The gay marriage debate and ‘slippery slope’ arguments

By Drew Lindon

Following my blog on the ‘slippery slope’ arguments, and with our upcoming breakfast discussion, I thought it would be useful to look into a specific example. We saw lots of slippery slope arguments levied during the debate around the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2013, among other types of arguments and oppositions.

For instance, the Coalition for Marriage claimed there would be “profound consequences” if gay marriage was made legal. They asked if the law was to be redefined this time, what would prevent future changes in the law to allow polygamy?

Bishop Davies of Shrewsbury asked darkly “where is such progress leading?” and compared the threats he perceived the Bill represented to Christianity with the acts of Hitler and Stalin.

And Lord Tebbit warned that the plans might be extended to include marriage within families (“Maybe I’d be allowed to marry my son”), and mused about the legal complexities of a married, lesbian queen.

Clearly, these arguments were unsuccessful in preventing the Bill becoming law and legalising gay marriage in England and Wales.

Part of the reason the Bill passed was due to focused and dogged campaigning by many individuals, charities, influencing groups and politicians. But I also feel that the type and application of the slippery slope arguments in this case undermined the opponents’ cause. As I said in my prior blog, far too often advocates of slippery slope arguments overreach when talking about the consequences of change. Implausible claims undermine arguments as well as the standing of other advocates on your side.

For instance, most opponents of gay marriage did not really think the change would lead to sons marrying fathers. But Lord Tebbit’s comments did no favours for the public’s perception of gay marriage opponents. Likewise, the reactions of some religious groups to similar legislation, while undoubtedly genuine and heartfelt, also fed into an exaggerated image of opposition in the eyes of many. For example, the Church of Scotland briefly considered (and then relented) whether it was worth continuing to offer any marriages while the Marriage and Civil Partnerships Bill (Scotland) was under debate, on the basis that the Bill might lead to legal challenge for Churches that did not offer gay marriage.

Overreaching made it easier for gay marriage supporters to paint the opponents as out-of-touch, or claim they were exaggerating the Bill’s impact. If you perceive someone to be exaggerating how bad something is going to be, you’re less likely to listen to them, even if they have other types of arguments which may be more defensible.

In fact, part of the problem was that many opponents appeared out of step with public attitudes, which had shifted decisively in favour of gay marriage. Amongst other reasons, the fact that the Gay Marriage Act followed the passage of the Civil Partnership Act in 2004 meant that many people saw gay marriage as an incremental step, rather than a sea change. Given that most members of the public knew openly gay people, and perhaps even knew gay people in civil partnerships, my take is that most people felt that same-sex couples getting wed would not sink the institution of marriage. The very fact that many gay people wanted to join one of the most traditional institutions in our society struck commentators at the time as proof this group of Britons did not have a radical agenda at heart.

Again, as I did last time, I stress the use of slippery slope arguments doesn’t mean that the argument is false, nor that people who employ these arguments are mistaken. It depends on the issue, the facts and your views, not necessarily in that order! The issue is that slippery slope arguments can be simple to undermine, weakening their advocates’ case.

So what can charity campaigners do to respond to slippery slope arguments in future? How can they engage with, and effectively answer those oppositions? And how can they avoid setting up fragile arguments themselves? I’ve offered some thoughts in my prior blog, but join us to discuss the issue of slippery slope arguments at our December event, where we’ll be encouraging guests to share their experiences and solutions.

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