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Extract: ABC Q&A (ABC, 2010)

  • 1 Geoff Thomas Thank you .hhh I am a Vietnam veteran (.) I have been a
  • 2 plumbing contractor for 37 years (.) I support with a social
  • 3 conscience (.) the Liberal philosophy .hhh I have a gay sf on
  • 4 (.5) when I was confronted with that situation in a very
  • 5 short (.) amount of time and with due (.) consideration I
  • 6 accepted his position and I overcame my ignorance and my fear of (.) of gays and the idea of gay marriage .hhh when
  • 7 will you Mr Abbott (.5) take up the sa[audience applause]
  • 8 (.) will you sir overcome your fear and ignorance (.) of gay
  • 9 people (.3) and give them the dignity and respect (.) that
  • 10 you’d happily give to all other Austral f ians
  • 11 Tony Abbott Well Geoff I absolutely agree with you (.5) that people have
  • 12 got to be given dignity and respect (.) and I would always
  • 13 try to find it in my heart (.) to give dignity and respect to
  • 14 people regardless of their circumstances (.) regardless of
  • 15 their opinions .hhh uh so that is absolutely my posit?ion (.4)
  • 16 but ?I think that uh (.) there are lots of terrific gay relation-
  • 17 ships lot::s of terrific (.) uh commitments between gay partners but I just don’t think (.) that (.) uh marriage (.) is the
  • 18 right term to put on it.

Thomas’ question contains several interesting features, the most obvious of which is the way in which he renders Abbott’s opposition to same-sex marriage as a morally accountable matter. Here, his question can be seen to construct two main realities. First it works to define discrimination as the unfair treatment of the ‘innocent’. In this case, Thomas is able to use his subject position of ‘abiding citizen’ to highlight the injustice of how, despite long years of serving his nation (l.1—2), his family still faces marital discrimination due to his son’s sexual orientation (l.1—3). Second, this account attributes discrimination as arising from ignorance and fear: Thomas’ personal journey of revelation in which he was previously homophobic but then suddenly ‘saw the light’ functions to position Abbott’s views against marriage as being similarly ignorant and ill informed. Thus, Thomas’ account functions to construct the opposition of gay marriage as a form of real-life discrimination, which must be overcome, and results in Thomas questioning whether Abbott will ever change his mind to give gay men, like his son, the ‘dignity and respect’ (l.9) they deserve.

Abbott’s response is structured in a way that conversation analysts have found to be common among interlocutors undertaking a dispreferred response (Pomerantz, 1984). That is, he agrees with Geoff at first (l.11—17), before disagreeing on l.17—18. This kind of discursive work allows Abbott to defend himself from the accusations of prejudice made by Mr Thomas. By initially agreeing with Mr Thomas, Abbott attempts to reassert his identity as a person who is not scared or ignorant of gay people but rather one who also believes in fairness for all. Indeed, from 1.11 to 15, Abbott highlights his strong attitudes against discrimination and towards a society whereby everyone is treated the same. The use of words like ‘dignity’ (l.12,13), ‘respect’ (l.12,13) and ‘heart’ (l.12) taps into the ideological resource of morality, in which treating others differentially is seen as problematic and unethical and thus enhances Abbott’s self-construction as a person who practices equality. The use of maximization, present in words like ‘absolutely’ (l.11,14) and ‘always’ (l.12), anchors the fact that Abbott understands—and ‘always’ has—the precise boundary line between discriminatory and non-discriminatory behaviour. Furthermore, in 1.15,16, Abbott’s talk can be seen to positively appraise same-sex relationships through repetitively using words like ‘terrific’. This functions to protect Abbott from Thomas’ accusations of fear and ignorance and instead situates Abbott as somebody who knows how successful same-sex commitments can be and thus is not ignorant.

Consequently, when Mr Abbott’s disclaimer, ‘but I just don’t think (.) that (.) uh marriage (.) is the right term to put it on’ (l.17—18), is delivered, it fol?lows an account that positions him as so opposed to discrimination, that it is impossible to imagine his views as belonging to this category. Instead of refuting Mr Thomas’ accusations, which may be viewed as a guilty defence, Mr Abbott instead aligns himself with Thomas’ views on equality, thus affirming his disapproval at treating gay people unfairly. Consequently, Abbott’s account constructs a reality whereby the prohibition of same-sex marriage simply does not classify as discrimination but is vaguely to do with ‘terms’ (l.17). Woolgar and Pawluch (1985) refer to this kind of discursive strategy as ‘ontological gerrymandering’, an accomplishment in which interlocutors ‘manipulate a boundary making certain phenomena problematic while leaving others unproblematic’ (p. 214).

Similarly, Wetherell, Stiven and Potter (1987) have identified a pervasive discursive resource or practice that participants use to manage such inconsistencies in their discourse, which they called the principle/practice dichotomy. While on the one hand speakers invariably espouse egalitarian principles and ideals, on the other, they are undermined by practical considerations. Such ‘practical talk’ is deployed in ways that justify and legitimate existing inequities in society. Thus in more naturalistic conversational settings, people articulate a complex set of positions which blend egalitarian views with discriminatory ones. Discursive research of this kind is therefore able to explicate how existing inequities are maintained and reproduced in society despite claims to the contrary.

Notably in the example above, the analysis attends to both the local interactional concerns of the two speakers (their stake and identity as fair and moral beings) and the shared ideological resources that they invoke in their talk to construct specific realities or versions of the world (in this case, what does and does not constitute discrimination). Drawing from CA, we are able to see how people can do ‘disagreement’ in the most agreeable of ways to fend off accusations of discrimination and homophobia: at the same time, turning to more critical approaches, we can see how liberal individualist principles and values can be deployed in contradictory ways to justify existing inequalities and constrain the rights of minorities. However, CDA may be less interested in how speakers actually do disagreement as a social practice, especially in contexts where their values and identity may be at stake, but rather how resistance to marriage equality is part of a broader discourse of heteronorma- tivity that operates throughout all layers of society. The emphasis and focus in CDA is on the parameters of this discourse, its historical development and its political implications.

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