To oppose gay marriage is not necessarily a bigoted position
Thoughtful conservatives are not bigoted, intellectually inferior or vile: they just see the balance of values differently
Marchers cross O’Connell Street in Dublin at a recent Dublin Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Pride march. Photograph: David Sleator
It may seem odd to describe Fintan O’Toole’s article on gay marriage ( Opinion , Tuesday April 16th) as a classic exposition of liberal values, given that the only reason he can conceive of for opposing gay marriage is bigotry motivated by revulsion for gay people.
Admittedly, it does seem distant from “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
But it remains a brilliant exposition of liberal values. Take this: “A marriage freely entered into is a personal relationship. It stands or falls, endures or collapses, is a heaven or a hell, solely because of the way the people in that relationship treat each other.”
In short, there is no such thing as society, only families and individuals.
Jonathan Haidt, author of the The Righteous Mind , believes that liberals and conservatives constantly misunderstand each other, using the same words but meaning entirely different things. Take marriage. Fintan believes it is a personal relationship, to be maintained as long as romantic love endures. But if marriage is simply a personal relationship, why does the State have any interest in it?
I believe marriage is a solemn covenant, in which society has a major stake because it provides the most stable environment for bringing up children, a physical and spiritual expression of the couple’s love.
A child needs both a mother and a father. It is not too long ago that the expression “a motherless child” was shorthand for devastating loss. Fathers matter equally. There are times when these ideals cannot be met, and then people deserve our support, not censure. People usually do their very best, and most times, the child turns out fine.
It is an entirely different thing to legislate to declare that having both a mother and father has no intrinsic value.
Fintan believes there are sufficient differences between men and women to justify lobbying for more women in politics and on boards. However, believing gender differences matter in parenting is vile.
According to Haidt, liberals prize values like personal freedom and choice, equality, fairness and sharing above all others. Conservatives value them too, but they also respect loyalty, a sense of the sacred, tradition and authority. The last three tend to bring liberals out in hives, being perceived as either irrational, or as curtailing individual freedom.
According to Haidt, himself a liberal, conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives, because they share values like equality, choice and fairness.
But liberals don’t comprehend conservative values. They do not understand appeals to a greater good, if it involves curtailing an adult’s right to equality and personal choice – even, in this case, a child-centred good.
Alice in Wonderland
Can the Alice in Wonderland approach to language do anything except mask profound differences? “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things?”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Just as a playful experiment, imagine I wanted to change fundamentally the meaning of the word lesbian, because my opposite-sex relationship has just as much right to be called lesbian as anyone else’s. If not, my orientation is being viewed as inferior and unequal, just because it is different. Someone might hesitantly point out that we would lose a very important distinction. To which I could reply that language evolves constantly. “Gay” used to mean happy.
If all relationships between consenting adults are the same, all women should have the right to be called lesbians. Hell, men should have the right to be called lesbians, too. The reason this is just a playful rather than a serious analogy, is because I know lesbian couples who are still not “out” to their families or some friends, because of fear of annihilating rejection.
Although it does not chime with my personal beliefs, I don’t have a difficulty with civil unions, because they redress certain injustices. Neither do I object to gay adoption, when the only alternative is to spend life in a loveless orphanage.
I would support guardianship of children being awarded on a case by case basis to gay couples who have children from previous relationships, provided it does not destroy the original parents’ rights and responsibilities, and enhances the child’s rights.
I received a very sad email from a gay man recently, who wanted me to highlight the problem of suicide among young gay men, and to realise that opposing gay marriage could make life more difficult for a young gay person.
Even though I believe passionately that there are important gender differences that matter in parenting, I was not going to write about gay marriage, for fear that I would harm a young gay or lesbian person.
But I changed my mind, because now, not to do so would be to be completely lacking in courage, and to bow to a consensus that is proud of lacking respect for the arguments of others. Thoughtful conservatives are not bigoted, or intellectually inferior, or vile: they just see the balance of values differently. The shame is that anyone has to point that out.