The controversy surrounding the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act calls to mind a pivotal scene from the film “Thank You For Smoking.”
During a Senate hearing on a proposed (and graphic) warning label on cigarette packs, former tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor, played by Aaron Eckhart, decides to testify despite being recently fired by Big Tobacco.
Up until this point in the movie, Naylor has masterfully dodged the question of whether smoking causes cancer and other health problems, thanks to his effective use of spin tactics and ability to reframe the argument. What’s ironic is that Naylor’s tactics are necessary because anti-smoking proponents have successfully reframed the argument under the assumed premise that government has a moral duty to ban, restrict, or discourage anything considered unhealthy. Instead of clarifying what the argument is really about, freedom of choice, Big Tobacco funds an Academy of Tobacco Studies to put out quasi-scientific studies counteracting these accusations.
Part of the film’s dark humor is that everyone, including Naylor, knows the truth – that smoking is not healthy – but as a lobbyist he pretends otherwise. The charades can only last for so long, though, and due to his actions in the film, Naylor’s credibility has been tarnished, which is why he is fired. Yet, he still wants to win the argument.
Here, he is faced with a conundrum. Having spent his career creating ambiguity and sidestepping the issue, the only choice left is to tell the truth. So how can he win the debate and tell the truth simultaneously?
The only way is by bringing the discussion back on point.
Thus, when Naylor is asked by a senator whether smoking can be harmful (4:45), rather than skillfully dodge it as before, he admits it can. He brilliantly proceeds to mock the senators for even asking a question to which everyone knows the answer, pointing out that according to their own logic, things such as cheese should be regarded as equally harmful. He then turns the discussion back to the real question: Not about whether smoking is harmful, but whether the government should take it upon themselves to lecture everyone on their life choices.
Watch the senators squirm in their seats as Naylor challenges the unspoken assumption that government has to be involved in people’s health decisions. Having never had to justify their intervention, they have no logical counterargument left except the shameless “think of the children” line, and that is easily dismissed. As Naylor says in so many words, “It’s the parents’ job to teach their kids these things, not yours.”
The entire debate over Indiana’s law is based on a similar reframing of the argument that could be easily as squashed.
Imagine if Indiana Gov. Mike Pence had copied Naylor when posed similarly pretentious questions about discrimination. Imagine if he had said, “Of course, the law allows for discrimination. Everyone discriminates.” Imagine if he had then pointed out forms of discrimination carried out in the public and private sector that are considered “acceptable” by the critics of Indiana’s law. Imagine if he had then declared that people have the right to discriminate when deciding what to do with their property because it is a fundamental aspect of property rights.
We can only imagine, because he didn’t.
Note: For a libertatian perspective on the legality of the law, read Judge Andrew Napolitano’s take here.