Jun 25, 2013

Marriage traditionalists shoot the messaging

There's a consensus growing among marriage traditionalists that they have lost the political and public battles over same-sex marriage. Now, it seems, the fight is over. It's just a matter of time. Whether it was electoral losses that made it seem this way, or polls that show that there've been dramatic shifts of public opinion, or something else, pessimism has won.

There's not a consensus about why, though. There are evolving discussions -- fights? -- trying to come to some conclusion about this. Why did the conservatives lose this? Why did they lose so suddenly, so dramatically, so apparently irrevocably, but most especially just, why did they lose? Even a few years ago, it didn't seem so inevitable.

Nathan Hitchen, of the John Jay Institute, thinks he has the answer. Marriage traditionalists lost because they were too rational. They got carried away by the clear logic of their arguments, and forgot that arguments alone can't sway the body politic.

It wasn't the message. It was the messaging.

Hitchen writes:
Better arguments from natural law, while necessary and helpful, are unlikely to turn the tide of opinion because many people are not convinced rationally in the first place: television, songs, friends, and their own experiences shape their understanding of love and marriage. In short, we are shaped by unconscious influences, social and personal narratives, and emotion [...]. 
What persuades people falls outside the boundaries of classical or formal logic: emotion, deeply held narratives, stories, metaphorical thinking, and ideas that stick in people's minds. There are no mere 'facts' that make sense to an audience as a basis for further reasoning disconnected from the emotional network of beliefs they already hold about their identity.
Hitchen wants the religious right, et al, to learn to deploy emotions, narratives, metaphors, and other extra-logical forces. He thinks the case against same-sex marriage should be re-made, but this time not so strictly logically, not so dependent on theories of Natural Law.

Should happen, and can. The piece is billed a "primer," and offers strategies, practical advice, for winning this culture battle. Practical advice such as:

  • Advocates should counter by telling bigger stories that include both sides in a way that repositions victim and victimizer and changes the hero. Take the revisionist story’s givens and make them not-givens.
  • Pro-marriage messengers could tell personal stories Connection and Creativity plots that tell how they as children had problems that only fathers and mothers together could have solved, thereby generating emotional meaning unique to conjugal marriage. (Emphases original).

A few things:
  1. Suggesting that your opponents haven't been persuaded by your arguments because they're immune to reason is not typically a persuasive argument. It's not a very likely to be appealing to those who have, in the last decade, changed their minds and come to accept or support same-sex marriage. To say people have rejected not just your reasoning, but reason itself, is, at best, demeaning to those you're trying to persuade.
  2. Political opponents of gay marriage have used narratives, emotions, memes, etc. The idea that they haven't is pretty silly, if you remember any of the last 50 years (Adam and Steve? Man-dog? An attack on marriage? Radical homosexual agenda?) One of the main functions of the Natural Law arguments that Hitchen's thinks have failed, recall, was to rationalize and legitimize the once politically successful but now politically unsuccessful argument from disgust.
  3. Hitchens underrates the strongest argument for gay rights, and same-sex marriage specifically, which hasn't been an emotional trick or trope or rhetorical move, but gay people themselves. The main problem with arguments against gay marriage has been that, whether rational or emotional, they're significantly less persuasive to people who know and care about gay people. A story that "repositions victim and victimizer and changes the hero" seems unlikely to touch that. 
It's possible this is the wrong way to think about this primer, though. Maybe it shouldn't be thought of as a plan for new tactics in ongoing political battles, but as a tool to reassure conservatives that even though they feel like they're on the wrong side of history, they're actually obviously right. The primer seems like it will likely work, to the extent it does, to safeguard the message against serious self-questioning. It will re-direct internal criticism to the more incidental matter of messaging.

The fundamental claim being made is that Americans haven't rejected what these people are saying, but just how they're saying it. That seems pretty clearly wrong, but also a comforting thing to tell yourself when you're faced with round after round of rejection.