More on the Marriage ‘Plebiscite’

More on the Marriage ‘Plebiscite’

In a previous post I offered some thoughts on the plebiscite to change the definition of marriage in Australia’s Marriage Act.   Here are some more reflections in the light of responses received to that post.

Anyone who speaks up in favour of retaining the current definition of marriage can expect to be vilified.  Three kinds of vilifying responses I have received are:

  • “You are Hitler. People who are Hitler deserve every abuse they receive.”
    My comment:  It is impossible to reason with such people, and it is reasonable to expect that those who use the “bigot” slur like an axe will attempt to persecute and “re-educate” others using the full force of the law, should they ever gain the power to do so.  This has the potential to be very damaging and hurtful to many people.
  • “People who oppose ‘marriage equality’ hate change and should crawl into their caves and die, while the rest of us evolve.”
    My comment:  this is about as nice as white Australia’s ‘dying race’ theory about Aboriginals.  The worldview it reflects is one of the inevitability of moral evolution, which has us all marching into a brave new world of ever progressing human rights regimes.  This is the view that history progresses, our descendants will be more moral than us, and we should be counted lucky to be on the right side of history.  However I should have thought that the careers of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot in the 20th century provided sufficient evidence that human moral progress is not inevitable, and also of the dangers of  imposing a particular kind of moral “progress” on a nation as an experiment in social evolution. The reality is that change can be either bad or good. The future should not be worshiped, nor should we idolize the past.  Just because something was “traditional” does not make it good – or bad, and a society can “evolve” in a bad direction just as easily as in a good one.  Moreover a related assumption held by some progressives that religions are inevitably dying out is mistaken.   For example, a recent poll showed that the percentage of Russian atheists dropped from 26% to 13% from 2014 to 2017.  This was after almost a century of atheism being the official policy of the Soviet state.  Yet the percentage of people who report having no religion is rising in Australia.  Patterns of religious belief ebb and flow in the history of nations, and there is nothing inevitable about any of it.  Doctrinaire belief in progress is one of the ideological blind spots of our age.  (See here for my list of bad ideas of our times.)
  • “Marriage Equality  will only affect gay couples, so it is mean and hurtful for anyone else to oppose it.”
    My comment: There is a mountain of evidence from other jurisdictions that the same-sex marriage push forms part of a much more ambitious project to dismantle hetero-normativity — not for every activist, but for enough to ensure that, as the process continues along its trajectory, conscientious objectors will always be prosecuted.

Two Views of Marriage
The more I think, and the more I listen to advocates of marriage equality, the more I have come to believe that Australians have two quite different understandings of marriage in mind.  One understanding sees marriage as being primarily about intimacy and love between a couple, in which  there is no necessary connection with child-bearing.  The other sees marriage as being about couples forming families by committing exclusively to each other with a view to bearing and raising their own biological children together.  Both views are fervently held, but not by the same people.

I believe the provisions of our existing Marriage Act evolved to serve the second definition of marriage, and to restructure marriage laws towards the first definition will require a longer and more far-reaching process than just the introduction of same-sex marriage.  Concern about the outcome of this longer process is the essence of many people’s objection to same-sex marriage, but to those who hold the first view, this objection seems to be without merit.

Of course long-established changes in society, including the ready availability of contraception, abortion and divorce, have weakened the view of marriage as being about raising biological families.  Some people will say ”good riddance” to this understanding of marriage.  However the view is far from dead in the community, and it is not so easily discarded.  I see evidence of this in the trend among couples living together to decide to get married when they choose to bear children and raise them together.  I have observed this link many times in couples getting married.

Child-Bearing and Attitudes to Marriage
Something I have long pondered is why Australia has been so slow to introduce same-sex marriage in comparison to some other nations.  One clue might be that Australia has comparatively low illegitimacy rates. Around one third of children are born outside of a marriage relationship in Australia, compared to at least 50% in most countries which have introduced same-sex marriage, such as New Zealand (50%),  Iceland (67%) or Columbia (74%).  There are a few exceptions: countries which have high illegitimacy rates, but without same-sex marriage, such as Costa Rica (70%) and Bulgaria (59%); but most countries with same-sex marriage have higher illegitimacy rates, and countries with low illegitimacy rates are much less likely to introduce same-sex marriage.  Ireland is the nation with the lowest illegitimacy rate to introduce same-sex marriage to date. It has also been one of the more recent countries to make the change.  Examples of nations with lower illegitimacy rates than Australia, and which do not have same-sex marriage are Switzerland (20%) and Poland (25%).  No EU countries with illegitimacy rates under 30% have introduced same-sex marriage.   What Scandinavian and South American countries have in common, in addition to being pathbreakers for same-sex marriage, is illegitimacy rates of over 60%: these are places where it is more normalbfor children NOT to be born to a married mother.

The factors which influence illegitimacy rates in a nation are complex.  Variables include the age at which young people become sexually active (earlier sexual activity is associated with higher rates of child-bearing outside of marriage), and the age at which people tend to get married.  However, whatever the complex factors determining the association between child-bearing and marriage,  these observations suggest that, where the association between child-bearing and marriage is weak, there will be easier acceptance of same-sex marriage.  This is because marriage will be seen to be less about bearing children and forming biological families, and more about intimacy between a couple, which reinfores the case for same-sex marriage.  Given Australia’s comparatively low illegitimacy rate, the struggle to introduce same-sex marriage may be won or lost on how strong the link is in people’s minds between marriage and child-bearing, not on their attitudes to gays per se.

What About Heterosexual Marriages Without Children?
One of the objections made to those who say marriage is about child-bearing, is: “Why aren’t infertile couples banned from marrying?”  Here is an (edited) repsonse I gave in one of the Facebook conversations of the past few days.

Marriage functions to regulate unions which involves “couples having a sexual relationship of a kind which results in the bearing and raising of children as a life-long project.” That ‘kind’ is taken to be heterosexual relationships in general, because, in general, this is the kind of sexual relationship that bears children. Even if a marriage involves a one person who is unable to conceive a child, there is still a need for a guarantee that the other partner not have a child outside the marriage relationship, because that would create competition for family resources. Marriage not only functions to protect children born inside the marriage: it is also there to stop a partner to a marriage conceiving a child outside the marriage, with all the emotional and financial ties that involves.  The issue is not only the potential fertility of the couple as a couple: it is also the potential fertility of a spouse outside the marriage.

Some same-sex couples do make arrangements for a child to be conceived in which just one of them is a biological parent, and the other biological parent is outside the marriage — e.g. a lesbian couple using a sperm donor, or a male same-sex couple using a surrogate mother — but this is exactly what marriage as we have known it was designed to prevent: having a biological parent outside the marriage. This is why there is a whole section in the marriage act concerned with defining the legitimacy of children.  My point here is not that the definition of marriage can’t be changed, but that changing it to include same-sex couples significantly re-orients the purpose of marriage.

Seeking a Definition of Marriage from the Marriage Equality Movement
I am convinced that the essential nature and purpose of marriage is the key issue in the same-sex marriage debate. One of my disappointments with the marriage equality lobby is that it has offered no coherent definition of marriage, apart from the idea that people who love each other should be treated equally.  Marriage is about more than this. The ME movement has no coherent, systematic explanation to offer of why the whole definition of marriage should be what it is.  Instead the existing definition is taken as a given, and one feature, taking in isolation, is said to be discriminatory.  Marriage as a validation of couple intimacy is assumed, but without any serious analysis of whether the Marriage Act is designed to achieve this purpose, or whether it is an efficient instrument for it.  But if marriage is to be changed, why stop at gender?  Why monogamy?  Why for life? Why exclusivity?  Why include a whole section of the act on legitimacy of children? These are not questions the marriage equality movement offers answers for, and the only explanation of this silence that makes any sense at all, is that it would weaken their case to do so. 

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