Framing the Debate

February 12, 2003

Trevor Matich


In law, truth isn't the key matter; it's what you can prove.  In political debate, the logic of your argument isn't the key matter; it's how the debate is framed to begin with.

The debate over abortion is a prime example.  Those in favor of free abortion rights call themselves "Pro-Choice."  The debate is thus framed as one of a woman's right to choose what she does with her own body. 

If that premise is accepted, then the debate is essentially over before it begins.  Of course a woman has the right to choose what she does with her own body, as does a man (within certain limits--neither can legally put cocaine in their body, for example).  If the Pro-Life premise is accepted, then the ensuing debate is also moot—who can possibly argue that innocent human beings should be killed?

In order to have a reasonable debate on abortion, the question can't be whether a woman has a right to choose what she does with her own body (she does), or whether innocent life should be protected by law (it should).  The question is:  When does life begin—at conception, at birth, or somewhere in between?

The same principle applies to the controversy over war against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. 

For example, Martin Sheen, Madonna, and their fellow travelers call themselves "peace activists."  And how can you possibly disagree with a "peace activist" without thereby appearing "pro-war?" 

Since they are taking the position of opposing action against Saddam Hussein, how about if we change the frame of the debate to see what happens?

Let's start with Saddam's actions in his own country.   "Peace Activists" could then rightly be called "Activists for Gassing Innocent Women and Children."  Those "marching for peace" around the world would become those "marching for dictators' torture rights." 

That changes the premise a bit, don't you think?

Saddam has admitted to past U.N. inspectors of having chemical and biological weapons, but has not accounted for them to the current U.N. inspectors.  So how about if we rename Janeane Garofalo's text label when she appears on cable news programs from "Peace Activist" to "Activist for Dictators’ Rights to Defy the United Nations?"  Would you think differently of her argument?  Susan Sarandon could become "Activist for Terrorists' Rights, As Long As We Can Only Prove that the Terrorists Merely Intend to Murder Within Their Own Countries."

A bit cumbersome, but you get the point.

Now, I applaud Janeane Garofalo and Susan Sarandon for expressing their views.  While their actions can be framed in different ways and their logic can be strongly rebutted, I believe that they are loyal Americans who truly desire peace.  It is critical to the health of our Republic that there be lively and thorough debate on vital issues surrounding war and peace.  (I join the debate not as "Pro-War," but as "Pro-Defense of the Innocent.")

The reason this is so important is not the difference in the ways Susan Sarandon and Trevor Matich frame our positions; we are merely private citizens speaking out as best we can.  More troublesome is that some are abusing the power of national television news broadcasts by employing creative "debate framing" as a rhetorical tool to influence public opinion toward a particular political point of view.  This, within a medium supposedly aimed at reporting, not editorializing.

One prominent network anchor led a recent newscast by saying, "And now to the Bush Administration's campaign against Iraq." 

The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1441 (which mandates that Saddam proactively account for, reveal, and dismantle his weapons of mass destruction--not that the inspectors hunt and peck around the vastness of Iraq on a scavenger hunt for them.)  The Bush Administration hasn't done anything that conflicts with that resolution, and yet note that our supposedly objective anchor didn't say, "And now to the world's campaign against Saddam Hussein."

By framing the issue not as "the world's," or even as "America's," but specifically as the "Bush Administration's" campaign, he generates the conception that this is merely a personal vendetta by the U.S. President.  And by saying that the campaign is against "Iraq" instead of "Saddam," he generates the conception that that "personal vendetta" is against an entire national population, rather than specifically against a murderous dictator and his close circle of enablers.

Never mind that it is the U.N., not the U.S.A., which passed 17 resolutions against Saddam over the last 12 years, all of which he has defied.   

(Question to those who say that the U.S.A. is rushing to war and should give the inspectors more time to work:  How many more resolutions need to be adopted, and how many more decades need to pass, before you figure it's enough?  Seriously, give me the numbers.  Five more resolutions?  Ten?  This is important to establish, because Saddam and other mass murderers are probably curious whether it will be their children or their grandchildren who need to worry about actual action by the League of Nations--um, I mean, the U.N.)

In this concept of framing the debate to influence opinion, life definitely imitates art.  In the movie "The Lord of the Rings:  The Two Towers," King Theoden informs Aragorn that he “would not risk open war.”  In and of itself, that is a wise stance—most reasonable people agree that open war is a terrible risk. 

But the real world seldom presents options as clear as whether war is good or bad.  

Returning to art, Aragorn reminds King Theoden that his enemies are already marauding and murdering in his kingdom.  Then he says to the King,  "Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not."

We are at war, a war like no other we have ever experienced.  We have already suffered thousands of casualties.  Our enemies have publicly vowed to attack our citizens abroad, and to carry the fight to the heartland of America.  

The debate is not whether war is good or bad.  The debate is this:  Now that we have had war thrust upon us, what is the best way to defend the American homeland and our citizens and allies abroad?  Those who wish to discuss that issue are adding value to the public body of knowledge.  Those who chant that war is a bad thing are wasting their breath--drowning puppies is a bad thing too; we already agree on that.  

And those in a position of media influence who frame the debate so as to muddy the true issues for partisan political effect should be ashamed of themselves.

For the intellectually vacuous or those inclined to political opportunism, it is easy to define an issue narrowly and draw a self-serving conclusion.  But in these times of wars and rumors of wars, we need more honesty than that, and less manipulation.  It is incumbent upon patriotic Americans of all political persuasions to see through rhetorical technique designed to influence the debate, and cut to the harsh heart of the matter:

"I would not risk open war."

"Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not."





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