Friday, August 10, 2007

The Winner in Last Night's Debate? Frank Luntz

Last night on Logo, a gay-focused cable station, most of the Democratic candidates attended a forum to discuss GLBT issues (Biden and Dodd were no-shows as were all of the Republicans who were also invited to participate). The winner of that debate, Frank Luntz.

There was universal agreement on preventing discrimination in housing, the workplace, the military, on everything except...yup, gay marriage. The two bottom tier candidates, Gravel and Kucinich, had no problem with it; but the front-runners, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards, all said they're in favor of separate but equal civil unions. Why would that be? Why are prominent Democrats no longer afraid to stand up in front of an openly gay and lesbian crowd, face tough questions about their stances on human rights, but in the end gingerly tip-toeing around this one question about equal rights under the law?

The answer has nothing to do with the issue itself, but with the incredible success of a rhetorical strategy employed by the right that we can call "cage and frame." The move has, as the name denotes, two steps. One of them, framing, has been elucidated by Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, who correctly points out that the words we use are not mere "hello, my name is" stickers that we apply to objects in the world allowing us to refer to objects in a value-free way. Words, rather, are pregnant with worldviews, with assumptions about how things work and beliefs about their harmfulness or helpfulness. Our names for things are frames that cast the things we talk about in a certain light, a light that will highlight some aspect of the thing in a way that will lead us towards or away from certain views of it.

Notice how we call it "gay marriage" instead of "universal marriage." The name that we give the issue frames the debate around whether them, the scary other, those "weird gay people," should be given a right, and not about whether or not legal marriage with its privileges like hospital visitation, inheritance, and power of attorney should be free from bigotry should be a part of our laws. Of course, it is about that, but the name, like a magician's misdirection, leads your mind in one direction and not the other.

But that framing is not the only thing that is happening here. The second part to the rhetorical trick is caging. The idea here to take a collection of related issues that you want buried away from the public eye, concerns on which you not only don't want action, but you don't even want discussed, and you group them together. Of those, you pick one, generally the one that is easiest for you to frame in a way favorable to your cause and put it and it alone on the table. All other issues are put in a cage, safely beyond the consciousness of the general public because the one you've allowed out of the cage sucks up all the oxygen in the room. As long as you present a boisterous debate -- the more noisy, rage-filled, and contentious the better. Because of the displayed passion by those on both sides, people will be fooled into thinking that there is free and open discourse about all issues. Meanwhile, you've tied it all up and made sure that nothing would happen on any of them.

And that is precisely what we saw last night. The right has successfully caged all gay rights issues except for universal marriage. This gave the disappointingly cowardly front-runners the cover they needed to put on a strong face and say that they were more than willing to stand with those in favor of human rights...right up to the point of marriage. Why could they not go that step when there is absolutely no difference philosophically? Because we have allowed the right to cage all the other issues and frame this one.

What we saw last night was not only evidence that their strategy is successful, but also a reinforcement of the frame from our side, reinforcement in the Pavlovian sense that only makes the bigoted and morally problematic political baggage more deeply entrenched in how the issue is approached anytime, anywhere. Who won the debate? Frank Luntz, the man who masterminded the strategy, and all those who stand against full and legitimate equality under the law of all Americans. I am thrilled that the step was taken to bring GLBT issues out into an open forum widely attended by most of those vying for the Democratic nomination, but deeply disappointed at what they ended up doing with the opportunity.