Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 9 June 2012

Philosophy in action - on gay marriage


Last night I went and saw a live stage production of 8 by Dustin Lance Black (whose screenwriting credits include Milk and J. Edgar), a one-off production at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. It was a fund-raiser for the lobby group, Australian Marriage Equality, so tickets were not cheap yet the theatre was packed.

The play is based on a real-life trial held in California in 2010, when 2 same-sex couples (Kristin Perry and Sandy Stier, and Paul Katami and Jeff Zarillo) challenged the passing of Proposition 8 as unconstitutional. Effectively, Proposition 8, under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, prevented gays and lesbians from getting married.  There was a strong TV campaign supporting Proposition 8, which I’ll address later, and some of these were shown to the theatre audience as background.

It was also relayed to the audience, right at the beginning, how the play came about. Requests by the plaintiff’s team to have the trial broadcast were overturned by their opponents, but transcripts can’t be denied forever and most of the play is taken directly from the transcript. The play is actually read, with almost no props, yet real actors were used to give it authenticity.

There is an on-line version on YouTube including George Clooney, Martin Sheen and Brad Pitt as part of the cast. The Australian production I saw included its own well-known actors like Rachel Griffiths, Lisa McLune, Shane Jacobson and Magda Szubanski (from Babe for international readers). It also included Kate Whitbread as one of the plaintiffs and she was instrumental in getting the production performed. Incidentally, Kate has been producer to Aussie film-maker, Sandra Sciberras (Max’s Dreaming, Caterpillar Wish and Surviving Georgia).

This is not a play that will attract opponents of gay marriage – it was clear from the audience’s reaction that most, if not all, members were advocates. Being a fund-raiser you wouldn’t expect anything else. Opponents, no doubt would call it propaganda and biased, but the ‘opponents’ in the trial come off very badly indeed. In fact, this is the salient point because it demonstrated how weak their arguments were when subjected to the rigours of courtroom dissection and cross-examination. It’s no wonder they opposed it being broadcast.

And that’s why I call it ‘philosophy in action’ because it demonstrated the difference between a glib, emotive, made-for-TV advertising programme and critical, evidence-based argument. It was obvious from the pro-proposition 8 campaign and other rhetoric we hear in the production, that it was based on fear. Fear that same-sex marriage will infect children (yes, I mean infect not affect). Their whole campaign was based around the need to protect children from the ‘evils’ of gay parents and gays generally.

It was obvious that many conservatives actually believe that lesbianism and homosexuality are contagious – not biologically contagious, but socially contagious like cigarette smoking or alcohol consumption or drug-taking. They have a genuine fear, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that more children will become gay if gay marriage is legalized because it’s a choice that they didn’t have before. In other words, gay marriage is a lifestyle choice and has nothing to do with biology. Allowing gays and lesbians to be perceived as ‘normal’ is dangerous because kids will become ‘infected’, whereas at present they are still ‘protected’. That’s their argument in a nutshell.

In a promotional review of the play in last weekend’s Age, both Kate Whitbread and Bruce Myles (director of the Aussie version) give their more parochial reasons for putting it on. Bruce said he was ‘disgusted’ by Bob Katter’s political advertisement in the recent Queensland state election, whereby Katter used lewd images of homosexual couples juxtaposed with Campbell Newman’s (Queensland’s Liberal party contender and shoe-in to win) statement that he supported gay marriage. It was an obvious ploy on Katter’s part to exploit homophobia to undermine Newman’s commanding lead in the polls.

Both Bruce and Kate expressed outrage at six Catholic bishops in Victoria sending out 80,000 letters exhorting parishioners to lobby against gay marriage. Apparently, few parishioners were as alarmed as the bishops, going by the response. In fact, both in Australia and the US, it’s conservative religious groups who are the most vocal opponents to gay marriage. Arguments based on arcane religious texts are arguably the least relevant to the debate. It’s effectively an argument to maintain a longstanding prejudice because the Bible tells us so.

Spencer McLaren, who plays the courtroom advocate defending proposition 8, said: “What it is really about is putting prejudice and fear on trial and showing the inhumanity of the discrimination that is occurring.”

For those interested, here is the online version (90 mins).

1 comment:

Paul C said...

I think your title/theme is very important. Philosophy in action is pretty rare in real life, and the gay marriage debate is an excellent vehicle for defining it through the medium of a live stage production. The early Greeks placed a high priority on public theatre as a way of examining issues, core values and consequences.

Your point about the cost and how that was a major factor in attracting the kind of audience it did is important.

However, for me the most important message is for citizens to become proficient in philosophy in action debates. It is light years away from most of the debates/analysis of major issues in our 21st century world where it is more about slogans, abuse of any opposition, and taking over as much of the talking space as possible. As such it is about power and shutting down any evidence-based presentation and conclusions. This contributes to poor policy planning and analysis, and discourages genuine participation by responsible citizens.

Paul C.