Don't think of a kangaroo! – New Matilda's Reframing Challenge


I have an exercise for you all. The exercise is: Don’t think of a kangaroo.

Were you able to do it? Try as they may, most people cannot. The reasons for this are explained in a book published in the lead up to last year’s US Presidential Election. The book is called Don’t think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Its author is George Lakoff, a linguist with the Rockridge Institute, where he studies the framing of public policy debates and the role of values. The book was marketed as an instruction manual for progressives hoping to unseat George Bush.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson
at the Australian

In the book, Lakoff demonstrates how conservatives in the US have made an art form out of framing public policy debates. His examples include: George Bush’s ‘tax relief’ plan, which has led people to understand tax as an inherently bad thing, an affliction; ‘War on Terror’, which has been used to justify the Iraq War along with extraordinary ‘war-time’ restrictions on rights and freedoms. Progressives, who seem to lack any understanding of framing, have either accepted these frames or tried to negate them using the language of conservatives.

The ‘Don’t think of a kangaroo’ exercise (borrowed from Lakoff’s title and Australianised) is meant to demonstrate the futility of attempting to negate a frame. It simply does not work: by using the language of a frame to negate it, you automatically and immediately evoke that frame, and reinforce it. A more practical example used by Lakoff is the difficulty of trying to sell a ‘No Tax Relief’ message. It won’t work. Instead the debate must be reframed: tax is an investment in the country’s future, it funds the infrastructure and the services.

The importance of reframing is Lakoff’s central message. ‘Reframing is social change’, he says. And reframing needs new language. However, this message is qualified by the fact that reframing and the new language must be based on values. Lakoff also addresses what he believes are the fundamental differences between Progressive and conservative values. In brief, he argues that progressive values are informed by a nurturant-parent family model, while Conservative values are informed by a strict-father family model.

Framing in Australia and the New Matilda Challenge

George Lakoff’s book is focused on framing in the United States. Some of the examples have made their way across the Pacific. Certainly our role in the Iraq War has meant that many Iraq and Terror related frames have gained prominence and been accepted in public debate. New Matilda would like readers to identify their own examples of existing frames and how they can be reframed using the values we have identified so far.

To start the challenge and also to provide you with an Australian example, I have identified a prominent frame. It is the expression ‘border protection’.

The expression ‘border protection’ is a powerful one. It first gained currency in the lead up to the 2001 Tampa Election and it has been a central plank of Coalition Government policy since that time. Although it refers broadly to maintaining the integrity of Australia’s borders, the Government has used it when talking about its approach to refugees. It is powerful expression because of the effect of ‘protection’. If something needs protection then there must be a threat. But there is synergy in the pairing of ‘border’ and ‘protection’: the threat conjured up by ‘protection’ is not just to Australia’s borders; it is to people, it is direct, it is physical and it is immediate. It is the use of this expression to describe refugee policy that has led people who do not know better to feel that refugees pose a threat to national and personal security.

This is an example of framing. By promoting a connection between ‘border protection’ and refugees and having it accepted by the public and Labor, the Government was able to frame the debate in its favour. ‘Refugees are a security issue. The Coalition is most trusted when it comes to security. Therefore vote for the Coalition if you want to be safe’. It is a simple syllogism, so simple that it is hard to believe that it worked. But it did.

But what choice did Labor have once Howard began promoting this frame? After all, mandatory detention was originally a Labor policy and the nation was gripped by a strange paranoia. Labor chose to move to the right, to adopt the Coalition’s position. In the context of an election campaign this was perhaps pragmatic, but in the long term they have suffered because refugees became an ongoing security issue. This has been a boon for the Coalition. Interestingly, after accepting the Coalition’s ‘border protection’ frame, Labor has not been able to reject it. Instead it has tried to dance around the issue and be all things to all people. It has taken people within the Coalition, namely Petro Georgiou et al, to reframe the issue. They did this by removing refugees from the ‘border security’ frame, by making the debate about their welfare and wellbeing. They went back to values and made it about Australia’s commitment to compassion.

This is but one example of framing in Australia. New Matilda encourages you to identify existing frames in our society and to suggest ways they can be reframed in line with the core Values and Principles so far considered. Once we have received a number of these we will dedicate a page on the website. Your role will then be to reframe the debate using the new language identified in these contributions and, if Lakoff is correct, achieve social change.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.