This quote speaks true to me. It seems accurate and eloquent, calling out a true phenomena we are seeing: To much of this country, black lives don't matter, while mistaken accusations against white kids are the apocalypse. The parents who watch black children get shot without lifting a finger, now freak out that all the kids from Covington High are called racists on a day where only some of them were caught, that day, in clear acts of contempt.

It is also, also, especially when this quote is shared in my mostly-white, mostly-privileged zone of the angry-left internet: my side has made a scapegoat of one teenage boy for every action done by anyone else wearing the same hat. The quote is accurate: we have in fact made similar excuses around dehumanizing kids in maga hats as the "y'all" make about kids in hoodies. Millions of adults have descended on one kid on a school trip, we've sought out the worst-looking frame of a video and made a kid who was minding his own business into our scapegoat, millions of people aimed our hate at him, have continued looking for evidence that maybe he is a racist after our initial attacks were found to be full of holes, have called for his expulsion and doxed him and his family.

This week, this one week, I haven't seen this before and I have been watching, the internet-mob on the left went truly overboard. Millions of us have directed hatred at a teen who whose worst clear crime was wearing a maga hat, we've doxed him, we've dissected some videos, we've made him a mirror for our vast and well-earned anger at the Trump movement, a scapegoat for more powerful men that we can't touch, a scapegoat for other kids from his school. He is no longer Nick, he's "#CovingtonKids," all of their sins on him. Once we realized the facts didn't line up like the first accusation, we didn't apologize and back off, we kept digging, hoping we could prove that our initial accusation and gut instinct could be proven.

Image of Nick turning from the drumming, aiming to calm another student getting into an argument behind him:
Nick turns away, indicating calm down to another student getting into a conflict behind him

And we are not apologizing, we are holding strong, digging in.

Morally: this is bullying. We haven't defeated the powerful racists, so millions of us went after a kid, literally whose face we didn't like.

Politically: this is, so obvious I feel funny saying it, guaranteed to fail, to solidify votes Trump's movement.

The angry partisan internet this week has undone a year's effort by people trying to get decent, busy people to open their eyes and stop falling for the right's blame-and-shame politics.

The quote is right, the people who've been watching black kids get gunned down and not care, who are up in arms today, they are not in the right. But today is our turn, at least I'm making it my turn, to model a politics of dignity without bullying. If we want to be effective, every one of us that overshot the truth and made accusations without clarity and without proportion, who made a scapegoat out of one kid for a whole movement β€” all of us who've faced bullying by powerful men and in turn bullied a kid β€” it's time to stop and apologize. No #whataboutism: Apologizing is not the apocalypse, either.

I would like to see the quote as the opener for this: Adults should not see kids in hoodies or in maga hats as thugs or racists, to be shot or to be pilloried, doxxed and made the scapegoat of the week.

Yes, we screwed up and made a scapegoat of a kid. Groups I support screwed up this time. I'm sorry.


This blog is about communications and elections: one thing for absolute sure, there is no keeping "score" about right -vs- wrong in a way that apologizing weakens your team or weakens your cause. All the moderates, the quiet people appalled by today's politics: whoever starts to show some decency is going to win the next election. What would the world look like, the election look like, if progressives got ahead on this: if the internet were full of thousands of apologies for over-reaction, immediately followed calls to action stand against racism in the halls of power? What would your friends who hate politics think of that?


This is intended as one of two posts about displaced anger: when to let it go (this article), when to focus and make it clear (upcoming).

Stephen Sat, 01/26/2019 - 12:59

People opposed to Trump need to stop saying it’s like a cult, as if that alone would work, and look at the tactics that actually work against cults.

Imagine decent Republicans as on a train they have been on their whole lives. It left the station last election cycle, with Trump mocking a disabled reporter, and millions of riders cringed, but didn't get off the train just for that. Weird tweets people wish he wouldn’t say. Says that weird thing about shooting people on 5th Avenue. He mocks McCain, does weird stuff with Putin, declares the people he himself picked to surround him to be wildly losers … each of these is a decision moment, where people get off the train and walk back or stay on the train. Eventually the train is a thousand miles from decency: do you get out and walk a thousand miles, alone, mocked by liberals saying "I told you so"?

Progressive activists need to help people exit the Trump train. They might come join us β€” that's hard, a big ask. They might join politicians they've always appreciated more β€” veterans with basic integrity in the McCain pattern, who might finally say enough. They might retire from politics for a while. Any of these exits are the end of Trump's electoral cult: are we working toward this end?

The easiest way to help Trump exits not to ask people to backtrack the train a thousand miles, alone and on foot. Instead, find conservatives exiting the train, regretting their decision. Make sure that Trump voters don't feel like they need to move to Berkeley to leave Trump, they can follow the lead others have set. Find those stories, get out of the way, don't comment on them, just share them widely.

(Please add the best to the comments below!)

Stephen Fri, 01/18/2019 - 03:23

Imagine a "Wall."

What is it for? Before you know anything about any particular wall, what comes to mind? What feelings does it evoke? If a wall is used as a metaphor, what is the point of the metaphor?

Linguistic framing expert George Lakoff writes: Democrats must block Trump’s wall of hate.

Lakoff claims that Trump's wall is "a metaphor for racism, nationalism and white supremacy. The wall Trump desires isn’t made of concrete or steel. It’s made of hate." The article ends with a reminder of the racists marching in Charlottesville, carrying torches, one giving the Nazi heil Hitler salute.

I personally don't know any, and don't think there are that many, tiki-torch carrying white supremacists. What I've encountered is people scared of the future, sucked β€” by their fears, not their hates β€” back into tribalism including a racist disdain for people they see as not like themselves. With frightening exceptions, typical voters seen as "deplorable" have very little energy or thought for other races: they never take a second glance to wonder if Birtherism might really piss off many African Americans, which is totally obvious if you spend thirty seconds thinking about it β€” but they don't spend the 30 seconds of actual thought. When they see statistics about or hear stories about police stopping and sometimes shooting innocent black people, they shrug their shoulders and glaze their eyes as if the targets aren't their fellow Americans, as if this is happening many timezones away beyond their influence. This laziness is not anywhere near the same as the active, energetic-hate of the tiki-torch and hiel-Hitler crowd.

A metaphor of a wall, to me, in general, is about security and protection. So Trump's physical wall is evoking security from fears β€” fears based mostly on a changing economy, that Trump, from the top down, has focused vague fears into fear of other races, cultures and religions. Trump has found scared people β€” not so much angry racists β€” but through repetition he frames their fears, calling Mexicans murderers and rapists because scared people are too ready to believe, not because they are already actively, energetically racist.

The Democrats lost the last election over this: believing that "deplorables" were really deeply entrenched in their deplorable choices, instead of realizing that there are millions upon millions of people who are ready to get over their little hates when they feel safe: that if you offer a vision of the future that involves a decent job, only a microscopic few of the racists care about their racism more than their jobs. There are countless people who are mildly racist or susceptible to racist ideas when afraid, whose votes are actually in play β€” many voted for President Obama.

We keep calling people who resonate with Trump while he listens to their fears β€” we keep calling them racist. And whether they are or not: in their conscious minds, they know they are not, so they feel insulted. And we lose them completely, even if they initially had mostly agreed with us, issue after issue, because we just called them racist β€” and they really desire not to be racist, they see it as an insult.

So do we have this backwards?

Trump's wall is aimed at fearful people, willing to turn to anything β€” yes, including racism β€” for protection from the future. To defeat him, we have to pull the focus off the border, which is where people's fears are focused, and remind ourselves to be human: more stories of refugees. Don't say "No" to the wall, don't think about the wall. What is our frame?

Where are the "Joe the Plumber" stories of refugees? Why can't I name a refugee family? Know what church they used to pray in, before they had to flee?
Our frame, it seems to me, is simple: the refugees are human beings. We have to pull people back to their hearts, stop joining Trump in focusing on their fears, stop joining Trump in focusing on the divisions. Yes, write our politicians not to spend money on the wall. But the public debate should not focus on the border at all: it should focus on human beings with real stories.

Stephen Cataldo Wed, 01/16/2019 - 15:23
The border wall is a hot topic right now in the news. Exercise:

(1) What are the policy choices? What are all the different frames you can think of β€” the different ways to focus on the story β€” that you hear?

Important: people can usually take either side within a frame:

Take relief => the frame is that taxes are an affliction. "No new taxes" and "The rich should pay more" => both positions treat taxes like an affliction, opposite positions within the same frame.

(2) [usually easy] Which of these frames is more focused on the values you want to emphasize?

(3) Draw a chart. For each frame, write a phrase, slogan or point at a story *for each policy position.*

Grab a piece of paper and sketch out a chart like this example for abortion:

frameAffirm that frameSay "No" to that frame
Choice"Women have a right to choose."No! Abortion is murder
LifeStories of beating hearts; pictures of unborn that look like babiesIt's a lump of cells!

(Extra credit) How is framing going to get you in trouble if you take it too far?

How do you mix framing with active listening and/or compromise, to get make sure your values are heard without running over a conversation partner? Framing is how to be heard β€” it's not active listening, not how to make compromises; how do you balance these in your social media, in your conversations?

frameAffirm that frameSay "No" to that frame
focus/frame 1:
focus/frame 2:

My Partial Answers Below
The two foci, the two main frames, are something like (1) border security β€” controlling who gets across, and (2) people – fleeing violence, families are in trouble and need our help. Inside each frame policy can say yes or no, yes or no cross the border, yes or no we hear your pleas and will help.

(3: a secure border ) "We should let anyone seeking asylum across the border." => the frame is "controlling who gets across" which is a conservative frame. To imitate George Lakoff's title "Don't Think of an Elephant," you are saying "Don't think about the controls at the border." And obviously, "secure the border" is the conservative frame and conservative position. (And both "security" and "border" generate powerful metaphoric background imagery β€” the powerful framing is a reason that a party whose elites happily hire people without green cards is making this a big issue.)

(3: people) Share a story about a person who lived in Honduras, where she grew up, where she went to church, what her job was, how many kids she has β€” start with her as a person. Then once people know something about her and her family, include the threats she faced. Then the story should engage the question she faced, what were her options. Then, what can we do to help her? This is the progressive frame, about refugees, about people, lives like ours. The normal-time conservative "no" to this frame is either to ignore or de-emphasize the complex realities of individuals and focus on numbers "we can't help everyone," or with Trump to dehumanize them and call them murderers and rapists.

Warning: Frames are just Frames

You can't force people to think of an issue the way you want them to. If someone feels unsafe, and is talking about security, and you ignore them or talk over them β€” they're just going to feel more insecure, to be pushed further into the "security" frame.

Frames are great for sharing, for when you lead a conversation. Ask questions that get people's focus to the places they haven't paid enough attention, that match your frame, rather than continuously assaulting the other frame. In active listening, and in compromising, it's vital to understand their frame. Know what the frames are, but don't ignore other communication skills.

Stephen Wed, 12/12/2018 - 12:19

A Framing 101 Post written for Radical Conversation enthusiasts.

Framing creates context for an issue.

Framing is unavoidable.

Even just one word, like β€œtaxes,” will evoke a frame. When you think of taxes, do you think of social programs, a strong defense, money coming out of your pocket? Do you imagine you would trust the people spending the taxes? Are taxes already too high, or inadequate? What emotions arise β€” do you feel bitter that you pay more than your share, or are you proud to help?

Word choices, or especially references to a metaphor, can influence which frame is evoked. For a simple example, a "school bond" might get you thinking about schools. "Tax relief" aims to get you to think of taxes as something you requires relief β€” the phrase evokes the metaphor that taxes are a disease or affliction requiring relief. Facts work β€” when they support and reinforce your story or metaphor.

This isn't magic. For example, if you are Pro-Choice and someone insists on calling fertilized eggs "babies," or if you are Pro-Life and someone tells a mother-to-be that that kick was just from "a lump of cells" β€” do you think these words will create the desired frame, or just convince the listener that you have little in common? Don't overdo framing: keep it simple, but make sure that when you share, you share values true to your heart, that you build and repeat stories around those values β€” and minimize time spent arguing against the other frame.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff is the most famous voice for framing on the left, especially for his book "Don't Think of an Elephant" β€” you can not argue "against" a frame without evoking that frame. If you say "don't think of an elephant" everyone will think of elephants; if you say "I oppose tax relief" everyone will think of taxes as an affliction. You have to argue your own points.

He has a growing community on Facebook. This is a great place to get involved: proponents of framing and of radical heart-centered communication techniques have a lot to teach each other!

β€œFor Democrats, we recommend sincerity and transparency. Understand your values, speak them out loud, repeat them, use the facts honestly, and link facts and policies overtly to values. Do this over and over… Do this not just as individuals, but together as a party.”
β€” George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling, The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic.

Another way to imagine frames is optical illusions. If you say "I'm against seeing a vase" while looking at this image, you're encouraging "moderates," people who can see this image as either faces or a vase, to focus on the vase. Trump has been a master at drawing our attention to issues that divide Americans, to issues that bring up feelings of defensiveness or shame for many people. Trump acts like a gang-leader, and has convinced just barely enough of the electorate that America is a gang-fight. Democrats often participate in this, treating him as a rival gang leader β€” with a rival gang! β€” reinforcing his metaphor, reinforcing his frame.

If you ask Radical Conversation style questions, you evoke frames. What frame do you evoke with each of these questions:
"What should happen at the border?"
"Do you think we should build a wall?"
"How should a refugee family apply for asylum?"

For immigration issues, framing isn't magic, but it is key: the more time spent on the stories of immigrant or refugee families, going into the story of their lives, ideally repeating the stories of a few until everyone knows their names, where they grew up, where they went to church β€” that is our frame, make those people real. The border, yes, do active listening, repeat back people's fears so they feel heard by you, but otherwise minimize talking about borders.

Repetition is Key: the Death of "Civility"

A great example of framing is the "Contract with America" from the 1990s. There's not much inherit meaning in that phrase β€” liberals could have used it just as easily β€” but by using it over and over, Republicans gave it a meaning. Eventually, it became a shorthand: Republicans could rapidly evoke a whole set of ideas with just that phrase. Frames are built up. It's important that politician who agree on a policy goal start to build the same frame, the same underlying metaphor, together. Republicans are good at it: how many times have you heard "tax relief." They spend money on it: the experts I hear on the left write blogs, Frank Luntz on the right has big focus groups. Many more examples are easy to find β€” all from the GOP, in recent years.

If you believe in something, you have to work with others until you can frame it quickly, not write multiple pages each time you bring up the concept. For example, the word "Civility" has been reframed in the past few years. Ten years ago, "civil" in a political conversation might have evoked "civil disobedience" and Gandhi or King. Today, it often evokes "civility police." Think of the optical illusions: brains can conceptualize the word as one or the other, but not both at the same time. How did the transformation happen? How can your movement succeed if you can't control the narrative around some words or phrases that describe what you believe in? What can you do make sure that the words you use create the frame you want?

More Resources and Actions

I love this introduction to framing. Where the article you just read tries to explain different components, this gets straight to the heart: There is sometimes a tendency among liberals to be cowardly about their own supposed values, and to try to argue based on conservative premises.

Lakoff in his own words.

Framing is often about issues like protections (regulations), about Nazis (free speech) β€” but it can also be about the conversation. Radical conversations call for metaphors that evoke connection: Do you use facts like artillery?

Action β€” Lakoff says: "Do this not just as individuals, but together as a party.” The Rapid Response team hopes to be the seed, combining all the techniques from SMART Politics and Cognitive Politics and anywhere else we find them into a form that can spread to Indivisibles and then politicians. After you've taken the Radical Conversations training, if framing and other techniques to influence social media at a large scale excite you, look for announcements on the facebook group and get involved!

Optical illusion from… by Brocken Inaglory from Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Tue, 12/11/2018 - 02:22
When you have political conversations, how do you use facts? Do you lob them at opponents like artillery? And then your opponent digs a deeper trench to avoid the blast? If you use facts like artillery, your opponent will dig trenches and build bunkers: facts work in the story you use them. Or do you architect a building of shared values, and build it by placing facts like bricks, building up the story of your values? A story people are welcome to explore if they are curious β€” not a battle for you to win and them to lose. Facts work there too. In politics, most of use facts like artillery, so they have gained a reputation as a thing that doesn't work.
Stephen Fri, 12/07/2018 - 22:40

The Yale study that pretends to shift conservatives into liberals, made famous at the Washington Post (behind a firewall), finds that when you empower people to deal with threats, people become less fearful, and less conservative.

It makes sense if conservatism, at its evolutionary core, is our defensive thought pattern, and liberalism is the hopeful one. Not a leftist caricature of cowardly fear, but rather a tendency to see threats: to which you might respond with bravery or cowardice. Fox has manipulated that not-so-crazy not-so-pathetic impulse, stoking it over and over. But in nature, conservatives are the defenders β€” protecting what we have, and liberals the ones who encourage a little more risk taking β€” open to change.

If most people β€” and all swing voters β€” are a bit of both liberal and conservative, then the Democrats need to get better at explaining why we are capable defenders. When Fox claims we want open borders, we need a really good answer, whatever it is, at that moment. In my experience, progressives usually ignore that and just go back to talking about compassion. Fear β€” the sense that Democrats are not good defenders β€” is where the leak is.

### It's not "fear" that they studied ###

The Yale study shows a few flaws, especially as it transforms into headlines. Telling people to imagine they are superheroes in a study would be the equivalent of *actually* dealing with threats and empowering people in real life. In other words, the study finds that if we secured the border and won the war on terror and defeated our political opponents and had everything under control, people would become more liberal. And I totally agree β€” said the right way, I expect conservatives agree, that they are the defenders of the nation, and if you really took away all the threats, there'd be less need for conservatism.

Instead, it's a focus on dealing with threats. Maybe by fear. Sometimes by bravery. Superpowers β€” what the study uses in an imaginary setting β€” are obviously not a real-world solution to turning conservatives into liberals. What is? Making clear that amongst the idealism and compassion, we are capable of defending the country and dealing with threats.

### What if you believe Democrats deal with threats better? ###

This is where communication techniques are key. I don't hear much active listening when progressives talk about families being gassed at the border. Over and over, conservatives say we want open borders. If we want to win them over, we either convince them, as in the Yale study, that we have magic super powers, or we tell them a real plan to defend the border or otherwise deal with the threat at the moment they express that fear. Our sound bites and memes need to cut from being pure-empathy to about 50/50: empathy, and (we hear you!) we have a plan to keep Americans safe.

Stephen Tue, 11/27/2018 - 22:06

What words would you use to share this photo and this story? What are the best communication techniques and frames about the current border crisis?

Story Behind Viral Photo of Diapered, Barefoot Migrant Children Fleeing Tear Gas

Please share cleaner, shorter versions in the comments, or take this as you like and create memes from it! (I don't want credit if you like some of the wording, but would love links back.)

"Whatever you think about how we should deal with our border, we all need a moment to let this image be real to us.

If you live in a world where you have not had to flee with your children, feel thankful for that. Whatever you think we should do at the border, let the reality that this is happening have a moment of your heart.

We're seeing a mother who gave birth, fed her children, was afraid every time they got sick, quite likely took them to church every week, and at some point made the choice that fleeing with them was the best thing she could do for them. Whatever you want to do at the border, see her. Whatever your politics, make sure she has some choices better than watching her children face hunger and violence.

Goal: Get people to open their hearts, the first step of the cascade β€” not yet pushing for policy change, though I think the heart-opening is the hard part, and the policy change screams out once hearts are open.

Audience: A wide swath, all the way from:
- Centrist voters who dislike both Democrats and Republicans, and who see liberal insults of the GOP as part of the hyper-partisanship; who feel like spectators, who need to be invited to participate.
- Conservatives such as Pro-Life voters who are really Christian, who are more blind to suffering rather than compassion-less (though it looks the same to make liberals who see the suffering and don't realize how people could fail to focus on it.)

Stephen Tue, 11/27/2018 - 18:14

George Lakoff asks and answers: "Why are staunch Republicans fine with tear gassing refugee children? It's the conservative moral hierarchy."

This list feels like a dangerous exaggeration to hand to liberals. This is a way to listen to conservatives less. I'm not saying you can't find bits of truth in this list β€” I'm saying that this is definitely not the whole truth, that this is the worst angle to see conservatives, and that this list in the hands of liberals will make us less capable communicators.

I think calling it a "moral hierarchy" is also an exaggeration β€” not that you couldn't find some support for that view, but it's incomplete and negative.

I think it's much more powerful to see a "focus hierarchy" for many issues. Conservatives are more focused close to home: they care more about this side of the border, where "the law" is a key ingredient, than the other side of the border, where parents are fleeing with their children.

For liberals, the answer then is to find stories of humanity from the other side of the wall, detailed and personal, to bring them into focus. We need the story of a parent from Honduras, someone with a name, someone with kids who have names that are in our story, what they faced there, why they made their decisions. We need to begin the story away from the US and US law β€” away from the points of contention β€” and have a limited, memorable, personal couple of stories of refugees that we repeat over and over.

For progressive who want to help, who want to win elections, the answer is not to figure out what we dislike the most about conservatives and reinforce it, but look for commonality β€” especially use things like this moral hierarchy to look for *blinders* and filters, and try to counter them. There's a big difference between someone wearing blinders that prevent them from seeing an evil, from someone who rubs their hands in evil glee.


I strongly recommend that liberals read Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant." But then combine the ideas with Arlie Russell Hochschild's "Strangers in Their Own Land" which actually listens to conservatives, and "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt that aims to see the best in conservatives (where, from the list above, it's clear Lakoff is looking for the worst.)

Stephen Tue, 11/27/2018 - 14:57

Take a look at Cannon Thomas, Ph.D's Politics and the Catastrophe of Us and Them: We have to change the way we view the opposing party for our nation to thrive. The article favors what I call "floater" centrism: it lists a whole bunch of acts of violence all by one side, and draws the conclusion that we're all equivalent (floating between the parties) instead of calling out each transgression and holding an ethical center. This is what a therapist might do (it is in Psychology Today) but misses something vital for politics. What would rooted centrism look like? What would it mean to speak truth when evil occurs, without false equivalence nor tribalism?

I agree there is a "catastrophe of us and them," and we cannot divorce voters we disagree with, we have to find ways to communicate and convince. "False equivalence" doesn't help, and leads the people who want (radical) civility and people who want to stand up against evil to get into squabbles when we should be implementing new strategies together. We're not doing radical civility right β€” it's not what Gandhi or King did β€” if you can't draw a line and speak the truth that the protest in Charlottesville is evil.

Are you angry at an act of homophobia, something that will endanger your friends, or at "Republicans"?

The "Catastrophe of Us and Them" does not come from drawing a clear line against hate or evil and standing your ground: it comes when you say "they" are wrong in every way, a simmering vague anger. I think that gets us in more trouble, this sense that we just hate each other in general (for being who they are; shame) rather than being very angry for specific actions and choice (for doing or supporting specific actions; guilt). It's especially bad when it's not personal but you're still angry: if it's not your family, if it's not your story, then share the story of people who are personally under attack β€” especially on social media.

People can still be conservative and earn my respect if they reject the hate coming from the Republican party: neither false equivalence nor tribalism. If you want to be effective when there is something worth getting angry at, look at your posts and conversations, and see who villain is. Is the group drawn in the smallest way possible, so people can stop participating in a specific wrong without changing overall allegiance? That's an effective, non-tribal way to draw real lines.

The article talks about breaking down us and them, which is great, but it's not realistic to list acts of violence all from one side then give a gentle hug-it-out answer. We need to break down the us and them between individual voters while getting ever more clear about right and wrong.

Please participate and help me tune this! What are good vocabulary terms for the two types of centrism, the one that declares the parties always equivalent, and the one that has values free of partisanship that it defends? What examples do you have, of this being done right or wrong? Critiques welcome!

Stephen Thu, 11/08/2018 - 16:47