Saturday, April 20, 2013

Final analysis

All stories eventually end, and in New Zealand that includes political debate. Kiwis almost never return to a debate once it’s done—they simply move on. That’s true no matter their position on the issue they debated, and it’s one of the things I like the most about NZ society: It doesn’t keep re-litigating the same issues over and over and over like the USA does.

So as we leave New Zealand’s marriage equality debate for the history books, I thought I’d add my final thoughts on why our side won.

1. It was time.

There’s no denying that momentum is clearly in favour of marriage equality, and that momentum is picking up speed. Since the Netherlands became the first country to enact marriage equality a dozen years ago, the rate at which countries and US states have done so has become faster. So, for New Zealand (as for many countries), it was never a question of if, but rather of when. That being the case, it made no sense to wait—Kiwis are a practical people.

2. US President Barack Obama.

It was only May of last year—not even twelve months ago!—that the US President declared he supported marriage equality. Here in New Zealand, Kiwis immediately took to social media to pressure NZ politicians to do the same, and Labour Leader David Shearer finally did (after his predecessor ruled out a law change). Meanwhile, Prime Minister John Key of the conservative National Party made supportive noises, but said there was no clamour for change. Just a few days later, Labour MP Louisa Wall announced that she would sponsor a member’s bill to enact marriage equality, and did so by the end of that month. Two months later, the bill was drawn from the ballot and the debate began.

Obama’s public support made it easier for politicians to support marriage equality, just as UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement seven months earlier (“I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative") made it acceptable for NZ politicians, especially in the National Party, to think about publicly supporting equality. President Obama then provided the final spark that started it all. Would it have happened without that? Sooner or later, absolutely—but I’m convinced it would have been later rather than sooner.

3. The intellectual bankruptcy of our opponents.

I’ve long said that there’s no such thing as a rational secular reason for opposing marriage equality, and that all arguments against it are based on religious beliefs, anti-gay animus or both. That was certainly the case in New Zealand, where the opposition came from church leaders and professional far right religious activists. I repeatedly debunked them on this blog, calling out their misrepresentation of polling data (here, and also here and again here), their thinly-disguised bigotry and their absurd arguments. Ah, their arguments—they helped us win!

Our adversaries argued that marriage equality for loving couples would be a “slippery slope” leading to polygamy (by which they actually meant polygyny, since polyandry isn’t legal in any country). Of course, polygamy is illegal in every country and US state with marriage equality, and the countries in which it IS legal are all anti-gay—sometimes viciously so. It was one of their dumbest arguments, and no one outside their small circle of true believers ever took it seriously (related, see also “Bob’s big lie”).

So, with that silly argument going nowhere, our adversaries next turned to the raising of children as an argument against marriage equality because a married same-gender couple would be able to adopt children. Gay people could already adopt children, only gay people in a couple could not. Most people saw this situation as plain stupid.

This tactic is where our adversaries’ bigotry most clearly shone through: They played it as if adoption by gay people would be something new, and they deliberately tried to tap into latent prejudices otherwise mainstream people had about gay people raising children. To do so, they relied on debunked studies that the radicals claimed “proved” gay people make bad parents. I blogged specifically about that last month and also the next day.

This was their most disgusting and offensive campaign tactic because they deliberately tried to portray gay people as bad parents—and quietly implied that gay people shouldn’t be allowed around children. You’d be forgiven for thinking Anita Bryant was their leader!

None of that was enough, of course: Fair-minded mainstream Kiwis saw through the lies and thinly-disguised bigotry of the radical right. While our professional adversaries didn’t resort to the bald anti-gay rhetoric and slime that earlier activists used in 2004 and especially when Homosexual Law Reform was advanced in the 1980s, the reality is that they simply didn’t have to: Ordinary, non-professional radicals did it for them all over the Internet and on talkback radio. Instead, the professionals used their dogwhistle politics—but found out that mainstream Kiwis couldn’t hear them or didn’t care.

4. New Zealand is a secular country.

Our adversaries couldn’t get any traction with their arguments because they were all based on conservative religious beliefs. New Zealand is a secular nation, even though a majority claim religious belief. Unlike the USA, religion and politics are firmly separated in New Zealand and Kiwis clearly like it that way. Even among religious people, many think it’s rude to force their religious beliefs onto others.

Also, New Zealand doesn’t have an influential religious right. In fact, most Kiwis get annoyed with rightwing religionists and their moralising, their tut-tutting and their tendency toward theocratic politics.

So, our adversaries always had an uphill battle in which it was highly improbable they could win.

5. New Zealanders are a fair-minded people.

No one’s perfect, of course, and sometimes populism raises its head, but in general New Zealanders just don’t get all that worked up about how other people live their lives. While plenty of New Zealanders supported marriage equality—the majorities soaring the younger the Kiwis polled—I still believe that a huge percentage simply didn’t care. Since allowing same-gender couples to marry wouldn’t affect them at all, most Kiwis, sensible people that they are, couldn’t see why they should stand in the way of the happiness of same-gender couples. Nothing our adversaries ever said provided any reason for mainstream New Zealanders to stand in the way of freedom and happiness.

6. Our side was calmer.

Both sides had some loud-mouthed extremists, but the worst our side got was people attacking other people’s religious beliefs, something that I think is always the wrong thing to do, as I wrote about recently.

While our adversaries were arguing that polygamy, ruined children and loss of religious freedom would be the result of marriage equality, our side simply pointed out that there were only two consequences of marriage equality: 1. Same-gender couples would marry, and 2. Opposite-gender couples would marry. While our adversaries often sounded shrill or hysterical, our side had the rational, reasonable steady calm of the bill’s sponsor, Louisa Wall, and also the Green’s Kevin Hague. As a result, their side sounded—rightly—like it was against freedom and liberty, while our side seemed—rightly—as advocates of freedom and liberty.

In the end, media debates among advocates of the two sides came down to a contest between their shrill, dour, would-be dictators against our quiet, calm rational fact-based advocacy. Our adversaries could never overcome that.

7. Their side was obviously desperate.

As the debate went on, and our adversaries’ tactics failed to convince anyone, they started to appear to be desperate. They chopped and changed from one attack to another hoping that something would stick, but nothing ever did. Everything they said was easily and calmly debunked, even when they attacked the process itself. While they’d never been perceived as likable (because of their overt rightwing religiosity, their moralising and their theocratic authoritarian nature), their obvious desperation in the final weeks made Kiwis just tune out and ignore our professional adversaries. Now that the battle is over, those same adversaries sound like they’re eating a steady diet of sour grapes.

And now the battle is over.

In this post, I’ve highlighted some of what I think are the main reasons our side won. There are more reasons, of course—chief among them, the hard work of Louisa Wall and other advocates for the bill. There are also more details related to the reasons I’ve talked about here. Many of those details can be found in some of my other blog posts about this debate.

The Governor General has signed the bill into law, providing the required royal assent. It goes into effect in four months.

And that’s basically the end of this story. In the final analysis, that’s all that now matters.

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