Thursday, 27 February 2014

Rant about Gays, Kids and Consumer Boycotts

The bill attempting to amend the Marriage Act to make the institution gender neutral is meandering its way through the Finnish Parliament.  To kick off the debate, Green MP Oras Tynkkynen stated that “[t]he law on equal marriage diminishes nobody’s rights.  It costs nothing.  There are only winners.”
This did not convince the diehard opponents, who have continued to repeat their arguments which can at times only be described as cringe-worthy.  It is hard for a casual liberal to be anything but baffled by these.  Why is it that two people who love each other getting hitched is somehow seen as a threat to somebody else?  How can gay marriage threaten hetero marriage?
Mr Tynkkynens argument, which we liberals find so compelling, comes from a strongly individualistic viewpoint.  My marriage is my business, what I do in the bedroom is my business, as is what I cook in the kitchen or wear to decorate and warm my body.  But this is not the only view or even the best view in all respects.  Many individual life choices can have an impact on the environment, on our friends, on our neighbours.  In the case of gay marriage the argument against says that the collateral damage is suffered by kids. 
The fact that research shows this argument to be rubbish and gays being no worse parents than straight people is not, however, decisive for us liberals.  Would I change my view on gay marriage if the argument was accurate?  If straight folk really were the better parents?  I would not.
So maybe this is about something else.  Maybe it is about means – about the role of laws and regulation.  Maybe us liberals, while taking a moral stance about issues ourselves, are inherently uncomfortable with the state legislating about them, about behaviour not being directed by the better argument and market forces but by simply prohibiting it?  I do not want to intervene in other people’s choices by way of actual bans, but I do engage in discussion with people around me.  This is mostly to exchange ideas, but I cannot deny an underlying motive at times to make them change their attitudes or behaviour.  I also wish the markets would take a more social or environmental role in directing conduct (see my rant about airplanes on 24 April 2013).  Combining the two, I believe in consumer boycotts, which is why I was at home and not in Sochi earlier this month. 
However… I do not think this is it either, as it does not fit with the political breakdown of who is for and who is against:  The prime example is found in the United States where the Republicans, who are traditionally all about individual freedoms and small government, are against the legalisation of gay marriage.
Having turned this thing round in my head a million times and tried to understand the arguments that to me look so obviously nonsensical, but which are still made by smart people not only with a straight face but with fervour, I had to concede that the argument is not going to be won by being rational. 
This brought back memories of a talk I had the privilege of attending back in 2009 when my legal hero Albie Sachs* was touring to promote his book The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law.  When sitting as a judge on the South African Constitutional Court, Justice Sachs penned the court’s landmark decision in the 2005 Fourie case** ruling that defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman is unconstitutional.  What was interesting was not just that the Court found the law to be unconstitutional, but that instead of judicially changing it, the Court ordered the Parliament to fix it within a year and thus forced the nation to have the difficult debate on the subject.  During his 2009 talk Mr Sachs explained why this was important: the Court was the court of all South Africans, not just the liberals.  While it was clear that fundamental rights could not be denied to one part of the population, this had to be done in a way that respected also the views of conservative South Africans, who were often vehemently against the idea.
How can we do the same thing?  How can we ensure that the discussion on gay marriage remains civil?  That we respect those irrational feelings and the people holding them without permitting them to stall the granting of equal rights to all?  Justice Sachs, I know your humane wisdom is needed in many parts of Africa (like in Uganda, Gambia or Nigeria) right now, but Finland could also use it.  Please help.
*This is not a joke, there are such things as legal heroes.  If you are not familiar with the biography of the admirable Mr Sachs, check it out and be convinced.
**Minister of Home Affairs and another v Fourie and another; Lesbian and Gay Equality Project and others v Minister of Home Affairs and others, [2005] ZACC 19; 2006 (3) BCLR 355 (CC); 2006 (1) SA 524 (CC) (1 December 2005).

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Rant about St Galentine

Valentine’s Day is a tough one.
On the one hand, love is always good and never celebrated enough.  Realistically speaking we all need the occasional nudge to voice our appreciation to the special somebody whose “special-ness” might get neglected in everyday drudgery of work, family and a mountain of dirty laundry.
On the other hand, the whole business is uncomfortably hetero and not a little sexist, suggesting that a woman’s happiness depends on a loving man.  There is an unmistakably “feminine” (in the derogatory sense of the term) whiff of desperation and clinginess about Valentine’s Day.
The resourceful ladies in the feminist movement in the US of A have resolved this conundrum by adopting the cringe-free version: Galentine’s Day, introduced during the second season of Parks and Recreation.  Galentine’s Day is a celebration of that underappreciated virtue that is a woman’s friendship with other women.  There is a misperception that women are all jealous bitches in the workplace ready to trample any ambition seen in their female colleagues and jealous bitches in their private lives pretending to be friends with other women only to try to steal their husbands/boyfriends.  Really, I’m not exaggerating.  Try to think of a few examples of positive representation of women’s relationships with other (unrelated) women in the media and you will draw a blank.  THIS is why Sex and the City was so revolutionary.  (Here is a good recent article on this phenomenon more broadly.)
So hooray to Galentine’s Day.  Because in real life all us lady people are surrounded by numerous other lady people providing us with happiness, support, advice and laughter.  I can tell from professional and personal experience that lady people are GREAT.
But as great as Galentine’s Day is, it is still a bit exclusionary.  Not all of our friends are women and some don’t like the gender binary to begin with.  Really, who cares who your friends are, as long as they provide all the wonderful things that a friend provides?  So Galentine’s Day is an improvement, but it is not quite there yet.
Finnish readers will know by now where I’m going with this, because Finns have solved the whole thing decades ago.  You see, Finns were wary of the icky pinkness of Valentine’s Day from the beginning.  The joke goes like this:
The wife is mooching so visibly that even the husband notices, prompting the compulsory question of “What’s wrong?”  “You never tell me that you love me” the wife responds.  “I told you at our wedding ten years ago, didn’t I?  Well, I’ll let you know if I change my mind.”
So Finns have never celebrated Valentine’s Day in the romantic sense of the term.  Instead, 14 February in Finland (and in Estonia) is Ystävänpäivä (Sõbrapäev) – Friendship Day.  It is a day when we give cards to our friends and hug them and tell them how awesome they are.  What could be better than this?  Not everyone has a “valentine”, but everyone has friends, and everyone loves to tell their friends that they’re great, as well as hear this in return. 
I don’t think the idea is patented or even copyrighted, so feel free to implement it in your countries!
Hyvää ystävänpäivää everybody.