Drill Here, Drill Now: Return of Cage and Frame
promoted -- cho
As a philosopher concerned with logic and language, political speech provides ready to hand examples of standard fallacies from opponent caricaturing ad hominem attacks to position misconstruing strawman arguments. But we should take note of a intricate rhetorical ploy that has that is dominating the discourse from the McCain campaign recently, specifically in the cases of off-shore drilling and the efficacy of the surge. We can call this trick the "cage and frame" strategy.
Every politician has subjects he or she wants to keep from discussing and tries to keep them hidden away safely out of view in a rhetorical cage. Candidates usually take their cue from magicians by employing a tactic of misdirection – hey, look over there, it’s someone burning a flag while taking the Ten Commandments from a courthouse. This move, what logicians call a "red herring," is generally effective. But if the topic is urgent, a more sophisticated bit of sophistry is required.
The cage and frame stratagem is to open the cage just enough to let out one token part of the issue in order to make it appear that the topic as a whole is being fairly discussed. The key is to select the tiny corner of the complex concern most easily framed to your advantage, and then discuss it, and it alone, as vociferously as possible.
Consider the use of abortion. Abortion is not really about abortion. But by screaming and yelling loud enough about abortion, no other questions about gender can be heard. By forcing feminists to put all of their energy into defending the right to choose, they have no resources left to pursue other important changes with respect to equity of pay, sexual harassment, breaking of glass ceilings, respect for women's labor. All of the oxygen in the room gets used up on the one issue that conservative can most easily frame to their advantage -- killing unborn children or protecting unborn children.
The power of the cage and frame strategy is that once you start making noise, your opponent faces a nasty dilemma. If he chooses not to give a full-throated rebuttal, the lack of passion validates the charge in the mind of the public. Think John Kerry and the Swift Boat attacks.
Alternatively, you could take the bait, engaging the issue forcefully. The respondent now sounds defensive while arguing from the opponent’s preferred conceptual framework and phrasing. But more importantly, the engagement directs all attention away from the crucial parts of the topic that remain locked away in the cage. The spirited debate concerning this side issue leads the broader public to wrongly infer that they are hearing an open debate about the matter as a whole. If this one issue was not the most important aspect of the question, they reason, why would both sides spend such time and energy arguing so vehemently? In the zero sum game of political coverage, the important elements of the topic will be ignored, exactly as desired.
In the face of spiking gas prices, energy policy affects voters personally, as well as the larger economy and national security. The conversation surrounding this multifaceted subject now includes only the expansion of drilling rights. Further exploration would not bring a single drop of oil to market for several years, making it irrelevant to the current concerns, but never mind because the larger debate about energy independence is off the table. Wind? Solar? Nuclear? Conservation? Global Warming? Cap and trade? Gone – successfully trapped in the rhetorical cage once everyone is laser focused on off-shore drilling.
Similarly, with the hand wringing over whether Democrats, particularly Senator Obama, will admit that the surge has worked. By making this the sole issue of discussion in foreign policy, everything else – judgments concerning the threat from a pre-war Iraq, the prosecution of the wars, the abandonment of Afghanistan and what to do now in Iraq, Iran, the West Bank and Gaza, North Korea – has vanished without a trace into the rhetorical cage because of a non-issue in a partisan frame.
We are played like rubes in a game of rhetorical three-card monty. The dealer knows where the real debate is, but no matter how we try to follow the cards, we are always shown something else. In this very important election year, we need to unlock the cage for a truly open political debate. We need all of the cards on the table.
Cross-posted at Philosophers' Playground