Its great news that MPs voted for marriage equality yesterday. We should remember that the debate yesterday was only one of several stages in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. There will be other votes on this issue, and the arguments for and against the reforms will persist for a little while yet.
The anti-family campaigners’ main argument is this: If we re-define marriage to include same-sex marriage, what is to stop a future parliament from re-defining the concept again, to allow polygamy, or inter-species marriage, &ct?
The usual rebuttal to this is that marriage has often been redefined – The Liberal Democrat campaigner Mark Pack’s recent post on this topic is a great example of this argument. There is, however, another argument, that is admittedly less persuasive but worth an airing. It is this: If we acquiesce to the traditional, religious conception of marriage, what is to stop future parliaments making further reversions in the future? The religious books are pretty clear that the male has primacy in a marriage, and a religiously motivated politicians might seek to restore that inequality by redefining marriage. Likewise, the Bible has passages that warn against inter-faith marriage, such as 2 Corinthians 6:14:
Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?
So giving credence to anything proposed by the religious or social conservatives risks a similar if different ‘slippery slope’ argument. “Traditional Marriage Paves The Way For A Return To Polygamy”.
This is a reminder that it is in the very nature of our political system that laws may be changed, and that any change to any law means that it could be further reformed in the future. This is not a bad thing (although those who see their values falling out of fashion tend to see it as such).
Are there any immutable laws that are not open to revision by future parliaments? In times past, God’s Law performed this function. But this was a flawed system, not least because religious authorities seem happy to re-legislate the Word of God when it is convenient. Countries with a written constitution seek to encode some underlying laws that frame what legislators can and cannot do… but constitutions are open to amendment and repeal. In Britain, the European Convention on Human Rights can trump domestic law. Its incarnation in British law, the Human Rights Act, has a certain meta-status, governing what other laws can or cannot say. But even these laws are open to repeal or withdrawal by law-makers.
There is no final arbiter that can prevent the slippery slope towards mad laws, dangerous and unethical laws, if a parliament wishes such things to be so. This is why the vigilance of the people is so important – to ensure that the law keeps pace with, but does not go beyond, our values. This seems to be happening in the case of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which reflects the new public consensus that marriage should be available to all.
It’s encouraging to see that a group of Tories have formed a campaign group in support of gay marriage. Let us hope it hastens the day when the Government put the necessary legislation in place.
At the end of 2012, I assume the Liberal Conspiracy website is not best place to make arguments for gay marriage. There is a sense of preaching to the converted. Far better that the core case is made on places like Conservative Home. But Christmas is coming, which is the perfect opportunity for us all to debate the issue with relatives or friends who may not yet be persuaded.
Over the turkey, then, you may hear a version of the tiresome talking point trotted out by Peter Bone MP over the weekend: Marriage has been defined as “between one man and one woman” for hundreds of years. This really seems to be all the opponents of gay marriage have left – a feeble call-back to historical precedent and utterly discredited religious authority. They fail to follow up with a persuasive “and this is a good thing because…” Any arguments for why exclusively heterosexual marriage might better than extending the marriage ‘franchise’ fail in the 21st Century (for example, no-one these days seriously suggests that marriage is primarily about procreation).
Second, many people try to hide behind religious reasons for their opposition. “It is Adam & Eve, not Adam & Steve!” Yawn. To that soundbite, it is worth pointing out that in the Garden of Eden story, the very first thing that God says about His creation, is that man should not be alone (Gen. 2-18). By contrast, the position of the Christian churches currently requires gay people to be alone. It is a pro-loneliness, anti-Genesis position.
The prefixes “pro” and “anti” remind me of the ongoing political arguments over abortion, where the battle is over language as well as facts and values. The campaign for gay marriage needs to be similarly mindful of language. For example, the Coalition for Marriage uses the language of preservation, where in fact their policies suppress the possible number of people who can get married. The opposition to gay marriage is anti-marriage and anti-family, and should be framed as such.
When discussing the media, blogging or twitter we hear a lot about this rule of thumb that says “don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face”. I think this is a simplistic cliché.
There are lots of reasons to put in writing something that you would not say directly. What you want to say might be quite long. Or it may require hyperlinks to make sense.
But most importantly: the written word is a leveller. It is an essential tool for those who wish to speak truth to power. Saying something to the face of politicians, clerics, military personnel, corporate CEOs or celebrities is incredibly difficult. First you have to actually meet them… and then negotiate the entourages and your own nervousness in order to confront them and say what you want to say. This is incredibly difficult and would present a huge psychological barrier to criticism, if that were the only way we could express dissent.
We evolved the written word so we could converse with (and critique) other people – transcending space, time and social class. “Say it to someone’s face, or not at all” is a silly principle by which to live.
I’m not sure about today’s Guardian scoop about the lack of diversity in our High Court judges. This blogger notes that the newly anointed judges, as well as being hideously white, male, and privately educated, are also fairly old. The average age of the ten men pictured is 57. Since a long and distinguished legal career is a prerequisite for such posts, it is to be expected that those rising to the bench’s lofty heights now, are those who were educated a generation ago, where the elite public-school-to-Oxbridge route still had a lock on the system. I don’t see how the Judicial Appointments Commission, which was only established in 2006, could succeed in fostering a more diverse bench in just two years, without a rather heafty dose of affirmative action.
In the Guardian‘s photos, the judges are all also bewigged. Wigs and gowns, we are told, are an important badge of office. They serve to focus the mind of lawyers, plaintiffs and defendants on the office and not the person, the process not the personality. So, if diversity in the judiciary is a problem, I have a recommendation. Instead of modernising judges’ attire so they look more like civilians, why not expand the wigs to cover the front of the honourable judge’s face as well? Two peep-holes could be cut through the horse-hair so m’lud could see the trial, but everyone else present would see nothing but a big white perm. Then we wouldn’t know whether the judge was black, white, or brown. And furthermore, the muffled tones that came from beneath the full-face wig during a ruling would probably stop us from sexing the creature too.