An unholy marriage of snobbery and snideyness

The cultural elite’s support for gay marriage is more about distinguishing themselves from homophobic plebs than fighting for equal rights.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

Gay marriage has emerged as one of the most controversial and divisive issues of our time. For more than a decade it has been the hot-button issue in US politics. On Friday, New York state legalised gay marriage, leading to predictions that it will become an even testier issue in the coming months. This new law ‘could propel gay rights as a political wedge in the 2012 [presidential] elections’, predicted the Wall Street Journal.

In Britain, too, many campaigners and commentators argue that it is not enough for same-sex couples to be able to enter into civil partnerships – they must also be allowed to marry. Meanwhile in Australia, the Queensland conference of the Australian Labor party (ALP) recently passed a motion demanding support for gay marriage at the ALP national conference in December. Similar resolutions have already been passed by Labor conferences in South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. It is clear that for a section of the ALP, as for many left-leaning politicians and observers across the Western world, support for gay marriage is now a matter of principle.

Whatever one thinks about the pros and cons of gay marriage, a tolerant society cannot deny the right of homosexual couples to formalise their relationships. But the campaign for gay marriage is not just about rights; it is also about the contestation of values and attitudes.

From a sociological perspective, the rise of the campaign for gay marriage provides a fascinating insight into the dynamics of the cultural conflicts that prevail in Western society. Indeed, over the past decade the issue of gay marriage has been transformed into a cultural weapon, which explicitly challenges prevailing norms through condemning those who oppose it. This is not so much a call for legal change as a cause, a crusade – and one which endows its supporters with moral superiority while demoting its opponents with the status of moral inferiority.

The campaign for the legalisation of gay marriage does not simply represent a claim for a right; it also represents a demand for the institutionalisation of new moral and cultural values. This attitude was clearly expressed last weekend by Trevor Phillips, chairman of the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission. He argued that Christians, particularly evangelical ones, are more troublesome than Muslims in their attitudes towards mainstream views. In particular he warned that ‘an old-time religion incompatible with modern society’ was driving Christians to clash with mainstream views, especially on gay issues. Incidentally, by ‘mainstream’ he of course means views which he endorses.

Phillips’ choice of words implies that opponents of gay marriage are likely to be motivated by ‘old-time religion’, which is by definition ‘incompatible with modern society’. From this standpoint, criticising or questioning the moral status of gay marriage is a violation of the cultural standards of ‘modern society’. What we have here is the casual affirmation of a double standard: tolerance towards supporters of gay marriage, and intolerance towards opponents of gay marriage.

The claim that certain values and attitudes are ‘incompatible’ with modern society tends to serve as a prelude to stigmatising and attempting to silence those values and attitudes. That is why the so-called enlightened opponents of ‘old-time religion’ more than match the intolerance of those whom they denounce as homophobic bigots.

In the Anglo-American world, gay marriage has become one of those causes through which the cosmopolitan cultural elites define themselves and construct a moral contrast between their kind and ordinary folk. What’s really important for them is the sense of superiority experienced through the conviction that ‘we’ are not like ‘them’. In this way, a clear moral distinction can be drawn between the forward-looking attitudes of an enlightened, courageous minority and the backward-looking prejudices of a homophobic majority.

It is the sense that supporting gay marriage is now a virtuous thing to do, as culturally sanctioned by a cosmopolitan elite, which encourages otherwise apolitical pops stars such as Britney Spears to tweet things like, ‘So happy! Today is a great day for love and equality’, in response to the news that a US federal judge ruled that a California ballot banning gay marriage was unconstitutional.

The rhetorical affirmation of gay marriage can speedily place a celebrity on the right side of the cultural divide. And no one with an aspiration to succeed in showbusiness can afford to be on the other side. Take the case of American comedian Tracy Morgan. After he was criticised for joking about homosexuals earlier this month, he quickly apologised. But he did not simply say ‘I am sorry’; he felt obliged to demonstrate his right-on credentials by coming out as an ardent supporter of gay marriage.

He declared: ‘I believe everyone deserves the right to be happy and marry who they want: gay, white, black, male or female.’ What his statement lacked in conviction it more than made up for with ritualistic acquiescence. In truth there was little else that Morgan could say if he wants his television career to flourish.

In the US, questioning the status of gay marriage is often depicted, not simply as an expression of disagreement, but as a direct form of discrimination. The mere expression of opposition towards a particular ritual, in this case gay marriage, is recast as more than a verbal statement – it is itself an act of discrimination, if not outright oppression.

So American journalist Hadley Freeman recently argued in the UK Guardian that gay marriage is not a suitable subject for debate. ‘There are some subjects that should be discussed in shades of grey, with acknowledgment of subtleties and cultural differences’, she wrote. But ‘same-sex marriage is not one of those’. Why? Because ‘there is a right answer’, she hectored, in a censorious tone. The phrase ‘there is a right answer’ is really a demand for the silencing of discussion. And just in case you missed the point, Freeman concluded that opposition to her favourite cause should be seen for what it was: ‘as shocking as racism, as unforgivable as anti-Semitism’.

It is worth noting that the rise of support for gay marriage, the emergence of this elite crusade against sexual heresy, coincides with the cultural devaluation of heterosexual marriage. Today, heterosexual marriage is frequently depicted as a site for domestic violence and child abuse. A review of academic literature on the subject would indicate a preoccupation with the damaging consequences of heterosexual marriage. Terms such as the ‘dark side of the family’ invoke a sense of dread about an institution where dominating men allegedly brutalise their partners and their children.

This preoccupation of professional victimologists is reflected in popular culture. Cinema and television constantly give us stereotypical stories about unhappy, failed and dysfunctional heterosexual marriages. In contrast, same-sex unions are treated with reverence in popular culture, depicted as mature relationships between loving equals.

Of course, heterosexual couples continue to get married, but there has been no time in history when the institution of heterosexual marriage has enjoyed such feeble affirmation. Indeed, these days heterosexual couples are often likely to hear the refrain ‘Why get married?’ or ‘Why wait for marriage before having children?’.

Paradoxically, in some quarters the idea that marriage for heterosexuals is no big deal coincides with the cultural sacralising of same-sex unions. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that behind the gay-marriage discussion there lurk some profound questions about how to endow intimate relationships with meaning today. And in such circumstances, elite-sanctioned snobbish intolerance is really no more acceptable than anti-gay prejudice.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in August 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Australian on 25 June.

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Topics Politics


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