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Sticks and Stones

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'Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.' It's the reprise taught from an early age to shrug off ugly words that might be thrown in your direction. It is also completely untrue. Words are powerful and can do immense damage.

If we deny the impact of words we will either withdraw or build an impenetrable thick skin. Matthew Hosier wrote about picking his battles and his intent to fight for marriage and not over the words people choose to use to describe him or others seeking to defend marriage. This is in the light of the furore sparked by Nick Clegg’s words issued in a press release describing opponents of equal marriage as bigots, which was then hastily recalled and re-issued with bigots replaced by ‘some people’. Whether or not it was intended, the public relations version of doing the hokey-cokey guaranteed widespread coverage. 
 
Matthew’s intent is certainly admirable, and a realistic response to the current political contours of the debate over whether marriage should be changed to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. We don’t want our actions to be defined by whether or not people like us, otherwise we would find ourselves on a perpetual merry-go-round seeking approval and affirmation. When I sketched out my thoughts on the issue earlier in the year when the government consultation closed I hesitated because I did not want to be labelled as a bigot or branded with a particularly vociferous form of hatred. I wanted to avoid the ire of people who disagreed with me. I wanted to set out my thoughts without provoking a backlash, but I also did not want to be silenced just because I knew that people would disagree with me, and in the end, that was the main force behind putting my views on record.
 
Just now I wrote: ‘debate over whether marriage should be changed’, if you looked at comments from those proposing such a change they would phrase it differently, they might say marriage should be opened up or extended, or made equal. The words we use matter. The debate is set out in two different terms of reference, for one side it is about changing marriage, for the other it is about removing restrictions that unfairly prevent some people from accessing it. And the side that most effectively frames the debate begins with a handsome head start.
 
A vital part of framing this debate is allocating your opponents a space on the margins. If in anyway you can present your opponents as a receding minority you are well on your way to winning the argument. And this is where being called a bigot matters. Even words such as ‘traditional’, ‘orthodox’  ‘religious’ and ‘Christian’ become used to define an opinion as on the sidelines of the debate, and while worthy of protection or respect, they are damned with faint praise to a life outside of the mainstream.
 
There is a strange mentality within Christianity that sometimes likes attacks on our beliefs and actions. There is something in it that validates those beliefs by the very act of opposition, the ‘if they’re attacking us then we must have got something right’ mentality. And we may well face attacks for our faith, but I think too often people are not offended by the gospel that we preach but by those who preach it. We imagine that the more people hate us, the more right we are.
 
This just leads to a spiralling descent into a culture war. Positions become entrenched and we authenticate our actions by the opposition they provoke. We mark out our differences with pride, guarding the line with passion, defying nuance and losing relationships in order to win the war of words. 
 
I’m with Matthew in not wanting marriage to change but I think we need a better language. We need to make the charge of bigot nonsensical rather than just shrugging the insult off and moving on to a fight we think matters more. If we can’t get the language right then we are throwing troops armed with peashooters at a full scale cavalry charge.

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