I’ve been saying I’d share my views gay marriage for ages. It’s taken me so long that the Government consultation has even closed. So basically my views are now irrelevant. No change there then. What has changed is that summer’s arrived and I’m bored. Moreover, the Guardian yesterday ran a story that a right-wing lobby group has created a pamphlet that suggests that legalising gay marriage could ‘open the door to polygamy & incest’. This was just the excuse I needed.
It’s strange in these debates how right-wingers occasionally manage to get to the heart of the issues almost in spite of themselves. Some explain this by reference to the old horseshoe theory that was used by teachers in school to warn us of the dangers of radicalism. Others might call it political correctness. Either way mainstream political discourse on this matter has stagnated. It’s reduced itself to binary decisions on rights claims: freedom of religion v freedom to marry; conservatism v liberalism.
Although the Keep Marriage Special campaign hardly intends to flatter to deceive by alluding specifically to issues of polygamy and incest, they offer unwitting insight in their consideration of alternative modes of living. But where I first disagree is with their conception of the workings of the law.
In my experience, legislators are particularly wary of ‘slippery-slope’ arguments. We all come across them in every day moral discussions. Occasionally they make sense, especially when they are linked to capital flows (so we are wary of increased privatisation of the NHS, because we have seen what has happened to our railways and utilities). But in issues of citizenship and family law for example, the opposite can be the case. I would suggest that the legalisation of gay marriage will most likely constitute a step not towards, but away from, alternative modes of living.
By ‘alternative modes of living’ I’m not trying to advocate incest. Nor am I saying that polygamy is great (though I’m told that polyamory can be very emotionally fulfilling). I’d rather not get bogged down trying to play the philosophical imaginary. Suffice it to say that people lead different lives. What I am wary of is progressive people falling into a centrist trap. Words are prone to unproductive associations. Think humanitarian intervention. Or compassionate conservatism. It shouldn’t work but it does. The first world works as a distraction, precluding a proper investigation of the second.
Gay marriage is a perfect example. We’re so used to fighting for ‘gay’ reform that we can forget what we’re fighting for. As has been noted by legal Professor Rosemary Auchmuty, marriage is an institution in decline across the western world. The potential boost from gay and lesbian couples, she suggests, could be the very antidote marriage needs to keep it alive. David Blankenhorn, founder of the Institute for American Values and former staunch critic of gay marriage, shocked many by accepting as much on Friday.
Why is marriage on the decline? For Auchmuty, the second-wave feminist critique attacked marriage’s patriarchal heritage not just for the presence of men: ‘Other targets for criticism were the privileged status of the institution over all other lifestyles and statuses (especially for women), its role in the privatisation of care, the relentless cult of love and romance, so often followed by disappointment and disempowerment, and […] the extent and seriousness of domestic violence within marriage’. Heterosexuality and masculinity were reprieved as other psycho-social factors come to the fore. Also exposed as problematic were belief in ‘the one’, economic dependency, privacy, property, power.
To credit second-wave feminists with undermining marriage in the general public consciousness would be an overstatement. And whilst some feminists may have had a clear vision - to abolish marriage - former University of Leeds Professor Carol Smart acknowledged in the ’80s that as a policy this was as unrealistic as it would be unpopular. Instead, strategically, she called for progressive legislation to ‘undermine the social and legal need and support for the marriage contract’.
In many areas, her call has been answered. According to Auchmuty, unmarried UK cohabitants (homo- or heterosexual) have in most cases the same recognition as married couples; ‘many of the rights’, she explains ‘that marriage confers in the US, such as transferable health benefits, are simply not relevant here’ (thanks NHS). Though that is not not to suggest that those that are, such as inheritance tax, should be forgotten. They are just more bourgeois, and not nearly as pressing.
What we should be wary of is what Auchmuty describes as a ‘turning back of the clock’ in terms of the Government re-defining marriage so that it can regain its privileged position in terms of UK policy. I’m proposing to make this my starting point in opposing gay marriage. As a nod to the Keep Marriage Special campaign, my blogging series will be called ‘Keep Marriage Irrelevant’. Let’s add another dimension to a debate that’s growing stale.