Once we consider this premise – even at a metaphorical level – we realize that, like food, ideas must get past the body’s built-in sensory warning systems. When an idea seems sweet, we are more willing to ingest it. When an idea is laced with vinegar, it’s far less likely to be ingested, much less digested and absorbed by their intended host.
It’s in this regard that I turn to the folly of some people within the gay right’s movement and their ill-fated propaganda approach. Specifically, the emotional outpouring over the positions of Chick-Fil-A, an American fast-food restaurant.
As most reading this will know, the founder of Chick-Fil-A has cooked up a bit of controversy with his religious-based stance on what the legal definition of marriage should be. The reactions from both sides of the issue have been swift and dramatic, with the Mike Huckabee-inspired “munch in” bringing Chick-Fil-A its single most profitable day in its history.
But this article is not an admonition of a position for or against same-sex marriage. Let’s put that aside for one moment. Instead, let’s talk about strategy.
When ideas are embedded into someone’s very being, they become a part of who they are. To attack someone’s beliefs is to attack them physically. And it’s very easy to spot an attack. They are loud, aggressive, demeaning and threatening. They hit our ears like acid and our eyes like needles. And yet we somehow hold out the notion that these attacks will soften the opposition to our causes.
Not only do acerbic attacks diminish the wielders of the messages, they diminish the chances that the opposition will consider the logic behind the attackers’ message. Which begs the question, do the hate-headliners place the value of outrage at a higher premium than the achievement of the movement?
Scientists have a name for this phenomenon. It’s called the boomerang effect. And it’s something that social scientists have known about for a very long time. (This study back in 1966 links how insulting people exacerbates the boomerang effect.)
If the large gay-rights organizations are serious about changing hearts and minds, they’re going to need to exercise some leadership. They’re going to have to persuade their own membership that violent, aggressive messaging may be cathartic, but completely disruptive to any progress they can make as an organization.
This is a tall order in today’s world of public discourse – a world reduced to sound bites and nasty wit. Yes, a great “burn” on your enemies helps you win a larger late-night TV audience or gets you to the front page of Reddit. But if science has already demonstrated the effect of such causes, what is the value of the approach?
Clearly, the opposition to same-sex marraige knows how to fight a propaganda battle. Instead of enlisting their employees to sing “Bringing in the Sheaves” to celebrate the support is has received, the employees have remained humble and downright…nice. The motivation behind these nice deeds is not relevant to the advocates of same-sex marriage. It doesn’t matter why Chick-Fil-A managers bring cold lemonade out to the protesters. It only matters that the rest of the world sees it and says, “Wow. That’s sweet.”
It’s doubtful that the younger supporters of same-sex marriage rights will understand the value of suppressing their short-term desire to express outrage for their long-term desire of replacing an old idea with a new one. But until someone in the gay-rights movement shows some leadership, their army might just lose the war for them.