framing & being out

PZ Myers has been fulminating about framing a lot lately, mostly in reaction to Chris Mooney & a few others’ ideas that we have to “frame” science and atheism better in order to win people to our cause. I don’t exactly disagree, because I’ve been tired of framing ever since the 2004 post-election dissections cited and interviewed poor George Lakoff ad nauseum.

Right now some people’s favorite targets are the “new atheists” (and I have to point out that atheist anger and bitterness is not new. Atheism has always been angry at theistic stupidity, unreason, and violence.), particularly Richard Dawkins. Before Dawkins it was Michael Moore. Feminists have frequently been in the hot seat, particularly with regard to abortion rights. Apparently, when some wonderfully strident person stakes out a position on any controversial issue, it is their lot to be attacked by their fellow travelers. (Heck, even the non-strident who have been PR-ing for decades get told how to “frame”: Matthew Nisbet just castigated Al freakin’ Gore mis-framing global climate change. Chris Clarke thinks Nisbet is nuts and I gotta agree.) I find these public lectures to people who are working their asses off to speak their minds to be tedious at best. If Nisbet thinks Gore has gotten the science wrong in some particular, I’d prefer him to write and publicize his own message; not waste ink on freakin’ advice about framing, because, frankly, I think Gore can pay for any such advice that he wants.

However, the latest rounds of commentary got me thinking about framing and being out. Of course, “framing” critiques can be seen as just more movement in-fighting. “Welcome to The Movement! Watch out for friendly fire.” Framing advocates don’t mean it in that way, of course. They’re honestly talking about framing as a way to get people to strategize and coordinate.

But even this kind intention is really an attempt to corral and control the message. There’s no question that this kind of strategic thinking is useful in tight, targeted, PR campaigns from a single organization with a relatively discrete, unified message to convey. Like the Republican Party for the last few years for instance.

But in a movement it doesn’t work, and First Amendment and information theories help tell us why. A social movement is a big, unwieldy, mass of many thoughts and voices, largely tending in the same direction as a crowd but with many ebbs and flows and individual eddies and various tendencies in this or that way. The sum total of the movement ends up being determined by a “wisdom of the crowd” kind of way.

“Framing” is an attempt to distill those mass voices into a single voice. It’s top-down, PR professional driven. It’s the opposite of bottom-up, grassroots, wisdom of the crowds. It’s the opposite of the information marketplace — that First Amendment theory that proposes that the best solution to bad information is not censorship, but more information. In a marketplace filled with good and bad information, all accessible, over time the good information floats to the top. Through the wisdom of crowds, so long as there is no censorship (a market failure in the information marketplace).

So when I hear folks advocating framing, I think: They’re spending a lot of time on tactics and advising the movement, which is their choice. But it would be better to just encourage more folks to speak their piece, no matter what they have to say. The more people who are out about being an atheist — whether they’re angry like Greta Christina, or accommodationist like Chris Mooney — the better. Don’t strategize. Just speak. Tell your story. As the Christians say, Witness.

Because the more atheists talk, the more conversations there are about vital issues, the more people engage in thinking and sifting and responding. And if any angry atheist provokes a moderate Christian-loving atheist to say their piece, great. And if that Christian-loving atheist provokes an angry agnostic to speak out, even better. And if that angry agnostic provokes a confused and questioning theist to start talking, we’ve won. Because this battle is only going to be won when everybody, everywhere, is talking and thinking about these issues, and hearing a multitude of voices, and making up their own minds. With lots of evidence and information in front of them.