The persuasive Irish have perfected their use of stories. They use the power of language to carefully craft detailed images and metaphors, to evoke emotion, or make a point, where non-fiction would struggle. Our poets, authors and songwriters have been perfecting that craft for centuries.
In Ireland, such storytelling is a great national tradition. To quote Lara Flynn Boyle, “That’s what the holidays are for – for one person to tell the stories and another to dispute them. Isn’t that the Irish way?”
Just one story can completely change a person’s views on ethics, politics and philosophy. Completely implausible and fantastic stories can contain deep meaning, and their power lies in their subversive subtlety. Arguably, it is sometimes stories, remembered and adopted as part of our lives, even passed down through generations, that have the greatest power to transform societies. It is the anecdotes, examples, and real-life testimonies that tend to move us to feeling and action. The facts, the logic, often take a back seat.
An individual, an organization or a political grouping with an agenda can often persuade a sizeable majority to agree with them, simply by citing extreme cases that demonstrate their intended point; this is often an example that arouses anger, compassion or some other emotion.
We see examples of this regularly in society. And we can see it in the current debate over same-sex marriage. The referendum on a proposed amendment to the Irish constitution, adding provisions for same-sex marriage, is planned for the 22nd May 2015. The 2011 census indicates that around 4,000 same-sex couples are currently living together in Ireland. As of 25th April 2015, opinion polls indicate that public opinion favours the ‘Yes’ vote against the ‘No’ vote by 78:22, an increase from the 64:36 ratio in November 2012.
The growth of the ‘Yes’ vote is striking, and in the 25th April poll only 8% of respondents indicated that they were undecided or refused to answer. The vast majority of people, therefore, had a decisive opinion one way or the other. The 1995 referendum to legalise divorce passed only by 51% to 49%. In both cases, the debate has been characterised by strong opinions and shock stories. It offers a prime example, on both sides of the issue, of how we, as human beings, can be more easily persuaded by emotion, in the form of stories, rumours and anecdotes, than actual balanced discussion and dialogue.
Those in support of the ‘No’ vote are often labelled instantly as ‘homophobic’, ‘bigoted’ or worse. Of course, there is a minority on the ‘No’ side who do feel it is acceptable to discriminate against people in the LGBT spectrum solely because of their sexual preference. We see that in the anti-gay hate mail sent to the presenter Brendan Courtney (one of the first openly gay television presenters in Ireland). That anonymous writer, on the ‘No’ side is, certainly, focussing more on discrimination and prejudice and blind hatred than any reasonable human rational process.
It would be easy to use a single negative example, such as this, and draw inference about tens if not hundreds of thousands of ‘No’ voters. Such anecdotes tend to be persuasive to the human mind, and to the public. It sets the media on fire, and boosts newspaper sales and news website views. However, it is factually untrue, and grossly unfair, to argue that all or even the majority of ‘No’ supporters are homophobic. Whatever one’s position on the arguments of the ‘No’ side, it simply is not true that all such people are voting solely out of prejudice. It may be popular to criticise, fun to humiliate, satisfying to gossip, but it’s not necessarily fair, right, or loving.
Similarly, popular as it is to characterise this debate as religious in nature, this is also a significant generalisation. Yes, there are Christians and church groups who oppose the legislation, and the media often take a sort-of “Look at them – let’s judge and humiliate them together…”-style angle on such stories. It’s a popular approach in a sound-bite era.
However, organisations such as “Changing Attitude Ireland” are distinctively Christian and continue to affirm a ‘high view’ of the Bible as the ‘Word of God’, while offering vocal support for the “Yes” campaign. Meanwhile, the Church of Ireland has campaigned neither for a ‘Yes’ nor a ‘No’ but encouraged members to decide for themselves according to conscience. Others religious groupings may support the ‘No’ campaign, but do so without a shred of the bigotry and prejudice seen so often in the media.
Many ‘Yes’ supporters argue that this referendum is about equality: it’s about equal respect for different views of how one’s life may be ordered. Interestingly, when either side demonises the other, equality goes out the window. Surely no person should be discriminated against on the basis of their view in a referendum , especially one concerned with equality and respect. A mature society tolerates and respects a diverse range of perspectives. Let’s hope we’re mature.
Image credit: Benson Kua [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons