Flickr: Newtown Grafitti
If the Coalition maintains government after the next election, Australians will head to the polls shortly after to vote on whether we should change the Marriage Act to include homosexual unions. If you’re into manufactured rage, infantile insults and poor parodies of Chicken Little, stock up on the popcorn – it’ll be like Christmas come early. But for me, I despair at the general unwillingness to reason and discuss without abuse.
There appears to be an intellectual laziness that prefers the low hanging fruits of insult and derision over a respectful and robust debate. Admittedly in any such a debate I would be the classic villain – picture Tony Abbott at Penny Wong’s wedding or a vegan activist at an Australia Day BBQ. I’m a conservative minister with a wife, seven kids and an Aussie Bulldog. I believe all sex outside of marriage is wrong, and I am wholly opposed to redefining the Marriage Act. And if that isn’t bad enough, I’m a Melbourne Storm and Collingwood supporter. Enough said.
Nonetheless, here is my appeal in the words of poet John Milton – ‘let truth and falsehood grapple’. There are individuals and groups on both sides who cannot see far enough past their own positions to realise there is more at stake than just ‘winning the fight’. As our nation heads into one of the largest public debates of our time, we should let opposing arguments wield whatever persuasive power they might possess to convince one way or the other. If either side truly believes they are right, then their arguments stand or fall on their merits without resorting to unhelpful scare campaigns and personal attacks.
From lazy insults about the Gay Gestapo and malicious allusions concerning paedophilia to manufactured outrage about homophobic statements or beliefs, there is plenty of guilt to go around. But at some point after the vote, we’ll need to live and work together again. Our kids will have play dates, we’ll attend the same rugby games, see the same doctor and maybe even live in the same neighbourhood. All the more reason to ensure we value both free speech and civility because disagreement is inevitable in a pluralistic society, yet we must live well with one another.
I realise that in my desire to see free speech and civility I have assumed their value without establishing it. More than that, the two are not of equal value, free speech is indispensable whereas civility is only preferable – however, democracy without civility runs the danger of tyranny. As Samuel Johnson said, “…once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.” It’s an important point to make because there are some who assume the institution of marriage is merely a socially subjective construct which can become anything one likes. It is not surprising if you take that position, then supporting homosexual marriage seems so obvious it is difficult to imagine why anyone might oppose it unless they were a bigot.
However, there are also those who believe very strongly that the institution of marriage is a definitive institution with a raison d’etre. It exists to bring together a man and a woman in a biological, social and legal covenant, with a purpose to provide for and protect any children they may have. Bertrand Russel (not normally quoted by Presbyterian Ministers approvingly) explained this when he said, “…it is through children alone that sexual relations become important to society and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution.” To someone like me, the traditional, natural and legal definition is not only reasonable but honourable. There is nothing remotely homophobic about this meaning of marriage, but it is incompatible with homosexual unions.
So the nation has another choice to make concerning the plebiscite, but it has nothing to do with how we vote, and everything to do with who we are as a nation. And while the plebiscite is an important once in a lifetime debate with major social implications, the way we debate is also important, because that too speaks of our values. So ‘let truth and falsehood grapple’ and let it be done with civility.
Darren Middleton is a Teaching Elder at the North Geelong Presbyterian Church in Victoria, Australia.