Word Spinning & The Gay Marriage Debate

by Dan on February 17, 2010

Earlier this year,  I talked about how poll results can be manipulated based on word choice.  Recently, I was reading about the same-sex marriage debate, and found that one organization was doing the word-spinning quite well, and was even proud to reveal its results.

The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), has gotten some public spotlight for their video advertisement “The Gathering Storm.”  To most liberals, and many moderates, the video looks laughable in it’s implication that the United States as we know it will forever be lost, as heterosexuals lose their rights while gays gain their own.  To conservatives against gay marriage, though, this could be convincing.

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The following is taken from NationForMarriage.org – Marriage Talking Points


I. THE MOST EFFECTIVE SINGLE SENTENCE:

Extensive and repeated polling agrees that the single most effective message is:

“Gays and Lesbians have a right to live as they choose,
they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us.”

This allows people to express support for tolerance while opposing gay marriage. Some modify it to “People have a right to live as they choose, they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us.”

Language to avoid at all costs: “Ban same-sex marriage.” Our base loves this wording. So do supporters of SSM. They know it causes us to lose about ten percentage points in polls. Don’t use it. Say we’re against “redefining marriage” or in favor or “marriage as the union of husband and wife” NEVER “banning same-sex marriage.”

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Notice that the activist organization is openly using polls to see what will convince people to support the gay marriage ban.

The conservative base has risen to the challenge of avoiding negative terminology in their initiatives.  Instead of “Anti-Abortion,” they’re “Pro-Life.”  After all, who could be against life?  Of course, the liberal base has to do the same with “Pro-Choice” instead of “Pro-Abortion.”  The conservatives definitely won the round for that one.

In terms of how to talk about being against same-sex marriage, it has proven difficult to use terms like “Pro-Family” and “Pro-Traditional Marriage,” as they are either too vague or too awkward.

In being forced to choose a negative wording, NOM has been creative in rephrasing the issue.  Instead of saying they’re against the rights of a minority group, they’re saying they’re against the threat against us, the majority.

How would you answer the question, “Are you in favor the government redefining the definition of your marriage?”

Phrased like that, you’d have to be very astute to not resist such a notion.  Even if it’s simply some words being changed around the law books, with no affect on your life whatsoever, it just FEELS invasive.  The question makes the hair stand up on my neck as well.

It’s similar to a poll on Facebook this past year: “Should Obama be allowed to speak nationwide to schoolchildren without parental consent?”  Attach “without parental consent” to the end of any question, and you’re bound to bring out a massive fury from anyone who has a son or daughter.

Notice that NOM isn’t disagreeing with the claim that they’re trying to ban gay marriage.  They’re simply suggesting their supporters change around the wording to hit the emotions of the undecided.

The interesting fact is that the threat from “redefining marriage” is so made-up that one couldn’t even articulate what it is.  Forget questions of tax-exemption and education.  If the word marriage is “redefined for you and your children,” what does it mean?

I suppose it’s similar to the idea of “full time employee” being redefined.  If suddenly someone with a 30 hour workweek is called fulltime, your working status has a new definition that you and your children will have to live with.   Even “redefined” sounds overreaching, since more people are included in your definition; that’s it.

I don’t want to get too political on this blog, but my goal in sharing this is to help readers, regardless of political orientation, stay independent of manipulative word choice.  And yes, this happens on the liberal side as well.  Check out Glenn Beck’s An Inconvenient Book, to see a conservative perspective.

I also recommend you read Words that Work by Frank Luntz.  He actually has managed campaigns for politicians and is an expert on word phrasings that win (or lose) elections.

When you hear a political question that makes you feel uncomfortable, or even afraid, take a step back and ask yourself if the question being phrased differently would change (or even reverse) your reaction to it.

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