If endangered people are nothing more than tiny candies, trying to save them just seems stupid.
It’s been a while since I’ve talked about framing. In a nutshell, the idea is that people think in metaphors, so if you can influence the metaphor people use to think about some situation, you can shape their thinking about it, possibly without them even realizing it. For example, someone who thinks in terms of a war on drugs will come up with different proposals than someone who is thinking about addiction as an illness. So if you suggest one metaphor or the other with the phrasing of your question, you can change the odds on getting the answer you want.
Like any other communication tactic, framing can be used for good or ill. If you’re teaching, a good metaphor can stick in students’ heads better than a long explanation. And if a metaphor is apt, it can make obvious some connections that might otherwise be confusing. (One of my favorites when I was teaching math was to encourage students to think of mathematics as a language and equations as sentences in that language. Then it becomes obvious that first step in solving any word problem is to translate the paragraph from sentences-in-English to sentences-in-mathematics.)
One uncontroversial metaphor that just about everyone uses (usually without thinking about it) is to talk about life as a journey: We come to forks in the road, the path can be rocky or smooth, two people have a parting of the ways, and so on. We all do this because (1) we’re used to it, and (2) it’s convenient. It’s actually kind of difficult to talk about long-term life issues without using a journey metaphor somehow.
But metaphors also tilt our thinking. The life-is-a-journey metaphor, for example, tilts us towards belief in an afterlife, because journeys have destinations.
Using the wrong metaphor can make your thinking absurd, even if all the steps you take are logical within the frame. A lot of jokes are based on absurdities created by mis-framing some situation. (A comedian was in line at the supermarket behind somebody who was buying a single roll of toilet paper. “What?” he asked. “Are you trying to quit?” The question would make perfect sense if rolls of toilet paper were like packs of cigarettes.)
Metaphors become sinister when people create them in order to encourage and take advantage of these sorts of mistakes. A sinister metaphor can sneak in assumptions that would be either obviously false or too ugly to defend if they had to be explained explicitly.
And that brings us to Skittles.
Monday, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted this image with the comment:
This image says it all. Let’s end the politically correct agenda that doesn’t put America first.
If you stay within the frame, the answer is obvious: Of course you wouldn’t eat a Skittle if there were any chance of getting a poisonous one.
But what assumptions has the Skittles metaphor tried to sneak past you? Implicitly, it says that the refugees themselves are of no consequence: Skittles are inanimate objects that have only momentary significance. The implication is that you might get a brief feeling of sweetness from the thought of rescuing some Syrian from ISIS, but nothing more.
If a few of the refugees become terrorists, though, that’s a huge deal. Because now we’re talking about our lives, not their lives. And because we are Americans, our lives are very, very much more important than theirs. Vox sums up:
The only agenda that will “put America first,” according to Trump, is one that assumes even a tiny risk to Americans outweighs every other consideration. It’s a policy that assumes Americans’ lives are infinitely precious and that Syrians might as well be Skittles, abstract pieces in a calculation of risk.
It’s worth considering how badly this frame clashes with Americans’ self-image as a heroic people. In all our wars (at least since we were “keeping the world safe for democracy” in World War I), we’ve recruited with the idea that our soldiers and sailors risk their lives to save others. The young men and women who have felt that heroic impulse — were they just stupid?
Also, consider the phrase “Syrian refugee problem”. Again, they’re not people, they’re a problem. And this is where you should start noticing that you’ve seen this frame before. Chris Hayes gives you a big hint.
swap in “Jews” for everything Trump and Co says about refugees, Muslims and immigrants it’s immediately clear what they’re doing.
That’s the model for this kind of propaganda: Germany didn’t have Jewish citizens or residents, it had a “Jewish problem“. So the Nazis weren’t abusing people, they were trying to solve a national problem. (No wonder they eventually they came up with a final solution.) They had a poisonous food metaphor too, but it wasn’t candies, it was mushrooms. Nazi writer Julius Streicher (who would be hanged at Nuremberg in 1946) published it in 1938 in a children’s book called The Toadstool.
Just as a single poisonous mushrooms can kill a whole family, so a solitary Jew can destroy a whole village, a whole city, even an entire Volk.
When you understand what has been left out of a metaphor or hidden by it, sometimes you can put it back in. That’s what Eli Bosnick did in a Facebook post that (last time I checked) had been shared 47,000 times. He brought back the point of taking in refugees: Quite likely, you are saving their lives. If every Skittle you eat saves a life, then the calculation changes for everybody with even the slightest amount of heroism in their souls.
I would GORGE myself on skittles. I would eat every single fucking skittle I could find. I would STUFF myself with skittles. And when I found the poison skittle and died I would make sure to leave behind a legacy of children and of friends who also ate skittle after skittle until there were no skittles to be eaten. And each person who found the poison skittle we would weep for. We would weep for their loss, for their sacrifice, and for the fact that they did not let themselves succumb to fear but made the world a better place by eating skittles.
That’s what heroic people do. I don’t know if I have that much heroism in me, to gorge with the knowledge that it would probably kill me, but be worth it in the larger scheme of things. Even so, though, I also don’t think I could just pass the bowl to the next person and say “No thanks.” I may not feel as heroic as Bosnick, but I also don’t think I have it in me to be that selfish.
Trump Jr. does, though. And when he looks at the rest of us, those who would eat at least two or three Skittles before passing the bowl along, he thinks we’re being stupid. What kind of idiot, after all, takes even a tiny risk to help others?