7 News Archive
Emotional issues are potent
Something has to give

By Ulli Diemer

One of the things that the recent civic election made clear is that left-leaning and reform candidates can be very vulnerable if right-wing groups are able to seize on emotional questions and make them issues during the an election campaign.

Certainly an anti-gay backlash had a lot to do with John Sewell’s defeat, and with the defeat of a number of aldermanic and school trustee candidates. The police issue, another very emotional one for a lot of people, also contributed to Sewell’s loss.

It seems to me that traditional campaigning is not sufficient to counteract the kind of gut-level agitation that was done by the right around these issues.

The traditional approach of the reformers, most notably Sewell, is to take clear principled stands on the issue and to explain those stands simply and clearly in campaign literature and statements to the press. This approach has severe limitations even when it is a matter of relatively unemotional issues like the TTC or new non-profit housing, especially when the policies advocated stand in opposition to the beliefs (e.g. “free enterprise”) that the schools, newspapers, TV, radio, ads, etc. have been trying to drum into us every day since we were little children. The media, certainly, almost invariably distort and trivialize people and issues they don’t like. Buy at least when it comes to the traditional “political” issues well-put arguments during an election campaign can often reach people who are open to reason. The gulf separating reformers from their hoped for audience is not that great.

But there are some issues on which many people are not very open to reason, where a few catch-phrases can unleash deep-seated prejudices that can easily be translated into near-hysteria. The gay issue is one such issue. Abortion, equal rights for women, race relations, “permissiveness”, are others.

The feelings that these issues trigger in people have very little to do with what is being said. Why, for example, is it proving impossible to pass a simple Equal Rights Amendment in the U.S., an amendment that says nothing more than that women shall not be discriminated against because they are women? Because the people campaigning against the ERA, many of them women, see something much more in it than what it says. They see a threat to the family, their children, all their beliefs and way of life.

It’s the same with the gay issue. What is so threatening about ending legal discrimination against gays?

How does a simple end to discrimination become a “homosexual takeover” in the minds of many people?

The emotions leap ahead while reason is left behind. Gays just by existing represent a horrid threat to many people, to their ideas of the family (their family, their children), to men’s sense of masculinity, to women’s ideas of their identity and role. Nothing is more threatening and infuriating than people openly rejecting your values. Your values impose limitations on you, but they also provide security against a threatening world. But where is your security if some people can reject the limitations you have accepted and not be made to suffer for it?

The right can play to these fears much more effectively than we seem to be able to allay them. We can persuade only if there is calm and rational discussion. But people aren’t calm and rational about these issues, so the right, the anonymous leafleters, the Toronto Sun, and the rest, have a build-in advantage. They aren’t rational or fair, so they have a big head start because the battle is on their terrain. (They also have greater resources.)

Consider, for example, two of the main “arguments” against gay rights:

1. Homosexuality is completely unnatural. No normal person wants to have anything to do with it, only a few "sick" individuals.

2. We have to discriminate against homosexuals because homosexuality is so enticing that a single homosexual teacher in a school could convert the whole school to it. A small handful of these sick individuals could corrupt our entire society if we don’t stop them.

It seems to me that if we can force the discussion onto a rational, non-hysterical level we’ll already have almost won.

I don’t know of any easy answers, but it seems clear that we have to find a better ways of confronting these highly emotional issues. Both here and the U.S. the right is getting better and better at manipulating them.

One conclusion has to be that these issues have to be worked at all the time. If they’re ignored until the right starts using them at election time, it’s likely to late. And stands taken by progressive politicians, for example, have to be more forceful. Wishy-washy, half-apologetic positions tend to make the holder a target as much as anything. If you’re going to advance a controversial opinion at all, you have to do it forcefully and persistently. Half-measures often lead to disaster. You have to take risks.

Published in Seven News, Volume 11, Number 11, 21 November, 1980.

Related topics:
Belief Systems
Framing Issues
The Right
Toronto/City Politics