24 June 2013

Equal marriage & the passionate mode of politics...

Regular readers may not readily associate my prose with the passionate mode of politics.  Law school is where warm hearts go to be extinguished.  There's a certain truth to that. If you've a mind and disposition kiltered towards abstractions, chances are, it'll tell in your political writing. 

On the equal marriage debate thus far, I've been a more or less cool partisan for the equal marriage side of the spectrum. I've tried to bracket my own sentiments, and take an interest in the reasoning of the other side. As wise women have reminded us, the personal is political too, and the past couple of weeks, I've encountered a couple of things which have gone a long way to hardening my attitude. 

The first was an otherwise inconspicuous conversation with a friend and colleague in an Oxford pub. But for the smoking ban, beards would be brooding over pipes, and fragrant gusts of tobacco smoke.  Wood panelling, ale, a chestnut-eyed black Labrador, his friendliness injudiciously distributed to all and sundry. The usual odorous knot of greying wankers perched at the bar, stooled, guffawing at thin jokes, creasing yellowing tabloids under their armpits, bickering over crossword clues. An abacus line of rheumy eyes for the lassies, taking deep pulls from electronic cigarettes, their only nicotine-fingered gesture to modernity.  Bitterness and honesty dictates the admission: the Men at the Bar usually defeat us in the pub quiz. And great was the rhubarbing, and gnashing of teeth.

In anticipation of the quiz, the usual team (which I habitually christen "Ann Widdecombe's Steel-Reinforced Colostomy Bag", when permitted) nattered away about this and that, supping cheerily. The usual local colour and gossip, of friends, gags, tales, nonsense, flashes of earnestness. We're a motley band. Graduate students, university staff, freelance cooks, theatricals. English and Irish, Dutch and Norwegian, Australian and Canadian. 

The designated political bore, at my instigation the conversation in one corner happened to turn to the second reading of the same-sex marriage legislation in the House of Lords.  Rather to my surprise, an ordinarily almost entirely non-political comrade piped up that he had been following their Lordships' deliberations earlier that day.  He was lightly smarting from the experience, from the words and sentiments he'd heard. In a long-term, happy and committed relationship with another fellow at the table, he'd fired up Democracy Live, and subjected himself to the judgement of faded Barons and dust-lunged Baronesses about his ordinarily thoughtless, joyful, careless sense of himself, his sexuality, his relationship.  

As is perhaps inevitably the case, the contrary statements proved more memorable than the speeches which endorsed the idea of equal marriage. My own impulse is towards intellectual imperviousness, a shrug.  You may very well think that, but regrettably, you're a chronic wanker, and your sentiments are of signal indifference to me. In a small, gentle way, with the diffusing good humour and irreverence which characterises him, it was clear that these shoogly old villains had wounded my friend.  It is extraordinary the thought never struck me before that the debate might. Perhaps I lack imagination. But seeing the small but perceptible injury these doddering old coots had done dug a thumb right into my chest, sounding the heart strings.  A muted, but perceptible note. Whose side are you on? We passed on to other chatter. The old gits won the quiz. We rhubarbed, ordered another round, cursed our losses, and blethered cheerfully on.

The second incident was grander, a marriage. The first of my contemporaries were wed in full fig this last weekend. A curious experience. Before Saturday, I'd been a nipper at my aunt's wedding, and an even smaller nipper in a clip-on tie at some other, forgotten relative's union. Otherwise, I had little to go on. I'm not married. No marriage is in the offing. My parents are happily knotted together, but bred up neither my sister nor I particularly to reverence the wedded state, even on a secular basis. More important than the formalities, than the witnessed names in the book, the rings and ceremonies, was the abiding sense of affection.

As a consequence, I wasn't sure how I would respond to my friends' getting hitched. It was bound to be a lovely day, full of conviviality, generosity, and happiness for the pair. The officiating cleric may have been a republican socialist who favours disestablishment of the Church of England. Despite this beguilingly contrary ideology from a man in a brocade frock, nevertheless, I anticipated the religious bells and whistles to jar somewhat with my godless cynicism. As usual. What I did not expect, however, was how moving the ceremony would be. An absolutely sincere, soft-voiced, avowal of devotion and love. Not for me, and I suppose for many there, in the eyes of some all-seeing, all-judging creator deity, but before the eyes of friends and family, of folk who meant something to each other.

It was lovely to see, truly, and reminded me of a perceptive observation Nicola Sturgeon made about her evolving attitudes towards marriage. I paraphrase, as I cannot find the link to the original article, but from memory, Nicola remarked that her own, recent wedding to Peter Murrell surprised her, and was charged with more emotional power and significance than she had conceived of when they were just bidie ins, mooting the idea.  I do enjoy being emotionally surprised, and Saturday certainly sprung one on me. I think I might, might understand what Nicola means now.  A gentle revision of my notions may be in order.

I'm not suggesting that marriage is for everyone. I've no idea whether it is even for me.  What I do feel, however, more keenly than ever, is that arresting thumb again at my chest, sounding a demanding note. The idea that only some of my friends, only those with the fortune to find themselves emotionally entangled with someone of the opposite gender, should be able to stand in that convocation of their friends, together, in that transporting moment, that day, pleasure etched on faces, unbidden tears gladly stinging the eye.  That thought's now an outrage, even a cruelty.

As today's delightfully serendipitous, lovely wee video from the Scottish Equality Network makes plain, it's time.  Oftentimes, doing the just thing is difficult and costly.  This isn't one of those times.

Let's get this done.


  1. What an absolutely fantastic article, LPW. If we never get the chance to buy an Andrew Tickell novel, I feel an opportunity will have been missed!

    1. Kind of you to say, Doug. On the novel, never say never! I suppose every angsty writer type eventually gives it a crack...

  2. Yes, agree with Doug a lovely piece. Many thanks for this LPW. Just the thing to lift the spirits!

  3. Apologies for being a Grinch, but 'tis my nature...

    There's far too much to say in a combox and I may come back this on my blog. I suppose the most obvious point is the role of emotion in politics. If this were simply a report of an emotional experience, then perhaps the only thing to say would be an acknowledgment, and then to give it that space for reflection that any profound experience requires. But insofar as it seems to be suggesting that the emotions are themselves an argument for a political process, then they don't really replace the (familiar) arguments that we're engaged in on same sex marriage. For example, given that the opposition to same sex marriage is normally based on the procreative function of marriage, it would clearly be foolish to judge the nature and success of an institution on an emotional response to what is only the public starting point of a very long process. (Rather like judging how good a home is by how one felt about signing the missives.)

    On a broader issue, I think one of the difficulties about this debate is precisely that it does raise strong emotions on both sides. It's not unique in that (cf. independence) but it is precisely when feelings are at their strongest that we need to be strict with ourselves and concentrate both on the arguments but also on political virtues such as civility and compromise. I'm sure you didn't mean it like this, but the sense of emotional conviction that pervades the piece doesn't promise sympathetic treatment for conservative dissenters in the aftermath of the change.

    1. Lazarus,

      I was rather hoping this might catch your eye and I'd benefit from a response. You're not being grinchy at all. Indeed, you put your finger on the critical and interesting point - about emotion's role in politics. As I gestured towards at the beginning of the piece, my own mode is not - I think - generally one animated and kicked about by strong passions. I'm reminded of one of my favourite quotes, from Buchner's play about the Death of Danton. The (admittedly rather addled and paranoid) figure of Robespierre says that "his thoughts spy on each other". In his case, this was a statement of anxiety and of a self being pulled apart. I've always thought of the phrase differently. "I feel is", I recognise, a terrifically beguiling thing. I've always found, in my personal life as well as my political interests, that having your thoughts spy on each other, checking your passions, exploring your responses - that's often a golden way towards wisdom, self-protection, and modesty about the self-serving or self-indulgent turns which your feeling spirit can pull you towards.

      On twitter, I described the experience above as being "emotionally radicalising" for my support for these reforms, rather than the emotion being their root and justification. But what sort of additional information is it? Does it enhance the case for change, as I see it, or leave it unaltered, accompanied by a sentimental experience underlining its political significance for friends and comrades? It is something I'm happy to admit that I've to think about more.

    2. Emotions do (always? frequently?) have a cognitive aspect: you are pleased at something; you are afraid of something.

      I agree that paying attention to our emotional reactions is part of that process of reflective equilibrium: broadly, balancing our more theoretical beliefs against more concrete judgments. So I think you're right to reflect on what you are emotionally reacting to and you gave some sense of that in the post: roughly, the celebration of a moment of commitment by those who care about the couple. That is important and I don't dismiss the awareness of that reaction as being a relevant consideration in your reflection. But I suppose I would simply say it's not enough. There are other things going on which concentration on the emotional reaction conceals, quite apart from the fact that emotions are rather erratic cognitively: we tend to get emotionally swept away despite ourselves. (The example that came to my mind was the film Zulu: I always find myself fighting back the tears during it, but I don't really think there is anything very glorious about marching into someone else's country and then massacring them with superior technology when they fight back.)

      Anyway, thanks for absolving me of grinchitude! I agree there is something vile in the public chewing over of people's intimate lives. I think I'd in part put that down to marriage (and indeed love) being essentially a pre-legal reality which the state recognizes rather than creates, but that takes us into the relationship of nomos (law) and phusis (nature) which, as the Greeks couldn't solve, I feel confident in predicting I couldn't either!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I agree with Lazarus. As Bertrand Russell observed, “But for children, there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex. It is through children alone that sexual relations become of importance to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution.”

    What marriage does specifically is to create the juridical bond of filiation between men and their children. “Marriage points out the father” is a maxim going back to Roman law [Dig. 2, 4, 5; 1] To date, no better, simpler, less intrusive means than marriage have been found for ensuring, as far as possible, that the legal, biological and social realities of paternity coincide. And that is no small thing. If that is the public purpose of marriage, then it is difficult to see what purpose same-sex marriage serves.

    1. So when two oldies have a "silver wedding", both way beyond their procreative years, they have offended against Roman law? If a couple find either one or both of them infertile, they shouldn't get hitched? I know a fair few couples now who are both married and not wishing to breed. Should they have been refused the banns? And then what about the adopters? They can be a man and a woman, or two men, or two women: the bonds will be just as parental for either combination.

      Marriage fulfils a variety of purposes, often quite specific to the couple, and allowing same-sex marriage opens up those same purposes to all loving adult couples. It's for that, and it's for genuine equality.

    2. People can join the armed forces for purposes specific to themselves, travel, adventure, comradeship, unemployment, but the reason we have armed forces is national defence. There is a difference between the public purpose served by marriage and an individual's reason for marrying