It has been interesting to read Kerry McCarthy getting herself in a frenzied tizz about marriage over the course of four blog posts over the last couple of days (pt1, pt2, pt3 and pt4). It seems she is vexed, and has come up with a slew of objections against the recognition of marriage as a basic good in a healthy society. Amongst her arguments, the most significant are;
1) Lots of people aren’t married anymore, so any championing of the institution of marriage is alienating, that in any case ignores social trends which are moving away from the traditional family structure and away from marriage.
This is just silly. If one diagnoses the social trend as part of the problem, and contends that government policy is a driver of that trend, then embracing it rather than tackling it is both irresponsible and morally supine. Challenge the evidence, and the diagnosis, by all means; but to cling to a perverse determinism whilst the negative consequences of the ‘social trends’ continue to be unleashed (usually affecting the poorest the most) is somewhat akin to fiddling whilst the city burns.
2) It is about outcomes for children, not structures, and so constructing a policy and/or an ideology specifically around the institution of marriage is pointless.
Of course it is about outcomes, and there will always be exceptions to prove the rule, but marriage has been shown, by both evidence and experience, to be (generally speaking) the most stable family structure. In which case, where is the problem in recognising the unique value of it?
3) There are other problems families face, and marriage can sometimes exacerbate them – indeed, sometimes a separation can even be more beneficial for the children, as they tend to get better quality time with the parents.
I’m astonished by this one. To use an anecdote as the basis of a universal policy, in face of all the statistical evidence of the difficulties for those who are unfortunate enough to come from ‘broken families’, really does show an astonishing level of either naivety or arrogance (loads of stuff on this – see for example ch.3 here). Indeed, even government, though admittedly through gritted teeth, will acknowledge the intimate relation between family breakdown and decreased life chances – see here
4) Other problems also affect the life chances of children, such as ‘parental alcohol abuse, domestic violence, drug addiction, poverty (emotional as well as material), or parents who are simply too caught up in the unhappy dynamics of their own relationship to pay much attention to the kids?‘
Again, this is pointing out the obvious. But it is a curious argument, and the wrong way round – firstly it ignores the often intimate connections between these harmful experiences (especially the first four) and family breakdown, and secondly, it posits these harmful consequences as precisely the reason for not championing that which, generally speaking, helps stave off such consequences. In essence, it boils down to this: whilst these conditions are a social evil and should be vigorously challenged, it is the case that, generally speaking, children from stable backgrounds are less likely to suffer these harmful consequences, and therefore we should not remain neutral toward that which tends, by and large, to guarantee the most stable backgrounds – marriage. And so the question becomes again, what is the problem with recognising this fact?
Of course marriage is no panacea; there are unhappy marriages, and abusive marriages and marriages that fail, and it is not simply a case of demanding that all couples commit to marital relationships, which would just be daft. But it is also the case that writing it off and undermining it by remaining determinedly value-neutral toward it would be equally absurd, and one is always tempted to dig a little deeper and question the wider agenda of those who favour this approach.
As for Kerry McCarthy, besides speculation that the religious connotations of the institution of marriage might be offensive to the sensibilities of her faith (‘I would, however, like people to respect my atheism too‘), it might be the general liberal dogma of the contemporary left that underlines her approach, or perhaps it is a hyper-sensitive feminism seeking to cast off the shackles of the marital contract: As well as suggesting that the whole debate on marriage and family structures is ‘..sadly and predictably – still very much still a debate about the role of women in society‘, she also says of Social Justice Policy Group,
‘Reading between the lines, it’s obvious that the Social Justice bods are simply dreaming of a traditional marriage where the man goes out to work, and the woman stays at home, looks after the kids, does a bit of voluntary work, pops in to see her elderly relatives, has the dinner on the table when the man gets home. No doubt she also bakes cakes, wears a pinny and waltzes round the kitchen singing songs about the virtues of floor cleaning fluids. Ignore the red herring thrown to the liberals, ‘mother or father’… that is not what they’re on about’
A nerve has clearly been touched, and a frenzy of blog posts is the result. The reason why is up for debate – all I can say is that Ms McCarthy’s arguments are far from convincing.
UPDATE: Kerry has added another installment that demonstrates the rather obvious fact that all families are different and sometimes ‘messy’ – still not sure how or why this point is considered an effective argument against the advocacy or marriage. Anyway,here