Wednesday, April 10, 2013

An Open Letter To Rex Ahdar

In case you missed it on Scoop, here is my open letter to Professor of Law at Otago University Rex Ahdar. This is to a response to his opinion piece, "Finding the true essence of marriage".

Since writing my response, I have learned that Ahdar identifies strongly as Roman Catholic.


 Mr Ahdar,

It is with some disappointment and no small amount of disturbance that I recently read your opinion piece on Stuff titled "Finding the true essence of marriage" (8 April, 2013).

Yes, I am gay. I also have an academic degree (MA in English Literature and a major in Religious Studies); in this particular case, my academic background and experience was the main influence for me writing this letter.

Notwithstanding the fact that you categorise the LGBT community as individuals who lack the ability to be "real" parents, my problem with your "argument" stems not from essentially being labelled aberrant. Rather, it is the fact that your supposed "argument concerning the law" masquerades as thinly veiled religious rhetoric.

Indeed, you do not address any religious aspects overtly. Yet the language you use clearly indicates that what you have written is personal opinion, and religiously inclined. Your frequent use of the word "we" is rather defensive, and makes sure to place you within the majority of society, situating a divide between yourselves and those "others" you view as somehow being of a lesser nature.

Furthermore, the final few sentences of your argument additionally highlight the personal opinions behind what you wrote:

• "In the end sit still, close your eyes and quietly ask yourself: can a man marry another man and a woman wed another woman?
What on earth have we come to?"

The imagery evoked here is, to anyone with knowledge of religion, psychology, and language, clearly of a religious nature. To be still with one's eyes closed invokes prayer, and "asking one's self" is, conceptually, "talking to god" or a higher divinity within a religious context. Finally, "What on earth have we come to?" is obviously a statement meant to inspire indignation, a trait often associated with the majority whenever their delicate sensibilities have been offended.

Additionally, there are also a number of inconsistencies in your argument. For example:

• "And lacking reproductive capability they cannot be biological parents."

In vitro fertilisation has been common practise for a number of years now. This clearly enables both homosexual men and women to be biological parents.

• "To redefine marriage is to abolish it."

Incorrect. To 'redefine' anything does not 'abolish' it. Redefinition implies the reconstitution of boundaries previously set out. It does not annihilate the object in question (also, I like how we get the word 'Constitution' from 'reconstitution; I think New Zealand needs one of those).

• "Lacking sexual complementarity, gay couples cannot achieve complete sexual bodily union."

I'm not entirely sure how this statement fits into an argument about the law and gay marriage. Nonetheless, simply taking into account sexual and gender theory/research, it is entirely incorrect, and I have to say, poorly researched.

When referring to how the concept of marriage has been established, you claim a gross inconsistency regarding the concept of marriage:

• When I say "we", I mean every culture, tribe and race since antiquity has recognised these as essential elements of this thing called marriage and accorded such unions special status.

Not so. Indigenous American and African cultures are only some examples of cultural societies that are polyamorous.

I should also point out that your argument is based on a majority perspective, which, in this particular context undermines the entirety of what you are arguing for.

• "Who says these attributes - sexual complementarity, reproductive capacity - are "essential"?
Who says this is the standard?

"We did. We decided that marriage involves the comprehensive sexual union of a man and a woman. "

Your "we" here, of course, refers to the Western majority. A first year philosophy student will be happy to argue the point that "we" is not representative of humanity as a whole. It is simply the majority, expounding the mores and values of an in-group at any given time. Furthermore, the above statement contradicts a previous statement in your argument, i.e.,

• "Marriage has a true essence, a fundamental core; it is a real phenomenon, not just a human invention or convention."

Wait, didn't "we" decide what marriage is? I must also again, as a student of language, point out your revealing word choices: "essence", "fundamental" and "phenomenon", all of which have religious overtones.

As an academic, it concerns me deeply that what you propose to be an argument surrounding the factual basis of the law as it relates to gay marriage is in fact nothing more than disguised rhetoric. Everybody is allowed to have their own personal views and opinions. However, as a Professor at a New Zealand University, I am concerned that your views blatantly contravene the notion of tertiary institutions being environments of acceptance and liberal thinking, two elements that are vital to the type of education students should have access to.


Anonymous said...

Loathe as I am to get too involved in this discussion, I tend to think that most if not all of the things you and he are drawing into the debate here are simply irrelevant.

Your perspective on his representational strategy seems valid... but if his arguments were strong then they shouldn't be rejected in the basis of a flawed presentation. If I argued that the Sun was vital for life because it made me feel happy, you'd be right in saying that my feelings were not important... but that wouldn't change the fact of the sun being vital for life. So to an extent you're engaging in semantics and representational clashes here rather than addressing his core concerns.

To respond to his question about reproductive capabilities in terms of "hell yeah we can" is to allow him to frame the terms of the argument with that as a valid question to ask about marriage. That's where I'd focus my energies. Which is what I mean by things being simply irrelevant. The arguments against the relevance of child-bearing for marriage are not complex, but are persuasive.

I guess my underlying response to almost all of his so-called objections is more of a "so what?" than your annoyance on the semantic level. Gay parents can't have a biological child... so what? Ancient societies wanted marriage to be between a man and a woman... so what?

I guess I feel like neither of you really talks about the issues at the core of this debate, which is partially about "equality" as such, but mostly at a semantic level. The debate is really about a more fundamental reorganization of society around individual choice compared to societal pressures. I think there's a really great argument to be made that the LGBT issues are really a subset of issues relating to a post-scarcity economic model. [Just in time for a "corrective" due to Peak Oil, but nevermind] They're probably the pointy edge of the wedge in terms of everyday life, but they're drawing on the same kinds of destabilization as other problems such as corporations-as-people... YMMV, but my fear is that if we continue to frame these discussions in familiar rhetorical terms (and that applies either way) then we're in danger of missing the more fundamental paradigm changes that are going on in a wider and more pervasive way, but below radar.

On the other hand... I think that certainly his argument was not a good one and an opposite POV needed to be put. On the third hand, I'd like to think there wasn't too much sympathy remaiing for his stance in NZ

Lynne Jamneck said...

But gay parents CAN have biological children.

Also, I was primarily addressing the way he framed his argument as an academic; my main argument was not about marriage equality.

Additionally, as I do more research into language, it has become ever more evident how badly people misuse language on a semantic level, and I think they do so mostly on an unconscious level. However, this has the potential for instilling language, particular words or phrases, with meaning/s they never had.

So indeed, this concerns me.

And I don't like the idea of bigots teaching at universities.

Anonymous said...

Like I say, I see the can/can't as an irrelevance to the real argument.

Otherwise, sure, I can definitely see the benefits of tightly controlled language, and am not in any way advocating bigotry.