On marriage, all talking, too little listening

  • Article by: ANDY TIX
  • Updated: October 23, 2012 - 7:19 PM

Do you have empathy for those who will vote differently?

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Although recent commentaries about the proposed marriage amendment reveal extreme differences, they also show at least one important commonality: A failure to consider the perspectives and best arguments of "the other side."

The most common argument in favor of the amendment concerns supposedly unique benefits that come for children raised by two opposite-sex parents. Yet the best psychological research seems to show that there are no significant differences between the outcomes of kids raised by comparable opposite-sex and same-sex parents.

On the other hand, those against the amendment often seem to neglect concerns about religious liberty raised by those in favor. For instance, if marriage between same-sex partners became legal, would religious institutions eventually be required to provide same-sex marriage ceremonies, despite the teachings of their religion?

I seriously wonder how much a vote "yes" or "no" on this amendment even matters in practical terms. If the Constitution is amended to define marriage as between one man and one woman, nothing changes. There already is a law like that on the books. If the Constitution is not amended, again, nothing changes.

Perhaps this vote is more about symbolism and values than actual policies. This doesn't discount the importance of the outcome to individuals. In fact, the reason this vote generates so much emotion and debate is because it is so closely aligned with people's identities. Those voting in favor often want to affirm their religious commitment (and maybe voice their displeasure with the sexual revolution). Those voting against often want to assert their sexual identity or their passion for equal human rights (and maybe express their irritation with institutional religion).

In connecting voting with identity, we revert to the age-old tendency to form perceived in-groups and out-groups. That is, we want to defend the beliefs and members of our "tribe," while defending against the evils of the other side. The consequences of such tribalism include prejudice, discrimination, anger and division. Perhaps most important for addressing this issue, an in-group/out-group mentality promotes all-or-nothing thinking -- drawing a line in the sand, which makes policy that is workable for everyone almost impossible to conceive.

To evaluate whether you are playing a role in this unhealthy social dynamic, consider this: Can you sincerely express an understanding and empathy for those who likely are going to vote differently from you? Can you appreciate their arguments? If not, do you rationalize this by using some label that disparages people from the other side and places you on higher moral ground? Can you imagine supporting policies that incorporate the "other's" perspective?

None of this should be taken to mean that we don't have real differences that need to be addressed. Rather, I'm suggesting is that the only way we're going to overcome these differences and create a society that is healthy for the common good is to understand and appreciate other points of view. Surely, there must be a way to provide rights to same-sex couples and protect religious liberties.

I wonder what would happen if we collectively (1) sought to listen more and persuade less, (2) looked for common ground more than difference, and (3) remembered that those with whom we disagree are equally of worth and just as well-intentioned as we are.

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Andy Tix teaches psychology at Normandale Community College. He blogs regularly at thequestforagoodlife.wordpress.com and www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-pursuit-peace. To read additional marriage amendment commentaries, go here.

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