If there’s one thing a Canadian is most likely to issue harmlessly patriotic, yet annoyingly self-congratulatory proclamations about, it’s gay marriage. “You can’t marry your same-sex partner in the United States, now, can you?” they often ask, following this in rapid succession by, “You can’t smoke marijuana to alleviate your cancer pain there, either, can you?” I would respond that I don’t have a same-sex partner –or cancer, for that matter– but I think there is a more effective way of nipping this incipient national pride (always a bad thing, in my view) in the bud, and that is to remind them that Canada, in spite of the impression one might get in the cosmopolitan city centers, has, per capita, just about as many unenlightened yokels as its southern neighbor, and gay marriage is by no means a solid and uncontroversial institution from Vancouver Island to the distant Maritimes.
Canadian Liberals imagine that theirs is the natural, spontaneous, and common-sensical position on social and ethical questions, and that anything that deviates to the left or right of this is ideology. It has thus been quite something to watch the latest squabble in the war over gay marriage, in which Steven Harper, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, announced that permitting gay marriage may set Canada on a slippery slope towards tolerance of polygamy. Leaders of the Canadian Islamic communities, courting favor with the Liberals, insisted to Harper that they would not take the precedent of legal gay marriage as an opportunity to press the case for recognition of the practice –not widespread, but nonetheless existent in Islam– of taking more than one wife. The Liberals for their part declaimed loudly that the two issues have absolutely nothing in common.
Reactionary politicians in the United States, such as Rep. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, have from time to time worried out loud that the recognition of gay marriages would inevitably lead to a society that accepted, e.g., bestiality. This worry is different from Harper’s, for there has never been a society that condoned such a thing, at least as a regular practice. Polygamy, in contrast, is well attested in a number of different societies in different times and places. If I were to slip and forget for a moment what a philosophically problematic notion this is, I would affirm that polygamy is natural,.
More cautiously, it’s at least safe to say that it’s a kinship structure that appears regularly and spontaneously in different human societies, and that, at least in principle, can exist stably in these societies without duress or coercion. (Much like, I dare say, homosexuality.) At present, a number of E. U. countries are considering legislation that would recognise the multiple, simultaneous marriages of immigrants from countries that allow polygamy. If Canada wishes to be not just liberal with respect to the freely chosen lifestyles of its citizens but also truly multicultural, recognizing the customs of the different cultures that don’t just ornament or embellish, but in fact –if the rhetoric of Canadian identity is to be believed– constitute the very essence of Canada, then it would seem that the Liberal dismissal of the prospect of polygamy in Canada violates the very spirit of Canadian multicultural civic life.
But, a Liberal might protest, even if polygamy could in principle be practiced in a harmonious and egalitarian way, de facto it is always an expression of male dominance, and involves the coercion and oppression of women. Thus, to keep polygamy off the list of acceptable social forms is only to follow that sound principle whereby a liberal society tolerates everything up to but not including patently illiberal practices.
In response, though, one could point out to the Liberal that much the same could be said of marriage itself. In most times and places, marriage has involved coercion of women into an oppressive and exploitative arrangement. Today’s marriages, where women keep their given names, and men wear pregnancy-simulating baby harnesses, or where men marry men and women women, and both keep their last names, are the result of a restructuring of the institution along liberal, egalitarian lines. And a sufficiently far- sighted progressive might reasonably ask: why stop here?
And this is why it seems to me the Canadian liberals are a bit too pleased with themselves. For if they would have it that, contrary to what the Conservatives claim, there is nothing uniquely natural, about a union between a man and a woman, then it seems reasonable to ask: what on earth is so natural about groups of two? Why not allow people to enter into whatever sort of union they find agreeable? Yes to polygamy, but yes to polyandry, too! Yes to marriage en masse among all the residents of an old folks, home! Why not –to sound a generation behind my time– let a whole commune full of orgiasts call each other husband and wife, if they are so inclined?
Of course, here, a Liberal will respond that this is all far too utopian, that the demand for the right to gay marriage has to do most of all with questions of social and economic justice, with the reasonable expectation among gays that they should be able to file income taxes the way heterosexual couples do, and inherit property in the same way.
But it is not utopian to suggest that how someone is taxed should perhaps not have anything to do with who they are having sex with, and to demand that the very same social advantages be available to stay-at-home couples, to promiscuous prowlers, and to homely losers who spend their adult lives in their elderly parents, basements. As long as these advantages remain tied to marriage, then marriage, whether gay or straight, remains a coercive institution.
This is why I have to say to the Canadians, to my adoptive countrymen and women, that there is just something creepily conservative about this celebration of gay marriage. For what is being celebrated is effectively a simulation of plain old-fashioned straight marriage, and I would like to think that liberals could be more imaginative.
They might imagine, for example, a world in which who one has sex with, or who one loves, does not determine one’s social identity, or one’s economic standing.
Isn’t it, after all, a vestige of an antiquated world view that allows immigration authorities to stop by for unexpected visits, to search for evidence that a couple, one a citizen of the developed world and one a displaced third-worlder, actually know each other in that profound and Biblical sense? What kind of belief system is it that makes an African man’s sexual performance relevant to his claim to a right to remain in Europe, Canada, or the U.S.? What if the two just enjoy each other’s company? Shouldn’t that be enough to gain the immigrant admission?
And yet, most of us, the Canadian Liberals included, take it for granted that rights, concerning immigration, or the filing of income taxes, or inheritance, can justly be made contingent upon the circumstances of one’s intimate life.
That, if I may speak in the style of Rick Santorum, is perverted.
JUSTIN E.H. SMITH is a writer and professor of philosopher in Canada. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org