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Sunday 13 November 2016


Regulating Morality?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 15th December 2015

Over the last twenty to thirty years, LGBTI lives, social contexts and experiences have changed rapidly. Isn't it time that we reclaimed the term 'morality' from the Christian Right?

What does morality mean? It refers to a collection of social norms, values and expectations of particular forms of conduct and behaviour. These change over time, no matter how much the Christian Right and religious social conservatives might want to deny that, or try to obstruct it. Take lesbian, gay and bisexual sexual orientation. Back in 1985, male homosexuality was still illegal in New Zealand, although on the verge of decriminalisation. Thirty years later, we now enjoy access to marriage equality and associated inclusive adoption reform in that context. Obviously, the "moral regulation" of lesbian, gay and bisexual sexual orientation has changed, and it is now considered wrong to express open homophobic or transphobic social attitudes, or to back institutional discrimination. Much the same has occurred in the context of abortion rights, sex work and gender identity.

Contrary to what one might think, it is not solely religious institutions that engage in 'moral regulation.' In fact, as I have frequently noted within this column, Christian religious observance has substantially declined within New Zealand as these institutions cede moral authority, legitimacy and social and political influence to secular professionals who provide a practical source of morality or ethics through professional evidence, research and practice. Liberal Christians and other people of faith have no problem with this, and adjust their moral parameters in the context of new scientific, social scientific and medical research. Fundamentalists of any faith do have problems with the ascendancy of evidence-based science and secular morality and ethical thought, as they regard their sacred texts, religious authorities and ways of reading those sacred texts as being of paramount social and political importance.

LGBTI individuals can live many different versions of moral and ethical lives. According to the National Party and ACT, a "moral" LGBTI individual is someone who sets out not to be dependent on government social welfare payments unless absolutely necessary, who is ideally an entrepreneur or businessperson, who does not engage in behaviour that deliberately harms or injures others, pays their taxes and raises any children to be law-abiding, responsible citizens. According to Labour and the Greens, a "moral" LGBTI person would be someone who is a socially responsible businessperson, a conscientious trade unionist or social reformer, ecologically responsible in their daily lives with regard to carbon emissions given the reality of climate change who does not accept discrimination against others on the basis of ethnicity, religion, disability, spousal or family options, gender, gender identity or socio-economic background. Children are also taught to become responsible and active citizens, but the preferred list of norms and values differs from centre-right to centre-left.

The Christian Right has their own prescriptive religious social conservative version of this. It goes something like this. Abortion is 'wrong' because sex should be 'reproductive' only, although sexual pleasure is 'allowed' within the context of marriage, as long as marriage is religiously sanctioned and discriminatory when it comes to straight people only. LGBTI individuals shouldn't be 'allowed' to parent, and 'religious liberty' is broken when conservative Christians are prevented from being able to discriminate against LGBTI individuals when it comes to workplaces or rental accomodation outside their own core religious institutions. Although they no longer claim that male homosexuality should be recriminalised, they are also unrealistic when they demand that reassignment surgery should be 'forbidden' on the basis of comparatively recent conservative religious dogma, only established a mere decade ago within Catholicism. Sex work is forbidden, as is the use of adult recreational drugs. Conservative Catholicism additionally opposes contraception and calls for the abolition of liberal divorce legislation.

So, why is this now merely one option amongst others? Secularisation is one answer- the churches have lost supporters through their inflexibility and tardiness in adapting to social change, or alienating younger age cohorts through its absolute opposition to social change and social justice. Added to which, increased access to global communication media like the Internet have enabled faster transnational social networking between national constituents of global social movements, which mean that in the case of dependent satellite pressure groups like the New Zealand Christian Right, being an 'outpost of empire' (ie the US Christian Right), the use of derivative propaganda, tactics and strategy can be easily foreseen, rebutted and therefore defeated. It isn't just the global LGBTI community and the Christian Right, though- similar interconnections exist between other national and international social movement counterparts on a range of issues.

Not all of them are 'our' fights. For teetotaller LGBTI individuals, it is difficult to see how cannabis decriminalisation and wider drug policy reform are meaningfully connected to LGBTI rights and legislative reform, and the same applies to gambling, euthanasia law reform and other contemporary social issues. However, some individual LGBTI community members might well choose to get involved. Some might abstain. And unfortunately, some unreconstructed and repressed individuals might choose to collaborate with the forces of prescriptiveness or absolutist libertarianism. However, even if we're about to leave the political stage, mission mostly accomplished, the 'struggles of the immoral' go on.

Recommended:

Mariana Valverde:The Age of Light, Soap and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada:1885-1925:Toronto: McClelland and Stewart: 2008.

Mariana Valverde and Lorna Weir: "Struggles of the Immoral: Preliminary Remarks on Moral Regulation"Resources for Feminist Research:17:3: September 1988: 31-34.

Carolyn Strange and Tina Loo:Making Good: Law and Moral Regulation in Canada:1867-1939: Toronto: University of Toronto Press: 1997.

[Graphic: 'Respectable' heterosexual Victorians. Yawn]


Craig Young - 15th December 2015

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