Saturday, May 12, 2007

Framing a debate

Slate magazine recently asked why conservatives have been so good at winning divisive debates like the ones concerning gun control and abortion. The theory the article proposed is certainly nothing new--it said they're better at framing debates.
In ideological terms, the conservative movement remains more disciplined and better skilled than the liberal side at framing political debates. It has cast both issues in terms of absolute principle: the right to life on abortion, and to personal liberty in the case of guns. The call to conscience tends to be more compelling than the call to practicality, and the contradiction between these two positions—one libertarian, the other anti-libertarian—bothers very few people.
But what does it really mean to "frame a debate" well? In my opinion, when someone says a group is better at framing the debate, it means that they have found a way to simplify the issue to the point where it is binary--yes or no, good or evil, freedom or bondage.

"Abortion is murder."

"Gun ownership is about personal liberty."

What these types of debates ignore is the fact that no debate that endures is truly binary. If it were truly binary, it wouldn't endure. Do we debate stealing is wrong? No, we don't, because that truly is a binary debate. Stealing is wrong, end of story, no debate necessary. But the fact that we keep debating gun control and abortion seems to point to the fact that neither debate is black and white. Are laws restricting gun ownership unconstitutional, or do most gun laws fall into the gray area of the Second Amendment, the gray area of "well regulated" or "militia"?

I can see, though, the allure of binary-type thinking. It makes life very easy, as it no longer requires you to think. All you need to do, when presented with a new problem, is apply the algorithm of your binary thinking, and all gray areas disappear. This, of course, can be a good thing. The Golden Rule is binary: when presented with a situation, just imagine what kind of treatment you would like, then do it. WWJD is binary. That's a good thing. I'm not religious, but I believe that if Christians read the Gospels and behaved exactly as Jesus did, the world would be transformed into a heaven on earth.

But so many things in the world cannot be reduced to binary thinking. That's why I think Libertarianism is such a flawed "philosophy." In the real world, with everything so interconnected, few debates that matter are binary. Is welfare good or bad? That depends on what kind of welfare, who is getting it and for how long? Are high taxes good or bad? That depends. If you are fighting a war, how the heck else are you going to pay for it? (Come to think of it, how ARE we going to pay for it?) You see, in the real world, binary thinking is reductive and possibly dangerous.

So, it seems the only way to combat this oversimplified thinking is to ask those types of clarifying questions. What about this? Have you thought of that? Sure, it may make our head hurt when we think a lot and the issue gets complex, but this is the only way, really, to find solutions that work. I guess the mantra we should always have in our heads is "It just isn't that simple. Let's find the complexity." That's when the real debate will begin.

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