Monday, June 19, 2006

 
Honorary Ethics

North of the border: Ryerson University, in Toronto, has decided to offer an honorary degree to Maragret Somerville, a well-known medical ethicist at McGill. The presentation will be made at Ryerson's graduation ceremonies today.

The problem though is that Somerville has publicly argued against legalizing gay marriage:
her opposition to gay marriage led several student groups and many faculty members to urge that she be disinvited to receive the honor. Somerville is a medical ethicist, holding appointments at McGill’s medical and law schools, and most of her work has nothing to do with gay marriage, but she did testify against it before a Parliamentary committee. With protests being planned for graduation, a Ryerson panel reviewed the invitation and concluded that it would be wrong to rescind the honor, but said that had Somerville’s views been known before the honor was announced, it would have been appropriate never to have extended the offer in the first place.
For fans of higher-education administrative-official weaseling, that is pretty choice stuff. Why a university would want to honor someone before they know their "views" is a bit of a mystery. (Google, of course, can help one establish this sort of thing pretty rapidly; for instance, I know that she is against circumcising infant boys, so please don't invite her to your next briss. It would be awkward.) And that she testified against gay marriage before a Parliamentary committee might have been a tipoff.

Anyway, the "we didn't know!" defense has very predictably pleased nobody, whether they're fer her or agin her.

A couple of issues here. First, her argument against gay marriage sounds rather silly. I'm only going by the following from the first link, though, so maybe her position is more nuanced, but, well, for now, I'll stick with silly:
In a phone interview from her Montreal office Saturday, Somerville said that her opposition to gay marriage comes out of her work on reproductive technologies. She said she started working on that issue when she was approached by children and adults who were created by artificial means — and that many of them are troubled by the process by which they were brought into the world, and their lack of information about one or more of their biological parents. Somerville said that she worried that gay marriage would lead to challenges to laws she supports that ban cloning and the selling of eggs. She stressed that she backs full civil unions for gay couples and laws that would bar any discrimination against gay people except on the right to marry.
You can't deny full civil rights to adults because their children might perhaps one day become confused. And artificial means are only one way of having children: what of a gay parent who divorces an opposite sex partner, why couldn't she remarry a woman? Dragging cloning and egg-selling into the equation is rather a stretch, and the distinction between marriage and same-sex unions is, I'm convinced, purely semantic.

But should she be disinvited? Well, after the invitation was extended, probably not. Should she be protested? Hell, yes. Vigorously.

But here's what really gets me about this -- a statement from the committee that reviewed the decision to award the degree after the controversy erupted:
“There would have been no academic freedom concerns if we had initially decided not to award an honorary doctorate to Dr. Somerville. However, if we decide to rescind the award in a public manner, we are raising these concerns.... If we withdraw the award, then we demonstrate that as a university we show tolerance for some contestable views but not others. Consequently to rescind the award would raise basic issues of freedom of speech in an academic environment,” the committee said.
Heaven forbid that such issues should be raised in an academic environment! Uh, isn't that exactly where they should be raised?

Indeed yes. And the fact that they clearly are being raised there is what has caused the furor.

At the heart of this issue though is a fundamental question: who gets to decide what positions on a cultural issue are and are not legitimate? And here is the issue at stake with Somerville: can one be considered a legitimate speaker if one opposes gay marriage?

What terrifies the pepole who don't like gays is that it is becoming ever more clear that the answer is heading every day towards "no." The broad consensus against the open expression of homosexuality has shattered. We know this because the issue exists as a matter of public controversy at all. After all, even 20 years ago, would Somerville or anyone else have even needed to argue against gay marriage? In another 20 years, her position will be seen as outlandish.

Comments:
And that she testified against gay marriage before a Parliamentary committee might have been a tipoff.

I assume that was a briss joke there...
 
Absolutely no one who is against gay marriage has any kind of decent argument to back them up. I almost wish they would just come out and say what's on their minds. "I think gays are icky and I don't want them to have the same rights as I do." would about sum it up for the bulk of them, I think. At least it would be less disingenuous than the crap they do say.
 
"In another 20 years, her position will be seen as outlandish."
Yes, it probably will, but this is today, and for a lot of serious, thoughtful people (not just right-wing nutjobs) this is a serious question that deserves some serious thought and discussion. I don't personally know anything about Somerville, but I'm not willing to marginalize her yet just because she disagrees with me. When the question of gay marriage first started getting headlines I wasn't myself sure if it was a good idea to put it on the same plane as man/woman marriages. I had to think about it, before endorsing the idea. In the meantime I decided to err on the side of individual rights and freedoms (ie. I would not actively oppose gay marriages). Some would label me a moral coward for this, but that's bullshit. Thinking hasn't been made a crime yet, nor has expressing one's opinion.
Maybe Somerville is a nutcase, I don't know. But I don't see any useful gain when we attempt to marginalize people simply for sharing a different opinion.
 
Somerville said that she worried that gay marriage would lead to challenges to laws she supports that ban cloning and the selling of eggs. She stressed that she backs full civil unions for gay couples and laws that would bar any discrimination against gay people except on the right to marry.

So, if there's to be no discrimination -- presumably including adoption and parental rights -- then why would civil unions be any less likely to lead to challenges to the anti-cloning laws she supports?

You ask me, the invitation should be rescinded on the basis of seriously muddled thinking and faulty logic.
 
kyklops, I don't disagree; people should be persuaded, ideally.

But I'm talking at a wider level. We don't have to go back too far in history to find a time when interracial marriages were unthinkable. Many people changed their minds on this based on a process of rational thought, but overall the consensus changed because it became widely considered morally unacceptable to argue against interracial messages in any sort of a mainstream forum.

Somerville really is an influential ethicist; thus, her position on this is not just disappointing, it requires vocal opposition.
 
kyklops, I don't disagree; people should be persuaded, ideally.

But I'm talking at a wider level. We don't have to go back too far in history to find a time when interracial marriages were unthinkable. Many people changed their minds on this based on a process of rational thought, but overall the consensus changed because it became widely considered morally unacceptable to argue against interracial messages in any sort of a mainstream forum.

Somerville really is an influential ethicist; thus, her position on this is not just disappointing, it requires vocal opposition.
 
This is all very interesting, but how about another duck picture?
 
Uh, kk, it's dark outside... maybe tomorrow. Besides, we know what kind of ducks you like talking about...
 
From what I've heard, the staff at Ryerson have taken to wearing rainbow flag pins as a protest. And in true Canadian polite fashion, the activists will turn their back to her when she takes the stage. (And rightfully so.) I do apologize for Ryerson bringing attention to Ms. Somerville - obviously she doesn't represent the views of the majority of Canadians.

Here's part of an article from 365Gay.com:

"The Environics survey commissioned by Canadians for Equal Marriage found that across the country of those with an opinion on gay marriage 64 percent said same-sex couples should have the same right to civil marriage as opposite-sex couples. Only 36 percent disagreed."
 
Two thoughts, neither of them particularly new:

1) As Thesaurus Rex says, the arguments against gay marriage are transparently bullshit, especially the centerpiece argument that barring gays from marriage somehow "protects" the sacred institution. Gay marriage *only* cheapens marriage if you believe that gays are somehow incapable of the same level of commitment as straight people, and their marriages would therefore be a charade. "Marriage is only for procreation" is also a sham, since if you use that as your yardstick for marriage eligibility, then sterile or post-menopausal people should be denied marriage as well.

2) I like the German approach to marriage, which decouples civil marriage from religious marriage. So essentially *all* married couples are in civil unions in the eyes of the law, and gay marriages are not second-class. Granted, if a gay couple has their hearts set on a religious marriage, they're SOL if they're in the wrong religion, but that's pretty much the same situation they'd be in now.
 
I like ducks.
 
Former Prime Minister Paul Martin said “We are a nation of minorities, and in a nation of minorities it is important that you don’t cherrypick rights” when talking about legalising same-sex marriage. It's a terrible shame that the current PM has some difficulty with the idea that women, homosexuals, and non-Christians are actually human beings and entitled to the rights bequeathed by the Beneficent State thereto.

One of the reasons Somerville's position drives me nuts is that it smacks entirely too much of biological determinism. I simultaneously can and cannot see how a medical ethicist could wind up believing that biology is destiny and nothing else matters. On the one hand, a lot of people connected to medicine seem to have the problem. On the other, she's an ethicist and should know better.

A final parting shot: You know what Torontonians call Ryerson? "Rye High." It used to be a community college, and isn't really "all that" as far as Canadian universities go.
 
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