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Framing Pagan Pride

It's almost Litha and that means that we're only a few months away from October, or, as I like to call it, the Month of Bad Framing.  October is, of course, Pagan Pride Month, the month when many Pagans create Pagan Pride Events.  And it's also the month when many regional tv news programs, local papers, and other media do their once-a-year, "Hey, Look!  It's Halloween!  Real Witches!" pieces.  To do that, they call up some local Pagan and ask a few questions about "real Witchcraft."

So what does bad framing have to do with this?  Sure, taking your pictures to the local big box store may result in some poorly-matted paintings and some cheap bits of plywood slapped together around your son's wedding photograph or that Muncha poster that you bought on-line.  (One of the best bits of advice that I ever got was from a dear friend who was an art teacher.  She told me to buy cheap art and expensive frames.  She was right.)  But that's not the kind of bad framing that can do real damage to the Pagan community and undermine the best-laid plans for your local Pagan Pride event.

The kind of framing we'll be discussing involves the way that rhetoric can shape people's views on an almost subconscious level.  Wikipedia says that, "in the field of communication, framing defines how news media coverage [can] shape mass opinion. To be specific, framing effects refer to behavioral or attitudinal outcomes that are due to how a given piece of information is being framed in public discourse."  (So, there you are.  Sister Michael Anthony would have rapped their knucles with a ruler for using the word that they were defining in the definition, but I think they get the message across.)

I'm a lawyer and we make our living framing arguments for agencies, juries, judges.  Thus, a criminal lawyer may make the focus of her argument whether or not the government has met its burden of proof by showing beyond a reasonable doubt that her client committed each specific element of the crime charged.  She may want to direct the conversation away from, say, her client's criminal past or the fact that he was seen selling a painting shortly after the museum heist.  (There's an old saying in the law:  "When the facts are on your side, pound the facts.  When the law is on your side, pound the law.  And when neither is on your side, pound the table."  You'd be surprised how often it works.)  Similarly, rich people attempting to garner support for a measure that would cut taxes on the unearned wealth passed from one family member to another may ask people to oppose "death taxes."  Those opposed to such taxes could label them "Paris Hilton Payouts."  Polluters may want to shape the national dialogue around "job creation," rather than around the impacts of global warming. 

At times, framing can get quite cynical, although even very cynical framing often works.  Thus, people who cheer at the notion of a cancer victim with no insurance being left to die can still consider themselves "pro-life" and George Bush can propose a "Clear Skies" initiative that would vastly increase pollution.  Attempts to keep people of color away from the polls are framed as "voter fraud" measures and companies selling comestibles made of fat, salt, and high-fructose corn syrup assure you that, if you "get the facts," you'll be "in for a sweet surprise."  Obama can plan to govern from the right of Eisenhower, but he sells himself to young Americans based upon a hip, Youtube-based campaign of "Change" and "Yes, We Can."  Think of the way that Dominionists frame their attempts to deny medical care to women, even those not of their faith, as an "assault on religious freedom."

Cynical?  Yes.  Effective?  Often. 

You get the idea.

But what does that have to do with Paganism, Pagan Pride Events, interviews with the local paper just before Halloween? 

Do you remember Christine O'Donnell?  If you do, the first thing that you remember about her is likely to be her campaign commercial insisting, "I'm not a Witch."  She may have had radical positions on a variety of issues.  She may have had experiences that she thought would make her a good legislator.  But she will forever be remembered as "that woman who was involved somehow in Witchcraft or something."  If you're as old as I am, you remember sitting around the family tv and watching Richard Nixon insist that, "I am not a crook."  And, of course, to this day, he's remembered not so much for opening relations with China, for price controls, or for founding the EPA.  He's remembered as a crook.  As George Lakoff has explained in his brilliant (short, available at your library, and very readable (OK, I'm begging here)) book, Don't Think of an Elephant, whenever you attempt to negate a frame, you reinforce the frame.  Think of the kid who announces -- loudly and for no reason -- when Mom walks into the kitchen, "I wasn't taking cookies from the cookie jar."  Think of the guy you meet one night at a bar who goes out of his way to tell you that his divorce was totally not his fault. 

Now, spend even a few minutes scanning stories about recent Pagan Pride Events and you'll note how often the organizers start out not with their own framing, but by attempting to negate framing.  At least 85% (by my completely unscientific survey) of the time, they begin by saying something such as, "We're having a Pagan Pride Event to show that Witches don't worship the devil.  Witches never eat babies.  We aren't evil.  We don't place curses on people.  We don't dance naked under the Moon or do spells. "  About half-way through their denials, they move from denying things that are pretty demonstrably not true (We actually don't eat babies or worship the devil.  The devil is a Christian entity, necessary within their dualistic system as the opposite of Jesus.  Witches don't worship Jesus or the devil.  We don't have a dualistic system.) to denying things that are pretty demonstrably true (We do (some of us) dance naked under the Moon and do spells.) which can only hurt the speaker's credibility.  But the speaker's credibility is less of a problem than what's just happened to all of the rest of us. 

Once again, in the mind of the audience, Witches have been associated with the devil, etc.  Sure the speaker was trying to negate that framing, just as Christine O'Donnell was trying to negate the notion that she'd "dabbled into Witchcraft."  But Lakoff's right:  what the reader/listener walks away with is the notion that somehow Witches have something to do with the devil.  Those Pagan folks sure do sound defensive, don't they?  Like the kid who slips his hands behind his back and announces, unbidden, "I didn't take any cookies!" 

The website for Pagan Pride says that Pagan Pride Events involve, "Press releases and media coverage of our events in order to present the truth about Paganism to our communities, refute common misconceptions, and draw political attention to Paganism in order to try to prevent legislative discrimination against Pagans."  So I can see where the organizers of local Pagan Pride events get confused.  Part of their mission is to "refute common misconceptions," so doesn't it make sense to come right out and attack, upfront, some of the common misconceptions about Pagans?  Well, no.  No, it doesn't.  Because that only reinforces the negative framing.

So what's a conscientious Pagan Pride organizer to do?  How to "refute common misconceptions" without invoking negative frames?

Stop for a moment, if you will, and consider the (in terms of social change) amazingly rapid revision of attitudes in America wrought by our many QUILTBG sisters and brothers over the last 15 years or so.  That didn't occur because of speeches about how QUILTBG people aren't (no, really, they really, really aren't!) evil, degenerate, sex-crazed, etc.  It happened because America got to see sympathetic (generally) gay and lesbian characters on tv, in their own living rooms, and got to feel comfortable with them, to like them, to feel as if they understood them.  It happened because, as people came out of the closet, Americans realized that their really cool cousin of whom they'd always been fond, or those two nice ladies next door who always dog sit for them, or their competent co-workers were QUILTBAG.  In other words, they were presented with a positively-framed message about those people and, gradually, without any long speeches that invoked negative framing, they changed their views.

This concept isn't at all foreign to magic workers.  We all know that if we want to bring more health into our lives, we don't craft a spell to "get rid of 20 pounds"; we craft a spell to "bring exuberant health into my life."  We focus on what we want, not on what we want to get rid of.

So what does that mean for the press release you're going to issue for your Pagan Pride event?  Well, first, of course, it means that you won't attempt to refute negative frames, at least not directly.  What you will do is focus on the reasons that Pagans have to feel (duh) proud.  So, for example, you might say:

"On Sunday, October 28th at 11:00 am at Local Little Park, the Localville Pagan Citizen Consortium will be hosting a Pagan Pride Event.  All are welcome.  Local Pagans include Freddy Fireman, who recently received an award from Localville for his demonstration of courage when he ran into a burning apartment to save two children; Mary Marine, just back from her fourth tour of duty in the Middle East; and Donna Doctor, who recently obtained a grant to study the impact of pets on the health of Localville children.  Barnie Businessowner, this year's chair of the the Pagan Pride event, explained that "Pagans have a long and proud history that includes the development of philosophy, science, democracy, art, theatre, agriculture, and music.  This year's Pagan Pride event will feature displays focused on each of these areas, as well as food, vendors, music by local Pagan musicians, tarot readings, and information booths about our local Druids, Wiccans, Heathens, and  Shamans.  From 1:00 pm until 4:00 pm, we'll have special activities for Pagan families, including a workshop on how to raise responsible Pagan children and a demonstration of car-seat safety, sponsored by Localville's Local Fire Department.  Kids are encouraged to participate in our Circle Scouts nature hunt.  Those who can afford to do so are urged to bring a canned good to donate to Localville's Food Bank."

OK, fine.  That press release focuses on positive messages that, almost without trying, emphasize that local Pagans are good citizens and that Paganism has contributed to our society.  But what if the reporter asks, "But don't you all worship the devil?"

That's when you need to do something that you've seen innumerable talking heads do on tv when they get a question that they don't like.  You need to (1) dispel with (if possible) gentle ridicule and (2) move back onto YOUR message.  So, you get the "don't you worship the devil question" in response to your carefully-crafted positive message.  You say, "Nancy Newperson, you and I know that those ridiculous assertions are unfounded, unfair, and completley untrue.  Pagans have no relationship to the devil; he's a Christian entity.  As noted in our press release, local Pagans are decorated firefighters and soldiers, doctors, and community business-owners.  Our event will focus on Paganism's proud history, including the development of, for example, agriculture.  And you'll see that if you come at 2:00 for Brenda Beekeeper's demonstration of how honey can heal wounds or at 3:00 for Henry Herbalist's discussion of how locally-grown herbs can give your meals a healthy makeover without salt or sugar.  By the way, did I mention that . . . ."  And if Nancy still doesn't get the message, and comes back with, "Well Father Frightful, the pastor at St. Camillus, says that Witches . . . ." then it's time to say, "Of course, Father Frightful is simply spreading misinformation.  Pagans are contributing members of the community with a long proud history.  That's what we'll be celebrating at our Pagan Pride Event.  Whoops, I've got to take a call.  It's been great talking with you."  You weren't going to get anything positive out of that interview, anyway, so it's time to cut your losses.  There's a reason why Republicans only talk to Fox News.

Here are a few other suggestions for those (wonderful, brave, dedicated) souls engaged in the (often thankless and very important) task of organizing Pagan Pride events.

(1)  Practice.  If there's any chance that you'll be interacting live with members of the media, you need to practice your message and how you'll field unhelpful questions while staying "on-message."  If you were my client and you were going to be interviewed on Sixty Minutes or deposed by opposing counsel, you can jolly well bet we'd have discussed likely questions and practiced (and practiced, and practiced) appropriate responses.  (If you ever get deposed (I hope you don't) the first thing that your lawyer will do is hold up a pen and say, "Do you know what this is?"  If you answer, "It's a pen," you'll get to practice over and over until you understand that the answer to that questions is, "Yes."  But a deposition isn't a news interview where the answer is, "Sure.  And, by the way, did I mention to you that Pagans also invented poetry, which we'll feature at 3:00 when . . . .")

(2)  You may answer interview questions maybe once or twice a year if you're a very popular Pagan.  Nancy Newperson asks people questions every day of her life.  Thus, no matter how brilliant you are, you're not likely to win.  The one silly, obviously joking, completely off-topic, clearly ironic remark that you make is the one that is going to show up, out of context, on the evening news.  Don't get comfortable and don't get cute.

(3)  Nonverbal cues are, as we Witches (familiar with Younger Self) know, important.  Are you dressed and groomed in a way that makes you look credible?  If your message is that local Pagans are regular members of the community, appearing with all of your tats on view, draped in a Celtic-knot batik tablecloth, wearing way too much jewelry and eye make-up, surrounded by your 13 cats, may, just maybe, not be the best way to sell your message.  (I agree with you 100%; it's wrong for people to reject your message because you have tattoos and 13 cats.  But what's your core message here?  Are you advocating for tattoos or are you trying to convince the skeptical that Pagans are just normal folks?  If you represent all local Pagans, perhaps you owe it to them to tone down the eye make-up that completely expresses who you really are.  One issue at a time.)  Are you standing in front of a bookcase (to look credible) or a sign that announces your event?  If you're being interviewed about your new book, are you holding a copy of it?  Is the web address for your event clearly visible for those who want more info?

Framing is simply a method of presenting your message in a way that makes it likely that your audience will agree with you.  Invoking negative framing is nothing more nor less than playing the game on your opponent's playing field, with hir dice, using hir rules, and a referee of hir choosing. 

We Pagans should have too much pride to fall for that.

You can read additional posts about framing and other Pagan topics at

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HecateDemeter is a woman, a Witch, a mother, a grandmother, an ecofeminist, a lawyer, a gardener, a reader, a writer, and a priestess of the Great Mother Earth.


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