ANALYSE: A journalist’s handling of the gay marriage debate

Practical Criticism #2: This irreconcilable debate about the government granting homosexual marriages comes down to definition: what does the word marriage, not the act, mean?

Seeing as policy and practice play such a small part in the discussion, it can only be the job of the Prac-Critter to wade through the shitty swamps of rhetoric and find the golden nugget. The newspapers, MPs, the Church, vie for a voice. So how has Christina Odone, commentator on the issue for The Daily Telegraph, fared in this posturing farce of a word-flinging match?

Depending on how you read it, her article on Wednesday 8th March 2012 (‘Marriage is a blessing, not a fortress that must be stormed’) is full of gusto/guff. Her top-line is unequivocal: “The demand for gay equality threatens to undermine our most valuable institution”. Her two persuasive techniques are rudimentary:

1/ Easy generalisations. Easy to write, easy on the mind, all too easy to skim over and accept in a hurry.

2/ Clerical lexicon. Which shows us just how sacred religion must be, for us to have adopted it into idiom.

First, generalisations. Ms Odone is a bit of a sucker for these, writing in her second paragraph on the fact that “marriage matters”:

“After decades of rejecting the institution as old-fashioned and patriarchal, women and men are both waking up to the fact that it makes overwhelming sense.”

Excuse my ignorance, but which were the decades when all women and men “rejected” marrriage as “old-fashioned and patriarchal”? The ’80s and ’90s? The ’00s? Since 1945 when we all thought: ‘What’s the point in marriage if we’re all going to die at war anyway’? Sorry if I missed it, but I don’t recall the Great Marriage Rejection of 1972. I wonder if that makes chick-flicks the last bastion of religious conservatism? Hold strong, ladies, Patrick Dempsey is waiting down the aisle for you.

Sadly the writer’s flair for flippancy does makes her argument on marriage confused. Remember, this is a debate about the word ‘marriage’, not the act. And Ms Odone has got a little muddled as to what ‘marriage’ actually signifies: It is simultaneously “blessed”, “our most valuable institution” and yet “anything but natural”. It is responsible for “cementing the bonds”, “laying the foundations”, but it also “reins in our instincts”, “institutionalises our love” and inexplicably “thwarts the masculine impulse towards promiscuity and feminine self-interest”.

What a dynamic institution marriage is! If it were a person, it would definitely be a small, fat, tall, short, personable, hermit-like, sharply-dressed tramp of a person.

But her empty rhetorical suggestion that marriage is both “divine and artificial” is very illuminating. Because marriage has become either a religious or a civil act, its definition has been stretched across two essentially very different ceremonies, one “divine”, one “artificial”. Ms Odone’s understandable confusion comes from not noticing that while getting married is one or the other (in a church or a registry office) the word ‘marriage’ means both (putting a ring on your finger, wherever you are).

In this case it’s quite easy to answer one of her more speculative questions. She says rightly that the government’s plans to legalise gay marriage “will not affect religious institutions, only civil ones”, and then goes:

“But given that the gay marriage lobby seeks equality in this area, how long would it accept the ban on gays marrying in church or synagogue? It is bound to argue that exclusion from a religious ceremony amounts to discrimination, and will almost certainly campaign to force priests and vicars to celebrate gay marriages . . .”

Hang on! “Almost certainly”? Why isn’t Ms Odone using her prophetic powers to invest in next Sunday’s winner of the 15:43 at Chepstow?

It is an utterly misguided argument to suggest that gays would want to “celebrate” their love with an institution that thinks they are eternally damned. That would be like black people wanting to play golf, like a woman wanting to present Top Gear.

It all comes down to the writer’s inflated esteem for the church, something made clear by:

Second, her frequent use of clerical lexicon: that freedom of belief will “be sacrificed at the altar”, that marriage is a “blessing”, that the gay marriage lobby is the devil’s “advocate”.

Starting down the lexicon path is not a good one for her; it takes us to the houses of debt we owe the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Norse, but not the Catholics or Anglicans. You don’t see us rhetoricising with them like some selective sneak, do you?

I know James Joyce subtly deployed a military lexicon in ‘The Dead’, but if he jumped in front of a car would you do to too, Ms Odone?