Sigh. Another day, another outrage (yet another one inspired by gay marriage, at that). Somewhere, someone is starting an e-petition. Jeremy Irons has committed the almighty sin of speaking about gay marriage in terms beyond ‘IT’S GREAT!’ If only he’d kept quiet and waved an equal sign around, the delicate sensibilities of those forced to face the horrific fact that some people think things which they do not would have been spared.
You can watch Irons speaking here. You can see that he didn’t angrily denounce gay marriage or gay people. You can see that he in fact went out of his way to stress that he had no ‘strong feeling’ on the matter. He even states that he thinks anyone having someone to love is ‘fantastic’ and “what it’s called doesn’t matter at all”. What’s his great crime, then? Well…he thinks about the issue and its implications. That’s pretty much it. You can be certain that if he’d uttered a trite and banal ‘go gay marriage!’ that many now condemning him would have thought he was a right-on guy. Now the scent of homophobia will linger around him.
Yet the issues Irons discusses are very real. The problem is that many are unwilling to or incapable of thinking about them, despite the fact that you can’t hurl around platitudes about ‘equality’ and ‘consenting adults’ and then decide that these principles only apply up to the limit you decide on. As I’ve written previously, if you’re using arguments of equality and consent then you have an obligation to think about what these terms mean. The repeated outrage (such as this tweet from Stonewall re: polygamy) whenever anyone does this in public, however mildly, underlines that this consideration has not taken place in many cases. Instead it seems that the thinking behind the matter goes “Equality is good! Adults can do what they want!” and then everyone grabs an equal sign and feels great that they’re on the side of the angels.
As Irons states, though, the argument does indeed raise interesting questions. Where do we draw the line of the ‘equal right’ to marriage and why? Everyone has jumped onto his comments concerning a father and son as ‘comparing gay marriage to incest’. There are a couple of ripostes to this. Firstly, there is the question of incest itself and why we consider it to be wrong – so wrong that it overrides our modern obsession with the right of consenting adults to do as they please. This is hardly a question which is beyond the pale in polite company – The Guardian pondered its morality only last year. There are undoubtedly compelling arguments against incest (not least the issue of abuse) but actually thinking about what they are rather than rushing to self-righteous condemnation at its very mention is a GOOD THING. The second point is that Irons’ suggestion that a father and son may want to marry for inheritance tax reasons actually puts incest to one side. Indeed, when civil partnerships were introduced a high-profile case resulted where two sisters wanted the legal rights which such partnerships conferred. This was not a question of incest by any stretch of the imagination. It was instead one of the privileged legal status afforded to couples recognised by the state and why these should not be conferred more widely on any two people who desired them. In the instant outraged response to Irons, where is the consideration of this? Where is the evidence that these people have even spent a second thinking about what marriage actually means, both to themselves and to wider society? If it’s an issue of equality, I find it hard to argue why myself and my boyfriend should enjoy certain privileges over these two sisters merely because our relationship is ‘romantic’ (ie involves sex). If it’s an issue of consent I find it difficult to understand why this argument doesn’t apply just as equally to two, three, four adults who want to have their relationship recognised by the state.
Thinking about these issues necessarily involves thinking about the nature of marriage and, if you accept that marriage is overwhelmingly about equality and consent, you indeed open the door to changing what it is commonly held to represent currently. Whether that is a good or bad thing is another matter (plenty of ‘radicals’ would be perfectly happy if society moved away from privileging marriage) but to shout down such thought with accusations of bigotry demonstrates little more than hollow and unearned certitude. A certitude which has marked the debate in spades and can be seen in the pithy, self-congratulatory responses to Irons. This is not about thoughtful engagement – it’s about narcissism and it’s getting really exhausting. Jeremy Irons has done nothing more than think critically and lumping this in with homophobia demeans the term. More importantly, it discourages serious engagement in favour of self-flattering dogmatism (which tends to coincide with the sense of belonging to a larger ‘side’ existing in opposition to the ‘baddies’). As Stonewall might slap on buses in another universe: some people think differently, get over it!