Monday, June 24, 2013

Eric Teetsel: Winning the marriage debate in a culture amusing itself to death

A very helpful article, posted at Public Discourse:
Here’s what we must not do: sacrifice our principles. Better to lose a thousand elections than win in sycophantic appeals to the lowest common denominator. Christians, at least, can rely on the long view of God’s redemptive story. We have already read the final page of human history; we know how the story ends. How utterly meaningless is the next election cycle viewed from this perspective?

Until that final chapter comes to pass, the responsibility is ours to be active in the present. And since we aren’t about to gain a slew of celebrity endorsements, we have to make ourselves and our ideas as attractive to the “persuadables” as possible. Forget beating the entrenched opposition. When we debate in the public square and in social media, our goal should be to win those silent observers whose commitments are shallow and subject to change.

This week, the Supreme Court will issue decisions in two cases involving the meaning and purpose of marriage. Whatever the results, our work to rebuild a culture of marriage and family will continue. Restoration will require that we better brand ourselves and make our case more attractive.

In a 1972 article in Philosophy & Rhetoric, Wayne Brockriede describes the art of communication in terms of sexual conduct. Like sex, argument occurs between human beings who bring their whole selves to the conversation, including personal histories and philosophical presuppositions (whether they know it or not). And, as in sex, participants in conversation can be considerate of these facts and lovingly negotiate them as part of the act, or manipulate them to personal advantage, or ignore them completely and carry on without regard for the others’ welfare at all. The first is arguing as a lover; the second as a seducer; the third as a rapist.

Too often, conservatives—including me—fall into the third category with our derision and condemnation. Not only is this unbecoming of people aspiring to virtue, it is ineffective in winning others to our cause.

Arguing as a lover is better. It frees us to acknowledge our personal faults and the faults in our arguments while remaining committed to our position and allowing our interlocutor to save face in the majority of instances in which our case is superior. As we woo the person across from us (and—remember—the audience watching from home) we are funny, self-effacing, merciful, and confident.

Winning the affections of the audience also means using sources of authority that appeal to them. This is not a new idea; it goes back as far as Aristotle. In contemporary culture, the Constitution is not considered authoritative. Though it pains me to say it, few people care about what the founding fathers said. (Those who do are already interning at the Heritage Foundation.)

I know what you’re thinking. “But the Federalist Papers are important!” Indeed, they are, and there’s a time and a place for discussing them. But when we lead with them and rely solely on such works, we fail. The current generation is more interested in doers. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a phenomenal thinker and writer, but if not for his actions he would not be the iconic leader we consider him today. Thanks in part to writers such as Eric Metaxas, the lives of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer provide us with examples of conservative men of conviction whose values were reflected in their actions.

Each of us ought to be part of the recovery of a marriage and family culture. The work of academics and policy advocates is vital, but artists, musicians, pastors, teachers, and all the rest have a contribution to make. The most compelling source of authority in any argument is your own life. Your conversation partner wants to know how your values have changed the way you live, and whether yours is a life worth emulating. Do I want to be that kind of person? If you can tell your own story, you will win.