Monday, February 09, 2004

More on gay marriage
Young firebrand Peter Cuthbertson of Conservative Commentary has taken to declaring his opposition to gay marriage. He had a post dealing solely with this issue but he has, unfortunately, deleted it, which possibly amounts to an admission that his arguments are not as watertight as he would like. Nevertheless, from what remains, I gather that Peter is opposed to gay marriage because it would, firstly, "redefine" marriage; secondly, amount to "social engineering"; and, thirdly, usher in an "anything goes" era of social decay in which threesomes and even fivesomes might present themselves at the alter to be joined in unholy matrimony. So, does Peter convince? I think not.

The "redefinition" argument is especially tenuous. Over the years, the specific legal definition of marriage has been repeatedly altered without society judging, in retrospect, that the institution has been fatally undermined. For example, for many years marriage was defined so as to exclude unions between people of different races. In the US, laws prohibiting inter-racial marriages were only declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1967, in Loving v Virginia, at a time when 16 states still had such statutes on their books. For many years too, marriage effectively obliterated a woman's legal identity. She became a perpetual minor, with her husband exercising control over her person and property. In the UK, it was only in 1935 that the legal definition of marriage was altered so as to recognise equality between the sexes.

Nowadays, does anyone (I'm looking at you Peter) judge these to have been negative developments, that somehow damaged the institution of marriage? Of course not. If anything, we regard these changes as better expressing our evolving understanding of what marriage is about. The mere fact that a change to the legal definition of marriage is proposed -- in this instance, to allow for same-sex unions -- should not automatically lead us to think that we are fundamentally altering, or demeaning, the institution.

Peter also worries that allowing gays to marry would amount to "social engineering." If so, this objection should also apply to the examples given above. Allowing people of different races to marry was wrong because it amounted to social engineering; the same goes for granting women equal rights in marriage. Clearly, these would not be serious arguments. More fundamentally, Peter's argument misses the point that society is already engineered, in this instance, in favour of heterosexuals, just as it was, for a long time, engineered in favour of men. The fact is that we have to make decisions about how social institutions such as marriage are organised; we can't escape this just by leaving things as they are; that in itself amounts to a form of engineering.

Finally, Peter paints grim scenarios of marriage coming to mean anything, of marriages involving seven men, for instance. Fortunately, several other jurisdictions are ahead of the UK on this matter. Canada has recently legalised gay marriage, as has the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. In Scandinavian countries, gay marriage has been legal for some time. So let's wait and see whether Peter's apocalyptic visions come to pass.

More seriously, this particular argument could be advanced against any move to recognise same-sex partnerships. Should same-sex relationships be recognised for purposes of employment benefits? No, because then we would have to give them to threesomes. Should same-sex relationships be recognised for purposes of immigration? No, because then we'd have to let fivesomes in. Of course, Peter might be of the view that society should not recognise same-sex relationships for any purpose whatsoever. But that would put him so far to the right that I cannot believe that he would seriously hold such a view.

Peter's final argument also misses the point that, when it comes to this issue, we're dealing with discrimination. Gays can plausibly argue that the legal definition of marriage is discriminatory because, by virtue of excluding same-sex relationships, it discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation -- a recognised ground of discrimination, analogous to race and sex. But, in the case of individuals wishing to engage in polygamous unions, there is no ground of discrimination that can be pointed to, and so the argument cannot be made in the first place.

I'm no Tory, but I'd rather hoped that the new generation of Conservatives would take Michael Portillo's advice to heart and emphasise the Party's tradition of liberty (social and economic), rather than authority. This, to me, would be a far more attractive and consistent approach, and one more likely to endear them to 21st century Britain. Sadly, if Peter Cuthbertson is anything to go by, him and his ilk are cast firmly in the Thatcherite mould.

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