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Marriage equality: why the attention?

People have been unusually mobilised on marriage equality. What makes this issue different?

The political mobilisation brought about by the marriage equality bill is seldom seen. Social media has been buzzing, more than typical for political issues. We don’t yet know how many submissions were made to the committee, but Campaign for Marriage Equality alone claims to have received over 10,160 submissions via its website to pass on. That’s just one organisation, on one side. I would speculate that the total figure could double that.

For comparison, the Alcohol Reform Bill received 8,822 (including 7,175 form submissions following a template); the bill setting up state asset sales this April received 1,489; legalising prostitution 222; the ultra-fast broadband initiative (one of National’s main 2008 election policies) just 37. People who are normally content to be silent, or to rant only at the dinner table, have somehow been galvanised into action. Is there something about marriage equality that trumps every other issue of the day?

Impact? Not really
The frenzy is hard to explain in terms of importance. On any level, the practical impact of the bill is virtually zero. The marriage rights of heterosexuals aren’t affected. Those of homosexuals, who can already join in civil union with mostly equivalent rights, change only in name (though, arguably, this bill might legalise adoption for them).

Day-to-day lives will not really change. The impact is symbolic rather than consequential. While that doesn’t make the bill unimportant, it’s hard to see how it’s more important than policies that do affect everyday lives: national standards, income tax rates, the rights of defendants or the euro zone crisis, for example.  (While national standards and income tax legislation, passed under urgency, didn’t take public submissions, from what I’ve seen public discussion has been much more active on gay marriage.)  Importance does not correlate with attention.

The simple effect
The better explanation is that the issue is perceived to be simpler than education, justice or economic issues. It takes less work to have an informed opinion because, well, there’s not much to be informed about. Either you think gays should be able to marry, or you don’t. Maybe you’ll refer to equality or tradition, but there’s no real need for evidence-backed premises. No arguments about whether league tables distract schools from teaching, no need for analysis on whether the inquisitorial system is prone to bias against defendants, no complicated economic models weighing up the various effects of austerity.

Whether the issue is actually that simple is of course another question, as I’ve indirectly pointed out before. What matters is that that’s how it’s seen. People are less likely to publish their opinions (all submissions are public) if they’re not confident they can back them. People are less likely to be confident if they know that they don’t know much about the topic.

Assuming our perceptions of complexity are correct, is that a good or a bad thing? It’s good that we have a self-regulating filter to allow informed voices to naturally rise to the top. But the corollary is that people tend not to engage in policies that are more consequential but are seen as more complex. In reality, that’s most topics. Still, for those with little faith in the wisdom of the masses, it’s probably a good thing.

(Photo credit: 3 News)

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