The outcome of the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage (SSM) came as no surprise. No clairvoyance was required – just the realisation that the best allies the SSM ‘Yes’ campaigners had were the ‘No’ camp. As usual.
Every time this issue comes up in Western society, it’s the same story: the musty old authoritarian order of yesteryear coming up against the fresh new egalitarian avant-garde – or so both sides appear to be intent on making it seem. Throw in a slick ‘Yes’ campaign capitalising on most people’s naïve misunderstandings concerning ‘discrimination’ and ‘equality’ and there’s only one possible winner. And that’s coming from a stalwart defender of male-female exclusivity in marriage – me!
Marriage as a sociolegal institution came about at the dawn of civilisation as a means of ensuring generational continuity with regard to property and title. The social order relies largely on knowing everyone’s parentage. That’s less relevant today than it was in feudal times, but as long as people continue to die and wish to leave their property to their biological heirs, this remains a central function of marriage.
We are told that hetero-exclusive marriage ‘discriminates’ against homosexuals. There is actually nothing wrong with ‘discriminating’ between people – the law does it all the time. As one example, it ‘discriminates’ between us on the basis of age – you’re a minor with restricted rights until age 18, and you don’t qualify for the old-age pension until 65. As another example, the law discriminates between us on basis of visual acuity: if you’re visually impaired, you can’t drive a car or fly an aeroplane (thank goodness). Marriage law ‘discriminates’ between us on the basis of blood relationships – you can’t marry your bro/sis, uncle/aunt, or in some jurisdictions, your first cousin.
‘Discrimination’ is only bad when it is based on an extraneous factor. Visual acuity is not an extraneous factor when considering an applicant for a pilot’s licence, so ‘discrimination’ in this context is entirely warranted. Neither are the sexes of a couple an extraneous factor when considering applicants for a marriage licence. The age-old function of marriage being to establish nuclei for the production of new families, there is every justification for the law insisting that marriage applicants constitute an inherently fertile pair i.e. a man and a woman (but not so closely related as to lead to in-breeding). There is no case here for extending marriage to inherently infertile couples. (Don’t bore me by bringing up the red herring about not all hetero couples having babies – the key word is ‘inherently’.)
International human rights law recognises this. Declarations and conventions of human rights present marriage as part of a compound right – usually to marry “and found a family”, the verb ‘found’ being significant as it means ‘to bring into existence’. The common use of the adjective ‘natural’ in provisions pertaining to the family reinforces the interpretation that it is ‘natural families’ being referred to, which is to say families brought about by heterosexual union – in plain language, Mum, Dad and their kids.
Isn’t all this denying homosexuals of ‘equality’? No, not if ‘equality’ means ‘applying the same rules to everyone’. If the rule that a couple applying for a marriage licence must be of opposite sexes is applied to all applicants, that is ‘equality’ in action. If ‘equality’ means extending marriage rights to any couple, then brace yourself for brother-sister marriages as it means abandoning all restrictions on marriage. (Brace yourself also for aircraft flown by blind pilots – after all, we have to treat blind and sighted applicants for a pilot’s licence ‘equally’, don’t we? The ‘equality’ argument has a nasty habit of leading to absurdities!)
Society has a legitimate interest in marriage as a means of its perpetuation and maintenance of the social order. Society, through its legal institutions, accordingly has a right to restrict access to marriage for the common good. I will now go a step further by arguing that society has a legitimate interest in heterosexuality per se as a prelude to marriage and natural family formation. Not that there is any need for society to actively encourage the development of heterosexual attraction as Nature has assiduously been doing that for the past billion-plus years (failing which the highest form of life on the planet would be some lower invertebrate). But the sex drive in the impressionable young is malleable and there is a case to be made for society having a right to protect the heterosexual drive from being commandeered and diverted during the formative years.
At this juncture I turn to Russia where homosexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalised following the demise of the USSR (very puritanical, those socialists!) but it is against the law to actively promote homosexuality especially among the young. Homosexuals are well advised to be discrete in Russia.
Discretion is a very old theme in sexual morality. Anna Karenina didn’t get herself into hot water because she had a boyfriend, but because she wasn’t discrete about it. In high society, a married woman having a boyfriend (‘lover’ was the fashionable colloquialism) was judiciously tolerated but flaunting the fact was not, as it forced the issue and thereby harmed the family. Discretion is also a theme running through the history of homosexuality. Married men in imperial Japan could visit brothels manned by young guys in drag, but they were expected to be discrete and thereby not bring shame and ruin upon the family. In both cases, the family as the fabric of society was being protected from erosion. The unwritten rule could be expressed as “If you must, do it; but do it discretely so as to avoid harm to others.”
In Western society, we seem to have turned this maxim on its head. We are supposed to be (or pretend to be) delighted whenever we see two men or two women engaging in sexually explicit behaviour in the full view of others. Discretion has not just been abandoned; it now appears to be frowned upon. Gay couples are expected to kiss and fondle one another in public or they may be accused of staying ‘in the closet’. And of course anyone who finds such behaviour distasteful and looks away even without saying a word is summarily charged with ‘homophobia’.
I believe the Russian position, heavily criticised as it has been, to be a sensible one. No, it’s not society’s business whether one chooses to privately indulge in homosexual activities, but it becomes society’s (and the law’s) business if one is exhibitionist about it. Having kids being subjected to displays of homoerotic behaviour in public places is a form of ‘grooming’ that can in some instances lead to the derailing of the natural heterosexual drive that society relies on for its continuing existence, and I concur with the Russian view that it should not be accepted.
As for two blokes or two sheilas ‘marrying’, I think Hell will freeze over before we see that in Russia. And their position, akin to my own, has absolutely nothing to do with any religiously-based social or moral order. It is a rational stance based entirely on secular considerations pertaining to the common good.
We’ve lost the plot somewhere along the line in the West. The Irish SSM travesty is the latest in a series of destructive blows intended to re-engineer society from the ground up. Russian commentators have of late been referring to their society as “an alternative civilisation”. I’m starting to see their point in a big way.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BSc (Auckland), BA, BEdSt (Queensland), DipCommonLaw, PGDipLaws (London), MAppSc (Curtin), PhD (Otago), is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and a regular contributor to Breaking Views on geopolitical and social issues. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.