Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Understanding Framing in Persuasive Writing

Everyone has heard the cliché, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” To the extent we can reduce this metaphor to a mathematic equivalence, writers create thousands of pictures every day. Importantly, though, each picture captures only a look at a small piece of the world. Imagine a large landscape, with every hill or valley, every dark cloud or sunny emergence representing a fact. The fact landscape stretches through different dimensions: height, width, depth, and even time. Sometimes these facts seem to conflict, but every one forms part of the complex world in which humankind lives, has lived, and will live.

When arguing, capturing every fact—or even every relevant fact—through four dimensions is simply impossible. Accordingly, we try to carve out a portion of this landscape and either confine our point to this area or use that area to make a larger point. This is “framing”: a useful metaphor that describes how we place a frame around that part of the landscape we wish to establish and use for the picture we attempt through argument to present.

In an ideal world, persuasion would consist solely of presenting useful information, and thus leading readers to a particular conclusion. Everyone brings his or her own perspective to the interpretation of information, but the writer should present facts, in their relevant context, to direct and help readers understand what is important, what it means, and why it matters. Not everyone will agree, but everyone will understand better the points of disagreement and the bases and reasons for those points.

But we do not live in that ideal world. While framing is useful and even necessary, the technique allows for deception. Sometimes this deception springs from laziness, an unwillingness to pursue the intellectual rigors of thinking through an issue. Other times, it emanates from sheer dishonesty, a conscious decision to omit some relevant context, or even fabricate entirely the facts that form the argument’s foundation.

As such, understanding how framing works matters: not only to help create sound, persuasive arguments, but also to recognize linguistic chicanery and avoid falling into the trap of beautiful logic built on false premises.

Focal Points: Terms and Definitions

In most paintings or photographs, certain parts of the image stand out as focal points. In persuasive writing, key words serve the same purpose: words marked sometimes by repetition, others by virtue of a pre-established place in the ongoing dialogue over the issue at hand. They leap from the page, directing the reader’s attention to a predetermined place.

The process of framing an argument around these focal points begins with terms and their definitions. What do the words mean, and what import branches from the definitional trunk? What purpose do terms have in establishing parameters of debate? Good writers choose each word with care, selecting impactful terms that drive the writing where the writer wants it to go. Nomenclature matters.

Many political debates use terms to this effect. A piece of legislation now widely panned for its over-intrusive effects and rushed drafting and passage, The USA PATRIOT Act (“Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”) passed the Senate with a vote of 98-1, with one abstention. Many who voted to approve it confessed later to not having read it. So why did it pass? The urgency of the moment after the Trade Center towers fell led to an overwhelming sense of patriotism—which always has and always will carry different implications for different people—as well as a sense of having to do something. Calling the legislation the OVERREACH Act (“Obliterating the Very Embedded Rights Regular Everyday Americans CHerish”) would not have achieved this effect, however much more accurately it may have represented the bill.

Elsewhere, we see factions creating terms and defining debates in a way that allows them to dismiss the other side, rather than addressing it directly. Abortion rights advocates see “Pro-Choice” and “Anti-Choice,” while opponents of abortion see “Pro-Life” and “Anti-Life.” One side believes it is fighting against people who hate women, while the other believes it is fighting against people with callous disregard for babies. The labels both set up and reinforce the larger points.

In these and many other examples, the writers or speakers choose words for impact. How do we define concepts in a way that motivates or upsets people? Can we use positive-sounding words, especially those with a generally negative opposite, to charge the writing? As a reader, recognizing this helps identify the foundation of an argument—a recognition critical to analyzing arguments, even more critical than the ability to follow the path of logic from that foundation. Even the most beautiful logical house, when built on a swamp, will sink.

Landscape: Words and Contexts

More insidious than terms built on stark contrasts are situations where people use the same word to mean very different things. One person may speak of “freedom” as the ability to allow one person who has accumulated wealth to contribute unfettered to political causes, while another may use the same word to mean allowing everyone to reach an equal footing regardless of achievement. Neither usage is technically incorrect, insofar as “freedom” means being unconstrained by a defined outside force. The implications of each, though, carry different, sometimes diametrically opposed meanings.

Clearly, framing means something beyond word selection, and even word definition. The context into which we layer words gives structure to our words. If the key terms reflect the focal point of an argument, the context represents what the writer brings in to surround those terms. Think of a key term in the writing as akin to a bird in a painting. The same bird reflects different ideas depending on whether it flies over a mountain, rests on a power line, or lies dead in the middle of a highway.

Some of the best examples of laying bare the contexts in which people make points come from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Every episode involves Mr. Stewart or one of his reporters playing with the context around an argument, typically by splicing clips about the same issue from various segments. Sometimes this means demonstrating that one person or news network will make vastly different claims on the same issue depending on who benefits from the claim. Other times, it means dabbling in the absurdity of a claim based on information that the person chooses not to present with an argument. In all of these cases, though, the formula remains consistent: show a claim or argument, reveal different or additional context, and let the audience choose to laugh or scream as appropriate.

The point: just as writers choose the terms and definitions on which they rely, they choose the details to pull inside the frame as well. Just as layers of landscape do not serve as mere filler in a painting, they are not just background information for an argument. Facts abound, littering the internet with enough information to lead someone in any direction he or she would like to go. Recognize that those a writer collects to include are selected for a reason.

The Whole Picture: Reading and Writing with Framing in Mind

As a reader of persuasive writing, understanding everything above helps your understanding of how writing persuades. The best way to determine whether to agree or disagree is to start at the foundation. Examine the words chosen, and ask yourself why they were chosen. Look at definitions not only for what they include, but for what they do not. From here, you can follow the trail through the context provided, looking for gaps in what the writer includes, and looking for signs of misinformation: “facts” provided without any mooring to references, short lines quoted from other writing without context, and bold statements lacking clear support. Investigate these gaps, reading with a skeptical eye. Writers choose words and context from the myriad possibilities for a reason, and you as a reader have every right to investigate the reasons and any alternative information available.

As a persuasive writer, on the other hand, you may choose two routes. One is to focus myopically on the piece of landscape you wish to present. Select the “facts” that support your side, engage in clever wordsmithing, and blend it all into a clear, focused piece that segregates itself from the rest of the landscape. Your writing will be clear and precise, with neither the effort nor the result toward completeness or complexity. You will convince anyone who already agreed with your point.

Alternatively, you may choose a more nuanced path. Acknowledge facts or statements that go against your thesis, and accord them the respect of rebutting them. Demonstrate the existence of a broad landscape, in which easy answers and solutions prove hard to come by. Lay out the facts as you have encountered them to lead your readers through your thought process. Argue for the superiority of your position—forcefully and unapologetically—but accept that intelligent people often disagree. In short, frame your argument to reveal a worldview without using tricks to hide part of the world you are viewing. You will not convince everyone that you are right, but your case will be stronger for showing your arrival at a conclusion even in the face of contrary information.