Try Again; Right or Wrong; Fierce Conviction

Try Again; Right or Wrong; Fierce Conviction
Illustration by Dushan Milic

Try Again

Gil Shochat is wrong in saying that I positioned myself as an “expert social analyst” in the Iowa same-sex marriage case (“Traditional Exports,” April). I participated as an academic with expertise in the ethics and law of assisted reproductive technologies. This was relevant because, as the Court of Appeal for Ontario ruled in the Halpern case, same-sex couples can use these technologies to found families—the right that marriage gives them.

Lawyers on each side of a conflict try to undermine the credibility of opposing expert witnesses. In Iowa, the plaintiffs’ lawyers did this by asking me, under oath, whether I was an expert in developmental child psychology, and whether I had carried out empirical research in that area. I laughed and told them of course not (as they were fully aware). Trial judge Robert Hanson cited this when he excluded me as an expert witness and made the derogatory statement that Shochat enthusiastically repeats. On appeal, seven Iowa Supreme Court justices reversed this exclusion, but, like Shochat, same-sex marriage advocates have continued to use Hanson’s statement with no clarification.

The claim—made by Hanson, and emphasized by Shochat—that I eschew “methods of logical reasoning in favour of ‘moral intuition’” is misleading. Recent scientific research shows we indeed have multiple, valid “human ways of knowing,” including moral intuition and reason. I believe reason is a secondary verification mechanism—one that is crucially important to ensure we have not gone off track when using the others. Shochat continues his excoriation by suggesting that my arguments are religiously based. He’s wrong, again. I am a “natural morality” ethicist and a “natural law” legal theorist, which means I believe there is a right order with which our decisions should comply. But one need not be religious to hold these views.

In short, ethical decision-making is a complex phenomenon, and nowhere more so than with respect to children’s human rights in relation to the conditions under which they are conceived and the family structures in which they will be reared. This is the central issue that same-sex marriage raises.

Margaret Somerville
McGill University Centre for Medicine, Ethics, and Law
Montreal, QC

Gil Shochat refers to us with unseemly and unprovoked aggression for presenting what he considers to be an illegitimate position on same-sex marriage. But he never interviewed us.

Shochat’s rhetorical strategy is very close to that of the lawyers and judges who supported gay marriage. He seems to consider relevant only research in the social sciences and medicine, perhaps equating only these fields with empirical study. No wonder he quotes Judge Robert Hanson, who wrote that the “views espoused by these individuals [including Margaret Somerville] appear to be largely personal and not based on observation supported by scientific methodology or based on empirical research.” But we are in the humanities, not the sciences or social sciences. Our affadavits for both the Iowa and California courts relied on methods that are standard in our field. Does Shochat want to eviscerate the universities by closing down departments in the humanities?

Shochat relies on ad hominem arguments. He says that Somerville and Young had Nathanson “in tow,” for instance, thus implying that Nathanson might have been the timid victim of coercion. And by saying elsewhere that Nathanson is “openly gay,” he implies that Nathanson is either deranged (what Jews often call a “self-hater”) or an academic prostitute (someone who sells his or her intellectual integrity).

Elsewhere, Shochat notes that we “co-authored a trilogy of books on misandry (prejudice against men), and faced accusations of flawed methodology and personal bias.” In other words, we are either fools or charlatans. We have written on controversial topics and challenged academic fashions. Guilty as charged. But many of our fellow academics have made heavy personal and professional investments in those fashions and therefore defend them fiercely against any challenges. At any rate, Shochat should have noted our positive reviews.

Shochat might also have mentioned that, at our deposition hearings for the California case, opposition lawyers allowed us to answer only in the affirmative or negative. We answered accurately but without permission to explain ourselves.

The fact is that Nathanson strongly supports gay relationships (as Young does) and has made this clear to everyone in every instance. Gay marriage is another matter, he says, due to children’s need for both mothers and fathers. Shochat failed to mention that some social scientists have challenged the methods used for studies that support same-sex marriage. No one has yet produced a longitudinal study on the well-being of children of married same-sex couples, for the simple reason that doing so will take twenty or thirty years. This conflict is therefore between the legitimate rights of two groups: gay adults (who are indeed vulnerable) and children (who are even more vulnerable).

Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young
Religious Studies, McGill University
Montreal, QC


Michael Posner’s glowing piece on Nigel Wright (“Mister Right,” April) raises at least one question: how could someone of such high moral standards work for a man who is apparently ethically challenged? Did Wright advise Harper to defend international co-operation minister Bev Oda to the death? Did he advise Harper to deny accurate information about jets and prison costs to the House? Did he advise Harper to claim that his pas de deux with Gilles Duceppe was to a different tune or tempo than Stéphane Dion’s?

Whatever the answers, Wright has already won his place in history: chief of staff to the only prime minister whose government was found guilty of contempt of Parliament by the Speaker of the House and by a parliamentary committee. I think his halo has been tarnished.

Dolores Campbell
Sydney, NS

I was surprised that Michael Posner’s piece omitted one of Nigel Wright’s more striking abilities: he can walk on water. As Posner writes, Wright is not an ostentatious person, so he does not often show off this ability, but he practises it from time to time, just to keep up the skill. It was possible to deduce this information from the article, but Posner might have stated it directly.

Walter Burgess
Ottawa, ON


Atif Rafay’s powerful essay (“On the Margins of Freedom,” April) made me think of my Shakespeare professor in university, who preferred to fall back on traditional interpretations rather than to actually read the words. I disagreed with him when he claimed that Caliban represented total evil because he had attempted to rape Miranda. To me, Caliban speaks the most beautiful and inspired words in The Tempest.

The idea that an “evil” person could have insight was unusual in Shakespeare’s time—as it is now. We continue to think of people as intrinsically good or evil, even defend the notion through vague science, as though such dispositions were encoded in our DNA. Sadly, this has implications for our incarceration system.

I would never speculate on Atif Rafay’s guilt or innocence; it’s hardly the point. The system he describes is one in which the guards’ ugliness is hardly distinguishable from the inmates’; the guards’ is perhaps worse, because it is state sanctioned. This makes us all participants. I am reminded of the fate of Ashley Smith here in Canada, and the public opinion that we limit our sympathy to put upon guards and staff.

Our punitive prison system undercuts our society’s claim to the Christian values of atonement, redemption, and hope. How bleak is life without these—not only for the incarcerated, but for all of us. We are all connected, like it or not; “But for the grace of God,” or its secular equivalent, is a healthy world view.

Doris Wrench Eisler
St. Albert, AB

Maybe most insightful, beautifully written essay about life in prison you’ll ever read. Author = Convicted murderer.

@aburbidge (Twitter)

You say: essay.

I say: rant.

Joyce Janzen
Nanaimo, BC

Mathieu Lavoie’s illustration in the April issue of @walrusmagazine is killer.

@oneseeproject (Twitter)

This appeared in the June 2011 issue.

“The time has come,” The Walrus said, “to talk of many things.” Send us a letter, an email (letters@thewalrus.ca), or a tweet, or post on this website. Comments may be published in any medium and edited for length, clarity, and accuracy. Mail correspondence to: 411 Richmond St. E., Suite B15, Toronto, Ontario, Canada  M5A 3S5

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