Submission to the British government’s consultation on equal civil marriage
These are the thoughts I have submitted to the Home Office’s consultation on expanding civil marriage to include same-sex couples.
A major problem with the debate about same-sex marriage is that it has been hijacked by sectarian entrepreneurs. It has been colonised by groups more interested in getting one over on their opposites than in having a serious discussion about the nature of marriage and its potential redefinition to include same-sex couples.
So on the anti-same-sex marriage side, religious and socially conservative elements are using this issue to express their fear and loathing of homosexual relationships in general. And in the pro camp, secularist activists have turned support for same-sex marriage into a marker of moral superiority over religious people, the uncultured and the allegedly ill-informed.
The government, despite posing as neutral facilitator of a consultation on same-sex marriage, is not immune to this process of sectarianisation. For prime minister David Cameron, keen to distance himself from the image of the Tories as a “nasty party” unthinkingly wedded to traditionalism, and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, keen to prove his commitment to what he refers to vaguely as “the values of the open society”, the most attractive thing about same-sex marriage is likewise the opportunities it creates for factional and political advantage.
The problem with this invasion of the sectarians is firstly that same-sex marriage becomes less important for its content, for what is actually being proposed, than for the PR possibilities it creates for both conservatives and liberals. This has generated an extraordinarily shallow level of debate, guided more by the reputational needs of the protagonists than by careful social and historical consideration of the issues at hand.
And secondly, the PR hijacking reduces same-sex marriage to a simple black-and-white, good-and-evil issue, to the sort of moral stand-off more suited to the sixteenth century than the twenty-first.
Cutting through all this, it must be possible to take a position which is neither black nor white, which is thoughtful rather than sectarian. If the government does this, I think it will recognise that the issue of same-sex marriage is rather more complex than its leading ministers have led us to believe, and that rushing to legislate for same-sex marriage may not be wise.
One question policymakers ought to ask themselves is this: Do we regard every form of human companionship as being subject to the same legal definition as marriage? Do we not recognise that there are different kinds of human relationships, which serve different purposes and have different meanings?
Because it strikes me that a key driver of the same-sex marriage campaign is relativism rather than rights, a refusal to make judgements about human relationships or even just to differentiate between contradistinctive human experiences. The campaign for same-sex marriage appears more like a drive towards homogenisation, motored by a relativistic unwillingness to make judgements, rather than a drive towards a more equal society.
Historically, most people, including gay people, accepted that there were important differences between a gay relationship and a relationship of marriage. Where the former is for the most part based in romance and companionship, the latter is something more, certainly something very different: a relationship through which men and women assume responsibility for generational renewal. Marriage is the institution through which society organises intergenerational relations, making it very different to friendship, companionship or homosexual romance.
The urge to redefine this institution is underpinned, not by liberalism or progressiveness, but by the modern-day allergy to privileging certain relationships or even distinguishing between different kinds of relationships and lifestyles. The impetus here is not “Let’s make gay people equal” so much as “Who are we to say that a gay couple’s relationship is not a marriage?”
However, this refusal to make a value judgement about human relationships is itself a value judgement on traditional marriage. The idea that all sorts of relationships can now be redefined as marriage, because we feel we don’t have the moral authority to say “Marriage is distinctive”, represents an implicit demotion of marriage itself. In the very act of refusing to judge between relationships, modern-day relativists issue a swingeing judgement upon marriage, decreeing that it is no longer special or different or key to society’s management of intergenerational relations. It is just the same as every other romance-driven or sexually oriented relationship.
As is so often the case with today’s relativistic, self-consciously anti-judgemental outlook, the refusal to judge does not create a situation where all lifestyles come to be treated as valuable; rather it creates a situation where nothing is really considered valuable anymore.
This cuts to the heart of the problem with the current discussion about same-sex marriage. It is presented to us as a good and timely elevation of homosexual relationships, but it is more accurately understood as an implicit demotion of traditional marriages. The push for same-sex marriage is legitimising the intervention of the state into intimate relationships, where it intends both to homogenise human experience and redefine married people’s identities. In short, this is not the extension of “rights” following demands for equality from below so much as it is the overhaul from above of an institution to which millions of people signed up for quite specific reasons.
The homogenisation drive can be seen in the way the government proposes to replace terms such as “husband” and “wife” with the all-purpose phrase “partner”. Such a move would finally signal that, according to state diktat, all relationships are now the same. We are all “partners” now, whether we’re a young man living with his boyfriend or a middle-aged Christian wife with five children who is devoted to her family and her husband. There is apparently no distinction between these two people. The bureaucratisation of people’s lived identities, the flattening out of titles such as husband, wife, mother and father, which have profound social and cultural meaning for millions of people, speaks to the rather cavalier way in which the drive for same-sex marriage actually devalues traditional marriage.
The state has no right unilaterally to redefine an institution. It has no right to decide and decree that a relationship which for a great many people is about more than companionship, which is about community, society, generational renewal and, in a way, about history itself, is now in fact just a “partnership”, no different to any other loving or sexual coupling.
What we are really witnessing here is the bending of an historic institution to suit the identity requirements of gay activists and the political requirements of the modern elite, with little regard for the role the institution currently plays in both people’s lives and in society more broadly.
The liberal position is of course that homosexuals should have the choice to get married, that they should have the choice to go through some form of marital ceremony. But then the progressive position is to urge them not to exercise this choice. Why? Because the emotional benefits for them would be outweighed by the harms caused by the state’s uniltateral overhauling of the institution of marriage.
This would cause two lots of harm. It will potentially harm individuals currently in a marriage, who will discover, overnight, that their relationship now means something very different to what they thought, and that the institution they entered into has been denuded of its specific meaning. And it will cause social harm, too, by destabilising the institution through which society currently organises intergenerational relations and encourages the assumption of adult responsibility for nurturing a new generation.
If the government can look beyond the positive media coverage it will no doubt get if it institutionalises gay marriage – or more pointedly deinstitutionalises traditional marriage – it might recognise that there is more at stake here than PR points. The real and profound issues are the standing of marriage, the way in which people develop their identities and relationships, the question of how we take responsibility for future generations – and the problem of having the state intervene, largely on a whim, to transform all of those things.
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