August 31, 2010

Stopping The Spiral of Silence

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *

Our neighborhood pool had a dedicated swim coach who narrowly missed getting fired one summer. He made the mistake of applying his "no practice, no compete" rule to the fastest swimmer on the team.

His parents were not pleased and being the sort it doesn’t pay to cross, started campaigning against the coach who had "harmed" their son. My mom attended the meeting convened for the purpose of sacking the coach, and listened, stunned, as the disgruntled parents lorded it over everyone and soon had people silently nodding their heads.

Mom dared to politely disagree, recalling to everyone’s mind how this encouraging and enthusiastic coach had helped each kid improve no matter what his abilities, and how kind and helpful he had been to all the kids and families even outside of practice. His hard work and sense of fun made the pool a better place for everyone, not just the swim team.

On a dime, the tone of conversation reversed, and now the same people about to fire the man each had positive stories to tell about his interaction with their kids.

For some reason that incident has always stayed with me, along with its lessons: the fragility of apparent consensus, and the power of a single person speaking up to break the spell of fear.

Recent polling on same-sex marriage brought this to mind.

Matthew J. Franck and Gwen Brown write at The Public Discourse that two polls taken within days of each other earlier this month yield opposite results. A CNN/Gallup poll from the beginning of August shows 52% of Americans support same-sex marriage. A Rasmussen poll two days later shows 57% oppose it.

Noting that the pro-same-sex marriage poll was taken by humans and the anti-same-sex marriage result came from a "robo-poll," Franck and Brown suggest that both polls are correct in a way. Most Americans oppose same-sex marriage, but many of them are afraid to admit it.

There has to be a joke about coming out of the closet there somewhere.

Be that as it may, this leads Franck and Brown to discuss the sociological concept known as the "spiral of silence," which has been summarized thus:

"Those who see their own views as becoming more widely accepted tend to voice these views in public, and with increasing confidence. Those whose opinions seem to be losing ground are reluctant to speak out. The silence of the ‘losers,’ in turn, increases the confidence of the other side."

In other words, sometimes social revolutions take place because of what amounts to bluffing, and people of good will who know the importance of one-man, one-woman marriage --not only a child’s best shot, but also the ground of individual liberty and respect for the equal dignity of women-- ought to call the bluff. There is no reason to fear. Christianity asks us to champion the right even when it is unpopular, but in this case, turns out, it’s not even unpopular.

We do need help to make the case calmly, lovingly and with respect for the dignity of each person however, so I wanted to publicize a new initiative from our bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage. Its Marriage: Unique for a Reason campaign has not officially launched, yet already the site is a repository of Church documents, apologetics videos and other resources to help anyone who wants to understand what the Church has to say about homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and how these questions affect religious liberty and the culture of life. I particularly like this collection of FAQs, and there is more to come.

Defenders of marriage need to know the best arguments are on their side –and they are in good company.

Rebecca Ryskind Teti is Operations Coordinator for the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at the Busch School of Business & Economics at CUA, though the opinions are her own. This column is modified from an earlier version that first appeared in Faith & Family  magazine.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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