One of the most divisive and polarizing issues in contemporary United States society is marriage equality. Kirk Schneider’s new book, The Polarized Mind, aptly demonstrates why we should be very concerned about this not only because of the importance of the issue, but also because of the dangers inherent in polarization. Schneider (2013) describes polarization as “the elevation of one point of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view” (p. 1).
According to Schneider (2013), polarization often has some type of fear or anxiety at its root, such as the fear of one’s own insignificance. However, many fears and anxieties can be at the root of polarization. Often, polarization emerges from our inability to tolerate the unknown. Similarly, Terror Management Theory suggests that in times of fear and insecurity we often cling to one’s own identified “in group,” while strongly directing anger or aggression toward an out group, especially if that out group is identifiably different in important ways (Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg, 2003). It should not be a surprise that both Schneider and Terror Management Theory draw heavily upon the work of Ernest Becker, and in particular, his important existential treatise, The Denial of Death (1973).
Polarization in the gay marriage debate
Too often, the debate over marriage equality is ugly. This easily qualifies as a polarized issue. Frequently, individuals involved in the debate talk past each other, not able to recognize the arguments, or even the humanity, of the other person. This is quite evident when Pat Robertson, a popular Christian television evangelist, says that “a murder can change, a rapist can change, a thief can change” as a direct comparison in his argument that God can change a person’s sexual orientation. To make such an audacious and offensive claim seems to require “the utter exclusion of competing points of view,” as Schneider has stated.
Yet, despite being an ardent activist for marriage equality, I do not believe that all individuals arguing against gay marriage are polarized, nor are they “bad people.” Furthermore, there are individuals who are for marriage equality in such a way that it does not respect the humanity of those who are genuinely struggling with the issues of gay marriage because of their religious convictions. This is not helpful in the fight for marriage equality.
The place where transformation occurs is a space where we can move beyond our polarizations—a place where we can meet and listen to each other humanely, despite our differences. I am confident that if we can meet in this space, more people will be converted to supporting marriage equality than if we remain in our polarized camps villainizing each other.
Power and victimization
It has become popular for Christians opposing gay marriage to claim victimization in the debates over marriage equality. Following Jason Collins coming out as a gay pro basketball player, there were many articles and captioned pictures saying that Collins was being portrayed as a hero, while Tim Tebow, the pro football quarterback who was very forthright in his Christian beliefs, was being told to “shut up” and portrayed negatively for being a Christian. This, too, reflects polarization, as it utterly disregards significant evidence that contradicts this portrait. First, and most obviously, there are many, many professional athletes who are open about their Christian faith who are never criticized for this and often praised. Tebow was criticized and made fun of for many reasons, with his approach to talking about his faith just being one of them. While this treatment of Tebow was often cruel and frequently crossed the line, it was not his faith, per se, that drew the criticism and mocking.
However, there is also a disregard for the issue of power when maintaining that Christianity is being victimized and discriminated against. Much of the first half of Schneider’s (2013) book, The Polarized Mind, presents case studies on what happens when polarization is combined with power. This is a dangerous combination. Generally, the more extreme the polarization and power, the more extreme the consequence will be.
Recently, many in the Christian community have started to point out that Christians are becoming the target of oppression, discrimination, and derogatory acts. There is some truth in this claim and to a degree I am sympathetic. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that Christianity has long been the most privileged religion in the world. This may be beginning to change; however, it is evident that it is still the most privileged religion in the world at this time and, in particular, in the United States. It may be that the marriage equality issue is the one that signifies the loss of this privileged position. Yet, if Christianity wants to advocate for sympathy, it ought to concurrently speak out against those who, in the name of Christianity, say harmful, extremist, derogatory statements. It ought be Christians, even those who are in agreement in opposition to marriage equality, who are the first to tell Pat Robertson that he crossed the line. Until this occurs on a broad level, I do not anticipate Christianity will receive much sympathy except from within Christianity.
I want to clarify that I am not advocating for a statement against Christianity. I come from a background of Christianity, even earned degrees in Christian theology and studied at two Christian seminaries. I am also quite aware that many Christians are strong advocates of marriage equality. Rather, this statement is a human statement, and I believe that marriage equality is a human issue. Thus, I see marriage equality highly consistent with an existential worldview.
We ought to strive for all people to rise above their polarizations and for all people to rise above harmful prejudices. Yet, we are human and these will continue. If we are to become a more civil and less violent world, we must first hold our self and the groups with whom we identify accountable. We must also be honest about the role of power in all discourse.
Marriage equality is arguably the civil rights issue of the current era. As a strong advocate for marriage equality, I have advocated that 1) there is an existential foundation for marriage equality, and 2) that the polarization of this issue is problematic and dangerous. Polarized advocates for marriage equality are less likely to be effective in garnering support for marriage equality. Additionally, many of the polarized statements of the opponents of gay marriage make statements that are discriminatory and hurtful. Our goal in this debate ought be to move beyond polarization into honest dialogue.
Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York, NY: Free Press.
Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2003). In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Schneider, K. J. (2013). The polarized mind: Why it’s killing us and what we can do about it. Colorado Springs, CO: University Professors Press.
— Louis Hoffman