Do Black Lives Matter? What's Your Frame?
Reframing is essential to social change
by John Seel
Black men murdered by cops, cops ambushed by snipers—and all of it played out in living color on YouTube and CNN. The social fabric is fraying, and with it our ability to communicate with empathy across racial frames.
We think first in frames. As George Lakoff explains in Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, "Frames are the mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions…. Reframing is social change." Our public discourse about race represents a conflict of frames. A solution will require reframing.
Black Lives Matter has become a political football. In the mind of Fox News commentators, this movement is largely to blame for the growing hostility toward police that has found expression in violent retaliation toward police. Obama is to be blamed in their minds for showing support, however nascent, for the movement.
Black Lives Matter is a consciousness-raising movement. It is a thorn in the side of a political system that views the systemic and chronic injustices toward Black men by a biased judicial system as something to be ignored, sidelined, or silenced. Anger abounds on both sides and with the anger has been intemperate speech by all sides further escalating the tensions.
"Why is the President going to Dallas and not Baton Rouge?" I wondered aloud to my activist son. "What message is that sending?" It seemed the status quo was siding with the cops. Perhaps that is the logical political priority, to avoid erasing the thin blue line that separates civil society from anarchy. Police do the thankless but necessary task of maintaining order for the status quo.
A world without cops is the world of The Purge, a film about a future American society that allows an annual 12-hour period in which any and all crime is legalized under the dubious cinematic assumption that catharsis is good for social justice. So stopping the slide toward anarchy is a social priority by our elected political leaders. At the Republican National Convention, Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, himself Black, suggested that Black Lives Matter was fomenting anarchy.
What few appreciate is that anarchy is already the felt reality in certain Black communities where the residents have good reason to distrust the police.
What few appreciate is that anarchy is already the felt reality in certain Black communities where the residents have good reason to distrust the police. So for these communities, cop-supporting rhetoric doesn't stop anarchy but instead denies the sense of anarchy they already experience. For here the perception—heavily augmented by social media—is the reality. Same reality, different frames.
In such a charged environment, arguing with facts—whether citing the number of Black-on-Black murders in Chicago or the national statistical insignificance of police use of excessive force—is irrelevant. When the facts don't fit the frame, the facts bounce off and the frame remains. Again, we have at root a racial frame problem compounded by a hermeneutic of suspicion of the other.
Didn't the way the events played out on national TV last weekend prove the point of Black Lives Matter? Friday's funeral of Alton Sterling got buried in the news of President Obama's attendance at the memorial service for the five slain Dallas police earlier in the week, the announcement of Donald Trump's running mate, and the terrorist attack in Nice, France. Even the mayor of Baton Rouge, Kip Holden, did not bother to attend Sterling's funeral. The perceived bottom line for all to conclude is that Black lives do not matter. They can be forgotten in the space of two or three news cycles.
But then our cell phones alert us in church on Sunday morning of another police ambush in Baton Rouge. Three more cops down. How are we to process the news?
Obama once again holds a press conference calling for calm, championing the sacrificial service of police departments everywhere, urging a reduction of political rhetoric prior to a two-week period of national political conventions. Likewise, Black Lives Matter leaders issue statements against the use of violence. Yet such words, however measured, do not bridge the frame divide.
In the coming two weeks, it is unlikely that Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed "law and order candidate," will make it easier for understanding to take place across the racial divide. Nor is it likely that Hillary Clinton will align her campaign with Black Lives Matter activists. Her prescription is public policy, while Trump's is macho bravado. Neither speaks to the likes of Baton Rouge shooter Gavin Long, or to other disaffected Black men his age. Louisiana Governor John Edwards stated strongly at a press conference that "the violence and hatred has to stop." But does anyone really believe that these words will change the reality? They haven't so far.
Frames trump facts. Experience and the imagination trump frames. It is true that white Americans have a difficult time understanding the longstanding sense of persecution felt by Black young men. Until we have a shared experience, until we enter into their story, until we acknowledge the logic of their feelings of fear and of being forgotten—until then we will not be able to bridge the racial divide. We do not have a fact problem, but a racial frame problem.
We do not have a fact problem, but a racial frame problem.
And you don't change frames through argument. The only way to bridge the gap between frames is through shared storytelling, through engaging the imagination, or through shared experiences. And this will require more than a periodic joint worship services between Black and white congregations during a time of crisis. It will require hanging out together, sustained hospitality when there isn't a crisis. But this is not what we do. We do not spend the time to develop trust, to put names and faces to abstract social problems, to feel another's fear and pain, to sense the disparity of power and commensurate hopelessness within a community.
White Republicans can flippantly declare "All Lives Matter" or, in the context of police ambushes, "Blue Lives Matter." Yet our Black brothers and sisters perceive these statements as a form of aggression. In their view these statements are inherently racist—even if ignorantly so—because they discount Black history, the perceived Black power calculus, and the existential day-to-day reality of Black communities, revealing a failure to enter into their frame, which is the first step necessary to developing understanding, empathy, and responsible action. Yet the charge of racism only serves to further entrench polarized frames.
We know from the gospels that Jesus rarely answered the question being asked. Rather, in the face of a hostile question, he typically told a story that changed the frame. To the self-righteous critic who asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" he answered, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself." In order to minimize the spiritual demands of what Jesus had just stated, the critic asked further, "And who is my neighbor?"
In the face of a hostile question, Jesus typically told a story that changed the frame.
Jesus did not answer this question, for he immediately sensed that his questioner was working from within a different frame. So he told him the Good Samaritan story, which shifted the frame and left him to answer his own question within this new frame.
The importance of frames became clear to me after working with an online gaming company, Scarlet City Studio, based in New Zealand. They are trying to introduce a new generation of 'tweens (10-13 year olds) to the biblical narrative. In a "been-there-done-that" world, where kids have an a priori negative frame on the Bible, it would be impossible to get them to engage with the Bible without first engaging their imaginations and giving them a virtual experience. This is what The Aetherlight: Chronicles of the Resistance does, providing them with Narnia 2.0. Tweens enter into an allegorical steampunk world where they are active participants in a cosmic mythic quest to restore the rightful king and push back the poisonous fog that has enveloped the land in his absence. The story is never framed in religious language, even though it faithfully follows the biblical narrative.
As such, The Aetherlight is able to winsomely engage both faith-informed children and those without any faith training. This game is able to work across frames. Getting people within the right frame is the starting point for all effective communication. It is high time that the church learned to communicate effectively across frames. This will require engaging the imagination through story and engaging in a shared experience. Few have done it better than Scarlet City Studio. This online game demonstrates the communication challenge facing racial reconciliation in our land.
We are not normally inclined to step out of our frames into those of another. Typically, we are more apt to argue past one another—and feel good about it, even when tensions escalate and the potential for understanding and reconciliation evaporates. It is clear that Jesus calls us to do more. Being agents of reconciliation demands more. Consider the winsome friendship of Focus on the Family President Jim Daly and prominent LGBT activist Ted Trimpa, which in spite of continuing disagreements is a powerful example for all. Together they have fought against human trafficking. In order to build their friendship and trust, each had to be willing to step out of his own frame in order to find common ground.
We will not be able to bridge our racial divide until we are able to bridge frames and ask ourselves the hard questions within the other person's frame. We may find ourselves asking the same question, but when asked from within a new frame, the answer will be very different.
Do Black lives matter? Unequivocally yes! How we feel about the Black Lives Matter movement, however, depends on one's frame. Frames matter. Jesus began by changing the frame.
The former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation, John Seel is a millennial thought leader, cultural renewal change agent, speaker, author, and consultant.