Is “marriage equality” our term, their’s and everyone else’s?

Is “marriage equality” our term, their’s and everyone else’s? November 12, 2012

Back in May, I noticed a curious decision by some media outlets to scare quote the term “religious liberty.” Religion News Service defended the use of the scare quotes. Contributor Mark Silk had one defense and editor Kevin Eckstrom had another, writing:

Mark makes a good point here. And I’m troubled by Mollie’s not-so-subtle implications. Mollie’s implying that we’re using scare quotes as a way of signaling our disagreement with the religious liberty cause. Not so.

We put “religious liberty” in not-scary quotes simply to signal to the reader that this is not a neutral term. As Mark pointed out, there’s vast disagreement about whether religious liberty or religious freedom is, in fact, under attack. Mollie may think so, and the Catholic bishops may think so, but that’s not enough. There are countless others on the other side who see this as a fight over contraception, or government mandates, or health care, or whatever else you want to call it.

If the headline had been “Activists gather to plot defense of religious liberty,” that would be equally loaded, because it would signal to the other side that we, too, share the idea that this is a fight over religious liberty. It’s not that we agree or disagree; it simply says that we’re not picking sides on this one.

So, Mollie, no, there is not universal agreement that this is a fight over religious liberty. That’s why we put it in quotes, to signal that this is their term, not ours, and not everyone else’s.

Smart readers wondered if this policy would be applied consistently for other debates.

I think we have an answer. From an RNS story this weekend about “Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, a former Arizona state senator, Mormon-turned-nontheist and a bisexual” who just won a seat to the U.S. House of Representatives, replacing outgoing Rep. Pete Stark as the only atheist in that body:

Sinema, 36, has much in common with Stark ideologically. Having previously served as both an Arizona state senator and representative, she has a long record of supporting women’s rights, marriage equality, gay rights and science education.

Marriage equality?

Marriage equality? Is there any journalistic defense of using this term in a non-propaganda sense? I get that this is the preferred advocacy term used by people who want marriage law changed to include same-sex couples or other groupings. This is the label of choice for people on one side of this debate. This is, to cite a debate from the past, movement language — like “pro-choice” or “pro-life.”

But what’s the journalistic defense for using this label, particularly sans scare quotes, in a hard-news article such as this? (I should mention that the article itself is quite interesting and written by RNS’ great reporter on the atheism beat.)

Would you say “marriage equality” is “their term, not ours, and not everyone else’s”? Of course. Would you describe this term as “neutral”? Of course not. So why the lack of scare quotes?

Live action scare quote image via Shutterstock.

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  • suburbanbanshee

    “Marriage equality” sounds like it would be about fighting marriages where the husband or wife is being oppressed by the wife or husband, or where they don’t have equal property or custody rights after divorce. You might even think it was about making sure you don’t have marriages between an adult and a legal minor. I’ve never heard the other meaning.

    Now, from what I’ve seen, there are a fair number of homosexual relationships out there where one person is oppressing the other, but there are no laws creating this situation, AFAIK.

  • Dave

    My term of choice is “marriage equity” because, in a kind of echo of suburban banshee above, I regard the issue as equity between different couples, not within a marriage. I use the term in preference to “gay marriage” because the latter brings to mind homosexual sex, while my preferred term evokes American values, as does “marriage equality.”

    In other words, I have chosen the term in part for its propagandistic value, ie, I wish to influence what comes to other people’s minds when I use it. This makes it appropriate for journalistic scare quotes on the “someone else’s language” basis.

    The lack of such quotes suggests that the editors in question have in fact adopted the term as theirs.

    My question is, is this surprising? Editors don’t put “interracial marriage” in scare quotes, even though it stands in stark contrast to “miscegenation,” the negative term for the same thing. That suggests that the editors have at least an unconscious sense of hisstory, in the sense that history has decided what once was a controversy one way and not another.

    GetReligion may cogently argue that editors have make this decision prematurely in the case of marriage equality, but that doesn’t mean they lack understanding that some religious people are on the other side of the dispute.

    • suburbanbanshee

      Marriage equity sounds like it’s about home loans.

  • EssEm

    Does not any term now that includes the word “equality” function as a propaganda phrase for liberalism?

    “Marriage equality” clearly pitches the argument in favor of the same-sex marriage advocates because to oppose it means opposing a form of the most sacred value of the liberals, “equality”. Or its cousin “justice”.

    In my Castro neighborhood, the window signs most often read “We ALL deserve the Freedom to Marry.” That ties up equality (ALL) with “Freedom”…

    Of course it’s propaganda.

    The very same people who, in AIDS matters, reject “promiscuity” as a value judgment, in favor of the “neutral” term “multiple partners”, are the ones who want us to replace “gay marriage” or “samesex marriage” with “marriage equality.” The heart of PC is mindcontrol via speech control.

    When you accept the terminology of your opponent, you are losing the argument.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Whether it is the way “scare quotes” are used or the careful choice of words for propaganda purposes, you can be sure that in 80-90% of the cases the mainstream media will use as much as possibe what advances the liberal agenda. And if anyone quibbles about the mainstream media (and its fellow travelers) not being very “fair and balanced” much of the tine–Well, that is their bias problem.

  • Will

    Of course, I never see any cogent arguments on why “marriage equality” necessarily implies “any two, but only two” instead of “multipartner marriage”…. at least, none more convincing than “That’s DIFFERENT!” Why should I accept this definition when my polygamous friends are “treated as second-class citizens”?

  • Will

    Of course, I never see any cogent arguments on why “marriage equality” necessarily implies “any two, but only two” instead of “multipartner marriage”…. at least, none more convincing than “That’s DIFFERENT!” Why should I accept this definition when my polygamous friends are “treated as second-class citizens”?

  • Thinkling

    To answer the questions,

    The term is clearly “their” term, in being the one chosen by the author. After this though the question gets unecessarily narrow, unless we simply mean in reference to the author, Ms. Winston.

    Is it “ours”? Well we would need to know first who the “we” is who would have the term as “ours”. Likewise to ask if it is the complementary “everyone else’s”. I know the question was pulled from a comment but my point is it doesn’t apply cleanly except in reference to Ms. Winston. The “ours” needs its subject spelled out more clearly.

    Why no quotes? Well either journalistic sloppiness/laziness or culpable advocacy. Not the first time one has seen this, esp. by the sleuthers here. Fortunately it has been getting quite easy to recognize this sort of thing, but it makes one pine for either more competency, or more honesty in self-identifying as editorial writers rather than journalists.

  • John M.

    I live in AZ CD 9 and I’m interested to follow Ms. Sinema’s career in Congress. She’s a provocative person, to say the least.

    I don’t have much to say about this article per se, but hey–local news. 🙂


  • jose

    I’m not really fond of the term “marriage equality” because it conceals the real issue, which is gay marriage. I believe we should be direct and upfront about our message for the legalization of gay marriage. That’s the language we always used in Spain, along with “gay weddings”.

  • Not surprised to find the lack of scare quotes on this term. Nope. I personally do not use the term at all.

  • Has anyone seen ANY story in which two people of the same sex — but NOT gay — get married where such things are legal for reasons such as, say, gaining citizenship for one of the partners, or getting both onto one health plan instead of two, or for tax benefits, or to unite their families’ fortunes, or something like that? After all, heterosexuals as well as homosexuals have married people of the opposite sex for a wide variety of practical, political, or economic reasons, and not just love and companionship. Just wondering.

    • suburbanbanshee

      I suspect this would be a legally dangerous practice, thanks to the deprecation of “green card marriages” by federal law. I bet you’d get investigated by the insurance companies (or the state, under Obamacare).

  • Hmmm. Compare the use of scare quotes around terrorism and cognates in this Yahoo news story.

    It looks like a real terrorist inquiry, and not a “terrorist” inquiry as the headline displays. Not necessarily a religion ghost, but an interesting use of scare quotes.

  • dalea

    I suspect that marriage equlity is used since the term parrallels racial equality which was used in the 50’s and 60’s. American journalists have a tradition of using terminology favored by civil rights groups who struggle for equal treatment before the law. I don’t see this as propaganda or advocacy, simply a fairly settled practice. What terms would you suggest be used?

    • mollie

      Well, the media doesn’t have a tradition of using terminology favored by civil rights groups who struggle for equal treatment before the law when it comes to, say, right-to-life civil rights activists.

      Obviously it’s advocacy. I assume in this case it was just a simple mistake. There’s no way to justify scare quotes for a term such as “religious liberty” and not for “marriage equality.”

      I’d just say supports changing marriage law to include same-sex couples or redefining marriage or same-sex marriage. Something like that. Not, for what it’s worth, “destroying the institution of marriage” or whatever terminology is used by the side the media don’t support.

  • sari

    I agree with you, mollie. The most accurate phrase would be same-sex marriage, since no one is asking to include polygamy or other forms of marriage to the mix. This is clearly a situation where proponents created a phrase, defined it, and then forced it into circulation, expecting that it would become part of the vernacular. Not so. Scare quotes definitely needed.

  • JRA

    The problem with the term “marriage equality” is that it presumes that fertility is an inconsequential distinction.

    That’s a judgment that we’re all free to make, but the fact remains that with respect to fertility, homosexual and heterosexual relationships are not equal at all. If you think fertility is an important reason why governments have licensed married couples (and not, for instance, bffs or teammates or performance partners), then “marriage equality” is pure propaganda. If, on the other hand, you think government should be confirming committed life partnerships as part of its mission, then marriage equality is a pretty apt term.

  • Bob Smietana

    Are you saying that only fertile couples be allowed to wed?

  • Chris Jones

    Are you saying that only fertile couples be allowed to wed?

    Perhaps if JRA were saying that, he would actually have said it. You are drawing an implication from what JRA said (1) JRA did not draw himself and (2) does not necessarily follow from what JRA actually said.

    To say that fertility is “an important reason” is not the same thing as saying that it is “the only reason” or “an indispensable reason.” Making the case for same-sex marriage, as far as I can see, requires saying that fertility is entirely irrelevant to marriage. That robs marriage of the meaning that history and biology have given it.

  • What the media are not investigating adequately is the notion that these latter commenters have brought up: Is what a same-sex couple does the same was what a opposite-sex couple does in terms of the very nature of their relationship – or more simply put, can a same-sex couple actually do what constitutes “marriage”?

    Now, we get the answer that “it all depends on how you define marriage.” But is that really so? This question is by no means a denigration of peoples’ relationships. And all human relationships especially friendships bear some resemblance to marriage in terms of commitment, mutual help, affection, etc. However, the permanent commitment to mutual help and a common life ordered to raising a family (whether or not a particular couple is individually capable of that) between people of the opposite sex has differences from every other relationship. “Marriage” is the word used to describe that relationship. Even if the law redefines the word to include other kinds of relationships – same-sex, oneself, multiple partners or groups, close blood relatives, non-human partners, temporary arrangements, or whatever else the imagination can come up with – then it still has not been shown that the permanent, family-oriented relationship between one man and one woman does not still stand apart and warrant its own word and even privilege by the state.

    Another issue is that people marry for all sorts of reasons, not just romantic love. Marriage (in the traditional sense) is open to anyone who can find a willing partner of the opposite sex. Homosexuals may not *want* that kind of relationship, but nothing except their own choice stops them from engaging in one. Heterosexuals may also see benefits in “marrying” someone of the same sex, but the law bars them, too. This is a fact of law, not bigotry. To say that there is unequal treatment – and I understand that argument – is only one perspective.

    I’m not saying I personally advocate anything here – I’m just saying that it is worth investigating and getting an objective story from all sides, and the media haven’t done that.

  • Kristen inDallas

    Personally don’t have a problem with the lack ofquotation marks around marriage equality, not because I endorse the term but just because I really hate scare quotes. They are incredibly pretentious. To be honest, yes, the term “marriage equality” is charged and so is the term “religious liberty” but people who get that, get it with or without quotation marks, and people who don’t understand that all journalism is written in language colored by the writer/editor’s own bias, aren’t going to get it no matter how many scare quotes are used. Personal opinion: quotation marks should only be used when dirrectly quoting an actual person or group (or when speaking about linguistics to distinguish the term from the rest of the sentence.) When the phrase is one used by a wide group of people as part of their activism language, quotation marks should be accompanied by a reasonable description of the group and around a phrase long enough to convey meaning. Throwing quotes around phrases too short to convey a full thought without attributing the thought to any real person or group is highly dismissive, an intellectually stunted way of dismissing an idea without examining it. I’d rather a journalist write with bias than pretend to “write about the other side without bias.” (See how insulting those were? ick.)

  • Becky

    [Sinema] has a long record of supporting women’s rights, marriage equality, gay rights and science education.

    This formulation splits off “marriage equality” from “gay rights” in a way that reflects awareness by its advocates that they do not want gay marriage to be argued as a right to assign (or not) to gays. They are reaching for a redefinition of marriage beyond its original purpose.

    From fertile/faithful/forever to infertile (contraceptives), unfaithful (adultery), and only as long as it is convenient (divorce). And yet somehow the government is going to license this, and care enough to … do what exactly? What is the point of licensing this?

    I’m reminded of the story of the mitten lost in the woods, and all the animals that climb inside for shelter. In some versions of the tale, the child finds the mitten and the grandmother promises to mend it.

    Anyhow, using the phrase “marriage equality” is meant to push a button and get the response “I would never support inequality” from the low-information voter.

  • Chris Jones

    What is the point of licensing this?

    The point is to have a way for society as a whole to endorse and embrace homosexuality, and definitively to reject the traditional conviction that homosexual behaviour is immoral. Tolerance is no longer enough; approval and even celebration of homosexuality is now required.

    If it were not so, civil unions would meet the requirement. As it is, only marriage will do.

    • mollie

      Friends, keep conversations focused on media coverage.