This has been a big weekend for marriage.
In a 33-29 vote, the New York State Senate voted to legalize gay marriage on Friday, June 24th, making it the sixth state to do so — and the most populous.
In the wake of this vote, many people are wondering what this means for the future of gay marriage in the United States. Why exactly is this such a contentious issue, and why do Americans’ opinions seem to differ so greatly? When it comes to marriage equality, why can’t we all just get along?
Where Does a Same-Sex Marriage Attitude Come From?
The reason why only six states in the USA have legalized same-sex marriage most likely has something to do with the large number of senators (and, presumably, American citizens) who are against it. But other than the obvious factors (like religion and age), what else might make someone especially likely to reject the idea of same-sex marriage?
Conservative social attitudes (including opposition to same-sex marriage) are most strongly related to innate preferences for stability, order, and certainty. In fact, some research suggests that these attitudes are part of a compensatory mental process motivated by anxiety; people who feel particularly threatened by uncertainty cope with it by placing great importance on norms, rules, and rigidity. As a result, people who are particularly intolerant of ambiguity, live in unstable circumstances, or simply have an innate need for order, structure, and closure are most likely to hold attitudes that promote rigidity and conventional social norms – and most likely to be against same-sex marriage.
What does it mean to be intolerant of ambiguity? Well, would you rather see the world around you as clear and straightforward, or would you rather see everything as complicated and multidimensional? People who fall into the first category are much more likely to want everything in life (including gender roles, interpersonal relationships, and conceptualizations of marriage) to be dichotomous, rigid, and clear-cut. And that’s not all; “ambiguity-intolerant” people are also more likely to perceive ambiguous situations as threatening. After all, if you are uncomfortable with the idea of a complicated, shades-of-gray world, any situation that presents you with this type of ambiguity will be experienced as particularly threatening. This is likely what’s happening when a conservative sees an ambiguous situation (e.g. a same-sex couple’s potential marriage) as a source of threat (e.g. to the sanctity of marriage).
Why Is Attitude Change So Hard?
After reading the section above, it should be fairly clear that there’s a problem with how both pro- and anti-same-sex-marriage proponents are viewing the other side’s point of view. The issue is not really that there’s one way to see the issue, and the other side simply isn’t seeing it that way; the issue is that both sides are focusing on entirely different things.
Overall, liberal ideology paints society as inherently improvable, and liberals are therefore motivated by a desire for eventual societal equality; conservative ideology paints society as inherently hierarchical, and conservatives are therefore motivated by a desire to deal with this by making the world as stable as possible. So while the liberals are banging their heads against the wall wondering why conservatives are against human rights, the conservatives are sitting on the other side wondering why the liberals want to create chaos and disorder. It boils down to a focus on equality versus a focus on order. Without understanding that, no one’s ever going to understand what the other side wants to know and hear, and all sides’ arguments will fall on deaf ears.1
But there’s another mental process at play. When someone has a strong attitude about something (liberal or conservative), the mind works very hard to protect it. When faced with information about a given topic, people pay attention to (and remember) the arguments that strengthen their attitudes, and they ignore, forget, or misremember any arguments that go against them. Even when faced with evidence that proves how a given attitude is undeniably wrong, people will almost always react by simply becoming more polarized; they will leave the interaction even more sure that their attitude is correct than they were before. So even if each side understood how to frame their arguments – even if liberals pointed out the ways in which increased marriage rights would stabilize the economy, or conservatives argued to liberals that they could achieve equality by providing equal rights through civil unions rather than through marriage – it’s still very unlikely that either side would successfully change anyone’s attitude about anything.
If Attitudes Are So Stubborn, How Did The Bill Pass?
So how did it happen? How did New York end up legalizing same-sex marriage?
I’d wager a guess that part of it had to do with the five other states that have legalized same-sex marriage and seen their heterosexual marriages remain just as sacred as they ever were before. As same-sex marriage becomes more commonplace (and heterosexual marriages remain unaffected), it will also become less threatening; as it becomes less threatening, it will evoke less of an “impose-order-and-rigidity” response from conservative thinkers.
But I can offer another serious contender: Amendment S5857-2011.
This amendment, which states that religious institutions opposed to same-sex marriage do not have to perform them, was passed shortly before the same-sex marriage legalization bill. There’s a very powerful social norm at work in our interactions, and it shapes how we respond to people’s attempts at persuasion: When we feel like someone has conceded something to us, we feel pressured to concede something back. This is called a reciprocal concession.
Let’s say a Girl Scout comes to your door and asks if she can sell you ten boxes of cookies. You feel bad saying no, but your waistline doesn’t need the cookies and your wallet doesn’t need the expense. After you refuse the sale, she responds by asking if you’d like to purchase five boxes instead. You then change your mind and agree to buy five boxes; after all, if the girl scout was willing to concede those five boxes of cookies, you feel pressured to concede something in return – like some of your money. That’s the power of reciprocal concessions.
This, to the best of my knowledge, is likely what happened in the New York State Senate this weekend. The vote was dead even: 31 for, 31 against. When the Senate passed the Amendment, this was a concession from the pro-same-sex-marriage side, which should have encouraged no-voting senators to reciprocate by conceding their votes. For two of them, it worked.
So, the New York Senate switched up its vote, and same-sex marriage was legalized in a sixth state. Personality, ideology, and attitudes all played a role – but at the end of the day, the Senate may have swung the vote using a technique they could have learned from their local Girl Scouts.
1 I recognize that these are generalizations, and these descriptions do not accurately represent every liberal person and every conservative person. I also recognize that individual political attitudes are more complex than this distinction may make them out to be. However, the focus on equality vs. stability is, at its core, the fundamental difference between liberal and conservative ideology.
On a personal note, as a born-and-bred New Yorker, I want to express from the bottom of my heart how proud and happy I am to claim New York as my home state. I’m happy for three of my friends from high school, who can now get married in the state where we grew up; I’m happy for my LGBT friends from college who have moved to New York since we graduated; I’m happy for the greater LGBT community in New York, who can now all enjoy the same basic right that I’ve always been able to take for granted; and finally, yet perhaps most importantly, I am happy that my home state was the scene of such a victorious moment for civil rights, and that it has finally situated itself on the right side of history.
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