One Mind at a Time

I recently watched Morgan Spurlock’s 30 days as a Muslim and realised it would make a great example of how framing works as a cultural tool.

In the standard 30 Days tradition, the episode took a someone out of their normal lives and forced them into a situation they are completely unprepared for. Here Dave Stacy, a Christian from West Virginia is sent to Dearborn, Minnesota where there is a large Muslim community to ‘become’ a Muslim for 30 days. It is not a pretty sight. His conflict and unease are apparent as he slowly overcomes his preconceptions. His frame for what Islam is and what Muslims think and do is difficult to for him to overcome.

It is wonderful to watch Dave’s opinion shift from him asking the question, “Do you guys think that there are – like – any sleeper cell activity around here?” to him being forced to answer the same question. And to finally understand how wrong the question itself really is.

I realised that the link between terrorism and Muslims is an excellent example of framing and re-framing. Not framing in the form of spinning an embarrassment but in the sense of changing cognitive reactions to certain words.

This is also shows how framing needs to be fought with framing. Let’s look for a second at that the connection between a religion and terrorism. A connection, today an almost immediate mental reaction to either word, is a fairly recent creation.

According to the online etymology dictionary,

General sense of “systematic use of terror as a policy” is first recorded in Eng. 1798. Terrorize “coerce or deter by terror” first recorded 1823. Terrorist in the modern sense dates to 1947, especially in reference to Jewish tactics against the British in Palestine — earlier it was used of extremist revolutionaries in Russia (1866); and Jacobins during the French Revolution (1795) — from Fr. terroriste.

Thinking about the evolution of the connection is interesting.

If I had used the word terrorist ten years ago in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings, while the spectre of Muslim extremism was on the sidelines, many Americans would have thought of intellectually challenged, white supremacists living in a cabin in Montana or on a compound in Texas. (One could even debunk those connections, but I won’t go there today.)

Going back thirty years into the 1970’s there were again two types of terrorists; one secular – socialist, exemplified by the RAF in Germany and the Red Brigade in Italy, and one religious – the religion Christianity, Catholics and Protestants, the battlefield Ireland. (The Palestinian conflict and the PLO might have also come to mind but that was about territory and not religion.)

Going back another 30 years, into the late 1940s, one finds the first use of car bombs in the Middle East, not by Muslim extremists but by Zionist organisations fighting for the creation of Israel.

Another twenty years back and the terrorist threat morphs into a communist plot – connected, tenuously, to the creation of the labor movement.

Finally we arrive at the end of the 19th century. Here the true terrorists aren’t religious but anarchist. Fighting for a social revolution to end government, to end centralised control, elected or otherwise.

All these movements were thought to be terrorist. And all would have been the immediate mental image to the word terrorist for the times described. But times change and the framing changes. The scaffolding, the mental pattern matching superhighways change through reinforcement. The news of bomb after bomb in northern Ireland made the entire emerald isle a suspicious den of religious extremists. Not exactly the image created today when one thinks less of guns and more of Guinness when Ireland is mentioned.

To say the world Russia today may produce many thoughts but communist drone or some variant thereof won’t be one of them.

Frames have changed. The mental scaffolding reformed to produce different pathways. Reframing happens. Slowly, almost without people being aware of it. It happens because enough information reinforces differing imagery.

And notice, during my discussion of terrorism, I didn’t use the word Muslim. I didn’t reenforce the pathway I am trying to break. Ideally one would turn on rant mode when someone makes the connection explain the emotional reactions the word terrorist had created – never mentioning the other side. You don’t reenforce frames by denying them. You connect one thing to something else. Terrorism – lots of things secular and religious. Not terrorism is not muslim. (Big, bad no-no.)

Despite the central imagery of terrorims in the episode, 30 Days is one step towards trying to reframe the right wing stranglehold on the American psyche. Showing how wrong the current cognitive scaffolding in American thought really is.

Both the Muslim episode and a film called After 30 Days as a Muslim with an interview with Morgan Spurlock and Dave Stacy can be found on YouTube.

But this battle can only be fought piece for piece. From an awards ceremony featured after the interview, Spurlock brings the issue to the forefront,

[W]e managed to reignite a debate that, to me, resonates as much in the nation today as it did hundreds of years ago. What does it mean to be an American? In post 9/11 America, we have become a nation divided; a nation divided by race, by religion by belief, and country of origin. A divide that is further perpetuated by biased news gathering and biased news reporting. What this show has managed to accomplish is amazing. By showing the simple actions of honest people we have stirred a dialog that is not rooted in Red state Blue state rhetoric, that is not a soapbox for policy or politics, but is something missing from today’s television landscape, the real voice of American citizens.

Dave Stacy will defend the Islamic faith in the future because his frame of the religion was radically altered. Some of the people who have watched this show will understand that the simplistic model of Islam hammered into the minds of the heartland, might not be as simple as one would like. Others will have shifted slightly.

This minor shift – this one small step – is reframing. Reframing works – one mind at a time.

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