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PIRC has been independently funded by individuals and foundations since 1972.
Over the past five years, we have worked for a more connected, aligned and effective civil society through Common Cause, Campaign Lab and a number of other initiatives. We’ve published reports, created toolkits and run hundreds of workshops and training sessions for charities, think tanks, trade unions, artists and grassroots activists. And we’re eternally grateful for all the collaborations, support, and inspirations we’ve had on this journey!
Now, we’re developing a new branch of work and we’re hoping to be able to draw on, build on, and further strengthen these collaborations to create something great …
The Open Framing Project* seeks to give civil society powerful, participatory tools to change cultural stories and achieve lasting, transformational social change.
President Nixon famously said, “I am not a crook”.
With those 5 words, he managed to reinforce the idea, in the minds of millions of Americans, that he was, in fact, a crook. What he should have said is “I am an honest man”. When he used the word ‘crook’, he was parroting the language of his opponents, and simply reinforcing that negative association in people’s minds.
This is the first communications trap, which I call the…Read more
Giving to charity is supposed to be a good thing. That is pretty uncontroversial, most people accept that. But what about the word itself? What associations does it bring to mind? And most importantly, are these associations actually helpful to your cause?
The world outside Wakada—our world—is rife with poverty, violence, oppression, fear, corporate power. Wakanda cannot remain immune to this forever.
The beliefs that maintain oppression and violence are widespread and common. But there’s another set of widely-held core beliefs where we see the potential for change. These beliefs sit side by side: toxic and oppressive, liberatory and compassionate. We may all hold these contradictory beliefs to some degree.
The choice—for Wakanda, and for us—is which set of beliefs we should build on.
What follows are the key lessons we learn on this journey.
“We’re not going to make it!” “Keep going.”
Appeal to people’s better selves 1
What are people like? Do we have natural, fixed characteristics, and if so are they nasty or nice?
The way we think about other people is important because these beliefs shape our expectations of others, how we treat others, and what we think is the appropriate response when things go wrong.
What do people believe about human nature?
Human nature is selfish and competitive
People will always be out for their own gain, and in conflict with each other. Cooperation might exist, but usually between people with a shared interest, characteristic or identity that unites them against some other group: there will always be an us and them. This belief simmers beneath the origin story of Wakanda, the constant wars of the early tribes and the outside world. Wakanda continues to hide its existence because of the perceived inevitability that it will end up in competition and war with the rest of the world if they know of its rich resources. Finally, this belief becomes the argument for finally showing their true face to the world through going to war with the oppressors when Erik comes to the throne.
“Soon it will be the conquerors and the conquered. I’d rather be the former.”
Human nature is caring and cooperative
People are mostly nice. We evolved as social animals and so are naturally cooperative; we all have some essential goodness; or simply a vaguely humanist belief in each other. This belief has a shadow, however, as it doesn’t adequately explain why bad things happen: therefore requiring bad apples to counter the good eggs. We see this dynamic play out in T’Challa’s understanding of his father: a man he idolises, who has become a caricature of the ‘benevolent leader’. When T’Challa discovers that his father killed his brother, leaving his young child to fend for himself, his feelings switch in an almost binary way. He is now a bad man: and we never see forgiveness of this.
“You were wrong! You were all wrong!”
Humans are a product of the environment
People are complex: neither bad nor good, their values, characters, behaviours are all shaped by experiences of society. Erik Killmonger Stevens is the best kind of villain because he perfectly embodies this complexity. His anger is righteous: stemming from his father’s brutal murder and witnessing the global oppression of black people. And he is also capable of love, joy, and appreciation of beauty. As he lies dying, he talks of his father’s accounts of the Wakandan sunset. T’Challa shows him forgiveness and compassion, and they watch the sunset together before Erik’s death.
So how should we frame human nature?
If we believe other people are all out for themselves, we are more likely to respond in kind: competitively, selfishly and without trust. If we think people are mostly good, we vilify those who don’t conform.
If we understand humans as having capacity for both good and bad within us, we see that we should treat each other with compassion, and appeal to that within each other.
Erik thought it was too late for him. But it needn’t be too late for the rest of us.
Promote an expansive, diverse ‘us’ 2
If we want change, who do we want it for, and why?
We are often closed and exclusive about who we believe we should care about. This ‘us and them’ mentality is pervasive, and it’s in this mindset we meet Wakanda.
Who do people think we should care about?
OTHERING: Caring only for people like us
An exclusive understanding of the ‘we’, often implicitly (or explicitly) framed hierarchically in terms of particular identities, such as nation or ethnicity. There’s often an ‘uncivilised other’ posing a threat (security, pollution, contagion) that ‘we’ must protect ourselves against. There are many traditional voices arguing that Wakanda should be for Wakanda—from T’Chaka to the Tribal Council—it underpins their centuries-long isolationism. W’Kabi is often the voice of this belief.
“You let the refugees in, they bring their problems with them.”
CHARITY: Caring for those that deserve our help
Power and wealth disparities are natural, but those higher up the social ladder can help those lower down if (and it’s a big if) they are worthy. We show care for others with handouts, not changing structures. Nakia expresses this belief. She believes Wakanda is special—”we are strong”—but that there is a moral obligation to help those more needy outside of the country.
“Wakanda is strong enough to help others and protect itself.”
SOLIDARITY: Standing together
A belief in a bigger ‘we’, across borders and identities. It sees that power is not held equally at the moment, that this is historically based, and this could be changed through working together to demand something different. It is through the fights of both Erik and Nakia that this belief is finally taken into the mainstream arena by T’Challa (skip to the end). Weep.
“Ain’t all people your people?”
So how should we frame our relationship to others?
Othering is divisive and creates marginalisation and conflict. Charity doesn’t address the structures that maintain inequality and injustice.
We should talk about solidarity, interdependence, and the structures that maintain division.
Ultimately, T’Challa and the Wakandans find that maintaining their isolation has been built on violence. Keeping it up isn’t morally or practically sustainable. To tackle violence and oppression needs people to work together across boundaries and borders.
Call on collective responsibility 3
Whose fault is it when things go wrong or people have a bad time? And who’s responsible for fixing it?
We all have ideas about who is to blame for society’s problems and who is responsible for fixing them. These beliefs represent some of the core tensions in Wakanda’s journey.
What do people believe about responsibility?
All problems and solutions are down to individual responsibility and choice. If someone is doing well, it’s because they have worked hard; if someone is having a hard time, they must have done something to deserve it. In Wakanada, unlike in the UK, this belief doesn’t shine through strongly. But we see hints of it in T’Challa’s need to be a hero and the responsibility he feels, in particular, for his father’s death and for the future of Wakanda. M’Baku uses his inability to protect his father to taunt him, implying that he was to blame for the situation.
“[He] could not keep his own father safe.”
People in power are responsible for problems and their solutions. This belief is often particularly muddled. We may place a lot of responsibility at the doors of the powerful for the problems we face and for finding solutions. We may be really mistrustful of those in power, yet we may also think that it is only through institutional and elite power that change happens. Erik gives life to this conflicted belief: he blames the Wakandan powers for his own situation and for not stepping in to fight against oppression in the rest of the world. He doesn’t trust T’Challa or the Tribal Council, but he also believes that it is only through these power structures that he can make change.
“Is this your king? … He supposed to protect you?”
We all have a role to play in the creation of the type of society we live in: not alone, but as a group. We each contribute to a collective reality, through our own actions as part of a whole: through voting, community action, how we treat each other. This belief shines strong in Wakanda: it’s clear that everyone has a role to play in maintaining the closed utopia. And once T’Challa sees how this utopia has been maintained through violence, such as his uncle’s murder, he sees how this also means they have also played a role in the problems.
“We let the fear of our discovery stop us from doing what is right. No more!… He is a monster of our own making.”
We need to talk about how the system is designed for inequality 4
Why are things the way they are? Is the system fair or not?
There is also some responsibility that lies within the type of system we believe we live in. Whether we claim to understand it or not, we hold a set of assumptions about how it works: whether it’s natural or created, fair or unfair. These conflicting beliefs explain a lot of the different character motivations: from the loyal royalist Oyoke to the angry and vilified Erik.
What do people believe about how the system works?
The belief that there are natural, even moral, differences between groups of people (men and women; rich and poor; black and white). These groups come in a pecking order based on natural characteristics, so inequalities are both inevitable and fair. From when we first see the god Bast gift the heart-shaped herb to the Panther King, we understand that there is a natural hierarchy in this world. The tribes each have their own roles, the crown is expected to pass from father to son, and it’s Shuri’s natural intelligence that places her in the role of innovative technologist.
“I am loyal to the throne, no matter who sits upon it.”
The belief that we’ve successfully organised our system to ignore natural differences and reward or punish people based purely on merit. Meritocracy means that individuals have to earn their place in society though what they contribute. The natural hierarchy belief is tempered in BP by the need for individual hard work. The crown—while there is a clear expectation of where it will go—requires T’Challa to face potential challenge and fight for it. (Something he ends up doing twice).
“Where is your god now? No powers, no claws, no special suit, oh… just a boy, not fit to lead.”
We have scarce resources. There is only so much to go around and this is the natural state of affairs. When one group benefits from these resources then another inevitably loses out. This belief seems to underpin the feeling that Wakanda should keep itself—and its resources—to itself.
“If the world found out what we truly are, what we possess, we could lose our way of life.”
The belief that the system has been organised to benefit a small minority, at the expense of the majority. This design is built upon vast power imbalances between global North and South, the genders and classes, and along racial lines. This system is propped up by the choices of today, and by making different choices, we can redesign the system. The scene in the euphemistically-titled ‘Museum of Britain’ (lol) nicely sums this up. The artefacts in the museum have been taken from formally colonised countries, and never returned.
“How do you think your ancestors got this? You think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it like they took everything else?”
Show that change is possible and that people can make it happen 5
Do we believe things can ever change, or are we stuck in a permanent rut? How does it happen, if so?
Our beliefs about change shape how we approach the world. If we see the problems in the world, but don’t think change is possible, we can become fatalistic, demotivated, and self-destructive.
What beliefs do people have about change?
There is no alternative! The system is naturally like this; it doesn’t work any other way. This has been proved by the failure of other systems (such as the fall of communist states or the entrenched nature of racism). Erik is a fierce critic of the system, he wants things to change, but he doesn’t believe that any change will fundamentally shift the rules of the game. Oppression begets oppression: there is no alternative. We get a glimpse into the roots of this when he meets his father after taking the heart-shaped herb: he’s seen a life of suffering and inevitability from a young age.
“Everybody dies… it’s just life around here.”
MARCH OF INEVITABLE PROGRESS
a) Historically, over time, things have got progressively better; people are more tolerant; life expectancy gets better. This is natural progress; b) Technological innovation will solve big problems; c) Market forces and competition, left to their own devices, will sort everything out. It’s implied that the abundance of vibranium has facilitated a peaceful and comfortable transition into a hyper-modern, tolerant utopia in Wakanda.
“This never gets old.”
We’ve made changes in the past (abolition, labour rights, women’s emancipation, LGBTI rights), we’re making change now, and these changes come about through human & collective endeavour. There are numerous references to struggle in BP: Erik talks about slavery, the civil rights movement, and as he takes his place in the Tribal Council, he launches straight into his plans for violent revenge and resistance against the imperial powers of the outside world. Nakia believes that human rights are worth fighting for, and doesn’t understand T’Challa’s perceived inaction. And Shuri is symbolic of the human work behind technological progress.
“Just because it works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.”
Frame like a Wakandan #
The Wakandan journey takes us from where we in the outside world find ourselves now—divided and closed, building barriers, relying on those in power even though we have no faith in them—to a place in which unity and change are possible.
What can we learn about how we need to frame social change if we want to see a more sustainable, equitable and democratic world?
All of the lessons are contained within T’Challa’s speech to the UN: the pinnacle of our journey with the Wakandans.
“We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us… But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after each other as if we were one single tribe.”
Appeal to people’s best selves. T’Challa doesn’t speak to the competitive sides of the audience, or their individual interests: he appeals to their better nature.
Promote an expansive, diverse ‘us’. “…as if we were one single tribe.”
Call on collective responsibility. “We must find a way to look after each other…”
Talk about how the system is designed not to work. Talking about “building” is all about creation and design. T’Challa is talking about two types of system, and how humans can choose to build one or the other.
Show that change is possible and that people can make it happen. He points to the problems, the solutions, and directs the audience to their own role to play.
When we get the framing wrong, we can unwittingly strengthen the ways of thinking that justify the broken system we have at the moment. In doing so, we can marginalise (like in the case of Erik), and while we may find limited solutions (such as peace in Wakanda), it is neither sustainable nor equitable. But when we work together and we get the framing right: we can bring new worlds into being.
Social movements across Europe face some common framing challenges. We asked over 200 campaigners—environmentalists, feminists, anti-racists, new economists, and many more—what we’re up against, analysed the trends and pulled together the key lessons.
If you’re part of a group organising for social change, we’re sure you’ll be familiar with times of fear, grief and despair in the face of the rhetoric from those in power in the UK, Europe, and across the Atlantic. But then we see bright flashes of hope in social movements changing the story: Black Lives Matter and #MeToo; activists refusing to lie down in the face of horrendous corporate and state failures, such as in the case of the Grenfell activists or the women’s strikes in Spain and Poland; and campaigners worldwide fighting tirelessly for the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
We at PIRC spent the past year talking with activists and advocates from across Europe about framing.* In workshops and interviews, we dug into the framing challenges and opportunities our movements are facing.
It’s just seven days until the polling stations close.
Depending on your constitution (and/or the most recent poll you have seen), you might feel we are living in exciting (or terrifying) political times, or you might agree with Brenda in Bristol that there is just too much politics these days. Either way, it’s important not to lose sight of the long-term changes we are working towards. Knowing how to communicate effectively is a key part of creating this change.
At PIRC, we work with others to explore how to best frame the issues we care about (creating a nicer, more equal, happier, greener world). From the varied groups and issues we’ve worked on (including our current work on Framing the Economy), we’ve summarised five things anyone working for a more equitable, democratic and sustainable society should keep in mind when communicating with people in this week before the election (whether you’re out door-knocking, sending your final email campaigns or writing blogs). Read more
Whatever your answer, it’ll shape what you think we should do about it. If you think it’s natural, for example, then perhaps all we can do about it is alleviate suffering rather than get rid of it. Perhaps we shouldn’t do anything about it at all.
Your answer will subsequently have an impact on how effective you are at addressing poverty. Will you introduce incentive schemes because you believe poor people are just not trying hard enough; or higher taxes for the rich because you believe historically there has been an unfair allocation of resources? Do you reduce or increase social benefits, like unemployment or child benefits?
In other words, the way we ‘frame’ poverty has a direct link with our political response.