Whilst MPs were banned from attending Q&A, gay marriage was called “decadent” and the price of divorce drastically increased, a far more significant story was buried beneath the news heap. Whilst Australia’s conservatives enacted their culture wars in increasingly petty ways, a far more significant global culture war was illuminated.
On July 3rd, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution affirming that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society.” The resolution was backed by 29 states, including Russia, China and many Islamic countries. America, Britain, France, Germany and 10 other states voted against, on the grounds that it put too much emphasis on traditional family structures.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with traditional families, however in the sensitive world of diplomatic rhetoric, this was less an embrace of families than a slap in the face to supporters of same-sex marriage and other non-traditional family types. South Africa unsuccessfully tried to insert language that took account of same-sex marriage, and the efforts of Western delegates to acknowledge that family structures can sometimes be oppressive also failed.
This latest clash can be seen as evident of a global culture war, one a lot more serious than a stoush between News Corp and the ABC. Defence of the traditional family and opposition to gay rights have been part of Russia’s foreign policy since 2012, whereas Hillary Clinton has shifted US policy to advocate for sexual freedom since 2011. The Economist, one of the few media outlets to cover the resolution, stated that the resolution reflected “a broadening diplomatic showdown between a Western liberal bloc and an anti-liberal coalition.”
The showdown raises concerns for progressives, many of whom have advocated for pacifist foreign policy and have avoided ideological clashes with other communities, particularly Muslims. For mine, the idea of multiculturalism and pluralism must not preclude the West from taking a strong stance on sexual freedom, and speaking out on issues of civil liberty does not amount to a “clash of civilizations” whereby the commonality between the West and other cultures is lost in an all-out cultural war. As Clinton has demonstrated on issues of religious freedom, diplomatic compromise can be reached, but for this to occur the US must relish the current liberal consensus headed by the Obama administration and advocate for progressive values on the world stage.
For social conservatives however, the news is pretty grim. In terms of actual progress, the liberal side clearly has the momentum, with the legalisation of same-sex marriage in many countries being heralded as a monumental victory by progressives internationally.
The worldview of conservatives, which centres on the traditional family unit, is collapsing. With each passing victory for gay marriage advocates across the world, their religious values lose their prevalence. Once advocates of freedom of the individual, liberalism has galloped ahead of them whilst they stand shaking their fists at the sky. Furthermore, they contradict themselves when the logic of freedom which they employ to justify the economic status quo somehow doesn’t apply to inconvenient social issues.
Fear creates strange bedfellows, and as The Economist noted, the anti-liberal side “has allies within the Western world as well as outside it,” as evident by the positive reception of the resolution by conservative think-tanks. So in other words, Western conservatives are now siding with Putin, the Chinese and many Islamic countries on social policy, which would have dismayed many conservative heroes from yesteryear.
Australia is not immune from this global tussle, with The Australian reporting that Julie Bishop refused to co-sponsor the resolution because it did not recognize same-sex couples and because “human rights belong to individuals, not groups.” This hints at a far broader disjunct between the West and the Russia/China alliance, with the West promoting a focus on individual rights whilst the East tries to make sure human rights don’t get in the way of traditional values and state sovereignty. And with many in her Cabinet more likely to support the latter than the former, particularly with regard to gay marriage, Bishop has daringly edged closer to Malcolm Turnbull – perhaps a true liberal amongst conservatives.
Considering the gravity of this global culture war, our local struggle between the Coalition/News Corp and the so-called “lefty lynch mob” is dwarfed in importance. However this is no reason to dismiss our local arm-wrestle. The same dynamic of the culture war operates at a domestic level as it does globally, with those who advocate fairness and inclusivity being regarded with fear and suspicion by those desperately clinging to the past. The Russian MP who recently expressed the fear that the US may try to impose same-sex marriage globally by force has a similar mindset to Cori Bernardi when he fears that it may snow-ball into bestiality – equally impossible, arising from an ingrained mistrust of social progress.
That is not to say there are clear goodies and baddies in such scenarios, as both sides are frequently vindictive and hateful. Such is the nature of culture war, a battle fought over identity which is so personal it is bound to get ugly. There is nothing constructive about culture war, with each side snidely jeering at the other and patting themselves on the back.
However, it will pay progressives to consider that Abbott and his ilk are not simply a home-grown nuisance, but part of a vast global community which encompasses all races and creeds. When the issues are so gravely important as the legal recognition of human diversity and love, the left has to fiercely advocate for social progress. But we must refrain from mimicking the cultural jibes of “lefty lynch mob” and engage in a meaningful debate with those we oppose, no matter how frustrating. For whilst progressives may have one many recent battles, we have not yet won the war.
You can follow more of Ben Clark’s posts at The Cynical Times