Friday, October 5, 2012

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Same-sex marriage and my liberal/conservative identity crisis

I hate it when people ask me whether I’m a liberal or a conservative. I’ve tried inserting the word ‘classical’ before the ‘liberal’ in reply, but that appears to be too subtle a distinction for most. With the increasing Americanisation of the English language, ‘liberal’ has come to mean ‘politically correct’ to a lot of people, while ‘conservative’ has come to be associated with the religious far right. Oh dear, what am I to call myself, being neither?

The same-sex marriage debate has reinforced the polarity brought about by the new intellectual order, as 99% of the decibels seem to be generated by PC trendy-lefties on the one hand and stodgy old-world righties on the other. And they both spout off a lot of nonsense.

We are apparently to choose between the spurious claim that any two people who engage in sex should be entitled to the benefits of marriage as option 1, and the equally spurious claim that the monogamous family unit was divinely prescribed as option 2. The buzz-term ‘marriage equality’ comes with the first, which if taken all the way would mean allowing any two people to marry, so goodbye to consanguinity restrictions and the age of consent. With the second comes the warning that SSM would lead us down a slippery slope to polygamy. They really should have a look at Sharia law some time!

Marriage as a legally recognised social institution has been around for a very long time. The ancient law-writers such as Hammurabi did not invent the husband/wife relationship any more than they invented the employer/employee or doctor/patient relationship but formalised customary law related to it within an emerging legal framework. For the origins of marriage as we have understood it for thousands of years, we would probably have to go back to the early city-states when people needed to pass property and title to their rightful heirs, for which certainty of parentage is a prerequisite – hence the institution of marriage. The ages-old strong relationship between marriage law and inheritance law is no coincidence. (Depressingly unromantic stuff, I’m afraid.)

Marriage law, initially customary and later enshrined in codified law, is a foundation stone of civilisation. There are variations on the theme, such as polygamy (usually polygyny, sometimes supplemented by polyandry) and monogamy. Some legal codes allowed marriage between first cousins, some didn’t. Some disallowed more than one marriage between two families, some encouraged it. Some insisted on a priest acting as celebrant, some didn’t. But there is one thing all marriage law has in common: it is exclusively heterosexual. Given the functions of marriage, it could be nothing else. ‘Same-sex marriage’ is indeed an oxymoron.

For a credible slippery slope argument, consider the legal absurdity that the application of the consanguinity rules to same-sex couples would create. There being no possibility of offspring, these rules would be pointless. But ‘equality’ demands that we either apply them to both kinds of couples or to neither – a conundrum which could quite conceivably lead to the legalisation of incest through marriage. The mind boggles.

I recall Margaret Thatcher on the BBC radio in 1985 defining conservatism as “looking at what we have from the past and holding on to what is good”, or words to that effect. When looking at the history of marriage, this strikes me as sound advice. I for one am not prepared to change the quintessence of a law fundamental to the founding and continuity of civilisation to appease a vociferous minority. It has nothing to do with religion, nor even with morals. Live your life as you will, providing it does not impose on others. Forcing the rest of us to mess around with a legal cornerstone of civilisation is an imposition – a huge one, and one that I personally will not countenance.

Woops, did I quote Maggy Thatcher? Am I a closet conservative, then? Well, not really, as I have no problem with polygamy as a recognised form of marriage in societies where that is a norm. Does that make me a closet liberal, then? No, I didn’t think so either. It looks like my identity crisis is unresolved. But on the issue of marriage being between men and women, there is nothing for me to resolve: the answer is a resounding NO to the proposed amendment of the law.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek is Associate Professor of Education at the American University of Beirut. He holds a BSc from Auckland, BA and BEdSt from Queensland, MAppSc from Curtin and PhD from Otago Universities. He hasn’t made up his mind yet whether he is ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ and probably won’t live long enough to do so. Feedback welcome at


Mike Butler said...

Barend's analysis shows how marriage is the building block of society. This reality is not understood by the proponents of same sex marriage, who are merely on a shallow, feelgood campaign.

Anonymous said...

is not marriage a "brand" that donotes its position and meaning for most people. The All Blacks play a brand of football called rugby. The All Whites play a brand of football called soccer.Both are football but each have their own brand that allows instant identification of the each code. Im sure the All whites would love to call themselves the All Blacks who just happen to play a different game with different rules but still football. Each according to their brand so keep marriage and the brand marriage as belonging to a man and a women