Framing the Chili Pepper: Kitchen Spice or Chemical Weapon?

Amidst all the commotion around health care reform this week, it was easy to miss another important headline: the Indian military is using the world’s hottest chili pepper as a new weapon in the war on terror.

While some view the bhut jolokia, or “ghost chili,” as simply something for the kitchen, others see potential for a new tear gas-like hand grenade.  It’s all in the way we frame the chili pepper.

We talk about framing all the time – it’s become part of the national lexicon: Republicans framed the health care debate as a government-takeover; Democrats framed it as a means of providing all Americans with health coverage.  But when a term gets used so frequently, it’s often easy to lose site of what it really means.

Some political scientists explain framing as a means of cataloguing, or organizing, complicated policy issues – “not as individual items but as interpretive packages.”  A frame simply presents the public with the heart of an issue: what’s at stake, what it means to a person.  Frames allow lawmakers, researchers, political players, and communication experts to converse more easily with the public.

Framing is how we wrap our minds around something as large and open to dispute as the health care bill — or, something as small as a chili pepper. There are endless debates over different kinds of political frames, the effectiveness of framing, and the limitations of framing.  But, in the end, frames are perspectives based in reality.

The health reform bill is an expansion of government and of health coverage. That’s reality. Chilis are food and chemical warfare. That’s reality too.