Hot Lesbians and Ethical Oil
Frames, at least the effective ones, have a way of sticking. And in case you’re fuzzy on frames, here’s a definition from the guru of linguistic framing, George Lakoff: “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world.”
To elaborate, frames are the mental associations that we make — involuntarily make — when we hear a word/phrase or see an image. For example, if I say the word “popcorn,” you might think movie or butter or theatre. You may even smell the popcorn’s buttery goodness. The word “popcorn” does not exist in a vacuum. It comes with baggage.
Back 2010, when Ezra Levant published his book, Ethical Oil, he established a powerful frame. The “ethical oil” frame is more than the title of a book. The “ethical oil” frame establishes the Alberta oil sands as “ethical,” in other words, moral, just, good. Central to this frame are two premises. The first premise is this: the Alberta oil sands produces the “most ethical oil in the world,” not like other oil producers: fascist theocracies, supporters of terrorism, suppressors of human rights. The problem with this argument is that it turns a blind eye to the problems inherent to the oil sands: GHG emissions, water and air contamination, habitat destruction, resource dependence — the bundle of foibles associated with the sands. The argument also generalizes by tapping into existing biases, prejudices and xenophobia. You know: black-bearded terrorists, women forced to wear burqas, and a thousand other associations and barely acknowledged preconceptions.
The second major premise inherent to the “ethical oil” frame is that if the oil produced by the Alberta oil sands is “ethical,” then anyone opposing the development of the Alberta-based industry must be “unethical.” This is the brilliance behind the “ethical oil” frame. Once we connect “ethical” to “oil,” we accept a package deal. If something is “ethical,” the opposite (or those opposing it) must be “unethical.” This sort of argument polarizes an issue. It’s an “either/or” argument that leaves no space for reflection or nuance. This is an argument that vilifies all those who don’t support without reservation. What did George W. Bush say to the world after the 9/11 attack? “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” — a sentiment that led to such cultural peculiarities such as “Freedom Fries” and logical absurdities like “The War on Terror.” You support either “ethical” oil or “unethical” oil production. Done.
To me though, the core problem with a frame like “ethical oil” is that it allows us to maintain a smug sense of self-righteousness. We are beyond reproach. We can justify actions and policies that are inherently problematic without honest discussion. We can simply invoke “ethical oil,” and the problems of fossil fuel consumption and extraction disappear. They become someone else’s. We are unsullied. No debate. No reflection. No problem.
You don’t hear the term “ethical oil” so much these days, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still alive and well. Enter the media scandal du jour, or as the Edmonton Journal put it, the “Hot Lesbians’ Ad.” The ad is not really unique, I’ve seen dozens of “ethical oil” ads on social media. What sets this ad apart is not its poor taste but its level of poor taste.
The ad shows two young, physically attractive (hot) women (lesbians) kissing. The text reads, “In Canada lesbians are considered hot. In Saudi Arabia if you’re a lesbian, you die. Why are we getting our oil from countries that don’t think lesbians are hot? Choose equality! Choose Canadian oil!”
The poster was produced by Robbie Picard, formerly of the I Love Oilsands campaign, for his own creation, the Canada Oil Sands Community. Picard didn’t expect so much negative backlash, but he defends his choice: “When I say lesbians are hot, I don’t think there is anything wrong about saying that.” Yet the ad set off a social media counterblast: “When rednecks try to pinkwash, I turn green from nausea,” “It appears Ezra Levant hired a team of 17 year old boys to develop Canada Oil Sands Community’s “hot lesbian” themed ad campaign. I think I’m going to puke. How stupid can these people be?” and “I can’t wait to see the inevitable parody with two bare-chested male oilsands workers. Suck that up, Oilsands Community,” and that was indeed close behind. My favourite was a Brokeback Mountain still with the caption “Just can’t quit you tarsands crude.” Yes. I was amused.
In spite of the backlash, there were supporters, and there was a LOT of publicity. Maybe that was Picard’s intent. Whatever the case, the meme would not have worked without an existing frame. Without the “ethical oil” frame, the meme would have lacked resonance. It is given meaning because it expands on our existing perception that because there is intolerance for lesbians in Saudi Arabia, the bitumen extracted from the Alberta oil sands is “ethical.”
Frames build upon cultural norms, but they also help to establish cultural norms, and once a frame is established it becomes the air we breath. A strong frame is difficult to challenge because by talking about the frame, we engage it. We stop discussing issues with any sort of objectivity because the frame envelops the concept. We see it through the lens of the frame. The linguistic frame.
The “ethical oil” frame is more than two words, it informs our perceptions, our beliefs and our understanding. Like the smell of buttery popcorn, it has become part of who we are.