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We have seen a major victory among the forces of decency in our country. Not only has Rush Limbaugh now lost 141 advertisers. Better yet, a great many have indicated they want no association with right wing hate radio. They are leaving not only Limbaugh, they are leaving the whole putrid industry.
Given the nature of our right wing enemy we need to learn from this victory and build on it. The basic principle here is “framing.”
Limbaugh attempted to punish a private citizens for speaking out in Congress by viciously attacking her sexuality and claiming she wanted taxpayers to pay for her sex life. This was a lie, but more important, it was an attempt to frame the contraception debate in terms of whether we should pay for others’ sexual behavior. Those terms favored a conservative view of morality and put liberals on the defense: “No, that is not what she was arguing…” Now we would be playing in the right wing sand box.
Instead he was consistently attacked for his slanderous and vicious defamation of a private citizen, Sandra Fluke. Fluke did a good job making her case and demonstrating the viciousness of Limbaugh’s behavior. Many rallied around her and pressured his advertisers to leave – on grounds of decency on the airwaves. This framing worked, and the vicious and depraved Rush Limbaugh may have seen his career destroyed, at least in so far as supposedly representing a national constituency of more than pathetic losers is concerned.
Earlier the right wing had attempted another frame: that religious freedom was at stake is contraception were mandated in health insurance. That was also a lie. Many states have similar provisions and the Catholic Bishops had never objected even though they found time in many cases to cover up child abuse. But if the lie had taken hold we would be arguing about religious freedom and what it should include, again stuck in the right wing sand box, rather than arguing about empowering women. Another piece of evidence that this was thought out in advance was that Republican hearings over the contraception issue brought out lots of male apologists for religious bigotry nut not a single woman. Not one. Having a woman there, even a conservative evangelical, would have muddied the frame that what they were attempting to do had nothing to do with women. They were irrelevant.
Happily it backfired. How dare these guys discuss such an issue without including a single woman? And when the Democrats held a hearing that actually incliuded a woman, the right wing pounced on Sandra Fluke with an incredible barrage of lies.
But liberals and decent people had an alternative frame: the “war against women.” It is accurate. It also puts the right wing on the defensive: “No, we are not warring against women.” At that point is is easy to bring up many other examples to show that they are. Their whole agenda is exposed as the fetid moral swamp it truly is. Think of the right wing defense of having Viagra in insurance but not contraception. The more they make their argument, the more they demonstrate to any American with a functioning brain their double standard, their hypocrisy, and their general nastiness.
In “A Pagan lesson for an evangelical,” an earlier piece on Beliefnet I demonstrated how the same method of rejecting the right wing framing and substituting my own more accurate one could have a powerful impact in religious discussions.
Arguments always take place within larger contexts that provide the frame in which particular points are viewed. The frame is accepted on all sides, either deliberately or by accident, and usually it helps one more than the other. The right wing has been a master at this, likely because they get help from hacks who studied psychology in order to make lots of money as marketing consultants. Marketing Chicken McNuggets and marketing Rick Santorum require similar skills on the part of the advertiser. Meanwhile liberals and decent people assume that sincerity and sticking to facts and logic will carry the day. They do for some people, but obviously not all.
My debate with the evangelical rejected his framing at two points where, had I not, I would have been arguing defensively on terrain he chose. First I rejected his suggestion that everything was “God’s property,” which assumed a noxious concept of God, and replaced it with “The sacred is everywhere” and so the term “property” is irrelevant. When he suggested that I “worshipped the creation” I said at root there was no “creation” for again, the Sacred was everywhere, immanent as well as transcendent. He could not get a foothold for his tried and tested arguments on this terrain. I rejected his sandbox and did so reasonably, by offering a bigger one.
Then he tried to shift to new ground, and claimed that in the absence of a powerful deity both he and I would have little moral substance. We would go wild. He ‘modestly’ included himself here. I responded “Most people do good things because they enjoy doing good things – your logic is that Christians do good things because they are told to and expect to be paid well later by going to heaven. Christians therefore are not really acting morally. Like a prostitute they are offering services in exchange for a pay off. Christians of that sort lack the moral capacity of most atheists who expect no pay off.” Now he was on the defense. His better nature enjoyed doing good things and it was in deep tension with his noxious theology of original sin and a vengeful and abusive deity.
My point about framing is not for us to become manipulative liars like the right wing. The term “War on women” is not a lie. It is a fact, an attempt by them to turn back the gains women made in obtaining control over their lives and destinies that men had long taken for granted. Bad and weak men had long resented this, and now they were moving to destroy their gains. Similarly, framing Rush Limbaugh’s actions as far beyond the pale of decency was only telling the truth.
But here is the most important point. These successful frames married truth to decency, mind to heart, whereas the right wing needs to separate the mind from the heart in order to win. When we can accomplish this we deepen our own understanding of where we come from and simultaneously engage the right wing on the only grounds where many are accessible: their hearts. Their minds are closed but their hearts are in pain, and in at least some cases open enough to be touched.
The brilliant philosopher George Lakoff has done more in my opinion than anyone else to help us understand framing and how to push back effectively – and yet many liberals, Progressives, and genuinely spiritual people have not taken his lessons to heart. I recommend this brief essay from the Huffington Post as a good start in seeing what needs to be done.