One of the easiest ways to change people’s minds about a political or social issue is to reframe it in such a way that the unfairness (the inequality or the deviation from the norm) shifts to the other party. Let’s talk about race. If I say blacks are treated unfairly because they are profiled by police, people assume they are poorer or less educated, I am framing a social context from the standpoint that the norm set to white experience, and the black experience which is in these respects worse is the deviation from the norm. In framing it this way, I place all the emphasis on black people and situate the problem there.
What’s in Your Knapsack?
But in a now classic article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” Peggy McIntosh reframes the issue from disadvantage of blacks to the over-privilege of whites. She shifts the underlying assumption from white experience being the norm to black experience being the norm. In the article, she describes this privilege as items in an invisible knapsack that white people bring with them. For example:
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about civilization, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
When framed in this way that is on its face is factually true it becomes difficult to argue with the overall point that the privilege exists. Since the publication of the “Invisible Knapsack” article, a number of similar articles appeared that similarly reframed the disadvantage of a minority or subordinated group as the unfair advantage of the majority or dominant group. Men, Christians, suburbanites, thin people, etc were all said to carry around their own invisible knapsacks with chock full of little social advantages.
And now that the boundaries of marriage are a political issue , an article titled “Monogamous Privilege” has appeared that captures both the debate over gay marriage as well as the popular interest in polyamory as illustrated by the success of TV shows like “Big Love” or “Sister Wives”:
9) It is not generally understood that I am unfit to raise children because of my relationship orientation.
10) I can feel certain that my government will not suddenly remove my children to a foster home based on my relationship orientation.
11) As a responsible and loving parent, I won’t lose my children in a custody battle because of my relationship orientation.
12) As a responsible and loving adult, I can adopt children without lying about my relationship orientation.
13) I can be certain that my children won’t be harassed because of my relationship orientation.
The problem with something like polyamory is that it is very difficult to argue that it is not a lifestyle choice, unlike sexual orientation. So at most the polyamory/polygamy debate centers around complications, inconveniences, and even frustrations that are the consequences of choices. In other words, this is an invisible backpack that anyone can put on.
This Invisible Knapsack Contains Another Knapsack
But there is an inherent risk in this kind of argumentation, this kind of frame control, which is that of recasting the perceived advantage to a burden. For example, how many bitter, frustrated men wearing the invisible knapsack of male privilege perceive women to have an invisible knapsack of their own, in which they are privileged with “only having to look pretty to get ahead”, “having the option to quit their job after marriage”, “having the upper hand in dating”?
In other words, once one group is said to have a privilege, the other group is immediately said to have their own privilege of not having the burdens that attend that first privilege. White privilege become white burden: “You will never be accused of oppressing someone else,” “You will never be accused of discrimination,” etc.
The fact is that is never ends, and the fundamental lesson here is that frame control never really works. It’s a manipulation of an already sloppy argument, a gimmick to get people to see things your way. But that presumes that your way is the right way, even though this is precisely the thing you need to prove. Frame control is simply bad logic, altering assumption but trying to retain the same conclusions with the same facts.
There is no difference between an invisible knapsack and a non-existent one.