Bil Browning

LGBT Rights: Why Messaging Is Important

Filed By Bil Browning | January 03, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media, Politics
Tags: Abdul Hakim-Shabazz, gay marriage, Indianapolis Star, same-sex marriage, wedge issues

One of the most intriguing aspects of politics is messaging. If you've got good talking points that resonate with the public's intuitive suspicions, you can dramatically alter the course of events. The right has always been much more effective with their messaging than the left; they paint things in stark contrasts and appeal to the primal instincts with their language choices. Think "death panels" versus "end of life primary care provider."

Now that Republicans in Indiana have taken over both the state house and senate, they're planning on passing a same-sex marriage amendment and bills restricting abortion. Governor Mitch Daniels has called for a "truce" on social issues and says that the state (and GOP leaders nationwide) Communicationshould be focused on taxes, employment, etc.

This quickly earned the wrath of American Family Association muckety-muck Brian Fischer who wrote on their blog, "The bare minimum conservatives need in a 2012 standard bearer is someone who holds a deep-seated allegiance to the Judeo-Christian values of the Founders and will fight to defend them, protect them, and advance them. The last thing we need is someone who has already run up the white flag." Very stark and immediate, isn't it?

This morning I was cruising through my Indianapolis RSS feeds and the opinion pages of the Indy Star and noticed two similar stories told in completely different ways. Both are meant to be supportive of a woman's right to choose abortion, but the Star editorial also touches on same-sex marriage.

And they both paint a clear picture of why the left lags behind in support for our issues thanks to piss-poor messaging.

First up comes FOX Radio host Abdul Hakim-Shabazz, an African-American muslim who's more in line with the Libertarian Party most of the time than the Republicans. He focuses on the anti-abortion proposed legislation in a post for his blog headlined, "Put a Stake in the Wedge Issues."

...when I saw Senate Bill 50 all I could do was scratch my head and ask is this legislation really necessary? The measure would require any woman seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound at least 18 hours before the procedure. I assume the logic of this is that the woman who went through all the internal processes of whether to have the procedure will change her mind when she sees the images. Of course such a bill could also have the reverse effect and make the woman even more determined to have the abortion.

For me the bigger question is does this bill create a job? Do mandatory ultrasounds improve education or make Indiana more competitive in the marketplace? Does it streamline local government? It does put more money in the pockets of Hoosiers, but only because it forces the woman to pay for the ultrasound. Other than that, what purpose does it really serve?

And before anyone accuses me of not wanting to protect the unborn, I have two responses. First if you want to protect the unborn make sure the there's an economic climate where the already born can prosper and you'll find that the abortion issue tends to take care of itself. Also, making sure people who are not prepared to deal with the responsibility of children never get pregnant in the first place because they have access to contraceptives solves a multitude of issues.

Abdul's position is clear. He thinks the legislation is stupid and clearly lays out his argument as to why it's a bad bill. Abdul is obviously used to thinking - and messaging - like a rightwinger.

The Star's op-ed also tries to convey that the anti-abortion language is a bad idea, but they also throw in same-sex marriage as one of the divisive wedge issues. Their title is "Take break from hot button issues," similar to Abdul's, but check out this horrible job of messaging:

Still, some lawmakers are pushing for stricter controls on abortion, even though Indiana's existing regulations already are relatively strong. The push to adopt a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage also will resurface despite no existing threat that Indiana's law against such unions will be overturned.

It's important for conservative lawmakers to understand when to declare victory, or at least to accept that they've done as much as they can to uphold the sanctity of life and marriage. Indiana's current laws on terminating a pregnancy are about as restrictive as the federal courts will allow and tougher measures are unlikely to reduce the number of abortions. Gay marriage is outlawed in the state and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Did you catch the difference? While the Star editorial is meant in a positive light, their language choices around the issue of same-sex marriage is atrocious.

Let's take another - closer - look:

The push to adopt a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage also will resurface despite no existing threat that Indiana's law against such unions will be overturned.

In essence, what the editorial board is saying here is that since gay people aren't actively trying to overturn Indiana's DOMA law, no constitutional amendment is needed. But if activists were trying to achieve marriage equality, would that make an amendment needed? Why are we considered a "threat" at all?

And why in the world, if you're trying to be positive - and end divisive rhetoric and tactics - why in the hell would you couch it in words like "threat?" Gay marriages aren't a "threat" to anyone and to insinuate that they are is absolutely insulting and only serves to inflame the right and validate their suspicions that they are under attack by "teh gayz."

As the op-ed goes on, they continue with the line of reasoning:

It's important for conservative lawmakers to understand when to declare victory, or at least to accept that they've done as much as they can to uphold the sanctity of life and marriage. Indiana's current laws on terminating a pregnancy are about as restrictive as the federal courts will allow and tougher measures are unlikely to reduce the number of abortions. Gay marriage is outlawed in the state and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Remember, they are trying to be supportive, but let's follow the logic again. They use rightwing code words like "sanctity of life" and "sanctity of marriage" and by using them, they give credence to the kernel planted by the Republicans that they are "defending" Hoosiers from some sort of radical left agenda to destroy "life" and "marriage."

Let's be clear. Brian Bosma, the newly re-installed Speaker of the Indiana House, is best known for getting caught having sex at the Statehouse with a woman who isn't his wife. Many of the so-called "champions" of defending the "sanctity of marriage" have been married multiple times, had untold number of affairs with both men and women, and a few of them probably know their livestock biblically.

These assholes aren't "defending the sanctity of marriage." They're using a contentious issue to sucker bigots and religious fanatics into voting for a political party. By giving them the brush to paint themselves as the last bastion of morality, the Indy Star ends up giving them credence instead of condemnation.

They end with the "Gay marriage is already illegal here" argument, which, again, if followed to its logical conclusion should end with, "Gay marriage is illegal here... so we're already safe from those would-be weddings." They only argue that an amendment isn't necessary since marriage equality is already outlawed.

What the Star fails to realize though, is that they're playing into the hands of the religious fundies by giving them ammunition to shoot them with. The conclusion you can reach from these two paragraphs of the Star op-ed is that since gay marriage is illegal, it can be left alone; normal heterosexual marriages have been salvaged by Indiana's DOMA law and until it's overturned there's no need to go further. What's left unsaid is that if that draconian piece of legislative bigotry is overturned, then that wedge issue should become a priority.

That's the difference between demanding an assailant stop attacking a victim versus telling the perpetrator to soften their blows slightly since the victim has been "taught a lesson."

Until progressives - and the media - start to report what's actually happening instead of relying on regurgitated talking points and language straight off a Republican's cheat sheet, we can't progress. We'll constantly be fighting these battles armed with a sword that only cuts its wielder.

(Photo via krossbow's Flickr photostream)


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Really, I see the Star's op-ed more along the lines of horrible journalism rather than anything about political messaging.

And Bosma was caught having an affair? I thought that was the exclusive domain of the Burton family.

He forced Democrats to apologize to his wife from the floor of the Statehouse for "spreading such rumors" when the tale started leaking out. Supposedly, she was a young African-American woman who worked in his office.

I've long thought that our side's messaging on the marriage issue was terrible, and I think Hakim-Shabazz provides a good example of the form it SHOULD be taking, not to mention pointing out the "deviant lifestyles" of the people who tend to push gay marriage bans and the real reasons why they're pushing them.

Instead, we seem bent on making nice with our enemies, letting them set the terms of the debate and avoiding any mention of the real human beings who are materially and substantially harmed by the anti-gay campaigns and the amendments themselves.

Definitely. I started writing about this (unfinished) on one word that's been excessively co-opted lately:

In some of the work I do (day job), I sometimes get fairly free rein in designing advertising content. I do sometimes take some of that liberty to create ads that show diversity. With one recent ad design, I'd had a client get quite upset, at first saying "everything" was all wrong -- then after settling down a bit, they admitted to liking everything except the photo used to illustrate it. At that point, I'd guessed that the objection had to do with the fact that the family in the photo was a mixed-race couple in which the mother was of apparently Southeast Asian descent, but I wasn't going to make it easy on them. I played dumb, wanting the person to say it outright. Even so, the way it was phrased surprised me:

"We were looking for a family that was a little more traditional."

I don't mean to suggest that every time the right uses the word there's a racial connotation attached, but it showed me that a lot of these phrasings can be twisted any which way is wanted by people who are so inclined....

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On another note, one thing that Canadian LGBT people did that helped achieve same-sex marriage here was to start using the phrase "equal marriage." It's the same thing, but it had a big positive impact.

I saw that indy star column a couple days ago. It's just weird: They even throw in a few lines about the federal deficit. HELLO, INDY STAR! ANYONE IN THERE? How likely is it that the federal government will send stimulus money to the states to balance their budgets (because the federal government has a lot more leeway in how it can deficit-spend than states do, and it should be spending more now, not less) if everyone believes that it needs to stop spending so much as well? DING DONG! ANYONE HOME, INDY STAR? Do they care about the state's financial well-being or not? I'm guessing they do, but are just too foopid (that's fucking stupid) to understand the basics of macroeconomics in the US.

I'm glad to see that I am not the only one that believes that words matter.
We have allowed the right wing and the Republican party get away with messaging that is false, misleading and just down right insulting.
This Sunday I watched as Donna Brazile let the host of This Week say "Democrat candidates." Ths "ic" has been extracted from the Democratic Party by the right wing and noone calls them on it. Now we have "journalists" saying it without being corrected.
If we don't even demand that they respect us enough to call us by our name, why should they respect us at all?

"Lifestyle" should be life.
"Gay marriage" should be marriage equality.

While on the subject of language, where did the expression "teh gayz" come from? Although I have a fuzzy notion of how it gets used, apparently to denigrate the attitude that LGBT people are diabolical -- but could someone make my conceptualization a little less fuzzy?

(P.S. urbandictionary.com doesn't have an entry for "teh gayz" exactly -- although "teh gay" supposedly equates being gay with a communicable disease. Obviously, that is not the meaning that Bil invokes in his post above.)

(P.P.S. Thanks, Terrance Heath, for telling me about urbandictionary.com -- that website has prevented this linguistic dinosaur from progressing into irreversible fossilization time and time again. But for the term at hand, it has failed me.)