Universally appealing language

I do not like the idea of supporting gay rights. So how could I as a liberal possibly be against these? Am I a secret right wing evangelical? Well no, basically I am only against the specifc wording I used of course I am not against the essence. A trivial technicality you might think, but you'd be very wrong.

64 years ago a wonderful declaration was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. It was the universal declaration of human rights or UDHR (available here). Basically it is a set of unalienable rights that every human is entitled to. It represents such a powerful ideal that Eleanor Roosevelt's speech arguing for it's adoption (the audio of which is available here) is still amazingly moving and unifying to this very day*.

Of course people interpret the UDHR differently but you will never hear a reasonable person say "I am against universal basic human rights". Everyone wants to claim it supports their views. Why is that? It is because it is an idea that everyone immediately feels is fair. But again why can so many accept this particular ideal to be fair. The "trick" is the scope of the language used. By including everyone in the scope of the offered rights all listeners naturally emphasize with it. People are rarely inclined to argue against someone arguing for rights for them.

This universality is the key to why arguments for it seem so very noble and fair. If someone has a group or individual they don't want to give rights too proponents can force them to clarify the group and explain why they want to treat this group differently from all other humans. You can made this argument but you'll always look reactionary and extreme. Any UDHR proponent worth his salt will play on this and trivially claim the middle ground. Of course there are votes to be won at the extremes but generally not enough to balance losing the centre ground.

That is in fact almost exactly what happened at the UN debates on the UDHR. The soviet union played the part of the opponent of rights and lost in almost every conceivable way. Eleanor's speech started by systematically dismantling all the soviet delegation's attempted amendments without great effort and without sounding harsh or unreasonable. So that's our History lesson for now but the take home point is that inclusive language is better than divisive when it comes to arguing.

As an example consider marriage rights, which would you prefer to argue:

a) "That everyone has the right to marry someone."  or
b) "Gay couples should also have the right to get married."

Your a fool if you say the latter. The general public is in the majority not gay. By arguing the latter point much of the public will immediately lose interest in your proposal. Smart opponents will link the counter position into something a larger majority do care about say the loss of respect for traditions. It really doesn't matter how weak or non existent the link is they will get at least some of the public thinking gay marriage takes something away from them. Your only real counter is equally tenuous positive links between gay marriage and Joe public. Arguing weak points like this is risky and tends to look very petty.

Taking the more inclusive statement makes things easier. The vast majority of the public want the right to get married. That is your position, your defending their rights (as given in the UDHR). The opponent will have to bring sexuality into the argument. You can ask why and ask who exactly is excluded. Throw in some contrived examples to show the arbitrary nature of their pigeon holing "Would they allow a person who [insert nice person] the right to marry?" Why does the opponent single out this group but not [insert widely acknowledged evil group]? Wouldn't treating all people equally be better? You get the point.

I am not trying to teach debating techniques. I only wrote this as a plea to those who are campaigning for rights to use the correct language. I focused on gay rights campaigners solely as it's in the news at this moment but this applies to pretty much any group. Women's rights campaigners are often noticeably bad in their use of polarizing language. Many times I have cringed and seen their awful misogynistic opponents' faces lighting up on hearing a statement that damns all men. Campaigners simply need to be more savvy than that. If you can't you risk doing far more harm than good.

That said almost all groups will lapse into "all them" and "poor us" terminology. Partly this is because campaigners tend to have the facts, examples and experience relating to their niche. But the fact that this is such a common trend points to a deeper truth. Most "rights" campaigners are after the same things if they used the correct language we would not have hundreds of little voices asking for their own rights we would have a united roar demanding universal rights for all. It comes down to this: Use language to help unite and fight or be ruled by your own proudly proclaimed divisions.

*That modern America has such a disregard for human rights makes a horrible mockery of this amazing woman's legacy. It is for example hard to imagine Eleanor feeling anything but full digust at how her country treats it's prisoners of war in Guantimo Bay.