Framing Health Reform: Why You Think the Way You Do

27 Jul

Back in 2004, Berkeley cognitive linguistics professor George Lakoff published the book Don’t Think of An Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. It’s a fascinating book, and I encourage you to pick it up if you’ve never read it. More on that momentarily.

First, I’d like you to try out a little experiment. I’m going to describe two scenarios to you, and after you read them, I want you to think about which scenario you most identify with. Put aside for a moment the fact that you may identify to varying degrees with both scenarios, or that the scenarios seem to overlap in your view. Just pick one. Ok, here we go:

Case 1

“The world is and always will be dangerous and difficult. The world is competitive and there will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad and must be made good. The father, as head of the family, is the moral authority who must support and defend the family, tell his wife what to do, and teach his kids right from wrong. Doing that requires painful punishment–physical discipline that by adulthood will result in the children having developed internal discipline. This discipline is demonstrated by following certain moral precepts and becoming self-reliant through the pursuit of one’s self-interest. Once on their own, the father should not meddle in his children’s lives. Children who remain dependent should be further disciplined or cut off, forcing them to become independent by the discipline of the outside world. Disciplined individuals will be successful, and they will prosper and amass material wealth. They should be rewarded. Those who are not successful are not successful because they are not disciplined, and to provide them with any type of outside assistance would be to enable their lack of discipline, which would be a bad thing to do.”

Case 2

“The world, despite its dangers and difficulties, is basically good, can be made better, and it is our responsibility to work towards that. Children are born good and parents can make them better through empathy and responsibility. Both parents share the responsibility for raising the children. Their job is to raise their children: To protect them from all sorts of harm, help them have happy fulfilling lives, treat them fairly, and ensure their freedom (age appropriately of course). You realize that you will only be able to do these things for your child if you yourself are happy and fulfilled. Trust, two-way communication, and opportunity are essential if your children are to grow into fulfilled individuals.”

So which one are you? Do you see the world more as it is depicted in Case 1 or Case 2? I know you’re asking what in the world this has to do with health care, but as Lakoff describes in detail, these views of the family shape our views on nearly everything else we encounter. Individuals who are oriented more in favor of Case 1, the “strict father” model, tend to be more conservative, while individuals who see the world more in Case 2 terms, the “nurturing family” model, tend to be more progressive.

In fact, we often personify views of the family onto other issues. We even conceptualize entire nations as if they were individuals. North Korea is a hostile nation. But does that mean all of its people are hostile? No. If we were using mean population values to label nations, we would more accurately refer to North Korea as a starving nation. Similarly, for those of us who believe in a Supreme Being, we tend to view that being in one of two ways: A strict father, who demands obedience and punishes us for our mistakes; or a nurturing father, who models grace and love to us by example.

Nothing activates frames better than fear, and with the current economy in the shape it’s in, there’s plenty of fear to go around. According to Lakoff, every story conveyed by a frame has a “hero, a crime, a victim, and a villain.” I know that I have readers of this blog who are on both sides of the health reform debate. Therefore, I ask you to write a comment on not only who or what you believe to be deserving of each of these four titles, but also–and more importantly–why you think the particular title is deserved. This should give you an opportunity to explore the subconscious thoughts you have about health reform and assess their validity… well are your thoughts supported by the facts? If you’re honest with yourself, I believe you’ll find that facts often take a backseat to the frames we use to process information–no matter which side of the issue you’re on.

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Posted by on July 27, 2009 in Uncategorized


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