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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Justice Clarence Thomas' dissent in the gay marriage decision sends a dangerous message

One might rightly wonder what the US Supreme Court decision on gay marriage might have to do with some issues in child protection. The obvious will be around the legal definition of marriage and thus the legal definition of family. Decisions around parenting, guardianship, adoption, divorce, custody and access as well as child support will all have impacts. Although, as we have seen in Canada, legalization of a union between two people of the same gender has not led to disastrous results in those legal and social police areas.

I am, however, rather disturbed with Justice Thomas' comments in his dissent where he fails, in my view, to understand the impact of trauma. He states:

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

In this, he essentially states that a person can be subject to mass trauma created by the state and still hold  onto their human dignity. This is wrong and I believe that history and science of trauma would support that. The whole purpose of mass incarceration, genocide, stripping people of rights is to remove their sense of worth - their dignity. Certainly some, those with particular resilience, are able to sustain when given ways to heal. But most will be forever impacted by the trauma and their dignity will indeed be fractured.

When we suggest in a justice system otherwise, as Justice Thomas has done, then we remove part of the consideration of the impact of trauma on the victims. That also removes their dignity as it will take vindication that comes with people knowing the truth of the trauma and the effects of it.

Here in Canada, for generations, we have denied that the mass trauma of taking First Nations children away from their families and putting them in abusive Residential  Schools. Through the publication of the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, we have seen how the dignity of First Nations peoples were destroyed as part of this cultural genocide. That is real. It is by honouring the truth, that dignity can be found again in the person, the community and the culture.

Justice Thomas' statements must be challenged because of the message that they send to justice systems about trauma. I anticipate (or at least hope) that he meant something different but his words are the record.

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