Posted tagged ‘marriage’

Universities and social change: the case of same-sex marriage

May 25, 2015

As most readers will undoubtedly know, Ireland voted on Friday last week on whether to amend the country’s Constitution (Bunreacht na hEireann, 1937) to include in the article on the family the following sentence:

‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’

As was widely reported, two-thirds of the Irish electorate voted in favour of the amendment, thereby placing an obligation on the government and parliament (Oireachtas) to introduce legislation legalising and protecting same-sex marriage, alongside the continuing protection for heterosexual marriage.

The relatively decisive support given to gay marriage by the Irish voters is noteworthy, not least because the country has come a long way quickly. When I was an undergraduate student in Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1970s such a profound change would have seemed a very long way off, if indeed it seemed achievable in any timescale at all. However, TCD was probably the main hotbed for the emerging issue. One of its academic staff was David Norris, one of the few people at the time to have been brave enough to declare themselves gay and to bring the issue to the public’s attention. Back then the public was probably overwhelmingly hostile, but inside TCD David Norris was given the opportunity to make his case and to do so publicly.

Over the years that followed others in TCD, and other universities also, became vocal advocates for change. These included two academics destined to become Presidents of the state – Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.

It should not be thought that universities are dedicated exclusively to progressive liberal values, nor should it be assumed that every novel idea championed by an academic should one day reflect the outlook of our national community. But it is right that higher education institutions should host and nurture opinions not at the time fashionable in wider society, and to protect those who wish to express unpopular views. In this case the big and welcome change last week carried through by Irish voters was made possible by the courage and persistence of academics, and by the university culture that gave them space to play their role. May this always be possible.


Horse without a carriage?

November 24, 2010

Every so often a social or cultural issue is pushed into public view for topical reasons, and right now the topic du jour is marriage. What has brought this on is, of course, the announcement that Britain’s Prince William is to marry his long term girlfriend, Kate Middleton. The wedding will take place some time next spring (April 29, if you really must know), watched by goodness knows how many billions around the world, and as the hype gathers momentum the topic of marriage gathers some interest.

Interestingly, the Pew Research Center in Washington DC has just undertaken an analysis of the data and trends around marriage in the US, and it makes for interesting reading. The key findings are, first, that marriage as an institutions is declining, but secondly, that the family remains strong and resilient. Whereas in 1960 68 per cent of all Americans in their 20s were married, by 2008 this had gone down to 28 per cent. On the other hand, while Americans on the whole now had a much broader view of what constitutes a ‘family’ (including cohabitees, same sex relationships and so forth), 76 per cent say that their families are the most important thing in their lives, and over 80 per cent believe that their current family (however constituted) is as close as or closer than the family of their youth.

Assuming that Americans don’t think too differently from the rest of us, what should we make of this? It seems to me that the conclusion to be drawn is obvious enough: the institution of marriage has suffered from the moral, or maybe moralistic, baggage that has often come with it, while the provision of mutual support offered by the family continues to find a resonance. The question for us now is whether the much looser formal ties that underpin a family are good enough, or whether it needs some degree of legal security; and of course this is important particularly in the context of providing an appropriate setting for the raising of children.

Either way, I gather that weddings do have sudden bursts of popularity. A few years ago the catalyst was the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral; and next year it will probably be Ms Middleton’s big day.

PS. I am aware that many readers may not understand the connection between the topic and the title of this post.  That’s what happens to you as you grow old.