanding heights of industry,” and class consciousness, long after the Right had not only taken power but were unpicking and rolling back the means by which an economy could be managed for the benefit of the majority, and skilfully creating a climate where aspiration was linked to greed, where the concept of society was made into a dirty word and individualism in its worst form was seen as “progressive.”

    All of which was the political and cultural manifestation of a more abrasive and uncontrolled form of Capitalism. Using the new language it was possible to justify local rather than national wage rates, push for short term contracts and argue for the “mobility of labour.”

    And it interesting that the Right have been forthright in their criticism of much of the legislation introduced in the European Union because it continues to protect the rights of workers.

    But and here is the but , if the Left drops the language are we not in danger of dropping the vision too? That I suspect is how New Labour managed to help create the new climate or at least sustain it through the late 90s into the 21st century.

    Taking over the commanding heights of industry must still be a means by which a democratic society controls its economy and sets the needs of its people. Despite the failure of “planned economies” the market is no better; it seems to me it is just more skilful at telling us what we want and then selling it to us. Peppermint toothpaste with red stripes is still just toothpaste and hair shampoo which is no different chemically than washing up liquid does not have to he the flavours of a midnight stream enhanced with softener and conditioner.

    Choice is important but not if the choice has been manipulated or the 73 varieties means some one somewhere goes without.
    Of course how those nationalized industries are organized may well be the key to chbaging the debate. The great nationalization carried out in the late 40s was really just an extension of war time planning, but in the 70s there were still very interesting ideas about how workers could have far greater democratic control.
    And I suspect it is the ideas arising from the economy on the ground combined with the age old concepts of fairness, equality and democracy which will help the Left forwards. That and the obvious collapse of the current system to deliver justice and fairness.

  3. Thanks for the insightful comment, Andrew. It’s great to hear the perspective from someone such as yourself who has been observing the situation unfold in Britain in recent decades. I think if Lakoff’s principles of framing were to be intelligently taken up by the British socialists they might be able to reinvigorate the Left. The 21st century equivalent of “a chicken in every pot” sort of thing, “social services support us all,” etc. Two British economists have done a great job of demonstrating how economic equality serves us all better in their book ‘The Spirit Level’ (Wilkinson & Pickett); well worth a read.

  4. I have read so many posts on the topic of the blogger lovers however this article is actually a
    fastidious piece of writing, keep it up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s