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Framing in the Surveillance Controversy: When a Choice isn’t Really a Choice

June 25, 2013

Happy summer, dear readers! It’s been far too long since we rapped at you on this here weblog, but that doesn’t mean that we at TSTHQ have forgotten you. On the contrary—we’ve kicked off the season by trying to think of ways to encourage all y’all to get more involved in our little corner of the internet (more on that soon) and, as always, looking for interesting things to talk to you about. And in the past few weeks, we haven’t had to look too far.

By now, you’ve likely heard about the secret NSA surveillance programs detailed in documents leaked to The Guardian and The Washington Post. These documents seem to confirm the fears of many a civil libertarian in post-9/11 America: that the government has been monitoring our personal communications more closely than we previously suspected under the auspices of national security.

Said civil libertarians often remind us of a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety,” or “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither,” as paraphrased on the bumpers of Priuses everywhere. Point being that liberty is often jeopardized in the name of security. And, to some, this would appear to be one of those times.

But, not so, says President Obama in a recent interview with Charlie Rose (you can read the transcript here). In fact, he says the whole liberty/security thing is a false dichotomy anyway: “what I’ve said and I continue to believe is that we don’t have to sacrifice our freedom in order to achieve security. That’s a false choice.” A great sentiment, but kind of interesting coming from a guy who’s justifying the collection of aggregate data on like all phone calls ever. How’s he gonna reconcile that? Look no further than his next few sentences, wherein he says “That doesn’t mean that there are not trade-offs involved in any given program, any given action that we take.” Oh, okay, so it’s not a “choice,” it’s a “trade-off.” He elaborates further: “So all of us make a decision that we go through a whole bunch of security at airports which, when we were growing up that wasn’t the case, right?…To say there’s a trade-off doesn’t mean somehow that we’ve abandoned freedom. I don’t think anybody says we’re no longer free because we have checkpoints at airports.”

Despite that last bit about airports being a blatant untruth, we can see what Obama is up to here; he’s trying to get us to see the surveillance program as a slight “trade-off” of some freedom for some more security, instead of as a “choice” of one over the other. The problem is, a trade-off is a choice. It’s choosing to have more of something for a less of something else. Duh. I mean, maybe it’s not an absolute, binary choice, but it’s a choice nonetheless and I don’t think that anyone ever said that the relationship between freedom and security was an all-or-nothing deal.

So what’s he trying to do here? Obviously for whatever reason he thinks that “trade-off” sounds less harsh than “choice,” so he’s attempting to just get us to use that word in our heads instead. But this isn’t a difference in phrasing that I find particularly reassuring, given the severity of the programs in question—I think it’s good to say it’s a false choice to think we have to sacrifice freedom for security. I also understand that there’s a delicate balance between the two. But regardless of what we call this one—choice, trade-off, whatever—the fundamental freedoms at stake don’t change.

If you want to know more:

  • In arguing that these surveillance programs represent a trade-off instead of a choice, President Obama is trying to shift the frame of the debate towards terminology he finds more acceptable. Framing is a topic we’ve written about a lot here, and the go-to book on framing and politics is George Lakoff’s Don’t Think Of an Elephant!: Know your Values and Frame the Debate. The book seems to only be available on Amazon from third party sellers or as part of this book/DVD bundle, though, which might be cool for those undiscerning viewers who don’t care whether or not they see the DVD’s interview with Lakoff in hi-def.
  • Framing obviously isn’t a neutral act, though, and not everyone has the ability to change public frames. It’s a fundamental tenet of Critical Discourse Analysis that the way things are named is often a site of struggle, and that we need to be aware of the power structures that shape language usage. For a great book on CDA, check out Discourse and Social Change by Norman Fairclough. In the example above, President Obama is attempting to use his great deal of linguistic capital to reassure us, but I, for one, am not particularly reassured.
  • Then again, later in the same interview President Obama refers to the FISC as “transparent,” so maybe it’s not really reassurance and it’s actually just a giant prank?
  • Loyal readers will notice that this is the second consecutive post of mine where I’ve mentioned TSTHQ. That’s right, I’m running with it. When Doug and I are kicking it in our own private version of that underwater city from BioShock with all the Diet Dr. Pepper we could want and without the creepy mutants in diving suits, we’ll see who’s laughing then.
  • What do you guys think? Is it better to think of this as a trade-off of freedom for some additional security? Are trade-offs and choices all that different from another? Do these terms even encompass the possibility for an accurate description of how you’re thinking of the surveillance programs? Sound off in the comments below!
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