Do our opponents use words to hide meaning?
Language seems like an unlikely topic for a computer-nerd to write about. But as anyone who has ever called an IT helpdesk knows oftentimes we computer nerds have to divine hidden meaning from what people say. While I’m certainly no cunning linguist, I would like to share you with some observations I have made about language in the gay marriage debate.
It is my belief that gay marriage opponents like Jim Wallace, Wendy Francis, Barnaby Joyce, Kevin Andrews and John Murphy aren’t actually opposed to gay marriage. I know that seems really odd when you consider their leit-motif that ‘marriage is between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others’. Their argument about the word “marriage” would be credible if they supported civil union. But the lack of support for civil union makes it clear: these people not arguing for the inviolability of the word “marriage”, they are quite simply opposed to any recognition of any relationship between two people of the same gender.
Understanding that proponents of the gay marriage are trying to avoid acknowledging the reality of homosexuality in our society helps us make sense of indiscrete tweets from “unnamed staffers”. Obviously I’m referring to Mr Wallace’s famous ‘the diggers didn’t die for the gays’ (yes, I am paraphrasing) on Anzac day, or Mrs Francis’ 140 character-long diatribes about the moral hazards of gay parenting, or safe sex advertising. Here is the thing: Australian Christian Lobby has only a handful of staff nationally, so how many of these tweets are actually from staff and how many are simply blamed on staff for PR purposes?
My nerd sense is tingling – there is a hidden meaning here. This organisation is trying to express a moralistic discomfort about homosexuality itself. They do not feel comfortable saying what they really think, so they use code words that are socially acceptable. The gay-marriage debate has become a discussion-by-proxy. It’s a way for them to express discomfort with homosexuality itself and the moral decline of our society. When confronted with this, they usually grasp for the clumsy ‘I have gay friends’ defence (but not one of these ‘friends’ has ever publicly addressed these ‘erroneous’ charges of homophobia).
Let me clarify: I’m not suggesting that organisations like the ACL are being intentionally dishonest. They may have convinced themselves that they are ‘defending traditional values’ by denigrating and marginalising anything that doesn’t fit within traditional gender roles. I don’t imagine that the ACL’s key members sat down one day with a list of terms and brainstormed ‘politically correct’ alternatives. But it is fairly clearly that they don’t they feel comfortable speaking their minds. Why won’t they speak plainly? The answer is surprisingly simple: undecided people in the middle of this debate will be able to instantly recognise direct discussion for what it is: senseless fear and wilful ignorance.
One of the arguments you will often hear from proponents of the gay marriage ban is that ‘gays and lesbians have the right to live as they chose, but they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for the rest of us’. Have you ever Googled it? One of the first hits is an American group called the National Organisation for Marriage. This organisation has published a series of marriage talking points. These talking points show that NOM has engaged in market research and focus group testing to craft sound-bytes for casual listeners with a degree of sophistication that would make the Australian Labor Party proud. Family Voice Australia has adapted NOM’s research to the Australian market.
Opponents of gay marriage are quite simply hiding their true meaning behind very clever spin hoping that undecideds won’t notice. NOM’s own market research says that if opponents of gay marriage speak plainly they loose 10% of voters. And then to hide their dissembling they accuse others of wantonly ‘redefining terms’. If you think about it honestly, officially recognising homosexual relationships will not ‘redefine marriage’ for everyone because heterosexuals will not be forced into gay relationships.
When I write I use a lot of numbers, this comes back to being a computer-nerd. Depending on what study you read, and who paid for it, somewhere between 4% and 11% per cent of teens are same-sex attracted. If the high-end of that range is correct then that’s one in nine. Next time you take your child to school count out nine random kids in the playground. One of those kids is probably gay. Australian organisations like Headspace and La Trobe University tell us 30% of gay kids will attempt suicide or serious self-harm. In an average classroom there are about 27 kids. Statistically speaking one of them will be pushed to commit serious self-harm (like cutting themselves) or attempt suicide because of the hatred and bullying towards kids perceived as gay. Gay people are roughly eight times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers if their family or loved ones reject them after discovering that they’re gay.
Since opponents of gay marriage have imported the rhetoric of our American cousins, I feel it is necessary to warn everyone in this debate (regardless of their position) of the danger of importing the hatred, and the vitriol. The tragic case of Jamey Rodemeyer should remind us that kids are literally bullying each other to death using messages that they picked up from us. Our behaviour and our use of language make it ‘ok’ for kids to marginalise each other.
Like the ACL, I also oppose ‘civil union’, but my reasons are markedly different. ‘Functional equality’ is more than just a contradiction in terms. It is a fiction. The term ‘civil union’ is ‘separate but equal’– you can’t reach equality by exclusion. Equality cannot exist if it is a legal-fact that some are less than others. I don’t have gay-lunch. I don’t gay-park my cark. At the end of the day I don’t a want a gay-marriage: I want a marriage. (Of course, in my particular case it is far more than the legal situation that makes that unlikely. Those of you who are interested in my “emo” ramblings on the subject should follow me on Twitter). Australian’s recognise that this is about fairness over 60% of voters supporting lifting the gay marriage ban. Even 53% of the people that the ACL claims to speak for (weekly church-goers) support lifting the gay marriage ban.
Language has consequences. In this debate each of us needs to listen very carefully to the statements from each side and test their assertions. If gay people are permitted to have their relationships officially recognised that will have exactly zero impact on the state recognition of heterosexual marriage. Legalising gay marriage will not lead to polygamy and children will not wake up on the day after royal assent and suddenly discover that they have two dads, six mothers and an octopod parenting them.
The only direct consequence of lifting the gay marriage ban that I can see is that homosexual people will get married. The indirect consequences are that children in non-traditional homes will feel less marginalised and same-sex attracted youth will feel less marginalised. The research tells us that if we stop marginalising them, they will stop trying to kill themselves. And since the ACL keeps banging on about child-welfare, I’d imagine this is an outcome they could get on-board with.
On the other hand, if actually thinking about the children (rather than screaming that someone should think about the children) isn’t enough, then let me offer a sweetener to stop opposing marriage equality: if homosexuals are allowed to get on with their lives and marry each other, politicians will stop talking about gay marriage. Of course there is a downside, Jim Wallace and his ilk will receive wedding invitations from all of their gay friends.