Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Calmly Wrong

Let's stick with the home front for a bit, shall we, and shake our heads over a rather different subject.  I suppose this article is one of the better ones on the subject of opposing gay marriage, insofar as it at least makes a valid point: just because a massive amount of those against the idea are colossal pricks, it doesn't mean they're automatically wrong.

Of course, whilst "valid" applies as an adjective, "vacuous" works rather better.  I'd be dubious about the idea of it requiring the Guardian to pay someone to make that point, even if the article put together to do so wasn't so rambling and unformed.  Also, I'd suggest that anyone who writes lines like
[J]ust glimpse those mindlessly violent video games, sheer porn ...
has perhaps little to teach us on what constitutes rational fears regarding cultural change, and nothing at all on the issue of the preservation of accurate terminology.

Part of my problem with White's article is that it's often difficult to pin down exactly what he's arguing in favour.  When he translates Cardinal O'Brien's comments on the subject (comments White clearly has no more respect for than do I), White says
[M]arriage is a universally accepted concept, defined by Article 16 of the universal declaration of human rights (UDHR). It exists free of the passing whims of governments to entrench the relationship between men and women for mutual support and – jolly important, this bit – the procreation of children. 
I honestly can't tell what White means when he inserts "jolly important..." into the above.  Is he agreeing with that thread of O'Brien's argument?  Noting the cardinal's emphasis?  Or is he just making the entirely obvious point that we could probably do with at least some children around the place, if only to keep an eye on all that nuclear waste we've buried?

I'm going to assume he is agreeing.  Your mileage may differ, but let's consider the "marriages are important for children" argument in any case, since it's a common enough one.  Let's also assume for the sake of argument what I think is probably a fairly uncontroversial statement in any case: children do well in a stable environment, and two loving parents are, all things considered, liable to be better than one.  There are caveats to that, of course - I have more than one friend who tells me their home life improved when one parent finally had the decency to piss off - but let's work from the premise that, at least in theory, a stable two-parent household is a definite plus, developmentally speaking.

The problem with O'Brien's argument is that this fairly reasonable proposition gets inverted.  The initial progression: marriage helps with stability, stability helps with children, therefore marriage helps with children; is already a fairly ramshackle structure (not least because it implies marriage produces stability, rather than it being a function of it).  That's not the point I want to get at, though.  What I want to note is that marriage is important to stability is important to children does not mean that children are important to marriage.

This would be obvious were proponents of this argument to start suggesting that those who wish to get married but cannot have or do not want children should be forced to accept civil partnerships.  Such people would, I'd hope, be immediately dismissed as insufferable busybodies.  Busybodies at best, actually, since the argument that those who nature has capriciously selected as being unable to create children are probably worth more sympathy than being told they can't technically be considered as marriage material. [1]

The above argument usually gets you to a new battleground: adoption.  But if marriages where the children involved are adopted are OK, then what's actually being argued isn't that gay marriage is a bad idea, it's that gay marriage would also require gay adoption, and that's a bad idea.  Again, it would be nice if people would just come out and say that, so I can know the exact reason why I'm shouting at them.

Moving on.  White suggests that rather than listening to the witless, self-pitying rantings of Big Cardy Keith, we might want to consider the words of someone more collected.  Specifically, those of Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and a man who I could almost have a lot of sympathy for, given his job seems to consist almost entirely of being nice to homophobic dickheads, except that part of him being nice involves giving intellectual cover to aforesaid dickheads.

Here's what the unenviable coddler of turds has to say on the subject: 
Now laws change as societies become more conscious of what they are and claim to be; as I have said, it may take time for a society to realise that its practice is inconsistent – with respect to women and to ethnic, religious or sexual minorities. Law may indeed turn out to be ahead of majority opinion in recognising this, but it has a clear argument to advance – that the failure to guarantee protection and access is simply incompatible with the very idea of a lawful society.
Put another way: once a society agrees that it wants to be lawful, it must agree that the law be applied fairly.  Once that is done, it's OK to use the law to stop any specific instance of unfairness, even when the majority of the people in said society are fine with the imbalance. We didn't need the majority of people in the UK to agree women should have the vote before it was correct for the law to grant both sexes access to the ballot box.  So far, so good:
"But this falls short of a legal charter to promote change in institutions, even in language. Law must prohibit publicly abusive and demeaning language, it must secure institutions that do not systematically disadvantage any category of the community. But these tasks remain 'negative' in force. If it is said, for example, that a failure to legalise assisted suicide – or indeed same-sex marriage – perpetuates stigma or marginalisation for some people, the reply must be, I believe, that issues like stigma and marginalisation have to be addressed at the level of culture rather than law, the gradual evolving of fresh attitudes in a spirit of what has been called 'strategic patience' by some legal thinkers."
A few points.  First, Williams is begging the question here (at least he is in this, the only section White quotes - it's possible White cut something vital out, but at 7000 words a full dissection of Williams remarks will have to wait for a bit).  He's simply asserting that not allowing gay people to marriage is not to systematically disadvantage them.  Further, it's just taken for granted that "disadvantage" is a category separate from and more serious to "stigmatised" and "marginalised".

Second, the idea that law must "secure institutions that do not systematically disadvantage" is transparently ridiculous.  The law can do so, and often does, according to various influences of which popular opinion is a major but not exclusive member.  It is under no obligation to secure marriage, even if Williams' question-begging is justifiable.

Third, the "stigma and marginalisation" we're talking about here didn't arise in a vacuum.  If people feel marginalised because they can't get married, it's because marriage is constantly being talked up as the ideal state by, amongst other people, Rowan Williams.  He and his church are directly contributing to the feelings of isolation he's telling people they need to be patient about overcoming, which is a neat trick, though not a pleasant one.

While we're on the subject, actually, how have we ended up with an archbishop arguing that gay people can't have their relationships sanctified by God unless the people of earth decide it's OK?  I don't want to go too far down the road of criticising religious leaders for taking account of the societies in which we live, but at a bare minimum, I don't see how a man who believes in the divinity of the Bible can claim that being unable to wed doesn't constitute a disadvantage.

(I've noticed this sort of thing before, actually: those people who attempt considered arguments against gay marriage tend to do so through a series of wave-particle dualities, leading to points which are simultaneously non-religious and non-secular and neither about gay people as lovers nor as parents nor as couples, depending on what inferences you attempt to draw at any given time.  This is also how people manage to argue that marriage is so culturally significant as to be worth protecting, unchanged, forever, but also so ancillary as to not disadvantage those who are forbidden from participating).

My final issue is the real kicker, though, and with pleasing symmetry, it returns to the first point.  "Systematic disadvantage" is not the only measure by which laws need to be constructed when dealing with interactions within and between minorities.  If it were, the only thing wrong with segregated schools and separate drinking fountains was the fact that black kids would get crappier textbooks and less clean water.  More to the point (and I'm sure you knew this was coming), under this assumption there would be nothing wrong with anti-misegenation laws at all.  There's absolutely nothing about refusing to allow people of different races to marry that can be considered to systematically disadvantage any particular group (indeed, many people used that argument whenever "separate but equal" laws came under threat).  Shorter Rowan Williams: "thank the Lord that "white wedding" isn't referring to skin colour, or I'd be utterly stuffed."

This is also where the idea of positive/negative force breaks down.  Gay people weren't banned from marriage quite simply because there was no need to: they were already banned from having sex, or even admitting their persuasion, for thousands of years, on pain of jail sentence, banishment, or execution, depending on time and place.  Had black people been barred from having their own relationships in a similar way, it would be unconscionable to deny them the right to marriage on the grounds that it was always something white people did.

With all that gone, all that really remains is the argument that language needs protecting, an argument which, once again, can only be made because throughout the last two millenia gay people were so marginalised that it never occurred to anyone to legally exclude them from the proceedings. 

It's also an argument that chooses literalism over empathy.  Remember that bit in Star Trek VI when Azetbur gets pissy about the Chekov discussing inalienable human rights?  Well, that's archbishop Williams, right now, choosing to point at the historical definition of a term, rather than the new meaning such words should take on when presented in a new context.

So much for the big fish.  I'll finish this admittedly very long post by returning to White, because his conclusions really need to be taken to pieces, if not hacked into bits and fed to the seagulls:
But just as the tyranny of majority opinions over minority rights – majoritarianism – is usually wrong, surely so is its converse, the assertion of minority rights beyond equality before the law (civil partnership provides that) to a wider cultural equality than the law or human rights can actually enforce, any more than it can to the right to employment.
The fact that the law can't compel people to call gay marriages "marriages" isn't a remotely good enough reason to argue that no-one should be allowed to.

I have been impressed by the importance which so many gay people have attached to civil partnership, in contrast to the disdain for marriage among plenty of heterosexuals. Married people are happier than the single or divorced, suggested yet another survey last month, hotly contested as always.
"I have loads of gay friends. And being married is better than not being married, even though gay people shouldn't be allowed to do it yet.  Also, it is somehow surprising that people who have only just been allowed to tie themselves together for life view the process differently to those who have had that right since time immemorial."
Yes, some polls report that voters are now willing to accept full-blooded gay marriage, but indifference is not necessarily the same as tolerance.
Oh, fuck off.  We can't have gay marriage because the majority who don't have a problem with the idea contains too many people who couldn't give two shits?  Do you think the first gay couple to be "full-blooded" married in this country will care that some people aren't supportive so much as disinterested?  You think they want to wait until everyone is lining the streets waving little rainbow flags?

No.  They're ready to go now.  And you need a much, much better reason than your "instinct" if you want to argue there should be something standing in their way.

[1] Full disclosure: I've always thought the idea of marriage quite attractive, and I may well take the plunge one day. Right now - and of course time and circumstances might always change my mind - I have no intention of anyone fathering children. Anyone who wants to tell me that the latter point should have any bearing on the former - other than my prospective wife, of course - can fuck right off.

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