Why labels matter

My last post, on gay marriage, generated quite a few comments. Many people, both on and off-line, seem to feel that the label is irrelevant. “Give them the same legal rights, by all means,” people said, “but why do they need the actual word “marriage”? It’ll be easier not to give it to them, and it really doesn’t make any difference.”

Indeed, this is a persuasive argument. If there is no material difference, then what does a label matter? The trouble is that I don’t think we are very good at recognising what constitutes a material difference. The human mind is a remarkably strange and pliable beast. It can be persuaded of all sorts of things without the active intervention of the conscious being that we like to believe is in control.

Psychology experiments abound with evidence of this. For example, one study asked people to remember as many words as possible out of a long list. If the list contained just a few words related to old age (words like “wrinkle”, “grey”, and “stoop”), participants would leave the building moving measurably slower than if those words were replaced with neutral ones. Just a few words, out of many, changed the way people moved. Words have power. And in this example, as in many others, the power is entirely subliminal. The people in the study did not report feeling any different. Their physical reaction was entirely under the radar of their conscious minds.

How much more powerful are the subtle linguistic signals of the social world? Call someone stupid and they will start to believe it. Praise children for their caring, and they will display ever more of it. Even the precise type of praise matters – praise people for being smart, and research shows quite clearly that they will become more cautious in their work, and more likely to cheat, as “being smart” is something they perceive as outside their control. Praise them for their effort, and they will work even harder, achieve even more, as their effort is clearly something they can control. And none of these reactions are in any way conscious.

Indeed, these subconscious impacts are very effectively rationalised away by our conscious brains. Douglas Adams provides a very good example in “The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.” Richard has just jumped into a filthy, urban canal and found himself unable to swim:

Dirk: “Do you always go swimming in the afternoons?”
Richard: “No, I usualIy go in the mornings, to the swimming pool on
Highbury Fields, just to wake myself up, get the brain going.
It just occurred to me I hadn’t been this morning.”
Dirk: “And, er – that was why you just dived into the canal?”
Richard: “Well, yes. I just thought that getting a bit of exercise
would probably help me deal with all this.”

Dirk goes on to prove, to Richard’s consternation, that he had hypnotised Richard, and ordered him to jump into the canal upon hearing the words “My old maiden aunt who lived in Winnipeg.” Dirk’s instructions went on to say that Richard, normally a good swimmer, would then find himself unable to swim.

Unable to access these instructions, Richard’s conscious mind found good reasons why he would jump into a filthy canal, and why he couldn’t swim (cramp).

Of course, this is a work of fiction, but it is a perfectly realistic example of the way the mind works. Given a subconscious prompting of which our conscious brain is entirely unaware, we will happily explain it away with reasons that we believe with utter conviction – but that are entirely false.

The things we do, and the words we choose, send messages to ourselves, our children, and our society, all the time. Choosing to deny marriage to gay people sends a loud, clear, and appalling message that we believe them to be lesser people. That gay parents are inferior to straight ones. That gay relationships are less real, less valid, and less worthy than straight ones.

That we’d really rather not admit that it is just as normal, healthy, and rational to be gay as it is to be straight. For those of you who cringed at that last sentence, I give you this lovely summary (seen on twitter):

Homosexuality is found in over 500 species. Homophobia is found in only one. Which one seems unnatural now?

I believe that legislating to make gay marriage legal will, over time, drastically lower homophobia in our society. Of course, I can’t prove it just yet. But I’d love to have the chance to try.

4 thoughts on “Why labels matter

  1. Foo

    Q: If you are awarding completely equal status to homosexual unions are you happy for homosexual couples to have the same access to IVF and adoption as heterosexual couples?

  2. Joe


    I 100% agree that “labels matter”.

    I just don’t see that “married by law” is a particularly… legitimising… label. (“Hey everyone, we just cancelled our wills in favour of a state-imposed default one.”) As far as recognition of dedication and bond in a relationship is concerned, the “legal status” question is a complete farce. Indeed I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone’s “marriage license” in any circumstance of relevance. I just accept how people describe themselves, as does anyone I know as far as I know.

    (Except travelling in China, where we were required to show a copy of a marriage license to book a room with a two-person bed. Where I doubt an Australian marriage license would make any difference for a gay couple.)

    Indeed in many respects to me it seems like a social step down to campaign to bring law into your bonded relationships.

    Except … to the extent (as you reminded me previously) that a gay couple may wish to raise children.

    With that reminder you tip me in favour of taking the steps to widen the “marriage” terms of reference. I just think it’s just a shame that opening the door to more clearly binding intended responsibility for children also brings with it, almost necessarily, the stupidity of adding an extra completely arbitrary stamp by which to judge people.

    On a lighter note… since I’ve not known any gay couple who chose to claim marriage labels, I’ve been wondering how the terminology works. “This is Mr Smith, and his husband Mr Smith”? (Certainly if a gay man said to me “this is my husband” or a gay woman said “this is my wife” I wouldn’t think to challenge it.)

    (And I still think legal marriage should require an alignment of family name.)

    I wear my wedding band with great pride. I’d say for me it’s in spite of the legal status that came with it, or at best maybe generally in simple disregard of the legal status. I know gay couples who do likewise.

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