"No Pressure": the cognitive science behind why 10:10 got their “framing” wrong
Let me start by stating my political position: I feel real sympathy for the 10:10 team, who must be feeling pretty bad right now and deserve a break. I’m not interested in bashing them, their instantly infamous video, or the well-established facts of human-induced climate change. Least of all that.
But the huge furore around their schoolchild-splattering extravaganza bears investigation, at least for the benefit of the green movement as a whole, and for the speciality subject that is green communications. No pressure, but we need to learn from it.
One of the central questions people of all political persuasions keep asking about the video is “why?”. Many people don’t understand it. Specifically, they don’t understand “why is it funny”? Worse than that, some people are convinced they know it’s definitely not funny.
Well, the narrative of the video - at least on the surface - is easy for everyone to understand. The repeated theme is that one figure with some position of authority advocates action on climate change. They ask the other characters which of them will help take action, and then say there is “no pressure” if they don’t. Most of the characters show their support, those who don’t are told that it’s ok to opt out. The authority figure then takes a small red button and presses it, blowing those who didn’t care to take action into small bloody pieces.
That’s easy to understand. Nobody disagrees with the sight of what’s happening in front of them. But where the real work is done - and this is why we have a problem - is not in the script or on the screen, but in people’s minds. This is the vital contribution of cognitive science. Because people’s minds are different, people will inevitably view the video in different ways. And these ways will fall along political lines. The political lines will not however be “left” and “right” as we have been taught historically to think of them. According to Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff, the political poles are more like “caring/nurturing” versus “authoritarian”.
As Lakoff explores in his books Moral Politics and The Political Mind, these concepts are at the centre of two coherent but opposing frameworks in people’s minds, and these frameworks are the filters through which we see politics and morality. Everybody can understand all the concepts, at least on paper. And everybody has both sets of concepts in their mind, that they might apply to different areas of their life. But fundamentally everybody has one of these two frameworks that is dominant, certainly when it comes to politics, and because the frameworks physically exist in the form of intimately-connected neural networks in our brains, they are hard to shake. We cannot simply “change our minds”; our minds and our thoughts are shaped by these filters and frameworks, to a vast and unconscious extent. The frameworks are shared between people, because they are based on the metaphors and stories that we tell each other in contemporary Western society.
It is no accident therefore that the most extreme criticisms of the video form a repeated pattern. The most shrill of these is that the video is “eco-fascism” or “eco-terrorism”. YouTube users are posting or commenting on the video with tags such as “The mindset of an eco-fascist”. The same idea has already made its way across language divides: one French user introduces the video as “Propogande Ecofasciste”. People are saying things like “that’s the power these greens want to have over us”. On the Daily Mail’s website, two people called Dave argue with eachother: “It wasn't the Left that put people in gas chambers... - Dave Nicol, Portsmouth, UK, 3/10/2010 2:37".
“It was actually. At least, that's how it rose to power. The Nazis were "The National Socialist German Workers Party..... Extremism takes many forms, and comes in many guises. Zealotry is a precursor to fascism. Advocating the murdering of children because they disagree with your unproven beliefs -- and treating it like a joke -- is evil, sick, inhuman, fascist, and cannot be defended by any sane person for any reason - dave, Dystopia, UK.”
It is being laid on thick, but the criticism is a cutting one, especially since almost everybody involved in advocating action on climate change would wish to distance ourselves from the Nazis and from the right-wing in general. We also want to distance ourselves from terrorists, who similarly seek to achieve political aims through violence (but without the guise of state authority). The reason that the criticism works is that the accusation of being on the right is not the problem here; the accusation is of being *authoritarian* and of using violence to enforce authoritarian ends and one’s own ideas. The evidence pointed to is the behaviour of the authorities in the video. By failing to *frame* their video to the contrary and allowing this conclusion to be drawn, the creators have played straight into the hands of those who would call them eco-fascists. And what is a fascist after all? A fascist is somebody who uses government or corporate power (as embodied by the teacher, the manager), to control and/or oppress people against their will by means of force and violence. To somebody already with authoritarian ideas in their head, there is nothing funny about this. They take it literally.
Are you confused as to why I’m saying the authoritarian-minded people are opposing authoritarianism? The reason is because it’s not their kind of authoritarianism. The moral authority of greens is - to them - a false authority.
The reason why the most “caring/nurturing” minded people don’t see the video as authoritarianism is because they don’t really think in terms of authoritarianism at all. It’s literally not on their mental map. Of course they wouldn’t really want to hurt anybody, even to save the world. It just doesn’t occur to them. It’s simply a joke.
This is how the two perspectives have managed to miss eachother entirely, and why so many people don’t “get” the joke. Many people who would like to get the joke, including myself, cannot enjoy the video because we are too worried and self-conscious about what other people would think.
In order to avoid people coming to a conclusion that those characters are fascists, a different frame, George Lakoff’s “caring/nurturing” frame was needed. But it’s not clear that this is there. As one Twitterer commented, it disastrously allows the climate deniers to look like oppressed underdogs fighting a smug hierarchy. This was surely not the intent. The writers just didn’t think it through. The framing is all wrong, or, more to the point, absent.
This cautionary advice goes for all art, as well as political messaging: the more you don’t steer people in the right direction in your storytelling, the more you will force them to project their own concepts and values on to your work, whether those concepts harmonise with your original vision of the work or not.
The fable that it’s telling *seems* to be, on my literal reading of the narrative and subtext, something like this: “If you don’t agree to take action on climate change, and if you even are not convinced of the need to, then your peers and those in authority will blow you up into little tiny bloody pieces. No pressure”. It seems like a threat.
We all know what the underlying narrative should have been. It should have been something like this: “If you don’t agree to take action on climate change, and if you even are not convinced of the need to, then by the progression of natural forces the world we will be living in in 30 years time will be bloody, unpleasant and sad. You need to help us create a better world. No pressure”.
This message might be boring, and might need retelling in new and creative ways, but it cannot fundamentally be diverged from. And the reason why is not about how best to “spin” the green message or to “reframe” it in some clever, tricky or manipulative way. The reason why is because that message is the truth. And the truth is not only the most powerful motivator, it is the most fertile and faithful ally we have.
Unfortunately, 10:10’s video - through a narrative that was insufficiently founded on a concretely framed truth - created something new, different, and not relevant to the core message of action on climate change. It’s possible to have something quirky, even comic-violent, as long as the underlying “moral of the story” is well-framed. I think the 10:10 team are to be congratulated for making a bold, imaginative attempt. But the stakes are immensely high, and we need to use everything we have - including new knowledge of framing and cognitive science - to get it right. First time. In everyone’s eyes. No pressure.
Post script: here are four violent ads that I DO think work: Greenpeace's ad about Nestle's buying of palm oil (destroying orang-utan habitats)
Plane Stupid's ad showing the impact of flights on polar bears
The UN's ad conceptualising landmines on an American soccer field
The US Environmental Defence Fund's ad conceptualising global warming as an oncoming train.
I'm indebted to the Australian mainstream media for these links