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On May 20, 2013, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (then a Labor backbencher) announced a dramatic change of heart on the issue of same-sex marriage. On his website, Rudd set out the reasons for his shift: outdated religious proscriptions; emerging research on same-sex families; separation between church and state.

Rudd’s ‘conversion’ was inspired not by this reasoned argument, however, but by a conversation with a former staffer, who came out to him. Rudd conceded that the staffer “threw me a bit. And so the re-think began”.

Rudd’s story mimics that of Senator Rob Portman in the United States. Earlier this year, Portman became the first incumbent Republican to publicly support same-sex marriage. Portman learned that his son, Will, was gay; this revelation led him “to think through my position in a much deeper way”.

These conversions challenge our understanding of the way we engage with questions of social justice. Rudd and Portman appear guilty of partiality. The only fact that changed after Portman co-sponsored the Defence of Marriage Act that the discrimination it institutionalised began to affect his son. But we generally think that our responses to social injustice should not depend on some personal connection with the subject matter. Justice in any sphere – immigration, health and education, crime – should be determined by objective reasons.

This is reflected in our public debate. We think there are right answers to these questions, which we can determine through discussion of the types of reasons cited by Rudd. These reasons, however, were just as valid before Rudd’s conversation with the staffer, as after. To claim otherwise implies that injustice does not matter until it affects me personally.

However, Rudd and Portman only seemed able to respond to the rational arguments for same-sex marriage because of striking, first-person encounters with people suffering injustice. How should we understand the role of these personal encounters in our responses to injustice?

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Most obviously, these encounters make vivid the experience of injustice. It might be difficult to grasp, from the figure alone, the significance of the fact that over 100,000 people are currently homeless across Australia. A conversation with someone sleeping rough, however, provides a stark insight into the insecurity and isolation that are the reality of homelessness.

More importantly, these personal encounters extend our capacity to sensibly apply particular concepts. For example, we associate marriage with certain concepts – loyalty, intimacy, exclusivity, respect, love – that help explain why it is valuable. Portman and Rudd define their own relationships by the application of these concepts. Their respective encounters enabled them to see how these valuable concepts could be sensibly extended to marriage between people like the son and the staffer.

These encounters allowed Rudd and Portman to see themselves as occupying the same conceptual space as members of same-sex relationships. For want of a better term, it brought them into conceptual proximity. As Raimond Gaita points out, this kind of proximity “sets the stage for our sense of what it means to wrong someone”. It was only once Rudd was able to see himself as occupying the same conceptual space as his former staffer that his stated reasons became relevant. Rudd’s newfound proximity enabled him to see the true meaning of this legal discrimination for the staffer: the designation of one’s relationship as subordinate, not sufficiently sophisticated to warrant social recognition, and less than fully human.

Community service provides a fantastic opportunity for encounters that bring people into conceptual proximity. I’ve done some volunteering over the past few years at Sacred Heart Mission, which provides meals for over 300 people, twice-a-day, 365 days-a-year. Recently, the Mission was forced to temporarily move their kitchen facilities to make way for renovations. The change caused significant discontent and distress among the clients. This might have seemed an overreaction: the meals were still served, only a minute away from the ordinary facilities.

Speaking to several clients, however, helped me pinpoint the real meaning of such a change for them. Despite the (often long-term) fragility and instability of their lives, the clients were still capable of making connections, valuing some measure of order on their lives, and feeling hurt and threatened when that order was jeopardised. This was not a question of civil rights on the scale of same-sex marriage. But reaching a genuine understanding of the clients’ experience required me to enter a conceptual space in which we both could be harmed alike by such disruption.

Our openness to certain perspectives on social justice depends upon more than objective reasons. It requires conceptual proximity to those suffering injustice. This might be catalysed by something as both simple and radical as a conversation with a friend or family member, or work at a local charity. These encounters test the application of our concepts; in doing so, they broaden our moral imaginations.

This article was first published in the 2013 edition of Melbourne Law School’s Equality and Social Justice journal, E-Qual.

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