In a recent conversation with a dozen well-educated young social conservatives, I found that hardly any held to what ten years ago would have been considered the conservative position on marriage. A few had accepted the idea that marriage was a social construction that a majority could change. Others opted for the view that it was a religious institution, and political outcomes on the subject didn’t really matter. Still others thought that there were just other, more winnable, battles worth fighting. The most common sentiment: even though none thought a same-sex relationship was a marriage, almost none wanted to play for a losing team whose objective was a national stranglehold on people’s happiness.
Common sense has apparently changed a lot in only a few years. When the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was passed in 1996, the overwhelming majority considered it common sense to protect such a fundamental institution as marriage. By the time of the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA this summer in United States v. Windsor, the court’s majority considered it common sense that those same people could only have been motivated by mean-spiritedness. As Justice Scalia summarized in his dissent, “The majority says that the supporters of this Act acted with malice—with the ‘purpose to disparage and to injure’ same-sex couples. It says that the motivation for DOMA was to ‘demean’; to ‘impose inequality’; to ‘impose . . . a stigma’; to deny people ‘equal dignity’; to brand gay people as ‘unworthy’; and to ‘humiliate’ their children.”
In such a context, the young people in my conversation weren’t being unreasonable. They all felt the pressure of opposing the dominant cultural narrative that had shaped their short adult lives. Some had had their perceptions of reality altered by it, and the rest didn’t have the will or the strength to swim against its overwhelming current. In this narrative, officially endorsed in Windsor by the highest court in the land, it is common sense that marriage advocates are all haters.
What, then, is a hater to do?
He can’t appeal to common sense. He feels he shouldn’t even have to say some of the things he does, because they should be obvious. But his years of organizing systematic reasons why his opponents shouldn’t tear down the metaphorical fence have come to nothing—not because he isn’t right, not because there is no natural law, but because cultural conflicts are often about what gets to count as common sense.
Reason doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it’s conditioned by narratives in the culture around us and indeed in our own minds. In this case, the common sense of DOMA has given way to the common sense of Windsor, as older narratives about love, conjugal marriage, and duty to family have been replaced by narratives about rights and equality.
The dominant narrative that convinced or cowed my young friends is mostly held by well-meaning people with aspirations that have been shaped by positive ideas and values, such as rights and equality and the pursuit of happiness. Changing a culture occurs by changing those aspirations.
How that happens is the topic of a new publication from the John Jay Institute, entitled You’ve Been Framed: A New Primer for the Marriage Debate. Authored by Nathan Hitchen, the document applies insights from narrative theory and cognitive science to reveal the range of ways in which people are inspired to accept new “common sense.”
Hitchen explores a cognitive science revolution of the last twenty years that has illuminated a great deal of how humans process information and make moral judgments. For one thing, we’ve discovered that emotion and reason (so obviously opposed in the view of some prominent philosophers) actually operate together. For another, it seems that most of our thinking is done unconsciously, and that we process abstract ideas mostly metaphorically.
Hitchen argues that to change aspirations, marriage advocates must understand five basic things:
- Emotion, which interacts with reason in people’s moral imaginations;
- Narratives, which shape people’s biases about pretty much everything;
- Stories, which make things relatable and personal in a way no courtroom argument does;
- Metaphors, which allow the mind to easily process and retain complex ideas; and
- Memes, which are easily replicable ideas that stick in people’s minds and slowly change perceptions.
Marriage advocates, Hitchen argues, need to understand that reason is metaphorical, imaginative, and emotionally engaged. You’ve Been Framed sets out to show marriage advocates how to appeal to emotions, intuitions, and imaginations to build (over the long term) a strong marriage culture that will be supported by those on both sides of the current moral divide.
Anyone knows that a movie or a song will do more to shape someone’s moral imagination in a short time than an argument will. Things that appeal to the emotions can penetrate the biases and barriers in people’s minds, getting past their unwillingness to believe someone on the other side. But the arguments that could be based on You’ve Been Framed are complex—far more complex than simply tugging at someone’s heartstrings.
Try to tell any serious Apple fan that his iPhone isn’t the best smartphone out there, and his subconscious will squirm in every conceivable direction to avoid believing you. But pit him against somebody who believes smartphones in general are the devil, and the expanded narrative will suddenly put him and his Samsung friend on the same team. Hitchen argues for the need to find such larger aspirational narratives in the marriage debate.
This is partly done through stories. It’s tough to argue with a story. Doug Mainwaring (a gay man who has written here at Public Discourse about his opposition to redefining marriage) tells his personal story movingly, touching his audience with the account of how he worked with his ex-wife (despite his same-sex attraction) to try to meet their children’s needs for both male and female parenting.
Changing aspirational narratives is also partly done through metaphors. Research has consistently shown that audiences are more likely to remember and comprehend complex arguments through images. Marriage advocates, Hitchen suggests, should communicate truths about marriage and the common good through metaphors such as “marriage is our country’s social infrastructure.” Marriage isn’t just a religious institution or a majority-rules game for the same reason highways and harbors aren’t—men and women are the harbors from which children set sail (which is partly why some people in France and Britain who want homosexuals to be happy don’t favor gay marriage).
And finally, narratives are changed through memes. Hitchen says marriage advocates should compress their arguments into easily replicable ideas that can stick in people’s minds and slowly challenge prevailing assumptions. “Marriage equality” is the meme that is currently dominating the debate. Even disagreeing with it implicitly accepts its premise.
To beat such a “sticky” meme, marriage advocates would have to popularize a stickier meme (preferably stealing back a term the other side likes to use). For example, the meme “true marriage is more diverse” appeals to the distinct, complementary differences between mothering and fathering (instead of the “mono-gendered” structure of two men or two women). Or the meme “changing marriage creates inequality” could be attached to stories of the unequal emotional experiences of children raised in single-sex environments. For memes to work, they have to be on the leading edge of every pro-marriage argument, all the time.
These are a lot of moving parts to think about, but Hitchen argues that the right overarching narrative can unify marriage advocates so that we can pursue a future in which we are no longer viewed as haters and bad guys.
For example, Hitchen has wondered elsewhere what it would look like to skeptical or fence-sitting Americans if a broad coalition of pro-marriage institutions stood together to declare:
From now on, we are explicitly a pro-orphan movement. To that end, we welcome Americans of all politics and parties to join us in this great cause: that ten years from now, on Independence Day 2023, we will have emptied the foster care system by providing every orphan in this country with a mom and a dad. And we will devote our lobbying to foster care reform, easing adoption laws, and finding and financing moms and dads to adopt American orphans.
Hitchen’s primer isn’t about changing the subject (as some of my young friends would love to do). It’s about breaking through biases to change the narrative. You’ve Been Framed is not a quick fix or a silver bullet, but sophisticated strategies based on its ideas are definitely preferable to a losing culture war and endless state-by-state fighting. Such strategies can gradually create a new common sense in which it’s obvious that American children are entitled to both moms and dads.
And what kind of hater would oppose that?
Brian Brown is the principal of Narrator, a communications consultancy that uses neuroscience and social network theory to build powerful support communities around products and causes. He is an alumnus of Princeton University and the John Jay Institute.