Child, Nerd and Tax Relief: A Tale of Three Frames

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Last week MSNBC ran a Public Service Announcement that featured anchor Melissa Harris-Perry. Here’s a quote from that PSA:

We have never invested as much in public education as we should have. We haven’t had a very collective notion of, these are our children. We have to break through our private idea that children belong to their parents, or children belong to their families, and recognize that children belong to whole communities. Once it’s everybody’s responsibility and not just the household’s, we start making better investments.

This PSA ignited a bit of a firestorm. Glenn Beck “eviscerated” the promo (as did other conservative pundits) while liberals defended it (see this New York Times Online blog for an example).

I found the MSNBC PSA interesting because it uses what cognitive linguist turned political commentator George Lakoff calls a “relief frame.” I’ll leave the political bickering to the pundits. In this blog post, I’d like to present a tale of three relief frames: child, nerd, and tax. I’m not an expert in cognitive framing. However, I’ve been a student of Lakoff’s work for some time now. In my amateur cognitive scientist opinion, the MSNBC PSA uses the frame of “child relief.”

To get us up to speed on the relief frame I’d like to present an excerpt from my executive summary of psychologist David Anderegg’s 2007 book Nerds—Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them. (Contact the Foundation for a copy of this executive summary.) This excerpt describes both the nerd relief and tax relief frames. After this excerpt I’ll try to make the case that at the core of the MSNBC PSA we can find the child relief frame. To conclude I’ll try to make a point that Lakoff often makes: these frames are about trying to change people’s cognitive models and are not necessarily about presenting facts or even science. As Lakoff tells us in his work (see his 1996 book Moral Politics for an example), we use frames to think with, not facts.

— o O  Begin Anderegg Summary Excerpt  O o —

  • Anderegg mentions a book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson entitled Metaphors We Live By (1980, University of Chicago Press). Anderegg talks about metaphors to make two points: 1) we tend to think about the world using metaphors, and, 2) the terms “nerd” or “geek” are, in fact, complex metaphors. To introduce us to the idea of a complex metaphor, Anderegg uses the example “tax relief” (a complex metaphor that Lakoff deconstructs in his latter political work). Simply put, tax relief suggests that there is an ailment or affliction—in this case, taxes—and, further, people desire to be relieved from this ailment or affliction. This is the core of the complex metaphor. Then there are the characters who play certain roles in the complex metaphor. According to Lakoff’s analysis, liberals, by imposing taxes, create an affliction or ailment. They are, in essence, the bad guys in the complex metaphor. Conservatives, by providing relief from the burden of taxes, are the good guys in white hats riding to the rescue. Anderegg deconstructs the nerd complex metaphor in a similar way:
    • Thinking, or being good in math and science, is hard, it’s a burden, an affliction.
    • People desire to be relieved from the burden of hard thinking.
    • Math and science people—people of reflection (say, those people who talk about global warming by mentioning 15th century climatology (i.e., Al Gore))—impose the burden of hard thinking on others.
    • Tough burly people—people of doing (say, those people who cut trees and brush on their farms with a chainsaw as a form of relaxation (i.e., George Bush)—are the ones who ride in and rescue us from the burden of hard thinking.

Anderegg finishes this section on metaphors by suggesting that to change the nerd complex metaphor, we must first deconstruct the metaphor (in the same way that Lakoff deconstructs “tax relief” for us), and then create new metaphors that cast nerds (or whatever the new term will be) as heroes and not villains. Anderegg does allow that this will be no easy feat. Again, Anderegg points out that the nerd metaphor has been with us since the dawn of recorded time. As the mythologist Joseph Campbell points out in his work, the story of Cain and Abel is essentially a nerd story. Cain is a man of action because he is associated with cattle ranching. Abel is a man of reflection because he is associated with sheepherding. We can see the Cain and Abel theme reflected in the 1953 movie Shane starring Alan Ladd (who, throughout the movie, is torn between a life of reflection—settling down on a sheep farm with family and friends—and a life of action—continuing his isolated and lonely life as a gunslinger). [editor’s note: for more on this theme, see my April 3rd, 2013, post Hunters and Gatherers Go To the Movies.]

— o O  End Anderegg Summary Excerpt  O o —

Again, if the above Anderegg summary excerpt piques your interest, contact the Foundation for a copy.

OK, allow me to take a stab at putting the MSNBC PSA into a relief frame using the above examples as a guide. In specific, I am here arguing that the PSA uses a “child relief” frame. Here’s how that frame would play out:

Simply put, child relief suggests that there is an ailment or affliction. In this case childrearing or providing care to children within the private environments of family and home would be the ailment or affliction. Further, parents or families desire to be relieved from this ailment or affliction, to be relieved from their isolated and private environments. This is the core of the child relief complex metaphor. Then there are the characters who play certain roles in the complex metaphor. According to my armchair analysis, conservatives, by forcing parents and other caregivers to provide care within the confines of private environments (like homes and families), create an affliction or ailment. They are, in essence, the bad guys in the complex metaphor. Liberals, by providing relief from the burden of childcare, are the good guys in white hats riding to the rescue. Liberals provide relief by funding and providing access to such public spaces as day care, pre-K, public education, Head Start, etc.

So, that’s the child relief frame as I see it. If you have a different take, please leave it in a comment. Again, this frame was constructed and delivered to change people’s cognitive models. This particular child relief frame takes a negative view of anything private, and privileges anything public. It privileges the so-called WITT model—We’re In This Together—and demonizes the YOYO model—You’re Own Your Own. Liberals tend to use the WITT model whereas conservatives tend to use the YOYO model. They’re fundamentally different ways of viewing the world. There is nothing intrinsically good or bad about either model. They’re just different models. That’s why frames are designed to drag one model down while bolstering another. This “one up and one down” motion is what drives the story told by any good frame. It tells us what the ailment is, what the form of relief is, who’s imposing the ailment, who will provide the relief, and what form relief will take. Think about it, that whole story is told when frames like tax relief, nerd, or child relief is used. Quite amazing eh? Equally amazing, these frame stories often play out unconsciously (a fact often exploited by survey takers and pollsters).

I’d be remiss if I did not point out that the child relief frame is not new. As a matter of fact, it has been around since at least the turn of the last century. Consider this quote by conservative social commentator Christopher Lasch (from his book The Culture of Narcissism) on the auspicious beginnings of the social work profession back at the turn of the last century:

Ellen Richards, founder of the modern profession of social work, argued: “In the social republic, the child as a future citizen is an asset of the state, not the [private] property of its parents. Hence its welfare is a direct concern of the state.”

Notice the similarity between the quote by Richards and the MSNBC PSA quote above. A bit further along we hear Lasch cite another early social worker, Miriam Van Waters, as Lasch gives us this “showstopper” quote:

This “incurable loyalty of children to unworthy adults” [where loyalty is being used as a derogatory reframe of attachment], although it was “the despair of the social worker,” nevertheless suggested that a child’s “own home gave him something [i.e., a primary attachment figure] that the mere kindness and plenty of the foster home could not furnish, and that all the social workers in the world would fail to supply.”

Simply, social workers have been trying to pull kids out of private places for a long time now. However, the process of placing kids in public places involves constantly fighting against the natural inclination of kids (and adults) to attach to a very select few primary attachment figures (in most cases mother). It’s times like these that we should recall failed “private to public” experiments from the past. Here are two such examples.

Here in New Mexico memories of the disastrous Indian Boarding School System (which was set up in the late 1800s and ran through the early 20th century) are still fresh in our minds. This program was set up by the US government to remove Native American children from their families and communities, and to place them in boarding schools where they would learn (so the public policy went) the ways of white culture.

In Britain, John Bowlby cut his teeth by advocating against WWII evacuation policies that pulled young children out of private homes in the cities (which were being bombed regularly) and then sent them to the countryside. Bowlby and others (like child psychologist Donald Winnicott) argued (with little real success) that kids would fare better psychologically if they stayed with their parents as opposed to being sent to (in many cases) strangers. Today we know that many of these kids were ultimately sent to places like Australia and Canada only to be received and subsequently abused by certain religious groups.

Today, to their credit, Britain, Australia, and Canada have begun the process of redressing these “private to public” wrongs from the past. Sadly, the redress process has not significantly started here in the US. In my view, this is a place where I’d like to see funding dollars flow. (As an example, a philanthropist has recently made a $10M gift toward restoration efforts at Jefferson’s mansion, including the slave quarters.) A few years back, Judge Thorne—a Native American appellate judge from Utah—reminded his audience at a national attachment conference in Salt Lake that the US’s current foster care system is patterned after the old Indian Boarding School System.

Ergo, before we embark on new “private to public” experiments, lets take some time to learn the lessons of those from history. And surely there have been failed “public to private” experiments. Placing hard-earned dollars into a private savings account of some kind only to see those funds effectively evaporate because of “bubble or Ponzi scheme du jour,” is but one simple example. If you can think of others, please leave them in a comment.

So, how does the child relief frame square with science, in particular Bowlbian attachment theory. Well, as it turns out, conservatives have taken a look at this very issue (as you would expect). The Lasch example above hints at this process. Here’s another take.

In his article entitled The Fractured Dream of Social Parenting—Child-Care Policy Lessons and Losses, conservative social commentator Allan Carlson puts it this way:

The psychological evidence is overwhelming, and still mounting, that children in extended day care—even very good day care—are on average more aggressive, less sociable, and less emotionally secure: traits that, ironically, undo the key socialist goal of enhanced human cooperation.

Carlson’s article appears in a special issue on childcare entitled The Child-Care ‘Crisis’ And Its Remedies (Family Policy Review, Fall 2003). The evidence that Carlson points to comes from attachment researchers such as Jay Belsky. Even Sir Richard Bowlby (John’s son) has spoken out against use of poor and/or extended day care (i.e., more than 20 hours per week). (Contact the Foundation for a summary of the talk that Sir Richard gave up in Canada back in 2005.)

Sure, we can relieve parents of their private burden of raising kids by delivering said kids to all manner of public spaces, but at what cost? I for one appreciate that secure attachment provides the foundation upon which EF (executive function) rests, the same EF needed for such things as empathy, perspective-taking, Gestalt forms of thinking, cooperation, and metacognition. Likewise we could get rid of all taxes (and, as a result, all public spaces), but at what cost? I for one enjoy roads, police departments, fire departments, parks, and public works departments. We could do away with all nerds, geeks and hard thinking, but, again, at what cost? Are you willing to do away with the STEM sciences? If so, you also better be willing to give up your smartphone, computer, Facebook, Google, all social media for that matter. And you can wave good bye to hopes that the US will achieve any prominent global position.

The thing to keep in mind when any battle of frames erupts is this: one person’s relief is another’s burden. Frames are always about “one up and one down.” Frames tend to privilege one worldview at the expense of others. Frames ask us to enter and take up residence in a particular worldview or compartment, say, the public system compartment or the private system compartment. I’d like to see relief from compartmentalized thinking, but that may well be a very tall order.

Public–private partnerships are all the rage in philanthropy. But to truly get to a place where private–public partnerships can become a reality, we’re going to have to check our frames at the door at least long enough for us to sit down and take a look at some hard cold facts. As I have written about before, technical camps and adaptive camps will have to learn to get along for there to be true change. In the final analysis, true leadership will end up being the key ingredient. For more on this theme, see the article Leading Boldly in the Winter 2004 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review.