What’s in your Invisible Knapsack? A Lesson in Frame Control

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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. 

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28 Responses to What’s in your Invisible Knapsack? A Lesson in Frame Control

  1. Minerva says:

    I never was big on political correctness but now I’m really starting to get tired of it. Everyone has hurty places, get over it. A society that is forced to take everyone’s baggage into account gets nowhere.

    • philtrum says:

      The meaning of the phrase “political correctness” is incredibly unclear. It seems to mean “taking into account the feelings of people who are not me in ways that I personally find onerous.” There’s no intelligent way to oppose or support a proposition so vague.

      • Balsamred says:

        I think originally it was meant to be an acknowledgement of the idea that the words we use affect how we treat people, and that care should be taken that one is not furthering discrimination with the words one uses (if one’s intention is to avoid furthering discrimination, that is.) And it’s hard to object to that. Of course some people took it too far, and some people think it’s an infringement of their inaliable right to make racist jokes.

        • philtrum says:

          I am too young to remember the origin of “politically correct”: was it ever used in a positive way?

          For as long as I can remember the phrase (since about 1993), it’s been used negatively, or as a shield against criticism of one’s views. “It isn’t politically correct to say this, but black people are stupid” means “Black people are stupid, it’s a fact, and if you claim to disagree with me I’ll know you’re just lying to suck up to authority.”

          • xylokopos says:

            Maybe I can help out a bit here, as someone who did not have english as his mother tongue and started learning it in the mid 80s – political correctness was introduced into my vocabulary as something ridiculous from the very beginning. I was given to understand pretty much from the very beginning that a) it’s about euphemisms, b)it’s about politicians muddling issues and talking bollocks and c)it’s tied to the – back then – rise of the frivolous litigation as a national passtime for americans.

            You’re welcome.

    • Fifi says:

      I’m not big on “political correctness” but that’s because it’s simply hiding racism, sexism, etc under a polite veneer (it’s analogous to Christians who say “fudge” instead of “fuck”, they and we all know they really meant “fuck”). It’s implicitly dishonest. People who respect others don’t need to be “politically correct”s, they just treat others as equally human and with respect.

      That said, because so many people don’t like to recognize thee advantages/privileges they were born into, it was and is important to have things like labour laws, scholarships for minorities and poorer kids (rich kids get subsidized by their parents, who may or may not have made their fortune via slavery or exploitation of the poor), sexual discrimination and hiring policies that start to equalize the “old white guys only” hiring policies of the days of yore, etc. Just because you find this annoying, and dislike being held accountable for being racist/sexist or whatever (it’s not like you can’t be that way and treat people like shit, there’ll just be consequences now), doesn’t mean that it should change because it rubs up against one of your ouchy places and is an irritant to you. (To use your own terminology.)

      Sure there are all kinds of people who miss the point – most of them being people who don’t want to acknowledge their own privileges and just how greatly they’ve played into their own success (or less dismal failure). In these I include ridiculous academics that want to change every “he” to “her” like some form of linguistic magic (focusing on words rather than actions or even reality) and whiny old white guys who are all annoyed they can’t use their power to get some young girl ass or to vent their racism on some kid who’s just trying to get through school (along with all the people who whine about PC and how oppressed/confused they are by this vague attempt to give others a bit more of a chance than they had historically). None of these people’s ridiculous and self-involved whining negates just how important it was to start recalibrating laws, institutional behaviour, etc. It’s amazing how a tiny swing of the pendulum towards this makes all those with historical privilege go on about how unfair it is and how oppressed they’re being!

      • xylokopos says:

        “rich kids get subsidized by their parents, who may or may not have made their fortune via slavery or exploitation of the poor”

        well, unless the parents in question are 200-year olds, it is kinda unlikely that they made money importing slaves.

        • Fifi says:

          xylopos – There are plenty of modern day business practices that are tantamount to slavery – didn’t the Feds just bust a bunch of people for using what are essentially indentured servants on farms in the US? Not to worry, there seem to be plenty of politicians in the US who want to get rid of that pesky minimum wage and those annoying workers’ rights that mean so much US industry has been moved to countries more amenable to exploitation of the general population.

          http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/04/21/us-farm-companies-charged-with-human-trafficking/

          Historically, most of the people who benefited from owning Black slavery in the US didn’t do so by importing slaves, they did so by buying slaves and using them on their plantations. This wealth was passed down from generation to generation. So, yes, there still exist families in the US and elsewhere whose fortunes were built on slavery in the US and who essentially still benefit from their family having been slave owners. And, yes, there are still people whose parents essentially made their fortunes via slavery, just not in the US anymore (most of the time).

    • SArahburman says:

      The cure to political correctness: http://goo.gl/obiC

  2. Dan Dravot says:

    The knapsack metaphor has value, at least if you keep it factually accurate. There is value in seeing things from inside the other guy’s shoes. Sure, you get into trouble when you declare “OK, this is the new normative, fuck you.” Duh. So don’t do that! The insight there is that it goes both ways, and you don’t already know everything. You won’t make any friends demanding that the other guy respect that, while refusing to respect it in return. But then again, not everybody’s out to make friends.

  3. Though the term “invisible knapsack” is meant somewhat ironically: it’s not actually invisible. And everyone knows what’s in that knapsack. The problem is that many people have such a knapsack and don’t even know it; they are unaware to what extent the carefully maintained identity that they have, signaled and coded by objects and relationships, is mostly knapsack. They’re in it.

  4. barrkel says:

    “Frame control” is important because there is no subjective truth, and objective truth is impossible to achieve outside of things like mathematics. Only by getting multiple perspectives, multiple subjective narratives, can you reduce your error in estimating the truth. “Frame control” adjusts your perspective. Logic doesn’t come into it; logic from faulty premises gives faulty conclusions. “Frame control” can help give you better premises.

  5. philtrum says:

    The problem with something like polyamory is that it is very difficult to argue that it is not a lifestyle choice, unlike sexual orientation.

    But then, having sex is a choice, which is why many conservative religious groups hold that gays and lesbians are “called” to be celibate.

    To the extent that people in poly relationships are deemed unfit parents, etc., because they are poly, I think the writer of that list has a pretty solid argument.

  6. DJames says:

    DAMN. Pastabagel finally hits one out of the park. Or out of my knapsack, at least.

    • Tiburon. says:

      Seconded. The only way to get out of the Victim Olympics is to recognize its inherent hypocrisy. Anyone can complain about the burdens they face and the privilege those of other race/gender/orientation/etc. have.

      The more interesting question, to me, is the intent: why, exactly, are we running around in circles, trying to figure out who’s got it worse? Does this bring us closer to a solution? Where does it take us? Nowhere – all it does is draw the battle lines a little deeper, push away reasonable people who may have different opinions.

      The purpose is not trying to bring about some kind of epiphany, some eye-opening experience; the purpose is the inculcation of guilt, the continued recognition of some fundamental difference between man and man – the very process that deepens such issues.

      Ultimately, such frame control arguments are only made by people who don’t care about the issue actually being framed, who actually profit from its continued relevance and intransigency. It’s much harder to play at semantic obstructionism when you actually, deep-down care about solving the problem you claim to care about.

      “For all the un(der)privileged, when do you win? White Christian male holocaust?”

      They’re winning every time the problem gets a little deeper.

      • philtrum says:

        I do not understand this. How do you propose people should deal with issues, if you think speaking up and saying “actually, I have a problem that you may not have thought about, could you help me with this” is a sign that you don’t care about the problem or want things to get better?

  7. JohnJ says:

    As an ugly person, I have to point out that society’s biggest invisible knapsack goes to beautiful people. Beautiful people are over-represented in the media. They get more positive attention wherever they go. And they also are more likely to get hired and get more and bigger raises. Plus, they have a lot more sex.

    I’m tired of being discriminated against!

  8. DJames says:

    Exactly right, JohnJ!

    Fun anecdote: I once worked at a major university’s business school, which gave me direct access to every MBA students’ scholarship records.

    How do you think scholarship awards and average dollar size played out among demographics?

    Almost half of white male students received some form of scholarship. A small minority received significant amounts (more than 50% fully funded). None received full rides.

    All female students received scholarships. The median GMAT score (quantitative) for all female students was 30 points lower than the median for all males. The average scholarship awarded to female students was 40% higher than the average to male students. 35% of female students received more than a full ride (covered some living expenses, books, etc.).

    All minority (non white) male students received scholarships. Median GMAT quant score was equivalent to white male students. Media scholarship received was higher for American minorities, but lower for foreign minorities. Not sure how that worked out, exactly. All scholarships for minority male students were in the 80th percentile or higher for all male students.

    Anyway, the point is: that’s all fine and good. Needful, yes? Sure thing.

    I guess I’m looking for the place/time where everyone’s knapsacks are visible—or maybe we’re knapsack-free? For all the un(der)privileged, when do you win? White Christian male holocaust?

    Probably. Louis CK says so, and he’s as close to a priest as I’ve got.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TG4f9zR5yzY

    • Balsamred says:

      For all the un(der)privileged, when do you win? White Christian male holocaust?

      Equality? Real equality, when women and minorities are able to enter business school in proportionally equal numbers to white men, when they have the same resources and familial support to attend, and most importantly, when they have the same prospects upon graduating?

      • JohnJ says:

        I’m sure that being obese or polyamorous (or both) comes with its own set of challenges, but they can’t really be compared to slavery, lynchings, and all the other uglier parts of our history.

        Real equality, when women and minorities are able to enter business school in proportionally equal numbers to white men, when they have the same resources and familial support to attend, and most importantly, when they have the same prospects upon graduating?

        You really should try to be more consistent.

  9. Balsamred says:

    Though I understand it, I’m not fond of the comparing of all struggles for societal acceptance to the particularly brutal ones undergone by African Americans, etc. I’m sure that being obese or polyamorous (or both) comes with its own set of challenges, but they can’t really be compared to slavery, lynchings, and all the other uglier parts of our history.

    • philtrum says:

      True, and the “we are the new blacks” thing has been recycled through a lot of groups, enraging black activists every time.

      But you apparently just left a giant loophole for certain other posters on this thread to claim that if discrimination isn’t as comprehensively awful as slavery or Jim Crow, it is inconsequential and no one should care about it, so, y’know, enjoy that.

  10. DJames says:

    Balsamred— real equality sounds great. At least in some business schools, the pull is *definitely* toward (correcting past) (in)equality to the current detriment of the historically advantaged.

    So in that anecdote, the problem isn’t the business schools, the problem is…

  11. DJames says:

    … not the b-school applicants. In fact, in the same way that Saudi princes will maintain their facade of covertly sending some cash to decidedly questionable folks and activities, they will never REALLY fund terrorism. They need us (and the Chinese, etc.) to buy oil. So keep yelling “death to America” to your neighbors, while quietly asking Obama if he wants to pay in cash/check/credit. (FYI: we always pay in credit.)

    I think this is the worst part—the b-schools don’t really care too much about equality or diversity. They just want the tuition money.

    I left out one stat (on purpose) from above—85% of the MBA population at this school was white males. So the school was paying vague lip-service to diversity with a handful of (very nice) scholarships. If REAL equality of demographic representation happened, they’d be fucked. You can’t give every African American woman a 125% scholarship.

    Do you see? That’s when the white Christian male holocaust will happen.

    When they find out we’ve been lying.

  12. CubaLibre says:

    Equivalences always bother me. Does every demographic have its own knapsack and its own converse burdens? Sure. But what exactly those privileges and burdens are matter – it makes one position superior to the other. A white person has “I will be given the benefit of the doubt by the police about what this black thing in my hand is” and “I will not be pulled over simply because of my skin color” and “controlling for all other demographic effects, I will live longer.” A black person has “I will not be called a racist” and “I have access to some pretty sweet scholarships.” I know which knapsack I’m picking.

    • Fifi says:

      “Does every demographic have its own knapsack and its own converse burdens? Sure. But what exactly those privileges and burdens are matter – it makes one position superior to the other.”

      Exactly, though I’d say it makes one position easier than the other rather than superior, but that’s possibly what you meant anyway. The reality is that, in our culture, some of us get more advantages and opportunities than others – not because of who we actually are as a person (our skills, intelligence, etc) but because of an accident of birth. There will, of course, probably always be people who have opportunities that others don’t have but my issue comes when people don’t recognize their own privilege and how it played into their success. To me, this seems like where most of the irritation about “political correctness” and having inequality pointed out comes from – the desire for people to believe they’ve earned their success only through hard work and their own doing. It’s an ego thing. If people think it’s unfair that a black kid gets a scholarship or aboriginal people get a hiring preference at some institution to balance things out a bit, then perhaps they need to consider how unfair it is that so many white males automatically got these benefits (and often still do). When stupid rich kids without decent grades stop getting into institutions because of their inherited privileges, then perhaps the playing field will start to be a bit more equal.

  13. Pingback: What’s in my Invisible Knapsack? Well, I guess that depends. | Partial Objects

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