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Exchange of views

22 April 2016

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THE award for last week’s best joke about same-sex marriage goes to Down the Line (Radio 4, Thursday), during which a fictional Mr Khan rings the spoof phone-in show to complain that he and Mrs Khan have been enduring the same sex for the entirety of their 24-year-long marriage.

This was a timely repeat of Paul Whitehouse’s comedy, first broadcast in 2014; but, for all that the debate has evolved since then, it might have been scripted last week.

For a résumé of where we are now on same-sex marriage, a good place to start might be Agree to Differ (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week). This is a show that boasts no raised voices, no negativity, no knockabout; instead, two people present their opposing views on a hot topic, mediated by a calm Matthew Taylor.

On this occasion, we heard the cases pro and contra same-sex marriage presented by Jayne Ozanne and Canon Hassan John respectively. It was a neat move to get two Evangelicals on the subject, likely to take the more directly scriptural approach to debate.

In the end, we got what was promised: a considerate debate, and a summary of the issues from Taylor of which any senior negotiator at ACAS might be proud, even if it relied upon a semantic sleight of hand. After all, to “agree to differ” requires a recognition from both sides that the argument cannot be resolved by the application of polemical logic: that there is some emotional or ideological element to the argument which cannot be argued out, and must therefore be understood as an immovable hindrance.

This was not, it seems to me, the understanding that arose out of the debate between Ms Ozanne and Canon John. The intellectual battleground had not been fully traversed, and one got the impression that there was more that could be said on, for instance, the ramifications of different scriptural analyses.

Nevertheless, Taylor was content to declare that his job was done on the basis that they agreed what their differences were — in which case the show should be called something inelegant, such as “Agree on what we disagree on”. No matter: full marks to Taylor for a masterclass on negotiation.

In case you needed to recalibrate your liberal Western compass after such a dialogue, then Timothy Garton Ash’s essay on Wednesday — part of the series Free Speech (Radio 4, weekdays) — addressed directly the issue of respect for religion and religious beliefs.

This was the standard liberal, secularist position, albeit presented in authoritative and distinguished tones. We are, Garton Ash suggests, to respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.

All well and good; but, as ever, the argument is incapable of grappling with the question of treating faith groups with equal respect. He recounted Mark Thompson’s squirming admission that the BBC would not have commissioned an equivalent of Jerry Springer: The opera which poked fun at Islam; but then Garton-Ash swiftly closed down this line of inquiry by quoting some piece of bigotry from the Daily Mail website. “The stupid are always with us” is not the kind of sophisticated tie-up we expect from somebody as distinguished as the Prof.

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