Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Gift of Complex Identities
distributed 7/18/14 - ©2014

The college professor said that my presentation to his students was a bit simplistic. His comment in the middle of the class session provided a marvelous opportunity to delve more deeply into the details behind my talk, and to highlight some aspects of social psychology that enable transformation.

As I wrote last week, I have recently returned from a 10-day trip to Germany, where I had many meetings on the topic of transformational churches in the time of climate change. I often told a story about "my friend, The Sumo Wrestler" when I met with church and community groups. Just as a Japanese wrestler needs to change his self-identity before it makes sense to lose a lot of weight, our culture needs a transformed identity before we'll find sustainability to be a compelling choice.

The standard example that I gave of such a transformation suggested a shift from "I am a consumer" to "I am a neighbor", a change of perspective that leads us toward strikingly different values and behaviors.

That's the point in my talk when the professor pointed out that our identities -- personal and societal -- are considerably more diverse than "consumer." We all live out many different kinds of identities. Even our collective sense of identity as a society is named and expressed in many ways. So -- as the professor said -- it is true that swapping one pure identity for another is simplistic.

In his college classroom that noon, I was able to dig deeper into social change theory. It turns out that the work of transformation is easier to plan and accomplish when we recognize how we all operate from multiple roles and identities.

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George Lakoff was a big name in political circles a decade ago, with his writings about political communication. Central parts of his message relate to my recurring theme this summer of "transformation."

Lakoff popularized the idea of "frames" and "strategic framing." In those terms, a "frame" is a closely connected set of values, stories and emotions that people draw on to make sense of the world. Within a frame, certain ideas and approaches count as common sense, and "how things are." Lakoff, at times, refers to a frame as a worldview, but -- as we'll see -- a "frame" may not be quite as clear-cut as an overarching worldview.

One of the fascinating parts of what Lakoff stressed is that we don't live within one tidy, unquestioned frame. We are quite capable of holding contradictory beliefs, all of which are valuable to us. Because Lakoff named two competing frames as dominant in US politics, he says that we are "bi-conceptual" -- that we all have elements of both perspectives inside our minds. He wrote, "Everyone has both worldviews because both worldviews are widely present in our culture, but people do not necessarily live by one worldview all the time."

Lakoff points to a common situation where a person lives from one worldview at work, and another at home. Or, he wrote, "You may live by progressive values in most areas of your life, but if you see Rambo movies and understand them, you have a passive conservative worldview allowing you to make sense of them."

When we have contrasting worldviews within ourselves, one of them can be "activated" by the language we hear (language is Lakoff's area of expertise), or the people we associate with, or by emotions that are triggered in a situation. Only one "frame" can be active at a time. Usually, most people have a dominant frame, the one that is normally at work, but surprisingly different ways of behaving and acting can be activated.

Lakoff wrote that frames "shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the ways we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change." Or, in the context of my presentations this summer, reframing is transformation.

(George Lakoff's political insights on strategic framing became well known with his 2004 book, "Don't Think Of An Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate." The first chapter provides a good taste of his ideas.)

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If each of us had just one identity, one completely consistent way of seeing ourselves and the world, then transformation would be horrendously complex. An entirely new set of beliefs, emotions, stories and experiences would have to be taken in, and that new worldview would have to displace the previous identity.

But we do carry multiple identities, multiple worldviews. There are times and settings where "I am a consumer" is an honest statement of my identity. But there are other times (I hope more frequently) when "I am a neighbor" is the way that I see the world. And I have other frames -- a citizen, a spouse and parent -- that also shape my goals and my actions.

Because we already have alternative frames within us, then transformation is about activating and strengthening worldviews that we already know. The process of transformation can take a weaker frame and bring it into the more dominant role, so that it becomes the one we live from most of the time.

If we are seeking transformation in ourselves, in other individuals, and in society, there is hopeful news in the principles of "strategic framing." When we can identify elements of the positive identity that we want to enhance, elements that are already known and valued, then we can work to activate that frame with language and stories that bring together a whole set of meaning and values. With persistence and careful strategy, that desired frame can become stronger, more frequently used, until it displaces a less valued frame.

To transform a hard-core "consumer," we can call forth the experiences when a different identity has been valuable and important. For an individual, we can reinforce the times when relationships with family, friends and nature have been treasured. As a culture, we can draw on a heritage of volunteerism and community service. All of us, on some level, already know about being a "neighbor" within Earth community. Transformation can happen when that neighborly frame is activated and enhanced.

Lakoff stresses that strategic framing is a long-time project requiring careful analysis and disciplined messages. A passive frame cannot be activated by a one-time promotion. It requires persistent and intentional repetition and reinforcement to establish an active and strong frame.

Churches have a great gift for transformation, because much of what we do is the work of enhancing and activating frames. Worship and spiritual development are proven ways to tell stories, sing songs, gather in community, express emotions and clarify identities. When we gather as church, we activate a frame that affirms community, justice, reconciliation and commitment. We activate a frame of God's shalom -- a frame that is in sharp contrast to the dominant frame of consumerism and individualism.

If we work consistently and intentionally to activate that "neighborly" frame of shalom, and do it ways that carry out into the daily lives of members, and into surrounding communities, then the church is engaged in transformation.

We don't have to plant an entirely new identity of "neighbor" into a completely focused "consumer." We can activate and strengthen the passive identity, and displace the dominant frame. Churches can do this transformational work by being intentional about the worship and identity formation that have always been part of our core ministries.

I'm grateful to the German professor who helped me rediscover this good news of complex identities.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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