Monday, October 29, 2007

Mr Rudd and Gay Marriage Revisited

My post on Murder, Mr Rudd & Gay Marriages - confusions about values in an over-regulated society received an honourable mention in Club Troppo's Weekend Missing Link, a full post in reply from Marcellous and a mention from Neil.

In my original post I used the gay marriage issue as one of several examples to tease out some issues that I considered as important. This post responds to Marcellous, in doing so taking the opportunity to try to further clarify the issues that I was discussing. In doing so, I am not going to repeat all the material in either my original post or M's response.

M is a very clever man. I tried to choose my words carefully in my post.

I wrote: I do not support gay marriage. M responded: Now Jim is a careful writer. I do not read this as meaning that he opposes gay marriage, merely that he does not support it.

Now M in his forensic way pinged me very exactly here. I am not opposed to gay marriage. Far from it. I have some good friends who are gay, in loving relationships, and who deserve the types of rights and protections afforded by marriage. As M also recognised, I was making a different point, in fact several points. I now want to tease these out a little more, in so doing responding to some specific points made by M.

Modern Australia is a complex society, far more complex than the Australia in which I grew up. Further, it has undergone a process of rapid change during which whole sets of previously accepted values have been torn down. Now we have a very mixed society in terms of attitudes and values. Further, there are people in that society who feel like Rome after sack by the barbarians.

Many years ago I did ethics as part of philosophy 1. I learned, then, about the basis of different ethical systems. To some degree this helped me manage the changes in values within society. I defined my own approach.

To me, each person is entitled to their own values. I defend their right to have them. However, when those values affect others, a different set of forces come into play. Now we have to trade off the rights of one against another.

Here I have come up with a very utilitarian approach, the degree of gain compared with the degree of hurt involved. You will see from this that I have problems with the concept of absolute values, more problems with those who wish to impose their values on others as absolutes.

In saying this, I am not saying that I do not have my own absolute values. I do. My opposition to the death penalty is an example. This forms part of my core values defined from my Christian past and from the long cultural and intellectual tradition to which I belong.

But I have had to learn that society is not static, that things change, that things that I value can be tramped on, rejected. destroyed. This has made made me very sensitive to the values of others, sometimes defensive of my own values.

Problems increase when things become symbols because those symbols attract whole sets of countervailing views. Once a thing becomes a symbol, its presence can distort thought and discussion. That was my point on the "lorenorder" debate.

From experience, I have learned that you cannot win a debate based on values - one person's values is another person's prejudice. But you can make progress if you can disentangle the issues, if you can bypass the symbol.

This does not mean that we should not stand up for the values that we hold dear. Despite the impact of the post-modernist world, there are times when one must stand and be counted.

Now how does all this relate to the question of gay marriage?

Part of the issue in the discussion between M and I here relates to questions of strategy and tactics. These are issues that have nothing to do with values, simply practical political questions. These are questions of judgement, open to debate.

As a simple example, take the actions of the ACT Chief Minister. To M, the outcome here was an example of the continued existence of bigotry. To me, it was an example of a political leader who stuffed up big time, who mishandled a political process. Again, we can discuss this because it is open to definition and test.

Things become a little more difficult when we look at M's response to my comment about views in parts of the broader society. Here M made three points.

The first was that the moves to achieve full equality had failed, that the step by step process had not worked. I do not accept this, although I can understand some of the emotional hurt lurking in the argument. In any case, again this argument is open to test, as Rafe would say following Popper, open to refutation.

The second was that my sacrament argument - the fact that "marriage" was seen as a religious sacrament among many and that the use of the word created unnecessary problems - fell down on historical grounds. M linked this to his third point, the influence of the religious right and the way that they used the issue as a stalking horse.

Now in referring to marriage as a sacrament I was making a current, not historical, judgment, referring to the way people think today. Historical arguments about marriage as a sacrament in a Christian context are neither here not there.

Further, while I do not necessarily accept the validity of M's views about the religious right, to the degree that he is correct, it really proves my point. Those wishing to use it as a stalking point do so because they see it as providing traction.

Now in all this I greatly respect M's views. If he believes that the use of the marriage word is critical in a formal sense on value grounds, I can hardly argue against that. I also recognise that most great social change comes because people stand up for and argue the things that they believe in.

That said, I also believe (and this is a political argument) that an argument based on symbolic grounds will fail for the immediate future. I can see Mr Rudd supporting civil unions. But based on his words, I cannot see him supporting gay "marriage". Frankly, he strikes me as at least as conservative on this issue as Mr Ruddock, probably more so be the truth be known.


Lexcen said...

Other than all the symbolic and implied connotations associated with marriage, it is a contract of a union between two people for life. It seems that issues arise when people attach meanings to "marriage" that exist only within their own personal perceptions. It really isn't as complicated an issue as it may first appear.

Jim Belshaw said...

Nicely put.