I’ve been on hiatus here at the blog for a while, as summer (and more specifically, con season) made all our best laid plans gang well and truly a-gley. Having been deprived of Gen Con, I set out to give the boys a few firsts, including first time on a horse and first time in a human-propelled watercraft. They both went surprisingly well.
I’ve also been doing lots of work with Minnesotans United for All Families–not particularly more than before, but the campaign has reached critical mass, and every day it seems there’s movement or news. I had to tell the boys to stop yelling excitedly every time they see an orange “Vote NO” lawn sign, as they started springing up like mushrooms all over Saint Paul, and I began to rapidly lose my hearing. There’s great cause for hope, but it’s going to be close, and we’ll be working flat-out right up to the night of November 6.
(Wo)manning the MN United table at our apartment complex’s National Night Out event. Picture by Griffin.
The heart of my work is having conversations with Minnesota voters, and teaching others to do likewise. It’s so different from other political advocacy I’ve done in the past, as I’ve described previously, and instead of coming home exhausted and drained, it usually takes me an hour or three to come down from the adrenaline high after a phone bank or training. I’ve met fantastic people of every age, faith, place, and life experience, and whatever the outcome of the election, I believe we’re fundamentally changing the way Minnesotans think about each other, about marriage, and about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, for the better.
Time and again, though, in my own conversations and the ones I’m training people to have with their friends, family, and neighbors, this question comes up: “What do you say when someone says marriage has always been that way and starts quoting Scripture?” To which I always reply: “You’ve got to bite your tongue, just like I do.”
I know, you’re saying, “You, Jess? You just bite your tongue when it comes to a question of religion and history?” And yes, I really do, hard as that may be for you to picture. In fact, that’s the major skill set I’ve been working on personally in this campaign, and I’ve made real strides in this department.
But why, you ask? Why don’t I lay The Almighty Bible-quoting, chapter-and-verse, dates-and-names-and-edicts-and-Supreme-Court-cases Smackdown To End All Smackdowns on them? I admit, the urge is strong. Sometimes, it feels like a whole segment of the population is just BEGGING me to teach them the history their schools and churches have failed to teach them. It seems like a personal sign from the universe that my particular combination of research is meaningful and needed, right here, right now.
But I’ve discovered something else that’s meaningful and needed, right here, right now: I’m not going to win a single vote for marriage equality by “changing minds,” which is what I’d be trying to do if I gave in to the impulse to lecture. The only way we’re going to defeat this hurtful amendment is to change hearts, and all the knowledge in the world doesn’t even scratch the surface of that mission.
I just finished reading a fascinating book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I haven’t felt like assigning required reading to everyone I meet in a while, but if I could buy this book for everyone I know–especially those on the campaign with me–I would. Haidt makes the case for a hybrid definition of how the human mind works, somewhere between Plato’s assertion that emotions are the servants of Reason and Hume’s argument that Reason is a slave to our passions. Haidt says a more apt analogy would be an elephant (our emotions) with a rider (our intellect). The rider can make suggestions to the elephant and looks like he’s in charge, but ultimately, if the elephant decides to head a particular direction, all the rider can do is say “I meant to do him to do that.”
Haidt also shares the results of his research into the moral foundations on which the edifices of conservative and liberal thought are built, and his conclusion is that part of the success of the modern conservative movement is based on the fact that conservative ideology appeals to a broader array of moral options than liberalism does. Since liberals often think of conservatives as “narrow-minded,” this sounds counter-intuitive, but really, it’s not. Liberals, Haidt demonstrates, derive their moral judgments almost entirely from whether something cares for or harms other beings, or whether it seems equalizing or discriminatory. Conservatives, on the other hand, respond less strongly to equality and care/harm, but additionally respond to messages of proportionality (more/less work=more/less reward), loyalty (to kin and other identity groups), sanctity (upholding standards of purity or pollution), and authority (respect for institutions), while many liberals actually perceive a threat from high degrees of those sources of morality. I think he’s really on to something, and I agree with what I heard Howard Dean talk about in a speech at Penn State, all the way back in 2004–that progressives won’t be able to accomplish their goals until they learn to articulate the morality of their position from all of these angles, and tap into the emotional heart of their message.
So when I talk to people about the anti-marriage amendment, I’m consciously talking to the elephant, not the rider, because it’s the elephant that will check a box on the ballot November 6. What does that mean, practically? It means I ask voters how they feel about love, marriage, and commitment, not how they think. I ask them if they’re married, if they’ve ever been in love, if they’ve ever been to a wedding, and how those things felt. I ask them whether they know any gay people, and how they feel about them if they do. If they say they don’t, I ask if they’ve ever felt excluded from something they wanted with all their hearts. And I don’t take no for an answer, because that experience is just as universal as love.
What I’m specifically not asking about is what they’ve been taught, what they’ve learned, what they know about the law and history of marriage. I’m not informing them on marriage’s roots in civil, economic, contractual law. I’m not engaging in Dueling Scripture Quotations. I’m not expounding on the long, twisted history of suppression of rights for groups that aren’t rich, white, male, or Christian. I’m not doing any of that, because it’s an absolute waste of my time, and I don’t have a minute to waste between now and the vote. There’s no point in convincing the rider, because there’s no way he can convince that elephant to squeeze into the booth if the elephant’s not into it.
The way we’re going to win is make the elephant want to get into the booth, and the only way to do that is to tie marriage equality to something the elephant already feels strongly about. Everybody wants love; nobody wants to be told they’re not good enough; we feel strongly about commitments to the people in our lives. Occasionally, I’ll come across a person whose church is democracy, whose scripture is the constitution, and for them, talking about rights and fairness is as persuasive as showing them how this amendment harms the people they love. But that feeling isn’t nearly as universal as the desire for love and the dream of celebrating that love in the sight of family, friends, community, and (for many) their god(s).
So I bite my tongue, and the teacher in my head jumps up and down furiously at being stifled. But the blood I taste is worth the stories I hear, the hopes and fears people share, and the wonder of creating a connection where there wasn’t one before. Those are the things that will get the elephant in the booth, and help generations of Minnesotans know that they are welcome, valued, and loved in this beautiful state of ours.