Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Hillary and the gay marriage debate, or, The endless fight for solidity

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton sat down with the Human Rights Campaign. Marriage, she said, is "a fundamental building block of our society", turning what is generally a criticism of gay marriage into a argument for it. You can see the same turn when a republican senator's son came out, prompting him to adopt the pro-gay "stability" stance, albeit with an edge of self-reflection

When Maria Miller, culture secretary and the conservative MP for Basingstoke, gave her statement to parliament on the gay marriage bill, she ended it on a similar note, arguing for marriage through suggesting that it is what provides institutional foundation:

"...Marriage is one of the most important institutions we have. It binds families and society together. It is a building block that promotes stability."

When I mentioned Miller's statement to my students a few weeks ago when we were studying Zymunt Bauman, I asked them what they thought this might suggest. Social theory teaching always works much better if I can get students to transpose abstract thought onto topical matters. Marriage is, fundamentally, fundamental. It offers solidity. That's why it's called an institution. It's an anchor of economic stability - it is as much a practical decision as it is a romantic one. By extending that to gay people, "it promotes stability", as Miller says. The fluidity of life today - go where the jobs are, meet people online - sits in direct tension with an institution like marriage. 

As the liquidity of contemporary living subsumes tradition, the project of marriage - our inclination and ability to commit- becomes gradually more precarious. We can talk ourselves blue in the face about trends in British divorce statistics. Gay marriage, though, and Cameron's inclination to push it through, seems just as relevant. If we can look at the ongoing espousal of marriage through a lens of pragmatism - that it is, almost solely, a practical move on the part of the government - I think we get closer to the truth than Clegg and Cameron can with their turgid ramblings about love.

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