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“Now you must raise your children up in a world where that union of man and box turtle is on the same legal footing as man and wife…”
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Posts for August, 2013


Rob Tisinai

August 19th, 2013

Stop for a moment and note your reaction to this entry’s headline. Specifically:

1. What was your first thought about what it meant — your first interpretation?

2. What your immediate feeling, your gut response, to that interpretation?

3. How do you feel about the person saying it?

Note those things. We’ll come back to them later.

That headline is a quote from a new strategy document for opposing same-sex marriage (short version here). That quote is offered as a good thing for our opponents to say in public. That quote, to me at least, is a good example of why our opponents are doomed to fail.

The John Jay Institute issued this strategy document, and it’s worth reading:

This paper explores findings from a growing body of research from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and narrative theory to inform how to take a more sophisticated approach to communicating in the marriage debate. It offers new opportunities for understanding, developing, and using persuasion informed by cognitive science and narrative theory to advance traditional marriage and counter marriage revisionism.

Basically, it’s built on the growing mounds of evidence that people don’t reason their way to conclusions, especially on complex moral issues. Conclusions come from the gut, and reason is an afterthought, a tool used to support decisions we’ve already made. This is a human tendency, one that cuts across political, economic, and cultural lines.

That makes the John Jay paper a leap in our opponents’ sophistication. Its recommendations are likely to start popping up in their communications. The paper deserves an in-depth analysis, but for now I want to focus on this one horrendous bit of it, because it illustrates just how tone-deaf our opponents are, and how difficult it is for them to put science into practice.

The headline comes from a section on how to use metaphor in the marriage debate. They claim that one of our metaphors is “A HOMOSEXUAL COUPLE IS A HETEROSEXUAL COUPLE.” (All these caps are from the original, sorry.) Or, as our side phrases it (infinitely better): Same love. A same-sex committed relationship deserves the same status as one involving opposite-sexers.

The John Jay paper says the way to undermine our metaphor (I’m not sure they know what a metaphor is) is to focus on “the ability of husbands and wives to contribute to the common good through the creation and perpetuation of family.” In other words, it’s not the same love, because we can’t have kids.

It’s hard for me to let that pass (same-sex couples can’t create and perpetuate families?), but let me leapfrog it to get to what’s even worse. The John Jay folks anticipate we”ll rebut them by pointing out that society allows infertile opposite sex couples to wed — and here’s the John Jay comeback to that:

Use this metaphor to counter revisionist arguments about infertile marriages: AN INFERTILE MARRIAGE IS A PROFITLESS COMPANY.

They go on to give a reasoned explanation of the metaphor, but keep in mind that a reasoned explanation is not the point. The point is to reach people in a quick, gut-level way. So let me share my gut-level responses.

1.  The metaphor says that an infertile marriage is a failure, pointless, unlikely to survive and probably not worth saving anyway.

2,  My gut-level reaction is astonishment and contempt that someone could be so callous and blind to the value of committed couples who can’t birth children.

3. My feeling about the person saying this thing is that they’re, well, callous and blind. My reaction is that I don’t want to be on their side.

But here’s how John Jay describes the metaphor:

US law incorporates businesses and levies particular taxes tailored to corporate profits. The rationale for this is that as a category of activity, commercial enterprise generates profits. Yet, a commercial enterprise that fails to turn a profit was still incorporated and considered a valid commercial enterprise. A profitless company still endorses the ideal of a profitable company, and an infertile couple still endorses the ideal of conjugal marriage.

Wow. All that mumbo jumbo about “an infertile couple still endorses the ideal” is just wishful thinking. It’s pathetically easy to refute. But did you catch that word in the middle: “fails”? If you’re trying to reach people on an emotional level, this notion that AN INFERTILE MARRIAGE IS A PROFITLESS COMPANY is so heartless and offensive that people won’t even stay around to listen to your oh-so-nuanced explanation of what you really meant. And if even if they do listen to it, then their reasoning — based on the notion that reason is generally used to justify our emotional response — will rush to the cause of rejecting it completely.


This John Jay paper lays the groundwork for what our opponents will be doing next. We should be prepared for that. Luckily we’re in the right, in the most human, empathetic, compassionate way, so it won’t be hard for us to dissect that strategy and develop effective responses.

Let’s take the next week or two and do that. I’ll put up a series of posts, and fair warning: if you get ahead of me in the comments then I will steal your ideas without remorse.

This could be fun.