a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

is Julia Gillard lying about gay marriage?

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Our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, says she is opposed to gay marriage. The obvious question to ask then is – why? In fact, considering the obviousness of the question, it’s amazing that it’s so rarely asked. And perhaps more to the point, it’s amazing how often she’s allowed to get away without addressing this obvious why question.

When this question comes up from time to time, Gillard expresses amusement if not bemusement about it, as if she’s already addressed the issue many times. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, she has never addressed the issue. In the recent Q and A program, in which Gillard was the only guest facing a barrage of questions, she was asked in a very dignified way why she opposed gay marriage, and was accused, quite fairly, of denying the sanctions of the law to homosexual couples. Her response was utterly pathetic, and, in my opinion, of questionable honesty.

She began her response by saying that she was going to explain her view. I waited for this explanation, but it didn’t come. Her response was basically this: ‘I hear your concerns, I sympathise, but I take a different [unexplained] view. I can assure you that my view, though unexplained, is deeply held. But don’t worry, many people on my side of politics disagree with me, and I’ve allowed a conscious vote on this, so you never know, the law might change.’

Okay, so she didn’t actually say that the law might change, but she seemed to imply as much, and that it wouldn’t deeply disturb her if it did, even though her completely mysterious views on the subject were deeply held.

And here’s where the honesty is questionable. People with deeply-held views naturally feel that their views are the right views, and that those who hold other views are wrong, mistaken, ill-informed and so forth. They want to, and often feel a desperate, highly motivating need to, convert others to their view. To have a deeply held view that is relativistic, as Gillard’s purports to be, is essentially a contradiction in terms. And to have one that you seem to be at pains to avoid expressing, is nonsensical.

People with deeply held-views are keen, sometime overly keen, to express them, to advertise them, even to dedicate their lives to them. We find plenty of evidence of this, especially with those whose views are anachronistic – creationists, bible literalists, climate change deniers, holocaust deniers and flat-earthers have all tended to make the kinds of noises that exaggerates our sense of their numbers. These people, however fatuous or dangerous their views, are undeniably passionate and determined in their quests. They’re also often quite articulate, after a fashion, because they have thought and worried over their ideas long and hard. Julia Gillard, however, wants us to believe that she has a deeply-held view which is devoid of passion, which is never articulated, and which she’s happy for others to disagree with. It just doesn’t add up.

In trawling through Gillard’s response for anything remotely resembling an explanation of her position, I can only come up with this [and I paraphrase]: ‘How should we deal with this cultural institution of long standing in Australian society? Should we adapt it to fit changed circumstances, or should we develop alternative institutions which legitimise other arrangements? My deeply-held view is that we should choose the second approach.’

I have two responses to this line of thinking. First, trying to convince people that you can or should create alternative, equally legal arrangements for homosexual people [these are surely the only ‘other arrangements’ being referred to – though no doubt some time in the future someone will insist on marrying his or her cat] when there’s already a multi-purpose legal arrangement for people who want to co-habit, namely marriage, is never going to succeed. It also separates homosexuals from the rest for no good reason. They become separated not because their relationships are less loving, less intense or less legitimate. They become separated only because they are homosexual.

The second response is more complex and concerns the historical nature of marriage. Gillard describes it as a ‘cultural institution of long standing in Australian society,’ but white Australian society [which I think is what she’s referring to] is only a couple of hundred years old, and marriage, in one form or another, has existed for tens of thousands of years, and has always been a highly flexible institution, varying from culture to culture. In traditional Aboriginal culture, it was an institution involving complex kin group relationships and obligations far exceeding those in white society, but we haven’t adopted those traditions, no doubt because we saw the white tradition as ‘superior’. In medieval Europe, when ‘never was so much owned by so few’, ceremonial marriage barely existed among the ‘unwashed’ majority, whereas it was very important for the nobles, who had to prove the legitimacy of their inheriting children. In other words marriage, and the importance of marriage, depended on the structure of the overall society, and the way resources were controlled and divided by its members. In highly hierarchical and patriarchal societies, polygamous relationships at the top were commonplace, and we all know about the powerlessness of women even today under marriage arrangements within stagnantly patriarchal, mostly Moslem societies.

However, in more dynamic societies, marriage has changed to accommodate societal change, and will continue to do so. Nowadays, inheritance and ‘legitimacy’ are not so much of an issue, and marriage has become a more relaxed and ‘personal’ affair, no longer considered absolutely necessary for the raising of children. And just as couples no longer have to get married to raise ‘legitimate’ children, couples no longer need to have plans to raise children in order to get married. And that surely leaves the door open to homosexual couples.

It’s noticeable that most lobbyists keen to rigidly define marriage, so that homosexual couples are excluded from this option in perpetuity, are religious representatives. Religion has, of course, insinuated itself into the three prominent ‘milestones’ of human life – birth, death and marriage – since prehistoric times, but I don’t think anyone could dispute that we’ve managed to give birth and to die throughout history whether or not religion happened to be present. That this is just as true of marriage isn’t so well known or accepted, but the fact is that modern organised religion has a vested interest in the marriage ceremony, just as it does in baptisms, christenings and funeral rites. The difference with marriage is that, because it has little of the inevitability or obvious ‘naturalness’ of birth and death, it is more rather than less open to the manipulation of ‘interested parties’. With this comes an equal and opposite reaction, a resistance to the artificial rules imposed on the relationship by ‘authorities’, so that we have civil marriages, open marriages, same-sex marriages and de facto relationships which eschew the contract. I’ll have more to say about the origins of marriage, monogamous or otherwise, particularly in terms of evolution and our primate cousins, in another post.

The point is that Julia Gillard has given no indication, no hint of evidence that she has ever studied marriage and its history very deeply. Even reading Jane Austen might have provided her with insights into the profoundly materialist concerns, and needs, invested in the tradition – or rather, in one strand of the multivarious tradition. But she has spoken only of recent experience – her ‘cultural tradition of long standing’  – in Australia, and even then only perfunctorily.

I’m not surprised at this. I would have been more surprised had she shown real evidence of having studied the cultures and traditions of marriage, both historically and cross-culturally, and then come down strongly against gay marriage – because it would have suggested that she had an anti-homosexual bias that trumped all that knowledge about the flexible, pragmatic and adaptive nature of that institution.

So either Gillard is lying about her ‘deeply-held view’ about marriage, or she’s telling the truth, and her view is deeply discriminatory and homophobic. In an earlier revelation of her views, she held that marriage had always been between a man and a woman and she saw no reason to change that. Again, such remarks hardly reveal deep thought. It’s about as deep as saying, for example, that, in the past homosexuals have always been reviled, thundered against, ostracised and neglected – not to say tortured and murdered – and why should any of that be allowed to change?

In 2004 Australia amended its marriage act for one reason alone – to ensure that it discriminated against homosexuals. Before that, the status of homosexual love and commitment was so far beneath our consideration that the institution of marriage wasn’t ‘under threat’. Only in the twenty-first century, after centuries of denial and suppression, has homosexual love become recognised as such a force in Australian society that it had to be legislated against. The Labor Party colluded with the government of the day in ensuring that this deliberately discriminatory amendment passed with a minimum of fuss. In the twenty-first century. Surely one of the darkest moments in political life in this country. What were these politicians thinking? Did they really imagine that this rearguard action against a tidal movement for change would last? For how long? Until the 22nd century? Until half-way through this one? For a generation?

It’s my view that Gillard is lying about her ‘deeply-held view’. To think otherwise would be to think that she really has a deeply held view that homosexuals should be excluded in perpetuity from an institution that has never, in fact, been static or impervious to social forces. I would rather not think that.

So that leaves the question -whyis she lying? I don’t know the answer to that. Perhaps she has made a secret ‘devil’s deal’ with the churches, something like the one that Tony Blair made with George Bush before the invasion of Iraq. Perhaps she wants to bee seen as a person of backbone who doesn’t flip-flop as much as she’s perceived as doing, and she’s chosen this issue, a minor one to most pundits, to stand firm on. But she may well be hoping that, when it comes time to debate this matter and vote upon it again, her own ‘deeply-held’ view will be voted down. What’s the bet that, when it comes time for individual MPs to stand up and make their passionate, personal views known about the issue, Julia Gillard will not be one of them. She has nothing, really, to say.

Written by stewart henderson

June 29, 2012 at 9:36 am

2 Responses

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  1. The standard pragmatic line on gay marriage is: Gay marriage is a symbolic issue, not a practical one. We’ve already legislated for nondiscriminatory de facto gay marriage, so issuing government-authorised gay-marriage certificates won’t make much practical difference in people’s lives. On symbolic issues, MPs are free to follow their conscience, or the mood of their electorate, where the mood of the electorate is determined by which side has the majority of the passionate believers (the loudest voices), not just the majority of the oh-I’ll-go-along-with-that believers.

    Compare the standard MP reply on the Australian republic: Wake me up when the republicans have won the culture war; meanwhile enjoy your de facto republic.

    For prime ministers, it’s a bit different. To demonstrate leadership, a PM can’t be seen chasing opinion polls. For them the trick is to anticipate major shifts in public opinion and then be the one to announce them. Currently, when someone (particularly an older person) says, “marriage is between a man and woman”, we might argue with them but we don’t think they’re loopy. However, there will come at time when such comments will just make us cringe, and we’ll say: Mum, you’ve been listening to those shock jocks again, haven’t you. That will be the moment for Gillard (or whoever’s PM then) to have a “Redfern moment” (re Paul Keating’s 1992 Redfern Park speech), and announce that, after deep thought, she now supports gay marriage without reservation. The die-hard opposition will get up to speak but realize they’ve lost the culture war and their opinions are no longer respectable. (As the saying goes, let the foundations weaken, then topple the edifice with a gentle push.)

    Of course symbolism is important; it affects the milieu in which practical decisions are made. So it’s up to us to keep pushing the culture war on gay marriage to its final conclusion. To celebrate gay relationships, and gay parentage, and make these seem a completely natural and inevitable feature of our social landscape. To the point where supporting straight marriage but opposing gay marriage just seems bizarre – something from a distant, unfathomable past. (Compare the antagonism between protestants and catholics which, in 1950s Australia was rife, but these days makes people say, “huh?”)

    Michael Robertson

    July 20, 2012 at 1:51 am

    • Hi Michael sorry for taking so long to respond.
      I generally agree with all this, and I recognise that there’s a great deal of pragmatism, not to say cynicism, in this PM’s position. In a sense, that’s what this piece is about. She’s not doing the best job of holding the old line, and she’s too deep in the doo-doo to feel she can get away with a ‘Redfern moment’ as you call it. The best she can do is what she’s done, open it to a conscience vote so that the backflip won’t come from her, and hope people won’t notice that she doesn’t give a toss that her deeply-held view is rejected – if it is, this time.
      What offends me is the unconvincing clumsiness of the deception – unless she really has some weird deeply held view. I mean, surely the best used car salesmen are the ones who really manage to convince you of their sincerity.


      July 23, 2012 at 8:54 pm

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