Propaganda analyzed: The threat to honest discussion about marriage

2012-06-24 15:37

You’ve probably read some of the arguments advanced by proponents of the marriage amendment on the ballot in Minnesota this November. I want to analyze one such document for you, to show you why I conclude it is willfully dishonest – not just ignorant, or misguided, but deceitful at every level.

The primary difficulty I face here is that there are multiple ways in which the article aims to create false impressions in the reader’s mind. Pointing out simple errors is easy; pointing out bad arguments which have false premises which are phrased misleadingly is quite a lot harder. Let me start with a purely artificial example, which I call “the lobster warning”. Imagine finding the following warning sign in a restroom stall:

Please do not leave lobsters in the toilets for more than fifteen minutes without flushing. Lobsters, which are marsupials, cannot breathe unless water is moving past their gills.

This is nonsense. Correcting it requires you to address misconceptions, misleading impressions, factual claims, and more. You must explain that lobsters are not marsupials. Furthermore, marsupials don’t have gills, so the claim that lobsters are marsupials is irrelevant to the claim it appears to be supporting. For that matter, lobsters do not need to have water moving past their gills; that’s sharks, and most species of sharks don’t have to move or be in moving water to breathe. Also lobsters are pretty big and might not fit in toilets. And by the time you’ve explained all of this, you have likely forgotten the most important problem with the warning message: It suggests that anyone was likely to leave lobsters in toilets at all, let alone for a long time without flushing.

All that from a simple two-sentence example. Correcting errors in text which hides errors behind other errors can be difficult and confusing; you may have to address multiple separate topics to sort out why an argument is bad, and which of its premises are false or unsupported, and even then you have to remember to point out that the argument isn’t even topical. If you ignore some of the errors, you create a misleading impression that the text isn’t all that bad, but if you do cover all of them, your explanations necessarily tangle and overlap a bit.

A while back, I clicked on a link from a topical ad in a debate about Minnesota’s upcoming vote on a (state) constitutional amendment banning any future legal recognition of gay marriage; it took me to a page run by a group called Minnesotans for Marriage. I was amazed. The article I found was highly skilled persuasive writing, full of substitutions, equivocations, and skilled use of emotionally-laden language and writing to create misleading impressions. This is such an excellent example of intellectual dishonesty that it deserves a careful and detailed analysis.

There are a few reasons that I have chosen this particular article. It is certainly relevant that I feel strongly that the arguments against legal recognition of gay marriage are generally without merit. However, it would be hard to pass up such an example regardless; this really is one of the most thoroughly deceptive texts I’ve ever encountered, and merits closer examination. I am making no attempt to address all of the arguments people have made on this topic; there are honest arguments against legal recognition of gay marriage to be found, they just don’t happen to be found in the article I’m looking at. In fact, if you look in the writings of David Blankenhorn, you’ll find arguments which have a fair number of words in common with these; the difference is that his positions are basically self-consistent. The arguments here are often corrupted versions of his arguments, modified by an inability to resist showing contempt for gays.

The entire piece is in a genre often called FUD, for “fear, uncertainty, and doubt”; the term was coined to refer to an early IBM sales tactic characterized by the slogan “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” The goal is to create a state where people are uncertain and afraid, so they will resist a change unconditionally, and be too emotionally affected to stop and consider the issue carefully.

This text was gathered from http://www.minnesotaformarriage.com/threat/ on June 15th a little before 7 PM Central time. I had JavaScript disabled. The text is the entire body of the piece. The only information not reproduced here that seems relevant to the discussion is a pair of generic-looking photos of heterosexual couples with kids. I’m interspersing comments with their text, but not otherwise editing the text; each quoted block of their article was a distinct paragraph in the original.

UPDATE: Someone pointed out the handy WebCite® service, so the same page is now archived at http://www.webcitation.org/68guDGtba (this copy being as of June 25th).

I am personally convinced that the writers of this piece are being genuinely dishonest. I do not believe that they hold the views they are advancing. I will explain why in more detail throughout this analysis. This is why I have chosen to quote everything I am talking about, in full; people who are dishonest in their writing and argumentation have a suspicious tendency to change their words when called on the dishonesty, and pretend they never said anything otherwise.

For reference, here’s the text of the actual proposed amendment:

An amendment to the Minnesota Constitution is proposed to the people. If the amendment is adopted, a section shall be added to article XIII, to read:
Sec. 13. Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota.

This is not quite identical to the language of some other amendments, which have had unintended side effects. In particular, the Minnesota wording may avoid the side-effect of removing recognition from heterosexual couples whose relationship was not otherwise called a marriage. However, it is not entirely unambiguous; it is not clear whether the word “valid” is subject to the qualifier “as a marriage in Minnesota.” Spelling the alternation out as two sentences, you could read it as either of:

(1) Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid in Minnesota. Only a union of one man and one woman shall be recognized as a marriage in Minnesota.
(2) Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid as a marriage in Minnesota. Only a union of one man and one woman shall be recognized as a marriage in Minnesota.

The latter interpretation affects only the meaning of the word “marriage”; the former extends that to some kind of general claim about validity.

Proponents say that this does not change any existing legalities, but I am unconvinced. I do not know how Minnesota currently deals with relationships which would not be legal to create under Minnesota law, but which are legal in some other states. With the proposed amendment, it is unambiguous that the state of Minnesota would not recognize such relationships.

You may also find a use for a handy copy of Nizkor’s ever so wonderful list of logical fallacies.

Throughout this piece, there are a few broad trends which are worth watching out for. The first is the use of the word “marriage” to refer to three distinct things: cultural traditions, a legal definition, and religious beliefs. These three senses are conflated, and the piece frequently equivocates between them. Claims that apply to only one aspect are applied to the concept as a whole, including aspects where they are nonsensical. The entire piece is built on this confusion. This isn’t as irrational as it might seem; cultural acceptance of interracial marriage, or relatively easy divorce, may well have been influenced by the legal acceptance of these things. But it is also reasonable to suspect that legal acceptance of these things was driven by shifts in cultural views. Comparing the state and Supreme Court rulings in Loving v. Virginia shows clearly that legal understanding can be informed by cultural context.

The second is that the most emotionally powerful arguments are quite consistently placed in subordinate positions in sentences. This is a classic trick of propaganda and other persuasive speech. If you are confronted with an assertion, you will usually evaluate its plausibility and the quality of support offered for it. If that same claim is presented as a premise or presupposition, you are likely to unconsciously assume it to be true. Similarly, qualifiers tend to be accepted more readily, even when they are phrased as assertions. For instance, in the lobster warning, the phrase “Lobsters, which are marsupials” is likely to create an association in the reader’s mind. The claim “Lobsters are marsupials” offered as a sentence by itself would be subject to more careful consideration, and likely rejected as ludicrous. This tactic is particularly effective when the implied claim is emotionally powerful.

The article tends to hide assertions as implications, qualifiers, or other subordinate clauses such that you have to tentatively accept them as true descriptors in order to finish parsing a sentence. For this to happen a couple of times might be coincidence; for it to happen so consistently is evidence that the intent is to deceive.

The article frequently refers to religious liberties, but not to the people whose religious beliefs do allow for recognition of gay relationships as “marriages”. I know of at least one church in the Twin Cities metro area that’s been recognizing marriages between gay couples for about 25 years. It seems that the writers of the piece care only about their own preferences, not about religious liberty as a genuine principle. It is frequently instructive to consider the arguments presented, and substitute “interracial” for “gay”; after all, many people believed, and some still believe, that interracial marriages are sinful, invalid, or otherwise do not really count. However, on that topic most people feel no qualms about asserting that society’s need to recognize such relationships trumps private racism.

Finally, there are a handful of phrases or groupings of concepts which are used heavily without regard to their relevance, most notably the grouping “individuals, religious groups, and small businesses” or close variants thereof (such as using “citizens” for “individuals”). This is an example of a rhetorical device often called a dog whistle, where words are used in a way that evokes particular associations for readers familiar with the phrase. This particular phrase is used to invoke the spectre of governmental meddling interfering with private life, but in none of the cases here are these groups any more affected than other groups; instead, they’re being used to call up emotional responses that dull the reader’s attention to the logical validity of claims. The term “traditional marriage” similarly refers not to marriage as it existed even as far back as the 1950s or 1900s, but rather to a specific set of beliefs about what marriage should be like, some of which are only a couple of decades old.

On to the article:

The Threat To Marriage

Right now, attempts are being made in Minnesota’s courts and in the Legislature to redefine marriage or eliminate it altogether. If activist judges or politicians were to succeed in redefining marriage in Minnesota in the future, there would be profound consequences for religious organizations, individuals, and small businesses—and for society itself.

This paragraph’s emotional impact relies on calling up the reader’s emotional response to the concept of “marriage” as understood culturally or by the reader’s religion, while talking about things that affect only the legal definition of marriage. Nonetheless, the impact described is terrifying; who could fail to be concerned about a proposal to “eliminate marriage altogether”? The passive voice avoids the secondary question: who has made such a proposal? “Eliminate” and “redefine” are mutually-exclusive goals; I’ve never yet met anyone who has both, and the proposed legislation has to do exclusively with redefinition, not elimination. This sentence creates an opening; we are told that some people want to do something bad, but we are not told who they are.

The next sentence exploits the opening the first created. We are now presented with actors, and told that these actors are the ones attempting to redefine marriage. There are several deceits here. The first is the use of “If [they] were to succeed”, which carries the implication that they are trying, without making it as a statement. The second is the substitution of “redefine” for “redefine or eliminate altogether”. The third is that, without stating that the actors in question are the actors omitted in the first sentence, this sentence strongly implies it; rhetorically, stating an action in the passive voice and then identifying an actor has the implication that the actor identified is the actor previously omitted. Although none of the people identified here are trying to “eliminate marriage altogether”, they have been associated with the verb through careful use of language. We were never told who was advocating the elimination of marriage, but we have been given a (false) implication.

The choice of actors is significant, and it is intentional. The actors are not relevant to the claim; if you were to replace them with “anyone”, you would get the claim “If anyone were to succeed in redefining marriage in Minnesota in the future, there would be profound consequences for religious organizations, individuals, and small businesses—and for society itself.” That’s obviously equally true; it doesn’t matter who redefines marriage. The choice of subjects for this sentence is irrelevant, except as a way to create a false impression in the mind of the reader.

The phrase “activist judges and politicians” is itself a part of the message. It is implied that activist judges and politicians are the ones attempting to do something. Non-activist judges, and non-politicians, presumably are not. Of course, this article is itself written in support of a legislative act; that means that it’s supporting a thing done by politicians which would change the nature of our law on this topic. But conjoining “politicians” with “activist judges” allows the writer to invoke the common belief that judicial activism is a thing wherein liberals try to change things without the approval of the people.

The other group of people identified is similarly loaded: “religious organizations, individuals, and small businesses”. This is a modern right-wing checklist. And yet… There is no obvious way in which a change to the legal definition of marriage would affect religious organizations at all. They don’t seem to have been much affected by no-fault divorce, or remarriage after divorce, or the fairly frequent marriages between members of different religions. All of these things happen, all contradict the teachings of some religions, and none are ever forced on religious organizations, because that is not how rights work. Individuals might well be affected by a change to legal recognition, but only insofar as the change affects them personally.

The small business case is interesting because it’s obviously true that businesses, small and large alike, may be affected by legal recognition of marriages; after all, businesses often have to provide benefits to spouses, but not to non-spouses. However, it’s not nearly as obvious that the effect is in any way specific to “small” businesses; that word was just bolted on for appeal to a particular demographic. Small and large businesses alike are affected by these things, but “small businesses” is an emotionally-laden term. The effects on business are not necessarily negative; for instance, recognizing same-sex relationships has been claimed to improve tourism and business climates, which could benefit businesses.

Finally, the term “consequences” has two meanings, referring both to outcomes in general and to negative outcomes in particular. “Profound consequences” is a phrase which does not logically imply negative outcomes, but has a strong enough negative connotation that readers will hear it anyway. The goal of the game is to make people believe something while retaining the option of denying that you said it.

Contrary to what some people think, so-called same-sex ‘marriage’ would not exist in the law alongside traditional marriage, as if it were a different expression of the same marriage institution they have always known. Marriage will be redefined for everyone. Our historic understanding of marriage as the union of one man and one woman would be replaced by a new legal definition of marriage as the union of two adults regardless of gender.

Nice double-whammy; same-sex marriage is treated not only to scare quotes around the word “marriage”, but the extra layer of insult of “so-called”. Both of these are assertions that same-sex marriage isn’t really marriage, and both are placed as presuppositions, rather than asserted directly. Likewise, note the phrase “as if it were”. “As if X were Y” has the implicit meaning “X is not Y”, but tries to slip it through the reader’s defenses.

On to the phrase “redefined for everyone”. This cleverly evokes the idea that a change to recognize gay marriages would somehow fundamentally change other marriages. There have been real cases where “marriage is redefined for everyone” was meaningfully true, and this isn’t one of them. For obvious examples, look at the move away from coverture, or the creation of no-fault divorce. Each of these changes had legal effects on existing marriages. By contrast, allowing other categories of people to be married has no effect on existing marriages.

This also gives us the best example of how the writers blur the line between “government rules about marriage” and “what people personally believe”. In fact, it rises to the level of a claim which is simply untrue. Watch the trickery, here again in slow motion (emphasis mine):

Our historic understanding of marriage as the union of one man and one woman would be replaced by a new legal definition of marriage as the union of two adults regardless of gender.

See the trick? They assert that a historic understanding would be replaced by a legal definition. No, it wouldn’t. That is not what legal definitions do. The legal definition would be altered, as it has been before, but our historic understanding is completely unaffected by changes to the law — just as the law is not immediately changed by changes in historic understanding. The word “replaced” is also used for emotional impact; it implies taking one thing away and giving a different thing. Merely altering a thing is not usually replacement. My dentist did not replace my tooth that had a cavity with a tooth that has a filling; he filled the cavity. Altering the legal rules for, or definition of, marriage does not change the tax implications, the inheritance rules, the legal boundaries, or anything else; it just changes who can qualify. It is an alteration, not a replacement.

This new, redefined version of marriage as a genderless institution would be the only legally recognized definition of marriage in Minnesota. Such a radical change in the definition of marriage will produce a host of societal conflicts that government, exercising its broad enforcement powers, will have to resolve. Citizens, small businesses and religious organizations whose own beliefs, traditions, morals or ethnic upbringing are at odds with the new definition of marriage will find themselves subjected to legal consequences if they do not act according to the new legal orthodoxy. .

(Yes, the extra period was in the original; I assume someone edited out a sentence.)

“Genderless” is a powerfully emotional word, and quite a lot scarier sounding than something like “gender-independent”. The phrase “only legally recognized definition” creates the impression that marriages which are valid under the current definition would somehow be invalidated. This leads into the pure FUD; a “host of societal conflicts” which are not clearly articulated or explained, and a reference to “broad enforcement powers” (another dog whistle). Again, “citizens, small businesses, and religious organizations” are invoked, and again the false claim is made that there would be legal consequences for religious groups that fail to change their beliefs. If this were true, by now the Catholic Church in the US would be legally required to believe that remarriage is always permissible. They’re not; they aren’t even required to perform remarriages for divorcees.

It’s generally true that people whose beliefs, morals, or “ethnic upbringing” (what an interesting phrase!) conflict with the law may have problems with it; this is not specific to a law granting legal recognition to same-sex marriage. Right now people whose beliefs, morals, or upbringing compel them to recognize same-sex relationships face legal “consequences” should they try to act on their beliefs. The phrase “new legal orthodoxy” implies that somehow a hypothetical law which allowed same-sex marriages would be intrusive, in a way that the current law isn’t, but the intrusiveness of the law is unchanged. Presenting this as a risk unique to changes to the law is dishonest; however, it’s effective in an appeal to the people who might be most affected (more on this later).

Legal experts on both sides of the marriage debate agree that the issue has profound impacts on society. Scholars from some of the nation’s most respected law schools have written that the issue implicates a host of issues, ranging from religious liberty, to individual expression of faith, to education and the professions.

More careful omission of details. We are told that marriage law “implicates” (by which it appears they mean “has implications for”) many issues, but the cherry-picked list of issues is telling. “Religious liberty” and “individual expression of faith” are very close to the same thing; it’s a good hot button, so they’re pushing it twice. “Education” is a general catch-all for concerns that schools might teach kids things that contradict what their parents believe. True, but not new; after all, if schools right now teach that only straight people can get married, that also contradicts what some parents believe. “The professions”? I have no clue. It’s probably code for something I haven’t encountered. The use of the definite article implies that specific professions are under consideration, but which ones?

The legal experts, and the “most respected lawsuits” from which the scholars come, are not identified; if they were identified, the reader might be able to find out what they actually said and consider it in context. Instead, we are left unable to tell even whether these scholars are writing in an area in which they have expertise. Why are we talking about legal scholars, rather than social scholars, for instance?

For example, these legal scholars predict “a sea change in American law,” and foretell an “immense” volume of litigation against individuals, small businesses and religious organizations.

And here we are right back to “individuals, small business, and religious organizations”. The phrase “a sea change in American Law” is searchable; web searches yield tons of pages and blog entries all making suspiciously similar points. I did find one which ascribed it to “Mark Stern”, who was at some point a general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, and who does not appear to be a scholar at a law school. The word “immense” is too small a quote to usefully search on.

On the other hand, the volume of litigation question is one you could investigate. Many countries allow same-sex marriage. What’s the litigation like there? The answer is: No one’s identified any. Gay marriage has been legally recognized in various countries for a long time, with open gay relationships and civil unions of various sorts around for even longer, and the fact is, the “immense volume” of litigation doesn’t exist. The vague appeal to an immense volume of litigation is FUD.

Those who do not agree with this new definition of marriage as a genderless institution existing for the benefit of adults – not children — will be treated under the law just like racists and bigots, and will be punished for their beliefs. This is already occurring:

Up until now, we’ve seen only references to the gender-independent nature of marriage, but now suddenly we have a new qualifier: “institution existing for the benefit of adults – not children”. Where did that come from? Who’s been advocating anything of the sort? It’s presented as an aside because it’s emotionally compelling but logically insupportable. Gay couples have been raising children, whether biological children or adoptees, for decades now. It seems pretty obvious that the same benefits legal marriage brings to straight couples raising kids would apply to gay couples raising kids. The subordinate-clause trick is layered, here; you have to temporarily accept the thought of “the new definition of marriage as a …” in order to finish parsing the object of “agree”, which you have to do in order to understand the subject (“those who do not agree with …”). By the time you reach this new assertion, your brain is already engaged in something else and not easily able to evaluate the validity of the implied assertion.

The unsupported premise is wrong; the benefit to children is one of the key ways in which gay marriage is, in principle, like straight marriage — it is a tool for parents to use to ensure better financial stability and clearer lines of inheritance in the event of an untimely death.

On to their list of bullet points. These all rely heavily on the assumption that you will immediately feel uncomfortable with the idea that such things can happen; try replacing “same-sex” with “interracial”, “black”, or perhaps “Jewish”, and you may find that in many cases you think that the described outcome would be perfectly acceptable.

  • Religious groups who have refused to make their facilities available for same-sex couples have lost their state tax exemption.

It is not clear exactly what purpose the facilities would have been available for, but it makes a large difference to the significance of the claim. Would they have been used for a marriage? A party? An all-night rave? We aren’t told. There’s also a distinction between “facilities” in the sense of physical grounds, and “facilities” in the sense of service or support of some kind. We are given a description which could apply to a fairly unexceptional requirement that public businesses serve the public without discrimination, but it’s worded in a way that makes it sound like priests are being compelled to perform gay marriages. Without more details, this is an impossible claim to evaluate, which is of course the point. Furthermore, issues pertaining to tax exemptions for religious groups have other layers of controversy.

  • Religious groups like Catholic Charities in Boston and Washington DC have had to choose between fulfilling their social mission based on their religious beliefs, or acquiescing to this new definition of marriage. They have, for example, been forced to close their charitable adoption agencies.

An interesting case! Note the change from “had to choose” to “have been forced”. No one said “you may not run a charitable adoption agency”. They may have said “you may not run a charitable adoption agency which discriminates in particular ways.” Well, think about that a bit. How would you feel if an adoption agency, which had its operating costs subsidized (directly or indirectly) by the government, were run by people who believe strongly that children should only be placed in homes with white parents, regardless of the child’s ethnicity?

Adoption affects many people, not all of whom have the same beliefs. A “charitable” adoption agency which is not willing to place children in loving homes because of their race or religion is obviously unacceptable; it seems to me that, given the lack of any general government policy permitting discrimination against gay couples, the same issues would apply.

What is perhaps most interesting about this example is that issues involving gay couples adopting children have been around for a long time, and are not contingent on gays being married. This makes the point a red herring; banning gay marriage will have no effect on the requirement that adoption agencies serve gay couples as well as straight couples. The mere fact that, as they note, this has already happened means it is not relevant to a discussion of possible future changes. The proposed change to our Constitution would not prevent this from happening.

  • Nonprofit groups are faced with abandoning their historic mission principles in order to maintain governmental contracts (for things like low-income housing, health clinics, etc.)

This is too vague to tell us anything. What principles were they forced to abandon? Remember, we are talking not merely about doing business privately, but about government contracts. The world is full of religious groups whose ethical standards or policies are incompatible with the requirements of government contracts. Again, this is already the case; the proposed amendment has no effect on it.

  • Whenever schools educate children about marriage, which happens throughout the curriculum, they will have no choice but to teach this new genderless institution. In Massachusetts, kids as young as second grade were taught about gay marriage in class. The courts ruled that parents had no right to prior notice, or to opt their children out of such instruction.

The loaded term “genderless” returns. There’s also the vagueness of “throughout the curriculum”; very little time is usually spent telling people about marriage, rather than merely referring to it. The question of what schools will, or must, teach is not all that closely tied to the state of the law; schools often refer to examples of polygamous cultures, even though polygamy is not legal in the US. Appealing to the desire for absolute control over what kids learn is a great hot-button issue, and historically a strong seller with some parts of the American political landscape. However, it’s not really relevant to this debate. Schools will have to cover this topic to at least some degree regardless of the state of the law.

  • Wedding professionals have been fined for refusing to participate in a same-sex ceremony.

Professional services in general run into the same issues we’d have with interracial relationships or any other kind of discrimination; they are public accommodations, and are not generally permitted to refuse people for being members of protected classes. There is a specific case which may well be what they’re obliquely referring to it; in that case, a wedding photographer was fined for refusing to take photographs of a same-sex commitment ceremony. The use of the word “participate” is highly misleading here; I don’t think anyone would consider a wedding photographer to be a “participant” in the ceremony. For that matter, unless there’s another such case, the use of the plural is inaccurate and misleading.

Representing the outcome as a “fine” is also misleading. The amount awarded reflects no compensation for damages, and includes only attorneys’ fees and costs. A fine is generally a payment made to the state as a punishment. Damage awards might also be viewed as a fine, but being charged only fees and costs is not the same thing at all.

Compare the emotional impact of these two statements:

Wedding professionals have been fined for refusing to participate in a same-sex ceremony.

A wedding photographer was found to have violated state anti-discrimination laws for refusing to photograph a same-sex couple’s ceremony, and was assessed fees and costs, but no damages or fines.

Note the tradeoff the writers face between emotional impact and factual accuracy. Quite simply, there only seems to be one case at issue, no one was fined, and the reason the photographer was sued had nothing to do with anything meaningfully called “participation” in a ceremony.

This is all a distraction from the central deception. In the case in question, the state whose laws the photographer violated does not recognize gay marriages or civil union in any form. It is disingenuous to suggest that recognition of gay marriages would be relevant here, or that banning recognition would prevent such outcomes.

A brief digression on the merits of the case: I accept the basic argument that this is a public accommodation, and is discriminating, but there are interesting arguments about the First Amendment protections against compelled speech. The court concluded that photography does not imply approval or support, and that wedding photography is not sufficiently expressive to in and of itself enjoy First Amendment protection. Eugene Volokh asserts that the First Amendment argument should have been accepted by the courts. The case is interesting, but it does not say anything like what the writers presented it as saying. Furthermore, many ardent supporters of legal same-sex marriage have objections to rulings like this; it is unreasonable to describe it as an outcome of legal same-sex marriage, rather than an outcome of perhaps poorly-structured anti-discrimination laws. It remains worthwhile reading for insight into how discrimination laws work.

  • Doctors, lawyers, accountants and other licensed professionals risk their state licensure if they act on their belief that a same-sex couple cannot really be married. A counselor, for example, could not refuse “marriage therapy” to a same-sex couple because she doesn’t believe in gay marriage. She’d put her licensure at risk.

This is no change from the current situation, where doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other licensed professionals risk their state licensure if they act on their belief that a same-sex couple can really be married. Issues relating to counselors who object to gays have gone to court, in at least one case. In general, it seems that most people figure counselors are welcome to refer patients that they personally wouldn’t be comfortable treating for whatever reason; counseling is a very personal job, and you can’t expect good results from a counselor who isn’t comfortable with the patient. And, as with the others, this is not a thing which would be noticably changed by a change in the legal recognition of gay marriage.

  • Those people – a strong majority of Minnesotans – who believe marriage is between one man and one woman, would be the legal equivalent of bigots for acting on their heartfelt beliefs. Refusal to accommodate and recognize same-sex “marriages” would be the equivalent of racial discrimination. Not only will the law penalize traditional marriage supporters, but the power of government will work in concert to promote this belief throughout the culture.

The claim about a majority is another false claim given as an aside so you won’t question it. Back in January or so, feelings on this amendment were about 48-44 in favor; as of early June, they were about 49-43 against. Of course, that’s not quite the same test as “believing that marriage is between one man and one woman”. There are people who personally think that marriage is a one-man/one-woman thing, but who would like the government to respect gay marriages anyway. The same poll shows 47-42 support for legal recognition.

This paragraph has lots of emotional language, such as the scare quotes around “marriages”, and loaded terms like “heartfelt beliefs” and “traditional marriage”. “Legal equivalent of bigots” is a misleading phrasing, because bigotry isn’t illegal; discrimination is. And that is sort of the point; no one cares whether you have a “heartfelt belief” that black people are criminals, what they care is whether you refuse to serve or hire black people in your restaurant. By conflating treatment of people who actually act in a discriminatory fashion with treatment of people who believe particular things, the writers confuse the issue. The loaded term “heartfelt beliefs” is used with the implication that heartfelt beliefs are automatically acceptable. Presumably, the KKK’s founders were insincere.

There is no right to harm people, even when you are acting on heartfelt beliefs. This is another emotional appeal which does not stand up to consideration, and another example showing that the changes people are afraid of have already happened, and are not conditional on legal recognition of gay marriage.

Perhaps most importantly, shifting the focus of our marriage laws away from the interests of children and society as a whole, and onto the desires of the adults involved in a same-sex relationship will result in the most profound long-term consequences. Such a paradigm shift says to children that mothers and fathers don’t matter (especially fathers) – any two “parents” will do. It proclaims the false notion that a man can be a mother and a woman can be a father – that men and women are exactly the same in rearing children. And it undermines the marriage culture by making marriage a meaningless political gesture, rather than a child-affirming social construct.

Again, the real claim is hidden in a subordinate clause. This is a repeat of the claim that gay marriage is an instiution for the benefit of adults rather than children, but “and society as a whole” has been bolted on. Furthermore, the contrast is no longer between children and “the adults in a relationship”, but “the adults involved in a same-sex relationship”.

This is clear evidence that the writers are insincere. They are deceitful, not mistaken. If the writers genuinely believed their claim that marriage would be meaningfully changed for everyone, then what would be at issue would not be “the desires of the adults involved in a same-sex relationship”, but “the desires of the adults involved in any relationship”. But they don’t believe that. They do not believe that straight couples would find their relationships changed.

The writers also implicitly assert that gay couples are not concerned for children, but offer no support for the claim. It’s false; gays and straights alike love their children. It’s true that most gay couples do not have biological children, but there are many gay people who end up with biological children and then raise them with a partner, and gay couples who adopt children.

There is something strange about the phrase “says to children that mothers and fathers don’t matter (especially fathers)”. Where does “especially fathers” come from? I don’t know, but I have a guess. The writers are aware that women are already much more likely to support legal recognition of gay marriages. The people who can still be scared out of thinking about it are predominately male, and that means that scaring them with the thought of being dismissed as not mattering is a great tactic, even though it makes no particular sense.

“It proclaims the false notion that a man can be a mother”, they say. Well, not really; gay couples consistently identify as two mothers or two fathers, not as a father and a mother. This, like the use of the word “genderless”, is aimed at making gay marriage seem like a threat to gender distinctions. Humans seem to have strong instincts about gender identities; making this seem like a threat to gender identity makes it seem scarier, but contradicts reality.

There’s been no real evidence that two fathers, or two mothers, are any worse as parents than a mother and a father. This is not at all the same as the claim that “men and women are exactly the same in rearing children”. It is equivalent to the claim “men and women are equally capable of rearing children”, or the claim “children grow up equally well-adjusted and successful whether their parents are of the same sex or not”, but those claims aren’t spooky sounding enough. The emotional appeal is to the fear that somehow gays will erode gender roles and identity, but it’s entirely rooted in speculations invented by the writers, and unrelated to actual gay couples raising kids.

Finally, we get to the assertion that changing laws to recognize same-sex couples would be “making marriage a meaningless political gesture, rather than a child-affirming social construct”. Emotionally powerful and unsupported, it goes in a subordinate clause. Marriage has never been exclusively about “child-affirming”. My grandfather got married long after his wife had died and his kids had grown up and moved out. I remember my stepgrandma fondly; she would always make me delicious buttered toast. Their relationship was in no way any more “child-affirming” than a gay relationship — there was no possible way those people could have reproduced without miraculous intervention. So what? They clearly loved each other.

The false dichotomy between “child-affirming social construct” and “meaningless political guesture” is especially offensive. I have a standing offer on that one; we will line up ten straight couples who have spent more than a year’s income on fertility treatments and still failed to have kids, and if you can walk down that line looking them in the eye and telling them that their relationship is not meaningful or valid, I will accept that you sincerely believe that a childless marriage is somehow less valid. If you can’t do that, then any such claim is obviously insincere.

A brief digression: Yes, I’m aware of a recent study which purports to show differences between gay and straight parenting. It groups any and all people who have at least one parent who had a gay relationship between when the child was born and when the child turned 18 as children of “gays”, and is considering only people over 18 — meaning that none of these people grew up with parents who were married gay couples; instead, the majority of children classified as being raised by a “gay” parent involve a heterosexual couple in which one partner had an affair. Meanwhile, only children from two-parent households with no divorce were considered as raised by “straight” parents. That’s not a meaningful result. Studies looking at children being raised by gay couples have found no such differences.

When marriage ceases to have its historic meaning and understanding, over time fewer and fewer people will marry. We will have an inevitable increase in children born out of wedlock, an increase in fatherlessness, a resulting increase if female and child poverty, and a higher incidence of all the documented social ills associated with children being raised in a home without their married biological parents.

The writers ignore the fact that the “historic meaning” of marriage has been changing all along, especially for the last few centuries. We are told that there will be an “inevitable” increase in children born out of wedlock (what, you mean the one we’ve been having for the last century or so?), in fatherlessness (ditto), female and child poverty (ditto), and… oh, look.

Here’s the money shot. “A higher incidence of all the documented social ills associated with children being raised in a home without their married biological parents.” The trick here is not in the factual claim; it’s true that children who grow up with married biological parents are statistically better off. That is because there are so many things which can go wrong which would harm the children and also result in them no longer being raised by their married biologicla parents. Divorces are a source of stress, absent parents are not a source of support or affection, and so on. There are some studies showing worse treatment from step-parents than from biological parents, but studies of adoption show much less difference. Insofar as adoptive families have worse outcomes, that’s for the same reason that hospitals have such a high incidence of sick and injured people; adoption only comes into play when something has already gone wrong.

In short, while the correlation exists, there is nothing showing that the advantage comes from the parents being biological, rather than from the circumstances that lead to the formation of other child-rearing relationships. Parents being married does seem to help, but the way to make more married couples is not to prevent some couples from getting married.

Gay couples have been adopting children for decades. Adoption has been a part of our world for as long as we’ve had written language, or longer. And the real comparison is not between adoptive families and biological ones, but between adoptive families and none at all; there are always more children who need homes than there are homes with space for a child. The implied attack on adoption is unconscionable, but it is only by drawing attention to the statistically better outcomes of biological families that the authors can create the implication that gay parents are worse for kids. To the writers, shattering and attacking loving families is an acceptable price to pay for a way to make gay parents look bad.

Furthermore, this line of “reasoning” (I use the term broadly) contradicts previous claims. If the previous assertion that gay couples won’t raise kids is correct, then allowing gay marriage won’t have any effect on kids. The only way gay marriages affect kids is if the gay people are already raising those kids — and in that case, then we’ve just been told that the kids would be better off if their parents were allowed to get married.

The next layer of misdirection is the implication that allowing gay marriage will somehow undermine the institution of marriage. It’s a bit late to worry about that. As one commentator quipped, “Rush Limbaugh charges Obama has declared war on marriage. Limbaugh’s first, second, and third wives could not be reached for comment.” There is no proposed mechanism by which allowing gays to marry legally could undermine the instiution of marriage, and doing so has not produced observable harmful effects. Indeed, other commentators have recognized that they were wrong about the alleged threats of gay marriage. David Frum, by confronting the facts about the outcomes of legal recognition of gay marriages, has shown that he was genuine and sincere in his beliefs about the dangers of gay marriage. When he found that the dangers were illusory, he conceded the point.

Ultimately, we as a society all suffer when we fail to nourish a true, thriving marriage culture founded on the truth experienced by virtually every civilization in every nation since the dawn of time – marriage is the union of one man and one woman.

Again, the big claim is tossed out as a subordinate clause so you won’t spot it: that “virtually every civilization in every nation since the dawn of time” has believed this. The phrase “every civilization in every nation” is a mystery to me, because I always thought that civilizations could contain more than one nation, or that nations could come and go over time. But let’s say we just call it “culture”. There’s a whole lot of cultures that have recognized other kinds of marriages, with the most obviously relevant being polygamy. Polygamy was so unexceptional to the writers of the Bible that it is simply taken for granted that not only could you marry more than one person, you could have a moral duty to do so.

Now, a few followup thoughts. The broadest observation is that this whole piece is a shell game; you spend all this time looking at their arguments against gay marriage, but somehow that never quite turns into an argument for their proposed constitutional amendment. We never do find out why their proposal to pass a law is a good idea, but it’d be horrible for anyone else to be allowed to pass a law. The big claims are unsupported, and usually buried in subordinate clauses. The examples of possible bad outcomes of legal recognition of gay marriage are either genuinely implausible, or are things that have already happened and will continue to happen with or without the proposed amendment.

That’s not just poor argumentation. It’s a very thoroughly dishonest presentation which relies on trickery and games to try to get you to accept unsupportable claims, or at least to think them plausible just long enough to make you afraid. The core selling point here is fear: fear of change, fear of “consequences”, fear of possible futures. It’s equivocations, and slippery slopes, and purely linguistic trickery to try to get you to accept claims without questioning them.

It isn’t just that the article’s claims are unpersuasive; they are contradictory, and cannot all be true at once. But it’s not about truth. It’s about emotions. The choice of persuasive techniques makes it crystal clear that the writers are not themselves persuaded by their claims; they are trying to sneak the claims past the cognitive defenses of their readers. The goal is to scare people with illusory threats, in the hopes that those people will vote a particular way based on that fear.

The authors of this piece are not stupid, but their entire presentation hinges on their belief that their readers are gullible.

And as with the lobster warning, once we’ve looked at all the textual and logical errors, we can finally get to the underlying error of presupposition, the question of the “threat to marriage”. There really is a problem with an attack on the institution of marriage. Marriage is a glorious and wonderful thing, but it has purposes beyond providing for children; it is there to create family bonds. Family bonds are of great benefit when raising children, but that is not their only legitimate or valuable purpose; they have also ended wars and feuds, and given people who had lost their families new families.

The problem is that the essence of marriage is “a committment which creates new family bonds”, not “a union one man and one woman”. By focusing so tightly on the sexes of the participants, writers like those who created the article I’ve been analyzing have dropped all the other aspects. No longer does it matter whether a union is committed, or whether it binds the families of the participants, not just the two people most directly involved. Whether a union would survive adversity is irrelevant, too. All these people are willing to talk about is the sexes of the people being married.

Arguments that focus so precisely on defending the “institution” of marriage, defined only in terms of sex and not in terms of commitment, end up becoming attacks on the institution as a whole. Focusing so tightly on the benefits for child-rearing at the expense of other benefits is every bit as much an error as focusing on the benefits for adults at the expense of the benefits to children. The writers of this article have done their level best to replace the institution which held our society together with an animal husbandry permit. That, not letting other people create family bonds as well, is the “threat to marriage”.

Edit notes:

  • June 24: Changed “one mand an” to “one man and”.
  • June 25: Added WebCite® link.

Peter Seebach

,

---

Comment

 
---