Don’t Try the Same Marriage Debate Again

If at first you don’t succeed, you should change your approach. Despite how the Supreme Court rules on Windsor, marriage advocates have been losing cultural headway, particularly among “Millennials,” since 2004. While a legal fight defending religious freedom and liberty of conscience in a post Windsor world is necessary, marriage advocates need to do more than fight rearguard actions. The question is how?

Marriage advocacy must advance in a way that influences culture directly. Influencing culture is more than a matter of rational argument and policy discussion. Better arguments from natural law, while essential and helpful, are unlikely to turn the tide of opinion because people are not convinced rationally in the first place (despite what marriage revisionists may suggest with a “bring it on” posture, begging conservatives to give them “one rational” argument to defend what they believe). Television, songs, friends, and personal experience shape what people believe about love and marriage far more than intellectual argumentation. In short, unconscious influences shape culture in the form of social and personal narratives and emotion. Defending marriage in the long-run is less about winning a debate than changing people’s aspirations.

Same Sex Marriage

Marriage revisionists understand this all too well, and are reaping the benefits of having spent years building up emotional and rhetorical advantages on the issue.

Yet some conservatives seem to operate with rationalist expectations for how people process emotionally charged issues like redefining marriage. The problem is not: “How can we marshal more facts, tighter logic, and make more sense than the other side?” The common sense definition of marriage as a heterosexual union that Christians and other marriage advocates relied on just a generation ago has been transformed. The problem is: “How do we transform common sense?”

The John Jay Institute published You’ve Been Framed: A New Primer for the Marriage Debate last week. The document applies research from cognitive science and narrative theory to equip marriage advocates with the frameworks and tools to transform common sense and counter the messages of marriage revisionists. Transforming common sense requires understanding emotion to invoke narratives and tell stories with new metaphors and memes that take root in people’s minds, slowly changing what inspires them, changing what they aspire to, and transforming what they value.

Moral judgment is more than a dispassionate assessment of rights, harms, and justice. People rely on their moral intuitions to guide their political reasoning, and moral intuitions themselves grow largely from unconscious emotional processes. Thus, marriage advocates should pay as much attention to their arguments’ psychological soundness as to their logic. People reason about their moral judgments from within the personal and social narratives by which they reckon with the world and understand their own identity within it. Thus, Christians and conservatives should view the debate over redefining marriage in terms of invoking or subverting narratives by which people live and express meaning rather than logical truths. By extension, marriage advocates must also be storytellers and submit their personal experiences with heroes—their own moms and dads or those of others—as the beating heart of their motivation to champion the institution. Within those stories that invoke or subvert larger narratives, marriage advocates must be the poets of new political metaphors. Inspirational, persuasive leaders of both political parties (think Reagan or Clinton) have always used metaphor to do the heavy lifting in communicating their vision: “America is a shining city on a hill.” What metaphors do marriage advocates use to enable people to intuitively catch the meaning for why marriage links to the common good? Marriage is our country’s social infrastructure; why don’t we talk about it that way? Lastly, marriage revisionists are influencing culture with a powerful meme (an easily replicable idea that grows into a new viewpoint), namely, “marriage equality.” Marriage advocates need to prioritize subverting revisionist memes like “marriage equality” not with new data and policy papers, but with new memes. Conservatives and marriage advocates must master the techniques to be successful memetic engineers, along the lines of Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller, Inception.

This kind of shift in mind-set is most likely to position marriage advocates to better influence culture in the age of Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook. But You’ve Been Framed is much more than an argument about the need of marriage advocates to use the latest social media. We need a mind-set shift in what has always been more successful at influencing people and culture.

The end of your exploring about that need may lead you back to the beginning of classical education. Whether you prefer the philosophical formation of Plato’s books, or the moral imagination stoked by  J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, modern cognitive science suggests a humane conclusion about the psychology of behavioral change: inspire people to change by making them feel something.

If the marriage movement is to evolve, it has to harness emotion.

Nathan Hitchen works in Washington D.C. and is a John Jay Institute alumnus. Mr. Hitchen has a M.A. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and prior experience as a consultant and researcher in a number of domestic and foreign policy think tanks.

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  • http://themillsmedia.com/ Matt Mills

    Thank you for this; I feel energized and excited just reading it.

  • Adam

    Although there’s some truth here, there is also something very off about the perspective voiced in this piece.

    First, the article dissociates the logical-rational part of human beings and the emotional-narrative part, but there is heavy foot traffic between the two. Moreoever, there should be. You can run into just as many errors by relying solely on left-brained, linear, flat-footed reasoning as via right-brained alternatives. We need both, and they have to act as checks on each other.

    Second, you can’t complain about the lack of substance of your opposition and then adopt their tactics. Would Plato say, “Oh, the rhetoricians hold more sway over the masses so it’s best to dump rational argument and join the scrum on its own terms.” Doesn’t it betray a great deal of bad faith to advise that we reconcile ourselves to the fact that cultural dialogue can only be a propoganda contest?

    Third, advocates of traditional marriage have done a poor job of making rational arguments that start from premises the opposition is likely to share. I think that’s the biggest reason why no one ever listens to these arguments. They don’t have a reason to. If millenials aren’t listening, maybe it is because they cannot identify with the foundations of your argument and not just because they are supposedly mindless sheep.

    Fourth, if all you do is tell stories of heterosexual marriages you admire, then your stories will be irrelevant. The marriage equality crowd is not saying that a heterosexual marriage can’t be a wonderful thing, so telling these stories will be changing the subject in a way that the marriage equality types aren’t when they tell their stories.

    • SebZear

      >Fourth, if all you do is tell stories of heterosexual marriages you admire, then your stories will be irrelevant. The marriage equality crowd is not saying that a heterosexual marriage can’t be a wonderful thing, so telling these stories will be changing the subject in a way that the marriage equality types aren’t when they tell their stories.

      Exactly this. The traditional marriage POV is intrinsically negative, not positive like the marriage equality POV. It’s about “no, you may not” not “yes, you may.” There are simply no stories that elicit positive emotions that can advance the cause of traditional marriage. Furthermore, there aren’t any victims whose negative emotions you can elicit empathy for, not even the children, for their pain can only derive from anxieties produced by heteronormativity.

      Cold, hard argument is all you have, and even that can be demolished in a good debate. It’s no surprise that your opinion that some people shouldn’t seek out someone to love and cherish is on its way to the history books.

  • marquito

    Thank you for this article. My wife and I have been in an ongoing discussion on how to speak about the marriage issue with our children. To be honest, we have been terrified by what is happening; how marriage has been devalued and what is to come. We have also noticed the devaluing of marriage was coming along way before the same-sex marriage debate started. We’ve been destroying the institution for the last 50 years. The result has been a generation of kids who aren’t even thinking about marriage, being more concerned with career, prosperity and security, and the acquisition of things; including someone to satisfy their needs… a person or people to be used along the way. In fact, the only context in which they are hearing about marriage is in the context of same-sex relationships which are painted to seem almost angelic in their nature, while heterosexual marriages are falling apart all around them.

    So I agree with you and this is the position my wife and I have taken. We want to inspire our children by our own example, rather than simply talking about Biblical principles. We need to show them Biblical principles along with 2 people deeply in love with each other. Authenticity is key too; we are broken, we mess up, we fail, but we love each other. Above all, we need to be an example of a covenantal marriage with God at the center. Thank you for affirming this for us. I will share this with my wife.

  • Matthew Loftus

    If our goal is to advance a political agenda, it does not matter how far we back it up upstream culturally or how good we are at creating memes.

    If our goal is to help God-honoring marriages flourish– actual marriages, between flesh-and-blood people– I suspect the memes will come from creative Christians going about their daily work in the midst of the work to support families who are stable and help kids from families who are not. And maybe then we’ll get around to building some loving relationships with some flesh-and-blood GLBT people?

    I see a lot of conservative hand-wringing nowadays about what a bad job we are doing at advancing a political agenda and a lot of strategizing about shifting the locus of control from point A to point B. I don’t see much discussion about policy alternatives that encourage family formation, nor much confidence in things like preaching, teaching, discipling, evangelizing, and just havin’ folks over for dinner.

  • ck

    I am a heterosexual baby boomer who has tried to understand all perspectives on most issues. During my lifetime my views on homosexuality and society have evolved along with many of my colleagues. Marriage equality makes a great deal of sense to me based on much study and thought. Still I have tried to honestly understand the opposition. I was raised a Christian and still hold the religious values upon which I was raised. The arguments against marriage equality simply do not engage my understanding. I could not care less whether couples want children or if their genitalia match. Tradition is not a good enough reason to deny other human beings equality and dignity. Frankly your claim that rational argument exists only on the anti side is so insulting that I’m tempted to stop trying to gain insight. If you want to engage your opposition, try some respect.