I’ve not yet written on same-sex marriage here, partly because the discussion has been so consistently in the news that people are probably becoming a little tired of it, and partly because so many arguments have been made, repeatedly, on both sides, that I have been unsure if I have anything to contribute.
On reflection, it seems that there are lessons for both opponents and proponents of gay marriage to learn when debating same-sex marriage, many of which actually apply to both sides. Even if nothing I say here is particularly original, I hope it at least reminds people of things which may have been laid aside in the heat of impassioned online debate…
#1: Avoid ridiculous labels
It’s fair to say that there are plenty of homophobes who oppose same-sex marriage, and indeed plenty of bigots. But it’s important to remember what those terms actually mean, so as not to make them entirely devoid of force: a ‘homophobe’ is someone who is prejudiced against gay people, often on the basis of revulsion to the idea of gay sex or a same-sex union. A ‘bigot’ is, specifically, someone who is intolerant of others’ opinions, often out of blind prejudice. Neither of the two are necessary components of opposition to same-sex marriage. Yes, there are people who oppose same-sex marriage at least partly, if not entirely, out of revulsion towards gay people or a refusal to accept gay unions with no rational basis. But not everyone who opposes same-sex marriage is a bigot or homophobe. There are those who accept and love gay people while disapproving of homosexual activity; furthermore, there are those who have no objections to gay activity, but who believe marriage is distinctive to couples of opposite genders. I have plenty of reservations about both of these positions, but neither is homophobic or bigoted, and referring to one’s opponents with such terms merely undermines one’s own position.
But the conservatives don’t get off lightly, either: I’ve seen the term “gaystapo” used of proponents of gay marriage, for instance. On both sides of this debate, people are campaigning for what they believe is right, as a matter of justice and the good of society. Ignoring this and referring to people with such ridiculous language does nothing to endear anyone to one’s own position, whichever it is.
#2: Try to avoid hyperbole
Exaggeration is another tendency on both sides of the debate which undermines people’s positions.
The words of Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, spring to mind, when he invoked a comparison with the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany to warn against the very thing I remark upon in point 1: name-calling. Of course, Carey’s opposition is purely to the name-calling of people who oppose gay marriage. With his specific words, he’s not strictly wrong: name-calling was (one way in which, if not the only way) that anti-Semitic persecution began in Nazi Germany. But it is clearly insensitive, and almost ridiculous, to make such a comparison. See http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/society/holocaust-survivors-rally-round-church-of-england-2012101044438 for a much better summary than I can give.
Equally, all the language about the crumbling of society and civilisation makes opponents of same-sex marriage seem completely deluded. In reality, society [probably] won’t crumble if the (UK) government legalises same-sex marriage: rather, the reality is, that some men will marry each other and some women will marry each other, and some people will be angry at it. The 90% of the population who are heterosexual will still fall in love, make commitments, copulate and produce children. Talking as if the end of society will ensue helps no-one.
But proponents of gay marriage must also be careful. Implying that opponents of gay marriage are all evil, devil-horned, fork-brandishing gay-haters really won’t help the case.
#3: Try not to make the issue bigger than it is
This is possibly a controversial statement. Obviously the issue matters; it is a question of the common good for many people. But it really isn’t the be-all and end-all.
To put this into perspective for liberals, the makers of the film ‘Call me Kuchu’, about a murdered gay rights activist in Uganda, remarked that they were motivated to make this film partly after seeing the predominance of the gay marriage debate in the West. They looked towards Africa and saw that, actually, there are more pressing gay rights issues right now. Whilst British LGBTs campaign for the right to marry, Ugandan LGBTs often hide, campaign for the right to basic privacy, and hope and pray that a bill to sentence them to death is not passed.
But conservatives can be just as bad. They often seem to be a little confused about this; on the one hand, they spend an awful lot of time protesting against the proposals, and the perceived implications of them; yet, on the other hand, they argue that the same-sex marriage debate distracts people from more important issues like EU membership, education and taxes. My argument is simple: if you feel same-sex marriage is taking up too much time, stop ranting on about it!
Pope Benedict XVI hardly helps when he uses his speech as an opportunity to speak out, once again, against same-sex marriage. With so much scandal over child abuse, poverty, war in the Middle East, was it really sensitive or helpful to talk about the perceived immorality of same-sex marriage? Even if none of these surely more pressing issues took his fancy, I’d have settled for a good old exposition of the wonders of the Incarnation and the Divine humble self-emptying in this act.
On both sides there are Christians and non-Christians: everyone would do well to remember other pressing issues, and Christians in particular would be well-advised to consider how much time is devoted in the Bible (particularly in the Prophets and the Gospels) to concerns for peace and the poor, for instance. This doesn’t mean that same-sex marriage isn’t important – it just mustn’t be focussed on disproportionately.
#4: Take experience seriously
Conservatives often oppose same-sex marriage on the basis of concerns such as the definition of marriage, the distortion of nature or biblical patterns. But often, in doing so, they fail to do justice to the testimony of experience. The reason that many LGBT people care about same-sex marriage is that there are committed same-sex couples who have shown devotion to one another, against all odds and without the support of the wider community, for 10, 15, 20 years (often far longer than many heterosexual marriages). This experience cannot count for nothing. It must at very least be acknowledged in such arguments.
#5: Address one another’s arguments
Both sides of this debate have a tendency to reduce same-sex marriage to a single issue. In so doing, both ignore the other side’s actual concerns, and instead talk past each other.
The terms “equality”, “rights” and indeed “equal rights” are used frequently by those who support same-sex marriage. The issue is about people’s “right” to marry those they love; opponents are denying them this right. They may see this as the case, but repeatedly asserting this demonstrates an unwillingness to engage with one’s opponents arguments. Instead of just reducing the debate to it being about equality vs. opposition to equality, listen to what those who oppose same-sex marriage are actually saying: very few are opposed to equality overall, but are making more subtle and nuanced arguments.
At the same time, opponents of same-sex marriage often dogmatically re-assert the same points: marriage is about procreation; marriage is God’s intention for man and woman, or, Pope Benedict’s favourite: same-sex marriage is a manipulation of “nature” (like a good, Catholic Thomist natural-law theorist), with people refusing to accept the nature given to them. Instead of re-asserting Aquinas’ thirteenth-century Aristotelian arguments, the Pope might benefit more from listening to what proponents of same-sex marriage are actually saying, and addressing their specific arguments.
Ultimately, these issues mostly boil down to a basic principle of argument: respect for one’s interlocutor. Listening to, understanding and engaging with one with whom one disagrees, instead of misrepresenting them, making assumptions and ascribing unhelpful labels, is surely a more virtuous, and Christian, way of arguing.