19 July 2012

Some People Disagree With You. Get Over It.

I was on telly on Tuesday morning, appearing live for my first time ever, and discussing something rather more controversial than Roman combat techniques,* this being same-sex marriage. It was terrifying, and I wasn’t very good, but I don’t think it was a disaster, and I’ll surely get better.

And, barring that moment before the first question where I thought ‘what if I freeze?’ and the sleepless night beforehand, I enjoyed it. The telly certainly added the proverbial ten pounds, though, distributing it evenly around my head. I clearly need a haircut.

Thankfully my Stonewall counterpart was as reasonable as he was likeable, and avoided the clichéd attacks on religion that have become so tedious in the current climate. I've gotten rather tired lately of hearing people say 'You only say that because you're Catholic.'

It's often not true, it's something other people couldn't possibly know, it's based on an unfounded assumption of unadulterated and utterly impartial rationality on the part of the person saying it, and frankly, even if it were true, so what? After all, unless people are saying that Catholics shouldn't be allowed play a part in the political process, what's their point?

Playing a part in the political process...
When Catholic Voices was established, I was delighted. I was tired of people misrepresenting the Church, and fed up with lazy media myths being propagated by Pavlovian dogs who drool on hearing anything bad about religion.

Christians should play a full and active part in political debate, just like everybody else, and I believe they should do so honestly and openly. We all have to live together, and we need to figure out a way of doing this, and I really think we can only figure this out in a way that'll work if we all put our cards on the table.

Obviously, I didn't apply to join Catholic Voices the first year as it was London-centred at that point, but did the second time out once the net was thrown further afield. The mock-interview in the interview was to be on Same-Sex Marriage, and my heart sank when I realised this. Although I had several serious concerns about SSM being introduced, the thought of arguing against it just felt mean.

The night before the interview I rang a very close friend who has been heavily involved in gender/sexuality-related politics ever since her first year in university. Her record of walking the walk rather than just talking the talk clearly marked her out as an ideal person to consult on this.

(She's also thoughtful, wise, kind, genuinely open-minded, fiercely intelligent, and somebody for whom I'd run through walls. She is, in short, one of the very best people I've ever known, and someone I love very deeply.)

She was okay with me getting involved and doing this; I'm not saying was was entirely comfortable with it, but she was okay with it. She disagrees with me, but she knows full well that there's not a homophobic bone in my body and can see that my concerns about what's on the table aren't coming from a bad place, instead being rooted in deeply-held convictions about the good of society as a whole and the rights of everyone.

I think that may be what’s most upset me about those lazily convinced that only homophobia or bigotry can explain opposition to marriage being redefined. If you think that, it's pretty obvious that you don't know me, and it might be worth looking in the mirror and asking yourself a simple question: 'what were you doing to campaign for this change two or three or four years ago?' 

Two years ago this wasn't on the political radar. It was at most an irrelevance and a distraction from the real issues affecting gay people in Britain: homophobic bullying, say, or the heartbreaking problems that face gay people if, getting old, they end up in nursing homes, and find themselves having to go back in the closet just to get some peace . Those things matter.

Anybody who wasn't campaigning for same-sex marriage before the ConDems plonked it onto the political agenda last Autumn was evidently none too bothered by the status quo, and should just admit it.

They may have changed their mind since, which is fine, but nobody should be getting indignant about others not having done so unless they’ve worked to change things. And I mean ‘worked'. I don't mean smug little pleasantries over coffee or dinner or drinks with friends. That’s just patting oneself on the back for being 'liberal'.

What's interesting about this is that I've found that my friend’s attitude isn't unusual among those who've actually tried to make a difference. While I’ve disagreed with several same-sex marriage advocates on air, we’ve also agreed on huge amounts while talking among ourselves, not least our conviction that grown-ups can disagree about this.

The problem is where inflammatory language is used, and it's been used on both sides; most of those sanctimonious keyboard warriors hurling around accusations of bigotry are folk who were warming a couch two years ago.

So, where do I stand?
What do I think? In the first place I think that gay people should have exactly the same rights as everybody else -- it's really as simple as that. 

I also believe, however, that words have meanings, institutions have purposes, different situations need to be dealt with in different ways, and that the right of conscience may be -- excepting the right to life -- the most important right we have.

It baffles me to see people wading into this dispute without knowing how UK law defines marriage, or grasping that weddings and marriages are different things, or understanding the differences in law between marriages and civil partnerships.

There's really only ever been one argument I've experienced in favour of introducing same-sex marriage, this being that it would have symbolic value. Supposedly civil partnerships are seen as 'second-class marriages', and this isn't fair. I really don't think this approach holds together, not least because people don't look down on civil partnerships. Indeed, a recent nationwide poll found that most gay people aren't persuaded by the claims made by the likes of Stonewall on this front.

I can't understand same-sex marriage advocates insulting civil partnerships as they do. Civil Partnerships haven't been around for long, but even in the few years that they've existed they've been a huge success, giving same-sex couples the same legal rights and responsibilities as married ones. Many people even regard them as marriages, and if our language is to change that’s how the change should happen: organically, from below, rather than by government diktat from above.

All else aside, this would set a very dangerous precedent. Are people really happy to have government redefine language in order to bring about something they'd like, even if by doing so they grant government power to redefine language to bring about something they'd dislike? 

That part of the debate worries me immensely. Gay couples already call themselves married, and plenty of people describe them as such; the government isn't considering 'allowing same-sex couples to say that they're married', but is instead considering changing the law so that everybody shall be obliged to agree that same-sex couples are married. This is a very different thing, and it will affect everybody.

I have issues too with how undemocratic this whole project is. In the UK in general the long-established parliamentary process for changing laws, especially important ones – identifying a problem, then a green paper followed by a white paper then finally legislation – has been utterly pushed aside in what looks like a clear attempt to railroad something though parliament. Something, it’s worth adding, that was wholly absent from the manifestos of all three parties in the 2010 election.

As for Scotland, if we look at the SNP Manifesto, all we’ll see is the following innocuous sentence:
‘We recognise the range of views on the questions of same-sex marriage and registration of civil partnership. We will therefore begin a process of consultation and discussion on these issues.’
I don't think governments should even think of changing something so important without a clear popular mandate to do so, and I don’t think vague manifesto commitments to consult on things count as binding pledges to legislate, leaving aside how in the 2011 election, the Scots weren’t given the option of voting for a credible party that wasn't proposing to consult on these matters!**

What difference would it make?
I think there'll be long-term consequences for society in general, of course: we can scarcely abandon the idea that it's a good idea to have a public institution dedicated to upholding the principle that every child should grow up with the love of a mother and of a father without there being some impactThat said, I wouldn't rush to speculate on what these long-term consequences would be. I prefer to leave dystopian fantasies to the dystopian fantasists.

More immediately, there will be very serious repercussions on religious freedom, all of which shall work themselves out through case law. Timothy Radcliffe pointed out some months ago that it's not so much that the Catholic Church is opposed to same-sex marriage, as that it believes it to be impossible. Britains’ other main religious bodies would likewise be unable to accept the proposed innovation. Among the most likely repercussions would be...

1. There's a good chance that church weddings will become a thing of the past, as the ECtHR says countries cannot facilitate same-sex marriage selectively: if marriage is to be open to all couples it must be open to all couples in the same way, and as most churches, mosques, and synagogues won't be able to offer same-sex marriage ceremonies, the likelihood is that they'll have to stop registering marriages altogether.

Government assurances on this are worthless, based as they are on the fallacy that UK law recognises things called 'civil marriage' and 'religious marriage'. It doesn’t. It recognises just one thing, called ‘marriage’, which is entered into through ‘marriage ceremonies’ – or weddings, if you like – which can be religious or civil in nature. It’s one room with two doors.

2. Churches and other religious bodies might well find themselves barred from manifesting their faith on this issue; the English consultation proposes guaranteeing the churches’ right to teach what marriage should be, but that's hardly the issue. The churches are very clear on what marriage is, and the right to teach that won't be protected; indeed, traditional church teaching would become utterly contrary to UK law.

This would have practical consequences for education, catechesis, and even things such as marriage counselling and the hiring out of church properties, as well as in connection with hate speech legislation. Lest that seem hysterical, we need but look at the Canadian experience over recent years.

3. In England, if not Scotland, a key effect would be the serious undermining of the Church of England, with whatever knock-on effects that would have on the UK constitution. To introduce same-sex marriage in England would entail changing or removing the licence from the official Anglican prayerbook, setting the Church of England on the road to disestablishment.

Naturally, this would have consequences for the monarchy, and thus the whole constitutional settlement. These might be good things, but I think all grown-ups should be able to agree that they should be enacted on their own terms, and not as mere side-effects.

For example, Catholics are technically third-class citizens in Britain, the only people explicitly banned from marrying into the line of succession. In a constitutional sense, we're inferior to Scientologists, Atheists, Mormons, and Muslims. Obviously, all those groups are constitutionally inferior to Anglicans, in that you have to be an Anglican to be head of state, but only Catholics are explicitly barred from being in the line of succession or even marriage to people in the line of succession. I'm okay with this: that symbolic imbalance isn’t so devastating in practice that the British constitutional settlement should be unwoven to suit me and my mates. 

There's an important question there. Is it right to impose real practical limitations on the rights of some people in order to give a merely cosmetic right to others?  

And all this for... what?
The right for same-sex couples to call themselves married in law would be utterly cosmetic, even more so than for the right of the occasional Catholic to marry into the line of succession. What would be gained, in reality, other than the right to use a certain word on legal documents? Would there be added respect because of this?

Those who want to call civil partnerships 'marriages' already do so. Others may well resent being compelled to do so. Indeed, a March ICM poll found that only a third of people believe that if same-sex marriages are introduced, schools should teach that they're the same as marriages as we understand them; this poll reported higher levels of support for same-sex marriage than any other polls on the subject back in the Spring.

Civil partnerships are not second-class marriages, and are not seen as such, but for lots of people, same-sex marriages would be just that. They'd be 'not really' marriages. Do we really want that? Does anyone want to engender such resentment and such a condescending attitude to gay people? I know I don’t.

* Although, frankly, in the right circles this can rouse some rather heated tempers.
** Yes, I know the Conservatives didn't propose this, but then in Scotland they're hardly a major party. Curiously, the Lib Dems are the only party that promised legislation rather than a consultation. They just twelve of their seventeen seats.


Bellville said...

I sometimes wonder if homosexual people want preferential treatment. They have the same right to marry as the rest of us. Not all of us marry who we would like to, but marry who we can within the law. Most of us accept the law and do not try to change it to suit our particular preferences.

Anonymous said...

Great post Greg- sorry I missed you on television but if you got across what you say here, well done! A great view from the pew

Mark Lambert said...

Very lucid, this helped me to understand the issue in clear relief— thank you. I think the 'What difference would it make' section is particularly important.

It sounds like you're in favour of Civil Partnerships but not marriage. Is that a fair comment?