Tuesday, 17 March 2015

As equal marriage prepares to go to court in the US, expect the ideological basis of opposition to be at least partially concealed in their arguments

It has now been a year since equal marriage law came into effect in England and Wales. Across the Atlantic, we may be on the cusp of marriage equality becoming a reality nationwide in the United States. While over 70% of US citizens already live in jurisdictions where same-sex couples can legally marry, there are over a dozen states with same-sex marriage bans. In April this year, the US Supreme Court will be reviewing same-sex marriage bans in four states (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee) and will decide, possibly once and for all, if the US constitution’s principle of equal protection under law applies to lesbian and gay US citizens, and their right to marry.

This would not only be a victory for lesbian and gay activists but also, arguably, for feminists. Although some would argue that feminists should be fighting to abolish marriage rather than extending the right to marry, marriage equality removes a form of discrimination based on a partner’s gender and, in one sense, transforms marriage into a genderless institution.

For the Religious Right, this is a principal reason for opposing marriage equality. As a key spokesperson for the UK anti-marriage equality group, the ‘Coalition for Marriage’, stated in a video on their website:

“It would transform marriage into a genderless institution. It would remove the core meaning of marriage, the complementary union of a man and a woman. It is this institution alone that naturally gives rise to children.”

It is clear then that for equal marriage opponents (in the UK at least) arguments against same-sex marriage are arguments for institutionalized heterosexuality and a conception of marriage based on gender complementarity. Interestingly, from my own research on arguments against same-sex marriage in the UK press, the notion of gender complementarity was not commonly used in this explicit form. Rather, opponents used arguments that were ostensibly based on facts rather than ideology. For example, opposition arguments appealed to dictionary definitions of marriage (‘marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman’) and to notions of tradition (‘marriage has always consisted of a man and a woman’). Those who argue for equal marriage of course could argue the opposite; that dictionary definitions can and do change. In fact, the Cambridge Online dictionary now defines marriage as “a legally accepted relationship between two people”. Similarly, many would argue that the institution of marriage is an evolving institution that has changed dramatically over time. This perhaps exemplifies the Greek sophist Protagora’s maxim, “In every question there are two sides to the argument, exactly opposite to each other”.

The second argument contained in the above quote from the ‘Coalition for Marriage’ spokesperson, that (heterosexual) marriage is an institution that gives rise to children, was commonly expressed by equal marriage opponents in the British press. Take the following example where in a letter to a newspaper Editor, a British Member of Parliament argues that marriage should not be extended to same-sex couples because marriage is for the rearing of children:

Marriage is vital because it is where child rearing tends to take place. Evidence recognises that married parents are good for children and society. If gay couples are considered equally eligible for marriage, even though gay relationships do not tend towards child-raising and cannot by definition give a child a mother and a father, the crucial understanding of what marriage is mainly for has been discarded (The Times, 13 March, emphasis added)

Rhetorical social psychologist Michael Billig suggests that arguments often contain the seeds of their own negation. For example, when making a generalization, a speaker will typically qualify these to acknowledge the existence of exceptions.  By describing marriage as where child rearing tends to take place, same-sex relationships as not tending towards child-raising and child-rearing as what marriage is mainly for, the above argument contains within it the seeds of its own counter argument i.e. that not all children are born within marriage, that some same-sex couples do raise children and that not all heterosexual married couples have children, so it cannot be what marriage is for entirely. As Billig notes, any act of generalization can always be potentially negated by a particularization. Furthermore, if ‘married parents are good for children’ (and one may wish to question the supposed evidence upon which such claims are made) then one might ask why marriage should not also be good for the children of same-sex parents. Of course, what is partially hidden (or implicit) within this argument is the assertion that it is heterosexual parents (with ‘complementary genders’) which provide both mothers and fathers that are good for children, not simply married parents.

But why not just come out and say that heterosexuality is better for children and society? Perhaps because the idea that marriage is good for children and society is typically seen as uncontroversial (although many feminists may take issue with this). To say that heterosexual parents are better for children is a more contentious statement, and one that is flatly refuted by a summary of the evidence by the American Psychological Association. Furthermore, the way that it is framed here is more guarded against accusations of prejudice.

It is perhaps for these reasons that arguments based explicitly on the notion of gender complementarity were notable largely by their absence in the British press. Given that religion continues to play a more prominent role in political debate in the US than in the UK, we may well see such arguments given a more open airing over the coming months, but I expect the ideological basis of opposition will be at least half concealed, in favour of arguments designed to appeal to ‘common sense’.

Posted by: Dr Adam Jowett
 Lecturer in Psychology
Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences (JS259)
Coventry University, United Kingdom 

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