Not just the facts—why framing matters

by N. Gabriel Martin

Garbage strewn on a beach
by Antoine Giret

It seems to make sense to start investigating any question by looking at the facts. However, often the question of what the facts are depends on what we decide is worth talking about.

In a second season episode of Mad Men the star of the show, philandering drunkard Don Draper, is enjoying a rare moment of happiness with his family at a picnic. Saying “We should probably go if we don’t want to hit traffic,” he stands up, chucks his beer away, and walks to the car. His wife, Betty, shakes out the picnic blanket, letting their trash loft into the air before settling on the well-kept lawn.

It is one of the most effective demonstrations of the difference between the show’s era and our own (the season is set in 1962). With the taboo against littering firmly instilled in me, as it is in any North American of my generation, I felt a twinge of disapproval at Don’s can toss, followed by horror at the trash strewn around the park by Betty’s careless flick of the picnic blanket. Betty and Don’s efficient and graceful motions came at my generation’s mores like a one-two punch. Don’s toss put me off balance so that Betty’s flick could deliver the knock-out blow.

The Dapers’ utter nonchalance convey that what they’re doing isn’t out of keeping with what is proper. The Drapers are anything but disorderly. In fact, good manners and hygiene have been the sole topic of the dialogue of the scene: Don tells Betty to check their hands before they get in the car; Betty tells her daughter that it is rude to talk about money. These are people who are hyper-aware of what is acceptable and what is not, but evidently there is nothing unacceptable to them about the most flagrant littering. Read more »