There are more important issues than …

… whatever issue on which I want to avoid justifying my firmly held, but indefensible, position.

One of the rhetorical tricks I’ve noticed becoming increasingly common (though I may just have been sensitized to it) is opposition to some proposal, based on the claim that “there are more important issues to discuss”. Here’s a typical example from right wing culture warrior, Kevin Donnelly, campaigning against equal marriage in the leadup to the recent postal survey. Before commencing a lengthy diatribe against gay activism, Safe Schools, alcoholic and abusive parents, surrogacy and so on that barely mentions the topic of marriage, Donnelly says

about 98 per cent of Australians identify as heterosexual and according to the 2011 census figures only 1 per cent of Australian couples are same-sex, with surveys suggesting only a minority want same-sex marriage. There are more important issues to worry about.

If Donnelly believes the issue is unimportant, why is he writing about it? Why not just leave it up to the good sense of the majority of Australians, as the rhetoric of the plebiscite suggested? Why not focus his attention on problems like protecting children from the effects of alcoholism and domestic violence.

The answer is, of course, that Donnelly has no case, or none he is able to make publicly, but nonetheless is very concerned to stop equal marriage. In the absence of a case, he must resort to diversions. So, rather than explain why gay people should be denied the right to marry, he starts off by saying the issue is too unimportant to bother with.

Of course, there are plenty of questions that are too trivial to bother with, and the sensible response is not to bother with them. If pressed, one could reasonably respond “this issue isn’t worth my time, I’ll just go with whatever the majority decides”, but this is hardly ever done.

The only case where this trope is at least possibly justified is as an admonition to political allies not to be diverted into big efforts on trivial issues, when there are more important problems to deal with. Again, though, this only makes sense for someone who is themselves indifferent regarding whether and how these issues are resolved.

31 thoughts on “There are more important issues than …

  1. It’s just a version of the traditional “Look! Over there!”. A strategy known to the Greeks, and probably ancient by then.

  2. Why does this remind me of the US mantra after a mass shooting that “We must grieve with the families; this is no time to talk about gun control”.

  3. Cf: this issue is merely symbolic. As in “changing the date of Australia Day is just symbolism; we should get on with practical reconciliation, not symbolism”. Translation: it is more important to change the situation on the ground than symbols (so let’s do neither).

  4. I would read this article but unfortunately I am currently be devoured by a large crocodile and I am too preoccupied with that for reading.

    Fortunately I still have the energy to post a comment, though.

  5. Surely there is a case to be made that a public preoccupation with largely symbolic issues whose solution either way costs the establishment no diminution of their wealth and power benefits the 1%. If nothing else, it allows business to continue as usual while the media focuses on identity issues, failing to address the corruption of our democracy and civic good by neoliberalist lobbyists representing vested interests. Repairing mental health, education, indigenous rights and so on would actually cost them something, changing the date of Australia Day wouldn’t.

  6. But note there’s also framing going on, you’re just just falling for the “this only matters to the 1%”. The complete refusal to discuss marriage equality and the quiet silencing of advocates for it seems to be one of the few things most people in the same-sex marriage argument agreed on. Equality has to apply to everyone. Or at least everyone that matters “everyone has to vote” obviously only includes some adult Australian citizens, for example. So the debate is more about which people matter… gay and lesbian couples who want to marry now also matter.

    I’m also amused that the “irrelevant because it only affects 1%” is such a huge deviation from the normal far-right fixation on the financial affairs of the top 1%.

  7. This has been the Bjorn Lomborg position on global climate change, dutifully carried by angry ‘expert’ columnists at The Australian.

  8. @Lethell

    Did you not read DD’s comment?

    Sorry to be crass and boring where everyone else is being subtle and clever – but perhaps subtle and clever doesn’t work with some people – I feel the need to point out that what you have written is clearly a case of “Look! Over there!”.

    Critiquing but not being preoccupied with – some of can walk and chew gum – the things that happened in the past that were unfair to those people who didn’t fit with the political correctness of the times does address corruption and civic good now.

    Do tell though what you would do to repair the “mental health, education, indigenous rights” so that it would actually cost them (the 1%) something”. If you can’t do this then you need to read Neil’s comment.

  9. Let’s see:
    ‘There are more important things to think about than the rule of law and the right to a fair trial, because 98 per cent of people will never be arrested.’
    ‘There are more important things to think about than public good research into [insert disease of your choice] because 98 per cent of people will never get it.’
    ‘There are more important things to think about than insuring your house, because 98 per cent of people will never experience their house burning down.’
    In a complex society it’s possible, and maybe even useful, to be able to think about more than one thing in the same week. The fact that some issues don’t involve jobs and growth does not make them irrelevant.

  10. I don’t think there is anything new about interviewees deflecting questions. We have seen it for years regularly on programs such as ABC 7:30 as in: “Minister what do you say about …..” being answered by “Look Leigh, the real question is why Labor/Liberals allowed this problem to fester ….” and so on.

  11. verily the invading tribes were




    such is life.

  12. that was just the undesirables,

    the rest were not quite so benign.


    then gold.


    doesn’t matter what day the fireworks go off, there is an awful lot of remediation to get on with.

  13. This is just a standard tactic by people who know they haven’t got a case. Usually they just leave it at that, but with SSM couldn’t because there was the postal survey, and they thought they had to put up at least a token effort. So what we got from the No side was an argument that if the Marriage Act was amended to allow same sex couples to marry, schools would turn children into Priscilla queen of the desert. Or something. Not surprisingly very few people bought it. In retrospect, Donnelly and mates would have been better off just saying there are more important issues and stopping there.

    One is reminded of Lincoln’s dictum that is better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt, thought in the interests of fairness and balance it is not just right-wingers who should take this advice.

  14. @Smith No, they have a case, something has touched their button and they are angry, justifying that anger is a search for justification that seems plausible.

  15. @rog That reads like mumbo jumbo. What I meant was that an emotional response to a given set of circumstances is then followed by a more structured argument, used to justify the initial response. Arguing against the argument doesn’t usually work as it doesn’t address the source of the emotional response.

  16. The opposition to gay marriage promised us that if we voted yes we’d be getting national degeneracy, the persecution of religion, and dogs marrying cats, and now we’ve won by god I’m going to be demanding the delivery of every jot and tittle.

  17. @rog

    It’s for sure an emotional response that underpins all the ‘arguments’ against marriage equality and changing the date of Australia Day.

    I think that for the gay marriage issue, the negative arguments from conservatives were for some of them, based on a real but mistaken feeling that the changes are morally wrong and will lead to very bad things (the things that Chris mentions) happening in our society.

    The arguments against changing Australia Day are different I think in that they are coming from both conservatives and glibertarians and are ‘triggered’ by their emotional response to ‘the Left’ and not by any fear of the consequences for society.

    The latest laughable and pathetic not to mention irrational attempt that clearly demonstrates that motivation is by Tim Blair who suggests that the establishment of a penal colony back then is the same thing as immigration now and ‘the Left’ are being hypocritical because they like multi-culturalism.

    One would think it should be clear to anyone who isn’t emotionally triggered and desperate for something to say, that the arrival of the convicts and their keepers is far more like the arrival of boat people than it is like immigration.

  18. @jrkrideau Australia Day celebrates the day that a fleet of British vessels sailing under a Royal order landed in Sydney Cove, with the purpose being to form a penal colony.

    Sovereignty had been previously claimed by the naval officer Capt Cook, in August 1770.

  19. @Julie Thomas

    It’s the same reaction. People react badly and emotionally what they see (what they perceive as) attacks on “their” institutions. The Left does it too (the ABC, Medicare, universities etc).

  20. @Smith

    Sure people in general on the right and the left respond in emotional ways to events or ideas that challenge their belief system or world view – whatever you want to call it. Humans are not naturally rational; it is a skill we need to learn and practise.

    I note though that there is some evidence that there are some psychological differences between people of the right and left (and of course right and left is an inadequate way of dividing people into categories so that we can examine and find out more about the different types of people there may be).

    But it seems obvious that there are rational arguments from the left about the ABC, Medicare and Universities and there are no rational arguments that support not changing the date or that show that marriage equality would bring about the destruction of western civilisation.

    My point was that the so called arguments that are being presented are increasingly emotionally based and ridiculous.

  21. @Smith We could simplify things by separating argument into two groups, opinion and knowledge. The question then becomes, which precedes the other?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s