To debate an issue, according to most dictionaries, is to engage in argument by discussing opposing ideas, or to deliberate and consider various views. The freedom to engage in rigorous debate is one of the primary indicators of a healthy society.
By any standard definition, the current ‘debate’ about the future status and potential redefining of marriage – and therefore family – which is often mentioned by Prime Minister David Cameron, is no debate at all.
As things stand, there is no public and even-handed airing of issues for and against. There is no careful deliberation about what changes made today will mean for society as a whole – psychologically, sociologically or economically.
And no consideration is being given to what changes made today might mean for future generations.
Instead, we hear in the main only one side of the argument. In the public forum, it is presented as a fait accompli, largely by members of various elites who seem to feel that they are, by design of Nature, the final arbiters of social mores.
The Law Society provides a good example. Representing as it does the interests of lawyers in England and Wales, this group presumably respects proven social institutions and current laws.
It seems that for them, though, the issue of what constitutes a marriage – and family – is already settled, despite the fact that the law itself has not reached that conclusion.
Last week, the Society withdrew permission for the use of its London headquarters for an event debating issues surrounding same-sex marriage and marriage in general.
The non-political and non-religious event was to have been addressed by various lawyers, journalists and think-tank leaders and by Sir Paul Coleridge, the Family Division judge who recently launched a new charity to combat marital break-up.
By way of explanation, the Society offered up the rather lame but nonetheless revealing excuse that debating such issues as same-sex marriage breached its ‘diversity policy’.
Surely, there must be someone within the Society’s upper echelons who can see the irony in claiming a diversity policy that allows no diversity of opinion.
The view of the Society is not currently reflected in the statute books. Nor has it ever been seriously considered in the long and often illustrious history of our civilisation. Yet they hold to it as forcefully as if it had it been a celebrated part of our core social fabric for generations.
The key issue here is not solely the institution of marriage, however. The lack of debate itself has wider implications for us as a society, for it goes to the nub of how we are governed and by whom.
Noam Chomsky offered this on the dangers to society of restricting debate: ‘The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.’
This, of course, is not what democracy should be about. That government – or those who work closely with it – are able to define the parameters of a debate and keep us talking only within those lines is far from democratic.
Yet it seems that, on the central issues of marriage and family, this is largely the position of the British government.
If we are to be governed by lobby groups, we can expect wide-ranging debate to fall out of fashion.
Lobbying is, after all, the representation of one point of view over and above all others. It is the art of encouraging one line of thinking, particularly among leaders and opinion-formers, to the exclusion of others.
Some might argue that the Law Society is a form of glorified lobby group, charged with looking after their interests as a professional group.
If that is true, though, it should be willing to accommodate those from among its ranks who actually want to debate issues like the place of the nuclear family and its role in promoting the common good.
For their part, libertarian lobbyists are very good at providing the appearance of debate. Once they feel secure enough that their ideal is winning the day – by virtue of sheer persistence if not the strength of their argument – they may tolerate platforms where ‘less enlightened’ views can be heard.
Some may even speak up in defense of their opponents, in order to be seen as free speech advocates.
The one thing they cannot generally abide, however, is true debate on a level playing field. Very often, they carry with them too much of a victim mindset to be comfortable with that. The same, it must be said, seems to be true of some within religious communities who mistake bias for persecution.
When it comes to lobbyists of any persuasion, one might expect a certain reluctance to debate. Politicians, however, are meant to be, if anything, the targets of lobbying, not the ones doing it.
The Prime Minister appears to have made up his mind that the argument over the shape of marriage is already decided and that he can keep people pliant by limiting public discussion on the issue.
At the same time, he is avidly supporting the idea of forcing internet servers to provide parents with an opt-out – or better still, an initial opt-in – when it comes to online porn services. This, he says, is the best way to protect children from the devastating effects of pornography.
He is absolutely right to support such an idea – and should be applauded for doing so. Few things destroy innocence and emotional security for a child like premature sexualisation.
At the same time, his government is investing in programmes to help new parents to bond with their children. He insists that these ‘bonding classes’, as some have named them, do not represent a nanny-state approach. They are, he says, simply a wise, proactive step which will help families to better serve children.
Again, this is perhaps a worthwhile programme, though only time will tell how much a government can offer what broken extended families have failed to provide.
Yet the Prime Minister does not seem to see the inconsistency of promoting the welfare of children on one hand while effectively ruling on the other that marriage, the foundation of the family, should be deconstructed and replaced with something that is totally unproven.
A debate about redefining marriage should not focus primarily on individual adult rights. To a large degree, it should dwell on the best interests of children, who suffer most when the marriage bond is ‘tweaked’, weakened or broken.
Reputable independent studies continue to reveal that children who are raised by a mother and father, in a long-term and stable relationship, will suffer fewer developmental problems, on average, than children who do not.
Making divorce easier has already had a considerable, negative impact on the wellbeing of children in our society. Deconstructing the marriage bond itself will potentially make the situation immeasurably worse for future generations. This is not being debated.
A true debate about marriage should also focus on the balance between personal autonomy and social responsibility – or what members of the Queen’s generation would call our ‘duty’.
Our country is in trouble economically partly because we’ve tended to worship autonomy over accountability.
In their rush to make profits and keep up with the corporate Joneses, certain bankers acted irresponsibly, placing personal short-term gain over the long-term interests of other people.
But they’re not the only ones to have done so. Throughout society as a whole, people have often indulged in behaviour that seems right or beneficial to them as individuals at the time, sometimes sacrificing the appropriate for the convenient.
We have sometimes opted for what best expresses our individual freedoms, without necessarily giving much forethought as to its future consequences.
Any true debate on the shape of marriage would focus on the future ramifications of decisions made today. After all, what one generation tolerates, the next may treat as normal.
How will an emerging youth generation burnish its own liberal credentials? It will take things one step further than its parents did. What then for marriage?
Technologists will agree that conditions already exist that might make cyber-marriage a desirable reality. People are already forming romantic and even erotic relationships online. Almost 20 percent of divorces in this country cite Facebook as a contributing factor.
Might not some of these people want their ‘relationship’ to be granted the kudos and protections of marriage, despite the fact that it is lived out primarily (or totally) online?
And what about the possibility of human-robot marriages? This may sound far-fetched, but wi-fi was sci-fi not long ago. Academics at Wellington University in New Zealand are predicting that robotic prostitutes will take over from their human counterparts within the next 30 years.
Sony is now studying Robot Anthropology, in order to understand or project how robots will interact with human beings in the next decade or so. Meanwhile, we are increasingly anthropomorphising machines and sophisticated, humanoid sex toys are already finding their way onto the market.
If, as many technologists expect, we will increasingly relate to robots as if they were human, why would human-machine marriages not become a desirable objective for some people? Wouldn’t denying the possibility interfere with their right to self-expression?
These are not pie-in-the-sky questions for future generations. They are scenarios already made plausible by rapidly developing technologies. We must ask the question: what happens to marriage in ten years if we further deconstruct it now?
Instead of cynically using the marriage unit for political purposes, as a way of projecting his own liberal views, Mr Cameron should pause to reflect on what constitutes a true debate – and what makes the core of a stable family.
He should think carefully what traditional marriage means to this country, psychologically, sociologically and economically. The fact that many marriages have failed is no reason for deconstructing the institution itself.
If the Prime Minister wants a debate on the shape and health of family and marriage, as he says he does, then he should open his mind and his government to an honest, forthright and prolonged discussion.