Changing the Frame

The right to bear arms

The last two posts have related to Gingrich’s surge in popularity lately and how he has positioned himself – or been positioned by advisers – to achieve that surge.  No doubt that the Republican establishment could teach the Democratic establishment a bit about good messaging and effective communication. Whether that communication is authentic is another matter and part of another post. Today I’d like to use another Gingrich moment as a jumping off point. He recently used a key tactic when framing an argument – changing the frame.

A few nights ago, the first question at the Republican debate was directed at Newt and it was a personal question relating to the bombshell interview with Newt’s ex-wife, Marianne Gingrich . She had said that Newt asked her for an open marriage and she would not grant it. Obviously this issue is explosive for the social conservatives that make up one of the three factions of the Republican base. As mentioned in Monday’s post, Gingrich and the Ladies, he is painfully aware that his reputation as a cold hearted womanizer does him no favors when running for office. The last thing Newt wants is to headline a Republican showcase with an airing of his dirty laundry. So what did he do? He did the only thing that might divert attention, he changed the frame.

One minute the audience was waiting to see if he would confirm or deny his ex’s story, the next we are hearing about the problems with our news media. Sure enough, most of us realize that there are plenty of problems with mainstream media in America, but the timing of his indignant response served little purpose other than pushing the current issue out of our minds. It reminds me of the comedic “look over there” schtick  – followed by running the opposite direction. However put-on his indignence might be, he did somewhat successfully execute a change of frame.

When a discussion leaves you no room for a position at all – the equivalent of “how long have you been beating your wife?” – it is time to call attention to the corner you’ve been put in and get yourself out of it. It may mean leaving some accusations unanswered, some questions hanging, and not feeling satisfied, but it is necessary to move forward.  The reason you let those unanswered feelings drop is because at that point you are not only spinning your wheels, but you are spinning your wheels while your opponent enjoys controlling the conversation.  Whether Gingrich should be held accountable for his personal life in a public forum is beside the issue; he got himself out of a jam to raucous applause. It is a good technique to know.

First you must address the fact that the frame does not suit you. Let’s take the example of prayer in school. Many Christians feel like if a majority of a community wants to have formalized prayer in public school then it should be the rule. Staying in that frame might mean talking about which type of prayer – we could make it non-denominational, the format of the praying – over loudspeaker or in small groups in which atheist could abstain, or discussing empirical evidence about how prayer benefits a student. However, staying in the frame acknowledges that you think their premise is correct; we should be trying to get prayer in school. Changing the frame means calling attention to the real issue at hand, a Constitutional Amendment. When someone argues for prayer in school, they are essentially voicing their displeasure with a portion of our Constitution – specifically the first Amendment which states that our government shall not favor any religion. It’s the one guarantees that no matter the majority, we will not be forced into doing anything according to the tenets of a religion we don’t condone. The two ideas must be connected to make sense – a mandate by a public school is an extension of a government arm, so this one does. If you changed the frame by discussing whether school vouchers are a good idea, that may seem related but is a non sequitur (and part of why the illustration of “bear arms” is funny). Stephen Colbert is brilliant at poignant frame changing non sequiturs that make us chuckle. To successfully change the frame in a real discussion, you bring your discussion partner along with you on your logical journey and they then begin responding to your frame; which in itself is an acceptance of your premise. At this point you’ve already (mostly) won the point. When you can drive the framing of an argument, you are the one in conceptual control and the opponent must react to your ideas. Providing good illustrations, reason, and supporting evidence is still very important – you cannot rest on your laurels – but, it is the equivalent of playing ball on home turf.

Changing the frame, or better still, starting in the right frame makes all of the difference in the outcome of an argument. Republicans are very good at setting the terms of the debate, Democrats are very good at exhausting themselves by arguing within that frame and getting nowhere. A lot of frustration today among Democrats or progressives lies in the fact that Obama can be excellent at setting the frame and changing the frame, but the follow through is poor. Either Obama doesn’t act on his great oration or his party doesn’t “get it” and continues thinking about short term election cycles (albeit necessarily in our election system). This disconnect on following the strong progressive frames put out there leaves an overall impression of a weak party that doesn’t follow through on their values.  For example, when education is held up as a priority value then in action military budgets are increased for fear of being seen as “not supporting the troops”, Democrats are playing right into Republican frames. Why isn’t the frame flipped and Republicans seen as “not supporting the children” when they suggest privatizing education? The reason is that Republicans have a much more elaborate structure of messaging which includes think tanks, expert advisers like Frank Luntz, training schools, and a system of disseminating messages effectively to speak to their base. Whether you like this methodology or think it is honest, it works. Please do not confuse it with spin. Spin is not the same as framing or crafting messages and delivery systems. Spin is more like a clean up crew after the fact.

Changing the frame successfully takes practice. Gingrich changed the frame, but it was kinda obvious he was dodging a bullet, so he called attention to his fancy footwork. A really good framer makes the change in a more flowing manner in which the opponent follows your logic right into your frame.  Changing the frame is a great skill to practice – some folks are naturals. It is not trickery, on the contrary, it helps you fight for the values you believe in. Frame changing is how you get from undesired frame A to desired frame B; you check with your values. When trying to figure it out, ask yourself what value is being “offended” by the undesired frame and where does that lead you in the realm of issues. In the above case of school prayer we move from an individual’s value of Godly authority to a nation’s value of freedom of  (or from) religion. I’d love to hear from you about the issues that have you stuck and you want to be able to change the frame more successfully.

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