Gender in Feminism

Summer DaysEarlier this year, Cardiff University had to vote whether to cancel a planned lecture by Germaine Greer at the request of their woman’s officer Rachael Melhuish, who advanced a threat of ‘No Platform’ against the second-wave feminist icon. The issue at task was Greer’s view on transgender women, namely that they aren’t women at all. Melhuish takes this as transphobia, hence bigotry, and hence pushed for censorship. There’s much that could be said about this incident, but here I want to take it as an opportunity to consider one of the essential clashes of gender concepts within the feminist movements.  

For the most part, I’m reluctant to talk about gender in public. Despite all the great achievements of the feminist movements since the original fight for suffrage in the nineteenth century, we have now reached a point in time where all discussion of gender is dominated by feminist voices. This is a more important point than is usually considered. While we have certainly not reached a time where anything that could be called gender equality is the norm, we no longer live at a time when all power relations are resolutely male. If we accept ‘male’ and ‘female’ as the unfeasibly broad categories that they are, there is both male and female power at work in our world. While that has always been the case in some sense, I don’t believe it is unfair to say that ‘female power’ has never been greater than it is right now. That is certainly a cause for celebration for anyone for whom equality is an ideal to aspire to. It is also a sign that feminism – itself also a rather excessively broad term – is in dire need of reflection upon its own situations.

What I hope to present here is only a rather minor contribution to the discussion. To be frank, I could not hope to eclipse the intersectionality critique in its importance for contemporary feminism, and it is worth briefly explaining the thrust of this cluster of arguments before I develop my own. The stepping point for intersectionality is Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 legal theory paper “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex” that argues that you cannot understand what it is to be a black woman solely in terms of being black and being a woman, because the intersection between these two categories has its own experience – one that Crenshaw suggests can be more significant than either of its supposedly constituent elements. This has lead to a long overdue recognition that feminism was largely a set of movements driven by middle class white women in affluent nations who were frequently imposing their ideals upon women whose situation was radically different. I do not believe the significance of intersectionality has come even close to being addressed at this time.

We come, then, to the start of my concerns. The stated objective of contemporary feminism is attain equality for women, and I shall trust that this claim is not in dispute, which of course it could be. But there are two vast problems with this mission statement that create complications for the feminist movements, namely the concepts of ‘equality’ and ‘women’. The problems of taking ‘equality’ as an ideal are discussed in my book of moral philosophy, Chaos Ethics, and I will not pursue this point here beyond saying that any attempt to make some set of beings equal is necessarily founded upon other beings being excluded from the set. This does not make equality a non-viable ideal, but it requires more careful understanding than is usually provided. What I instead want to pick up here is the other horn of this beast, ‘women’, or more broadly ‘female’. Because feminism as it is often presented now requires this concept to be strongly construed – and that is a source of significant problems.

It is vital to appreciate why I insist on talking about ‘feminist movements’ and not ‘feminists’: feminism is an umbrella under which radically different perspectives shelter, and umbrellas are objects that all too conveniently turn into weapons when wielded in rage. It therefore matters greatly which feminist movement or movements we are talking about when we make claims about feminism. A significant number of people who identify as feminists take a deconstructive view on gender, which is to say that they claim that the importance of gender is overemphasised, that male and female humans share more in common by virtue of being human than they are distinct by having different genitalia and hormonal patterns. On the deconstructive view, it is a mistake to put too much faith into the concept of ‘male’ and ‘female’ (or any equivalent term) because to do so is to artificially endorse, empower, or (as the scholars like to say) reify terms that lead us astray from the true basis of our potential equality – that we are all human. This view has significant support from those scientists who claim to speak for gender, although this in no way closes the issue since the sciences thankfully lack this kind of authority to silence voices.

But elsewhere in the feminist movements, a vast number of people who identify as feminists take a strict view on gender, with firmly construed concepts of what it is to be ‘female’ (sometimes with the additional assumption that what is not ‘female’ is ‘male’), a position that is diametrically opposed to the deconstructive view for evident reasons. This becomes particularly clear when dealing with the questions raised by transgender people, that is, those who have lived their lives under conflicting influences of both male and female gender identities, and (in many cases) have participated in medical and surgical interventions to ‘reassign’ their gender. This word ‘reassign’ is clear evidence of a strict view on gender: it makes rather less sense to ‘reassign’ a gender on most deconstructive views. (I put this term in scare quotes because I question the unstated assumption here about the power of doctors, not to question the logic of transgender experience, an issue tied up in the usage of the term ‘cis’ that must wait for another occasion.)

Now we return to the opening point: the attempted exclusion of Germaine Greer from the people worthy of respect on purportedly feminist grounds. I am far from the only person troubled by this; Zoe Williams expresses the problem with admirable brevity. In terms of the concepts of gender, however, feminist movements who decide to ally conceptually with transgender people must use a strict view since the forms of life described by this term are ones in which such strict concepts of gender are required to make them coherent. On the deconstructive view, it simply cannot matter sufficiently that any given construal of gender is of a certain character that you would have to recognise yourself as governed by the wrong gender concept and need to identify with the other gender concept, since there are always more than two concepts of gender on this perspective. The kinds of experiences entailed in transgender identities are only available to people operating with strict gender concepts. One consequence of this is that to take on the issues of transgender people is to risk enforcing strict gender conceptions that at least some feminists would rather we did not take so strongly or uncritically.

So which strict gender concepts are we expected to adopt? It’s far from clear, and trangender people are no better positioned to answer this question than anyone else. Those on the deconstructive view recognise a panoply of different strict gender concepts and, generally speaking, deny any of them has any coherent force or authority. Where, then, does the deconstructive view leave transgender people whose existence has been transformed by experiences of specific, strict gender concepts? Germaine Greer thinks transgender women are ‘not women’, because that’s what her strict gender view means to her; Rachael Melhuish presumably thinks transgender women ‘are women’, or her attacks on Greer make no sense, and Melhuish comes from a background of recognizing and advancing the intersectionality critique. This strongly suggests to me that intersectionality is not an answer to any problem but merely a question that we have not yet become skilled at answering, and answering it in this specific context might well be about working out how the deconstructive view and the myriad strict views of genders can interrelate without being explicitly opposed to one another.

Here is where the problems of feminism cross into the problems of equality, and cease to be the exclusive purview of feminists. Indeed, issues of equality – and of gender – were never exclusive to feminism, and intersectionality is the wake up call that should have made that clearer than it still is. We are a long way from any plausible possibility of decommissioning feminism as no longer necessary, but we are always a little too close to instituting a perverse kind of Feminine Empire under a mis-wielded banner of equality. That such a metaphorical empire would not be the most powerful institution of its kind is hardly an argument in its favour. Rather, as Zoe Williams points out, any attempt to move in such a direction merely empowers the existing status quo. With every kind of movement, you have to be careful where it is that you are moving towards.

Feminist movements in general (and individual feminists like Melhuish) are not mistaken in thinking that action in support of transgender people is needed, but they are gravely mistaken if they think failing to respect other feminists, like Germaine Greer, is honourable conduct. One can disagree with the views of a person without having to target them for censorship, and one can respect a remarkable pioneer in the history of feminism for fighting a difficult political battle at a time when it was far, far, more challenging to do so without ever coming close to accepting every aspect of her worldview without question or challenge. If Greer’s views on some topic are misguided, we owe it to both her and ourselves to debate her on the topic.

If we’re all going to live together in some kind of equality, we must be open to negotiating what equality means, for it cannot be calculated in advance, much less enforced by any arbitrary faction. In this political challenge, every concept of gender, race, and identity should be perpetually open to re-negotiation. That state of affairs can only be fostered by open discourse, it can never be advanced by censorship. The moment it swings the other way, we have all lost.

The opening image is Summer Days, an acrylic painting by Julia De Sano that is for sale here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Debate and commentary is always welcome, but please try to remain polite to all participants regardless of their perspective.


Taxation as Injustice

An open letter to Matt at Curiouser and Curiouser as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Other replies welcome!

Taxation is Theft Dear Matt,

Since you are ultimately responsible for my predicament, having first suggested I take up blogging, it seems only fitting that one of my first blog letters (dare I neologize to bletters?) should be addressed to you. And since our last discussion hinged around your libertarian views upon taxation I thought this would be an appropriate topic for this missive.

I do have quite considerable sympathy for libertarian politics, since I too hold rather liberal social values, and I also agree that strangling some of the power out of the State apparatus (‘smaller government’) could be a wonderful thing were it achievable. Nonetheless, I find libertarian politics to be just as troublesome as the liberal and conservative politics it dances between. One initial problem is purely pragmatic: libertarianism is only ever likely to be a minority interest in our current mythological climate, and as such it effectively risks removing intellectuals from effective political engagement more than it is likely to productively advance any of its own agendas. (I’m using ‘mythology’ here in the sense I use it in Chaos Ethics; as a marker for the various competing stories within the various social imaginaries – it do not intend it to be read as a derogatory term).

While living in Tennessee during election season, it was easy to predict the proportion of Ron Paul signs in front of houses in relation to the number of mainstream Republican placards: it was always about one-in-ten, the same as the ratio of nerds in the population. Then again, minority parties can be valuable as heralds for an issue, as happened in the late 80s here in the UK when our tiny Green Party got enough support to force all the other parties to finally adopt environmental policies and appoint Environment ministers and the like. Of course, this quickly returned the Greens to obscurity – but in so doing they had actually won a great victory for their cause. We too often equate political success with election: as the current coalition in parliament demonstrates for the Liberal Democrats, the converse is just as likely.

You seem to cleave closely to the libertarian maxim that ‘taxation is theft’, which is not a position I favour on this issue. It has the desired effect of stressing the moral horror libertarians feel about handing over money to Big Government under pain of arrest, but the counterproductive consequence of alienating everyone who views taxation as necessary for the delivery of public goods such as defence, healthcare, welfare, education, policing, and infrastructure. I’m setting aside here the slightly messy definition of ‘public good’, and also the question of art as a public good, even though I should like it to be thus. The basic point is that there are some services that are difficult to provide without resorting to a collective apparatus such as the State, and these cannot effectively be delivered through markets without creating further problems.

Now the basic problem with the ‘taxation is theft’ mythology is that it is built on a fascinatingly strange perspective on contemporary life that views everything only from the perspective of oddly atomistic individuals, whose wealth is just, and an oddly total State, whose income is unjust. Actually, both those forms of wealth become unjust under certain mythologies, and private ownership of wealth is certainly not inherently just. What’s more, as soon as we take into account the public goods the State is actually delivering, it becomes harder to see these two competing fiscal factions as unconnected. Were it not for the State-provisioned infrastructure, for instance, most commerce – individual or otherwise – would be impossible, and police enforcement is similarly required to allow for the very possibility of private wealth. Taxation on this view (which is idealised but not completely removed from actuality) is payment for provision of services rendered – to not pay taxes would be close to theft, since it would be to become a free rider, as the terminology goes.

The wider problem this reveals – and the reason I think taxation is the wrong pressure point for action – is that national politics tend towards an endless disagreement over which public goods the State should provide, and the allocation of funding therein. Republicans in the US, for instance, want lower taxes but do not desire a smaller State apparatus because they prioritize defence as a public good – both militarily, and in terms of policing. Democrats, conversely, tend to prioritize healthcare, education, and welfare – all the ‘bleeding heart’ public goods which Republicans sometimes deny are necessary, and certainly don't value like defence. The same basic pattern recurs in almost all democracies. But because the main political rivals, wherever you happen to be, all want State provision of public goods of some kind, the attack on taxation runs up against insurmountable resistance – almost everyone has something they want the State to provide, and cutting off the supply of money that bankrolls it is broadly inconceivable.

I would much prefer to see productive discussion on the problems of public goods than rhetoric targeting taxation, per se, especially since only productive dialogue on the former (were such a thing possible!) could lead to the latter. On this front, I would draw your attention to an interesting paper on public goods problems by the unlikely-named Jonathan Anomaly for a salient perspective. He suggest that “the link between public goods and public policy cannot be forged without moral reflection on the proper function and scope of government power”, and this is a view that we both agree upon. I suggest it is better to foster intelligent debate on the complexities of the specific public goods problems than to tilt at the windmill of taxation.

However, my suspicion is that unlike many who cite the ‘taxation is theft’ maxim, your primary political concerns and motivating ethical values are not centred upon wealth at all. I rather suspect this is a classic boardgamer's response to a strategic problem: you see many crises you would like resolved as hinging upon the power of the State, then calculate the strategy required for effective interdiction. Taxation on this sort of boardgamer view is the weak point to be exploited in order to gain victory over the State. On this, I agree – if everyone's values were in alignment but the State resisted change (and as one of our mutual friends attests, the civil service is always primarily a force for maintaining the status quo!), a mass refusal to pay taxes would be a dominant strategy. But this is only the case when everyone is in accord. This, of course, never happens in practice!

The other side of your objections to taxation, I believe, are a much greater cause for concern. You suggest that the injustice of taxes is epitomised in the fact that force can be used against individuals in order to demand compliance, that taxation is (if you will) extortion. Now the aforementioned counter-arguments in respect of public goods could now hypothetically be taken into account by allowing individuals a choice of institution when it comes to provision of public goods, as we discussed last time you visited. Actually, this already happens with healthcare and education in certain countries. Alas, I fear that this solution would prove nightmarishly complex in practice – especially in the context of infrastructure and defence, which cannot easily be devolved to multiple institutions on our current images of what these goods entail.

In the specific case of national defence, however, the problem becomes intractable because of the demand (which many view as justified) that the apparatus of State can conceal a great deal of its actions from public scrutiny on grounds that their effectiveness would be compromised were they public knowledge (‘national security’). This troubles me greatly, because the net result is that States feel bankrolled to pursue purely consequentialist strategies in the name of ‘defense of the realm’, even when these violate the moral values of the soldiers who have pledged their lives in service to their nation, and thus to the people the nation mythically symbolises. (I deal with this in a couple of chapters in Chaos Ethics that I don’t think you’ve had a chance to read).

It is in this – the dishonour of nations – that my political concerns are increasingly focussed, since everything I discover about the use of drones in assassinations and the murder of innocents brings grave shame upon the armed forces of the United States. I am not as quick to demonize military service as certain liberals, since quite a few of my friends and family members (including my father, who never saw action, and father-in-law, who served in Vietnam) have been part of the armed forces. Yet it is one thing to take a share of my earnings for the provision of public goods I either agree upon, or accept that I have a minority view of. It is quite another to force me contribute towards bringing shame upon those who honourably serve by betraying their values through cowardly and indiscriminate attacks upon innocent people. If defense serves to uphold the conditions for maintaining our national mythologies, it cannot plausibly do so by destroying the moral values those national mythologies depend upon for their justification. Although most of the tax taken from me goes to the British government, who are not currently involved in disgraceful robotic exterminations, even one cent is too much to pay towards these kinds of atrocities.

Of course, as someone leaning towards libertarianism, you are probably against the national mythologies anyway. I certainly have been in the past. But with the fracturing of most of the other mythic commonalities between people, and the gradual realisation that the sciences cannot be elevated to the role of priesthood without disasterous consequences, the national myths are the last remaining point of commonality we can count upon. (Furthermore, appeals to Human Rights and so forth must be made via the national mythologies, or they devolve into natural rights appeals – Jeremy Bentham's “nonsense on stilts”). It is part of what it means to be British to admire the incredible achievements of the RAF in defending this nation from the Luftwaffe – and if we are honest about what the mythology of being British in the context of armed conflict is supposed to mean, it should also be a point of shame that we firebombed Dresden in 1945. Rather than abandoning the national mythologies, perhaps it is time we started deploying them in defence of the moral values for which they are purported to stand? War without honour is extermination – there is far greater injustice here than in taxation.

I hope this letter finds you well and that you will come and visit Adria and I in Manchester before the new baby arrives and our lives devolve into total carnage once more!

Wishing you the very best,

Chris.

Matt has not replied yet.

No-one else has replied yet.


Iconoclash and Racist Cartoons

iconoclash Is the iconoclast responsible for the reactions to their defiant acts? On this, as with so many contemporary issues, those who act with the greatest certainty are all too often the furthest from moral innocence.

Once again, the French press has used freedom of speech as their excuse for publishing racist cartoons. While it is true that freedom of speech allows people to promulgate bigotry, it is not the case (as sometimes seems to be presumed) that this freedom acts as an indemnity against responsibility. Nor is it true, as was claimed in the case of the reprinting of the Danish cartoons in France, that redistributing hateful material is somehow ‘defending’ freedom of speech. That particular freedom is not threatened in any way by people voicing their disgust. I’m particularly disappointed with French anti-racism group Licra who defend the magazine on the ground that the “crime of blasphemy” does not exist in France – a flippant remark that seems to suppose that images that defame Muslims are somehow excluded from consideration as racism, despite the UN’s stance on such matters.

The French government, expecting reprisals, closed a number of their embassies for fear of retaliation from those claiming to defend Islam. Attacks such as these, which certainly do occur, are themselves a great insult to the teachings of the prophet Mohammad, who expressly forbade harming innocents. Those sham Muslims who would dishonour their tradition are not far removed from the members of the French press who dishonour the tradition of free speech by using it as a cloak for their racism. The editor-in-chief of the magazine in question told the BBC: “These publications will not cost lives. Who killed people? We are not killing people, I’m sorry. We are not the violent ones. We are just journalists.” His attitude is like the Zookeeper who, fired from his job, leaves the animals unfed and then releases them from their cages before handing in his keys, claiming “I did not kill anyone.” Responsibility is not a matter of pointing to the last link in a causal chain: those who knowingly act in a manner that will incite violence are not indemnified from the consequences.

This entire incident is an example of what Bruno Latour terms iconoclash – the uncertainty of what transpires when images are destroyed or subverted, coupled with repudiation of the representation involved. Latour persuasively argues that it is no longer possible to understand iconoclasm as clear cut since the meaning of each act of destruction struggles with irresolvable ambiguities. The French magazines believe their ‘attack’ on the image of Mohammad is justified by free speech – how this act is viewed by others (not necessarily Muslim others) is far from likely to endorse their moral certainty in this regard. Latour also offers insightful commentary on the narrow manner in which iconoclash manifests. Artists, believing themselves iconoclasts, defame or insult the Catholic Pope or other religious figures, but will not (Latour confirms this through his own discussions with the artists) defame other cherished icons such as Martin Luther King or Salman Rushdie. Indeed, the only icons they will ‘smash’ are those they themselves do not respect – bringing into question just what the nature of these alleged acts of iconoclasm might be. Latour identifies many forms of iconoclash, and attempts to rescue one kind from among all the others, although this is a point I shall have to pursue at another time.

From the perspective of freedom of speech, a great irony of the French cartoons is that throughout history no religion has been a greater defender of freedom of speech than Islam. Such a freedom was originally claimed not only in both Athens and Rome, but also in the early Muslim world: freedom of speech was declared by both the caliph Umar in the Rashidun period (7th century), and again in the later Abbasid Caliphate period. In Christian-dominated Europe, this right was far slower to emerge. Fast forward to contemporary France, and the situation in respect of free speech is anything but clean cut: consider the recent furore over the topless photos of a future British queen, or the fact that anyone denying that the Turkish Army committed genocide against the Armenians in the twentieth century faces a find of 45,000 euros and a year in jail. As Seyed Ibrahim commented in this regard: “Ultimate and unconditional freedom of speech does not exist in any country in the world.”

Today, in this as in so many matters concerning contemporary Islam, we are still experiencing the consequences of a failure to respect the people of the Middle East during and after the two World Wars. The overthrowing of the Ottoman empire created power vacuums that were almost inevitably filled by dictatorships – often propped up by Western powers keener to secure oil exports than to secure the freedoms of the local populace. If the French iconoclasts really care about freedom of speech – and freedom in general – they should act to support the new Islamic cultures finding their feet after the Arab spring. But apparently they do not care – they are, it seems, merely another pocket of spoiled racists whose iconoclash should expect the condemnation it receives. In the words of White House spokesperson Jay Carney: “We don’t question the right of something like this to be published, we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it.”


The Empty Cries of Rebellion

Rebel Without a Cause Everyone sees something that must be fought, but thus far our rebellion has been scarcely more than a shouting match. Can we find something worth fighting for, or just convenient bad guys to blame for all our mutual problems?

Although I am a lover of those who tilt at windmills, I find it tragic that today's Don Quixotes seem to be driven by a blinkered rage, rather than a noble-yet-hopeless quest. Everyone rails against something, few offer something to strive towards. This ailment was diagnosed by Hannah Arendt half a century ago, yet still we go around in circles, shaking our fists at some scapegoat so abstract that opposing it carries no significant risk of effecting any useful change.

A catalogue of demons reveals the futility of our presumed goals. The crusade against religion has become so laughably self-referential it's a wonder anyone can take it seriously. The political Right's demand to reduce the funding supplied to government and protect freedom becomes farcical when compared against the many costs of war. The political Left's campaign against racism and sexism has gradually become the locus of a more rigorous bigotry than their opponents ever managed. The risk of holding Equality and Diversity as dual ideals is that they are in conflict with one another – absolute equality flattens the particularity inherent in diversity, making everyone equally no-one.

The windmill-tilters par excellence however are the undead remnants of Marx's dream, the enemies of Capitalism. The insoluble problem they face is the uncertainty of what they oppose. Is it private ownership? Ask the rebels to give up their homes and computers, and watch the indignation. Is it money? Our medium of exchange is unlikely to be our central problem. Is it the corporate rape of the natural world? Socialist government have not show a superior record on this account. Is it the sheer unfairness of the staggering caste system wealth has imputed? This was precisely Marx's cause in the first place! So many problems, so few solutions. Capitalism is easier to hate than it is to define.

Look not to the political activists to solve our problems, since once on the battlefield one can only fight or lay down arms. Sun Tzu wisely saw war as something that should be considered solely when all other options had failed – political partisans today start with war because they equate diplomacy with compromise, and their enemy is so loathsome that equivocation is blasphemy. Shame on us all for this empty warrior rhetoric. The enemy – if we must speak in such bellicose terms – is human nature itself, in all its variegated beauty. The outcome of this battle is favourable to no-one.

Both Left and Right go awry by trying to elevate the local to the universal – a feat of weight-lifting that will break our back before it can ever achieve peace. The Right has it correct that our local communities are a just centre of concern, but they have it disastrously wrong in their failure to separate these from national law or global empire. The Left has it correct that equality and diversity are noble ideals, but fail whenever these beliefs obliterate concern for individuals or local communities, and betray themselves utterly when supporting empire as a propagator of liberty.

And the anti-Capitalists, those beautiful fools who know not what they fight for? Ah, we may yet find the windmill for you to tilt at, but what will you do if it involves connecting locally instead of shaking a fist at conceptual foes who are conveniently intangible? The luxury of an intellectualised rebellion is that you don't need to leave your armchair. Real and lasting change may be a great deal more inconvenient.


The Impotence of Partisans

Partisans – whether political, religious or nonreligious – are committed to their views. As such, they cannot contribute to democratic dialogue except by clarifying their ideological stance for the benefit of active citizens. Genuine democracy thus only belongs to those whose minds are open to influence by dialogue. Sadly, most such people are turned off politics by the furious rants of our ever-more diverse zealots. Partisanry is thus not only impotent, it risks paralysing democracy as a whole into impotence.

Partisans are mere signposts for the extreme positions available. This is a useful function, since they collectively represent the views on offer. However, this becomes largely irrelevant once the sole choices on offer are extremes. It is the task of those pursuing ideals of freedom not simply to adopt any one apparently correct viewpoint (since this removes a person from productive debate) but rather to find the truth between all the different partisans’ dogma and rhetoric. Only when all the stories have been truly understood can we plausibly claim to know which directions could lead to better lives for everyone.


Unmarriage

Unmarried Supposing the only people who are married are those men and women that made a public commitment to one another, what can we say about those unhusbands and unwives who do not or cannot ratify their love institutionally?

Say what you will about conservatives, on the issue of marriage they have remained remarkably consistent. Those that have a strong view on the subject would like men and women to get married before having children (or even before having sex), and they would like only men and women to get married. The liberal overreaction to this position is that such people must overtly or covertly be homophobes. It’s essentially impossible for committed liberals to understand why anyone would want to preserve the essential nature of a traditional institution that dates back millennia for the sake of the institution itself.

The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of liberally minded people don't care one jot about marriage – the only reason it has come to matter is because commitment to the liberal ideal of equality engenders outrage when anything is approached from a perspective of asymmetry. Thus despite being fairly cool on, or even openly opposed to, the institution of marriage, a great many liberals suddenly care deeply about gay marriage, because they believe everyone has a right to enter into an archaic legal and religious arrangement, even though they themselves don’t actually believe in it.

Marriage has been steadily losing popularity for some time now. A great many of my friends are in long term, committed relationships; few are married. Having children makes no difference in this respect; they continue with the now-ridiculous relationship roles of ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ even though they have obviously made a long-term commitment to one another. They are, to my mind, already married in the practical sense. They have just refused to ratify it publically because, to their mind, they see no reason to elevate an entirely personal matter to the level of the community. I call friends in such situations ‘unhusband and unwife’.

Unmarriage demonstrates the hilarious nonsense in the contemporary liberal approach to marriage: as far as it applies to themselves, it is antiquated and of no importance. But tell any liberally minded person that there’s some minority who isn't allowed to do it and suddenly it’s an outrageous affront to human dignity. There’s something approaching hypocrisy in this attitude. Of course, the conservative attitude to marriage isn't a great deal more coherent, but at least in such cases there is a genuine concern about marriage as an institution. It’s something their political opponents cannot seem to fathom.

This talk of ‘institutions’ may make some liberally-minded people scoff – equality, autonomy and freedom are more important than mere traditions, it may be tempting to claim. But pause to reflect where the conception of Human Rights as freedom – upon which these values rest – has its origin. It is a product of the Enlightenment, built on the philosophy of Kant and others. (Indeed, Human Rights as freedom is something specifically developed by Kant). Freedom is also an institution, and even if this were denied, Human Rights can only be understood as institutional, as with all law.

Just as marriage is an institution, so to some extent is unmarriage, and just as there are many different kinds of marriage, there are diverse forms of unmarriage. Only one form, however, consists of a loving, committed, adult couple that are not permitted by law to be married. This situation is changing in parts of the world, but legal reform is slowed by the inevitable resistance that will always occur when traditions are revised. To enact lasting institutional change requires forging new visions of ideals. Sadly for gay marriage, it seems no-one can be bothered to do the work.

One of the most shocking aspects of this issue for me personally is the staggering arrogance of the liberal community in their steadfast refusal to understand the moral perspective of their opponents. Since the consequence of conservatives caring about the institution of marriage is a staunch reluctance to allow gay marriage (which does, after all, alter the specifics of a truly ancient tradition), liberals go straight to bitching about how Christians are homophobes. Never mind that many Christians support gay marriage, nor that the reasons many opponents of gay marriage have for their resistance are more concerned about concepts of family than sexuality, per se. Since ideals of liberal equality are denied to gay people it must be homophobia. It is the classic formula of the political knee-jerk reaction: my values are violated, your values don't count.

What is it that we call those situations where one group of people make outrageously prejudicial assumptions about some ethnic group and then despise everyone under that identity? It's on the tip of my tongue... Ah yes, I remember – racism and bigotry. Far too many liberals feel it’s okay to be a bigot about all Christians because some Christians are indeed bigots. This is no different than (say) believing all black people are lazy because there are some lazy black people. It’s as if there are good and bad kinds of racism, and the bad kind is whichever set of beliefs you yourself do not hold.

But I can't let the conservatives entirely off the hook here, since they too have their fair share of nonsense in respect of marriage and unmarriage. It makes no sense, for instance, to claim that marriage is inappropriate for gay people because of the lascivious, wanton behaviour of the gay community at large – does anyone seriously believe the heterosexual community scores any better on this front? If you investigate the incidences of casual sex in the world, you will find that the vast majority occurs between partners of different sexes – hardly surprising since heterosexuals outnumber homosexuals by perhaps as much as fifty to one.

Given that there are gay people in unmarriage – in loving, stable, long-term relationships – wouldn't it be better for the institute of marriage if we all said: ‘we want to help you publically ratify your relationship in the spirit of what marriage has come to mean: a celebration of love’? What good does it do the institution of marriage if we force people who wish to be married to remain in a state of unmarriage?

Unlike many conservatives, I support gay marriage, because unlike most liberals I support the institution of marriage. When two adults are willing, in the face of the infinite mystery and uncertainty of existence, to make a commitment to one another founded upon their mutual love, we should support them and help them celebrate it publically. It should not matter what flesh those two souls inhabit if their love is genuine. It is a bigger injustice to force such lovers to remain unwillingly in unmarriage than to allow them to marry, whatever their respective genders.

As I suggested before in Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage, liberal voices have failed to decisively win the argument in favour of gay marriage precisely because they have not made the story about the deep love that exists between committed (gay) partners. Instead, they try to make it about equality, because that’s their sacred value, and that way the argument seems pre-empted: no further discussion required. Real democracy, however, requires discussion. Those who claim to value freedom must be willing to grant that freedom to those who disagree with them.


Politics vs Ethics

ethical When did it happen that politics drove a spear into the side of ethics, slaying any concern for the good in favour of a monomaniacal campaign against what is obviously evil – namely, beliefs different from our own?

We live in a time when concern for politics has all but obliterated concern for ethics. It is not, however, that there is no role for moral thinking – on the contrary, a large part of the political battlefield is focussed on morality. Rather, ethics has become a gigantic stick with which people beat those who believe differently from themselves, while apparently prescribing absolutely nothing in respect of the individuals themselves. The positive aspect of ethics – the search for ‘the good life’ has – been replaced by myriad crusades against evil, and the surest judgement people make is that it is certainly others, and not themselves, who represent the evil worth fighting against.

There is, and must be, a connection between ethics and politics. Our moral judgement guides our political support, or at least it could and should. Yet the twentieth century – and even more the twenty first – has seen ethics eclipsed by politics. Political thinking often draws terribly straight lines: this activity (say, nuclear power) is clearly wrong, this activity (say, renewable energy) is clearly right, therefore anyone supporting the former must be a tool of some lobby group and can be ignored. As if this basic situation wasn’t problematic enough, the media is always circling like vultures, looking for the next outbreak of outrage so it can feast on the corpse of some political victim in the never ending quest for sensation and spectacle.

The entrenchment of political camps is the biggest barrier to political progress, and it will take some improvement in ethics to overcome it. Nowhere is this more crucial than in the United States, a nation whose actions have severe consequences for the entire world but whose electorate are embattled against one another. As a young liberal living on the other side of the Atlantic, I could never understand why so many poor rural people would vote for Republicans who seem to do nothing to help them. This was a perspective born of ignorance. I’ve now had many opportunities to speak to Republican supporters in the US, and I can finally see the many other sides of this coin. For instance: why should poor rural people vote for Democrats who will take more money in taxes in order to fund largely ineffective programmes that support underprivileged people living solely in cities?

We live with an atrophied sense of moral perspective – and this is true whichever political camp we choose to examine. Scarcely a day passes when we don’t express our horror at something reported on the news, but how many of us can say that we daily do something positive for our neighbours or our communities? No, we aren’t interested in making life better, alas, not like we were interested in finding the people who are clearly evil and mounting some attempt to destroy them. The only kind of good life that is pursued is the imagined promised land that will purportedly come to be when all the evil people have been blocked, stopped and eliminated. People erroneously assign this impulse to religion; it belongs to humanity.

Perhaps worst of all is our unshakeable belief that we can see these situations better than others. Intellectuals who move confidently in one domain of knowledge gain confidence to pronounce their judgement against those whom they can clearly see are inferior, both mentally and morally – even without ever taking the time to watch, talk or listen to that which they condemn. They do not need to, after all, since they can clearly see the truth, and whatever is not true must be evil. For all the retrospective scorn that is poured upon the impiety of various Christian churches throughout history, the contemporary impulse to wage cultural war because ‘we’ clearly have it right is just as morally repugnant as what has gone before – even if the consequences of opposition have thankfully become far less serious.

Morality begins with care for those around us, but as politics has enslaved ethics our sense of compassion has become corrupted by an imaginative projection of the world in which our own ideals are the only things that can be trusted. Clearly, everyone would be better off if they adopted and supported ‘our’ ideals, hence ‘your’ way of life must be inferior because it does not measure up to ‘my’ standards. This ‘us and them’ attitude is not the problem, though - ‘they’ actually are very different from ‘you’, and this needs to be recognised and accepted. But the nature of this difference is not that ‘you’ are good and ‘they’ are evil – it is that ‘you’ pronounce them ‘evil’ because you think yourself ‘good’. Yet if ‘you’ truly are good, you must prove it by something other than taking offense at alternative ideals.

For all that political conservatives are condemned for their hostility to difference, political liberals have exactly the same failing – it is only the standard of sameness that changes between these camps. Whether condemning homosexuality or condemning homophobia, the important thing is condemnation. The other side doesn’t need to be reasoned with, engaged in its own terms, because the other side is wrong: ‘they’ cannot be convinced because ‘they’ already do not see wisdom and perfection of our own ideals and thus must be inferior. This is politics-as-usual, but it’s a far cry from ethics as the search for the good life. If liberals really wanted to help the gay community, they could start by engaging conservatives from within their view of the world – but this would be hard. It is much easier, and indeed much more viscerally entertaining on the news, to oppose bigotry by becoming a bigot.

If we truly and genuinely wanted to make the world a better place, we would begin in our own neighbourhoods by being better people to one another. But we prefer pointing fingers and decrying the horrible situation in other countries – it’s more entertaining, and requires far less of us.

I watch the people walk down the street and grumble as they pass some broken bottle or piece of litter left by someone else. They do not pick it up, and so more people come and have the same negative experience, perhaps clucking their tongues about the youth of the day or the decline of values. If asked, they will say that the person who dropped it should have disposed of it properly. Maybe so, but they didn’t. And now you have the choice to do the same, but you don’t because ‘it’s not your responsibility’. Anyone could pick that litter up with an investment of less time than it takes to sit through a commercial break on television, thus making everyone’s day a little better. But no-one does.

No-one wants to be good, they just want to feel good by being opposed to evil – and everyone is evil who disagrees with you. Thus politics murders ethics, and our response is to tune into the news every day to ensure that the bad people are still out there so that we can feel better about ourselves for knowing that we did not do such terrible things. There are many good people in the world – flawed, no doubt, as we all are – but they remain invisible because we no longer care about the good, we only care about fighting evil. The simplest things – a smile, a helping hand, a friendly hello – can make a difference in a way that politics never can. Until we rediscover an ethics of the good, we are condemned to the politics of evil.


Financial Games: The Ethics of Money

money and justice scales What possible moral justification could there be for billion dollar bailouts to failing financial institutions? Answering this question means charting the ethical dimensions of money, and this requires some consideration of the extent that this strange abstract representation of wealth has become central to politics.

Much of the usual furore over money goes to how much any individual entity can have, which entities are allowed to have it, and how much will be taken away from them under what circumstances. “They have too much money”, is a complaint oft heard from those who have very little of it. However, the current consensus on money is that wealth should be unlimited – indeed, against this the only ideal seriously offered is to abolish money (despite its obvious convenience for mediating otherwise complicated exchanges of goods and services). Money can be owned by individuals or groups of humans, and each is taxed by the government of their host nations according to schemes that vary somewhat around the world. Taxation, rather than limitation, is the universally implemented response to the accumulation of wealth – to the extent that any attempt to apply solid limits would be interpreted as a particularly draconian tax.

Money, therefore, flows between organisations and individuals, and out into governments (the only organisations permitted not only to tax, but to enforce taxation as mandatory). Small amounts cycle between individuals and the organisations that both employ and supply the necessities and luxuries of life. Large amounts are exchanged between organisations – indeed, the extremes of wealth are only to be found in proximity to the giant corporations – both the organisations and the individuals involved with them deal in scales of finance that are all but unimaginable to the person contriving to make ends meet from day to day. It is the very nature of the numeric value representation that money depends upon that it takes large quantities of money to generate further large quantities.

There is a sense in which there are actually two kinds of money in the world: the day-to-day money we are all familiar with that might be called cash for convenience, and the large sums of money required to create or control organisations capable of generating more money, which is called capital. The same abstraction is at the root of both, but the scales involved change the meaning of that money, much as a bacterial colony and a human are incomparable entities even though they are both at root collections of biologically similar cells. The vast majority of people deal only with cash, and never have any significant quantity of capital – although those who become cash-rich can afford to buy shares in organisations and thus tap into the profits of capital. A small minority of people deal only with capital, and thus never have to think about issues in terms of cash. The struggle of a typical family to feed, clothe and shelter themselves is an alien world to anyone whose feet are firmly planted in the world of capital.

Ethics is concerned with the clash of ideals, and the conflicting moral concepts in the context of money are equality and freedom. On the one hand, the fiscal conservative ethic demands the freedom to make and own as much as is humanly possible. Against this, the egalitarian liberal ethic demands a standard of equality in respect of wealth, a position that suffers from an ill-defined concept of fairness. It is not that no viable definition of what is fair can be derived, but rather that there are so many possible approaches and it is not clear how we can adjudicate such a cacophony of ideals. In respect to these two ideals, it should not be thought that the cash class all ascribe to the ideal of equality since a great many prefer the ideal of freedom, not least because it better defends against unfair taxation: this is the sometimes unnoticed reason so many in the cash-class vote Republican in the United States.

Despite it being primarily a concern for advocates of the equality ideal, the sense that the distribution of wealth is inequitable is widespread, although the intensity of outrage is extremely variable. However, there is no consensus about what should be done about this situation, and even if there were it would be difficult to drive political processes that aimed to affect the rich supply of money that flows from corporations to both governments (as tax) and politicians (as campaign contributions). Raising corporation taxes in any given nation means little when there are so many alternative bases of operations the organisation might relocate to, and no politician is keen to back plans to stab their biggest contributors with a tax knife.

Marx felt intensely the injustice of wealth inequality, and believed (it seems incorrectly) that a strong identification with the ideals of fairness among the poorest workers would drive a revolution leading inevitably to a future fair world. This was misguided. The anger of the poor in the face of the rich certainly drove violent uprisings in many nations, but it led only to a consolidation of capital by the state that allowed for particularly vicious totalitarian regimes. The consequence of spreading all money out equally across the world would be to create very rich citizens of poor nations and very poor citizens of rich nations; it’s not at all clear this leads to a better world. While other ideals of fairness may prove viable in respect of money, the Marxist ideal is largely judged to have failed.

The political philosopher John Rawls had an alternative ideal for equality of money, whereby individual nations would exchange sums of money between their citizens in schemes resembling national taxation, but with all funds exchanged solely between private citizens. In response to this proposal, Robert Nozick developed philosophical arguments that demonstrated the implausibility of maintaining this kind of wealth exchange. Using an example involving the basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, Nozick argued that if we start from a fair distribution of wealth, someone like Chamberlain that many people are willing to pay to watch will immediately acquire large sums of money. To say that this new situation is unjust is problematic: people freely paid money to Chamberlain, are they not allowed to decide how their money is spent? Nozick argues that patterned distributions of wealth are problematic since “liberty upsets patterns” and similarly patterns destroy liberty. The argument between these two philosophers serves to illustrate my key point that the ethics of money concerns a clash between the ideals of equality (Rawls) and the ideals of freedom (Nozick).

Accepting Nozick’s arguments and rejecting Rawls’, we are faced with an inevitable variation in the wealth of individuals, but this does not mean that there are not alternative approaches to the equality problem that might be applied. The extent of the gulf between the world of capital and the world of cash happens because the capital class make money from their holdings and investments while the cash class must labour to earn cash. One long-term solution to this inequity could be having labour earn not only cash but also shares in equity. If the worker employed by a corporation automatically earns (small) shares in the capital its employer embodies, the disparity between the cash and capital classes can be gradually eroded over generations, although admittedly there is still some element of lottery since companies do fail and disappear, in which case everybody with shares loses out whether they are investors or employees.

Under a system such as this, investors must accept a dilution of their returns – proponents of financial freedom will likely object. But the potential narrowing of the wealth disparity could be highly appealing to proponents of financial equality, and might be worth fighting for. The real benefit of this system, however, is that it gives workers influence over the management of the company that employs them, thus disrupting the feudal pattern that modern capitalism still embodies (the randomly noble-born having been replaced with the randomly wealthy-born at the top of the pile). Although the workers might collectively own only a few percent of the company stock, it could be a decisive margin in boardroom voting, and at the very least puts the voice of the employed into a process where it is usually excluded. Expanding this scheme to its logical limits, this would also mean that banks might function like building societies or other mutual financial organisations – the money people have saved in a bank would entitle them to a share of that bank, and a voice in its activities.

The bastion of the capital class, investment companies, would largely escape this kind of process – but there is at least one situation in which the ideal of equality might infiltrate these capital funds: the bailout. When governments step in to rescue ailing financial institutions, it should not be on empty rhetorical grounds such as the company being “too big to fail” but as a purchase of equity. A billion dollar bailout should purchase billion dollar equity, and if the company is not willing to grant this stake it should be allowed to die. As economist Alan Greenspan has charged: “If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big.”

We live at a time when moral outrage towards the capital class is greater than ever. This is not simply envious anger at the rich, since for the most part the superstars of movies, music and sports are not the target of this ire. It is bankers and investment executives who earn vast sums of money even when their companies fail who are the subject of this contemporary righteous rage. The ideals of freedom cannot adequately defend against the ideals of equality in such cases, and indeed may even by aligned in some cases. It is thus more important than ever before that citizens hold their representatives accountable for decisions made in respect of the capital class. This is not easy – especially when all political parties necessarily pander to the ultra-rich. But the state is the only weapon the cash class have against the capital class, and popular opinion can lead political change when it is sufficiently strong. ‘No taxation without representation’, the saying goes. Perhaps we should now add ‘No bailout without equity’ to the chants of the discontented.

For Michael Mouse, who suggested this topic three years ago.


Impure: Sex, Drugs and Gay Marriage

Gay Marriage Has the time come for more nuance within the gay identity? As successful as the campaign for gay rights has been, the resistance to accepting gay marriage in the United States and elsewhere represents a political hurdle that requires more than simply assuming there is no viable counter argument. There is a crucial debate about the relationship between homosexuality and the moral ideal of purity that activists refuse to have, and in so doing they cede influence to their opponents.

The great success stories of twentieth century identity politics were the claiming of the word ‘black’ by race campaigners in the United States, and the retooling of the words ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ to their contemporary meanings. In both cases, taking control of the language used to define social categories served broader social goals. By challenging the insipid term ‘coloured’ with a word that came with both negative connotations and an aura of power the black community successfully elevated both their status and their community esteem, a move capped off by claiming a racial insult as a cultural possession. Similarly, taking the pejorative ‘queer’ and co-opting it did wonders for the gay community, as did taking a positive term that originally meant ‘merry and bright’ and using it as the foundation of a sexual identity.

Having gained an incredible amount of ground in a comparatively short space of time, the gay community has since strayed into adopting every stray dog gender or sexual identity under their flag. This is very much in the spirit of the original Feminist movement, which sought to raise all minorities to equality (rather than pursuing explicit feminine power). Yet in so doing, something has been obscured in the composition of the gay community that could be vitally important in winning the political struggle for recognising gay marriage as not only meaningful but as a legitimate right. The case for this has not been robustly made, and tends instead to be dogmatically asserted – much as vocal opponents to gay marriage tend to flatly assume their case. The issue is not those whose minds will never be changed, but those in the middle ground who without persuasion by proponents of gay marriage will naturally fail to recognise the case for it's acceptance.

Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory identifies five dimensions of Western morality. Two – care and fairness – are shared by both liberals and conservatives. Three – loyalty, respect and purity – are highly valued by conservatives but generally unimportant to liberals as a group. While conservatives tend to value fairness lowest of all, liberals tend to put purity at the bottom of the list of values. It is this moral ideal – purity – that blocks acceptance of gay marriage more than anything else. There are historical religious factors that influence the view of homosexuality as impure, but they are less important to the contemporary political scene that might be thought. The Bible's case against homosexuality is not as strong as is sometimes believed, as I discussed in the context of Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage. A far bigger problem is the general licentiousness of a great many homosexuals and the perception that all gay people view this lifestyle as defensible and desirable.

Of course, a great many straight people are equally involved in sexual debauchery or some kind – whether as part of a community, or simply as an adulterous individual. Disastrously, by defending sexual freedoms so broadly the gay community has accidentally labelled itself in the eyes of many moderate conservatives as necessarily impure, despite there being many more heterosexuals engaged in purportedly impure sexual acts. Yet the popular perception remains that when a straight sex-fiend is busted, they show remorse because (it is assumed) deep down they know what they were doing was wrong. Conversely, the Gay activist party line (in common with liberal sexual politics in general) has tended to deny any possible wrong-doing in the context of consensual sex acts. As defensible as this stance may be, it reinforces the erroneous perception of gay life as fundamentally impure in the eyes of conservatives.

Part of the problem may relate to the era the gay rights movement began: during the 60’s and 70’s, sexual liberation was a liberal touchstone, and it seemed that everyone outside of the conservative world was embracing ‘free love’. The consequences of this rash abandon were to become apparent in the 80’s with the AIDS epidemic that struck both gay and straight people alike, including many with few or even only one sexual partner. To suggest in any way this was divine vengeance is grotesque, but as a symptom of the cost of abandoning the ideals of purity it served to widen the liberal-conservative divide even further. The conservative ideal of sexual purity that was transgressed by the free love movement was rooted in the idea that sex was pure only when too people were in love (and perhaps relatedly, only if it had children as it’s intent). However, since even a barren couple was allowed that their love-making was pure as long as it was sanctified by marriage, it is clear that the non-procreative element of gay sex is not a de facto barrier to gay marriage being accepted as a sacrament provided the sex acts in question are accepted. (I shall assume for now that this is the lesser problem).

There is, therefore, a real possibility to advance the debate on gay marriage among Christian moderates (whose support is all that is needed to swing any legislature in the United States) if it can be demonstrated that loving, one-on-one couples exist in the gay community - which they do, and in good numbers. But these committed individuals are all to easily dismissed under claims made about the gay community as a whole, even though their demand for access to marriage (both legally and sacramentally) is a far easier sell to moderate conservatives than the gay community’s broader sexual politics as a whole.

Imagine how different the situation would be if instead of one  identity, homosexuals were to present themselves under two political identities according to differing attitudes towards the moral ideal of purity. On the one hand, we have the conventional alternative gender and sexuality crowd whose position necessarily lies outside of the purity ideal. They can maintain their defence of the stance that all consensual sex acts are permissible and ally with other liberal groups whose barrier to acceptance is also purity related – including (say) BDSM, the polyamory community and marijuana smokers. Let's call this group Alt for now, although in practice any such community would of course develop it’s own name.

Against the Alts, those homosexuals in loving, committed relationships could style themselves Pure (say), and stress that their lifestyle upholds the ideal of marriage as a sacrament between two souls. (The use of the term ‘soul’ need not imply any specific religious context, but is helpfully open to that possibility). Freed of the associations with open sexuality that would connect them with Alts, the case for accepting gay marriage immediately becomes stronger – to the extent that simply presenting the existence of a community of same-sex partners whose relationships uphold the broader notion of purity might in itself help sway the conservative middle ground. Pures need not oppose Alts – they can be in full support of sexual freedom without wanting it for themselves, a situation mirrored in the straight community. The point is, it’s not their approach to love and sex: they uphold something like a moral ideal of gay purity.

Under this kind of arrangement, the Alts gain political capital from the wider umbrella of alternative lifestyles able to support them (the additional support of the potheads alone radically increases their putative influence), while the case for accepting gay marriage as a sacrament is significantly strengthened such that the political battleground becomes tipped significantly in favour of acceptance. Combining all the political minorities whose struggle is resisted by those who uphold purity ideals means unifying gay sex and drugs into one camp – but my impression is that this isn’t a great leap. Conversely, demonstrating the existence of a moral ideal of purity compatible with homosexuality could be the single most significant step forwards towards global acceptance of gay marriage. This suggestion certainly doesn’t propose to dismantle the gay identity – it simply acknowledges it’s limitations, and brings hidden strengths out of the shadows into the open.

The issue of purity is a difficult matter for liberals of any ilk to accept since for many of this persuasion it is merely an anachronistic hangover from a primitive religious code. But this kind of dismissive attitude towards political opponents helps no-one, and actively hinders equality of access to marriage, both legally and sacramentally. If – as is the case – there are many gay people in relationships that are radically closer to the purity ideal than is normally assumed, it is absolutely vital that a greater awareness of these couples can be attained. Perhaps the kind of identity shuffle I am suggesting is fundamentally untenable, but even if this is so, the basic tenet of this programme is worth recognising: being gay doesn't mean being impure. The conservative ideal of purity can be reconciled with the facts of homosexual life – although admittedly with considerable disputation– and making this argument can only help bring the gay marriage embargo closer to its end.


Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage

twilightsaga What does the Twilight saga have to do with gay marriage? Surprisingly, the popular young adult vampire romances can be a stepping point towards understanding why the question of marriage between homosexual lovers is so contentious in the United States.

Stephenie Meyer’s quartet of vampire romances has enjoyed unprecedented commercial success, having racked up some 100 million sales worldwide. The novels have an accessible intensity, but are not particularly well written; Stephen King has remarked that Meyer “can't write worth a darn. She's not very good.” However, he also recognised the appeal of the books, stating “it's very clear that she's writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books.” There is something to King’s remarks in this respect, but the issue goes much deeper than his analysis suggests.

Meyer belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS for short), more commonly known as the Mormons, and acknowledges that her faith has influenced her work. Although she claims she has not consciously promoted the virtues of sexual abstinence, it is hard not to find this theme developed in the narrative, and many critics have commented on this element in both the books and the films adapted from them. The theme of abstinence helps enormously with their appeal – it means they have the potential to reach an incredibly wide audience since abstinence is a selling point for many of the world’s 2 billion Christians, who make up about a third of the population of the planet. Of course, the books are enjoyed by non-Christians as well, but there can be little doubt that they would not have sold 100 million copies without accessing this vast market.

More than this, however, the LDS has a highly mythic attitude towards marriage, one that many other Christian denominations share in broads strokes, but which is it quite explicitly developed among the Mormon community: the idea that marriage is eternal. When a man and a woman marry among the Church of the Latter Day Saints, they are not just marrying for life, but for all time, for they believe that the two souls joined in marriage will be together not just in this world, but in a world to come. Of course, many Christians believe something similar, but the theme is most explicit among the followers of Joseph Smith. 

The theme of the joining of souls is far older and far more widely accepted than just Christianity, however. Plato, in The Symposium, has the comic playwright Aristophanes tell a mythic tale of the origins of sexuality, in which humans were once very different creatures who were cut in half by Zeus. These original humans were of three kinds: hermaphrodites, who were split into men and women, and two kinds of double-gendered beings, who were split into two men, or two women. Love, in this myth, is thus each soul’s attempt to find the other half of its original whole. Although clearly drawing on the patterns of Greek myth, Aristophanes’ tale appears to have been entirely Plato’s invention.

If Plato was happy to accept the union of homosexual souls, why are certain Christian sects frequently resistant to homosexuality? After all, Plato’s work had a huge influence upon Christian theology and metaphysics (whether or not one considers Plato an influence on the Gospel of St. John, Plato's philosophy certainly influenced how this document was later interpreted).

The quick and easy answer is Leviticus, the book which records the social codes of the Israelites from roughly 2,500 years ago, which clearly takes a dim view of homosexual acts between men. But this answer only goes so far, since Leviticus also takes a dim view of men who see women menstruating, the wearing of garments made of more than one kind of fibre, and tattoos (to name just a few things). Not to mention it quite clearly endorses the ownership of slaves, something almost no-one advocates today, no matter how old school their religious beliefs. Furthermore, it is quite clear that Jesus considered the only important part of Leviticus to be 19:18 which advocates “loving they neighbour as thyself”, and indeed stops an adulterous woman from being stoned to death in John 8, despite this being the prescribed penalty in Leviticus.

The vague gesturing at Leviticus is shorthand for a very different kind of argument: we’ve always done it this way. Since marriage has traditionally been between a man and woman, and perhaps just as crucially, since marriage has traditionally been about bearing children as much as (or, in many eras, more than) love, there is a sense that allowing ‘marriage’ to mean the loving union of two men or two women must be some kind of error. In a religious tradition such as the Bahá'í Faith that accepts progressive revelation, this kind of adjustment would be comparatively easy. But in a tradition that believes revelation happened only in a particular stretch of time, this kind of change is challenging.

This is the situation facing the LDS, since it believes that God’s law doesn’t change, although mankind can certainly get it wrong and need correcting. Within this theological framework, it’s very difficult to make peace with gay marriage, as nothing in the existing canon of scripture speaks in favour the idea that God intended gay marriage after which humanity simply misunderstood the divine will. As a result, gay marriage becomes a metaphysical threat to the mythic conception that two married souls will remain together in eternity: to someone invested in this story, marriage just means a man and woman joining their souls together forever, and any other reading of the term ‘marriage’ can feel either threatening, disturbing, or at least, misguided.

This is a key part of the story behind the political action the LDS took in California to try and overturn gay marriage by supporting Proposition 8. This decision brought a lot of criticism and prejudice against Mormons (the blind eye the LDS has tended to turn towards polygamy among some of its members in Utah did not help in this regard). Some have even touted a rather strange idea that Church and State prohibited them from politically campaigning. This, however, is nonsense: nothing in the First Amendment prohibits being motivated towards political action by religious beliefs, and if it did the notion of freedom that is integral to the identity of the United States as a nation would be irreparably damaged. 

In respect of Proposition 8, the responsibility for its passing cannot be wholly levelled at its supporters, but also at the failure of opponents. One advertisement intended to rally voters against the amendment featured a pair of lesbians being harassed by teenage Mormon boys (the kind who, according to LDS practice, are encouraged to conduct door-to-door outreach). The thrust of this entire campaign was misguided: supporters of the gay community did not need persuading to vote against Proposition 8, but moderate Christians were open to be influenced. Making out that religious folk are the enemy was not an effective way to curry their favour.

Imagine the difference if the same funds had been used, not to make an ad painting the LDS as the enemy, but showing two lesbians on their wedding day, clearly in love, and overlaid with the famous words from 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7, so frequently used at weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.”

The Twilight saga is at its heart a love story in the tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, about two souls who find each other, remain abstemious until marriage, and then stay together for all eternity. They are, as it happens, a man and a woman. (Well, a vampire and a woman). If conservative and moderate Christians in the United States and elsewhere are to be won over to the idea of gay marriage, it requires new stories of the love between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. Those stories are there to be told. But instead of telling them, too many advocates for the gay community insist on making the followers of traditional religion the enemy, thus making their situation worse rather than better.

Slavery ended in the United States because too many Christians could no longer reconcile the practice with their belief in the essential dignity of all people. Slavery ended, despite the fact that Leviticus endorsed it. It didn’t matter. Because deep down, Christians – even many conservative Christians – have a sense of right and wrong that is rooted in their theology, and that theology is always subject to change as new aspects of the love that is, for them, the essence of God is revealed. If the goal is acceptance of gay marriage, demonizing religion is counter productive. The secret of overcoming homophobia in the United States doesn’t lie in ‘defeating’ Christianity, but in demonstrating the love between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. And in this regard, the true story hasn’t even begun to be told.