an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Archive for the ‘marriage’ Category

why do fools fall in love, and bonobos not so much?

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Animals don’t ‘fall in love’, right? Only humans do that sort of thing. But wait on – humans are animals. Darwin told me so. Funny how we keep forgetting that. Or, if we’re members of particular religions, we insist it just isn’t so. Simone de Beauvoir, in a section near the end of her monumental work The Second Sex, titled ‘The woman in love’, describes this rather mythologised experience from the second sex’s perspective:

The supreme aim of human love, like mystical love, is identification with the loved one. The measure of values and the truth of the world are in his own consciousness; that is why serving him is still not enough. The woman tries to see with his eyes; she reads the books he reads, prefers the paintings and music he prefers, she is only interested in the landscapes she sees with him, in the ideas that come from him; she adopts his friends, his enemies and his opinions; when she questions herself, she endeavours to hear the answers he gives; she wants the air he has already breathed in her lungs; the fruit and flowers she has not received from his hands have neither fragrance nor taste; even her hodological space is upset: the centre of the world is no longer where she is but where the beloved is; all roads leave from and lead to his house. She uses his words, she repeats his gestures, adopts his manias and tics. ‘I am Heathcliff,’ says Catherine in Wuthering Heights; this is the cry of all women in love; she is another incarnation of the beloved, his reflection, his double: she is he. She lets her own world founder in contingence: she lives in his universe.

I can hear plenty of women I know roaring with laughter at this description. It might seem dated and extreme, but Beauvoir directly quotes women of her time and earlier who give expression to this type of mindset, and a whole sub-genre of romantic literature is still devoted to it. And after all, humans are essentially monogamous, unlike any of the other great apes.

But how essential is our monogamy, really?

Bonobos have been lightly referred to as the ‘make love not war’ apes, or our ‘hippy’ cousins. These are telling references, methinks. I have to say that when I was a young teen, and sometimes shell-shocked witness to a very unhappy parental marriage, I had high hopes that the hippy ‘love the one you’re with’ lifestyle (and revolution) was here to stay, and that marriage, the consecration of monogamy, was on its way out. I won’t say those hopes were entirely dashed, because over the past fifty years or so, with the introduction of no-fault divorce, the greater acceptance of same sex relations and non-marital partnerships, and the drop in religious belief, traditional marriage has certainly been tottering on its pedestal. But there are other barriers to our adopting a bonobo lifestyle of all-in, apparently indiscriminate frottage and sexual healing – including our ideas about ‘true love’.

One factor, surely, has ensured the continued supremacy of monogamy in our society – the production and maintenance of offspring. While it’s generally conservatives who maintain that ideally children need a father and a mother for a ‘balanced’ upbringing (in spite of many examples to the contrary), the idea, I’ve found, niggles at many a single parent I’ve encountered. My own mother – by far the dominant parent, the breadwinner, the rule-maker, the sometimes unnerving dictator – seemed obsessed that the weakness of my father was affecting my own masculinity. She sent information my way as I grew older, about a career in the military, or the police, and made the odd – indeed quite odd – remark about homosexuality as a disturbing and unhealthy condition. I wasn’t particularly inclined that way, though as a ten-year-old I definitely found some of the boys in my class as pretty (or ugly) as the girls. And later, my discovery of David Bowie, the most intense experience of my teenage life, had a clear sexual element.

The point here is that we’re plagued with traditional notions of masculinity, femininity and monogamy which will take time to break down. But changes are afoot, and the gradual fading of religion and the great work of pioneers like Beauvoir and many intellectual heroines before and after her are making for a much more female-friendly, not to say female dominant, political and social environment. Slowly slowly catchy monkey. Or in the case of bonobos, catchuppy monkey.

Bonobos don’t live in houses. They don’t have sex in bedrooms. And, like us, at least post-religion, they don’t have sex to produce offspring. It seems that, like dogs on their masters’ legs, they’ve learned about erogenous zones, but, being smarter than dogs, have taken that a step further in terms of bonding. Humans hide away to have sex, but consume ‘adult’ videos involving sex on beaches and other open air spaces, in bars, on stages, in public toilets, in palatial residences, in the best and worst of places. It’s as if we long to be open and brazen about our sexuality, but dare not.

I note that one of the biggest sex video industry in the world is in Japan, which is also, surely not coincidentally, the least religious country in the world. It’s also not exactly a haven of feminism, to be honest, and critics, including feminists, have often targeted the sex video world as, like prostitution, a haven of macho exploitation. I prefer to see it as, at least potentially, a haven of sex without love, but not without fellow-feeling. And certainly anyone familiar with the Japanese sex video industry would have to scoff at the characterisation I’ve heard, from conservative politicians among others, that a large proportion of the females employed in the industry, are entrapped and drug-addled (as is not infrequently the case, of course, with prostitution). Having said that, it’s still clearly an industry directed primarily at male consumers.

Feminists are generally divided about the industry, between those who want to kill it off and those who want, or hope, to transform it. In any case, one of the problems is that the industry compartmentalises sex. It becomes a product, most often accessed by men, alone, in their bedrooms, sometimes by couples or groups as an aid or an inspiration. It helps with fantasy and technique but has little if anything to do with fellow-feeling or – well, love.

And yet – what I note with Japanese sex videos is that they are more story-based than those of the Euro-American industry. Yes, the stories are often repetitive and predictable, and there’s too much ‘fake rape’, with the female invariably ending up ‘enjoying’ the experience, though it appears to be a fact that rape fantasies are common among women – an issue I feel way too squeamish to explore, at least for now. The point I’m trying to make is that many Japanese videos make the effort to place sex in a domestic or workplace context, to normalise it, even if in a somewhat ludicrous, and sometimes comical, way. I also note that sometimes they involve interviews with the performers before and after scenes, giving the impression of ‘happy families’, though there are definitely cases of coercion and the situation may be worsening. Again, more female empowerment is the key to changing this environment. The fact remains that both pornography and prostitution are signs of a culture that has never really come to terms with its sexual needs and its sexual nature. If we cannot accept that sex is healthy we will continue to pursue it in ways that are unhealthy – the drive will always be with us.

So what about love, again? And its relation to sex. As Beauvoir points out, the idea that two people will be able to satisfy each other sexually, exclusively, for decades, is ridiculous. Of course, many couples become increasingly comfortable with each other and co-dependent over the years – as do two dogs more or less forced to share the same home. This may be not so much a sign of love as of the standard living arrangements developed over the centuries in our civilised world – rows of few-bedroomed homes fit for maybe three to five people set out in grids of streets serviced with all the conveniences of modern life. We don’t build for anything like a bonobo world, understandably, and it’s hard to see beyond the reality that has shaped our whole lives. Still, I’m hearing a new term that might be worth clinging to – ‘ethical non-monogamy’. Something that might be worth considering once the hormones die down and the scales fall…

So that very bonoboesque idea I’ll endeavour to explore next time.

Written by stewart henderson

March 16, 2023 at 6:16 pm

bonobos, community and our good selves…

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owl monkeys just happen to be highly monogamous, and very cute. Photo by Kevin Schafer

I’ve been quite exercised recently by Ferdinand Mount’s 1981 book The subversive family: an alternative history of love and marriage, which is a defence of marriage and the nuclear family, but not quite from a conservative perspective. I’m particularly interested in chapter 11, ‘The dilution of fraternity’, which critiques attempts to replace an institution seen as ‘selfish and inward-looking’, the family, with something more universal, or at least broad – the community, the tribe, the flock, and so forth. For some reason Charles Manson’s alternative ‘family’ keeps coming to mind, but that’s an aberration.

Mount describes these seekers after a better alternative as ‘fraternalists’, which seems immediately problematic, though he is certainly not anti-feminist. The idea of fraternity is old, but Mount argues that it’s as problematic as the other legs of the Liberty-Equality-Fraternity triad. I prefer to use the term community, and I won’t be looking at the old-guard quasi-communist ‘brotherhood of man’ notion that negatively dominates Mount’s thinking on the matter. I’m thinking more of the bonds that unite a pod of dolphins, a herd of elephants, a pack of wolves or hyenas, and a community (the agreed-upon term) of chimps or bonobos.

Mount makes the claim that human attempts at fraternity – in cults (or religious associations), communes, social movements and the like, have tended to run out of steam, as they require a discipline to maintain them, a discipline that is unnatural to us, especially as compared to the maintenance of the family. There is a feeling of enforcement about them which often makes the individual member uneasy or skeptical. A true sense of intimacy is difficult to maintain, and is sometimes replaced by a kind of fake heartiness.

There is some truth in all this, and it often seems that humanity is moving in the other direction, towards a sort of atomistic individualism, in spite of the popularity of political rallies and social media movements. The trouble with libertarians though, is that they seem not to realise that humans didn’t get to reach a population of nearly 8 billion, and to dominate the planet, for better or worse, by means of individual liberty. We achieved this by being the most socially constructed mammalian species on the planet, and this social construct, in recent millennia, goes by the name of civilisation, or the state. It seems that the state – very tyrannical and hierarchical at its outset, becoming somewhat more egalitarian over time – has been the victim of its own success, creating a population of individuals convinced that all its achievements – in trade, education, infrastructure, technological development and the like, are somehow their own.

Returning to marriage, monogamy and the nuclear family, Mount wishes to claim that it is natural, though he’s somewhat hesitant about it. The basis of this claim is that it has withstood all attacks and critiques, first by the Church, which in earlier times preferred asceticism and celibacy, and later sought to regulate it almost out of existence, with dire restrictions on adultery and divorce, and second by Marxists, anarchists and various cults, who criticised marriage as bourgeois, selfish, inward-facing and imprisoning in various ways. It’s interesting that, in the forty years since The subversive family was published, marriage has gained further strength and legitimacy from a somewhat unexpected source (to me at least), in the demand for same-sex marriage, a demand that has been acceded to in many democratic nations. So marriage and monogamy is the majority human option for the foreseeable future.

This provides no proof that marriage is natural, however. Of course, in one obvious sense it is purely cultural, as marriage refers to a ceremony. The question really is whether monogamy is natural, for humans. Of course monogamy is natural for many species, but humans are the species that mess up the ‘natural’ concept, by building cities, sending spaceships out to beyond our solar system and calculating the age of the universe. And by conducting experiments, mostly failed, in alternative lifestyles.

Humanity, in any case, has never lived in a ‘state of nature’ as vaguely conceived, in virtually opposite ways, by Hobbes and Rousseau. In its gradual spread out of Africa it has created a multitude of cultures – monogamous, polyandrous and polygynous – with exceptions to general rules often making clear classification difficult. However, the situation as it stands today is clear enough in some respects. In a recent review of contemporary societies to answer the question ‘Are We Monogamous’, anthropologists Ryan Schacht and Karen Kramer wrote:

… we conclude that while there are many ethnographic examples of variation across human societies in terms of marriage patterns, extramarital affairs, the stability of relationships, and the ways in which fathers invest, the pair-bond is a ubiquitous feature of human mating relationships. This may be expressed through polygyny and/or polyandry but is most commonly observed in the form of serial monogamy.

I have no argument with this conclusion, but I have two questions. Was it ever thus? Will/must it always be thus? For the past, I look to bonobos, and for the future, I look to ‘the beginning of infinity’ – our extraordinary ability to transform ourselves and our world.

Bonobos and chimps split from each other between 1.5 and 2 million years ago, probably due to the formation of the Congo River. The question I’m interested in – and, as Milan Kundera once pointed out, the best questions are those we can’t answer, at least not easily – is, what was this species like before the split? Was it more like bonobos – female-dominated, gentle and sexual – or more like chimps – male-dominated and aggressive? These are relative terms, of course, as chimps too have their caring and sharing side, as much recent research has revealed. Another question we will probably never be able to answer is this. How did our common ancestor with chimps and bonobos, both of which (or should that be whom) ‘live in multi-male and multi-female communities, promiscuously mating with each other’ (BBC earth), come to be predominantly monogamous or pair-bonding?

I’ll look at what the research says about this – if anything – next time.


Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family: an alternative history of love and marriage, 1981

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2021 at 9:08 pm

a bonobo world 38: bonobos aren’t monogamous

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You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Exodus  20:17 New International Version



As to humans and monogamy, it would be absurd to try to cover the subject in one book, let alone an essay, but absurdism has its appeal. Ferdinand Mount has many interesting things to say on the topic in his 1982 book The subversive family, which is not so much a defence of the nuclear family as an account of its endurance against attacks from religious organisations, communists and free-love advocates, among others. More recently, the same-sex marriage push throughout the developed world has been met with surprise rather than serious pushback from those of us not particularly committed to the institution, heterosexual or otherwise.

Advocates of monogamy generally focus on one positive attribute as central: loyalty. Of course it has variants – commitment, constancy, dedication and devotion -terms which are also used to promote nationalism.

It follows that those not committed to monogamy are described as fickle, selfish, shallow, or worse – decadent and degenerate. Top-down, ultra-controlling governments such as those of present-day Russia and China seek to prescribe the traditional values of their people in contrast to the decadence of the US and Western Europe, citing, with due exaggeration, the breakdown of families and the rise of homosexuality and other decadent practices, but they’re fighting a losing battle in an increasingly interactive human world. In fact, as Mount points out, until recently all states felt they had a right to control the rates and terms of divorce:

… it is remarkable how long even Western governments have clung on to their power over marriage. The most striking example is the state control of divorce – which in England was only transferred to the State from the Church courts in the mid-nineteenth century against severe opposition from Gladstone and other high churchmen. The real relaxation in the laws of divorce did not reach England – and many other countries – until well after the Second World War.

But the fact is that, if monogamy is on the decline, it’s a very slow one. We appear to be a jealous lot, ever on the lookout for betrayal and boundary-crossing. This doesn’t seem to be the bonobo way, and few would think to describe bonobos (or dolphins or elephants) as degenerate.

Monogamy is defended, promoted and celebrated in other ways too – in the form of true love. Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Héloïse and Abelard, Bogart and Bacall, these couplings with their happy or sad endings have been presented, imitated and played upon in infinite varieties in novels, films and other media, while another view of this estate, more pragmatic or ‘realistic’, has an almost businesslike feel to it. You meet, you partner up, it’s all hormonal and feel-good for the first months or years, during which offspring come along, then come the disagreements and irritants, followed by a resolution of sorts, an appreciation of the good, a minimising of the rest, and another kind of love supposedly supervenes, a co-dependence which you’re never quite sure is unadventurous laziness or something like maturity. It helps that being part of a couple is highly approved of in a taken-for-granted way, and you don’t have to buy an interactive toy to keep you company in your twilight years.

However, defended or not, monogamy is certainly under some pressure, with the religious culture, which has emphasised the eternal nature of pair-bonding – ‘as long as ye both shall live’ – being very much in decline in Australia and similar nations. The developments of globalism and multiculturalism have encouraged us to look more broadly at human mating patterns, both culturally and historically. We generally find that, even in purportedly polygynous societies, monogamy is the norm – though serial monogamy is increasingly common. Think of the experimental teens – having any more than one boyfriend/girlfriend at a time is full of headaches, and because this is always about more than mating, rivalries, personality clashes and power struggles are bound to abound.

And yet, bonobos and other intelligent social animals are not classified as monogamous, serial or otherwise. Is this classification correct, and if so, how do they do it?

One obvious difference between them and us, is that they hang around together in large groups more or less all the time, whereas we spend much of our time in largely sealed off nuclear family units. We have homes, millions and millions of them. This separateness is built upon as we distinguish our homes from our neighbours’, and develop a private sphere within them. Private ownership extends to all the objects within the home’s perimeter, living or non-living. In some unmentionable countries, we even have private arsenals to protect our own from the potential incursions of ‘fellow’ humans. Compare, say, dolphins, who live in pods, for the protection, resource provision and welfare of all members. And yet, we know that we’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet, and we owe our domination precisely to this fact. And we don’t, many of us, find anything odd about this paradoxical scenario.

So it seems that bonobos have evolved a mentality of sharing, of food, of space, and of each others’ bodies. This isn’t likely total, they surely experience greed, jealousy, spite and other such primal emotions, but it’s more like a spectrum and we’re tending, with affluence, to drift to one end of it, to what’s mine is mine, and what a depressing failure you are.

I recall, as autonomous (and electric) vehicles looked like they might be ‘five years away’, as the cliche had it, claims that they would not only solve the problem of petrol emissions, but also of traffic congestion, since we could not only dispense with drivers, but also with owners. Vehicles could be owned communally, and so be put to regular use as technological slaves, instead of hanging around idly in driveways and carparks. The libertarian reaction was swift and predictable. ‘I worked hard to get my bright shiny badge of a Tesla – daddy didn’t help me, honest – and I’m damned if I’m going to share it with any freeloading riff-raff etc etc’.

There are, of course, people pushing back against this libertarian drift. Most of them are women, it seems to me. People who support community banking, ethical investments and resource sharing. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s worth fighting, because the alternative is, I feel, pretty horrible to contemplate.


The subversive family, by Ferdinand Mount, 1982


Written by stewart henderson

May 2, 2021 at 10:51 am

three quite pleasurable little rants and rallies

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Bai Ping Ting

on Chinese women, fantasy and reality

I’ve been watching The General and I, a charming if generally ludicrous multi-million dollar Chinese historical fantasy series about a woman whose leadership abilities all men defer to. Fat chance of that happening in the real China, where the dictatorship of macho thugs has reigned supreme for decades. But could today’s fantasy – minus all the superhero powers – ever become tomorrow’s reality?

China, like every other country, has traditionally been highly patriarchal, and to be fair the dictatorship (I refuse to endorse the charade of calling the country a people’s republic) is moving with the times in calling for greater gender equality. However the political reality is clear. China’s dictatorship is essentially based on the nine members of the ‘Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party’, and of course these individuals are regularly replaced over time. No woman has ever been Standing (or even Sitting) on this Committee, and according to Wikipedia, ‘since 1997, China has fallen to 53rd place from 16th in the world in terms of female representation at its parliament, the National People’s Congress, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’.

Soong Ching-ling

It’s a disastrous situation, especially considering that in terms of women in the workforce, China is one of the world’s most egalitarian nations, outdoing the USA, Japan and many other developed countries. There seems to be little motivation to encourage women into the really important political jobs – the jobs they’d be best suited for as the more collaborative gender, and Angelababy’s Bai Ping Ting (actually not the most collaborative of females) is unlikely to change the situation. There doesn’t seem to be any woman of anywhere near the political stature of Cixi or Soong Ching-ling today. So I’d urge the smart women of China – there are millions of them – to rise up and demand their government to open its doors and let them in. They can’t do a Tianenman Square on you this time!



on the archbishop of everywhere and nowhere

The same-sex marriage/marriage equality no-brainer has dragged on for far too long here. The other day I heard a fat archbishop of somewhere-or-other being introduced by the ABC to put the nope case. He started on about marriage being meant to be between a man and a woman, and I switched him off. Ahhh, but to have spent some time alone with him…Ok, I’d promise to have my hands tied behind my back. I’d ask him, how may female archbishops are there, mate? I mean, throughout history? In round figures? How many female bishops? Cardinals? Popes? You don’t think that’s relevant? Are you prepared to admit that your organisation’s hierarchy is extremely patriarchal? Like, the most patriarchal institution in the western world by a million miles? No, don’t blether on about your Mamma Superiors, I’m talking about the big decision-makers, you know that. And have you noticed how the most patriarchal societies in the world – look at the Middle East, Africa, parts of Asia and Eastern Europe – are also the most homophobic? You think that’s coincidence? Bullshit, patriarchy and homophobia hang together like a pair of testicles, and if you were a female archbishop, as you should be, you wouldn’t be sitting there spewing shit. But no, the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church would rather collapse under the weight of its own criminality than appoint a female to high office. So let me now turn to women everywhere, but especially to educated women who identify as Catholic. What the fuck are you thinking? How can you sleep at night? How can you more or less passively support the most retrograde and destructive institution in the western world? If you haven’t the sense to recognise your own interest, do it for other women, straight or gay, religious or no, and make a stand, surely you can do no other.

don’t ban, just abandon


on the history of marriage

‘Marriage has always been between a man and a woman, and I see no reason to change it.’ These, from memory, were the words of our former PM Julia Gillard, who was otherwise a good leader. Of course, even it it were true that marriage had always been between blokes and sheilas, that wouldn’t be sufficient reason to continue with that exclusive system. It’s a bit like saying ‘blacks have always had to sit at the back of the bus and use the back entrance and eat the leftovers…’ But has marriage always been between men and women (or little girls)? Or even between humans (I’m sure I’ve heard of a few blokes marrying horses and such). Who of us has witnessed the first marriage? Or the second or the fiftieth or the 500th? Where and when did they take place? Ten thousand years ago? Fifty thousand? Presumably at the time of mitochondrial Eve, some 180-200,000 years ago from memory, humans – and she was most definitely Homo sapiens – didn’t marry. There was little need for it as far as I can see, as there wouldn’t have been much in the way of property to protect and hand down to your legitimate heirs. And that’s interesting because, since mEve definitely had children, and we’re all descended from them, that makes us all bastards.

We don’t even know if humans were particularly monogamous at that time – we know sweet FA about their sexual liaisons, though it seems likely they were more free and easy than they are now – together with plenty of fighting over best mates. Of course the romantic in me likes to think that a twist of fate could’ve taken us the way of the bonobo, but there’s still time, and I’ll fight for that twist for the rest of my days. Meanwhile, marriage, if we must have it (and I’d rather not) is always what we make it, and making it as inclusive as possible is surely the best for us, and will maybe bring us full circle…

love isn’t blind, just blinkered

Written by stewart henderson

September 27, 2017 at 10:53 pm

Face it, same-sex marriage law will affect the religious freedom to discriminate

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The former Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, has said recently that if you’re for religious freedom and against political correctness, you should vote no to – same-sex marriage, gay marriage, marriage equality, or whatever way you want to frame the issue.

As far as I’m aware, this isn’t Abbott’s argument, because an argument has to be argued for, with something like premisses and a conclusion. It’s simply a statement, or a pronouncement, much like the pronouncement made on the same topic by another former PM, Julia Gillard, that she was opposed to same-sex marriage. She would subsequently say that ‘her position was clear’ on the matter, and such remarks appeared to substitute for an argument.

Now we shouldn’t necessarily expect our political leaders to talk like philosophers, but I do think we should expect something more from them than bald pronouncements. Gillard, when subjected to some minuscule pressure on the issue, did say, as I recall, that marriage had always been recognised as being between a man and a woman, and she saw no reason to change it. Of course, as arguments go, this is rather weak, amounting, as it seems, to an objection to change of any kind. You could say, for example, that houses have always been made of wood, so there’s no need to change to any other building material.

What was more troubling about Gillard’s justification, though, was what was left unsaid. It is true that in Australia, marriage has always been recognised as between a man and a woman, though that situation has changed recently in a number of other countries. It’s also true, though it wasn’t referred to by Gillard, that through almost the entire history of male-female marriage in Australia and elsewhere, homosexuals have been tortured, murdered, executed, imprisoned, vilified, loathed and scorned, and treated as beyond the pale, with a few notable exceptions of place and time. So during this long history, the question of same-sex marriage has hardly been prominent in the minds of homosexuals or their detractors.

So I return to Tony Abbott’s pronouncement. I want to see if I can turn it into something like an argument. A no vote supports religious freedom and strikes against political correctness. I’ll take the last part first. What is political correctness? Other pundits are also, I note, asking that question. All that can be said with certainty is that Abbott considers it a bad thing. It’s, not, therefore (at least in his mind) ‘correctness’, which carries much the same meaning as ‘rightness’, as in a correct answer. Political correctness somehow negates or inverts correctness, but it’s not at all clear how this is so. I can only surmise that he thinks that something that’s correct ‘politically’ is actually incorrect or not correct. So the word ‘political’ must mean ‘not’. So then I’d have to wonder why Abbott ever became a politician. In any case, I’m left wondering how this odd term can apply to the matter at hand, which is whether to allow gay couples the freedom to marry as other couples do. The ‘political correctness’ question is an obscure and rather tedious semantic quibble, while same-sex marriage is a serious issuing affecting many peoples’ lives, so I won’t pursue the ‘political correctness’ gambit any further.

Abbott’s main point, presumably, is that same-sex marriage adversely affects religious freedom. So how, exactly, would the marriage of people who happen to be of the same gender affect religious freedom? The essential argument is that, since the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, for example, is opposed to same sex marriage, and homosexuality in general, individuals Catholics who happen to be homosexual, and who wish to marry their loved one and don’t wish to abandon their faith, may seek to use the law to force, or try to force, the Catholic Church to marry them. And of course this isn’t just a problem for Catholicism. The Anglican hierarchy tends to be more liberal, but we know that it isn’t uniformly so, and some segments of it are as arch as the most conservative Catholics. And then there’s Islam (and other religions). Of course it would be rare indeed to find practicing Moslems, here or elsewhere, who are openly gay and wanting to marry, but it’s likely that such people do exist, given humanity’s weird and wonderful diversity.

This is in fact an interesting conundrum. The website for marriage equality in Australia has this to say:

No religious institution can be forced to marry a lesbian or gay couple against their beliefs (in much the same way as certain religious bodies cannot be forced to marry people who are divorced).

This seems an overly confident assumption, since the issue has yet to be tested, and it surely will, as it is apparently being tested in the USA by gay couples.

A weaker point being made by the religious is that they will be persecuted for upholding the traditional view of marriage against the new law. But this might be said for anyone who holds a minority view. Clearly, when same-sex marriage law comes into being, it will be supported by the majority of Australians. Indeed it will become law largely because it’s supported by the majority, and the majority is likely to increase, though this is never guaranteed. People who hold the minority view will have to argue for it, and should expect others to argue against it. This isn’t persecution. I personally don’t think they have any strong arguments for their views, which clearly discriminate against homosexuals. Being called out for that discriminatory view, isn’t persecution IMHO.

Having said this, I agree with the conservative journalist Paul Kelly that same-sex marriage law inevitably pits church against state, and that the various religious groups’ freedom to discriminate against homosexuals is at stake. This is, in the west, a part of our growing secularisation against religions that are largely mired in outmoded social conventions. This clash has been going on for some time and is set to continue. The outcome, I think, is inevitable, but it will be a slow, painstaking process.

Written by stewart henderson

August 13, 2017 at 12:52 am

ten negatory claims about same-sex marriage

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percentages of those favouring same-sex marriage (in the US) over twenty-odd years – one of the fastest changes in public opinion in human history

What are the arguments against same-sex marriage? That’s a question I’m asking myself as I hear that conservatives want public money to run a campaign against it if Australia holds a plebiscite – which I’m not particularly in favour of, but at least it makes me reconsider the ‘no’ arguments. Presumably they’d be along the same lines as those of the TFP (tradition, family, property) organisation of the USA, but Australia as a nation is less religiously fixated than the USA, so the weak arguments found on the TFP website would seem even weaker to people over here. But let’s run through their 10 arguments just for fun. You can read them in full on the website if you’ve nothing better to do.

1. It is not marriage.

The claim here is that you can’t just redefine marriage to suit changing situations. ‘Marriage has always been x’, (x usually being identified as a ‘covenant between a man, a woman and god’ or some such thing). The response is, we can and always have done. Marriage is a human invention, and like all inventions we can modify it to suit our needs. A table is a human invention, and it can be a chess table, a bedside table, a coffee table, a dining table or a conference table, and none of these uses threatens the meaning of the word ‘table’. Marriage is ours to define and use as we wish, and historically we’ve done just that, with polygynous marriages, which have been commonplace, polyandrous marriages (much rarer) and other more or less formal arrangements, such as handfasting and morganatic and common-law marriages. Of course, marriage has rarely been recognised between individuals of the same sex, though same-sex unions, some of them highly ritualised and contractualised, have had a long history. But the reason for this is obvious – throughout history, homosexuals have been tortured and executed for their feelings and practices. The history of exclusive male-female marriage coincides with the history of homosexual persecution. The two histories are not unrelated, they’re completely entwined.

2. It violates natural law.

WTF is natural law, you might ask. A TFP fiction apparently. Their website says: Being rooted in human nature, it [natural law] is universal and immutable. But human nature is neither of these things. It’s diverse and evolving, socially as well as genetically. Marriage and child-rearing arrangements vary massively around the globe, with varying results, but it seems clear from voluminous research that children benefit most from close bonding with one or two significant others, together with a wider circle of potential carers and mentors. It’s notable that when this organisation lays down the ‘law’ on matters of marriage, sexuality and families it cites no scientific research of any kind – its only quotes are from the Bible.

3. It always denies children either a father and a mother.

Leaving aside the fact that there are often no children involved, this argument relies on the assumption that a father and a mother are indispensable to the proper rearing of children. Research reported on in Science Daily found that ‘children raised by two same-gender parents do as well on average as children raised by two different-gender parents. This is obviously inconsistent with the widespread claim that children must be raised by a mother and a father to do well’.  Melvin Konner in his 2015 book Women after all puts it this way: ‘One of the most impressive discoveries of the last decade in child development research is that when babies of either sex are adopted by lesbian or gay couples – and this has been studied very extensively and carefully – the main way the resulting children differ from controls raised with a father and mother is that they turn out to be less homophobic.’ Of course, this is exactly what organisations like TFP are afraid of, as promotion of homophobia is what they’re all about.

4. It Validates and Promotes the Homosexual Lifestyle

And that’s precisely what it aims to do. Of course TFP argues, or rather states without argument, that this would ‘weaken public morality’. Humanists would argue precisely the opposite, that such validation is long overdue, and would strengthen a morality based on the recognition of the fundamental humanity and value of diverse individuals.

5. It Turns a Moral Wrong into a Civil Right

In its discussion of this reason to oppose same-sex marriage, TFP again refers to its bogus ‘natural law’. Same-sex marriage (always in inverted commas on its website ) is opposed to nature, according to TFP. Again this is stated rather than argued, but as I’ve often pointed out, bonobos, our closest living relatives, engage in homosexual acts on a regular basis. Of course, they don’t marry, because marriage isn’t natural, it’s a human construction, and mostly a quite usefiul one, though not necessary for child-rearing, or for permanent monogamous relationships. Further to this, researchers have observed homosexual acts in between 500 and 1500 non-human species, so it seems to be natural enough.

6. It Does Not Create a Family but a Naturally Sterile Union

Again TFP makes ad nauseum use of the word ‘nature’ to give credit to its views. But the fact that same-sex couples can’t have offspring without outside help isn’t a reason to debar them from a union that serves multiple purposes. Moreover, it’s quite reasonable for homosexual males or females to feel that they would make good parents, and to yearn to be parents, and there is no reason why this should yearning should be opposed, if the opportunity to parent a child arises. Adopted children are often brought up in loving and happy environments, and succeed accordingly.

7. It Defeats the State’s Purpose of Benefiting Marriage. 

It’s hardly for the TFP or any other organisation to tell us what the State’s purpose is regarding marriage. Most advanced states provide benefits for children, regardless of the marital status of the mother. This is very important, considering the large number of single-parent (mostly female) families we have today. The state also doesn’t distinguish between marriage and de facto relationships when it dispenses benefits. The TFP is obviously out of date on this one.

8. It Imposes Its Acceptance on All Society

States are legalising same-sex marriage around the western world under public pressure. Here in Australia, where same-sex marriage hasn’t yet been legalised, polls have indicated that same-sex marriage is clearly acceptable to the majority. Where it is up to courts to decide, as occurred recently in the USA, the process is too complex to cover here, but it’s clear that the public’s attitude to same-sex marriage in every advanced or developed nation has undergone a seismic shift in a relatively short period – the last ten years or so.

9. It Is the Cutting Edge of the Sexual Revolution

Vive la révolution. Of course, TFP presents the slippery slope argument – paedophilia, bestiality and the like – so hurtful and offensive to the LGBT community. Again, there’s never any presentation of evidence or research, every proposition is presented as self-evident. It’s a profoundly anti-intellectual document.

10. It Offends God

This is, of course, presented as the main argument. Biblical quotes are given, including one in which their god’s mass immolation of ‘sodomites’ is celebrated. I don’t really see much point in questioning the supposedly offended feelings of a supposedly all-perfect, all-powerful invisible undetectable being. It’s all a fairly nasty fantasy.

There’s nothing more to say, and as an intellectual exercise this was probably a waste of time, as people who believe the above guff aren’t listening much. Any critical responses to their 10 propositions on the TFP website will be promptly deleted. There’s definitely no fun to be had with these guys. Their absolute certainty, and their inability and unwillingness to argue cogently or to examine evidence is a very disturbing sign, and a clear indication that they’re fuelled entirely by emotion. A passionate fear of change and difference. It all tends to reinforce the arguments against holding a plebiscite, in which, in Australia, people of this sort would actually be funded to give voice to their certainties with all the indignation of righteousness. They would be ruthless about their targets, and being patriarchal  – because preserving extreme patriarchy is what this is all about at base – they would be violent in their language and tactics. The best way to muzzle them would be to resolve this in parliament as soon as possible.

Written by stewart henderson

September 21, 2016 at 12:25 pm

more cardinal sins

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protesting too much

protesting too much

Lauryn Oates, an admirable woman in every way, has written an incisive little essay here, wishing the backward-facing hierarchs of the Catholic Church a hearty good riddance. Of course it’s all wishful thinking, of the kind all positive-thinking humanists indulge in, but you have to wonder why it is so many apparently educated, humane, intelligent people still cling to this awful institution. Is it force of habit? Is it fear of offending family and friends? Is it faith, whatever that may mean? Or is it, dare I say, profound intellectual analysis and reflection?

And let’s face it, the evidence of this institution’s awfulness is everywhere. Oates wrote her damning little piece before the latest scandal involving Keith O’Brien, the most senior Catholic clergyman in Britain no less, who has made admissions regarding sexual molestation accusations by a number of fellow priests. After all the focus, the relentless focus, on exploitative priests and cover-ups, we still find this sort of thing going on at the very top. However, O’Brien’s admission (it was feeble and vague – ‘I haven’t lived up to the standards expected of me’, and it’s unlikely anything further will be dragged out of him) is particularly devastating – and some illustrious figures would say, inevitable – because he was so rabidly homophobic in his pronouncements. So, now that his hypocrisy is revealed, the LGBT community is having a field day, and why not? (They recently named him their Bigot of the Year). I’ve just been acquainting myself with the many contemptible remarks this individual has made against homosexuality, and some interesting reflections on him, now that he stands exposed, so to speak. Some to the effect that he’s obviously a deeply troubled person who might be treated with compassion. The thing is, though, we can always find ways to more deeply understand, and even sympathise with, the behaviour of people who have done immense damage to others, but we always have to weigh the suffering they cause against the suffering they experience. And it seems to me obvious that O’Brian’s depredations, combined with his regular and lashing condemnations of the freely chosen sexual activities of others, from a position of exalted religious status, represents something pretty fundamentally disgusting and only partially mitigated by his own inner turmoil. Another mitigating factor, of course, is the gay orientation of many senior Catholic clergy, encouraged and cemented in their youth in seminaries the world over.

O’Brian has now been ‘retired’, and will take no further part in the Catholic Church, but he still retains his title of Cardinal, and he was planning to retire later this month anyway. There are those, though, who’ll be fighting to visit a more fitting punishment on the man, and I wish them well. The Church itself is to conduct an investigation into his activities, but I can’t take that seriously. The secular route is best, but it’s unclear as yet whether his behaviour has contravened the law. It may well be that he’ll end up being let off, if not exonerated, by the very liberal regime that he affects to despise.

Written by stewart henderson

March 6, 2013 at 11:13 am

jensen’s submissionary position

with 6 comments

I suppose I come across in these posts as a fairly reasonable, analytical sort of bloke, but I actually have to suppress quite an upwelling of emotion, especially angry emotion, from time to time. For example when I witness bullying behaviour, even if only in a movie, I become agitated, unable to keep still. If I’m alone I’ll start pacing up and down, I’ll change the channel, but too late, I’ll remonstrate with the bully, I’ll expose him, humiliate him, perhaps even murder him, or her. And then I’ll tell myself to calm down, why do I over-react like this, where does all this anger come from, almost with the flick of a switch, is there something really wrong with me, etc etc. I’ve gone through this little cycle – the flaring up of anger, followed by the calming-down, the wondering at my semi-unhingedness, the concern about my sanity – literally a thousand times. It can be brought on by stories told to me by third or fourth or fifth persons, or by something I’ve witnessed or been subjected to, or unreliable memories, or my reading of ancient history. But no matter how much I admonish myself, like Beckett’s Krapp telling himself to stop eating bananas, I’m unlikely to change.

Certain benighted characters, from Josef Stalin to Gordon Ramsay, can trigger this cycle in me through the mere mention of their names, and some of them, like the current Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, don’t even seem to fit the general profile of a bully. It’s a puzzlement. But while I can’t expect to cure myself, I can perhaps reduce the symptoms by a little tried-and-true analysis.

So, to Jensen.

My most recent sighting of him was on ABC-TV [I think]  the other day, in relation to a quirky little piece on a recent marriage ceremony in which the female party chose to submit to her husband. This ceremonial wording, apparently deliberately chosen by the devout couple, has caused a bit of a stir, apparently. Switch to Jensen’s smiling dial as he ‘explains’ that men and women are different and need to have different roles within a marriage, because a man, you see, is a man, and a woman is a woman, and therefore, well, the conclusion is obvious, surely, and it’s so good that we’re having this debate at last.

Jensen is, of course, a staunch conservative, who’s totally opposed to the ordination of female clergy in the Anglican church, as well as gay marriage and homosexuality generally. The CNNNN team did a great job of questioning the Biblical basis of his views here, and though you could argue that the man was ambushed, he did a notably poor job of defending himself. For this reason I’m a bit uncertain of the value of this post. The fellow seems so feeble-minded, and his views so laughable, that I’m really not sure he’s worth expending energy on, or that his views should be given even the tiny piece of promotion my blog can offer.

However, for my own equanimity’s sake, I will continue. Jensen expands on his views in this article in the Sydney Morning Herald, and that’s what I’ll focus on.

Marriage really matters. Thank God we are talking about it. As Professor Patrick Parkinson said in these pages last week, marriage is ”by far the most stable, safe and nurturing relationship in which to raise children”. However, fewer people are choosing marriage as a way of relating to someone of the opposite sex and fewer people are nurturing children in a family with marriage at its heart.

I can understand that. Individualism leaves us with little reason to join our life to that of someone else. Apart from that, for many marriage has become an arena of suffering, exploitation and disappointment. We choose to bypass it. Yet I would say that we need to go back to biblical principles and understand, improve and support marriage rather than abandon it.

First, I don’t think we’ve ever stopped talking about marriage, which is the main reason it has changed so much over the past century, with both first and second wave feminism being at the forefront of these analyses and debates and changes. The quote from Professor Parkinson doesn’t really get us anywhere, because marriages are so diverse. You really have to look at each particular relationship in which children are reared to determine whether that relationship – or environment, in the case of single-parent child-rearing – is stable, safe and nurturing. The variations are so enormous that no statistical analysis is likely to be helpful.
Marriage isn’t exactly dying as an institution, as the above quote seems to be suggesting. I don’t have any particular investment in it myself, and my observation of the institution’s continued strength is quite a rueful one. The gay marriage push is yet another testament to that strength, and I note it with some ambivalence, but ultimately with the view that gay couples should be just as free to indulge in solemn vows, funny speeches, fancy outfits and horrendous catering bills as heterosexuals.
As to biblical principles, my reading of the Bible has uncovered no such entities, the Bible being as full of contradictory claims on the subject as you would expect from a work written over nearly a millenium by scores of authors. More importantly, the Bible reflects the attitudes of its various authors from about the eighth century BCE to the second century CE, who operated out of largely tribal, patriarchal societies which bear little resemblance to our own.


I freely admit that for me, the earthly title and vocation I cherish most is ”husband”. It all began with promises, and each day I try to live out the commitment I made. Marriage is not always easy and I know that for some it proves painfully impossible. But, mostly, making our promises before witnesses and trying to keep them is what works best.

Public promises make a marriage. Marriages are founded on promises of lifelong, exclusive bonding. Provided that the promises commit both man and woman in good times and in bad ”till death do us part”, and that both intend to relate only to each other, the promises are effective in creating the marriage. Husband and wife can certainly make identical promises.

None of the above is particularly objectionable to me, though I can take or leave the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. Preferably leave. They sound quaint and overly domesticated, tamed. In fact, ‘husband’ comes from Old Norse, meaning ‘master of a house’, with the second part, ‘bondi’ meaning someone with land and stock . To husband our resources means, basically, to be careful and thrifty with them. Jensen, hasn’t, so far, explained why he cherishes the term ‘husband’ or prefers it to, say, the term ‘partner’, assuming he does. In this passage he focuses on commitment and the usefulness of making promises in a public and ceremonial way, none of which seems problematic. What does seem problematic, and we await an explanation, is the term ‘husband’ and its patriarchal origins, given how far we’ve moved towards more equal relations between men and women.


But promises can reflect something even more profound. Since they unite not simply two people but a man and a woman – two different bodies for whom marriage holds different consequences, needs, expectations and emotions – the promises can express these differences, and traditionally have done so.

Many of our young people want to be ”wives and husbands” rather than simply ”partners” and in their weddings they come as ”bride and groom” rather than simply two individuals. They believe that expressing these differences, including different responsibilities, makes for a better marriage.

Here’s where Jensen’s views really start to reveal themselves, though the language continues to be slippery and evasive. For example, what is this ‘more profound’ thing that wedding vows can reflect? Well, apparently it’s that men and women are different and this means different ‘consequences, needs, expectations and emotions’. None of this is spelled out, and again I would argue for a great diversity of needs and hopes being tied up with marital decisions, without our being able to sort them neatly into gender divisions. What both feminism and a mountain of scientific research can agree on is that, whatever essential differences there are between men and women, they aren’t so great as to stop women being excellent doctors, lawyers, academics, business leaders and even Prime Ministers. In other words, men and women are not so dissimilar as previously accepted. This realization, quite recent but hugely transformational, has naturally had a big impact on marriage and the domestic sphere. When Jensen says that marriage vows traditionally expressed major differences between the sexes, he’s clearly harking back to the times when women were not allowed to attend universities, to pursue particular careers, or to have a drink in the front bar, and when men were ‘naturally’ the heads of households.
The vast majority of Australians already find these prohibitions, even though they were dispensed with only recently, quite quaint and bizarre, even primitive. This was brought home to me the other day, when as a community educator I was teaching someone [aged 91!] to find her way around the internet. She wanted to visit, one of those tricksy sites that offer a tiny glimpse of records that may or may not relate to your great grandcestor, then ask for money to take you further. What we did see was a scan of some census records from early in the twentieth century, in which the head of the family wrote his name and details first, followed by wife, and then sons and daughters. I can’t remember whether the title ‘head’ was actually printed on the form, but I did notice that each husband/father identified himself as ‘head’, clearly showing that this was an expectation of the form, and of society as it was constructed at that time. I wonder when this title became démodé?
It becomes increasingly clear what Jensen is on about. He makes the surely dubious claim that many of our young want to be ‘husbands and wives’ rather than ‘partners’, and it’s increasingly clear that he’s talking about a dominant-submissive relationship of the type most people now find quaint, or worse. His claim about the ‘many’ probably means that many young people who come to him want this type of relationship and these types of vows, because he’s a magnet for arch-conservative attitudes. This is called confirmation bias.
But note the slipperyness of Jensen’s language. He emphasises ‘different responsibilities’ and the difference between ‘husband/wife’ and ‘partner’, but is quite keen to avoid spelling out what those differences are. You have to wonder, if he’s so enamoured of the traditional husband/wife, dominant/submissive roles, why doesn’t he proclaim the fact in a loud, clear, unambiguous voice?


Both kinds of promise are provided for in the Sydney Anglican diocese’s proposed Prayer Book, which has been the subject of commentary this week.

There is nothing new in this – it is the same as the Australian Prayer Book which has been used for decades.

Where different promises are made, the man undertakes great responsibility and this is also the wording of the book, as it has always been. The biblical teaching is that the promise made voluntarily by the bride to submit to her husband is matched by the even more onerous obligation which the husband must undertake to act towards his wife as Christ has loved the church. The Bible says that this obligation is ultimately measured by the self-sacrifice of Christ in dying on the cross.

So apparently there’s some disquiet about a proposed new prayer-book for this arch-conservative diocese, which Jensen dismisses because it’s the same as the old one. If that’s so, why are they proposing a new one? Jensen just leaves us more confused with his slippery, evasive language.
More importantly, Jensen finally comes out here with the ‘submit’ word for females, which is ‘balanced’ by the male role term, ‘great responsibility’. This great responsibility comes with being the ‘head’ or the dominant member of the family. Note that the title of Jensen’s piece is ‘men and women are different and so should be their marriage vows’, from which it’s surely reasonable to infer that Jensen is advocating this dominance/submission marriage arrangement, this ‘great responsibility’, which he personally feels, about being Lord and Master in his own personal household. The references to Jesus are bizarre, and irrelevant to marriage in general. The last sentence from the above quote, in particular, has been received with great good humour on various netspaces. Who in the Bible says that a hubbie’s onerous responsibility is akin to Jesus’s death on the cross? Sounds like that ole feminist Paul of Tarsus to me. Better, marginally, to be crucified than to burn.


This is not an invitation to bossiness, let alone abuse. A husband who uses the wife’s promise in this way stands condemned for betraying his own sworn obligations. The husband is to take responsibility for his wife and family in a Christ-like way. Her ”submission” is her voluntary acceptance of this pattern of living together, her glad recognition that this is what he intends to bring to the marriage and that it is for her good, his good and the good of children born to them. She is going to accept him as a man who has chosen the self-discipline and commitment of marriage for her sake and for their children. At a time when women rightly complain that they cannot get men to commit, here is a pattern which demands real commitment all the way.

Secular views of marriage are driven by a destructive individualism and libertarianism. This philosophy is inconsistent with the reality of long-term relationships such as marriage and family life.

Actually, it is an invitation to bossiness and abuse. Domestic violence is most prevalent, unsurprisingly, in the conservative Christian heartland of the USA, and in highly patriarchal societies everywhere, not to mention rape, ‘honour’ murders and other forms of ‘control’ of insufficiently submissive women. I note that submission, generally regarded as the English translation of Islam, is a hugely popular concept among the fanatically religious. Humans are in the image of their god, but the gods of all the monotheistic religions are all male, so males must be more godlike, more Lord-and-Masterish, and boy are these gods Lord-and-Masterish. Men need a respite from this constant grovelling to their god, and that’s where women find their role. That given, I wonder why Jensen puts ‘submission’ in quotes here? It seems to be a pattern with him, trying to worm out of saying what he’s really saying – well it’s not really submission, girls, it’s, well it’s just a word…
Well, the obvious question, apart from the one about why I’m taking this seriously enough to write about it, is where does this submission begin and end in a world of female heads of corporations, heads of law firms, heads of academic institutions and heads of state? For Jensen, who’s implacably opposed to females playing any ‘head’ role in the Anglican church, at least in the Sydney diocese, the only place where he has any power, the answer is plain – a woman’s role is to be submissive in every sphere of life. Any other position would be incoherent – you can’t expect a female CEO to come home and serve her husband, accepting his ‘responsibility’ over her. And if she can’t be responsible in the home then obviously she can’t take on major responsibilities outside of it either.
Jensen’s remarks about secular marriage are just gratuitous, non-evidence based opinion, the only value of which is to reveal his own shallowness, as if that wasn’t already abundantly clear.
Okay, there’s little point in analyzing the rest of this article, it’s too silly and too depressing. The remark by somebody that Jensen wants to turn back the clock is quite precise, given the census data quoted earlier. We’ve virtually forgotten that, only decades ago, it was taken for granted that males were regarded as the heads of households. There’s no doubt in my mind  that society is much better for that no longer being the case. Jensen’s obsession with masculinity and submission does seem rather kinky, but unfortunately not in a fun way. It just strikes me as adolescent, as well as creepy.
While I accept that Jensen is hardly your typical Anglican, and that they’re by and large a fairly liberal lot, I still find it satisfying to note that that particular denomination is declining faster than any other Christian denomination in Australia [and they’re all in decline]. It’s hard to know when or if it will level out, but I suspect there’s still a fair bit of falling to do , but there’s absolutely no chance that the trend will reverse.
A note to end. While writing this piece and trawling for other responses, I came upon this delicious and highly recommendable website , at which I also found links to this piece, and another nice piece by a journalist named Catherine, I think, but I’ve lost the link. Anyway I was so enamoured of the above-mentioned website, loon pond by name, and written by the fabulously-resurrected Dorothy Parker, that I tried to leave a comment, but was defeated by the ‘prove you’re not a robot’ screening thingy, after a dozen attempts. Please Dorothy, let me into your heart!

Written by stewart henderson

September 3, 2012 at 9:00 am

is Julia Gillard lying about gay marriage?

with 2 comments

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