by: Jim Morrison
It’s an exciting time for marriage equality rights. Proposition 8 has been declared unconstitutional in California. Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington completed her own sort of “evolution” and signed marriage equality into law (and perhaps this is a sign of that bigger “evolution” we’re all rightly demanding). Maryland is poised to pass a bill, one vote away in the legislature from becoming the eighth state to stand up for equal rights in marriage for all Americans.
Finally, in my birth state of New Jersey, after struggling with the inadequacies of a separate-but-equal civil unions regime, the people have spoken through their legislature (and it’s worth reminding the foes of equality that that’s how we do it in a republic), and they passed full marriage equality. The battle now moves to exposing the cynical political ploy that Gov. Chris Christie is attempting to pull off while he vetoes the bill. He’s calling for a referendum on the issue not because he thinks New Jerseyans are opposed (polls show they solidly aren’t) but because he’d prefer to keep the issue from marring his right-wing bona fides within the national Republican Party. Rarely are one man’s selfish political goals put into such sharp relief. Our challenge now is getting the few extra votes to override his forthcoming veto – a difficult, but possible, task.
Indeed, the fight continues, and it’s taking many avenues. One that’s often overlooked, but is no less critical, is the use of language and terminology. We’ve all seen the great ads that play on this: “If you don’t like gay marriage don’t get gay married,” and “I don’t gay park my car, I park it. It’s just marriage.”
They’re funny and make a valuable point. But they leave out an important part of the story. The term “gay marriage” is a pejorative code word used by the enemies of marriage equality to drive home a false point that marriage equality is a dangerous and radical departure, that it will change so-called “traditional” marriage, that gay marriage is, by definition (they love talking about “definitions”), not marriage. Rather, they imply it is a new and alien invader, a carve-out right that only gays are demanding. And it’s why you, dear red-blooded, tax-hating, literal-bible-reading American should be scared.
All of that is a mouthful and frankly not great messaging when it’s not falling on the ears of your base. So “gay” marriage works as a cipher for the laundry list of hate, as a dog whistle for the converts to turn out and motivate. But even more important, it works as a subtly crafted term for the rest – the middle.
“Gay marriage” is aimed at the ones who need convincing but who might not be so receptive to the real underlying vitriol. It’s got the smell of Frank Luntz all over it. Luntz, the go-to guy for Republican PR and focus-grouping, specializes in right-wing message crafting and message discipline.
As sad as it is, it works. And he’s quite good at it. Because words have power. They trigger ranges of associations and emotional responses that can be studied and massaged until the message is exactly where the client wants it. The latest one was the use of “distinction without a difference” in responding to the president’s compromise on health insurance and the contraceptives rule. Suddenly you couldn’t turn on a political show without hearing some Republican repeating the mantra.
But that’s not even the end of the story. Because then comes the real bang for the buck – what I (yes, a tad clumsily) call the “Trojan horse” part. When those in favor of marriage equality rights start, often unknowingly, using the very term coined and employed by the enemy, we end up doing, their work for them, even if an ever so subtle part. At the very same time we’re trying to drive home our points, we’re subtly making, or at the very least paying homage to, theirs.
And it happens a lot. So much that I started a segment on For & Against called “Fighting Words.” Others include “Obamacare” and “Democrat” (versus “Democratic”) Party. I happen to think “bullying” is one, too (but more on that another time). I bet you’ve heard them. And hopefully you cringe a little when you hear them, or you will now. So, let’s get some message discipline of our own. Let’s stop playing in their courts. Hurry. Wheel the “gay marriage” out of the gates. Use “marriage equality” instead.