THE SAME-SEX MARRIAGE DEBATE

Marriage is no place for me-too-ism

Let's go back to the beginning. Why does anyone deserve the protection offered by legally-recognised marriage?
Tim Cannon | Nov 24 2010 | comment  



The Age / MelbourneThe past few weeks have seen a veritable rainbow flurry of activity around the issue of same-sex marriage in Australia. As promised prior to his recent election, Adam Bandt – the first member of Australia’s Legislative Assembly to hail from the hard-left, environmentalist Greens party – wasted no time in introducing a motion on the theme of marriage equality, as the Greens continue their push to have gay marriage recognised under Australian law

Bandt’s motion itself was strangely toothless, simply directing MPs to gauge constituents’ views on same-sex marriage, and to report back to parliament. As has been pointed out by various prominent commentators, this amounts to no more than directing politicians to do their ordinary job of representing constituents.

Nevertheless the issue has once again consumed headlines and parliamentary sitting time, and has exposed a deep rift within the governing Labor party. Unfortunately, amidst all of the overblown media hoopla – including interjections from one of Australia’s most famous gay exports, actress Portia DeGeneres (nee De Rossi) – the quality of the debate has at times been less than robust.

Such was certainly the view of same-sex rights campaigner Professor Kerryn Phelps, who authored an opinion piece arguing that the case put forward by defenders of traditional marriage is devoid of substance. To some extent, Professor Phelps is right: too many opponents of same-sex marriage seem to think that mere assertion is sufficient: “marriage is between a man and a woman because that’s just how it is”. However a closer inspection of the case for same-sex marriage reveals it to be equally lacking in intellectual rigour.

Indeed, although the human-rights based arguments of the likes of Professor Phelps are neat, and on the surface, quite convincing, I’m not convinced. To the contrary, when I hear activists passionately arguing in favour of same-sex marriage, I feel like I’ve walked in on a conversation half way through. Or rather, it’s like starting a logical syllogism from the middle, without bothering to test the premises. In the same-sex marriage debate, everyone seems to assume that marriage is somehow valuable, but no one in the same-sex marriage camp is bothering to explain why.

We need to go back to the beginning. Before you start telling me that refusing to recognise same-sex marriage is a breach of human rights, you need to explain what you understand marriage to be, and why you think it’s a good idea in the first place. You need to explain what the key characteristics of marriage are (or should be), and why each of those characteristics is essential. You need to explain why you think it is appropriate that marriage should form part of our legal framework at all. 

In short, you need to justify – from scratch – this strange public institution by which you would have two persons publicly promise to remain exclusively faithful to one another for their entire lives, for better or for worse. In any other context, such an all-encompassing promise would be regarded with suspicion, incredulity, even cynicism. In this debate, we can’t keep ignoring the proverbial pink elephant in the room.

From a secular point of view, marriage is looking decidedly dishevelled. Lifelong? Not in the age of the pre-nup. Exclusive? Er, no; apparently having an affair can be good for you and your spouse. For better or worse? Thanks, but an e-divorce sounds more convenient. Under such strain, there seems to be a stronger case for giving marriage the flick, rather than expanding its scope. Even more perplexing is the fact that the push for same-sex marriage draws heavily on the efforts of the socialist left. Reporting on a same-sex marriage rally in August last year, Melbourne’s daily broadsheet The Age relates:

Radical Women spokeswoman Alison Thorne told the Melbourne rally that marriage was an oppressive institution designed to condemn women to lives of slavery, but same-sex couples should nevertheless be equally entitled to it (August 2, 2009).

At any rally of this kind, you can rest assured that groups like Radical Women and the Socialist Alliance will be front and centre. And yet marriage (as we know it) has no place in the socialist worldview. Our good friend Mr Marx saw fit to stick the boot into marriage right there in his Communist Manifesto. Things haven’t changed.

According to the socialist left, marriage is a fundamental element of the capitalist, patriarchal hegemony, and must therefore be abolished. So why is the socialist left pushing for the enlargement of an institution to which it has always been vehemently opposed? It doesn’t add up.

Or perhaps it does. See, the expansion of marriage begins with same-sex couples, but it doesn’t end there. After all, why include only couples, but continue to discriminate against intimate groups of three or four or ten or more? Why exclude non-exclusive relationships? Why discriminate against impermanent relationships? Are the polyamorous less human than their monogamous counterparts? No? Better include them too, then.

Following the logic of the marriage equality lobby, marriage is bound to become so all-inclusive that it loses all meaning. What’s the point? The institution disappears in a puff of indifference. (And here we begin to see the canny strategy of the socialist left).

Meanwhile no one is talking about why marriage exists as a public, legal institution in the first place. No one is asking why the state cares whether two people make the highly suspect promise of remaining exclusively faithful to one another for better or worse, until one of them dies.

Dr Phelps argues that marriage “is about the right to have your relationship legally recognised, your next of kin status respected in a medical emergency, your children’s inheritance rights protected.” But are these rights really what’s at stake here? Can’t they already be quite easily protected through other legal avenues?

From the perspective of traditional marriage, the legal institution is not a matter of individual rights. It is simply the means by which a community recognises that, in the context of one particularly unique kind of human relationship, lifelong, exclusive fidelity stands to benefit the community itself

Which kind of relationship? The conjugal relationship between a man and a woman. In the colourful history of our species, only this kind of relationship has had the inherent characteristic of producing offspring. Meanwhile, over time, many communities all over the world have noticed that there are significant benefits for children, and for the community at large, when the participants of such a relationship remain exclusively faithful to one another.

The legal institution has nothing to do with the rights or dignity of the individuals involved. To put it crudely, the legal institution of marriage is about recognising the social utility of permanence in heterosexual relationships, given their inherently procreative nature, and encouraging such permanence. This recognition has worked its way into our legal framework, but it is intellectual laziness to assume that the time-tested social utility of exclusive, lifelong fidelity in one kind of relationship will necessarily be applicable to every kind of relationship.

The case for same-sex marriage must be made from scratch. To date, no such effort has been made. Dr Phelps accuses marriage traditionalists of relying on “the vibe” to state their case. She should be wary of relying on the equally puerile maxim: “they have it, so we should have it too.”

Tim Cannon is the national research officer for the Australian Family Association.



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