Australia’s Impending Election (8)

In this and the next edition of Nurturing Justice [“Australia’s Impending Election (9)”] we republish what we wrote and published a full decade ago. We do this to explain the kind of argumentation assumed in more recent contributions. Moreover, in “Australia’s Impending Election (10)” we will discuss why consideration of this and other political issues are very important for our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Public Emotions

and Just Debate

A republication of Nurturing Justice No. 2 25 October 2006

In this and the next issue, I want to discuss why recent calls for “gay marriage” from the Greens and Judge Michael Kirby miss the point. But first, in introducing the topic, I want to draw attention to the emotional aspect of this debate. We need to think about this if we are going to make a positive and constructive Christian contribution to discussing marriage law and make a decision about whether and why justice may require civil union legislation of some kind.

On a global scale we are weathering the storms of terrorism and, closer to home, political talk in the media and with our neighbours is often peppered with references to how some public official has been afraid to act in some way or other because of “political correctness”. Then there are also our own emotions when we suspect that our political views on some or other topic will not be well received in some quarters.

As much as public life is now filled with fear, we might also discern an increased reticence on the part of many to express their fears in public. So let’s spend some time thinking about this seemingly paradoxical situation. We need to develop a better understanding of the social and psychological aspects of political debate as we rethink our political theories and preferred policies.

When we confront “gay politics” we regularly hear accusations of “homophobia”. The term is often used by activists seeking to pin-point a mindset that has the potential of generating, or re-generating, fear (hence phobia) about homosexuals and homosexuality. But it is highly ambiguous.

In other debates, the term “Islamophobia” is used in a similar way with respect to attitudes toward Muslims. If you follow the debates you may see some similarities in how the label is used to pre-empt some or other, opposing and presumed negative, viewpoint. Often the suffix “phobia” is consonant with a view that the homophobe or the Islamophobe is really afraid of some inner desire that they are trying to suppress by externalising the “threat”. An examination of this psychological viewpoint can keep for another occasion; it is actually basic to the way in which the term was initially coined. See here.

Any open and public announcement these days by any group that homosexuality is wrong seems likely to run into the accusation that they want to exclude homosexuals from public life. Such an announcement will be viewed as an attack on the identity, the self-definition, of homosexuals. As a result, those organisations which do not accept homosexuality as a life-style option among their members, are sometimes pressured to keep such views private and out of the public realm. But then a deeper problem emerges – if the view that homosexuality is wrong is privatised, then it cannot be adequately debated. The debate about homosexuality is then malformed. But the debate needs to be open and it needs to be public.

The shift that has occurred with respect to public standards (polite behaviour) is pronounced. Homosexuals are no longer prevented from identifying themselves in the public domain if they wish to do so. They are no longer required by “polite society” to keep their homosexuality private. But what are the grounds upon which this public shift has taken place?

These days it would seem that an open democratic society will attempt to avoid “exclusion” – no sector of the population need be excluded from public life – there are however unresolved ambiguities in how this “inclusion” is implemented. “Inclusion” means a willingness to accept “inclusive” values, and that is close to the nub of the problem with respect to the ‘homophobia’ label. The label when added to the arsenal of the terms used by political activists not only becomes an endorsement of “gay rights”, an announcement of victory, but it assumes that those who do not accept homosexuality as a moral life-style should keep their views private. No further debate is necessary. The legalizing of “gay marriage” is then viewed as the logical and historical endorsement of this enlightened majority acceptance of inclusive values.

But the “gay rights” argument, with the homophobia label, consistently runs things together too quickly. There are important questions that need to be teased out. For instance, should any group of people be excluded from public life because they are afraid? This is the point where we can identify perhaps a public justice moment in the “gay rights” agenda. Public policy these days recognises the possibility that fear about the exposure of one’s way of life (and one’s private affairs) may prevent some citizens from full participation. “Inclusion” policies seek to overcome the fears that many minorities (including homosexuals and the so-called the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community) experience. The inclusive rationale when applied to “gay rights” goes likes this: those who have felt compelled to keep their sexual identity private have often been inhibited from making the kind of public contribution they could have made if they were not afraid of being “outed.” Hence a special effort is to be made to ensure that the public domain welcomes diversity. All are welcome.

There is a problem here. If it is ‘homophobia’ that now should be kept private, policies which require the inclusion of the “LGBTI community” may succeed only in implementing a new style of emotional exclusion. Let me get at this problem by putting this question: why should fear about the fear of homosexuality be given priority over a fear of homosexuality? Why is it that some fears can be given a special privilege in public policy (i.e. the fear about homophobia) while other fears (i.e. fear of homosexual proclivities) are to be excluded or repressed? How can some fears be viewed on the side of justice while other fears are excluded? What kind of slope are we on if our public life now is geared to ensure that only the right kind of fears are allowed to be expressed? Is there no public place left for the honest (and fear-less) statement about one’s fears, whatever those fears may be?

Yes, previously a homosexual person was expected to fear exposure and thus induced to avoid making their relationship or their sexuality  public. Now, however, the label homophobia seems to indicate that it is those who oppose homosexuality – for whatever reason – who are expected to be afraid and thus should keep their fears private or else they will be “outed” as homophobes. The implication is that anyone who is afraid of homosexuality should see themselves as deviant and thus “exclude” themselves from full public participation – homophobes are expected now to do what homosexuals were expected to do previously – keep their status private.

That I suggest is part of the flawed logic that very often accompanies the use of the homophobia label. The problem is that the label is a blocking device, a tactical label which prevents debate. To challenge the label we need only to ask: Why should it be disrespectful to give honest expression to fear about homosexuality? Why should people who have a way of life that teaches them to steer clear of homosexuality have to fear explaining themselves?

Perhaps the wise way is to spend more time developing public policies about human sexuality that comprehensively explains sexuality as God’s gift to marriage. Christians need to spend time developing a comprehensive political world-view that takes account of marriage and family, household and friendship. We need to avoid a political voice that only reacts when “gay rights” advocacy gets moving. We need to be wise and avoid giving extra stick to the homophobic label. As Christians, we should not be afraid of homosexuals, or of anyone, as we seek to find a way to express our understanding of the gospel for political life. But as Christians we should be aware of the way that fear can prevent fellow citizens from living the lives and contributing publicly to our political debates. We should also expose the unhealthy manipulation of fear or of the fear of fear. And we should examine ourselves and our rhetoric in this regard.

Politics is about open debate. We citizens may disagree with each other, but the point is to find a way by which we can keep discussing as we disagree. We need to avoid treating fellow citizens as of no account because they disagree with us, and certainly should not exclude their voice from our attention because they have different fears to our own. We should certainly keep an eye and ear open for those who are afraid, for whatever reason, of expressing their views. And we should also be quite open about the fears we have about ways of life and conduct we believe to be wrong.

Revised 26.5.16.



4 thoughts on “Australia’s Impending Election (8)

  1. Richard Leigh Media says:

    Thanks Bruce.

    Appreciate your considered articulation of this strange situation we (all) find ourselves in!


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  2. JK says:

    Dear Bruce, I find your commentary/thoughts very edifying!

    obviously we can appreciate a Christian perspective on marriage, but, our argument needs to be within the secular context, even if the State, not as originator, but, as de facto ruler of marriage law, has forgotten its place and the purpose of marriage.

    We need to be careful in comparing – or belittling as some would see it – a SS attraction with, for example, a bond with a pet. We can successfully argue the ‘otherness’ of human relationships without that potentially inflammatory comparison.

    Clearly the issue of adoption has been a precursor, along with IVF, to the facilitation of SS ‘families’ and the 2008 amendments have just about rectified any other legal impediments.

    We need to be mindful that the foundations for this redefinition do go way back to 1975 and the Family Law Act and associated parliamentary studies that, as you have pointed out, ‘validated’ an extended understanding of ‘family’. Here again, SSM advocates are again looking for State validation of their opinions/status.

    We need to identify why the State has any interest in this matter, and the ‘why and how’ of this change undermining the State’s interests.

    What were/are the State’s interests?

    – supporting the spouse, creating responsible male behaviours and responsible parenting roles
    – bearing and raising children securely and socialising them (with the purse of the parents)
    – securing a future workforce and creating a stable and complying tax paying populace that does not drain the public purse

    Essentially, we have now seen this economic model replaced with:

    a) the demand that both parents work – punitive taxing of single income monogamous families, housing costs increased
    b) child raising being outsourced – billions diverted
    c) inter-generational relationships marginalised / underrated – aged care now also an increasing cost
    d) communal and voluntary capacity (social capital) reduced
    e) 24/7 trading and working expectations

    The big question that needs to be asked and reflected in some party’s manifesto is a family policy that seeks to remind us that we are people and not just economic units or casual sex objects.

    • Dear JK:

      Thankyou for your carefully presented comments. They are most welcome.

      Let me take the opportunity of replying by explaining my purpose in this “Australia’s Impending Election” series. It has been to discuss the forthcoming election in a way that draws attention to the longer term task of developing a “Christian political option”. Why is the organisation of such a political option still such a long way off? That is my orienting question for the blog in toto.

      I suspect it will take possibly 3 or 4 decades of sustained work by a broadly based Christian political association to come to the point where we can explain and demonstrate in an organised and public-political way the intense relevance of a Christian way of life for every dimension of local, national, regional and global politics. According to the Bible our citizenship is about our discipleship; discipleship begins somewhere and we have to begin while it is “today”. But there is discipline in Paul Kelly’s song: “From little things big things grow.”

      The answer as to why an organised Christian political option (i.e. a party) is a long way off requires a complex answer. There are church, state, marital and family, workplace, political, scientific and scholarly, educational and schooling, dimensions to this. Part of the answer may indeed be, as you suggest, that the State has forgotten its place and purpose. But not only the State.

      Part of the reason the State has forgotten it’s place and purpose is because our inherited system of political parties which claim to serve electors is now very ambiguous and probably past its use-by date; the State hasn’t been reminded of its place and purpose by the political parties. Generally speaking, all who are standing at this forthcoming election, believe they know what Parliament is for, what public Governance is all about. But who will dare to open up discussion about the party elephants in the room? Who will tell us they should have our vote because their party has been assisting the Government in understanding its place and purpose in promoting justice for all? No if that is what the parties have been doing, it is not what they have been focusing upon and telling us about themselves. And why? The parties have not been assisting the Government and us in helping us understand how Government fulfils its place and purpose because the parties no longer know what they are and should be. Parties too have “forgotten their place and their purpose”. That double forgetfulness may well be what this election should be about.

      And then, I am also delving back into the 1970s, and not just because that was when I turned 21 and began to vote and took on a citizen’s responsibility for public governance. I am suggesting that since the 1970s we Australian Christian citizens have also participated in a political process that has not only “forgotten” the place and purpose of Government, as Governments have, or the place and purpose of political parties, as political parties have, but have forgotten our own place and purpose in the process as citizens. And as Christians who began to see the writing on the wall with the “sexual revolution” and the statism and militarism that got us into America’s war in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s, we then were too busy getting our qualifications and finding work and so tended to ignore the political task of promoting due public respect for Government, for the public realm, for political parties, for all citizens, for schooling and for marriage and family. (I’ll probably get into a debate at this point with those from the 1970s tried to arrest the decline in the “Festival of Light” and then the “moral majority” movement among fundamentalist Christians, and then Family First.) But we should not be afraid to ‘fess up to the fact that we have participated in a cultural milieu that has also tended forgotten the place and purpose of marriage and the family, at least forgotten the intensely relevant Biblical teaching that helps us understand ourselves in relation to these God-given relationships.

      What we now have to confront is the prospect of legislation and public policy in relation to these God-given responsibilities, that will continue to develop a culture that will presume that the Biblical teaching about marriage and family as given to us by Jesus Christ and His apostles is merely something Christians dream up to make their life in a private capacity more meaningful.

      Enough said for the moment. Forgive this further “elaboration”. Thanks again.

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