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He Who Frames The Terms Of The Debate...

I recently read David Kupelian’s The Marketing of Evil, a book which disusses how so many of the social ills we see in our society have not merely happened, but have been actively marketed and promoted by men and women with specific, unbiblical agendas (you can read my review of this book here). One pearl of wisdom which Kupelian repeats throughout the book is that the person who frames the terms of a debate almost always wins that debate. In other words, the person who is allowed to set the language in a debate over a particular social issue, will almost always be able to prevail in winning that debate. While we could choose any number of examples to support this, perhaps the most obvious is in the debate over abortion.

The right to abortion was not fought over the right of a mother to kill her child. No lawyer marched into court and demanded that a mother have the right to allow a doctor to probe her womb for a helpless baby and dismember the fetus. And today, as debate rages over partial birth abortion, no one demands that a woman be able to give birth to a premature baby and have the doctor crush that child’s skull. The child has been left out of the equation altogether. Instead, the debate always has been and seemingly always will be over a woman’s right to choose. It was never presented an issue of life or death, but an issue of choice. And who, in a free and democratic culture, could deny a person the right of free choice? The debate was over and won before it began. It was over when the abortionists framed the terms of the debate. Kupelian says, “In one of the most successful marketing campaigns in modern political history, the “abortion rights” movement—with all of its emotionally compelling catchphrases and powerful political slogans—has succeeded in turning what once was a crime into a fiercely defended constitutional right.”

This battle was won with catchphrases such as:

  • “Women must have control over their own bodies.”
  • “Safe and legal abortion is every woman’s right.”
  • “Who decides? You decide!”
  • “Abortion is a personal decision between a woman and her doctor.”
  • “Freedom of choice—a basic American right.”

Interestingly, feminists are now turning against choice. Choice, it seems, has come to haunt feminists. Why? Quite simply, far too many women, in the opinion of these feminists, are choosing to forsake their careers in favor of full-time motherhood. Choice has spilled over the from the abortion debate and has impacted all of feminism. Some women, it seems, are not using their right to choose in a way that pleases the more radical feminists.

In the final days of 2005, Linda Hirshman wrote a harsh critique of such women in a much-discussed article entitled “Homeward Bound.” “ ‘Choice feminism’ claims that staying home with the kids is just one more feminist option. Funny that most men rarely make the same ‘choice.’ Exactly what kind of choice is that?” She documents the failure of “choice feminism” and proposes that the word “choice” be removed as the hallmark of the feminist agenda. She proposes that, rather than offering women choice, society must offer women solutions they can enact on their own. She further proposes three rules that women must follow: Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don’t put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry. Appended to the three rules is just one more: a woman should never have more than one child. “A second kid pressures the mother’s organizational skills, doubles the demands for appointments, wildly raises the cost of education and housing, and drives the family to the suburbs. But cities, with their Chinese carryouts and all, are better for working mothers.” In short, a second child requires a greater committment and increases the likelihood that a mother will enact her right to choose and elect to stay home with the children.

Wendy McElroy, editor of ifeminists.com, discusses some of the impact of this move away from choice in the future of feminism:

On abortion. The words choice and pro-choice will be de-emphasized. Instead, stress will be placed on weighing the rights and health of the woman against those of the unborn with the clear message that the woman takes precedence.

On sexual harassment. The argument will not change because it has proven successful but the approach will be broadened to include male victims, especially boys. For example, the latest survey from the American Association of University Women on school and campus harassment reports on male victims.

On domestic violence. The argument will not change and the approach will not be broadened significantly. In gender feminist theory, domestic violence is key to establishing that traditional marriage is a dangerous place for women.

McElroy, in disagreement with Hirshman, tell her readers what she feels is the best “feminist line” for our new century. “Your peaceful choices are yours alone and no one else’s business. Be a housewife, love your children without a time schedule…or dive into a 24/7 job that you get on merit. Live your own dream. Be your own woman.”

It is clear that a shift is occuring within feminism. Whether a rift grows along the “choice” fault line or along another, change is afoot. If there is a lesson that Christians ought to have learned from the first few decades of feminism, it is exactly what Kupelian sought to make clear in The Marketing of Evil: the person who frames the debate will win the debate. We, as Christians, need to keep abreast of these changes and, if and when possible, seek to have a voice in the framing of this debate and so many others. Once the terms have been set in stone, the debate may well have already been lost.