Definitional argument: Nevada's commercial UAV debate and the case of threatened prosperity.

Author:Eisenstadt, Michael


Definitional argument; threatened prosperity; drones; regulation; symbolic formula


In December 2013, Nevada, in general, and the Las Vegas area, in particular, were one of the six sites granted a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to enter the market for commercial Unmanned [sic] Aerial Vehicle (UAV) testing, distribution, and use beginning in 2015. Even before this occurred, many types of UAVs, commonly referred to in public discourse as drones, had already taken to the skies in Las Vegas. Drones were initially advertised to the financial elite. For the modest sum of $20,000, patrons of Marquee Nightclub at the Cosmopolitan could receive bottle service performed by drone (Stampler 2014). Integrating a variety of UAV technologies into commercial airspace, however, was not a universally popular idea. Although there was no established movement opposed to commercial drone development in Nevada, public opinion data suggested there was fertile ground for such a movement.

Most citizens nationally opposed the FAA's decision to test commercial UAV markets. According to Pew Research, 63% of adult U.S. citizens said a policy legalizing the use of commercial drones in U.S. airspace "would be a change for the worse; only 22% thought it would be for the better" (Feltman 2014). In some cities, pushback against commercialization policies resulted in collective citizen action. These efforts enjoyed considerable success in resisting policies expanding airspace for UAV use by private companies. For example, angry protests in Seattle "tabled any drone ambitions" the city may have had, even after several UAVs were purchased with federal grants (Sorcher 2013). In addition, the emergence of "genuine" movements in Virginia and Florida pressured the states to pass "historic bills" prohibiting domestic UAVs; a sign that "a wider dialogue" was developing over the public risks associated with commercializing drones (Crump and Stanley 2013). In response to this dialogue, the FAA was tasked with producing a set of comprehensive federal regulations on domestic UAV development and use.

In the FAA Modernization Act of 2012, Congress instructed FAA to establish guidelines for drone use that would result in a set of comprehensive federal regulations (DiSilvio 2016). FAA introduced a number of regulatory measures that would build toward a comprehensive national policy; most significant, though, was FAA's move in late 2013 to establish six "sand boxes" that would inform the agency and the public on the impact of commercial UAV usage and therefore heavily influence federal regulations (Suarez 2013). The six test sites allowed states to practice "various drone privacy approaches" before regulations were adopted at the federal level (Suarez 2013). FAA's goal in establishing six test sites was to assess commercial UAV development so that drones could be safely integrated into commercial airspace. Nevada was one such test site. In Nevada, unlike other states, there was not a consensus that a policy commercializing UAVs was dangerous. As I will demonstrate later, one explanation for this was the unique set of economic conditions Nevada faced. These economic conditions contributed to a worldview favoring commercial UAV development and testing. While this worldview was not the only one present in Nevada, it was the more powerful one that won out.

In the battle over commercial UAV testing in Nevada, there was an issue of two competing worldviews. The first worldview was that a policy commercializing UAVs posed serious safety and privacy risks for citizens. Anti-drone activists argued that regulating UAVs was necessary to ensure citizens were guaranteed safety and privacy. These arguments often conflated tiny remote aircrafts with the "weaponized, ghostlike military spy aircraft that lurked over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, killing ... civilians and children" (Michel 2014). In some places, such as Florida, Virginia, and Washington, these arguments resonated strongly; "the public was spooked," and civil liberties groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) "raised alarms" (Michel 2014) that contributed to state moratoriums on commercial UAV development. However, this was not the only worldview present in Nevada.

The second worldview in Nevada was that commercializing UAV technologies was a key source of future economic development; that the potential jobs the UAV industry offered would go elsewhere if not Nevada, and that there was no immediate threat to testing commercial UAV markets. Pro-drone advocates capitalized on the absence of comprehensive federal regulations and framed commercial UAV restrictions as obstructions to a vision of economic development. Regulations, according to pro-drone advocates, were barriers to effective drone development. This worldview validated an existing attitude, that economic development outweighed regulations as a public good. The battle in Nevada best can be understood as a contest between competing definitions of the world and the proper role of regulation within Nevada, resulting in "the all-too-familiar battle that pits regulation against the profit-efficiency motive" (Michel 2014). Pro-drone commercialization advocates interpreted FAA regulations as the primary obstacle "keeping the U.S. from launching into what will be a multibillion dollar industry" and criticized the FAA "as if it was a regulatory boogeyman" (Michel 2014). The second worldview, found in many contexts in Nevada, was much more powerful than the first and won out. In Nevada, unlike other places, the issue of commercial drone development and testing centered on two competing definitions of the world.

Pro-drone advocates argued regulations were barriers to economic development while anti-drone activists contended regulations were a public good, necessary to ensure citizens' safety and privacy. Key to identifying how pro-drone arguments quiesced anti-drone activists in Nevada is tracing the arguments made by pro-drone advocates that shifted the terms of the dispute. The dispute was initially between those who saw economic development as the dominant value and those who focused on safety and privacy as the key value defining how drones should be viewed and regulated. In this essay, I argue pro-drone groups redefined the frame of reference for UAV commercialization in terms of economic prospects using a particularly powerful symbolic formula composed of three interrelated characteristics. These are unified by the theme threatened prosperity.

Previous work has thoroughly examined how definition can shape public opinion (Jones and Rowland 2015; Rowland and Jones 2010; Schiappa 2003; Zarefsky 1988, 2007). What is needed is a tool for explaining how rhetorical definitions produced by movement advocates and opposition possess the power to galvanize a movement or quiesce it before it can reach the inception stage. If groups in a power structure are opposed to the agenda of a movement they can act to prevent a movement from coalescing before it achieves significant public attention. The symbolic formula of threatened prosperity is context dependent. It will not work in every case, but it resonated strongly because of perceived economic conditions in Nevada. This symbolic formula, drawing on economic conditions to quiesce the public, prevented organized resistance from developing into the inception stage and precluding close citizen discussion.

In what follows, I build on existing theories of definition to illustrate how argumentative patterns can undercut potential movements. Then, I specify the three characteristics of a symbolic formula composed of interrelated discursive and situational elements, unified by the idea of threatened prosperity. Finally, I show how pro-drone advocates in Nevada utilized the formula in order to prevent social protest from coalescing. To build this argument, I first turn to the power of definition.

Definition and competing worldviews

One of the key developments in argumentation theory has been the recognition of the power of definitional argument to shape argumentative practice and public understanding (Weaver 1953; Zarefsky 1986, 1988, 2004; Zarefsky, Miller-Tutzauer, and Tutzauer 1984). Definitions, Zarefsky (1988) has claimed, are "fundamental units of argument" (4). The renaissance in the study of definitional argument can be largely attributed to Zarefsky and his former student Schiappa. Zarefsky (1988) noted that definitional argument takes many forms, including a stipulated definition, "persuasive definitions" in which "favorable or unfavorable connotations of a given term remain constant but are applied to different denotation" (7). Definitions can also take the form of a "condensation symbol," which condenses connotative meaning in a single perspective (Zarefsky 1988, 8). Alternatively, definitions can function as a form of "frame-shifting" in order to change the way a given topic is perceived, placing it "in a different light" or new political dimension (Zarefsky 1988, 8).

Previously, case studies in argumentation regarding the power of definition have typically focused on how individual terms are invoked to change the way a given topic is perceived. In his keynote essay on definition at the Alta conference on argumentation, Zarefsky (1988) argued that sometimes "what really is being defined is not a term but a situation or a frame of reference" (5). While the concept of definition in regards to situation and framing are "related concepts with currency" in fields such as sociology and political science, "they have not interpenetrated with argumentation studies" (Zarefsky 1988, 5). This gap in argumentation studies is significant, as Zarefsky (1988) noted:

There are interests at stake in how a situation is framed. The definition of the situation affects ... whether or what action should be taken. It highlights elements of...

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