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Beware the moral high ground

By Peter Wilson - posted Wednesday, 30 August 2017


Amongst the countless op-eds doing the rounds of the same-sex marriage debate this seemingly innocuous one by Dr Katherine Harper recently popped up.

The writer's beef is that because of her age, gender and general world view (liberal upbringing, no religious affiliation etc.) she feels her peers and society generally expect her to vote Yes on the SSM survey. So in defiance of these expectations she is now firmly in the No camp.

While not garnering nearly as much reaction as some others involved in the debate (Bob Katter wanting to reclaim the word 'gay', for example), overall there was a fair amount of tut-tutting about the piece from those in favour of SSM. As one vomitous Twitter user commented:

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The sanctimonious arrogance of KatherineHarper's opinion piece makes me vomit.

Fair enough. Some of her points are poorly argued and a little nauseating. 'I'm not especially religious but what has happened to Christian values?' is always a good one. And the Hansonesque' let me write an op-ed for a major media outlet to tell you how much my opinions aren't being heard' is another. But her central tenet of 'don't tell me what to think' is one that has been all too familiar in recent political debates.

While it is all too easy to compare any kind of campaign these days to the Trump or Brexit victories – so called elites underestimating the grievances of ignored sectors of the community and being shocked by what happened – there are echoes in the current Australian SSM debate.

Arguing the case for keeping traditional marriage is complex. If you will vote No because of religious or cultural reasons then many may see some validity to it. We mostly respect religious and cultural traditions on other issues that the less religious amongst us might otherwise disagree with, whether baptisms, brisses or burqas (I did say, mostly). As long as they don't break the law and everyone is happy doing what they're doing.

The broader more secular case for 'No' is harder to mount. 'I like things the way they are and I just don't really think things should change' is perfectly valid on many levels but gets easily trumped by strong and clear messages about equality. Also it doesn't look good on a billboard and makes a clumsy hashtag. Similarly, debate around the impact of SSM on children, while keenly felt by many, is also blurry, even if "it does seem clear that there is no definitive or compelling evidence showing children raised by same-sex couples are not at least doing as well as children raised by heterosexual couples." But hey, it hasn't stopped climate change sceptics or anti-vaxxers.

So like a poorly run high school debate, if your argument isn't cutting it, make up another argument.

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Tony Abbott and some of his hard-line mates have quickly flicked the switch to issues of gender fluidity, political correctness and free speech arguing that a No vote will help stop these scourges of modern life and the Marxist warriors behind them.

It's cynical and not particularly cogent but does a similar job to KatherineHarper's piece. Don't tell me what to think. It's not really about SSM at all.

The common view from social research findings around the SSM issue over the years has been, while most Australians are broadly supportive of SSM, the majority of us are also not that fussed about it (there are more important things to worry ourselves about). A good position for the Yes Campaign you would think. But there is a sense this has shifted somewhat with the issue being allowed to fester through political inaction and now with voices from both sides becoming louder.

Well-intentioned, well-organised, celebrity-endorsed, hashtagged, 'you know there is only one answer' campaigns are now commonplace. But how much does this do to activate those not that fussed to start with and in which way will it send them when they fill in their survey? Australians are a pretty obedient lot when it comes to democratic participation given our compulsory voting heritage and 81% say they will definitely or probably fill in the upcoming SSM survey.

As one of Harper's critics commented:

Forget yr position on equality, KatherineHarper's voting no to spite the pro camp for being too loud.

Well yes, she is. And that's the issue.

It's hard to quantify how many more Katherine Harpers there are. Probably not enough to see the No vote prevail, but people have thought things like that before.

As Hilary Clinton, The UK Remain crowd and others have discovered, once you assume the moral high ground on any debate it is best not be distracted by the beautiful fluttering flag you've just stuck into the summit and mock your rivals below. They may still be at base camp, but they have people around them, more oxygen to breathe and you'll eventually have to make the descent.

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About the Author

Pete Wilson is Principal of Pragmatic Research and Advisory Services. He has been studying the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of Australians for over 20 years. His work ranges from large-scale tracking studies and market segmentation to issues-based qualitative studies, stakeholder perceptions research and communications strategies.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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