Much of what political framing is all about is getting off on the metaphoric right foot. You set your brain for the story, the information it is about to act on. When you hear about brand new information, you wait for a bit before making a judgement call. If you don’t know how to categorize or process the information, you may wait a good while – “the jury is out” so to speak, in your brain. We all listen for clues that make it possible for us to easily categorize the new information. This is where memes and soundbytes come in. If you hear someone refer to a policy or idea by a nickname or meme, you can stop the mental deliberation and sort out the info via the “shorthand” neural connection you’ve previously made.
For instance: If you were talking about food, the topic is wide open – you could talk about flavors, calories, recipes, health benefits, gardens, GMOs, restaurants, diets, etc.- the categories are almost endless. If someone is passionate around food, you have no idea what they are talking about until they get specific. As soon as they drop a hint of a clue, say mention their waistline, or mention Monsanto, or mention Paula Deen, your brain relaxes and realizes “oh, I know something about Paula Deen. Now I know this conversation is about rich food, southerners, diabetes, or cooking.” Your brain recognizes the frame that is being called up. Frames exist for everything – no politics necessary.
Our language is made up of frames. Every time someone mentions a grocery store, they don’t have to bother to tell you that there was food for sale and you get this little cart and push it around, fill it up with food, then pay at the cashier. Most of us have known the grocery store frame since before we could speak. Conservative and progressive ideas also occupy frames in our heads. Because they aren’t tangible, they are harder to recognize and talk about, but they are there, both of them for all of us. Even hardened criminals usually have both value systems – both nurturant parent (progressive) and strict father (conservative) style frames – in their brains (mental illness notwithstanding) .
Sometimes criminals – especially violent ones – get written off as “bad”. Advocates for the death penalty think some people are so “bad” that they should be killed by the state. When I think about these people, the people that society writes off, I think about that scene in the 1991 film Hook where the dastardly Captain Hook is doing something mean and nasty and the little girl playing Maggie says, “You need a mommy! Very badly!”
What the child is saying in psychobabble is “you need to be nurtured very badly !”
Some of our prisons have started cat programs. It makes sense though it seems to be an odd coupling on the surface; we do have too many prisoners and too many cats. In some prisons they have started programs that give the kitties one last chance before they are euthanized due to unsocial behavior; they let prisoners apply to adopt the cats. Huffington Post had a piece on the phenomenon and it will give you warm fuzzies all over. You can see a man on death row, convicted of heinous crimes trailing a string along for his kitty cat, another inmate in the yard holding and petting a cat peacefully, and all sorts of other heartwarming scenes.
The cats are a privilege that can be lost, an incentive to behaving appropriately. The inmates have to take on responsibility and get jobs to support their cats – that is just one of the real values gained by a “soft” project like this one. These inmates literally rescue the cats from certain death, so there is this feeling of mutual indebtedness. Morals, ethics, values – these are the ideas that perhaps until their time in prison, the population didn’t ponder extensively. The cat programs build character and reinforce values.
Prisoners are below the bottom rung of the social ladder. They have plenty of time to meditate on the idea that they aren’t wanted or needed by anyone or anything. Those kinds of ideas lead to detachment, or feelings of “otherness”. From a detached place, it is much easier mentally to treat fellow humans like objects or animals; there is mentally no human connection. Ironically with felines, these inmates have an opportunity to foster human connection by building a relationship with an animal. It’s like practice, getting the ball rolling.
Evoking frames is a little bit like getting a ball rolling downhill. When you give a little push, the human brain already has enough background to keep building on the momentum of a story. Every time a frame is reinforced with positive experiences, we want to do it that way again. When prisoners rescue a cat, they have to feel proud or happy that they were able to help the little cats out. In a tough place like prison, I am guessing a sense of heightened protectionism and security would go up. Since the kitties have also been serving time kitty style, the two can relate to each other and are likely happy for the change of company. Presuming the match works out well, there is a lot of emotional gain to be made mutually between the bonded pair. Due to the vulnerability of the cat – obviously the human could kill it quite easily – the human has to take on a parental/guardian, nurturing role. He/she even has to behave well for the sake of the “kid”. The inmate develops nurturing, empathetic, character in a controlled environment, the cat gets a loving home.
This is positive progress. I’ll put aside the ideas that we have way too many prisons and prisoners for now to focus on this ray of sunshine. These programs that let prisoners interact with animals (there have also been dog programs), are on the right track. Sometimes I just wish these prisoners could get “a mommy”, a la Maggie from Hook; I’m guessing they may not have been nurtured very much, or perhaps their empathy was never developed. If we hope to reconnect with our prison populations after their time is served, it would be great if they had already had a push down that hill of knowing what it’s like to provide TLC to another living breathing being. Once someone gets turned on by the bond of love and connection, it is harder to walk away.
So salute to my feline friends and their felonious faux fathers. (Sorry I couldn’t resist.) The authoritarian, conservative, punitive way of thinking has not worked for the individual inside the system, maybe this more progressive approach will continue to do society some good. They need all the help they can get to emphasize the frames that will help them exist peacefully in society and it looks like the progressive, nurturant models is working.