Reframing the frame:
Peoples Temple and the Power of Words

by Alla V. Tovares

When we use language, we often communicate more than we say. Our accents, vocabulary, patterns of grammar and intonation allow our interlocutors to trace our linguistic biography, revealing such information as where we were born and raised, our family background, etc. Moreover, the words we chose to describe the world around us – people and their actions, places and events – reveal, often unconsciously and unintentionally, our core beliefs and worldviews.

Put another way, words are not neutral. They convey attitudes and come to us saturated with meanings from prior texts and contexts. Many words not only have purely denotative meaning, or a type of meaning that simply identifies something or someone in the world, but they also have connotative, or additional meaning, that reflects emotions, attitudes and value judgments of the speaker or writer.

One way to explain this link between linguistic choices and a system of values and beliefs is through the concept of “frames.” A frame is an abstract notion that refers to a structure of expectations or pre-existing knowledge about people and situations based on prior experience.[1] Frames facilitate, but at the same time they influence how we understand what is being said or written and how we perceive the world in general. For instance, based on our prior experiences, we know that if someone addresses us by our professional title, he or she frames our talk as a formal conversation. Framing shows that in acts of communication people do not “reinvent the wheel,” but instead draw on prior knowledge. In this regard, words serve as “triggers” of a particular set of expectations and frame a situation at hand in a particular way. This explains why communication between people who employ the same words and expressions often goes smoothly: by using similar vocabulary, they evoke shared frames that in turn confirm and reinforce their shared views and beliefs. Accordingly, usage of diverging terms suggests conflicting frames or conflicting interpretations of the situations and people involved. As a result, when frames clash, the parties involved have to work harder to come to an understanding as they have to reframe the situation. As linguist Robin Lakoff observes, “reframing is traumatic, and we resent being forced to do it.”[2]

When someone chooses to refer to members of Peoples Temple as “a cult,” then she or he calls to mind a frame of people who follow someone or something without questioning. Furthermore, the organization itself is framed negatively, as the word “cult” – except when it refers to film or music followers – usually has a negative connotative meaning. On the other hand, people who hold a more nuanced view of Peoples Temple with all its complexities will be “put off” by this term as it does not reflect their framing of this organization and its members. Specifically, by labeling Peoples Temple as “a cult” instead of “a church” or “an organization,” a person imposes his or her negative frame of interpretation and in so doing immediately limits the scope of discussion by forcing someone who does not share this view into a rather frustrating enterprise of reframing.  Furthermore, when someone refers to members of Peoples Temple as a “cult” and “brainwashed,” she or he frames them as deprived of agency and intelligence. In so doing she or he not only dehumanizes them, but also frames them as “others.”

Linguist Dwight Bolinger compared language to a loaded weapon because words have the power to influence our perception of the world through privileging certain points of view and suppressing others. Bolinger and other linguists (e.g., Sapir 1921, Whorf 1941, Foucault 1980)[3] have argued that discourse is not only shaped by the world but also shapes the world around us.  This explains why ideological struggles are reflected in and shaped by the names the persons involved in such struggles choose to call themselves as well as by their refusal to accept the names imposed on them by the outsiders. Naming is a power maneuver, as those who have the power to name have the power to express, and often impose, their views. In other words, naming is a way of establishing control, a way of dividing people into “us” and “them.”

The power of language is often overlooked in everyday discourse. Too often we treat words as mere descriptors of the world around us and disregard their evaluative and formative nature. By choosing a less loaded word, or a word without negative connotative meaning, we can frame people and events in a less judgmental way and in so doing increase our chances of engaging in a more productive and enriching discussion about people and world around us.

Notes

[1] For an in-depth review and analysis of the notion of “frames” in discourse, read Tannen, Deborah. 1993. Framing in Discourse. Oxford University Press.

[2] Lakoff, Robin Tolmach. 2000. The Language War. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California press, p. 48.

[3] Sapir, Edward. 1921. Language. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World; Whorf, Benjamin L. 1941. The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language. In Leslie Spier (ed.), Language, Culture, and Personality: Essays in Memory of Edward Sapir, Menasha, Wisc.: Sapir Memorial Publication Fund, 75-93; Foucault, Michael. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (ed. C. Gordon). New York: Pantheon.

(Alla Tovares teaches Linguistics at Howard University. She can be reached at atovares@gmail.com.)

Last modified on February 17th, 2014.
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