Conservative political ideology requires a certain kind of imagination. There was a past, it exemplified particular values, and we want to replicate those values in the present. The past is an anchor which will keep us safe in the rough storms of uncertainty and modernity. The problem is that the past often throws up inconvenient deviations from this glorious fantasy, and then conservative intellectuals have to work out how to reconcile the ideal past with the empirical record.
Even so, I was struck by Tony Abbott’s reimagination of marriage in his address to Alliance Defending Freedom.
Marriage, actually, was never just about two people who love each other. Siblings love each other. Parents love their children and vice versa. Friends can love each other. You don’t need to be married to love someone. It’s only in recent times, that marriage has been about romantic love. Marriage arose as a way of dealing with human imperfection. It was to keep men more committed and less likely to abandon their wives and children – and I doubt that we have become so flawless that this no longer matters. In Australia, just a decade ago, almost unanimously, the parliament affirmed that marriage was between a man and a woman. Now, there are many MPs who want men to be able to marry men and women to be able to marry women if that’s their choice. But there are also many on the other side who don’t assume that this generation is more enlightened than its forbears and who are reluctant to change what was taken for granted for thousands of years.
This is utter nonsense.
Before we get into why it is nonsense, we should start somewhere else. I’ve complained in the past of ‘Positionism’, the theory that you work out a person’s political allegiances by reference to the statements they affirm rather than the reasoning process by which they came to a position. So homophobia, racism, and sexism are all ‘conservative’ regardless of their origin, resulting in the extremely awkward position of stating that yesterday’s radicals were secretly conservatives in disguise.
But we’re also getting a different kind of performance: in order to assert a particular kind of identity (in this case, conservative) you have to show it by saying something wrongheadedly offensive. It’s practically an oath of allegiance. We have a group of parliamentarians in Australia who identify and are identified as ‘far right conservatives’ who contribute nothing to public discourse besides homophobia and racism. When public institutions and cultural organisations are facing closure, they don’t utter a word. When economic rationalism is used to justify closures of public services, they remain silent. But when a Muslim wants to feel included in society, all of a sudden the sky is falling and Westminster itself will crumble.
Everybody agrees that the nature of marriage has changed over time and across cultures. The puzzle is why heterosexuality is the sticking point. We no longer consider it necessary for the marriage to be only between people of the same religion, or same economic class, or same ‘race’. We no longer force women to be married against their will — it is a voluntary union.
And the changes to divorce have clearly done away with most of our older beliefs about marriage. ‘For life’. ‘To the exclusion of all others’.
Marriage is about family. Our understanding of family has changed over time and, accordingly, our understanding of marriage has changed as well. For my kind of conservatism, family is a core unit of concern. To then say that family is only for heterosexuals is absurd. We already allow homosexuals to adopt and they can get surrogacy to have children of their own. If I’m going to promote the idea of family, it is illogical to restrict homosexuals from being able to marry.
Perhaps the real question is why we continue to have this phony debate. We’re not arguing with rational people who are engaging in serious public debate. We’re dealing with people who think that addressing fringe hate groups is a sensible course of action for a former Prime Minister. These are hateful people and the media shouldn’t be facilitating their vandalism.