Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Love, Honour, and Dismay


It did not come as a surprise that the Church of England has rejected the government consultation on same-sex marriage. While the Church has always been a wide coalition of opposing viewpoints it is currently dominated centrally by a conservative outlook. And if we're not ready to permit women equality with men then giving any acknowledgement to non-heterosexuals is asking quite a lot. And yet, knowing all of this and thinking myself prepared for it, the Response itself has still given me fresh disappointment. 


In its opening paragraphs the document highlights the importance of, "the possibility of procreation" in marriage, an element which is optional to the marriage service and which places a value on the institution no higher than the fertility and compatibility of a couple's genitals. They go on to wheel out clich├ęd but nonsensical arguments; I have never had it explained to me in what way other people being married changes the nature of marriage for heterosexual couples, nor why the constant and never-ending shifting definition of words is suddenly to create a seismic event.

However, I was most shocked to discover the document defending its stance by arguing that allowing same sex couples to marry, "deliver[s] no obvious legal gains given the rights conferred by civil partnerships". Of all institutions, the Church should be able to acknowledge that the gulf between marriage and the legal trappings that accompany it is as wide as the difference between death and the handling of your estate. A religious marriage is about presenting your relationship to God and to your family and community (whatever shape the latter takes) and asking for their combined blessing and support in sustaining it. A civil ceremony may attempt, sometimes successfully, to capture some of these elements, but it cannot capture all of them, and for members of the Church the legal similarity of the two is completely irrelevant.

It is only since 2002 that the Church of England has officially sanctioned the re-marriage of divorcees (somewhat ironically given the Church's origins). The mechanisms of marriage available to ordinary people has changed a number of times over the centuries, without radically overhauling what that mechanism symbolised to the couple involved (though that has happened too). But all other things aside, for the Church of England to use the standard secular arguments to defend its position is utterly ridiculous. It completely misses the point of marriage, in a way which the Church of all organisations really ought not to. If it is an issue of theology, then say so. If it is an issue of doctrine, then say so. Don't hide behind weak irrelevancies and thinly-veiled prejudice.




The Church of England's website has a page discussing the background to the Church's position on marriage. On it, Rowan Williams says of same-sex marriage, "issues like stigma and marginalisation have to be addressed at the level of culture rather than law". For once, I could not disagree more. The government, community leaders, and yes especially the Church, have a duty to take the lead on such issues and set the tone for culture to follow. It is what we are called to do as Christians, and are in an unusually strong position to do so as an established Church. This Response is cowardly and embarrassing. And wrong.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Justice once was blind, but now it sees.

The US soldier accused of killing 16 civilians in Afghanistan on Sunday has been flown to Kuwait, "based on legal recommendation" from the Pentagon. The excuse is that the US doesn't have the appropriate detention facilities in Afghanistan, and the US military likes to deal with misdemeanours committed by their personnel. They take care of their own, as Bruce Springsteen might say. Meanwhile it's making Cameron and Obama's (Camama?) confidence in the nascent Afghani justice system seem much lower than they would have us believe, as well as smelling of rank hypocrisy. Not only is the prison camp at Guantamo Bay still open, but both countries have previously insisted on people being tried by the people against whom atrocity has been committed, whether that was Saddam Hussein in 2003 or al Megrahi in 2000, whose trial was held under Scots law at a disused US military base in the Netherlands. Apparently it simply wouldn't have been just to try him in a neutral country (as suggested by, among others, Nelson Mandela).

It perhaps isn't surprising that a country with the unaccountability of the USA, and where the chief legal advisor to the government doesn't think that due process necessarily has to involve a court, doesn't feel a need to play by the rules it sets other people. What's the point of policing the world if there aren't any perks to the job? But isn't one of the key things about justice that it's meant to provide a level playing field? That power should not be allowed to play a part in it? Obviously no justice system is going to be completely free of bias (even if that's merely because people with more money can afford better lawyers), but with fairness being so deeply ingrained in our psyche surely such international bullying should be called to account?

And not just international bullying, for nations do not have a monopoly on injustice. A student of Cambridge University has been suspended for 2 and a half years for an entirely peaceful act of protest. The protest was staged against the government's higher education policy by a large group of people who have all freely admitted to being participants, but who are not sharing in the unprecedented and completely disproportionate punishment. And this punishment, which will completely derail the student's study, has been arbitrated by the University internally, without reference to...well, anything, as far as anyone can make out. The University doesn't like protests, but should know to expect them when it invites contentious people to give lectures; when my faculty was closed for 5 days so that the Premier of China, a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world, could give a prestigious lecture, a student took exception and threw a shoe at him. He was tried in a courtroom, and cleared on all charges (allegations that he was only tried due to pressure from the Chinese government were found to be baseless). He did not have to put his life on hold for years as a direct result of protest.

There is a petition to sign, and a protest to go on, and I highly encourage both. This isn't the first time I've moaned about the inner workings of Cambridge University on this blog, and it may not be the last, but this one takes the biscuit. When Mandela was trying to have al Megrahi tried in South Africa, he said that this was because
no one nation should be complainant, prosecutor and judge
and when trying their marine at home the USA might attempt to use this as a figleaf on their hypocrisy. But Cambridge University in this instance is all three. Other people have written eloquently about the absurdity of a university punishing a student for reading contentious poetry, but I hope someone reminds them what they are taking into their own hands. Ruling the roost in your ivory tower is great until the International Anti-Poaching Foundation catches up with you.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Judging a book by its label.


When I left university and wasn't working as a musician in any capacity at all, I had a slight crisis of self-definition. At uni and since (and now (not right now, I'm typing)) I conducted various different ensembles, and used to tell people that I was a conductor. But in this brief interlude in my life I wasn't conducting anyone, and since it really isn't a solo activity I didn't conduct at all. Could I still refer to myself as a conductor?

The answer mostly came back as yes; although this wasn't a career, that was a useful parallel to draw. An out-of-work estate agent would still call themselves an estate agent. But I had always felt that this label was one which should only be used adjectivally, to refer to people who conducted. (Possibly then, my insistence on being called Maestro by everyone I met during this period was a little over the top.)

My friend R just (ok, a week ago, I think slowly) wrote something about the word sexual, as an opposite to asexual. This is a label to prevent those of us who don't belong to a minority group from being referred to as, offensively, "normal", and so gets added to my exciting list of words which I can use to demonstrate that I am in fact The Man you should be sticking it to. R went on to say that many of eir sexual friends weren't too happy with the new label they had been assigned, and went to great pains to stress that not all sexuals are the same, and that in fact it's a stupid label which isn't necessarily helpful.[1]

Kind of like most labels then, yes? In this great breadth of humanity any label is only going to take you so far, and after it's been around for a while is going to come with too many preconceptions and prejudices to be overly useful. Aware that they were wary of some of the associations which they religion carries, I tried to describe someone as a "liberal Christian" recently, only to be told (by the person in question) that they weren't, and much preferred to be called something else (I can't remember exactly what, but it was three words long and the last one was Christian). This person had felt the need to qualify their label, to label it even, to remove or at least challenge some of the baggage that came with it.

And where does the baggage come from? It comes from people who have adopted or been given the label. R talks about eir difficulty self-defining as a feminist because a teacher at school gave em a view of what that meant, which ey has since rejected. Over at Gingerbread Feminists, Clare the Awesome (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) has written a wonderful post about what feminism is or has the potential to be, giving her use of that label a tighter definition, and attempting to free it of extraneous exclusions or assumptions.

I describe myself as a "feminist ally". Some women have told me that men can't be feminists, but I don't think that they're right. And it's not because I'm worried about picking up the baggage either - I do in fact have quite hairy legs. But sometimes, inevitably, I screw up, and do or say things which are decidedly unfeminist. This is hardly surprising, given that I am The Power we are all fighting, but am I less able to assist the movement just because I do not take ownership of its label? I would certainly much, much rather be less useful than I might be than accidentally sully someone else's battle flag, making the label less usable in the future.

Am I wrong to have this much respect for a word? Should labels be kept for pieces of writing, or objects, or actions, rather than people? Or, like my favourite literature, should I qualify every label I take upon myself every time I use it?

And, while you're here, can anyone give me a gender-neutral replacement for, "one-upmanship"?!

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[1]  Given that a few weeks ago I saw Simon Hoggart of Guardian fame getting in a lather after his first encounter with "cis-gendered" (bless him) maybe this kind of concern isn't unusual.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

I spy, with my critical eye, something beginning with fail....

The prompt for me to watch the first episode of the new series of Sherlock was seeing a proliferation of blog posts about it's rewriting of the end of the episode. I managed to avoid reading any of the posts before seeing the episode, so all I noticed at the time (not having read the original) was that the ending was a bit pants, and the lead female character, who had been brilliantly written for throughout, wound up looking pretty pathetic. Which was a shame.

A friend of mine who enjoys Harry Potter (and who also gave the most rousing and convincing defence of the Twilight series I've ever heard, for which they get kudos) told me that they are really disappointed, not only by the fact that outing Dumbledore post-publication appears to imply that non-heterosexual relationships are somehow more "adult" than heterosexual ones, but also by the fact that Ginny Weasley's sole raison d'etre is to marry Harry. Which, in spite of rhyming, is not cool.

Another friend (yes I have more than one) has expressed disappointment in discovering recently that a couple of their favourite authors (namely Lois McMaster Bujold and Jared Diamond) are in their own special ways more than a teensy bit racist. Damn.


I really enjoy Steven Moffat's writing. I really like his dialogue, his pacing, most of his characters. I love what he's done with Doctor Who, and I'm willing to sit through a certain amount of potentially dangerous over-simplification / benevolent sexism to enjoy it. I'm also willing to ignore a certain amount of homophobia from the lead characters in Sherlock because I think their relationship is well-written enough to overcome it (Korea disagrees). But is it enough simply to be aware of these problems? Given that I have very little way of addressing them (apart from getting whiney on The Internet), by continuing to enjoy and consume this material I am tacitly endorsing it, and every time I recommend it to a friend I'm potentially propagating it. Should I be giving a list of caveats every time I tell someone about something I like? Because given what a fan of Lord of the Rings I am that could seriously impact on my free time. (There's a deeper argument I quite like here, which sheds some interesting light on a discussion I had a while ago about the rape scene in the Watchmen film.)

In some ways I feel that it's a mark of quality - the fewer caveats I need on something the better it is. I'm currently avidly consuming Avatar: The Last Airbender (a children's cartoon made for the American mainstream market) because it is remarkably progressive regarding gender, race, ability and so on. The number of caveats required in the first series is roughly one half (it also has a 10-tonne, six-legged, flying bison in it, which may explain much of the rest of its appeal). While that's all very well in contemporary media, it doesn't work for much else. Wagner was anti-semitic but still wrote great music (well, arguably great anyway). Gandhi beat his wife, but surely that doesn't invalidate his approach to protest? And obviously we can't discount Stephen Hawking's contribution to physics because, according to the BBC, he spends most of the day thinking about women, who remain "a complete mystery" apparently (poor dear).

Maybe it's about lowering expectations. Nobody's perfect, and even friends' opinions are bound to disappoint at some point. I guess for the moment I'll just keep playing "spot the fail" and then getting whiney on The Internet.