Recently Senator Mark Arbib publicly stated his support for gay marriage and suggested that a conscience vote offered the only opportunity to change current party policy on the issue. Current opposition to support for gay marriage has focused on party loyalty. Which raises the question: what is more important to us, party loyalty or conscience? We asked the News Therapist for her analysis…
Conscience is not necessarily a moral force, but can be seen as a movement toward self-awareness and greater authenticity. We may find Penny Wong’s take on gay marriage so disturbing on both sides of the marital debate, because we instinctively recognise that there is a lack of genuineness in her response to the question of marital equity. She is either actively excluding herself and other lesbians and gay men from rights accorded to heterosexual couples, or she is overtly subsuming herself to the party line.
This is not seen as conscionable — and nor should it be.
Truthfulness, self-respect and courage are rightly just a few of the hallmarks of trustworthy people. Most of us also instinctively understand that the personal life is of course political, and so when the repression of the self is so obvious, we wonder what else might be stuffed in the closet.
Gay marriage is both a very small thing and the biggest shift in the world.
On the one hand marital parity is talked about as if it is a simple matter of fairness and equity between different types of relationships, and on the other, it has been framed as the end of marriage as we know it. Of course both are true. The change in legislation requested here is not as contained as being able to walk down the aisle and the legal rights that follow. It is the end of marriage as we know it, because marriage is by its very enculturated nature, a heterosexual institution. Taking your girlfriend to the school dance is a small request and it is also like stepping back to the dawn of time and accidentally killing a butterfly — it would change the face of the world in ways we can only imagine.
And yet at the same time, it’s important to see these issues as systemic. To individualise them by seeing them as merely personal choices — Penny Wong? How could she? Isn’t she…? — is to miss the point. Many gay activists, who have lived through working against violence and the rise of HIV and AIDS, have not been overly keen on the fight for gay marriage, even while supporting it, because they were well aware that there were bigger fish to fry. However, the majority have toed the party line, rather than risk the potentially divisive step of suggesting that perhaps the institution of marriage is not the most pressing or desirable goal. Wong may also feel that there are greater issues to risk standing for, including staying in power.
But what happens when we place loyalty ahead of conscience?
One of the hallmarks of a functional family, for want of a better term, is that there is room for dissent and movement, because the roles held by each individual are flexible and can change within the system as the people and the system’s needs change. A conscience vote is a time when you step aside and question the majority decision, just as when we are growing up, we question previously accepted family practices. Slavish adherence to the "party line" whether in family or politics, speaks of authoritarianism and obedience rather than loyalty.
Loyalty, rather than simply a virtue based on support and connection, can be used as an excuse to avoid even the possibility of decision making, allowing us to sidestep difficult personal and interpersonal confrontation. This avoidance is what I offer my daughter when I allow her to make me the bad guy who is not letting her go somewhere she feels a bit reluctant to go herself. But here at least we are both aware that this avoidance is temporary and that the ultimate goal is conscious self-directed action.
Individual decisions, particularly when we make them publicly, confront us with our own isolation. We can hide from this fact of isolation in party loyalty or in the delegation of personal responsibility. When politicians tout party loyalty, it often has the feel of "hiding behind" rather than "standing beside". When we are deciding who to vote for, how do we know the party except through individuals, either the politicians themselves or the political values expressed in our own families and communities?
To let conscience consistently inform political decision-making would challenge the very foundation of our system of oppositional politics. We tend to view acts of conscience in politics as either retribution, whistle blowing or courageous acts of self-revelation. Political structures like collectives, that ideally function as a forum for consciousness, are in fact very difficult arenas in which true resolution is neither found by bold individualism nor by surrender to the group. Real acts of conscience require follow through, and real loyalty can never be blind to difference.
I have a clear memory of the first time I learnt something that I didn’t know about my father’s conscience. We were at a dinner with family friends when I was young, and someone was expressing dismay that s*x workers with children and without other workforce skills, would choose to work in the s*x trade rather than something acceptable and easily available, like McDonald’s. My father, to my utter amazement, mentioned that raising children was expensive, and perhaps s*x work not only paid better, but also offered some flexibility. I was both shocked that my father even thought about these things, and proud that he spoke them in conservative company. If there was a party line in the room, it was that s*x work had no redeeming features and any alternative work was preferable. Had he not spoken up, I would have assumed his agreement. In a sense this was also a demonstration of loyalty. But in this case, to accurate information and perhaps to his own conscience.
Allowing conscience into the political arena opens up a space for thought and for debate. This is of course not a safe space, nor is it desirable for those whose main aim is to preserve rather than to build. True conscience is wild. Who knows what we might hear if we really listen? Who knows what we might say if we really speak up?
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