Saturday, July 23, 2005

“Wandering Between Two Worlds”: A Few Practical Suggestions for Canadians following the Same-sex Marriage Change.

In the past few days I have been contacted by various people and groups to ask, “What should we do now that Same-sex Marriage is law in Canada?”

Of course, the issues are bigger and deeper than merely same-sex marriage and the institutional overhaul needed in Canada long predates the relatively recent moves for same-sex marriage. However, in addressing some specific matters relevant to the institutional overhaul several will touch on same-sex marriage.

What follows therefore is a list of practical questions going forward that I think ought to be of interest to all Canadians irrespective of where they stand on the same-sex marriage question, what political party (if any) they support and whether or not they are people of religious belief or not. The questions concern all of us.

Here is a short list of key questions to which others can be added:

1. Generally, how can the public dimensions of religions and public functioning of religious believers (and those wishing to act upon conscience) be maintained in the face of an ever more successful secularism?

2. More specifically, how can religious groups and individual religious believers most effectively witness to what they believe to be the truth of male/female marriage (or other concepts - - the sanctity of life, etc.) against new public norm(s) that will speak against their views (and them) at every turn?

3. How will religious groups and individual religious believers create better arguments about the nature of the public order as against an increasingly aggressive "monism of meaninglessness" (the phrase is George Grant’s) that uses the language of diversity to effect monism, tolerance intolerance and equality “trump rights”?

4. How can religious groups and individual religious believers begin to assemble within public systems or alongside them alternative delivery systems that better reflect diversity and tolerance for various communities in Canada by allowing their own (legal) beliefs to frame the ethos of the endeavors. In other words, what can members of the public do who wish to encourage different approaches to such things as “public education” and “public health” in face of an increasingly unfair exclusion from funding? Access to tax money should be fair for all groups;

5. How can religious groups and religious believers best show that the newly created "public norm” of same-sex marriage is one that they do not accept and is one that ought not to dominate public presentations of what marriage is and that to insist on public acceptance of this norm is deeply antagonistic to their religious beliefs and freedom as citizens?

6. How can religious groups and religious believers show most effectively, in law and politics, that "dignity" does not reside in public acceptance for dogmatic beliefs?

Societies will find various ways and means of finding a public equilibrium on these contested issues. Canada at the moment appears to be, in the words of the poet Matthew Arnold over a century ago, “wandering between two worlds, one dead and the other powerless to be born.” (Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse, [1855] st. 15). We need to find the power to change things.

In Canada, even if there is a notwithstanding declaration under Section 33 of the Charter (permitting maintenance of a heterosexual definition of marriage for five years) or if there is a Constitutional amendment preserving marriage to males and females (as some hope), the likelihood of either of which I have no idea, the important questions above remain. We are being drawn towards developing a set of practical rules and guidelines for the tolerance and diversity Canada has preached for so long but shows little appetite, will or capacity to put into practice.

The continued dominance of “public” realms by ideologies not supported by “the public” cannot long continue. First, and we see this already; such asymmetries will lead to further anger and cynicism. This will be followed by further withdrawal and attempts to set up parallel systems. This is already happening in education and will happen in health care eventually.

What will result along the way, however, unless genuine diversity and fairness are put into practice, is fragmentation and a further reduction in our understanding of what we share as citizens. The rhetoric of diversity and tolerance should be followed by real steps to grant diversity and tolerance in all public spheres in Canadian society. It may be that the best way to assist the public going forward is to rethink what we mean by “public” in “public health” and “public education” and then change the systems accordingly.

There is a lot of work to be done but the first phase is over. We have seen what is not working.

Iain T. Benson©