Framing and a “Lost Way of Life”

Arts and Crafts Frames Detail View

One of the things that effective framing does is to slip presumptions in without you even noticing what’s happening.

Thus, “death taxes” sounds like a really bad thing.  After all, death is sad, right?  And uncontrollable.  And making a family pay taxes just because their beloved member has died — how cruel is that?  Great-grandpa died and now you want us to pay taxes?  Force us to sell the farm?  Penalize us just because old people die???

Of course, you don’t usually go through that thought process when you hear “death taxes.”  You just have a visceral, negative reaction.

Now, if we call those taxes what we used to call them (before the Republican framing machine went to work) — estate taxes — that sounds different.  Estates are where rich people live, right?  Or an estate is all the jewelry, and art, and other property that a rich person, via a will drawn up by a lawyer, passes on to heirs.  Taxing a big, expensive estate, or an art collection, or a safe deposit box full of jewelry sounds pretty reasonable.

Again, you probably don’t consider the presumptions behind the term, but, especially if you’re not a rich person, or the heir of one, you don’t have nearly as negative a reaction to “estate taxes” as you did to “death taxes,” even though they’re the same thing.

Or, what if we called those very same taxes “unearned wealth taxes”?  We can argue over whether great-great-grandpa “earned” all the money that he made on his mines — underpaying workers and taking dividends for years before his mining company declared bankruptcy and left the impoverished locals to clean up the polluted streams and denuded mountaintops.  But there’s no question that Muffy has done nothing to earn the trust fund passed down to her from great-great-grandpa’s dividends.  It’s “unearned wealth,” and, well, it kind of makes sense for us to tax that.  Why is Muffy, whom great-great-grandpa never even met, more entitled to all of that money than the people paying to clean up the polluted stream?  Doesn’t it make sense to leave Muffy with some of that money but to also return some of it to the common good?  (And, so, under this plan, great-great-grandpa’s wife got a lot of the money.  Her daughter got some, but maybe not as much.  By the time we’re several generations removed, and dealing with people who never even knew great-great-grandpa and who never even worked in the now-defunct mining corporation, it makes sense for more of the money to be returned to everyone else.)

That’s good framing.

It’s our job, as citizens of a democracy and as consumers of information, to stop, hold the framing up to the light, and ask ourselves what presumptions are being slipped through into our unconscious.

Lately, we’re seeing more and more stories about “Trump voters,” or “disaffected whites,” or, here in my state, “rural voters” who are reacting angrily to the fact that they are now in the minority.  In Virginia, following an election that placed state government squarely in the hands of Democrats for the first time in decades, those voters are filing into town halls to declare their counties “Second Amendment sanctuary cities.”  They know that gun safety legislation is coming and they’re declaring that they just don’t agree.*

And, I find the framing rather interesting.

I keep seeing stories that say that these people are upset at “a vanishing way of life.”

So let’s do our job, and stop, and ask exactly what we’re being asked to accept with that framing.  Because, at first, of course, it sounds rather compelling:  a vanishing way of life.  We all feel sympathy with endangered tribes, groups who are losing their language, families being forced to abandon their traditions.

But, let’s look.

I live in a largely white rural area.  It voted deeply red this past November.  I won’t be surprised at all to see it declare itself a “Second Amendment Sanctuary.”

Others may laugh at how “backwards” we are, but folks up here were quick to adapt to electricity when a cooperative brought it to the area.  Radio, satellite tv, CB radio, internet porn — they were all for it, early adapters.  Fast food replacing the greens and grits that granny cooked on the wood stove?  Definitely; there’s a fast food restaurant every few miles.  Walmart replacing the local cabin trading furs for flour and coffee?  Done deal; all those old general stores are gone and giant Walmarts with huge parking lots take in most of the locals’ grocery dollars.  Video games instead of hours spent reading by a candle or nights around the fireplace trading stories?  Of course; X-boxes sit inside every trailer and townhouse hereabouts.  Rap on a cell phone instead of learning to play a bluegrass fiddle is a no brainer.  Sexting instead of courting at a church social?  Yeah.

A disinterested observer might be forgiven for thinking that white, rural voters have been in a generations-long rush to replace their “vanishing way of life,” with modern conveniences.  So, exactly which bits of that vaunted “way of life” are these people so upset to see disappear?

It’s not hunting, often cited as a way for fathers to bond with sons.  No one is even vaguely suggesting any measures that would impinge on that “way of life.”  There’s no need for “Second Amendment sanctuary counties” to protect hunting.  Even the arugula-eaters moving out here from the city understand that the deer population is, absent wolves and other predators, out of control and needs to be hunted.  They eat our landscaping.  They bring ticks.  They run out into the road and damage our Prisuses.  Restaurants serving farm-to-table menus proudly feature venison, local rabbit, and pheasant.  I guran-damn-tee you that hunting, as a “way of life” is not under any danger.

So, if it’s not any of the things discussed above and if it’s not hunting, what IS the “vanishing way of life” that has these voters so upset?

Perhaps they think that the “vanishing way of life” that we should protect involves unregulated access to the kinds of automatic weapons that can kill dozens of schoolchildren within minutes?  Those weapons certainly weren’t a part of this “vanishing way of life” until quite recently.  Grandpa got by without them; he had, at most, a hunting rifle and a shotgun to kill rabbits.  And if their “way of life” actually depends upon allowing domestic abusers the ability to shoot up schools, churches, and movie theaters, well, I’m sorry, but your way of life DOES have to go in order to protect the lives of the rest of us.  Your “lost way of life” doesn’t get an override on the literal lives of the children sitting in school or the people at Wednesday bible study.

In the end, I suspect that, when we shine a bright light on the framing, the “vanishing way of life” being discussed is mostly to do with the beginning of the end of patriarchy, an end to evangelical control of government, and the worry that urban (read:  often black, often immigrant, often college-educated, way too often feminist ) voters may be as unsympathetic to rural voters as those rural voters were when they were in control.  I suspect that quite a lot of it has to do with declining white supremacy.

Always stop and ask what concepts/premises/conclusions are being slipped in via framing.  Be willing to call out the media on these tropes.

I’m upset about my “vanishing way of life” — the one that didn’t involve massive climate change.  Maybe someone would like to write an article about that.

*I’ll just note that in recent years, conservatives have stepped up efforts to stop more liberal urban areas from adopting measures — higher minimum wages, bans on plastic bags, protections for LGBTQ people — that differ from the rest of the state.  So it’s fascinating to see those same groups now demanding that rural counties can opt out of any statewide gun safety legislation.  See, e.g., Virginia’s Dillon Rule and its application.  You can have one, or the other, guys, but not both.  I know.  Adulting is difficult.

Picture found here.

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