It seems to me that the ‘manif pour tous’  was attempting in a confused and deeply reactionary way to address  this deeper set of questions  concerning the relation between biology and social destiny and the destabilising of both family and community values. A  vacuum has been  created by the absence of a progressive engagement with such issues at the level of popular culture and everyday life;  it has been filled by  institutionalised forms of ‘political correctness’, and  the ideological  hothouse of  identity politics. Against this background, the dream of a simpler world, a world  of make-believe freed from the ambiguities and confusions of contemporary sexual politics, indeed a world liberated from sexuality altogether in the name of more innocent pleasures becomes ever more attractive.

I’m not sure that this piece entirely gels as a coherent whole but it’s an admirable effort nonetheless. The section I’ve quoted above is absolutely spot-on. I don’t wish to repeat myself at length but the shrillness of the ‘gay marriage debate’ certainly hasn’t been monopolised by the homophobes. The issue raises interesting questions, not least about marriage and about the nature of ‘equality’, which have been almost entirely ignored by the ‘progressive’ supporters of the cause. Instead, as the quote succinctly puts it, we’ve had “institutionalised forms of ‘political correctness’, and  the ideological  hothouse of  identity politics”. The automatic (and smugly expressed) assumption that any criticism or opposition = homophobia, something we’re seeing again tonight with the ‘oh now the world will end waaaah!’ crowing online. It’s not exactly been dignified. It seems even less likely tonight that any of these issues will be thought about in any depth – indeed, there’s a Twitterstorm currently brewing over alleged Tory plans to ‘get tough on teenage single mothers’ yet absolutely no-one is drawing any connection between it and the question of ‘marriage equality’. Yet notions of ‘marriage’, particularly the morality behind it and its privileged status in society, are clearly relevant. Indeed, the ‘letting gays get married will mean less single parents’ argument has been wheeled out in favour of ‘equal marriage’. There are implicit judgements there, assumptions about the way a relationship is supposed to work and how a ‘family’ is supposed to be constructed. Once you start thinking about these connections it sheds new light on tweets like this, where we’re supposed to coo at some gays becoming respectable, making their love ‘official’. We’re not supposed to ask questions about why their love wasn’t good enough already or how folk in ‘non-traditional’ relationships which remain beyond the realms of ‘marriage’  fit into all this.

Gay marriage, whatever its merits, is as an issue a big old plaster which we nice liberal folk can slap over ourselves to feel good and superior without having to think about any of the uncomfortable stuff. In recent days we’ve seen the same with the Trayvon Martin verdict, where I’ve seen folk in the UK who only weeks ago were spouting reactionary drivel about the Woolwich attacks, who abandoned all pretence of ‘liberalism’ during the 2010 riots and who rarely have much to say about racism in the UK  wailing loudly about the injustice. Racism in this case is not only on the other side of the world, it’s big and it’s obvious. That’s racism. They’re racist. We’re not racist. Again, there’s no need to think about anything. No need to consider the subtle and insidious ways in which racism manifests itself, no need to consider our own positions, our own privileges, our own attitudes and actions. At the root of both responses lies a conception of ‘equality’ which is woefully trite, naive and shallow. This lack of critical thought, this aversion to seriously looking lest we don’t like what we see, feeds into the vacuum which the author of the above piece mentions. And so we can tweet our support for the further privileging of certain kinds of relationships in society while seconds later complaining with disbelief that a government is yet again taking aim at a stigmatised form of ‘family’. 

Edit – I’m compelled to add this story here as a further illustration of what I’m talking about. The full-on assault on those claiming benefits appeals to many prejudices and ill-founded assumptions but the benefits cap in particular rests on the basis that only those who can ‘afford’ it should a) have children and/or b) live in ‘desirable’ areas. This is exactly the kind of thing people mean when they describe ‘marriage equality’ as equality only for the already privileged, who already have choices and opportunities. Those who don’t due to whatever circumstances find themselves stigmatised and subject to the cruel whims of a baying mob. Look at the bottom of the linked article – it rather incongruously mentions a proposed tax break for married couples. You can safely assume that Osborne is not pitching this to the married couples who will be hit by the benefits cap – no, instead it’s aimed at the wholesome, ‘good’ families who pay their way and don’t rock the boat. They are the chosen ones. Now we gay folk can be the chosen ones too. ‘Equality’.

Living the dream: a letter from Paris | openDemocracy

You Are A Target Market

‘The gays’ have been viewed as an exploitable market for at least a few decades now. Artists like Cher, Madonna and Kylie have long been famed for their fiercely loyal gay fanbase, so much so that every female pop star of a certain ilk has tried desperately to get in on the action. Then of course we have the straight-male-celeb-does-the-gays thing which has become an essential part of turning a b-lister into a profitable commodity. As I wrote here, “gay magazines still have an unhealthy affection for straight men who say they like gays while posing in their pants” and oh, it is ever so the case.

With each progression of ‘the gays’ into a target market the concept has become more and more banal, more removed from the complicated taint of meaningful politics and messy humanity, more homogeneous and more offensive. We become a bunch of fabulous creatures who want nothing more than to be patronised. Patted on the head and told that we deserve to be treated like everyone else – not because of any crazy concepts like human rights, of course, but rather because gays are amazing and deserve good stuff. We’re now at the stage where any 2013 edition of ‘Marketing 101’ would have to feature an early section called ‘Patronise the gays’. It wouldn’t have to be a very long section, of course, as it would just have to lay down the buzzwords to use: homophobia, bullying, gay marriage, it gets better, love, equality etc. You don’t even have to make any attempt at subtlety – Class A, a truly dreadful boy band, released an equally dreadful single called ‘Pride’ and did a tour of British schools ostensibly to promote ‘pride’ and oppose homophobic bullying (in association with the ever-useless Stonewall). This has of course given them quick and extensive access to the market which is most important for any new boy band. It also renders them largely immune from criticism – as love of/support for the gays has become a totemic liberal value there are a multitude of voices who will defend such commercial exploitation of ‘homophobia’, invariably appealing to the mythical ‘young kid growing up and feeling alone’. The gay is always ‘out there’ in this equation, always a voiceless victim needing to be saved. Lady Gaga is obviously the standard-bearer for this conflation of homosexuality with victimhood, portraying herself as some brave freedom fighter bringing a voice to an oppressed minority. Only two weeks ago  the rich white woman with the model boyfriend who attended “one of the most selective and expensive schools in Manhattan” declared that ”It’s time for us to be mainstream”. Gee, thanks for that Gaga.

She is, to be fair, the perfect representative of an LGBT movement which is dominated by the concerns of privileged white men and is all-too-willing to allow itself be used as a mark of superiority by equally privileged liberals who fancy a taste of ‘the other’. That’s why the gay marketing ploy works so well. By buying into this idea that ‘gay rights’ exist in a vacuum, removed from any other political/geographical/human concerns, can completely ignore unpleasant issues of race, of poverty, of wider inequality (you can even ignore any discussion ofwhat ‘equality’ even means.) You don’t have to do anything at all other than say a couple of sentences and point people towards the e-petition.  In essence you’re saying nothing that’s any more controversial than ‘I like cake’ yet your ‘support’ for the gays will be widely seized on by (at least) the gay media and will confer a fabulous sprinkling of radicalism on you. This completely unthreatening ploy sees the cause, and the gays, as instrumental to the real message – buy our product. So you find LGBT people celebrating the commercialisation not only of homophobia but of themselves. They become less than human, useful only for their victimised sexuality and perceived lack of voice. In this way this marketing ploy is as insidious and harmful as any ‘homophobia’ which it ostensibly aims to address (at least until the next single is out). We don’t need the Class A, Matthew Morrison and Saturdays of the world to promote their wares off the back of our ‘oppression’; more than that, we shouldn’t allow it. They can stuff their commercialised, profit-based, neutered and one-dimensional ‘Pride’.

Jeremy Irons – Outrage!

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!

Oh, for the inconsistency of respectability, that needs the marriage vow to turn something which is filthy into the purest and most sacred arrangement that none dare question or criticize. Yet that is exactly the attitude of the average upholder of marriage.

There is an irony of sorts in the fact that a woman born in 1869 is more radical in her feminism and understanding of equality than most of the vocal supporters of ‘equal marriage’ yesterday. Emma Goldman wrote the essay linked to above in 1911, referring to marriage as “that poor little State and Church-begotten weed” and comparing it to capitalism as something which:

…robs man of his birthright, stunts his growth, poisons his body, keeps him in ignorance, in poverty and dependence, and then institutes charities that thrive on the last vestige of man’s self-respect.

Goldman was openly hostile towards the state, viewing it as a violent and aggressive means of control, and argued that one of the primary means of freedom for women (and men) was to be found in “refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc.” She criticised the self-righteous and repressive morality which she believed lay behind marriage and was also an early supporter of “the various gradations and variations of gender and their great significance in life” – her belief in the “freedom to love” meant that she was an advocate for contraception, for ‘free love’ and for what we now call ‘gay rights’.

How dismayed Goldman would have been, then, to witness the gloopy sanctimony of yesterday’s ‘debate’, where people of the left continually pushed the notion that we are horribly oppressed if the state doesn’t recognise our partnerships as ‘marriage’. This was an odd notion of ‘freedom’ with many sincerely (and offensively) comparing this legal wrangling for state approval to slavery, apartheid and the fight for universal suffrage. Hilariously, some sought to affect some radicalism by declaring that they were against the institution of marriage but believed in ‘equality’, the same kind of logic which sees people cheer-leading for society to be granted fuller access to the military while loudly declaiming militarism.

By coincidence I had read New Left Project’s piece on Foucault only the day before which featured this illuminating exchange:

It’s a peculiar form of narcissism, whereby a component of the self that is identified as problematic or troubling is effectively quarantined and separated off from the self. To a certain extent it now has an independent existence and one effect of this is to preserve the narcissistic conviction that the ‘core’ self is still intact and untroubled. This independent component also has a quasi-legal, and frequently litigious, existence: whose responsibility is it to deal with the perceived problems and deficits caused by a particular pathology? We are now quite comfortable with the idea that institutions should make accommodations and adjustments when confronted with a whole variety of diagnoses. In some ways this is undeniably progressive development, but in other ways it’s problematic. For one thing, it locks individuals and institutions into endless litigious wrangling, and perhaps that is symptomatic of a wider crisis of legitimacy.

Litigious wrangling that winds up reinforcing the logic of the system as a whole?

Yes. Particularly in his earlier work Foucault suggested that labels and categories that appear to be liberating might actually draw us into new circuits of power. We should not, he suggests, be fooled into thinking that these labels always serve to emancipate us: in some ways they might be as coercive as what went before. 

It doesn’t take much elaboration to see how the idea of ‘litigious wrangling that winds up reinforcing the logic of the system as a whole’ could apply to ‘equal marriage’ and you don’t have to go as wide as the notion of state authority. This argument has reinforced the institution of marriage, the idea that certain relationships should be privileged over others. There are undoubtedly honest arguments to be made for this and many have been making them – the hilarity comes with the “narcissistic conviction that the ‘core’ self is still intact and untroubled” which was so evident yesterday from ‘radicals’ who found themselves puritanically attacking people for adultery, divorce, separation etc. Ostensibly these were attacks on the hypocrisy of people defending ‘traditional marriage’ yet they were so widespread and so vehement that they clearly drew on, and reinforced, very traditional and moralistic conceptions of relationships. Yet people were so convinced of their righteous superiority that they managed to push this judgmental morality while condemning others for their own variety of it – look no further than this simultaneously hilarious and depressing tweet from Stonewall which contrasted ‘loving, committed relationships’ with polygamy. This very obviously reinforces very traditional and very conservative ideas of what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ relationship and neatly encapsulates the dangers of tying your sense of ‘equality’ to state approval. As you can see from the responses beneath, some were rightly appalled by it and seemed to view equal marriage as a step towards exploding marriage itself open. An interesting idea, certainly, but it’s one which rather undermines the endless brickbats hurled at those who saw ‘equal marriage’ as a ‘slippery slope’ towards the dissolution of marriage itself and creates the odd position of two ‘groups’ of people arguing in favour of equal marriage while fundamentally disagreeing with what it means. This last point isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it highlights how concepts of relationships and morality cannot hope to be encapsulated in a single state institution and how marriage ‘equality’ can only ever be ‘equal’ for some.

While considering state authority it’s worth noting that this report was released yesterday highlighting the involvement of over a quarter of the world’s countries in torture and rendition. The report included a 5-page section detailing the United Kingdom’s own abhorrent involvement. This again rather underlines the problem of tying morality to the state (just as a myriad of other ‘policies’ do.) Yet the modern elevation of ‘identity politics’ above all else means that any wider (and more profound) sense of ‘equality’ and basic human rights is lost and we are even encouraged to reward the government for their ‘bravery’. Notice that this Telegraph piece once again treats politics as a check-list, with the author wearily and dismissively noting that equal marriage needs to be “weighed against the things that you don’t like” – the exact same argument which defenders of Obama use about drone attacks on children. I think this argument comes so easily as this approach is about how these things make you as an individual feel rather than any deeper reflection on what they actually mean (and an almost sociopathic inability to realise that real people are affected by them). This seemed very true yesterday where the worst aspects of our interaction with social media – “the desire to be right and the desire to be liked”, saw the ‘debate’ pursued with zero self-reflection and zero humility but instead an endless, loud stream of narcissism and mutual assurances of superiority. It became another thing to beat up ‘enemies’ with, another thing with which we could assure ourselves that we are that righteous person whom we think we ought to be. It’s difficult to see how anyone, at all, came out of it well.

I certainly don’t need the government to tell me that I’m ‘equal’. I absolutely don’t need a government which is furthering and cementing economic inequality, which is headed by a hereditary monarch, which can kidnap, torture, kill and wage war without consequence, which can cynically argue for an end to global hunger while actively exacerbating it, to tell me that I’m ‘equal’. So by all means support equal marriage, but let’s not pretend that it’s some ahistorical and self-evident right which has no wider meaning or implication, and let’s not pretend that it’s a step towards a substantive ‘equality’ which we should all be hysterically grateful for. As Goldman argued, our duty is surely “to plead for every victim, be it one of social wrong or of moral prejudice” and as Foucault warned, we must guard against that inside us which “causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

Marriage and Love – Emma Goldman