It seems that there are all sorts of problems that arise whenever we start to talk about same-sex marriage.
There are problems with redefinition, with misdirection, denial, intolerance, tradition, issues around procreation, fear of change, issues surrounding normality, huge problems with value judgements and truth-claims as well as difficulty containing our emotions when others disagree with our position.
All of this seems to come about because of what seems to be an overarching problem: we only ever get to start to talk about it.
This has once again been evidenced by two articles that have appeared in the Gippsland press over the last couple of weeks, in the Sale and Maffra media.
Both of these articles attempt to reduce the issue to a few superficial sentences and/or trivialise it by mixing it in with several other non-related issues.
In small, digestible, sensational sound-bites these articles introduce assumptions that have not been tested, half truths and assessments that mostly reflect personal social values.
As far as I have witnessed across the entire course of this debate in Gippsland over the last year or so, this has been one of the greatest obstacles to all of us gaining a clear perspective of this issue and its wider implications for us as a nation.
The sound-bite nature of the modern media has the effect of reducing the possibility of an articulated examination of statements and positions put forth and thereby gaining a clear understanding of the issues to virtually nil.
Within this general approach half-truth misdirection and innuendo seem inevitably to gain the upper hand, mainly because they make good headlines.
On the occasions when obfuscation like this has been deliberate (and there have been such occasions) it’s been nothing short of appalling.
On those occasions when it has been the result of inadvertence or inexperience, I’ve found it to be just plain embarrassing to me as an Australian. I am (by nature and education) a scientist and educator.
My own education has included many of the social sciences including Sociology, Psychology, Human Sexuality and Philosophy.
The discipline of science, I’ve found, generates a special relationship with truth…particularly with what I will call public truth.
This is an obligation to record what you have done as accurately as you can, never fabricating, never distorting, and never suppressing findings unfavourable to your conclusions.
On the surface, the issue of gay marriage seems small – whether two men or two women should be able to be joined in matrimony.
On an individual level this decision doesn’t impinge on anyone other than the two people concerned.
Problems seem to arise when we begin to politicise the issue…and the problems, I suspect, are quite a bit bigger and deeper than we realise.
When individuals begin quoting from anything, be it the bible or the dictionary, they almost invariably fall prey to using language to express value judgments.
The writers of the articles I mentioned earlier seem to have likewise succumbed.
When, for example, we hear of marriage being defined (in the dictionary) as a union between a man and a woman, this is true and correct, but only up to a point.
Directly following that definition comes one that defines it as: any intimate union, then a host of other applications ranging from economic, to nautical and on to engineering.
When this method of employing language becomes the norm, half-truth and misdirection gain the upper hand and public truth is not served.
As a social scientist and therefore someone who is interested in language, I tend to use the dictionary a lot.
One of the things I personally find most fascinating about it is that it is a book of alternatives and diversity.
Open it to any page and you’ll find that words with a multitude of meanings and applications vastly outnumber those with only one.
In its explanation and unpacking of language it provides us with all the various applications and meanings, not just the ones we want to hear or use.
Value judgement – the temptation individuals seem to fall prey to when quoting – is politics being brought to bear on what is an essentially value free text…and it’s when we do this that we need to start asking bigger and deeper questions about what we are doing and who we are.
Part of the nature of politics is that it involves methods and manoeuvres.
We all know that politicians act in accordance with a definite plan, using tactics and skilful manipulation.
We are also increasingly seeing religious groups and organisations step into the political arena, all seeking to influence both public opinion and policy.
One consequence of this is that concepts like truth, public truth, blur or even disappear in the process.
Sir John Cornforth AC CBE (Australian of the Year 1975, Winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry) wrote of this cumulative process, “For a politician, truth is something to hide and twist, and to tell only when it is entirely favourable.
For the media, truth is of secondary importance except sometimes as a defence to an action for libel or slander.
For advertising people, truth is like the pinch of baking powder in a muffin-it puffs up a mass of misdirection into something that the public will swallow.
One of the key ways we can see Sir John’s descriptions in action rests in how we use language.
Often how we, the general population, use it filters through from how politicians and others with whom we identify personally (religious leaders, for example) use it.
The trouble with truth: There is a general tendency when we talk about truth to apply it as a sort of common-sense understanding, something that sits right with fact and reality.
We link truth with notions of genuineness and actual existence.
Truth, as it happens, is a concept that has long been puzzled over by the discipline of philosophy.
This is largely because it has an elusive side, particularly when it comes genuineness and actual existence.
One of the prime functions of philosophy is to attempt to understand what it is people are (actually) doing when they are engaged in a particular activity.
In this way philosophy becomes a discipline that links all other disciplines for it then allows us to begin to make comparisons: we can compare what people are doing when engaged in one activity (say, politics) with what others are doing when engaged in another (say, religion for example).
One of our greatest living philosophers, Richard Rorty (you can Google him) has spent a great deal of his life and work understanding truth as a concept.
What he has uncovered – and reported on in great detail – has had implications for how we go about both defining and using truth (yes, truth is a kind of tool).
This has been of particular importance to disciplines like science, for truth has long been associated with fact.
This is no longer necessarily the case. In a (very tightly packed) nutshell, Rorty tells us that in order to define truth, to say what it is, we must of necessity use language.
Language is a uniquely human activity and – importantly – creation. All of this has direct implications for the concept of truth.
Rorty’s logic is fairly simple from here.
If truth is in essence a product of language and language is a human creation, truth, at its core is also a human creation.
We, each of us, define and create what is true in accordance with our own objectives as we speak it.
Rorty is telling us that, until we actually define and create truth, it does not (cannot) exist independently.
Genuineness and actual existence are not necessarily characteristics of truth.
Subjectivity (our own interests and biases at a particular time) renders what we consider to be true, highly contingent.
This leads us back to comparing what we are doing when engaged in one activity with another.
The two activities I’ve mentioned above – politics and religion – within the context of the current debate in Gippsland, would seem to have some explaining to do: What is the truth they are currently engaged in trying to create?
In the Gay Marriage Opposition Campaign that ran across much of the last year, the (Catholic) Bishop of Sale was given the responsibility to speak publicly on behalf of Victorian Bishops in an article that appeared in the Gippsland Times and encouraged Catholics to respond to a survey being conducted by Federal Parliament.
These activities, it appears, are an attempt to create a particular (contingent) truth by sheer weight of numbers: the more people who say something is true, the more true it must be.
In that same article the Bishop also made reference to the truth of what it means to be a human person as being central to our understanding of marriage.
To me, this seems a bit like a misdirection.
Given Rorty’s work, it would seem that if there is any truth associated with what it means to be human, it would be that it is for each of us to define…unencumbered.
We already have a long history of doing precisely this in pursuits such music, art, science, medicine, philosophy, politics, technology, archaeology, history, multiculturalism and sexuality, to name but a few.
As I’ll touch on presently, we also have this history in terms of nation-building, defining who we are and how we think about ourselves collectively a Australians.
Our Australian-ness, as we have grown and developed as a nation, has been a form of truth creation.
It’s probably necessary for me to state, clearly, that I do not have a (party) political preference here.
I come from a scientific perspective and am therefore concerned with understanding the natural and social world as it is, not as I would construct it or would like it to be.
I have my values and beliefs (my subjectivity) like everyone else, but understand the need to be aware of this when attempting to understand the world I live in.
Attempting to impose a truth of what it means to be human is a fraught issue.
Who’s truth do we choose and why?
Who’s interests are being served by our choice?
Who’s human-ness are we rejecting or destroying by choosing one truth over another?
How do our choices restrict or impinge on our own human-ness or those we hold dear?
What if we’re wrong?
I could be wrong, but it seems that the Bishop, the church and I, in this instance, are not on the same page in this regard.
Religion as an activity (and you can check this in a dictionary like I did) is essentially a quest, a search in order to find or obtain something.
In this case it appears that quest is to define the truth of what it means to be human, in a particular way.
A fundamental problem we incur when we try and do this however, is that we try to impose a truth-structure (one we have created in line with an established set of values attached) onto a diverse aspect of human nature like human sexuality that we cannot reasonably hope to be encompassed in this way.
Now, I’m aware that I’ve just use the term human nature and have thereby potentially reignited notions of what is natural into this debate.
In a sense the Bishop has already done that with reference to the truth about what it means to be human.
Often debate about what constitutes a natural human sexuality concludes with same-sex attraction being inherently un-natural.
This is not the case. In order to clearly understand the language we are engaged with here, I’ve turned to the dictionary (I did say previously that I do this a lot).
The Macquarie Dictionary (Australia’s National Dictionary) defines the word natural in a very large number of ways.
There is however, a somewhat common thread across the various ways the word is used and understood.
Definition #7 appears to give a reasonable overview in the following way: having a real or physical existence, as opposed to one that is spiritual, intellectual or fictitious.
Humans and their sexuality exist out there in the world independently of the ways in which we might try to impose structures on them.
The fact that we as a nation are currently engaged in this debate is evidence enough.
This is philosophy in action.
It is the means by which we try and impose structures – like religious, political and yes even intellectual ones – upon them that are false.
They are false in that they are social constructions that we invent and use as tools.
The trouble with tools is that we use them for specific purposes…and this is the essence of the trouble with truth.
We tool truth to fit what it is we are trying to do with it.
The way we choose to construct truth – to tool it to our purposes – speaks directly to who we are and how we think about ourselves collectively as a nation.
This is where things – the questions we perhaps need to start asking ourselves – get bigger and deeper.
Ultimately, engaging in the activity of truth-creation defines us as Australians.
We’d best be sure that the truth we create about ourselves is the one we really want.
This leads us on to politics.
We are one, but we are many…
Many of you reading this will remember that last year we had Tony Abbott visit Gippsland as his bike ride progressed from Canberra to Melbourne.
I was curious to see him – and what it is he claims to represent – in person, so I went to his forum in Sale.
The experience I had that night change me profoundly.
It was, to say the least, a loss of innocence and an incarnate example of all that Sir John spoke about in 1975.
What has been particularly telling in the year since that forum is that no one in the regional media has spoken about what took place on that night.
It seems that the wider implications for what was said and done have been missed.
At this forum, after a brief speech encompassing the many faults of current government and how that would be rectified when he won the next election, questions were taken from the floor.
Mostly these questions followed the now-familiar line of worries about money and jobs which Mr Abbott assuaged with promises for a future filled with increased power for us to consume.
Then he did something I was not expecting.
In the space of around a dozen sentences, Mr Abbott moved from the world of economics, facts and figures (quoting a paper released by the Labor Party itself that demonstrated that the carbon tax would not have any effect on overall emissions) into the realm of social policy.
What was so disturbing – and telling – in this transition was that his language changed profoundly as well.
A man stood and voiced his concern that the Greens were seeking to effect a change in the marriage act, to bring about access and equality to same-sex marriage.
Mr Abbott, after stating that it was not for him to discriminate against anyone … but … having said that went on to say “I believe” that marriage is a union between a man and a woman”.
This statement was greeted with loud applause from the audience. With a sweeping gesture he then went on to add, “and these people believe that marriage is a union between a man and a woman too,” indicating the regional politicians and party members also present.
On witnessing this brief exchange, the shift in language and the reaction of the audience, I realised (very suddenly) that the issue of same sex marriage is much bigger than I had previously imagined, or has previously been described in the regional media.
It has implications that I had not realised until that moment.
In his brief exchange, Mr. Abbott crystallised the issue and shifted it beyond the scope of politics.
There is a profound shift involved in the way we think about an issue when we move from a position of reason to one of belief.
Reason seeks grounds-for, it seeks causes and explanations when we draw conclusions or make inferences.
Reason requires us to question and to doubt.
It is effectively an ongoing dialogue with the world around us.
Most of the way in which we have come to understand the natural and social world has taken place through this process.
When we choose to believe, in a fundamental way we cease that dialogue.
We accept, or are persuaded to accept, that a premise is true, on-faith.
When “I believe” is offered by a potential Prime Minister as a basis for forming social policy, this is something that has implications reaching far beyond the issue of gay marriage.
In shifting from reasoned thinking (evidence-based guidelines) when he is engaged in the practice of economic engineering, to a vocabulary of “I believe” when engaging in the practice of social engineering, Mr Abbott is forcing us to ask much larger and more fundamental questions.
These are questions that move beyond how we think about the issue of marriage, to how we think about ourselves as Australians.
What I witnessed in those few sentences on that Tuesday night in Sale has posed a question I’m still having difficulty getting out of my head a year later: When it comes to social policy – to how we think about, live with and regard each other – are we, as Australians, a nation of rational, thinking people, or are we a nation of believers?
The implications of this question are vast.
They go to the core of who we are and how we think about ourselves.
Why is all of this so important?
Firstly, inherent in the notion of belief is a conviction of truth.
We believe something is true even though the reality of it is based on grounds that are insufficient to establish positive knowledge – the facts.
Proof and reason are often absent.
This has been abundantly evident in the Gippsland media across the last year.
A problem with this as an approach to the social world (and we have an ample national, global and now regional history to draw on here) is that often it is the ones who are most convinced that they are right (convinced beyond reason) who make the most noise and do the most damage.
Secondly, when we talk about and pursue economics we talk about money, jobs, production, distribution and consumption – the material welfare of our nation.
These are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life.
When we shift into our social world however, we begin to talk about the things we stay alive for: who we are, who we love, how we regard and relate to one another, how we think about ourselves collectively as a nation.
If it is not sufficient to leave economics (and the things that sustain life) to methods based on belief, how can we expect our social world (the things that we live for) to fare better when this is the case?
I’ve been wondering ever since if those who applauded so loudly at the forum have thought this issue and its implications through clearly.
It is perhaps important to keep in mind here that, since Mr Abbott has shifted the issue of same sex marriage above the purely political in our region and nationally, it will now be necessary for all politicians to begin to address these kind of questions.
This is precisely what happened in New Zealand recently.
Until this is done we – the rest of us – as Australians will be in some way hampered in fundamental ways of how we think about ourselves and relate to each other.
Gay marriage, at its core, is an issue of equality, parity.
Same-sex attracted people are not seeking anything more than anyone else in Australia.
They are seeking access to participate equally in society.
This is something we, as Australians, have a history of valuing almost sacredly.
Denying equal access to marriage, particularly on the basis of belief, also carries with it another very big implication for how we think about ourselves as Australians.
Very early on in my education process, I was asked to write a paper on the idea that Australia is a classless society.
This is something we also have history of valuing very highly.
I didn’t do a very good job on that paper mainly because I didn’t – quite – understand what it was I was being asked to identify.
One of the key things we value as Australians is the notion that we, all of us, have the capacity for economic and social recognition and mobility.
This is the land of the “fair go” and “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”
On Australia Day every year we celebrate the fact that we welcome diversity and that privilege is something all Australians earn.
The song we use to celebrate this begins with the line: we are one, but we are many.
This is part of the fundamental character of our nation, our identity…something we have come to pride ourselves on.
If we continue to recognise the rights of same-sex couples in law (they are protected and cared for under our legal system) but refuse parity with regard to marriage, we are literally transforming marriage into a form of “unearned privilege”.
People who are opposite-sex attracted may marry by no other virtue than being born opposite-sex attracted.
This will see the establishment of a two-tiered system of equality in this country and the notion of Australia as a classless society will be lost permanently.
Denying equal access to marriage on the basis of belief, has implications that will fundamentally shift how we see ourselves and relate to each other.
As a social scientist and educator it is not my role to believe…and leave it at that. It is my duty to ask, to measure, to check…and to doubt.
Sir John cautions that: “It is the duty of a scientist to question all theories and assumptions – especially their own.” I’m having trouble at this time getting past the notion that politicians, starting with Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, have a similar duty.
It is not enough in this day and age for a politician to limit themself to belief, to proffer that as a basis for the formation of social policy and to then carry that forth with a perspective that appears limited to the next election and little beyond.
Tactics, manoeuvres and manipulation like this simply won’t do. The wider implications of this approach are too big. This duty, I feel, extends now to all politicians.