Friday, June 06, 2008

Forcing "Liberty" on People: That French Annulment Case

This story is a real clash of cultures. Most commentators are seeing it as a clash between Islamic values and liberal European ones. I see it as an example of a more vicious and intractable sort of clash: the eternal conflict between people who want to cram their values down the throats of others, and the rest of us. It might not be so obvious that this is what is going on because the value being thus crammed is currently mislabeled "liberty."

A man and a woman (henceforth Mr. X and Ms. Y) sought a marriage annulment in a French court. The desire was mutual. They also agreed on the grounds: before the marriage, Y had assured X that she was a virgin, but on the wedding night she admitted that she had lied. (X and Y are both Muslims, he an engineer and she a university student.) The judge granted the annulment on the grounds given: misrepresentation. Thus he was treating the marriage like any other contract: a mutual, conditional, agreement between free individuals.

The decision, as you may know, has enraged a stampeding herd of talking heads. "Ironically," conservatives and feminists are united in their rage at this brave judge. (I'm just kidding about the irony of course. That kind of conservative and that kind of feminist are often working the same side of the street.)

[Disclaimer: I have never had sex with a virgin and intend to avoid doing so for the rest of my life. Why someone would want to have sex with a completely inexperienced partner is literally beyond my comprehension. Obviously, the distance between Mr. X's values and mine is to be measured in light years. In a way, that is my point: how can such different people live together in peace in the same legal system? To see part of the answer, read on!]

What are the talking heads so mad about? The main idea was expressed by the French bureaucrat who said that the court decision "is a real fatwa against the emancipation and liberty of women."

This is a very different view of liberty from mine. Clearly what the bureaucrat is thinking is that Ms. Y's liberty should be preserved, though at the expense of Mr. X. Sure, he doesn't want to be stuck in a relationship he entered under false pretenses. He want's the easy exit of annulment rather than the messy one of divorce. But that's just too bad. Ms. Y needs to be protected against the patriarchal double standard value system that says that a bride must be a virgin while a husband need not be.

I would argue that these conservatives and pseudo-feminists are threatening to coerce both Mr. X and Ms. Y. After all, she wants the annulment too. She does not want the slower, more public, and thus more humiliating process of a divorce. And she has said so, eloquently.

More importantly, if the law does not allow annulment on these grounds, it is not treating Ms. Y as a free and responsible adult. Presumably, these "feminists" would not mind allowing an annulment if Mr. X had misrepresented himself in some way that was important to Y. Oh, but that's different. After all, he's a man, and doesn't have to be protected against oppressive value systems that he foolishly has bought into -- that is the position of Ms. Y. Isn't it obvious how this sort of feminism shows contempt for the promises, commitments, and therefore the choices of the woman in this case? She's a woman, so when she promises something, it doesn't count. This is the sort of feminism that women can really do without. Further, Ms. Y has made it clear she does not want the "help" these people. As she told an interviewer, "I don't know who's trying to think in my place. I didn't ask for anything."

The killer premise that underlies this contempt is the idea that true freedom, at least for women, means being protected against oppressive value systems, especially value systems that they accept. To this end, the institution of marriage has to have certain values -- the right values -- built into it. Values like equality.

That of course is the conservative view of marriage as well, but with different values built in. Marriage is between a man and a woman. ... marriage must be egalitarian and non-oppressive ... and in both cases, whether you want it or not.

I say that in a truly free society, marriage would simply be a contract. This would make it infinitely adaptable to different value systems. If you want gay marriage, you can have it. If you want a marriage based on strange, kinky preferences like virginity and chastity, you can build an institution to suit yourself. The possibilities, of course, are considerably wider than that. When we are strong enough to grant such freedom to each other, we will have it ourselves.

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