Issue Framing

We can laugh at a recent poll showing fewer Americans support equality for “homosexuals” than support the same for “gay men and lesbians,” but first, we should acknowledge its deeper meaning: framing matters, in a very serious way.

On this site, I’ve always referred to gay Americans as just that — and sometimes as “gay men and women” — because the alternative, as proved by this poll, connotes a clinical quality that affords an emotional distance, making gays easier to demonize or forget. In worse hands, the term “homosexuals” can even be made to sound pathological. When advocating for equality, we must make clear that this is about our fellow citizens, human beings possessing equal dignity, and deserving equal treatment. It’s about our friends and family members, not some unnamed other.

We should take this lesson farther, too. We’re lately losing purchase on the national security issue, as conservatives frame Obama’s decision to try some terrorists in civilian courts as an attempt to “forget” that we’re at war. Some have even taken to counting the number of times Obama uses the words “war” and “terror,” as if the words have some talismanic quality against evil.

It’s time to fight back. The conservative position rests on an assumption that the starting point is an absence of rights — we brutalize our enemies, because they’re our enemies. Why would we not?

No. In a representative democracy, the starting point is the rule of law. In dire circumstances, we decide whether to deviate from that norm — not whether to live up to it. What we should be asking is this: why is the Republican Party going to let the threat of terrorism alter our way of life? If we can’t try a detainee due to prior extralegal acts, or because he was captured on and has never left the battlefield, that’s one question. When, however, the only distinction is what crime the defendant is charged with, that’s another entirely. Military tribunals are quick and easy, because that’s what summary justice looks like. But Americans have never taken the easy way out. This should not be a hard issue to win.



  1. My first year university statistics textbook had a section on problems with opinion polling and it had a series of comparative polls such as that one. My personal favourite: more Americans support a government assistance program to help the poor and unemployed, than support welfare.

  2. I think some of it can be attributed to doublethink, like “keep government out of medicare.” But what I think these kinds of polls really show is a difference between theory and implementation. One can believe the government should help poor people while also disagreeing with “Welfare” becayse it’s inefficient, inordiante or insufficient.

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