Inviting the state into our intimacies
ESSAY: Gay marriage is presented as an issue of equal rights, but it’s better understood as a top-down overhaul of the institution of marriage.
Today, there are continuous disputes over moral issues – abortion, sexuality, euthanasia – yet the ideal of marriage retains a formidable influence over society.
It is true that this ideal is frequently contradicted by people’s behaviour. Britain is now at a point where people are more likely to co-habit than get married. Almost half of new births occur outside of marriage. With spectacularly high rates of divorce and a rise in single-parent households, it would appear that marriage has lost its status as a fundamental institution of society. And yet marriage as an ideal still dominates the cultural imagination. Most people look upon marriage as an institution that deserves society’s support, and also as a model that they aspire to embrace.
You can see the power of this ideal in the way that public figures go out of their way to promote the fact that they are married. Throughout the Western world, political candidates advertise their marital status and their reproductive achievements alongside their policies, as if their identity as a successful husband/father or wife/mother should help them win over the electorate.
The paradox of the idealisation of marriage coexisting with concern about its decline has been a feature of public debate for almost two centuries. By the nineteenth century it was evident that the meaning of marriage had changed and that it was in danger of becoming a caricature of itself. Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of the field of sociology, believed the main function of marriage was ‘to regulate the life of passion, and monogamic marriage more strictly than any other’. He argued that by ‘forcing a man to attach himself forever to the same woman, [marriage] assigns a strictly definite object to the need for love, and closes the horizon’. Durkheim’s emphasis on the role of marriage as a form of social and moral regulation was partly motivated by his fear that, left to their own devices, people might become disoriented, leading to ‘disturbance, agitation and discontent’.
He was particularly concerned about the legalisation of divorce, which he said implied a ‘weakening of matrimonial regulation’. He concluded that ‘where it exists’ marriage is ‘nothing but a weakened simulacrum of itself; it is an inferior form of marriage’ (1). His anxiety about the impact of divorce was underpinned by his belief that once moral norms become negotiable, there is a disruption to the fabric of society – and instead of reinforcing cohesion, these newly disrupted moral norms could undermine it.
Whatever one thinks of Durkheim’s vision of the moral order, there’s no doubt that his belief that divorce would transform the institution of marriage was essentially correct. The right to divorce not only allowed individuals to gain greater control over their lives; in introducing an element of choice, it also called into question the taken-for-granted character of marriage itself.
Because of his preoccupation with the rise of individualism and the potential loss of restraint, Durkheim one-sidedly emphasised the function of marriage as a regulator of ‘the life of passion’. Arguably a far more important historical role of marriage was the management and socialisation of reproduction. Historically, marriage was not about the regulation of the behaviour and relationship of two people; rather, it was an institution through which a community managed the bringing of children to life, the socialising of children, and the organisation of relationships between generations. This is the basic core of the institution of marriage. In some communities, this fundamental role of marriage was supplemented by its role in passing on property and wealth, controlling women, or establishing alliances and community cohesion. But whatever the cultural variations, since ancient times marriage has usually served as an institution of natality, as the model through which adult responsibility for children is exercised.
Cultures of marriage
Since the nineteenth century, the moral foundations of Western societies have lost much of their cohesion. Very few norms and values are beyond question. When old-fashioned moralists declare, ‘Is nothing sacred anymore?’, my sociologist self is inclined to answer: ‘Very little.’ The erosion of moral consensus has had a clear impact on the way that marriage is understood and experienced. Since the nineteenth century, there have three main moral views of marriage in Western cultures.
Traditional morality: Sometimes caricatured as ‘Victorian Values’, this outlook looks upon marriage as essentially a sacred act. The more religious adherents to traditional morality believe that marriage is an act blessed by God. It is a singular rite de passage, in the sense that it is assumed to endure forever. Significantly, a traditional marriage does not only impact on the behaviour of the newly wedded couple; it also communicates expectations of how the unmarried should live. In this sense, a key part of its role is to motivate and control the behaviour of the community more broadly. One reason why marriage still serves as the model for the management of reproduction is because of its community-wide influence.
Instrumental morality: This is often underpinned by the conventions of middle-class morality. It tends to regard marriage as a contractual obligation. Although conventional middle-class marriages are often blessed by a religious figure, their more distinctive feature is their secular orientation. The conventional middle-class marriage is based upon a civil contract, which is legitimated and validated by a government-appointed official. Although such marriages depict themselves as being ‘for life’, their existence is increasingly subject to the pragmatic and instrumental concerns of the parties involved. However, instrumental morality is rarely comfortable with exposing its calculating orientation towards marriage, and so it often hides behind the respectable image of tradition.
Individualistic/humanistic morality: This regards marital attachments as a personal matter, to be negotiated by the people involved. From this perspective, marriage is a personal matter of choice. What really matters is the relationship between the couple (the meeting of the souls) rather than the specific form of the wedding ritual. However, even this relationship remains under the influence of the basic model of marriage. The phrase ‘getting married to have children’ is frequently used by these couples, to explain why they have opted to embrace what remains a traditional institution. So, unconsciously or semi-consciously, even critics of traditional or conventional weddings understand that their relationship with their children, and the relationship between adults and the younger generation more broadly, is ultimately mediated through the institution of marriage.
It’s all about me, so shut up!
Since Durkheim’s time, the process of individuation has intensified, further distancing people’s behaviour and attitudes from traditional and community norms. One of the most frequently heard songs at weddings and funerals – ‘I did it my way’ – speaks to the conviction that marriage is really all about me, or occasionally about ‘us’. In such circumstances, the importance of marriage and similar rituals lies in the way they can be used to help construct an individual’s identity.
In recent decades, the ascendancy of the politics of identity, which now dominates cultural life, has had the effect of politicising lifestyle. People now flaunt their identity and demand respect, valuation and recognition of it.
Since identity politics is about who we are, it is not open to negotiation. Normal disputes in public life can be resolved through bargaining and some give-and-take. But an identity cannot compromise itself without the threat of existential crisis and isolation. So people who have made a significant emotional investment into their identity as a ‘yummy mummy’, for example, regard any criticism of slacking mothers as an attack on them. If a parenting style is beyond criticism, how can one raise questions about any of the identities associated with lifestyle, ethnicity, sexuality or family life?
Recently, the lesbian feminist academic Sheila Jeffreys complained that the ‘criticism of the practice of transgenderism is being censored as a result of a campaign of vilification by transgender activists’. Those who ‘do not accept the new orthodoxy’ on transgender issues are accused of ‘hate speech’. So the idea that transgenderism is an identity based on sexual fetishism simply cannot be said anymore. Jeffreys concluded that ‘the effect is to scare off any researchers from touching the topic’. It’s worse than that: public debate has been scared off from discussing any of the identities that now have a bearing on marriage, family life or sexuality.
Sectarian attitudes towards the politics of identity also dominate the discussion of gay marriage. Both sides of the debate are dominated by the philosophy ‘It’s all about me!’. Consequently, there is very little tolerance of open discussion.
So, zealous advocates of traditional marriage sometimes adopt the language of the Inquisition, talking of a ‘corrupt gay-union conspiracy’ which aims to undermine family life and warp children. On the other side, supporters of gay marriage accuse their critics of ‘bigoted homophobia’ and use shrill language to attack anyone who criticises their campaign. When the outlook of ‘you’re either with us or against us’ is dominant in this way, it is difficult to have a serious public deliberation. These highly moralised narratives are about shutting down discussion rather than encouraging it.
The sectarian posturing driving this debate is underpinned by two diametrically opposed principles: absolutism and relativism. The first upholds the socially conservative ideal of traditional marriage and unthinkingly rejects the possibility of any alternative. The latter celebrates gay marriage and dogmatically rebuffs any attempt to make value judgments about the status of different forms of unions between two adults. From the standpoint of social conservatism, only one way of living is right; from the standpoint of relativist identity politics, the very act of making a moral judgment represents an insult to certain people.
The current sectarian exchange on gay marriage carries on where earlier debates on family life left off. In those discussions, from the 1960s onwards, the ideal of the traditional family was culturally overwhelmed by the claims of moral relativism, which suggested that not only is there no longer a single model of family life but that there should not be one. Where traditionalists criticised the idea of lifestyle choice, relativistic identity entrepreneurs sought to demonise anyone who made a judgement about the moral status of various family set-ups and modern ways of living.
The cultural ascendancy of moral relativism means that ‘difference’ now enjoys so much cultural affirmation that it is deemed inappropriate to state a moral preference for one form of family arrangement over another. One of the first lessons children learn in schools is that they have a duty to ‘celebrate difference’. This duty is promoted with a vehemence no less dogmatic than fundamentalist religious doctrines.
As is the case with most controversies focused on competing claims for rights, both the absolutist and relativist approaches fail to do justice to the complexities at stake.
Legitimate criticisms of gay marriage
As someone who writes from a liberal and militantly tolerant perspective, I maintain that there can be a variety of different views on same-sex marriage. Someone with liberal convictions can argue for gay marriage because he believes that an individual’s right to self-determination must prevail over all other considerations. There is also a legitimate liberal argument against gay marriage, based on the premise that what is at issue is not equality or the extension of the right to marry but rather the fundamental redefinition of the institution of marriage. One can argue that this campaign is about reorganising marriage, reordering the very meaning of marriage, though it is presented as a struggle for greater equality.
There is a third liberal argument, which is one that I would propose. Here, we recognise that individuals ought to have the right to define marriage as they choose, while asking that this right not be exercised at this point in time.
From the standpoint of liberalism, gay marriage can be supported on the grounds of choice but not as a claim to equal rights. And yet, in America the campaign for gay marriage frequently presents itself as a movement for equality and civil rights. Some campaigners argue that the denial of same-sex marriage is similar to the prevention of interracial unions by old segregationist laws.
This association of marriage with old forms of discrimination represents a manipulation of historical facts. Segregation was a conscious attempt to exclude or to separate groups that were deemed to have different racial characteristics. As an institution, marriage – in all of its forms – was principally oriented towards the regulation of human reproduction. Not even the most ideologically driven historian can substantiate the claim that marriage was a heterosexual conspiracy designed to exclude homosexuals.
The institution of marriage, in both its ancient and historical variations, has had many functions, mainly to do with the maintenance and reproduction of society. But excluding same-sex partners from its purview was not one of them. Today, when every demand for a new right instantly claims to be the latest reincarnation of the civil-rights movement, it is easy to forget that, in truth, these demands are not really about equality.
The only way one could argue for gay marriage on the grounds of equality is if marriage is redefined as being less about human reproduction and the preparation of children for their future as about companionship. That is why all arguments in favour of gay marriage focus on the right of two people to live in accordance with their aspirations. This is a legitimate aspiration, of course, but it has little to do with the institution of marriage; it actually demands a fundamental redefinition of marriage. Advocates of a companion-based form of marriage have every right to promote their cause. But it is a cause that does not serve the interests of equality, but rather the interests of a particular form of identity. As a believer in tolerance, I have no option but to uphold their right to choose; but as someone concerned about the consequences of disorganising an institution that plays a central role in the management of human reproduction, I am compelled to caution them against exercising this very misguided choice in the way it is currently proposed.
State out of marriage
If we take a step back and recognise that there are different cultures of marriage, then the most liberal and open-minded way of proceeding is to propose that marriage become a matter of private preference rather than an institution validated by the state. So if a group of people or a church insist that they only value weddings that are traditional and between men and women, then that is their right; they should not have practices imposed upon them that violate their belief or conscience. If another group opts for a form of marriage that is open to any combination of sexes, then they also ought to have the right to wed in accordance with their beliefs. If marriage is deregulated by the state, then no one’s ideal need be violated.
State officialdom is already too involved in family life and the regulation of marriage. One of the main outcomes of its intervention has been to undermine the authority of parents and adults over children. Any formal, legal redefinition of marriage – such as the one being demanded by gay-marriage advocates and their media supporters – will inexorably strengthen the power of the state over private life, over how our relationships are defined, understood and experienced.
In previous times, marriage was a matter for the community rather than the state. We should recover that ideal. Then, those who opt for a traditional marriage can determine what this ritual means for them and can partake in a ceremony that validates their union as one between husband and wife rather than ‘partners’ and ‘spouses’. Others can choose a form of marriage underpinned by their preferred identities and moral norms. The separation of marriage from state has the merit of allowing people with different moral outlooks to flourish in their chosen way and not according to the dictates of officialdom.
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