Reframing the Marriage Debate

On November 15, 2013, in Marriage, Politics, by Betsy

by , a Ruth Institute “It Takes a Family” 2013 conference alumnus

This article was originally published August 2nd, 2013, at ethika politika.

If there’s one lesson that conjugal marriage advocates should have learned by now, it’s this: While the best arguments win public opinion debates, rational arguments are almost never the “best arguments” to make.

A recently published marriage advocacy action plan, You’ve Been Framed: A New Primer for the Marriage Debate, offers a convincing case for what to make of this lesson.

The product of collaboration between John Jay Institute alums Nathan Hitchen and Brian Brown, the primer suggests new strategies for effective communication and persuasion in the marriage debate. The primer makes a timely arrival: In the aftermath of the June Supreme Court cases, conjugal marriage advocates have wondered how to best go forward with their efforts.

The advice offered in the primer will not surprise anybody; we all know that most beliefs are, for better or worse, not built upon but buttressed by appeals to rational standards of justification. Drawing on studies from cognitive neurology and research gathered by Narrator, Brown’s communications consultancy group, the primer solidifies and backs this reality in hard science and social data.

Rather, the primer’s chief virtue is its explicit and repeated call to marriage advocates to vary and expand their methods and strategies:

Pro-marriage communicators must appeal to the moral intuitions of audiences by using emotion to invoke narratives and tell stories with new metaphors and memes in order to influence the emotionally charged debate about redefining marriage.

The primer also acknowledges that the “rational arguments” approach primarily employed by many marriage advocates will likely meet with so much resistance as to be ineffective:

When people want to believe something, they ask themselves, “Can I believe this?” and then look for supporting evidence until they find something that is permission to believe and justifies their preferred result.

In contrast, when people don’t want to believe something, they ask “Must I believe this?” and then search for contrary evidence until they find a single reason to doubt the claim and dismiss it.

Most importantly, the action plan sounds a much-needed call to non-intellectuals and non-academics to get involved in the marriage movement. As I’ve suggested in two recent posts over at the Intercollegiate Review, our rational arguments about, say, procreative structure, logical consistency or institutional integrity fall victim to confirmation bias—the aforementioned resistance to the intrusion of unwelcome beliefs— rendering paramount the formulation of new approaches that appeal to subrational intuitions.

The marriage debate is an emotionally charged one, and that’s not going to change. If marriage advocates embraced in practice as much as in theory this fact, rather than lamenting it, more people who believe in conjugal marriage would contribute their unique talents and gifts to the defense of marriage.

The biggest discrepancy between the conjugal and revisionist camps is how enfranchised supporters, especially young supporters, of either camp feel.

So many of my peers who believe in conjugal marriage want to get involved in the defense of marriage but don’t know exactly how. They feel that short of writing essays or debating in public fora on their college campuses (for example) they can’t be of much service apart from prayer and personal witness to the truths they seek to communicate. This is certainly the case of many of my pro-marriage friends at Notre Dame.

But just as some of the most powerful writers are also the subtlest—Flannery O’Connor comes to mind—so too will the most fruitful strategies for defending marriage be the least likely to activate defensive mechanisms. Art, literature and non-academic endeavors in general will do a great deal more to touch more people than will the best of arguments propounded by the most articulate of intellectuals (though these and their work are entirely essential as well and should not slacken).

The pro-marriage movement is only making use of a fraction of the natural gifts of pro-marriage supporters, and that’s why we’re fighting an uphill battle. The John Jay Institute has produced a gem that should be implemented into the broader effort to improve the marriage culture. In response to how emotionally centered revisionist appeals are, we’ve countered with an approach that isolates intellectual responses too much from broader means of communicating a message, leaving too many messengers feeling unfit to contribute.

We can’t rest in the complacency of thinking we have better arguments just because our arguments are sounder. The marriage debate has been effectively framed by revisionists. We need to get the picture.

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