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Friday, February 18, 2005

The Question at Hand

In response to Tim below - I too have been slightly unsettled by the attempts to couch gay marriage purely in terms of "rights". Unsettled intellectually, I should say, precisely because I do not have a ready answer to that polygamy question. Colby Cosh was one of the first to address this systematically, and a good recap of arguments, problems, etc... can be found here for those interested. For my part, the best rebuttal I read in print was offered by Andrew Coyne - excerpted in Cosh's recap. Is this a convincing rebuttal to the slippery slope concern?:
Call me a social conservative, but I don't actually favour legalized polygamy. My gut tells me it would cause real harm to society, though I'd have to think a little before I could explain why. But that's not the point. The point, rather, is that we should never be afraid to put our gut feelings (prejudices is another word) to the test. Either our objection to lawful polygamy is soundly based, or it is not. If it is--if it would cause the sort of social harm I fear, or could reasonably be expected to--then we are entitled to forbid it, Charter or no Charter: that's the point of the "reasonable limits" clause. If it isn't, then the prohibition is no more defensible than that which once forbade homosexuality. Allowing gays to marry may force us to ask the polygamy question. It does not prejudge the answer.

Cosh points out that many other Canadian "guts" think same-sex marriage will cause real harm to society. So are we back where we started? It all buttresses my concern (and Tim's, for that matter) that advancing a "rights" claim in Parliament as the sole foundation for this argument may not quite capture the real elements of the debate. It might make it easier to sell to a sceptical public - who is against rights? - but the marriage certificate itself is not really what Sullivan and others are after, in the end. Most people know this. Its why the social conservatives and church groups are so up in arms, despite the obvious guarantees in the bill that prevent them from marrying gays and lesbians.

I don't think this properly crystallized for me until I caught that video feed of the homosexuality decriminalization debate. "No matter how repugnant or immoral the conduct," Justice Minister John Turner later claimed, "there are some matters of private behavior that should not amount to public crimes." If public attitudes toward homosexual behaviour were as rigid today (of course in many places - geographically and generationally - they are), the Prime Minister that attempted to rise in the house and make Martin's argument would be vilified, heckled, and tossed out. Rights do not exist in a vacuum, as much as we characterise them idealistically as the honourable trump on majority will. Is the answer here that there must always exist some small yet critical mass that must be reached before such rights arise and we can be assured of their protection? Is it this threshold that same-sex marriage has crossed, and polygamy has not/will never?

I don't know. I'm thinking aloud here as well, not too coherently, I realize, as the clock ticks down toward supper and then the "FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER POST-VALENTINE 70'S DISCO-FUNK-SOUL BOP" at Christ Church. Instinctively the decision to allow gays and lesbians to marry is a no-brainer, but I recognize how loaded the issue can be. Argument simply may not apply well to such a raw emotional topic. But for me, I think Paul Wells nailed down the distinction that we seek as well as anyone can with the following:
The question at hand isn't "How do you like that Charter, eh?" It's: "Is it right and proper that Parliament endorse equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians?" The elementary test for a prime minister who believe the answer is "Yes" is that he say the words.

So: is it proper that Parliament endorse? Yes I said yes I will yes. See you Monday.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Mike McNair said...

I think the difference between same-sex marriage and polygomy is very clear.

Currently if I wanted to marry the person that I love, in Canada I have that right. Unless I was gay.

Currently if I wanted to marry eight people in Canada I don't have that right, whether I was gay or not.

Allowing homosexuals to marry, allows them a right that is already granted to others - correcting an inequality in government recognition. Since polygomy is illegal for everyone, nobody is being discrimated against.

So I guess I think that since we've already accepted the marrige of two people as an institution in our society, it is a rights issue.

5:01 AM  
Anonymous Mike McNair said...

I think the difference between same-sex marriage and polygomy is very clear.

Currently if I wanted to marry the person that I love, in Canada I have that right. Unless I was gay.

Currently if I wanted to marry eight people in Canada I don't have that right, whether I was gay or not.

Allowing homosexuals to marry, allows them a right that is already granted to others - correcting an inequality in government recognition. Since polygomy is illegal for everyone, nobody is being discriminated against.

So I guess I think that since we've already accepted the marrige of two people as an institution in our society, it is a rights issue.

5:02 AM  
Blogger Jason Cherniak said...

I think it's all about outcome. People will have relationships no matter what. Government calls some of them "marriage" so that it can provide benefits, because those particular relatinships are considered worthy of incentive.

Heterosexual monogomous relationships are given benefits because they promote child rearing and stability through monogomy. The child rearing really isn't that important any more, (seniors and the infertile are allowed to marry while many children do not grow up in a married family) so there is no reason to exclude same-sex couples.

However, monogamy is still worth promoting for the same reasons as before. Maybe, one day, people will be so promiscuous and adulterous that the suggestion that marriage promotes monogamy will be a sham. However, we are not there yet.

10:56 PM  
Blogger labby22 said...

i have to disagree mike, not that im in favor of polygamy, but you said that not allowing it does not discriminate against anyone. False. It discriminates against many Morman beliefs that promote polygamy. It simply seems to me that taking up the Morman cause does not appeal to as many compared with ssm.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Jason Cherniak said...

How does it discriminate? Mormons can have as many sexual partners as they want - they just can't have marriage certificates. Frankly, I don't see how they could. Are you going to split a survivor pension 10 ways? What if one spouse doesn't know about the others? Are you going to have a complex order of wives to determine who gets custody of which children if half of them die? How do you split property if one of five wives decides to get divorced?

Giving legal recognition to polygamous relationships is just a completely different concept than "marriage". The benefits that are so easy to extend to same-sex couples cannot be extended to polygamous couples because it is not a relationship that is equivalent in every way except for one irrelevant characteristic.

10:26 AM  

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