April 19, 2013 6:50 pm

Gay marriage: preaching to the unconverted

The gay marriage campaign has worked chiefly because it borrows the right’s language of ‘family values’
An illustration depicting gay marriage©Luis Grañena

Only a year ago Barack Obama still didn’t dare support gay marriage. There are few political issues in history on which voters have changed their minds so fast. Liberals are winning this argument in country after country. More Americans now support than oppose gay marriage, says the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. These shifts have thrilled leftwing activists worldwide. Over coffee in dingy offices everywhere, they are debating what they can learn from this triumph. Gay marriage points a way for the left to win on issues from immigration to the “war on drugs”. The lesson: leftists don’t need to adopt rightwing policies à la Tony Blair. Instead they need to steal the right’s language.

Ever since the “workers of the world” cheerily marched off to fight each other in 1914, the left has been discovering that many of its most cherished beliefs don’t sell. Pacifism, internationalism, civil liberties and anti-racism have rarely gone down well with voters. Some core leftist policies are popular: good public services, and making rich people pay for others. But the right has always had most of the crowd-pleasing lines: disdain for minorities, the desire to rise with just your family, reverence for armed force et cetera.

The gay marriage campaign has worked chiefly because it borrows the right’s language of “family values”. Gay marriage itself is a side issue. Very few gay people actually want to marry. In the Netherlands, for instance, the first country to introduce gay marriage in 2001, a survey by Rutgers WPF, a centre of expertise on sexual and reproductive health and rights, suggests that about 500,000 people call themselves gay. Yet from 2001 to 2005, only 3 per cent of them married.

Many gay activists initially dismissed gay marriage as an aping of straight customs. However, the campaign proved a brilliant way of framing the issue of gay liberation. Gay marriage foregrounded traditional couples who believe in ancient family institutions. With poster-children like the octogenarian American lesbian widow Edith Windsor, gay activists won over conservatives.

Stealing conservative language is the tactic. But underlying it is a changed attitude to opponents. Instead of dismissing them as stupid bigots, you try to understand and respect what they stand for. Conservatives care about “family values” – well, gay marriage is about family values. Similarly, gun control in the US will only be sold with conservative language about “protecting our children”.

The role model for converting the enemy is Nelson Mandela. He was never interested in just preaching to the converted. Instead, in jail he literally learnt the language of his white South African oppressors, Afrikaans. (The whole story is beautifully told in John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy.) Mandela practised Afrikaans on his Afrikaner prison wardens. He studied Afrikaner history. He told fellow prisoners that Afrikaners weren’t colonialists but Africans. And in 1989 he met the unbending Afrikaner president P.W. Botha and charmed him. Mandela spoke Afrikaans with him, knowledgeably discussed the Afrikaner struggle in the Boer war, and told Botha that the black struggle was its modern equivalent. Mandela was practising what he and his comrade Walter Sisulu called “ordinary respect”: show your enemy respect, and he will reward you.

. . .

Mandela’s respect for the other side was sincere. Few gay activists can make the same claim. Yet simply by paying lip-service to “family values”, they have converted even people like Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. “The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals,” O’Reilly said last month. Then he berated Obama for not caring about gays.

The left’s visual language matters too: the more radical your claim, the more conservative you need to look. Watch a video of Martin Luther King giving his “I have a dream” speech. The arch-conservative line about wanting his “four children” to be judged not “by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” is spoken, with the most careful elocution, by a preacher in dark suit and tie.

On cause after cause, liberals have to steal conservative language because their own rhetoric rarely works. Appeals to equality, for instance, usually fall flat. Most voters seem to think the poor sods at the bottom have it coming to them. The British Labour party’s campaign in 1999 to eradicate child poverty proved “completely divorced from what the rest of the country cared about”, says Labour’s former adviser Elsbeth Johnson.

Instead the left should borrow conservative language about efficiency. Don’t say that teaching poor single mothers how to play with their children helps poor people. Call it a cheap way of preventing kids from growing up unemployable. Or steal the right’s language of fiscal discipline: dismiss the “war on drugs” as a pointless waste of money. Don’t oppose military campaigns on pacifist grounds; instead call them quixotic exotic adventures built on government debt. One of Obama’s rare winning lines is about doing “nation-building here at home” instead of in Afghanistan.

Any old idiot can preach to the converted. Persuading the Bothas and O’Reillys takes something special, but it can be done.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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