Not just the facts—why framing matters

by N. Gabriel Martin

Garbage strewn on a beach
by Antoine Giret

It seems to make sense to start investigating any question by looking at the facts. However, often the question of what the facts are depends on what we decide is worth talking about.

In a second season episode of Mad Men the star of the show, philandering drunkard Don Draper, is enjoying a rare moment of happiness with his family at a picnic. Saying “We should probably go if we don’t want to hit traffic,” he stands up, chucks his beer away, and walks to the car. His wife, Betty, shakes out the picnic blanket, letting their trash loft into the air before settling on the well-kept lawn.

It is one of the most effective demonstrations of the difference between the show’s era and our own (the season is set in 1962). With the taboo against littering firmly instilled in me, as it is in any North American of my generation, I felt a twinge of disapproval at Don’s can toss, followed by horror at the trash strewn around the park by Betty’s careless flick of the picnic blanket. Betty and Don’s efficient and graceful motions came at my generation’s mores like a one-two punch. Don’s toss put me off balance so that Betty’s flick could deliver the knock-out blow.

The Dapers’ utter nonchalance convey that what they’re doing isn’t out of keeping with what is proper. The Drapers are anything but disorderly. In fact, good manners and hygiene have been the sole topic of the dialogue of the scene: Don tells Betty to check their hands before they get in the car; Betty tells her daughter that it is rude to talk about money. These are people who are hyper-aware of what is acceptable and what is not, but evidently there is nothing unacceptable to them about the most flagrant littering.

However effective, the scene is probably a bit of an exaggeration. If you or I went back in time and were as shocked watching it in life as I was on TV, and felt like confronting the Drapers, we probably would have been able to embarrass Betty. We would have less luck convincing Don not to chuck his empty beer can. That was certainly something that people did in the sixties without much thought. But if we really wanted to press our case, we could appeal to Don’s reason. We could point out that he and his family had enjoyed a beautiful spot that he was ruining for others. If we got into an argument with Don Draper about whether littering is okay, we would certainly be butting our noses in in a way that was totally out of proportion to the wrong that we were trying to correct, by the standards of the time, but we would still be right just with respect to what we were arguing. Littering is bad, and if the question is ‘is it okay to litter?’, then the answer is ‘no.’

This is the argument that Keep America Beautiful picked with the American public, but although Keep America Beautiful was right that “Every litter bit hurts,” as their first campaign slogan said, does that mean they were right to tell the Betty and Don Drapers of America not to litter?

There is a question behind any other question, which is ‘why is that the question?’ It is a bothersome question that derails progress. If we asked Betty Draper whether it is okay to litter and she said back to us: ‘why are you asking?’ we would think she was trying to avoid the question. And we would be right, because there is an answer to that question, and it is important to answer it, or at least to try. But sometimes questions should be avoided or turned back on themselves. Changing topics or refusing the terms of questions is not only a tactic of disingenuous politicians, it also has philosophical value. If challenging questions instead of answering them derails the pursuit of truth, it is also invited by the question. Any question, any debate must be formulated. How and whether the question can be resolved is contingent on the way it is formulated. A question can always be formulated in a variety of different ways. The contingency of a question’s formulation raises the question of why and how it is formulated the way it is, and not some other way.

We can see the importance of questioning the formulation of the question if we look at the anti-littering campaign of the nineteen-seventies. The anti-littering campaign was, along with the push for household recycling, part of the beverages, packaging, and petrochemical industries counterattack against regulatory efforts to curb the garbage crisis caused by single-use plastics. Their strategy was to shift public attention away from the production of disposable plastic containers to their disposal, and from industry to consumers.

Threatened by legislative efforts to ban or tax plastic bottles, these industries funded recycling depots and environmental groups like Keep America Beautiful. Household recycling and anti-littering campaigns emphasised the individual consumer’s responsibility for the problems caused by disposable packaging, shifting attention away from their production, and the handful of companies manufacturing them, and derailing efforts to restrict them by legislative means. As a 1965 editorial in the American Soft Drink journal read:  “Great care must be taken that in today’s packaging revolution, an unpleasant side effect is not created in the form of inane and untenable laws restricting our containers. Let’s be sure the laws stay on target—the litterbugs who abuse our countryside.”[i]

Shifting focus onto the individual and their responsibility for the proper disposal of containers was not only effective in attaining its immediate aims, it also bolstered a broader political and philosophical worldview. It reinforced the worldview that saw individual responsibility as the engine of change and locus of moral significance, and denied the ability of social organisation or government intervention to bring about effective and positive change. Anti-littering therefore complemented both the material interests and the ideology of neoliberalism.

Margaret Thatcher ruled out any social or regulatory solution to the waste problem, saying: “This is not the fault of the government. It is the fault of the people who knowingly and thoughtlessly throw it down.”

This limitation of responsibility to the individual litterer was echoed by the title of the soft drink journal editorial quoted above—“Guns don’t commit murder”. [ii] The NRA’s resistance to gun legislation and the beverage industry’s resistance to bottle regulation were both rooted in a political theory that placed the blame for ills solely on individual conscience and refused to accept that social and material conditions, such as the ready availability of disposable containers and firearms, had an effect (let alone that they could be the target of a positive movement for social change and progressive government intervention).

However, the ineffectiveness of taking individual action, compared to what could be achieved with legal restrictions, discredits the jargon of personal responsibility. As the Mad Men scene shows by contrast, anti-littering campaigns have been very effective in their own way, but making sure that trash ends up in the landfill does nothing to decrease the damage done by introducing the disposable products into the environment in the first place. Plastic recycling is relatively ineffective, since the materials degrade so much with every recycling that there is at most one or two steps before a product cannot be recycled. Another problem is that there is low and diminishing demand for recycled materials of various kinds. As a result, less than ten percent of plastics have ever been recycled.

If we go along with the way that the beverage and plastics industries have succeeded in framing the question of whether or not it is okay to litter, then the answer is simple. However, it is worthwhile to take a look at the way that the question has been framed, and the political project it serves, rather than jumping to answer it. If our focus on the facts limits our ability to do the hermeneutic work of evaluating the worldview that makes a certain set of facts relevant. Otherwise, we risk missing the opportunity to address the crises that we face.

[i] Robert Friedel, “American Bottles: The Road to No Return,” Environmental History 19 (July 2014): 505–527.

[ii] Ibid.