To Win the Battle of Ideas, First Eliminate Misunderstanding

You’ve probably heard it before in poli sci classes, during political campaigns, or from other political activists: the importance of  “framing the debate” and, in doing so, effectively controlling the discussion and the perception of ideas.

“Framing” refers to the way in which ideas are communicated and perceived by others. In politics, “framing”  is a useful strategy in persuading the public about the relevance and truth of your ideas, whether on specific issues, candidates, or the parties themselves.

For instance, the abortion issue: advocates frame themselves “pro-choice” and call their opponents “anti-choice.” Those who oppose abortion use different terms, calling themselves “pro-life” and their opponents “anti-life.” Each is attempting to define the terms of the debate by framing it in a way which favors their cause. If you happen to be ignorant of the substantive arguments on this issue, then the side you ultimately pick might just be determined by the label you prefer.

But it’s not just the ignorant and apathetic who are susceptible and affected by framing; so are the caring and the informed — albeit to a lesser extent, especially if they’re on guard against it.

It’s also a mistake to think that the truth of your idea can always speak for itself. Sometimes, you need a good spokesperson. Even if your ideas are 100% true, effective, and intuitive, if they aren’t  “framed” in the right way, then they could fall on deaf ears, or worse, create enemies instead of allies.

Simply put: it’s not what you say — it’s how you say it.  

In addition, one of the most important parts of framing occurs with political concepts. A “concept” is a general idea derived or inferred from specific instances or occurrences. Concepts are helpful in our thinking because they allow us to acquire and integrate vast new amounts of knowledge into pre-existing concepts.

In any political discussion, understanding (not agreement), is achieved when there is mutual understanding of the the political concepts and terms being used. In the the battle of ideas, the success or failure of an idea hinges on the clarity of its concepts.

Unfortunately, the true meaning of very important political concepts is often obscured, evaded, smeared, subverted, misused, or obliterated. Sometimes this is the intentional result of an idea’s detractors — an attempt to disarm opponents by robbing them of the true meaning of their concepts. Oftentimes, false or misleading concepts are propounded by intellectual laziness. In any case, the result is the same: misunderstanding.

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Needless to say, the ideas that stand the most to lose from such a practice are the true ones. True ideas neither need nor gain anything by the deceptiveness of its concepts; only false ones do. 

Observe, for example, the frequent tendency to incorrectly describe the US political system as a “democracy” instead of a “republic.” Sometimes it’s intentional (by those who want to undermine the republic) but mostly it’s intellectual carelessness (which works to further the former’s goal). Nonetheless, observe the result: we praise the American system of government while simultaneously undermining it. Our foreign policy therefore, takes the misleading form of spreading “democracy” i.e. tyranny of the majority, around the world. Should we be surprised then, when those “democratic experiments” fail?  

Or observe the attempt to insert the false concept of “human rights” into political discussion, forgetting that the only true concept of rights are “individual rights,” and that the former negate the latter (by negating property rights). Then notice how seldom the concept “individual rights” is used in political discussion and how often it is evaded.   

Or the effort to frame anyone who disagrees with a militaristic and interventionist foreign policy  as “isolationists” instead of “patriots.”

Lastly, concepts are often obscured by euphemisms, which are intended to disguise their true meanings — blinding those who hear them. For instance:  “gun control”  instead of “victim disarmament.” Or  “drug war” rather than “prohibition.” Or “welfare” as opposed to “forced charity.”

Takeaway: If we’re not careful about the concepts and framing we use, we run the risk of misrepresenting and delegitimizing our ideas, while adopting and legitimizing the other side’s.  

Content published on the Young Americans for Liberty blog is only representative of the opinions and research of the individual authors. It does not necessarily reflect the views, goals, or membership of YAL. 

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