The same-sex marriage debate, like all public debates, is messy. However, more than most, it has become a proxy for something else. It has become a culture war, ugly and unproductive. The air has become filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing but self-reinforcing division.
This debate should separate two existential questions.
First, how can we ensure equality of intimate partnerships for all, with appropriate cultural, political and legal recognition?
Second, how can we maintain respect for customary and traditional rites?
This separating out of the key issues has been excluded by the current framing of the debate.
Even if simply posed, existential questions do not lend themselves to simple answers. They require careful negotiation between social relations, private decisions, and public law. But at least we will be giving ourselves a chance for a meaningful outcome.
The abortion debate is illustrative here of what a descent into cultural war achieves. For many conservatives and right-wing critics, abortion was reduced to a slogan, the “right to life”. For many feminists and liberals, abortion was reduced to an alternative slogan, a woman’s “right to choose”. That standoff is still searingly painful.
With arguments over marriage equality or otherwise, the debate has begun in the wrong place, and without the wisdom of the judges in the landmark US case Roe v Wade. Hyperbole, hypocrisy and half-truths abound. Rites are confused for rights, appropriation is asserted in the name of recognition, and proponents on both sides pull out whatever facts they can find to make their case.
Labor senator Penny Wong, for example, is guilty of using out-of-context debating points. Responding recently to the Australian Christian Lobby calling the adopted children of gay couples a “stolen generation”, she replied with a non sequitur: we “love our children”.
More seriously, her reference took the equation out of context. It came from a blog post made more than four years ago in reference to Kevin’s Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations speech.
On the other side, the Australian Christian Lobby continue to be a master of half-truths, post-truths and misdirection. Its website claims that “Redefining marriage will threaten your freedom of speech; Redefining marriage can take away your religious freedom”, and so on. This is no different from Tony Abbott saying:
If you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote no. If you’re worried about religious freedom, and freedom of speech, vote no.
Hyperbole abounds on both sides, as does hypocrisy.
Many of the gay lobby who once derided marriage as bourgeois now advocate for it. The same good people who have for years sensitively respected the rights of Aboriginal peoples, including to exclude others from their sacred sites, now treat the religious rites of Christians as available sites for political appropriation.
This point should not be passed over. “Marriage equality” advocates have no more right to appropriate the traditions of Christians than they do the customs of Indigenous peoples. Yes, Christianity was once powerful, and yes, it wrongly asserted those same practices to be the societal norm, but that does not make the contrary position any more just.
Alternatively, many of those on the Christian side who argue that marriage is sacred have hypocritically allowed priests, clergy and ministers to marry non-Christians for years without public controversy.
In a parallel process, there has been no public controversy raised by the churches over the fact that the number of marriages performed in Australia each year by civil celebrants has been more than 70% since 2010.
If Christians were so worried about the sacredness of marriage, this too would have been a pressing public issue for the past few decades. It is now more than ironic that – by implicitly claiming for those same decades that holy matrimony equals marriage and presenting their tradition as both the mainstream norm and the legal definition – they are being hoisted on their own petard.
In other words, the Christian definition of marriage has, in effect, been broadened or narrowed depending on who wants to participate in it.
Marriage is not an automatic right for anyone. Having intimate committed relations with others is a social question, and the nature of those relations is subject to an ethics of care.
Except for registering relationships, the state and the law needs to intervene only when that ethics of care has been breached in precisely defined ways. What we need is both equality of partnerships before the law and deep respect for others’ sacred traditions.
Lesbian, gay, and transsexual people want equal recognition of same-sex partnerships (a modern rights claim). This is possible in law without entering into questions of what it means to be a procreating being and/or to adopt children. That is a separate debate – or, to be more precise, it is two separate questions for deep dialogue.
People of particular sacred orientations want the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman to be upheld (a traditional cosmological claim). This should be possible, so long as it is not claimed as the overriding social norm for all.
Both can be handled, but not by the claiming the right to marriage nor by seeking exclusive legal protection of a religious rite.
When the premises of a debate cross different existential understandings, we should allow the possibility of accepting two apparently opposing principles at the same time. Reconciliation requires going back to basics. In this case, the two premises may be in fundamental tension, but they are not legally contradictory.
I will be boycotting this plebiscite. But not for the obvious reasons. Rather, I will be doing so because we have yet to properly define the terms of the debate.
My argument is very simple. There are two conflicting ontologies: modern rights versus cosmological rites, and the difference cannot be resolved by giving one precedence over the other.
Authors: Paul James, Professor of Globalization and Cultural Diversity, Western Sydney University