Friday, March 23, 2012

Defined out

Theologian John Millibank has published on the ABC website an essay against normalising homosexuality. It does so by defining homosexual people out of the properly human and the properly social.

Airbrushing history
He starts with the arguments that define homosexual couples out of marriage; that marriage is ‘by definition’ heterosexual. As Millibank puts it:
For centuries - indeed, for millennia - they argue, marriage has been understood as a conjugal relation between men and women linked to the natural bearing of children. Thus there is something monstrous about the state even claiming to have the power by law to change the definition of a natural and cultural reality which has historically preceded the existence of the state itself.
This a very common claim—one made, for example, by Catholic advocate Austen Ivereigh in his recent piece against permitting same-sex marriage:
marriage is a conjugal relationship of a man and a woman apt for the begetting of children who are raised by their natural parents; that this arrangement is both unique and uniquely beneficial to society and to children; and that there is something inappropriate about the state even claiming to have the power by law to redefine it.
But the state redefining marriage is precisely what the Christians did when they captured state power. Marriage is only ‘by definition’ heterosexual because the power of various states have been wielded to make it so. Millibank’s claim that:
But [homosexuality] has never previously been linked to marriage - apart from parodic instances (as in ancient Rome) or marginal situations where for various reasons (including those of transgender) a male or female marital role is "performed" by someone not of that gender
is flatly wrong. Both Roman law and Amerindian social practice, for example, recognised same-sex marriages. The Sifra, one of the oldest rabbinical texts, complained that pagans let men marry men and women marry women. Even the Kama Sutra mentions same-sex marriage.

When anthropologists tried to find some defining element of marriage, the only thing they could find was that it created in-laws. The “by definition” argument merely celebrates the success of past brutalities and restrictions; it is historical and anthropological ignorance passing itself off as metaphysical understanding.

As Skepticlawyer has noted, much of conservative Christian frustration comes from finding arguments they thought settled in the C4th, C5th or whatever century being re-opened, and them losing. Pretending the original argument never occurred is a air-brushing of history worthy of Stalinism, if it did not speak to the sheer ignorance of many such advocates: their metaphysical confidence blinds them to the complexities of reality and the truth of the historical and anthropological record.

One of which complexities is that the Latin Church was pushed into taking over marriage law (basically, to provide the landowning and inheriting elite with a common and clear set of rules for which children counted as legitimate). Marriage did not become a sacrament until the C11th, one that did not even need a priest to be present until the Council of Trent. (Somewhat earlier in English law: the provision was a product of the Reformation and concern to ensure the right priest was involved.)

Marriage has always been an evolving institution, even in Christian theology (there was considerable debate, for example, on whether consummation was necessary for marriage). The way the metaphysical certainty that Millibank invokes contradicts the complexities of biology, society and history is deeply revealing of its profound inadequacy as any path to truth or moral understanding.

Millibank writes of the antiquity of religion, ritual and kinship connections. But, when he does, Millibank implies that it was all enduringly heterosexual. This is more nonsense airbrushing of history. One of the deep divisions between monotheist and polytheist-animist visions is precisely that monotheism typically takes a narrowly procreative view of sex and polytheist-animist traditions typically do not—the latter being much more accurately based on the complexity of sexual expression in the natural world. Philo of Alexandria was, for example, outraged at pagan celebration of gender diversity.

This monotheist procreative obsession (one that does not express biological reality but, on the contrary, ignores or dismisses vast swathes of it) shows up in Millibank’s rejection of artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood. As if the miracle of birth is somehow lessened if we do not get the mechanics correct. There are genuine complexities involved in sperm donation and artificial insemination, but they are hardly insoluble and are certainly much less important than expanding the number of people able to choose to be parents and the number of loved and wanted children.

Those threatening queers
Defining the prior existence of same-sex marriage (and religious expression) out of the historical and anthropological record is merely the start, however. The next layer is to turn granting equal rights to homosexuals as an attack on heterosexuals. Millibank claims:
a supposed "extension" of marriage to gay people in fact removes the right to marry from heterosexual people.
This can seem like a perversely contorted claim, but its logic is quite straightforward: the intended change in the definition of marriage would mean that marriage as traditionally defined no longer exists. Thus heterosexual people would no longer have the right to enter into an institution understood to be only possible for heterosexuals, as doubly recognising both the unique social significance of male/female relationship and the importance of the conjugal act which leads naturally to the procreation of children who are then reared by their biological parents.
In effect, if marriage is now understood as a lifelong sexual contract between any two adult human persons with no specification of gender, then the allowance of gay marriage renders all marriages "gay marriages."
How does one, in a civilization based on a presumption of universal morality, justify denying rights to a minority? Claim that to do so is somehow profoundly threatening to the majority (or, at least, the traditionally dominant group). This is precisely the claim made by bigots down the ages—against giving equal rights to Jews, to women, to blacks …

Here we see an enduring and key element in bigotry: the insult of equality. Since being a heterosexual person in a heterosexual marriage is so much better than anything any homosexual or homosexual couple can be, to treat them as equals is an insult that strips heterosexuals of their rightful status. Again, a standard claim of bigotry down the ages—that it is outrageous to treat Jews as if they are the equal of Christians, women as if they are the equal of men, blacks as if they are the equal of whites, and so on. The targets and justifications shift (though the latter more superficially than substantively). The underlying patterns endure.

And decent people are, of course, entitled to be defended from such an insult. From the precious whatevers such outrageous equating strips from them.

Equal protection of the law does mean that heterosexuals will have to share the institution of marriage with homosexuals-as-homosexuals (rather than as folk desperately trying to hide from their sexuality): how appalling for them. Just as whites had to use the same facilities as blacks, men had to cope with women getting the vote and running for office, Christians had to deal with Jews have the same standing in law as them.

Status anxiety
Yes, an utterly unearned status of claim of superiority is taken away when equal protection of the law is applied. That does, indeed, follow: it is a consequence of equal protection of the law. Indeed, that is one of its major virtues, the stripping away of social subordinations and exclusions; the spreading of respect by the law, of dignity under the law.

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer]

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