Saturday, 27 February 2010

Gay Marriage and "Expressive Significance"

In an interview with The Nation as part of her promotion of her new book From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and  Constitutional Law there are a number of interesting points made by Martha Nussbaum. The general argument of the book, which sounds like it will be a must-read, is to the effect that most of the "arguments" against gay marriage are effectively non-public when looked at with a critical eye. The most serious of them, she suggests, are ways of expressing a generic feeling - disgust - which is not capable of being incorporated into public reason. Evaluation of this general argument and the alternative she offers to such responses - a politics of humanity - will have to wait until I have had time to read the book. But in the interview she uses a very important phrase which captures well the reasons why gay people want to get married and what, I suspect, is at issue in the opposition to this. She speaks of the "expressive significance" of the ceremonial occasion for the people in question and for those who value that couple.

When I and my partner had a Civil Partnership ceremony four years ago now this notion of "expressive significance" was very much to the forefront of my mind. The exceptional sense that the relationship we had formed and which we had waited many years to have recognised in this way was at last being formally sanctioned and expressly commended as a role model for others - this was for me one of the most moving elements of the experience of the event. This significance, it seems to me, is precisely what advocates of gay marriage are most concerned to claim for their union. And, it is precisely this that the opponents of gay marriage are most adamant in opposing. It's true, as Nussbaum indicates in passing, that many arguments against gay marriage are "religious" in nature, meaning that people cite particular Scriptures as indicative of a certain timeless truth and has having evident meaning. Such use of the Scriptures in question is not, and never has been in the history of any religion, uncontested. The comprehension of the books in question has been always part of a history of struggle within the communities of those who believe in them and as John Boswell demonstrated some time ago in his superb book Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, homosexuality in particular, has been responded to in rather varied ways within the history of Christianity.

In any case, such "religious" objections to one side, the response that Nussbaum is tracing is one that should be recognised squarely as what it is. Those who oppose gay marriage oppose it directly because the "expressive significance" that it certainly has for those to whom it would be awarded is precisely what they wish to deny us.

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