Three subjects combined into one post today. They’re connected, and you’ll see how as you read.
(1) The Truth About Frames
As I’ve mentioned before, I spent a good deal of time in 2003 doing debriefs with business colleagues after major presentations (my own and others’) to assess just how much knowledge was imparted, and how accurately: My conclusion was that almost no knowledge is transferred during business presentations, and not much during business meetings, either. That got me reading about frames, the mental mechanisms, lenses and filters through which we internalize what we see, hear and otherwise sense. George Lakoff has argued that different frames account for the inability of liberals and conservatives to communicate effectively with each other (or change each other’s minds), and that to bridge the gap you need to reframe an issue in a way that is understandable to your adversary, and which also allows them to see a different perspective ‘through new eyes’. He puts it this way:
Frames trump facts. All of our concepts are organized into conceptual structures called “frames” (which may include images and metaphors) and all words are defined relative to those frames. Conventional frames are pretty much fixed in the neural structures of our brains. In order for a fact to be comprehended, it must fit the relevant frames. If the facts contradict the frames, the frames, being fixed in the brain, will be kept and the facts ignored.
So if we want to persuade people that a zeal for natural solutions and a reverence for nature is an essential part of the solution to the world’s problems, for example, we need to get people out of their anthropocentric (humans-as-separate) frames and create a new, credible ecocentric (humans-as-intrinsic-part-of-all-life) frames. Until we do so, we’ll be seen as romantics, hopeless idealists, neo-survivalists, even anti-humanists. And if liberals want to persuade conservatives of the value of universal health care and universal high-quality education, they shouldn’t be trying to appeal to conservatives’ sense of fairness and egalitarianism (these are liberal constructs) but rather to fundamental moral principles: “Working people shouldn’t be living in poverty” and “Everybody should have health care.” And rather that talking about the minutiae of Kerry’s programs in these areas, they should be hammering the Bush record using ‘grammar’ that conservatives relate to: “We’re weaker in education, and here’s why. We’re weaker in health care, and here’s why…” A similar approach is needed to bridge the gap between management frames and labour frames, between male frames and female frames, between theistic frames and agnostic frames. In fact, every individual has unique frames, that translate, ignore, or misconstrue the vast majority of what he or she hears from others. It’s amazing that such dysfunctional communication doesn’t cause more catastrophic consequences in business than it does, and it explains why repetition, to the point of being annoying, and many redundant conversations, are needed before important views, ideas and perceptions are imparted and understood. It also explains why so many couples keep arguing over the same things, again and again, without resolution. They might as well be speaking to each other in different languages. In many ways, they are.
Reframing issues is a precarious and challenging process. It’s not a job for amateurs. But there is a simple and subversive way to reframe an issue: Tell a story. The story should have a moral, but it is not necessary (and it is sometimes unwise) to state the moral explicitly. The more I study and learn about stories and narratives, the more awesome and powerful I perceive them to be.
My personal action plan to help prevent social, economic, political and ecological collapse of our planet by the end of this century currently includes these three things:
But I’ve become aware that making the transition to that better way to live is going to require billions of people to ‘buy in’ and be totally committed to a radically different philosophy, politics, economics, and social framework than the one we have been brought up to believe in. And I’m aware that some of the steps that may be needed to get there will be difficult and confront long-standing taboos — in fact I know I have lost some otherwise-sympathetic readers by merely mentioning the possibility of some of these steps, as a last resort.
Clearly I need to reframe these arguments and possibilities in ways that are less controversial, confrontational, and off-putting to people. I’m beginning to believe that my novel is just the first of a whole series of stories I need to craft, if I have any hope of being credible and successful as anything more than an off-the-wall thinker who got a lot of other people thinking about the need for radical personal, social, political, technological, educational, and economic change, but couldn’t persuasively articulate how to get the job done.
Progressives who care about the state of our world are going to have to become expert story-tellers, very quickly. I’m vowing to learn, and then to teach, that art, as a fourth major program to add to the three bulleted above. So look for a lot more about stories and narrative in the future in How to Save the World. Maybe we can learn together.
(2) The Truth About Drug Costs
In this week’s New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell smashes a lot of the prevailing wisdom about the skyrocketing cost of drugs. Here’s a synopsis, but please read the whole article if you have time, and if you haven’t subscribed to the New Yorker yet, this should convince you.
My only beef with the article is that Gladwell seems to be quick to blame patients for being all too willing to rush into their doctor’s office after they hear ads and ask if “X is right for them”. That’s asking a lot from patients who are dismally ignorant of medicine, prone to overdependence on their doctors, and gullible when they’re worried about the health of loved ones.
(3) An Obscene Story
Also in this week’s (Oct. 25th) New Yorker is writer Susan Sheehan’s heart-rending account of the life of Cassie Stromer, a 76-year-old widow living in Virginia who personifies perfectly America’s poor in this age of disappearing middle class. I can’t summarize this story, you need to read it in its entirety. And, alas, it’s not available online. It’s only 7 pages, so please seek it out in your store or library. This is a story everyone needs to hear. Her annual pension income is $9600, which puts her $300 over the poverty level and disqualifies her from full Medicaid benefits. Much of her income goes to pay for medical expenses, and the way she budgets her money so carefully and lives a meagre but dignified life is nothing short of heroic.
So why is this story obscene? Here’s the last few sentences, which speak for themselves:
This May, Cassie got some good news. Because of a formula involving her medical expenses, her rent was being reduced from $72 a month to $42. In September, however, she received a notice from the state telling her that her $58 Medicare premium would no longer be covered, meaning she would have to pay it herself. Earlier this month, Cassie’s lower denture broke again. “This time it’s shattered”, she says, “It’s harder to eat now. I can’t really chew anything.” She has to cut up her food into small pieces. She says there’s nothing she can do about it. “I don’t have any more money today than I did last February, and I won’t have any more tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, the f***ing politicians, bargaining in backrooms for favours for their corporate donors and friends while drinking expensive champagne and fifty-dollar entrees paid for by taxpayers, continue to spout the rhetoric that “most” Americans have good health care, and that it would be “too expensive” to provide universal health care to all, while insinuating that abuse of the system is widespread and that those that don’t have coverage are somehow responsible for their own misfortune. Cassie’s story belies these cynical and horrendous claims. And the fact that so many brave and proud Americans, tens of millions of undeserving poor with stories like Cassie’s, are mere pawns in this rich-man’s debate, is what’s obscene.