In The Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa wrote:
The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively-- because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins.
I was thinking about this quote in the context of "political correctness," "cancel culture," and other forms of rigtheous indignation.
Let's take an old example. There are numerous instances of the n-word's being used throughout the books To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. For this reason, both of these books have at times been subjected to bans. The n-word is considered too triggering and hurtful to be included in many libraries and school assignments in today's world.
And yet, both of these books are not only about racism, they can indeed be considered treaties against racism. In fact, they are quite explicitly about racism against blacks, and in both books, the n-word is used to accurately depict racism while telling a story about how we all ought to overcome racism and treat blacks equally. Part of the message of both of these books is not to use the n-word. The books use the n-word in order to show how ghastly and racist it is to do so. Use of the n-word is presented as an example of people behaving badly, so that the authors can go on to show how people ought to be behaving instead.
It is only by removing The Frame from these books that we could ever consider their use of the n-word to be hurtful. We remove The Frame by interpreting the dialogue in the books as though it has been spoken today, right now, right in the same room as the reader, possibly directed at the reader. It is only by taking the books in this light that we could ever be offended by their use of the n-word.
By maintaining The Frame, however, we maintain that these are fictional stories, we observe the behavior within those stories, we reach the end of the book, and we come away with an important moral message: to eschew racism, treat other people as equals, and not use the n-word.
In short, it's The Frame around "the picture" that enables us to do this. Without The Frame, it's just some old white people using the n-word at us. But with The Frame, they're good stories with important anti-racist messages.
There are plenty of other, more modern examples out there. Certain jokes told by comedians could be considered hurtful and "problematic," but only if we consciously remove The Frame; only if we deliberately refuse to allow the comedian to tell his or her joke as a work of art or an act of performance. If we instead allow the comedian to play his or her role and put on an act, then our sensibilities can remain intact. Jokes might be made at the expense of us and "our kind," but it's all in good fun. It's all an act. There is A Frame around the picture. It's only hurtful or problematic if we deliberately remove The Frame.
This is exactly what happens during heckling. When a comedian encounters a heckler, the heckler has decided to remove The Frame from the comedian's act. Every time the comedian tries to tell another joke, the heckler steps in with a comment that removes The Frame and forces the comedian to be a normal person again (rather than an actor). The comment might be something simple, like, "You're not funny!" Or, it might be a case of someone's taking offense at what the comedian has said, and arguing against it. It's then the comedian's task to attempt to best the heckler, reclaim the audience and The Frame, and continue his or her act.
Here's a really good example of this. Comedian Norm MacDonald tells a joke about teachers, and a teacher in the audience becomes offended. She tries to remove The Frame from MacDonald's act, but he deftly reclaims it:
What makes this so great is the fact that Norm MacDonald is an expert at using hecklers' own tactic against them. When hecklers try to be funny, or try to make a point, Norm MacDonald either refuses to acknowledge the joke or takes their statements very literally. In doing so, he removes the hecklers' own Frame, and takes back control of the situation.
In every-day interaction, human beings use humor to reach out to one another and let each other know that, despite any difficulties or miscommunications, "we're still friends." When it's properly received, that humor can mend almost any fence. But when the interlocutor refuses to acknowledge the humor - or, as the psychologists call it, the "repair attempt" - the interaction goes sour. The other person has to want to get along with you. If he or she refuses, there isn't much you can do. If they remove your Frame, you can't paint a picture. It's a power-play. They do it to gain the upper hand in the interaction. You can either give it to them, or walk away.
Another person who wrote about this concept was Ayn Rand. She called it "context-dropping." If you "drop the context" in To Kill A Mockingbird, and instead just focus on the words printed on the page, then the n-word is the n-word, and that's despicable. If you maintain the context, then you see it as a story in which awful people said awful things, and the reader then learns an important message.
If you maintain the context of a comedy act, then you can hear all kinds of funny jokes. I've had stand-up comedians single me out in the audience before, and tell a few jokes at my expense. I could get really mad and feel insulted, and that would be dropping the context. It would be removing The Frame. Instead, I could appreciate the humor of the situation, laugh at myself a little bit, and have a good time. The choice is mine, but whatever I choose, the situation depends on The Frame, and whether it is allowed to separate the picture from the real world.