The Left has had some success in its push to redefine marriage, for readily apparent reasons: They dominate the media, they dominate the academy and, as we saw last week, they dominate the courts. Certainly dominance in the elite sectors of opinion-shaping helps.
But the Left also has deployed three distinct tactics: First, they’ve been successful at oversimplifying the issue, personalizing it and refusing to engage the complexities of social reality. Second, they’ve implied that the LGBT community speaks in one voice. And third, they’ve demonized their opponents as “bigots” and “haters.”
We need to better understand the Left’s strategy, for there are lessons here.
Who could be against expanding benefits for more people? That’s the first technique the Left used: Oversimplify the issue while personalizing it. Redefine marriage so more people get health care or tax exemptions or whatever other grab bag of goodies you want to focus on. (Never mind that you don’t have to redefine marriage to solve policy problems.)
Viewed in this light, the marriage debate is like so many other liberal-conservative divides. Take almost any bad social or economic policy. It’s easy to identify the winners—the family getting Obamacare, the corn farmer getting a subsidy, the bank getting bailed out, the worker making an inflated wage. These all can be cast as stories of people getting “stuff.”
Conservatives rightly argue that these bad policies come with significant social costs. But although it’s easy to point to those who get themselves some government pork, it’s harder to explain how as a result everyone’s health care now costs a little bit more and quality increases more slowly, how we’re all drinking ridiculous corn syrup instead of sugar in our soda, how fewer entry-level jobs are open when you force businesses to pay more than they can afford.
The same is true of the marriage debate. It takes effort and discipline to explain how an institution like marriage works, what its public purpose is and what the social costs are—especially to the least advantaged—if we redefine it. The Left deploys empty slogans—“marriage equality”—without ever saying what marriage is or why marriage matters, and then tells moving stories about same-sex couples who just want to love each other and have the same “rights” as anyone else.
This is hard to counter, but it can be done. And we have to do a better job at it. We need to call out the Left when they oversimplify complex human realities. We also need to effectively communicate complexities using stories and examples.
The Left’s second technique is to disparage dissenters. Marriage revisionists mimic the tactics of abortion advocates. Pro-life women have been demeaned as women-in-name-only. Now gays and lesbians who oppose redefining marriage are described as self-loathing. Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer claim to speak for all women on abortion, while Andrew Sullivan and Zach Wahls are held up to speak for all LGBT families.
It is a strategy expressly devised to marginalize the experiences of folks like Bobby Lopez (see his article “Growing Up With Two Moms: The Untold Child’s View”) and Doug Mainwaring (who was raising his kids with his partner when he realized they needed a mom—his ex-wife—and wrote “I’m Gay and I Oppose Same-Sex Marriage”).
We need to do more to make heard the voices of such brave people. And in doing so we’ll address that first challenge of demonstrating complexities through real-life examples.
Lastly, the Left has tried to bully us into silence. A principal strategy of the forces that have worked for 20 years to redefine marriage has been cultural intimidation—threatening defenders of marriage with the stigma of being “haters” and “bigots.”
They’ve said anyone who disagrees is the equivalent of a racist. They’ve sent a clear message: Stand up for marriage, and we will, with the help of our media friends, demonize and marginalize you. Just ask Dan Cathy, president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A.
And now this last technique has made its way into a Supreme Court decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion that the only reason Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996 was to “disparage,” “injure,” “degrade,” “demean” and “humiliate” gay and lesbian Americans.
This kind of grotesque incivility is toxic. The fact that it is part of a majority opinion is not just outrageous but frightening.
When it comes to how we should engage this issue publicly, I agree with President Obama. When he “evolved” on marriage 14 months ago, Obama insisted that this debate was legitimate, that there were reasonable people of goodwill on both sides.
He explained that supporters of marriage as we’ve always understood it (a male-female union) “are not coming at it from a mean-spirited perspective. They’re coming at it because they care about families.” He added that “a bunch of ’em are friends of mine . . . you know, people who I deeply respect.”
We all should treat people on both sides of the marriage issue with respect. The debate over the meaning and purpose of marriage will continue, and we should conduct it in a civil fashion. The only way the bullies win is if we choose to be intimidated into silence.
So we marriage advocates must continue speaking out. But we also need to learn how to state our case succinctly and winsomely: Marriage is the way that societies from time immemorial have united a man and woman as husband and wife to be mother and father to any children born of their union. That’s how children are provided with the precious gift of being brought up in the publicly supported bond of the mom and dad whose union gave them life.
Let’s refuse to be cowed into silence. Let’s redouble our efforts to help our fellow citizens to understand what every political community prior to the year 2000 understood.
Catchy slogans can address complicated issues for only so long. Eventually reality prevails. Silencing dissent may be possible at first, but over time more and more people find their voices.
Bullies may intimidate for a season, but in the end truth wins out.