Why the SSM Debate Is So Challenging: The Slogan Effect

I was at a meeting not long ago discussing what it would take for sanity to prevail on the question of same-sex “marriage.” I pointed out what I have also said here on this blog: what we face is not so much a successful set of arguments against real marriage. It’s more a case of successful branding. We will not really reclaim sensibility on this until we can carry bumper stickers saying (for example), “Marriage is a distinctive human good,” and have it mean as much to the average tailgating driver as the misdirected, but still effective, “Hate is not a family value.”

It is a mistake to conceive of bumper sticker-style slogans as weapons for fighting rhetorical battles. They are much more similar to flags: they are effective only insofar as meaning is invested in them. How did “Hate is not a family value” acquire its commonly understood meaning? Think of all the other things it could signify. It's not an argument, it's a brand, a flag, as it were.

Flags advance along with their armies, and it's no secret that same-sex “marriage” partisans have the momentum on their side. We who support man-woman marriage cannot as effectively wave the flag of slogans, and we ought not try. The reason for this was aptly expressed by Edward Feser in his provocative but so far (I've only read this much, since I just picked it up this evening) well-reasoned The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (p. 21):

The basic philosophical case for the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the natural law conception of morality is on one level fairly straightforward. But the issues have become ever more greatly obscured in the centuries since so-called “Enlightenment” thinkers and their predecessors first started darkening the understanding of Western man, and a nearly impenetrable philosophical smokescreen of unexamined assumptions, falsehoods, clichés, caricatures, prejudices, propaganda, and general muddle-headedness now surrounds the average person's (including the average intellectual's) thinking about religion. It takes considerable intellectual effort to dissipate the Kultursmog (to borrow R. Emmett Tyrrell's apt coinage).

The task is not unlike that which faces debunkers of popular but intellectually unsupportable conspiracy theories. As Vincent Bugliosi laments in Reclaiming History, his recent mammoth study of the JFK assassination, “it takes only one sentence to make the argument that organized crime had Kennedy killed to get his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, off its back, but it takes a great many pages to demonstrate the invalidity of that charge.” One of the reasons for this is that certain fallacies and errors committed by conspiracy theorists can only be exposed via painstaking examination of eyewitness testimony, ballistic evidence, historical context, and other such minutiae. Another is the bias embodied in the vast number of things think they know about a particular case that just aren't so.

The “smokescreen” he so devastatingly details is no fog of Feser's invention, but rather one that he has credibly summarized by this point in the book, and which I am confident he will be able to support with considerably more evidence as the book progresses.

The “basic philosophical case” for man-woman marriage is indeed “at one level fairly straightforward.” If the arguments for it seem difficult to see, it is largely because of miseducation, misinformation, and prejudicial branding (flag-waving) on behalf of so-called “marriage equality” (one of the sillier political phrases composed in recent memory, which is saying a lot) and opposed to reason on the topic.

So we have our work cut out for us. We need to be persistent and yet patient. We have educational work to do. Most of it is remedial. Our culture has learned things that just aren't so, which really complicates things, for it is harder and slower to guide persons to unlearn error than to learn truth in the first place.

So we must not put too much stock in short-term victories or losses. We must not strategize the way the opposition does. More specifically, we must not think we can successfully fight this battle through slogans, as is their common tactic. Someday, perhaps, a significant proportion of Westerners will know what we mean if we say “marriage is a distinctive human good.” The day that happens—when bumper sticker statements might actually be meaningful on our side's behalf—will be the day when victory has already been achieved.