July 15, 2008
A frame for Mission Dolores
I’ve been reading George Lakoff’s new book, The Political Mind. Lakoff set progressive politicians aback several years ago when he told published Don’t Think of an Elephant. He suggested then that the right had learned a lesson that the left had yet to learn: how to dominate political discussions by the way it frames its arguments. The term “tax relief,” for example, immediately characterizes taxation not as a necessary part of running a democracy but as an affliction that we need relief from. Once the phrase is introduced into a conversation, it is hard to argue against tax cuts.
In The Political Mind, he makes the same point. But he carries the discussion farther, embedding it in explorations that have been made in his own field of cognitive linguistics. Forget about the Old Enlightenment view of rationality, he says. Forget about the idea that
A “rational person,” someone who makes conscious decisions based on logical and unemotional thought processes, doesn’t exist. On the contrary,
In making political points, we use language. Words. That’s where framing comes in.
Words have meaning, of course. But meaning is neither static nor universal. You and I define words according to our own personal contexts — frames. A mother is a female person who feeds you and kisses you good night. Or a mother is a selfish drunk who abandons you in times of crisis.
Our minds connect these rich, lived definitions into even richer metaphors. A caring mother protects her children; the motherland protects its family of citizens. We turn these metaphors into narratives, populated with heroes and villains. We tell other people these stories and they understand, because they have had similar experiences.
Even more important, they understand because a basic human trait is empathy. If we appreciated this,
What happened to competition, to the survival of the fittest? Metaphors, Lakoff says. Faulty metaphors.
I was thinking about this recently when I paid a visit to Mission Dolores. When did you go there last? If it was a while ago, you might discover that it has changed. The old, white building is still there, with its brightly painted place of worship. The old cemetery is still there, with tombstones commemorating Franciscans like Father Francisco Palou and San Franciscans like the executed gambler Charles Cora. But something is different. The mission has been reframed. The cast of characters — Spanish priests, Mexican soldiers, and Indian workers — hasn’t changed. But the meaning of their actions has, giving new importance to the Indians. A plaque, dedicated in June 2001, says,
This is not the first time that a reframing has taken place. Once upon a time, about a hundred years ago, historian Herbert Bolton constructed a frame that portrayed the missions as civilizing agents, with the missionaries teaching backward pupils much-needed lessons:
Bolton’s description was reframed a number of years ago, as people realized that the Indians who inhabited California’s missions had paid a high price for their education. These people, once regarded as needy students, became victims of horrible crimes against humanity:
After that, it took a while for scholars to realize that people who are known only as victims are chained to a subservient identity. A master-victim society is defined solely by power relationships, and neither masters nor victims in it can be regarded as human beings. Scholars may also have begun to wonder what was really going on, in a place occupied by more than a thousand Indians and little more than a hundred Spaniard and Mexicans, a place that was obviously a thriving community. A few years ago the mission was reframed yet again:
The present curator of Mission Dolores, Andrew Galvan, is a descendant of these energetic people. And some of the changes at the mission have taken place under his watch. But Galvan’s appointment is actually a result of the reframing: the description above, was written by his predecessor, Brother Guire Cleary.
A good frame is flexible, expanding to include new elements as they appear. In the case of Mission Dolores, it’s impossible to ignore or erase the harsh treatment that the missionaries levied on the Indian residents. But it is possible to give new meaning to the mission experience, one that emphasizes the humanity of all the participants. Brother Guire concludes his account:
Pride and pain. The height and depth of human lives. Lives filled with emotions that inspire empathy in other human beings. The basis, says George Lakoff, for progressive politics.
Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Friday.
— Copyright Betsey Culp 2008