Why is the marriage debate so scary?

Shocked couple watching television

Of the many heavy-handed copy editing ticks employed over the years at the Washington Times, one of the most contentious was the use of scare quotes around the term “gay marriage.” Actually, I think they used the term “homosexual marriage.” One of the first acts former editor John Solomon performed when he took over two years ago was to tell the copy desk to knock off the quotation marks.

But don’t feel bad for the unused scare quotes. They’re now getting new work — on the opposite side of the marriage debate. No, really, check it out. Here’s a portion of the Los Angeles Times story about the Supreme Court issuing a temporary injunction against the YouTube broadcasting of an upcoming trial on Proposition 8:

This is the second time in recent months in which the high court has intervened on behalf of the defenders of “traditional marriage” and granted an emergency appeal.

Ah, yes, defenders of “traditional marriage.” Now, we generally suggest that reporters figure out a way to write copy that minimizes the use of scare quotes. But I just think this is hilarious. I can’t really imagine the Los Angeles Times scare quoting “gay marriage.”

I do think that reporter David Savage’s lede is also interesting:

The U.S. Supreme Court, acting on an appeal from conservative defenders of California’s ban on same-sex marriage, overruled a federal judge in San Francisco today and blocked video coverage of the trial on YouTube.

We learn nothing about these “conservative defenders” other than the name of one of the attorneys, but I wonder why the descriptor “conservative” was used. The opponents of the ban are not called “liberal challengers.” Just challengers. Why is that? California is not a particularly conservative state, but a majority of those who voted on Proposition 8 supported it. And a majority of voters in all the 30-odd other states that have held referendums on this issue have also voted similarly. It just seems somewhat odd to use a label on one side of that debate, particularly when it’s the popular side.

Anyway, this is going to be an interesting trial with lots of avenues for coverage. Please let us know if you see anything particularly good or bad out there.

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  • Peter

    The WT put quotes around “marriage.” Thus “homosexual ‘marriage’”

    “Traditional marriage” is a political term, like pro-choice or pro-life. It reflects a bias.

  • Suzanne

    The ironic thing about calling defenders of Prop 8 “conservative defenders?”

    One of the lawyers leading the challenge is Ted Olson, who by just about any other measure is considered “conservative.”

  • Jerry

    One of the lawyers leading the challenge is Ted Olson, who by just about any other measure is considered “conservative.”

    That’s an interesting point. Liberals and many libertarians have a common point reached by very different means. Since a libertarian wants to keep the government out of as much as possible, social issues such as marriage are often included in that list.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Doesn’t it mean marriage as it traditionally has been defined, as in the vast majority of cultures over the centuries?

    What descriptive term would you accept?

  • Peter

    Doesn’t it mean marriage as it traditionally has been defined, as in the vast majority of cultures over the centuries?

    Does it? That’s clearly one argument, but not necessarily an objective viewpoint. There’s an argument that the current view of marriage in the U.S. is not “traditional” in the vast majority of cultures over the centuries.

    I don’t know what the answer is about the best term, but given the use of “traditional marriage” by activists, in fundraising, and as a rallying cry would argue that it isn’t an objective term. On the same token, “marriage equality” is a similar term that is politically loaded.

  • Elanor

    Of the many heavy-handed copy editing ticks
    Is that supposed to be “tricks”? Or perhaps “tics”?

  • Peter

    It just seems somewhat odd to use a label on one side of that debate, particularly when it’s the popular side.

    The individual defendants are conservatives, with a history of conservative activism. While I do wonder why the term needed to be used, it isn’t necessarily inaccurate.

  • Dan Crawford

    One of the worst reports on the California court case appeared on NPR yesterday afternoon where the reporter failed to say anything substantive about the legal issues but gave great prominence to the role of Ted Olsen in the campaign against Prop 8, described the “hundreds” of anti-8 protesters and the “dozen or so” pro-8 demonstrators, and finished with a lesbian couple declaring that their “right” to marry had been trampled. NPR has become a propagandist for the gay marriage issue. We rarely if ever hear from “public” radio about the rather substantive legal and constitutional matters at stake.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    I thought it was interesting that the San Jose Mercury News called the case a civil rights case in today’s edition. Civil rights? Amazing.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    “We rarely if ever hear from “public” radio about the rather substantive legal and constitutional matters at stake.”

    Dan, I can’t be as broad as you are in the statement above, but I heard that same report and in this case NPR really let down their listeners. Like you say the report was one-sided and didn’t tell anyone anything about what is going on.

  • Julia

    Some people would say that “traditional” is a negative term and indicates a medieval mindset, which is really considered negative, not positive.

  • John D


    Since past marriage cases have termed marriage a civil right (including ones in California), I think the (San Jose) Mercury News was quite right in terming this a civil rights issue.

    I do suspect that if we were to drill through the coverage of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, we would probably find many newspapers that did not want to refer to it that way.

    Certainly the term “civil rights” has been used for all sorts of struggles. The women’s rights movement was also about civil rights. Olson and Boise are citing citing anti-discrimination law.

    I’m siding with the Mercury News on this one.

  • Julia

    Setting aside recent state actions recognizing same sex marriage, this whole discussion is muddied by imprecise wording and notions.

    The US started with some specific rights in our Federal founding documents – including the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and other amendments added as time went by.

    Same sex marriage was not originally a civil right that existed in US law – Federal or state. Federal law typically left law affecting domestic situations to the states. Most state law actually defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The historical cases that recognize marriage as a civil right in the US all dealt with man-woman pairs – the “traditional” situation in our country.

    In our history, many proposals have been made for new civilly-recognized rights. Some have been successful and some have not. The current proponents of same sex marriage are wanting the civil recognition of marriage between man-woman pairs to be extended to same sex couples – by recognition in case law and/or codification. In some states they have been successful and in some states they are not.

    It’s imprecise to say that same-sex marriage is a civil right in states where it is not yet recognized in law. It’s more precise to argue that it should be a civil right based on a natural rights or equal rights argument.

  • John D

    The term “traditional marriage” is under dispute and should not be used by journalists except when directly quoting a source. Language here should be clear and unbiased. The rejoinder from those who support marriage for same-sex couples is that those who use the term “traditional marriage” are pointing to a set of cultural norms that aren’t all that old. They then retroject these views to create a pretense that they are arguing from the example of all human history.

    Generally, I prefer that people provide their own language. I remember the odd circumlocutions used 20 years ago in the press when talking about gay people (“self-admitted homosexual,” anyone?). If the accuracy of the term can be contested (as with “and what tradition would that be?”), then a neutral term should be used instead.

  • Dave

    The term “traditional marriage” gets quotes because it’s a political term meaning, “one man and one woman, as it has been everywhere and for all time including Biblical times.” That concept doesn’t bear anthropological or historical scrutiny, hence the quotes.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    If until very recently all societies throughout all history and time and space and religions and what not viewed marriage as a heterosexual institution, what would you call that *other* than traditional?

  • Stoo

    Once upon a time it was traditional to treat women more or less as property, and really no-one wants that anymore.

    So the term “traditional” is used to convey a sense of “marriage as it’s always been!” when in fact it’s just one particular (and admittedly very long-standing) part that we’re talking about here.

  • Peter

    Before “traditional marriage” became an activist slogan, it may have been the preference for clarity’s sake, even if it represents a certain bias and assumption. But once it became a slogan, it was no longer an objective term appropriate for objective journalism. I’m not sure what the alternative is, but it’s clear that “traditional journalism” is no longer an unbiased term.

  • http://tfhgodtalk.blogspot.com Jeff H

    “Traditional marriage” (meaning exclusively monogamous, heterosexual marriage) may not be “all that old,” as John D notes, but in terms of the United States, which is the sole context of this current legal battle, it is essentially representative of the entire marital tradition of the Republic. That seems traditional enough for this limited context (just as it seems illogical to be pulling in examples from other cultural contexts to fight a political battle–even if it is just words–in this one).

  • Dave

    Jeff, if the meaning you ascribe to the phrase “traditional marriage” were all that was meant by the people using it, it wouldn’t merit scare quotes in the MSM, and it would not be as interesting a topic on GetReligion.

  • http://twitter.com/kevinjjones Kevin J Jones

    The “scare quotes” (heh) are also a matter of whether one accepts the legitimacy of the term. In my take, the WashTimes’ prior standard was a simple and journalistically justifiable refusal to let the redefinition go uncontested.

    For instance, suppose a subculture arose in which one would literally adopt one’s dog as a son or daughter. Wouldn’t ‘”son”‘ or ‘”daughter”‘ be the proper style, since most people think it’s a crackpot idea that rests on equivocation or eccentricity?

    At what point should pet adoption lose the quotes?

  • Peter

    So, Kevin, you support the idea of putting “marriage” in quotes when referring to same-sex marriage? Based on what journalistic principle?

  • Paul Blase

    Dave says:

    The term “traditional marriage” gets quotes because it’s a political term meaning, “one man and one woman, as it has been everywhere and for all time including Biblical times.” That concept doesn’t bear anthropological or historical scrutiny, hence the quotes.

    First of all, “marriage” has always been defined in terms of one man, one woman. Marriage is, by definition, a contract between a man and a woman: she grants him sexual access, bears his children, and (usually) takes charge of the household; he supports and protects her and her children. If you look carefully, polygamy (both polygyny and polyandry) are multiple simultaneous marriages. Christianity traditionally says that polygamy is a bad idea, but – strictly speaking – neither is totally forbidden (depends on how you interpret Paul’s “one wife” dictate). Look at it this way: if a polygamist divorces one wife, does he automatically divorce the other(s) also? Not usually.

    Incidentally, “homosexual marriage” is not a new idea. The ancient Romans tried this, and the philosophers decried it then too.

    For some good stuff on marriage, see The Ruth Institute

  • Paul Blase

    A little bit of further exposition:
    The purpose of marriage is, and always has been, to promote an optimal environment for the bearing and raising of children. There are certainly benefits to the two spouses as well, but these are ancillary.
    *Children need both a father and a mother to thrive properly; both play important, and different, roles. The two are not interchangable.
    *Just think about how insulting it has almost always been to call someone a “bastard”. Children growing up without a father (or at least a close adult male) have always been more likely to become criminal or wayward.

    What the homosexual lobby wants is the public acceptance that comes with the label “marriage” as well as the government benefits.

  • Dave

    Paul, thank you for your response to my remarks. Some of your response is factual, some is opinion and some is just plain factually wrong.

    But none of it addresses my point that “traditional marriage” is a term with so much political and religious baggage piled upon it that it deserves scare quotes. That’s a statement about journalism, not marriage, and if you want to rebut me (and I sense that you do) that’s what you need to address.

  • John D

    Paul’s comment points up some of the issues that writers face. Yes, it’s true that no one likes being called a “bastard,” although it hasn’t always been the case. There was a time when it was not considered a pejorative.

    My dictionary marks the “person born of parents not married to each other” definition as “archaic or derogatory” with a not that it wasn’t always derogatory.

    The current meaning of “bastard” is “an unpleasant or despicable person.” No one wants to be called that. It really has ceased to mean “a person born of parents not married to each other.”

    All writers need to watch how words are being used. That a word used to mean something doesn’t matter if people aren’t using it that way any more. And there’s no defense for saying that a word ought to be used in a certain way if it is not.

    Certainly, the people who use the term “traditional marriage” don’t mean it just as an equivalent to “opposite-sex marriage,” but instead have a meaning freighted with a political goal. My sense on the words is that “gay marriage” has become the preferred term, despite that “same-sex marriage” is more accurate. Here, I’m going to bow to the majority.

    And to address a couple of his points, I suspect Paul is guilty of not being a good journalist here. I doubt he has consulted any survey on the goals of gay-rights lobbyists (or activists, for that matter). If he could please provide us with the survey that supports his assertion, I’m sure we’d all be grateful.

    Further, I found it amusing that he asserts that marriage has always been opposite-sex, then immediately claims that for a period in the Roman Empire same-sex couples could marry. Here, I have to wonder about his definition of “always.”