March 30, 2002
Wars of the ring: Proposals to reform traditional marriage are built on flawed and weak intellectual foundations
Last weekend's symposium at McGill University was a modest attempt to begin a conversation about marriage. The symposium brought together academics, public-policy theorists and politicians from very diverse perspectives: liberals and conservatives, feminists and traditionalists, young and old, married and single. The speakers were drawn together by a shared sense that something was missing in our discourse on marriage, both in popular culture and academic theory.
Marriage scores high
In North America, one of the few articulate pro-marriage positions has been the "case for marriage" spearheaded by David Blankenhorn and Maggie Gallagher, who have worked to highlight the social scientific evidence for the benefits of marriage. They have shown marriage scores high on a range of statistical indicators such as relationship stability, emotional well-being, health, longevity and financial success.
However, Blankenhorn and Gallagher used this symposium to signal their growing dissatisfaction with this utilitarian argument. While the statistics are true, they now say, this "family values" discourse is too colourless, defensive and predictable. Gallagher argues its "marriage is hard work" rhetoric fosters a dismissive attitude to the erotic and the passionate dimensions of conjugal love.
Family values discourse might be actually contributing to our cultural apathy about marriage by obscuring the more radical and startling characteristics of monogamous marriage. Marriage is an erotic bond that bridges the sexual divide within the human species, sinking its roots into primordial and powerful heterosexual instincts and rituals within human nature. Yet marriage is rich with symbol, myth and culture. It is a procreative bond. It insists on the rights of offspring to a stable relationship with their biological parents.
The lavish complex experience that marriage attempts to support is obscured in current legal debates. The panel led by Senator Anne Cools examined changes to federal law proposed in a recent Law Commission of Canada report on "Close Personal Adult Relationships."