Consider the recent feature article penned by Deirdre Macken for the Australian Financial Review, a respectable paper read by the wealthy commercial classes. ("All kinds of families are gathering," AFR, 23-28/12/2010)
Macken begins with the issue of gay marriage. Should the definition of marriage and family include gay spouses? This is how Macken thinks through the issue:
The debate over gay marriage that occupied the last months of the year was not just a battle for the rights of gay couples. It was a battle over family. For gay couples, it was the right to be accepted as equals around the Christmas table. For social conservatives, it was a battle to keep family tight and traditional. For most people, it was a reflection of the idea that family is an endlessly creative social project.
Can you see where this is heading? Macken is going to apply liberal autonomy theory to this issue. That’s the idea that what matters is being able to self-define our existence. By the logic of this theory, the traditional family will be looked on negatively as being “restrictive,” as it has a fixed and stable character that we don’t invent for ourselves. On the other hand, the idea of gay spouses will seem appealing, regardless of what we might think of gay spouses, because it breaks down a stable definition of family life. It contributes to the idea of family as “an endlessly creative social project”.
Gay marriage, in other words, becomes useful as a kind of battering ram to “modernise” (i.e. liberalise) the family.
Now, conservatives often argue against gay marriage on the grounds that it undermines any stable definition of marriage and family. But that won’t cut any ice with liberals, since that is exactly what liberals are aiming at. Macken makes it very clear in her article that what matters for her is to replace a “restrictive” conservative definition of marriage with an open-ended one.
So she approvingly quotes the executive director of Family Relationship Services Australia, Sam Page, in this loose definition of family:
The definition I like now is whoever you share your toothpaste with, that’s your family.
And she chooses as well to include this argument in support of gay marriage made by Sharon Dane, a researcher in social psychology at the University of Queensland:
It is a fight for family because it [gay marriage] will change family. Some people have said, why enter such a paternalistic, rigid institution like marriage but by entering it they are taking marriage away from that patriarchal control and effectively modernising the family.
Macken also chooses to end her article with a quote from Dane. Note again the ideological bias: gay marriage is welcomed not because of what it is but because it is seen to help the cause of liberal autonomy by breaking down the “restrictive” traditional family:
Law [a gay activist] jokes that families are better behaved at Christmas if they are forced to mix with others … some experts believe that what works for the individual family also works for the national family.
That is, they say that extending the social boundaries of family also makes for a civilising influence on an institution that has traditionally been seen as rigid.
Says Dane: “If institutions don’t keep evolving then fewer people will do it but marriage is evolving. More people want to be part of it because it’s seen as a celebration, it’s not seen as a restriction and, even though the institution is changing, it’s also becoming stronger because of that.”
A typical liberal flourish there at the end. Marriage has been reduced to nothing more than a “celebration” (what’s that supposed to mean when the baby is crying at 3am?) but not to worry, it will become “stronger because of that,” i.e. we’re supposed to believe that nothing at all has been lost by making marriage anything you want it to be.
And what about divorce? If the aim is to break down the “rigid” traditional family, in favour of choosing family arrangements for ourselves, then divorce won’t seem to be such a bad thing. It adds another realm of choice, another realm of complexity, more possible permutations and combinations of family arrangements.
And so Macken turns to another liberal family expert for the right quote:
A family law specialist, Caroline Counsel, agrees that “separation does not destroy family, it just means that parents are geographically located in different areas … Counsel specialises in collaborative practice, where couples are encouraged to agree on how the post-marriage family should operate. These agreements are often broader and more creative than ones that go through the courts…
“The courts haven’t led on this, they have been followers but there is scope for them to become leaders because it’s evident that families can be anything they choose to be.
Pure, undiluted, liberal autonomy theory. Divorce here is treated as a creative process of self-definition, that rearranges family rather than harming it.
Who might object? Macken goes on to give an example of a clash between the old and the new:
However, it’s not evident to everyone that families can be anything they choose to be. In the battle between supporters of the traditional family and supporters of a modernised family, one of the more interesting stoushes happened at the annual conference of Family Relationship Services Australia in November.
In brief, FRS decided to have as their keynote speaker a gay activist, Benjamin Law. After his speech he was approached by Margaret Andrews, the wife of conservative politician Kevin Andrews. She told Law that he shouldn’t come to conferences on family and attack traditional families like hers.
Macken is on the opposite side of the fence to me, but she does intelligently lay out what the key issues are. The core concern of liberals like her is not what homosexual marriage might mean in itself. It’s that homosexual marriage (and divorce) fits in with the “modernisation” of family, by which she means the open-ended definition of family to mean anything we want it to mean.
As I mentioned earlier, the result is that we can’t as conservatives simply complain that liberals are redefining marriage so loosely that it can mean anything. That’s exactly the point for liberals. It’s better if we go a step further and criticise the liberal project of making autonomy the prime directive of modern life.
We can also pick up liberals on their claim that nothing will be harmed in the process, that you can have all the goods of traditional family life at the same time that you redefine family to mean anything at all.
It's not difficult to criticise liberals for this. Isn’t it the case, for instance, that the high divorce rate is discouraging young people from committing to marriage? And isn’t it true that young men are questioning the value of marriage, when the role and the rights of men in marriage are so poorly defined and defended?
The irony is that if you make marriage and family a free-for-all, in the cause of autonomous choice, you aren’t likely to give people what they really want or need.
Liberals like Macken want this autonomy, but they don’t want to admit that there might be losses involved. So they make trite claims that family can only be strengthened by making the definition of family almost meaningless (“whoever you share a toothbrush with”).