How we frame things determines what we see and (sometimes) what occurs next. Here’s an excerpt: We Are All Treaty People: Prairie Essays (2008)

The current post focuses on framing.

Erving Goffman is a good person to read regarding this topic; at previous posts I’ve written about what he had to say about the Interaction Order among other topics of interest.

I also like what E.H. Gombrich has to say on this topic in his classic study, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1960). [1]

Wild Hog Country Market under construction. Jaan Pill photo

As well, I’ve written about the role that framing plays in determining what appears to be newsworthy.

At this post, I comment on some photos – with a focus on conceptual framing – that relate to the history of land use decision making, both locally and around the world.

Wild Hog

The first photo is concerned with the Wild Hog Country Market located at Line 34, Perth East, Ontario a short drive from Stratford. The photo of the Wild Hog site under construction demonstrates that the design of the market has been thought out carefully. It’s a great design. The experience that a visitor to the Wild Hog has indicates that the clear thinking that was evident in the design of the building is also evident in the design of the visitor-experience. This a great place to go shopping for fresh produce, bread, coffee, dairy products, and much else.

Marie Curtis Park

Marie Curtis Park: View looking west from the corner of Forty Second Street and Lake Promenade. Jaan Pill photo

An island set between two branches of Etobicoke Creek used to be in place during a previous era in what is now known as Marie Curtis Park. The current engineered channel that causes Etobicoke Creek to flow in a straight line into Lake Ontario is a relatively recent feature of the landscape when we look back at the history of the site dating back to the end of the last Ice Age. The Western boundary of Toronto along the shoreline does not terminate at the channel now in place but actually extends a considerable distance to the west where the southernmost branch of Etobicoke Creek used to run during a previous Cottage County Paradise era.

As I’ve noted at previous posts, the mouth of the creek was once a major wildlife habitat that was engineered out of existence. That said, what’s in place even now is a great place to visit with its beaches (west and east of the channel), old growth trees, and open spaces on the flood plain of the creek.

Pioneer Park on Lake Huron

Pioneer Park, Bayfield, Ontario. Jaan Pill photo

The text at the plaque at Pioneer Park in Bayfield reads:

Pioneer Park: This park is privately owned and maintained for the benefit of the public by the Pioneer Park Association organized in 1945 by Lucy Woods Diehl.

This plaque is erected in tribute to Lucy and her two close associates in the project, Jessie Metcalf and John Stewart, and other first members of the Association who had the foresight to save this beautiful piece of land for the enjoyment of future generations.

Pioneer Park complete history available in Bayfield Archives Room.

Erected by the Pioneer Park Association with the assistance of the Ontario Ministry of Culture and Recreation, 1979

Pioneer Park, Bayfield, Ontario. Jaan Pill photo

Such an approach to the conservation of land is of tremendous value. We enjoy visiting this park.

I have respect and admiration for what has been done by the local community years ago to save this piece of undeveloped lakefront property on the bluff overlooking the Bayfield River and Lake Huron.

That said, there is a subtext that is missing. The subtext is that history did not begin with the arrival of the settler pioneers. The sense of positive civic engagement that is inherent in the erection of such a plaque occurs within a frame of reference within which much is left unsaid, and kept out of mind.

I refer to Indigenous history, a topic I learned little about, at least little that was evidence-based and accurate, decades ago in school or in university.

We Are All Treaty People: Prairie Essays (2008)

I have recently been reading Chapter 7, “We Are All Treaty People: History, Reconciliation, and the ‘Settler Problem,'” in We Are All Treaty People: Prairie Essays (2008) by Roger Epp.

Many informative books about Indigenous history and related topics are now available.

An excerpt (you can locate the citations in the original text) from Roger Epp’s above-noted study (pp. 127-31) features a glimpse of what I have begun to read:

“In the beginning,” wrote John Locke, the 17th-century English polit­ical philosopher, in his Second Treatise of Government, “all the world was America.” [19] In other words, in what amounted to a political cre­ation myth, embellished with a crude anthropology to suit European imaginations, America was a blank slate – the primordial void out of which the institutions of private property and limited government were established by means of consent, and painted with adjectives such as “wild,” “wasted,” and “wretched.” While Locke had also writ­ten a colonial constitution for the Carolinas, he had, of course, never visited the Americas. All the same, he was certain that its peoples lacked real government and the efficient, productive cultivation of land that justified ownership of what had been given to humankind in common for sake of preservation. Like other social contract theor­ists, beginning with Thomas Hobbes, Locke’s political philosophy relied more centrally than is often recognized on the “alterity” of the [A]boriginal. His association of liberty with property and of property, in the first instance, with appropriation from nature – by the mixing of one’s labour – was singularly attractive in colonial America. At the very least, it provided intellectual comfort to those who had traversed an ocean for the prospect of freehold title and were determined never to be tenants again. [20] Locke’s conception of natural property as an extension of the labouring self allowed even the “wild Indian” ownership of “the fruit or venison which nourishes him.” But, he claimed, neglecting all the [A]boriginal assistance that settlers received in growing suitable crops, cultivation of the earth was the “chief matter of property.” The Lockean standard of “civilization” rested on relative efficiencies in the use of land: “For I ask whether the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America left to Nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres will yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniences of life as ten acres equally fertile land doe [sic] in Devonshire where they are well cultivated.” [21]

The practical consequence of Locke’s argument was plainly drawn in the 18th century by the eminent European diplomatist Emmerich Vattel. His Law of Nations began from the familiar con­tractarian premise that the earth once belonged to all in common, but that at some stage of population growth cultivation was required of every nation as a matter of natural duty, since hunting or herd­ing were no longer sufficient, and for that reason, morally justifi­able. “Those who still pursue this idle mode oflife occupy more land than they would have need of under a system of honest labour, and they may not complain if other more industrious Nations, too con­fined at home, should come and occupy part of their lands.” Vattel made clear his disapproval of the Spanish “usurpation.” By contrast, the colonization of North America – whose “vast tracts of land” were only “roamed over,” rather than inhabited, by “small numbers” of “wandering tribes” – could be considered “entirely lawful.” Those tribes had “no right” to keep it to themselves: “provided sufficient land were left to the Indians, others might, without injustice to them, settle in certain parts of a region, the whole of which the Indians were unable to occupy.” It was not against nature, he concluded, to confine them within narrower bounds. [22]

Vattel is more commonly remembered for his insistence that membership in international society was exclusive to sovereign states on the (emergent) European model. This, too, was a position rooted in contractarian premises and, in particular, in Locke’s con­cern to distinguish political commonwealths from families and pol­itical authority from the sort of patriarchal justifications for absolut­ist kingship that had gained a following in his day. Locke again drew those distinctions through the counter-example of the American tribes. While admitting his ignorance as to the political arrange­ments of these “little independent societies,” the logic of his argu­ment required that they remained in a state of nature, lacking proper government, that is, founded on the consent of individuals for the limited purpose of preserving their lives and property.

These intellectual positions can scarcely be relegated, like museum pieces, to the status of ideological curios. For one thing, they continue to resonate in everyday speech, for example, in the fam­iliar claim that settlement of the Canadian prairies should be insulated from moral and political scrutiny on the grounds that “there was nothing here before we came” and “we made something of it.” This is the story reflected in countless community and family hist­ories of the homesteading era. Doubtless the same could be said of northern miners and loggers. Indeed, the Lockean myth has been renewed in successive generations of immigrants, who came to this “new” world to escape an impoverished or oppressive past, to live as equals, and to wrest a future from an unforgiving environment through hard work. There is enough experiential truth in all of this to sustain it in what is now an overwhelmingly urban country. In a famous essay, “In Defence of North America,” George Grant once called it the “primal” spirit of a society that, uniquely, “has no history (truly its own) from before the age of progress” and that in its “conquering relation to place has left its mark within us.” [23] But, as [Tom] Flanagan’s book demonstrates, Locke and Vattel also still consti­tute the intellectual bedrock for a coherent, and powerful, contrary position on such contemporary subjects as treaties, land claims, and [A]boriginal rights in general. As he puts it, they stand on the civil­ized side of a fundamental divide, which is marked by (1) the exten­sion of rule by “organized states” over “stateless societies,” and (2) the displacement of hunter-gatherers by cultivators, such that the European entry into North America and Australia was “the last act of a great drama – the spread of agriculture around the world.” [24] So much for what RCAP’s Report [RCAP: Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples; appointed following armed standoff between Mohawk warriors and Canadian troops at Oka] characterizes as the era of disposses­sion and assimilation.

Flanagan’s simple dichotomies are a tempting target in them­selves, even if their purpose is acknowledged to be primarily a polem­ical one. They disregard examples of [A]boriginal cultivation and resource management and, ironically, diminish at the same time the status of the cattle ranchers whose “winning of the open range” is so important to the mythology of the North American West. They discount [A]boriginal modes of governance, as well as the influence of [A]boriginal practices such as federalism on the American colonists. And they misconstrue the centralized state and agrarian commun­ities as partners in progress. The reality of early-modem Europe, much less Stalinist Russia, post-colonial Africa, or even the Canadian West, suggests a much more conflict-ridden relationship over the loss of autonomy and the extraction of wealth from the periphery. [25] A close reader of Flanagan’s book could register other quibbles, for example, at the way he dismisses the idea that historic treaties involv­ing European states and [A]boriginal polities could imply meaningful diplomatic relationships among rough equals – on the linguistic conceit and the relatively recent international legal doctrine that only sovereign states could be signatories of such agreements. Even as recent a compendium as the Consolidated Treaty Series, 1648-1918, would tell a more complicated story about recognition within inter­national society. So would the U.S. government’s commissioning of a report as late as 1918 to answer the “question of the aborigines” in international law – a report whose conclusions Flanagan cites as proof of his position rather than as evidence of contestation. And so would the now-forgotten diplomatic campaign of 1923-24 to prevent Iroquois admittance to the League of Nations, at a point when the matter of membership for Canada and the other so-called white set­tler dominions of the British Empire had not been settled. [26]

To pursue such a line of criticism, however, is to miss what is most revealing about Flanagan’s argument: namely, a mode of reasoning that is conceptual not historical. In this fundamental sense it mirrors the work of the classic English social-contract theorists. That work betrays little of its own time. It founds its arguments about political authority and the pre-eminence of the individual on abstract claims about nature. It begins (in the case of Hobbes) from a concern, not unlike Flanagan’s, to confine the meaning of language against polit­ical dispute. And it resorts (in the case of Locke) to a crude evolution­ism of property and government as if to preclude any other arrange­ments. In this mode of political reasoning, the past is problematic, even dangerous.

Study of frames serves as useful intellectual endeavour

My task is to take any frame – and any mode of framing – and consider how it works taking into account what we know (and can observe, in my case, on the basis of anecdotal evidence) of the history and historiography of power relations. [2, 3]

Our choices of words matter

A useful reference: Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing by and about Indigenous Peoples (2018) by Gregory Younging.

A blurb reads:

Elements of Indigenous Style provides guidelines to help writers, editors, and publishers produce material that reflects Indigenous people in an appropriate and respectful manner. Gregory Younging, a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, has been the managing editor of Theytus Books, the first Aboriginal-owned publishing house in Canada, for over 13 years. Elements of Indigenous Style evolved from the house style guide Gregory developed at Theytus in order to ensure content was consistent and respectful. This guide contains: A historical overview of the portrayal of Indigenous peoples in literature; Common errors and how to avoid them when writing about Indigenous peoples; Guidance on working in a culturally sensitive way; A discussion of problematic and preferred terminology; Suggestions for editorial guidelines.

4 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Note 1

    A review by Christoper S. Wood of E.H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1960) is available online at JSTOR which you can access through the Toronto Public Library website or through other institutions.

    The review, in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 151, No. 1281 (December 2009), pp. 836-839, notes that Gombrich’s “paradoxical argument” is homologous with that of Thomas S. Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).

    I first encountered E.H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion (1960) in the 1960s. Along with Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), which I encountered a few years before I read Gombrich’s study of representation, Gombrich had a profound impact on my thinking. The takeaway from Gombrich’s book was that in life we encounter situations that stand as metaphors for the class of optical illusions known as ambiguous figures.

    Such optical illusions are structured in such a way that what appears to be either figure or ground oscillates back and forth within the mind of the observer. A related concept concerns figure/ground transformations where the matter of what is figure and what is ground is determined by a subtle transformation in the configuration or frame within which the figure and ground are situated.

    These topics are elaborated at a previous post entitled:

    Ambiguous figures can serve as heuristic device for study of social construction of meaning

    A related concept concerns the effective and wise framing of evidence; a previous post outlines the frame-related issues at play when we consider how evidence is applied (or misapplied) with regard to COVID-19:

    In order to actually drive good outcomes, evidence-based practice requires a decent methodological framework

    Figure/ground transformations serve as the operational basis for a broad range of communications including public relations, media relations, marketing, propaganda, and the dissemination of information and disinformation. George Orwell among others has shared valuable insights regarding the relevant underlying dynamics which may at times be at play in such communications, with a particular focus on transformations of language usage in which, sometimes, power speaks its own language whereby big is small, in is out, and up is down.

    The model or metaphor that I’ve described does not assume that an observer only has a binary reading of a situation to choose from. In life, there are often more than two possible ways to look at things.

    A related concept concerns legibility. Some things in life are legible at the local level but illegible at the state level. In Seeing Like a State (1998), James C. Scott notes that when state-level officials make a point of enforcing an augmented level of legibility at the local level (with regard, say, to practices related to agriculture and land use), in many cases disaster ensues.

    Reply
  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Note 2

    By way of rounding out the story, I refer to an April 12, 2017 NPR article entitled: “A Forgotten Piece Of African-American History On The Great Plains.”

    An excerpt reads:

    Few ghost towns, however, have all the elements that make Dearfield’s story so compelling: larger than life characters, struggles to live off the land, tales of racial integration at the height of the Jim Crow era.

    The story brings to mind Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy (1990) by Sarah Carter.

    An blurb reads:

    Despite repeated requests for assistance from Plains Indians, the Canadian government provided very little help between 1874 and 1885, and what little they did give proved useless. Although drought, frost, and other natural phenomena contributed to the failure of early efforts, reserve farmers were determined to create an economy based on agriculture and to become independent of government regulations and the need for assistance. Officials in Ottawa, however, attributed setbacks not to economic or climatic conditions but to the Indians’ character and traditions which, they claimed, made the Indians unsuited to agriculture. In the decade following 1885 government policies made farming virtually impossible for the Plains Indians. They were expected to subsist on one or two acres and were denied access to any improvements in technology: farmers had to sow seed by hand, harvest with scythes, and thresh with flails. After the turn of the century, the government encouraged land surrenders in order to make good agricultural land available to non-Indian settlers. This destroyed any chance the Plains Indians had of making agriculture a stable economic base. Through an examination of the relevant published literature and of archival sources in Ottawa, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, Carter provides the first in-depth study of government policy, Indian responses, and the socio-economic condition of the reserve communities on the prairies in the post-treaty era.

    Reply
  3. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Note 3

    An Oct. 28, 2021 Yale School of the Environment (YSE) article is entitled: “Near Total Loss of Historical Lands Leaves Indigenous Nations in the U.S. More Vulnerable to Climate Change.”

    The subtitle reads: “YSE-led study finds that Indigenous nations across the United States have lost 98.9% of their historical land base; historical land dispossession is associated with current and future climate risk.”

    An excerpt reads:

    In a first-of-its-kind study, a team of researchers — led by Yale School of the Environment Professor Justin Farrell — attempted to quantify the massive loss of historical lands by Indigenous Nations across the U.S. since European settlers first began laying claim to the continent. They also found historical land dispossession was associated with current and future climate risks as Indigenous peoples were forced to lands that are more exposed to a range of climate change risks and hazards and less likely to lie over valuable subsurface oil and gas resources.

    “Everyone who’s read history — or a true version of it — knows this story,” Farrell says. “But this is the first scholarly study that has looked at the full scope of change and tried to quantify it, to systematically geo-reference it at scale.”

    A Oct. 31, 2021 New York Time article, of related interest, is entitled: “What if Everything You Learned About Human History Is Wrong? In “The Dawn of Everything,” the anthropologist David Graeber and the archaeologist David Wengrow aim to rewrite the story of our shared past — and future.”

    An excerpt (I’ve omitted the embedded links which are in the original text) reads:

    James C. Scott, an eminent political scientist at Yale whose 2017 book “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States” also ranged across fields to challenge the standard narrative, said some of Graeber and Wengrow’s arguments, like his own, would inevitably be “thrown out” as other scholars engaged with them.

    But he said the two men had delivered a “fatal blow” to the already-weakened idea that settling down in agricultural states was what humans “had been waiting to do all along.”

    But the most striking part of “The Dawn of Everything,” Scott said, is an early chapter on what the authors call the “Indigenous critique.” The European Enlightenment, they argue, rather than being a gift of wisdom bestowed on the rest of the world, grew out of a dialogue with Indigenous people of the New World, whose trenchant assessments of the shortcomings of European society influenced emerging ideas of freedom.

    A Nov. 1, 2021 New Yorker article is entitled: “Early Civilizations Had It All Figured Out: A contrarian account of our prehistory argues that cities once flourished without rulers and rules—and still could.”

    An excerpt reads:

    Graeber and Wengrow’s dearest aspiration is to quicken that laughter once again. “Nowadays, most of us find it increasingly difficult even to picture what an alternative economic or social order would be like,” they write. “Our distant ancestors seem, by contrast, to have moved regularly back and forth between them. If something did go terribly wrong in human history—and given the current state of the world, it’s hard to deny something did—then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence.”

    This wasn’t a matter of sheer forgetfulness, they say. It was by design. At least some of the Indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, they tell us, were bewildered and appalled by the strange European custom of giving and taking orders. Their judgments were widely circulated in the Europe of the early Enlightenment, where Indigenous people were often featured in dialogues meant to criticize the status quo. At the time, they were typically dismissed as the rhetorical sock-puppetry of canny European heretics. For how could “Natives” credibly engage with political constitutions or deliberate over consequential decisions?

    “The Dawn of Everything” makes a persuasive case that what was passed off as Indigenous criticism of European political thinking was, in fact, Indigenous criticism of European political thinking. These Indigenous objections could be safely deflected only if they were seen as European ventriloquism, not ideas from another adult community with alternative values. “Portraying history as a story of material progress, that framework recast indigenous critics as innocent children of nature, whose views on freedom were a mere side effect of their uncultivated way of life and could not possibly offer a serious challenge to contemporary social thought,” Graeber and Wengrow write.

    I am reminded of an Oct. 15, 2021 Undark article entitled: “Book Review: How Our Planet Grew So Warm: In “Our Biggest Experiment,” Alice Bell traces the evolution of climate change and unfettered energy consumption.”

    I’ve been reading several books about the history of science; the book under review appears from the sounds of it to be even-handed and valuable.

    An excerpt from the review reads:

    By the early 1980s, multinational oil corporations were well aware of the crisis they were precipitating. They downplayed the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels and withheld key information from the public to protect their bottom line. “Of course they knew,” Bell writes, reminding us that big oil’s investment in science was what made them so successful at extracting, refining, and profiting from fossil fuels in the first place. “Sometimes fossil fuel companies and their defenders get painted as ‘anti-science,’” she writes. “In truth they’ve run on science and always have done. They’re just strategic about how they use it.”

    Bell raises objections to how the scientific community is traditionally structured, claiming that “the dominant working cultures of science” have made it difficult for climate researchers to receive adequate monetary and professional support. She criticizes the reflexive tendency of climate scientists to avoid dramatic forecasts, arguing that it has effectively reduced the credibility of those sounding notes of caution throughout history. Bell also does not spare nonprofits, asking, “Are environmental NGOs really happy to settle for 2 degrees Celsius warming and the number of people that would kill?” In her estimation, the pulling of punches among professional campaigners is but one example of the environmental movements’ endemic shortcomings. Still, the bulk of responsibility for the climate crisis is aptly assigned to the fossil fuel industry.

    A second excerpt reads:

    Because it’s such a broad account, “Our Biggest Experiment” is at times overwhelming. As Bell crisscrosses several centuries’ worth of environmental and scientific history, it’s difficult to keep up with the dizzying amount of characters and information. Even so, though nearly every chapter feels condensed and capable of being its own book, there are benefits to viewing climate change from Bell’s vantage point. Through such a wide-ranging history of energy, technology, and science, the world we’ve built appears fragile and our problems interconnected, the crisis fully underway.

    Bell notes early on that the impacts of climate change will not be evenly distributed, citing research indicating that “the poorest half of the global population are responsible for only around 10 percent of global emissions,” yet tend to live in the places most vulnerable to our warming world. In her conclusion, she nods to the present-day regularity of extreme weather and the growing acceptance of climate change as an underlying cause. Nonetheless she expresses a sense of guarded optimism in the potential of collective anger aimed at politicians and corporations.

    We still have choices, Bell asserts, even if they’re more limited than they used to be. But she insists that any meaningful change to mitigate the impact of global warming will require radical, long-range action: “Climate change simply isn’t a pass/fail issue. It’s not something you win or lose.”

    Reply
  4. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A Nov. 19, 2021 CBC article is entitled: “How the legacy of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples lives on, 25 years later: While its recommendations were largely ignored, the sweeping report had profound impact in legal community.”

    An excerpt reads:

    Over four years, the commission travelled to 96 communities and held 178 days of public hearings to produce a comprehensive five-volume report that essentially outlined a 20-year roadmap for bettering the lives of Indigenous people in Canada.

    And the cost of peace — as Chartrand says the government viewed it — was a recommendation for a $30-billion investment in Indigenous communities over a 20-year span.

    The commissioners argued investing this money immediately to eliminate gaps in areas like education, health care, nation-building, justice and child care would actually save the federal government money 20 years down the road.

    In other words, sovereign, healthy communities would cost a whole lot less due to the initial, upfront investment.

    But that $30-billion figure, along with the constitutional changes needed to achieve some of the reforms, led the government to reject the funding’s implementation within an hour of the report being tabled.

    Reply

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