Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Metaframing marriage

From last week’s New York Times coverage of Michael Bloomberg’s speech on same-sex marriage:

The mayor also rejected one of the concerns raised by opponents of same-sex marriage: that it would infringe on religious freedom. He said that the measure envisioned by the governor and gay marriage advocates would not require any religious institution to perform or sanction a same-sex wedding. While emphasizing his “enormous respect for religious leaders on both sides of this issue,” the mayor framed same-sex marriage as a question of civil law, not faith.

To begin, it is a sad commentary on the state of the public discussion of same-sex marriage that Bloomberg needs to raise this point at all. Public policy regarding same-sex marriage can only possibly be about civil marriage: the legislature in Albany can no more require a religious organization to perform same-sex marriages than the Archdiocese of New York can ban the sale of contraceptives. This is an elementary point, yet public discourse about same-sex marriage marriage is almost always about marriage, full stop. The failure to insist on the very fundamental distinction between civil and religious marriage, whether as a result of carelessness or deliberate conflation, constitutes a major rhetorical victory for opponents of same-sex marriage.

It is thus disappointing to see the New York Times treat this distinction, and Bloomberg’s insistence on it, as an instance of framing in the final sentence above. To be sure, all political speech involves framing, and Bloomberg’s remarks are no exception. The use of the verb frame, however, implies strongly that Bloomberg’s views are simply one legitimate possibility among many, with no greater claim to validity than their opposite, when instead they proceed from the incontrovertible (if, for some, rhetorically inconvenient) fact that public policy regarding same-sex marriage is always and only about civil marriage, and cannot possibly have direct consequences for religious marriage. The NYT‘s formulation is doubly disappointing since, had the Times and other media outlets done a better job of reporting—and, indeed, framing—the issue over the past several years, it might not be necessary for someone like Bloomberg to provide the basic legal and factual framework that is a prerequisite for rational discussion of the issue.

(Update: the paragraph in question seems to have been cut from the online edition of the article after initially appearing on Thursday, May 26.)

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