Monday, April 1, 2013

Changing the Public Discourse on Gay Marriage

By J.F. McKenna


The debate of same-sex marriage, regardless of what courts and legislatures to come is still better to be settled in the court of public opinion, and right now the trend is not hopeful for those who oppose it. As someone who spent decades in policy writing for CEOs, I am convinced that the content of public discourse on the anti-gay-marriage side has to change in order for a reversal to occur in public opinion.


The principal change that must occur is to keep the focus is much as possible away from academic obscurities, such as the technical validity of studies dealing with the well-being of the children of gay parents. Granted, the question of children is of central importance for, as the logician Bertrand Russell observed, “But for children, there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex." As of now, certain studies endorsed by psychology-related organizations stand as the most formidable rhetorical weapon in the pro-gay-marriage arsenal.  The change I recommend is a shift toward the realm of common observation and simple logic, and the good news is that recent social psychology and brain science are strongly in accord with both of those.


Here is the critical point: men have particular strengths in the area of relationships and women have other strengths in that area. Simple logic, therefore, says that eliminating one parent or the other is to place serious difficulties into the path of the child. It is important, therefore, that society channel its social and economic support toward the arrangement whereby both parental genders are present when at all possible.


The pro-gay-marriage people assume that their position is the wave of the future, but they can only base that idea on opinion polls, not on science. Several trends in science favor the viewpoint that a mother can’t just be replaced by an extra man or a father by an extra woman.


An ideology had grown up, influenced by behaviorism and certain trends in feminism, that behavior related to gender is determined entirely by culture. Human beings are seen as a blank slate on which culture writes – all nurture and no nature. According to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, this has become the “secular religion of modern intellectual life.”


Studies in the past two decades are causing this “secular religion” to look threadbare – and yet not in a way that is to the disadvantage of women. Today’s textbooks in social psychology are in stark contrast to those of 40 years ago. In peer-review studies, women tend to describe themselves more in relational terms, welcome more help, experience more relationship-linked emotions, and are more attuned to others' relationships. In conversation, men more often focus on tasks and connections with large groups, women on personal relationships; when on the phone, women's conversations with friends last longer; when on the computer, women spend more time sending emails in which they express more emotion; when in groups, women share more of their lives and offer more support, and women who are under stress more often “tend and befriend.”


The new but already vast field of brain science is corroborating these findings while making the physical basis of human behavior visible and measurable, especially in the area of hormone growth. All human beings have a mix of gender-specific hormones, and if children (who themselves have hormones that react to those of their parents) are missing either a father or a mother, then they're missing someone vitally important.  It's a question of how people interact with one another. In addition, observations about mothers, who tend toward coddling, and fathers, who tend toward challenging, bring to life the otherwise dry analyses regarding brain structure and hormones.


There are a few cautions here: (1) it's easy to exaggerate the differences; (2) there are exceptions, just as there are even in the realm of physical strength; and, (3) there is overlap, with men displaying nurturing or coddling tendencies toward children at times and women being authoritative or aggressive at times.  Notwithstanding all of those considerations, the generalities still hold and it is an illusion to think or act as if they don't.


A rational and balanced emphasis on this approach will resonate strongly in the minds of thoughtful members of the general public, if they can stand for a moment above ideology, because of their life experience and the force of simple logic.  In addition, it will become clearer that the criminality and mental illness among young people without fathers will be seen more obviously related to the specific kind of authority and boundary-setting that a good father can provide. That alone could push the right side of the gay-marriage issue to victory, and along the way, stimulate a whole new appreciation among heterosexuals how critically important each gender is to the well-being of humanity.


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