Strickland: “Framing” Of Duck Dynasty Controversy Important
The question of state recognition of same-sex unions is a contentious one. The quick suspension of Phil Robertson, star of the hit television show “Duck Dynasty,” is a tangible example. Robertson’s suspension by the A&E network revives a suppressed dimension of conflict in the argument over marriage: the idea of one being targeted with unfair treatment for having views that are contrary to either an accepted industry code of conduct or the views of one’s superiors.
This opinion piece does not present any moral or political commentary on marriage policy or Robertson’s dismissal. Instead, I present a new (or otherwise ignored) way of framing the marriage debate that may interest individuals of nearly all moral and political stripes. My goal is to broaden the scope of debate over the marriage issue and ultimately persuade others that the issue involves more than personal or even political convictions.
Some issues in American society are particularly salient or divisive: arousing the most passionate pleas from opposing groups or eliciting divided responses in repeated opinion polls. Such issues that may come to mind include abortion, drug policy, capital punishment, stem cell research, gun control, or same-sex marriage. In some cases, these issues are particularly provocative because they are related to personal moral or religious convictions that tend to influence political behavior. Policy change, however, does sometimes occur on these issues despite vocal objections from impassioned minorities.
Policy changes on such salient issues are sometimes the result of changes in how issues are framed. In an acclaimed and comprehensive study of how popular media outlets framed the death penalty debate, three political scientists found that individual states started banning or otherwise curtailing the use of capital punishment once media outlets started advertising tales of innocence. What the authors phrased the “discovery of innocence” was found to be the single most effective mans of recasting the death penalty and ultimately causing a historic shift in public opinion. Arguments regarding costs or even morality proved of little consequence when compared to the effects of death-row inmates being found innocent.
The work of these political scientists uncovers a clear example of media framing of issues. To explain this phenomenon more clearly: some issues (such as capital punishment or same-sex marriage) invoke multiple arguments. The authors previously mentioned, for example, uncovered over 65 individual arguments for or against the death penalty. These multiple arguments often highlight different aspects of issues such as monetary costs, policy implications, federalism-related issues, and so forth. The “debate” over same-sex marriage is in effect multiple debates over issues of constitutionality, morality, federalism, et cetera. There are indeed many ways of framing debates on complicated policy issues, with some frames being invoked by politicians to appeal to selected constituencies. Politicians sometimes repeat unoriginal slogans and ignore the other unoriginal slogans offered by the opposition. Such tactics are uses of issue-framing that serve the purpose of creating policy deadlock or deferring difficult policy debates until after the next election.
As the political scientists illustrate, frames can be persuasive and consequential. The way individual issues are framed can sometimes ultimately result in policy change or delay it. Indeed, “broadening the scope of conflict” is likely the sort of behavior that Senator Joseph McCarthy engaged in prior to witch-hunting alleged communists: slim prospects for re-election and the threat of a credible challenger likely inspired McCarthy to find a new issue to champion, and likewise a new way to frame the issue.
The debate over same-sex marriage has been framed in a variety of ways. Attentive American citizens have likely heard arguments over constitutionality, moral permissibility, human rights violations, taxes, matters of reproduction, and even religion. The suspension of Phil Robertson from “Duck Dynasty” now reminds such Americans of the consequences of saying certain things in certain environments, and likewise temporarily reframes the marriage debate. Multiple memes on Facebook celebrating the virtues of the First Amendment and political independence are all symptoms of this reframing. Part of the reason why the Robertson narrative is so powerful (or is being followed so closely by so many) is that it can easily be related to personal narratives: “simple, down-to-earth” Christians being “persecuted” by powerful corporate tycoons. It is an underdog narrative that tends to generate more support than usual for the disadvantaged party.
Likewise, now is an opportune time for new views or frames of the marriage issue to be introduced. The consequence of some frames, whether accidental or purposeful, is opinion change that can ultimately result in policy change. Hence, the manipulation of such framing can be consequential. There are primarily two means of bringing about opinion change: deliberation and coercion. In a deliberative democracy such as the United States, public debate can be limited by issue framing. Political issues that may relate to many facets of American life may be framed in terms of “for or against” or the two Republican or Democratic partisan positions. Nearly all salient or divisive issues in American political life, however, are more complicated than bifurcated debates.
Based on my observations of major media outlets and subsequent public dialogue regarding same-sex marriage, the public debate has inadequately addressed its true underlying issue: government regulation, subsidization, or encouragement of civil institutions or inter-personal relationships that existed in some form long before the emergence of the federal or even state governments. The debate over “same-sex marriage” has been framed in terms of state-issued marriage licenses versus no state-issued marriage licenses. The reason for this may be the benefits of state-issued marriage licenses, such as for tax filing purposes, adoption, or hospital visitation.
I encourage readers to expand the debate over same-sex marriage to include questions of state regulation of civil institutions. Although there appears to be some reframing of the issue among libertarians, it has not “caught on” among the general public. It is disappointing that such a salient issue as marriage that cuts directly to personal moral convictions has been so narrowly framed. As the Phil Robertson episode demonstrates, there are more than two ways to look at this issue.
James Strickland graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2012. He is currently a graduate student in American politics at the University of Georgia.