Is it possible to have a forthright but respectful disagreement on the question of gay marriage?
Recently the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, put forward an argument against gay marriage on the ground that “redefining marriage to include same-sex couples would benefit nobody”.
However one views the quality of his contribution, it is evident that he was seriously struggling with issues such as equality, individual rights and justice.
Yet the comments responding to his statement were an exercise in demonology. Sentamu was described as a bigot, homophobe, sophist and scaremonger, and his article was dismissed as “utterly sickening”. And that was just the first response on the blog.
Others denounced his cold heart, his culpability, the poison was preaching and described him as a “figurehead for a deeply misogynistic, sexually repressive, grossly hypocritical global death cult”. Theis is a small sample of the vitriol directed at him.
Sectarian and hysterical denunciations are not monopolised by the “behind every critic there is a homophobe” brigade. Zealous advocates of traditional marriage sometimes adopt the language of the Inquisition. Talk of a corrupt gay union conspiracy or of a satanic gay conspiracy to corrupt children is by no means confined to a small number of unpleasant zealots. When the attitude “if you are not with us, you are against us” prevails, it is difficult to have a serious public deliberation.
Concepts such as bigoted homophobia or the rhetoric of spiritual corruption serve highly moralised narratives aimed at shutting down discussion rather than encouraging it.
The sectarian posturing driving this debate is underpinned by two diametrically opposed principles, that of absolutism and relativism. The first upholds the socially conservative ideal of traditional marriage and unthinkingly rejects the possibility of other alternatives. The second celebrates gay marriage and dogmatically rebuffs any attempt to make judgments of value about the status of different forms of union between two adults. From the standpoint of social conservatism only one way of living is right, whereas from the standpoint of relativist identity politics the very act of making a moral judgment represents an insult to its recipient.
The present sectarian exchange on gay marriage carries on where the previous debate on family life left off. In that discussion, the advocacy of the traditional family was culturally overwhelmed by the claim of moral relativism, which suggested that not only was there no longer a single model of the family but that there should not be one. Whereas traditionalists targeted choice, relativist identity entrepreneurs sought to demonise anyone attempting to make a judgment on the moral status of family life.
The cultural ascendency of moral relativism means that difference enjoys cultural affirmation to the point that it is deemed inappropriate to publicly state a moral preference for one form of family arrangement over another. One of the first lessons children learn in schools is that it is their duty to celebrate difference. The duty to accept difference is advocated with a vehemence no less dogmatic than a fundamentalist religious doctrine.
Yet as is the case with most controversies focused on competing claims for rights and justice, both an absolutist and a relativist approach fail to do justice to the complexities at stake.
As someone writing from a liberal and militantly tolerant perspective I maintain that there can be a variety of legitimate views on the subject of same-sex marriage. Someone with liberal convictions can argue for gay marriage because of the belief that an individual’s right to self-determination and to equal rights must prevail over all other considerations.
There is also a legitimate liberal argument against gay marriage based on the premise that what is at issue is not the equality of rights or the extension of the right to marry but the fundamental redefinition of this institution.
There is also a third liberal argument, which I would propose, to recognise individuals ought to have the right to define marriage however they choose, but that this right should not be exercised at this time.
From the standpoint of liberalism, gay marriage can be supported logically on the grounds of choice but not as a claim to equal rights. Yet in the US the campaign for gay marriage frequently presents its cause as a movement for equality and civil rights.
Some campaigners argue the denial of same-sex marriage is similar to that of the prevention of inter-racial unions by old segregationist laws. The association of marriage with a species of discrimination, for example that of segregation, requires an imaginative manipulation of historical facts. Segregation represented a conscious attempt to exclude or to separate groups deemed to have different racial characteristics. As an institution, marriage - in all its forms - was principally aimed at the regulation of human reproduction. Not even the most ideologically driven historian can substantiate the claim that marriage was a heterosexual conspiracy designed to exclude homosexuals.
The institution of marriage, in its ancient and historical variations, has had many functions to do with the maintenance and reproduction of society. But excluding same-sex partners from its purview was not one of them. Today, when every demand for a new right instantly claims to be the latest reincarnation of the civil rights movement, it is easy to overlook the fact not every such demand is an equality issue. The only way one can argue for gay marriage on the grounds of inequality is if it is redefined as less about human reproduction and the preparation of children for their future as it is about companionship.
That is why all arguments in favour of gay marriage focus on the right of two people to live in accordance with their aspiration. This is a legitimate aspiration but it has little to do with the institution of marriage; it actually demands a fundamental redefinition of marriage.
Advocates of a companion form of marriage have every right to promote their cause. But it is a cause that does not serve equality but the interest of a particular form of identity.
As a believer in tolerance I have no option but to uphold their right to choose. But as someone concerned about the consequences of disorganising an institution that plays a central role in the management of human reproduction, I am compelled to argue against the exercise of a very misguided choice.