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

The “gay marriage debate” – made for (but ill-served by) social media

The gay marriage ‘debate’ is, in many ways, made for liberals on social media. It’s easy to slot it into the ‘barbarians at the gate’ narrative which writers like Charlie Brooker have made a career out of, flattering the egos of a self-identified ‘enlightened’ group by contrasting them with an oppressive, bigoted ‘other’. Related to this, it allows that smug, trite superiority which many non-believers feel over the religious, who have become the symbolic receptacle of any and all anti-marriage sentiment (which itself has become synonymous with homophobia.) The debate feeds the unpleasant self-victimisation which is clung to by many privileged (white, middle-class) gay people – witness, with tiresome inevitability, the speed with which these people have once again rushed to analogise their ‘plight’ to that of black people (apartheid! segregation!) More than anything, it facilitates the sense of certainty and being right which Twitter absolutely thrives on.

As a result, yesterday largely seemed to consist of shrieking slanging matches where many people were acting like they believed themselves to be the UK’s modern-day equivalents of Rosa Parks. Yet rather than fury resulting from an engagement (even in an unproductive way) with people who believed differently, this largely seemed to feed off another one of Twitter’s more dangerous traits – that of it serving as an echo chamber. I could find barely anyone who was making arguments against gay marriage – instead there were scores of people shouting ‘me too!’ while working themselves into a frenzy and almost competing to see who could be most outraged. This reached a bizarre peak with hysterically overblown attacks on Labour for apparently indicating that they would give their MPs a free vote on the issue. This was, it seemed, the worst thing that had ever happened to the labour movement. Never mind clause 4 or the Iraq war, tuition fees or complicity in torture, adoption of most of the worst excesses of Thatcherism or woeful acquiescence to the austerity agenda – it was this procedural issue (one which will surely not even be noticed by most people) which had people threatening to leave the party in droves. This was especially odd given that Labour’s record on gay rights isn’t exactly as straightforwardly glittering as we’re now led to believe. Even more so since we only have to look to recent history to find Labour members assuring us that many gay people didn’t want marriage and civil partnerships brought “joy and security”. Indeed, a search for ‘Labour’ and ‘gay marriage’ in the final year of the Labour government brings only 21,500 results – in the past year this returns 340,000 results. Gay marriage is an idea for which the time has come and it’s very obvious that even many of the most vocal supporters did not even think about it only 2 years ago, making the righteous fury seem very ill-fitting.

This seems to stem from the rise and rise of Labour as ‘the Tories but nicer’. Economic issues, once the raison d’etre of the party, have increasingly been hollowed out and replaced by liberal concerns. Make no mistake, Labour today is a liberal party rather than a socialist one. It was notable that yesterday’s chorus of opprobrium drowned out confirmation that Labour will oppose one of the most shameful and harmful aspects of Osborne’s Autumn statement. This is the direction many of us want Labour to go in and one which has potential to make a real difference to the lives of millions of people – yet only a week after a statement which found the government’s plan for the economy in tatters and them further heaping the worst of this failure onto the poorest in society, much of the left was tearing itself apart over the almost-entirely symbolic issue of gay marriage. Some canny observers noted the timing of the government’s gay marriage announcement with suspicion. Judging by yesterday’s response, it’s difficult not to believe that they were correct to do so.

This of course raises wider issues, not least the question of what ‘equality’ means. The gay marriage debate is concerned only with a very narrow legal equality (and perhaps in a wider sense with civil rights) and almost no-one who loudly bangs on about it seems to pause to think about ‘equality’ in any other way. Yet many who oppose gay marriage do so not because they are homophobic but because they believe that we should be pulling away from the state privileging certain relationships between consenting adults over others, not striving to cement it further. This is partly why some have readily agreed with David Cameron that gay marriage is an inherently conservative (and Conservative) idea, something which the angry righteousness of many supporters cannot possibly allow for. To go even wider, gay marriage is almost completely and utterly irrelevant to economic rights and economic equality, things which should be at the absolute core of any left-wing party. Yet we have the perverse spectacle of activists thanking a government, which is increasing inequality and poverty while dogmatically attacking those on benefits, for their stance on gay marriage. Do gay people exist outside of the economic sphere? Only the most sheltered and privileged of people could possibly expect a homeless gay person, a gay person whose benefits have been cut, a gay person who has been made unemployed, a gay person forced to use food banks, to be intrinsically grateful to the government because they will be able to call their partnership a ‘marriage’.

Inevitably, any move away from the state’s power to privilege certain relationships over others (‘marriage’) would upset some religious people. ‘Some’ being the important part of that sentence. The outpouring of hatred and contempt for the religious which many have engaged in as part of this ‘debate’ is horrific and certainly no better than the vile homophobia engaged in by some in the name of God. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of the British population has supported gay marriage since even before civil partnerships were introduced. Given that the latest census indicates that around 25% of the population is atheist, it surely follows that many religious people support gay marriage? Rather than devoting so much energy to the loud minority who espouse homophobic views it would perhaps be more productive to engage with the quiet majority who don’t. Having been raised Catholic, attending church regularly and going to a Catholic school, I tend to find the lazy superiority of many self-proclaiming atheists to be utterly repugnant. Being religious doesn’t mean you abandon your critical faculties and being atheist doesn’t mean that you are a brave champion of rationality. I still have many religious family members, friends, workmates and acquaintances and absolutely none of them, whether Christian or Muslim or Sikh, has ever had a problem with my sexuality. So as flattering to your ego as it is to celebrate your intellectual superiority over those who believe in ‘old men sitting on clouds in the sky’ (why is it always variations on that?!) I think debate and progression would be better served by getting off the war horse and realising that most folk are actually pretty decent (and indeed that not everyone opposed to gay marriage is religious or even homophobic.)

This applies generally and, of course, takes me back to the beginning because Twitter and the like are fundamentally based on self-validation and polarisation rather than deep engagement or self-reflection. The gay marriage question being played out on these forums has rendered it enormously tiresome and poisonous and we would do well to think about the nature of ‘equality’ and how our own treatment of others is inescapably part of that. Social media has ill-served this debate.

I’ve greatly enjoyed Twitter in the past 18 months or so. I’ve had many interesting discussions on there, ‘met’ plenty of interesting and entertaining people and been introduced to countless brilliant pieces of writing, music, television etc. Yet of late I’ve felt a fatigue about it and the linked piece above touches on some of the reasons why. The authoritarian aspect is something I’ve written about before and it certainly seems to only be getting worse. What’s most depressing is that you would probably expect the Left to be most vocal about the worrying criminalisation of the ‘wrong kind’ of speech/writing, yet few people seem to care. It’s understandable – who wants to be seen to be making common cause with such figures as have been jailed – yet the principles at stake are so enormous that the silence has still surprised me. Similarly yesterday I could only put the almost complete silence on George Galloway’s claims that he was targeted by a MET police infiltrator down to his being an undesirable point of origin for discussion of the issues raised.

It’s interesting to look at the issues which you think are potentially explosive and receive little or no reaction, given the ease with which Twitter seems to reach collective outrage. Now, I’m of course largely constrained on Twitter by whom I follow and what they share but nonetheless I find the article’s premise that ‘Twitterstorms’ are becoming more frequent to be quite compelling. Absolutely furious responses to something someone has said or written are commonplace to the extent where I increasingly find myself looking at the object of outrage and thinking ‘so what?’ A couple of years ago I might have joined in – now I wonder what is gained by more and more people repeating the same outrage at the same target in the same manner.

The worst Twitterstorms are reserved for the so-called ‘social issues‘ and it’s here more than anywhere else that Twitter’s position as an echo chamber is made clear. Most decent people would believe that they are not sexist, not racist, not homophobic. Further, they would probably believe that they would challenge these things when they encounter them. On Twitter, they do. Again and again and again. The problem is that there is only so much you can do with a tweet and so, inevitably, the responses blend together and become a homogeneous mass of self-righteous outrage. It’s not engaging or challenging, it’s just a turn-off. The ‘debate’ becomes two calcified ‘sides’ repeating their stances ad nauseam. I don’t believe for a second that anyone is made to think about their views by these responses.

You could argue that it’s the nature of Twitter. After all, few people would claim that they jump on bandwagons of responding to particular things and few would feel unjustified in challenging certain viewpoints. However I can’t help but think that this is largely missing the point, because I don’t think that most meaningful disagreements take place on social media. Instead they happen in our day-to-day lives with the people around us – our family, our friends, our co-workers. Unless I am enormously unrepresentative, I think most of us experience viewpoints which we find incorrect, absurd or even offensive from such people. Yet rather than berating them we are more likely to either ignore what they said, change the subject or explain why we think they’re wrong. Within the wider context of the relationship we see it as something we can chat about. It doesn’t become the whole person and, chances are, we actually think the person is pretty decent.

However if we think of times when we’ve been part of a group and have encountered people with whom we vehemently disagree, it’s probable that at some stage we’ve all engaged in the ‘us vs them’ mentality’. We have little interest in engaging – our ego and worth comes from the knowledge that we’re right and they’re not.

On Twitter we largely lack the context which would ever make us want to engage with someone we disagree with. We only see words and those words become the whole of the person behind them. It’s all too easy, then, to aggressively denounce them. It’s a satisfying anger – we feel right, especially if we are in agreement with many others. If we deliver a particularly pithy put-down we garner retweets and new followers. It feels good.

Twitter, then, seems geared towards flattering the worst aspects of our egos – namely the desire to be right and the desire to be liked. In the rote responses to the cyclical debates I increasingly see only hollow certainty, not the sense that people have seriously considered why they believe what they do and why they disagree with someone else. Often serious attempts to discuss these issues are shut down instantly, with disagreement being lumped in with the ever-tedious concept of ‘trolling’. Twitter does not lend itself to self-reflection, to put it mildly. Indeed, I’ve definitely experienced that peculiar sensation of arguing with someone and feeling a sense of panic when they make a very good point. Rather than reflecting on it the immediate urge is to attack, to undermine, to prove them wrong

I think this is particularly important because I have learned again and again the futility of attacking someone you disagree with and constantly struggle with it. It comes down to how I approach my values and my opinions – are they there to be repeatedly proved right, to make me feel good? Or do I actively want to learn, to be able to think in previously unimaginable ways?  This isn’t to say that strongly-held views are wrong – God forbid I become one of those people who fetishises ‘being reasonable’ – but there is undoubtedly cause for reflection at how easy it is to get swept along by Twitter and how difficult it is to question ourselves as we go. I think there is a lot to be said for acknowledging that many people are working through their thoughts on many different things – in fact, it could be said that it’s a good thing. After all, is it better for someone to disagree with us after careful consideration or to agree with us just…because? The former surely offers the far more rewarding position? Of course, there are those with whom we strongly disagree who display zero reflection and those who are just downright offensive – but when it’s clear people have no interest in engagement, what do we gain from attacking them other than a reinforcement of our own positions?

As I say, these are thoughts I frequently have to remind myself of and I can readily succumb to the appeal of certainty. Nonetheless, my increasing Twitter fatigue comes from the (increasing) recognition that I can be wrong – and there is little inherent value in merely feeling right.

Edit – It occurred to me this morning that what I’m really talking about is the dialectical method. The exact nature of this could no doubt fill a book but the basic premise of new thought arising from the reasoned (but still potentially forceful, passionate) exchange of views neatly summarises my thoughts above. Greater people than I have written reams about it. With regards to Twitter, the dialectical method is all but impossible. Many (most?) would claim that they have ‘debates’ online without realising just how accurate this description is, as the point of a debate is to win. In a circular fashion this both suits Twitter and is encouraged by it – it’s difficult for it to be about anything more than broadcasting.

‘Life After a Twitterstorm’