Sunday, January 23, 2005

A non-debate...for a non-audience

Colby Cosh has brought out a gigantic toolbox, and uses everything in it to defend his long-held position that legalizing SSM opens the door to further redefinitions of marriage, most obviously polygamy. Andrew Coyne takes the opposite position, with his typical intelligence and clarity. Norman Spector takes Coyne's side, and naturally, does it in that respectful, non-condescending tone for which he's become so beloved by "his" readers.

I've been putzing around the periphery of this (non-)debate, without having much to offer. I don't have the legal background or knowledge to comment on the statutes, and I haven't read enough about polygamy in practice to comment whether it's good, bad, or "bad, but should be permissible". (Sidebar - the sum total of my exposure to polygamy comes from a movie that played on A&E a few years ago at 1AM called "Child Bride of Short Creek". It starred the delightful Diane Lane, and the most famous Lethbridge native in the history of sitcoms as the patriarch.) (Gavin Crawford - you've still got a ways to go.)

So, perhaps I can apply my keen political insight to the issue (cough). On Friday, I said "I dunno" how this will play out. Here's a few thoughts.

Point the first: to borrow a phrase from Paulie Walnuts, that Spector's got some fuckin' balls. There's the not-trivial matter of deriding the sum of Colby Cosh's legal arguments without actually rebutting any of them, or even linking to his piece. (Norman Spector in the Globe & Mail: "All the class of Sheila Copps, with none of the entertainment value.") Probably worse it that the criticism centres around the writing ("..rendered into English by a translator who hadn't had a good night's sleep...").

I don't know what to say about this, except that the next time a Norman Spector column elicits an exhilarated or visceral reaction from me will be the first. He may well be the smartest man in Canada, but as writers and columnists, Cosh and Coyne are both way, way out of his league. As such, he should probably confine his criticisms to matters of substance.

Point the second: Cosh and Chris Selley both refer to this as a non-debate; I'm going to pick up on a thought I stumbled into on Friday and claim that it's also for a non-audience, at least the" legal" half of it.

Whose support of legal SSM is dependent on the answer to the question, "Will it necessarily lead to legal polygamy?" My contention is "No one's." There are certainly those who support the former and oppose the latter, but as Coyne demonstrated in his original piece on the topic, their SSM support is not at all conditional on the consequences re: polygamy. Those who are opposed to SSM are using the "threat" of SCC-mandated polygamy to bolster their position, but again, I'm not sure who it is they're trying to sway.

Point the third: what should Harper do? I've been working on this post for two days, and I've decided that I don't much care. It probably depends a bit on whether his priority is defeating SSM or winning the next election - I'm going to assume it's the latter.

I agree with Spector that Harper's in a pretty good position right now; I think the key going forward is to maintain a position that makes sense, and defend it. And if he actually wants to change anyone's mind, it's probably incumbent upon him to expand a bit on the "matter of conscience, support for the traditional family" mantra.

Step 1 should be to continue to underline that Conservative MPs will not be whipped, and can vote their conscience (or that of their constituents). I get the feeling that Paul Martin is not at all comfortable with a Liberal free vote, and will probably use all means short of the threat of expulsion to coerce backbench support for the government's position. The contrast here will probably be of benefit come election time.

Step 2 is explaining why the government should have any interest in the definition of marriage. If he's not willing to defend this, he should change tacks immediately and say that marriage should be up to churches and contract lawyers, and he wants no part of it. His recent rhetoric shows that he is, i.e. he believes that the stability and committment connoted by "marriage" is of benefit to the state. Of course, this means he has to concede that he doesn't believe that the stability and committment connoted by SSM has the same benefit. As such, he should probably say that he'd be willing to reconsider that in the future, based on the experiences of jurisdictions who have legalized SSM.

Step 3 (or Alternate Step 2) would be a non-religious defence of why this issue should be a "matter of conscience" at all. Colby Cosh and I cannot be the only two people who support people's rights to live in virtually any kind of arrangement they wish, but are unprepared to sign an affadavit stating our firm belief that a gay couple and a straight couple are exactly the same thing. I suspect Stephen Harper thinks the same way.

If he said so, would he a be a bigot, appealing to peoples' worst prejudices? I personally don't think so. But I also don't think my belief that men and women are different makes me sexist, and that's certainly a touchy subject as well.

Point the fourth: If there was a referendum tomorrow on SSM, I'd probably vote in favour. I think the notion of committment and permanence, not just connoted by, but expected or even demanded by marriage, is a good thing. Since same-sex couples will continue to exist next week and next year, regardless of what Andrew Coyne or Bishop Fred Henry thinks about it, I think the positive impact of marriage for same-sex couples outweighs any downside.

If my decision was based entirely on the virtue of "tolerance", however, I think I'd vote no with an exclamation point. I decline to reject outright what Cosh calls "the possibility of an innate biological complementarity between the sexes", and I freaking resent the complete intolerance of this thought by too many advocacy groups and newspaper editorial boards. I'm supporting SSM here - you can tolerate my reasons and the pause I have, or cram it sideways.


At 4:11 p.m., Blogger Sacamano said...

Your third point is the most interesting because it lays out in the plainest terms possible the questions everyone involved in the debate should answer, but no one has:

1)For what purpose should governments recognize “marriage” (or common-law relationships, or long-term partnerships, or whatever you want to call this entity)?

2)How is this purpose furthered by restricting the definition of “marriage” to only include (insert cut-off here, e.g., opposite-sex couples, couples only, adults only etc.)?

3)How is this purpose furthered by widening the definition of “marriage” to include (insert cut-off here, e.g., same-sex couples, polyamorous groups, etc.)?

I’d love to see answers to these questions frame the debate rather than contradictory statements about “rights”, religious justifications, or shallow appeals to “tradition” (by which I mean simplistic “because that is the way it has always been done” arguments, not arguments which demonstrate why continuing in a “traditional” way is better than changing.).

However, I don’t follow your argument that widening the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples requires you to state that “a gay couple and a straight couple are exactly the same thing.” This is only true in the narrow sense of how the government treats the couples in relation to certain legal/economic benefits. Is this any different than the government lumping my barber and my plumber under the concept of “small businesses”? To treat different entities the same way in one sphere does not require conflating them in every sphere. I have no doubt that if Parliament and the Courts approve SSM, churches will continue to distinguish between “traditional” and same-sex marriages, and you'll be able to also.

At 12:31 p.m., Blogger Matt said...

Thanks Jass. Going backwards through your comment, while I don't want to freak out, I don't share your confidence that religious freedom will continue to be respected as it pertains to this file.

We are very close to the day (if we're not there already) where freedom of religion essentially stops at the church doors. At this point, I'm not concerned that priests will be obliged to perform same-sex weddings, or that their remarks on homosexuality, from the pulpit, will be vetted for "hate speech".

However, the question of religious freedom, as it pertains to the actions of churches, their affiliated organizations, and their worshippers in the general community, is not resolved by a long shot, except insofar as it continues to be eroded.

Will the Knights of Columbus be rebuked by the BC Human Rights tribunal for denying their hall to a lesbian couple for their wedding reception? I don't know, but if BC follows the precedent of the Ontario tribunal (in the case of the Christian printer whose name eludes me at the moment), they will.

Recall that his transgression was not due to refusing to serve a gay man, it was due to refusing to print the specific material he was given. If you believe that "love the sinner, hate the sin" is fundamentally a loving credo, as opposed to something insidious that excuses discrimination, then this is cause for serious concern.

It is, I think, self-evident, that legal SSM is government accepting both the sinner and the sin, so to speak. (Just continuing the thought above, I'm not personally claiming anything is a sin, please keep your cards and letters).

There are plenty of people out there who are both devout Christians and have NO interest in other people's sex lives, or what they do behind their own closed doors. Jass, perhaps you can expand on your assertion: in what way will these people be permitted to "distinguish" between traditional and same-sex marriages?

Finishing up:
- I agree that the appeals to "tradition" by opponents of SSM feel shallow, as, frankly, do those about "rights" by proponents (are spousal RRSPs really the issue here? - it can't be, because then civil unions would be the solution that satisfied almost everyone).
- I couldn't agree more that we'd be much better off if this entire debate was framed by the broad question, "What is Canada's interest?" And that goes for every issue under debate in this country in the past ten years. That should be the starting point of every single policy debate there is, and yet it barely even makes it in as an afterthought in most cases.

Thanks as always for your contributions.

At 4:23 p.m., Blogger Sacamano said...

Both the KofC and the Brockie cases are good examples of equality rights trumping religious rights. It’s a bugger – no doubt about it; but the erosion of religious rights does not originate in the decision to consider particular entities equal under the law (whether those entities are sexes, ethnicities or sexual preferences), rather it originates in the decision to consider equality rights as more important than other types of rights (in this case freedom of religion)? These are two distinct issues, and it simply does not follow that recognizing equality rights necessarily results in the promotion of those rights above other types of rights.

Each issue must be argued on its own terms.

1) Should the government consider (insert something here – females, immigrants, gay couples, etc.) as equal to (males, people born in Canada, straight couples, etc.)? On what basis should this equality be granted or not be granted? Under what conditions should this equality be granted or not be granted? What are the advantages of doing so? What are the disadvantages of doing so?

2)How should the right to equality between these specific entities relate to other types of rights?

Arguing against recognition of SSM because it will further erode religious rights conflates these two issues.

Consider another example: is it because government/courts declared women equal to men that we are now required to have girls in Boy Scouts? No – it is because some fool down the line decided that equality rights are more important than the rights of private groups to determine membership rules. But note that this is absolutely not necessarily the case. As far as I know, despite huge lobbying, Augusta National has no women members, and Hootie hasn’t been forced to accept any.

I’m all for keeping both Boy Scouts and Augusta National exclusively male if they so choose, but I don’t think that abolishing government recognition of sexual equality is the best way to accomplish this. Instead, I’d rather argue against the fools who are the real problem – that is, those who want to change the “hierarchy” of rights.

Overall I guess I think opponents of SSM are fighting the wrong battle – they should be opposing the erosion of religion rights by fighting for the “traditional” hierarchy of rights, not by fighting for the “traditional” definition of marriage. Heck, I don't even mind fighting against the creation of new rights, so long as the reasons for opposing these new rights don't involve assumptions about future rulings.

At 7:46 p.m., Blogger David Wozney said...

Bill C-38 contains this text: "NOW, THEREFORE, Her Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and House of Commons of Canada, enacts as follows:".

Do you believe Queen Elizabeth II, "Defender of the Faith", will enact legislation that is contrary to the Christian faith?

According to the Christian faith, marriage is honourable in all (Hebrews 13:4) whereas homosexual relationships (Romans 1:26-27) are not honourable.

Also, "he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please [his] wife" and "she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please [her] husband" (1 Corinthians 7:33-34).

By enacting Bill C-38, Queen Elizabeth II will have broken her promise to maintain, to the utmost of her power, the laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel.

The existing lawful opposite-sex definition of marriage applies equally to every person in Canada no matter what his or her sexual orientation is.

The Lawful Definition of Marriage in Canada


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