Wednesday 28 September 2016

It doesn't take much to be branded a bigot these days

Campaigners for same sex marriage are giving a master class in how to turn certain victory in the referendum into defeat, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 03/05/2015 | 02:30

There are still two weeks to go before the referendum, but the country may already have reached
There are still two weeks to go before the referendum, but the country may already have reached "peak gay marriage"

There are still two weeks to go before the referendum, but the country may already have reached "peak gay marriage".

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Like peak oil, the theoretical point at which fossil fuels run out and it's downhill all the way for humanity, peak gay marriage is the moment when every last barrel has been scraped, and the prospect of hearing another word on the subject makes any sensible person run screaming for the hills.

Though there wouldn't be any escape there either, as Yes-voting grannies set off on a nationwide tour to persuade wavering members of the older generation to back changing the constitution to allow gay people the right to marry.

The Yes Equality battle bus - rolling into a town near you soon, so don't say you haven't been warned - isn't packed entirely with grannies, of course, but that was the angle the Irish Times chose to go on, reflecting a new softness in the Yes campaign which seems to have recognised that it might have been a tad too strident hitherto.

Seriously? They're only just noticing this now?

The new softly-softly approach was reinforced by a video message from alleged comedian Brendan O'Carroll, which prompted thousands of people who wouldn't be seen dead watching Mrs Brown's Boys to declare that its creator was now a national treasure for declaring on letting gay people get married: "What's the fecking fuss?"

The No campaign is based on a fallacy, which is that the conditions under which marriage is legally permitted by the State should be dependent upon a particular view about the best way to raise children; but it's a single error, endlessly repeated. The Yes side, by contrast, seems to be after a world record for most logical fallacies committed in a single campaign.

Appeals to emotion. Appeals to flattery. Appeals to ridicule. One could go down a list of common fallacies, and tick them off, one by one. Most of all there is the appeal to authority, or what is known as an argumentum ab auctoritate.

There was a prime example last week as three large children's charities came out in favour of a Yes vote, with Grainne Long of the ISPCC declaring: "As child professionals, we absolutely know this is in the best interests of children".

Well, excuse anyone for daring to disagree with professionals. Obviously you know best.

The Mrs Brown intervention was what might be called an argumentum ab celebritate, whereby the rich and famous are deployed to influence people into voting one way or another. Look, it's Hozier. Here comes Colin Farrell. Do you wanna be in their gang? Vote Yes.

The tactic was quite common during the Scottish referendum, when David Bowie, Kermit the Frog (no, really) and Wee Jimmy Krankie urged Scotland to stay in the UK, whilst rapper Chuck D (don't ask) and Hagrid from the Harry Potter movies asked voters to choose independence. In an age which prides itself on its individualism and disrespect for convention, celebrities have replaced politicians and church leaders as the voices of authority. It's as if we can't be trusted anymore to make up our minds without knowing beforehand what Ant and Dec think.

Even by the debased standards of this modern curse, though, the intervention of Mrs Brown was something to behold. Newspapers even reported the video as if Mrs Brown was a real person rather than a man in a frock. "Mrs Brown notes... Mrs Brown shares her reasons..." Have we all gone mad?

The non-existent Mrs Brown even suggested that people should vote for same sex marriage in the interests of "her" gay son. Who doesn't exist either, except as a character on a sitcom. Played by a gay actor, but still not real. The video was oohed and aahed over by people who'd rather admit to voting for Lucinda Creighton than watching Mrs Brown's Boys. Irish stand-up Aisling Bea called it "a big shout out to a generation that may need a nudge". Even she didn't claim it was funny, though.

It was the same when Mary McAleese made her own intervention in the debate. Suddenly the smart set were very interested in what a prominent Catholic had to say, when normally they'd cross the road rather than listen to the opinion of anyone who still goes to Mass.

One of the reasons the video was received so warmly was because it played into that new mood in the Yes camp which has belatedly discovered the joys of persuasion rather than haranguing No voters as bigots. Humour works perfectly in that way because it sneaks past a person's usual defences.

Once someone is smiling, they're already more receptive. Until recently, the Yes camp has come at people instead with a self-righteous frown; and, as Eoghan Harris said on Newstalk's Right Hook in midweek, when discussing the art of the political poster, messages need to be more subtle and multilayered than that.

It's about bringing together apparently contradictory ideas to the point where they fuse organically.

The No side has been less than subtle too, but it never made sense for the Yes side to even go down that road, because it had the wind in its sails, and the full-hearted support of every major political party and media organisation in the country. Still it has allowed the polls to narrow, and now the vote could be much closer than anyone ever imagined.

Not only have many Yes supporters spent months now denouncing No voters as dinosaurs, they also tried to tar anyone who politely suggested that they were taking the wrong approach as bigots too.

It probably goes back to Pantigate, when the trenches were first dug and people were ordered to chose a side or get mown down in the crossfire. It doesn't take much to be denounced as a homophobe these days. It coarsened the tone of the debate and introduced an edge of liberal McCarthyism that has still not dissipated.

In many ways, liberal issues such as gay marriage have replaced the national question as the single most divisive fault line in Irish society. The sorts of passions which the North once roused are now played out on a battlefield of morality.

Gerry Adams made an interesting remark at the Sinn Fein ard fheis this year, though. Seeking to deflect criticism of SF representatives for covering up sexual abuse by republicans, he urged delegates to think instead of "the Shinner I know". Insofar as there are thousands of decent people who vote for SF in good faith, it was a clever move, and could yet turn out to be relevant in this campaign too.

For all that Yes campaigners paint their opponents as horrendous reactionaries, the fact is that most people can look at "the No voter I know" and see that they're not monsters. Hence the new approach to win round soft voters.

They won't be able to keep it up, of course. Doing what doesn't come naturally is always hard. It's already breaking down again into liberal one-upmanship, as they all purport to need smelling salts at the sight of each Vote No poster.

What's infuriating is that they won't consider the possibility that this collective decision now to become more "reasonable" is the same problem as their former collective decision to be strident. They won't think for themselves, they just want to make grand gestures as a group. It's like watching Monty Python's Life of Brian: "Yes, we're all individuals!"

It's also laced with an identical strain of smugness. "Aren't we so great for being liberal?" has simply been replaced by "aren't we so great for letting No voters speak at all?" It should have been obvious to anyone with an ounce of wit that the referendum would not be won or lost on the extremes - No-voting Catholic diehards on one side; Yes-voting Dublin 4 lipstick lesbians on the other - but in the centre, where votes are always decided.

They expect congratulations for finally grasping what others were attacked for pointing out all along. So calling people homophobes doesn't work. Who knew? The answer ought to have been: Everyone.

Sunday Independent

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