Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with reason
Home | Columns | Posts | Topics | Email list | About | Search

Civil Rights Jargon in the Boy Scouts Debate

By Brendan Nyhan (brendan@spinsanity.org)
June 25, 2001
[Email this to a friend]

Everyone in mainstream American politics affirms their allegiance with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In fact, civil rights carries such historical force that politicians and political groups keep trying to use it to frame issues in their favor. Both sides of the affirmative action debate claim that they are the legacy of the civil rights movement, for example. And now, conservatives defending the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) policy excluding gays are alleging discrimination against the Scouts to counter liberal criticism of the policy as discriminatory.

The Boy Scout debate

The BSA policy barring gay Scout leaders or members has become very controversial in recent years. Last year, the Supreme Court upheld the BSA's policy in a 5-4 decision, citing the organization's right to "expressive association" under the First Amendment. But gay and lesbian groups and their allies continue to pressure BSA contributors, supporters and sponsors to distance themselves from the group.

Most recently, the debate has centered on Scout chapters and local schools. A number of school districts have severed sponsorships of local chapters in protest of the policy. In addition, as many as ten school districts appear to have blocked or considered blocking the Scouts' after-school access to school facilities used by community groups. A federal judge has issued an injunction against one such school district for contradicting the Supreme Court ruling.

Enter Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC). On June 14, his amendment to the pending education bill reached the floor. It would strip federal funds from school districts that "[deny] equal access or a fair opportunity to meet to, or [discriminate] against" the Scouts. Opponents contended that the amendment was unnecessary given the Supreme Court decision. Nevertheless, it passed after a long debate on a 51-49 vote. The House had already passed a similar amendment on May 23. (The fate of the amendments, which were contradicted in part by a later amendment in the Senate, will be determined in conference committee.)

Conservatives: fighting anti-Scout "discrimination"

The Scout debate is now focused in part on who is being intolerant and discriminatory - the Scouts, who bar gays, or Scout opponents, who seek to cut off funding and support for the Scouts. While opponents have called the BSA discriminatory and intolerant for some time, the Scouts are now seeking to turn this criticism against their critics, writing on the BSA website that "[i]t is the BSA's critics who are intolerant of the BSA's values".

Helms extends this reversal by framing his amendment as opposing discrimination. It would make discrimination against the Boy Scouts in decisions regarding access to afterschool facilities illegal (what this means in practice is uncertain), use the federal anti-discrimination machinery as an enforcement mechanism and follow procedures set forth in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This strategy echoes the California Civil Rights Initiative (Proposition 209), a 1996 ballot proposition eliminating affirmative action in the state that used rhetoric from the civil rights movement.

Most advocates of the Helms amendment employed matching anti-discrimination rhetoric on the Senate floor. Helms, for example, said that his amendment would direct "the Office for Civil Rights to handle cases of discrimination against the Boy Scouts precisely the same as the Department of Education currently handles other cases of discrimination". Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), for example, echoed Helms: "We are talking about anti-discrimination in this amendment."

The campaign in favor of the amendment outside the Senate was more combative. The most sophisticated jargon came from the Best of the Web column on Opinion Journal, a Wall Street Journal website. The Journal writes that some BSA critics "have dressed up their anti-Scout efforts in old-style segregationist code words ('local control' and the like)".

This is a blatant attempt to associate Scout opponents with segregationists and to associate their opposition with racism. It is true that some opponents of the Helms amendment do cite the need for local control, just as some people did while defending segregation. But that's a trivial similarity that is the cover for some very strategic jargon. "[S]egregationist code words" implies that, though opponents say "local control", they really hate the Scouts in a manner analogous to racism.

Liberals: standing up to "discrimination", "intolerance"

Liberal opponents have had limited success trying to counter this challenge to their anti-discrimination position while at the same time not portraying themselves as opponents of the Scouts. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) led off debate in the House with the statement that her opposition "is not because I object to the Boy Scouts" but "to intolerance". The Boy Scouts, she said, "fought all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to discriminate". Senate opponents such as Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Paul Wellstone (D-MN) were defensive enough to open their statements by stating their opposition to discrimination. Other Democratic senators began their statements by citing their membership in or involvement with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

A more aggressive stance was taken by Scout opponents, who tried to reframe the issue back into standard civil rights terms. For example, Winnie Stachelberg, the political director of Human Rights Campaign, told Reuters that the Helms amendment "is an underhanded attempt to reward those who practice discrimination and punish those who value equality". She uses simple good guy/bad guy civil rights framing here - discrimination versus equality.

Civil rights in the discourse today

Attempts to claim the moral high ground with civil rights jargon are getting out of hand. Fuzzy anti-discrimination claims are being applied to a number of issues, putting the burden on opponents to show that they also oppose discrimination. The debate is polarized by these powerful emotional associations with civil rights and by conflicting civil rights rhetoric that does not directly map onto contemporary debates. We need a new debate for a new era, not more attempts to reframe the present using the emotions and language of the past.

Subscribe to our email list and you'll always know who's trying to spin you.

Home | Columns | Posts | Topics | Email list | About | Search

This website is copyright (c) 2001-2002 by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan. Please send letters to the editor for publication to letters@spinsanity.org and private questions or comments to feedback@spinsanity.org.