Monday 1 July 2013

Emotions, politics and same sex 'marriage'

I've recently been engaging in the sort of knockabout combox scraps on the Catholic Herald (atheism) and the Scotsman (same sex 'marriage') that can either be seen as part of the necessary grind of 'getting the message out there' or else as indulging the Old Adam's tendency to like a good fight.

It's therefore rather a relief to turn to what has been (and I hope remains) a rather more mature exchange on a controversial topic. Lallands Peat Worrier is my favourite Scottish blog and one of my favourites tout court. He and I disagree on a lot of things -particularly same sex 'marriage'- but I hope that disagreement remains within a spirit of mutual respect: I certainly respect him.

Anyway, LPW put up a rather moving post about SSM recently, the gist of which was his profound surprise at being so moved by a recent wedding, and the consequent awareness of a feeling of outrage that other (gay) friends might be denied such a similar occasion:

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 warm, arresting 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.

I've commented already on LPW's combox, but, as I said there, there's such a lot that could be  said that I'd probably return to it on my blog. So here we are...

(Note: I've recently discovered (via Child 1) the meaning of tl;dr. Readers thus far will be forgiven by me for applying the description to what follows and acting accordingly.)

First, there is a general issue here about the role of emotions in politics. Second, there is the specific case of emotions in the SSM debate.

Taking the first issue, as I've already commented to LPW, there is at least sometimes a cognitive aspect to emotions. In essence, if I am moved by something, that is equivalent to a judgment that something is good or bad. As a judgment, it then goes into that process of reflective equilibrium where judgments about the rightness or wrongness of something specific are balanced against more general, theoretical considerations. In addition, emotions are somewhat detached from our other cognitive states. This is most commonly seen in standard cases of weakness of the will or akrasia where (roughly) our understanding that something is wrong is overpowered by feelings. But it (more relevantly here) also features in reverse akrasia where (again roughly) the heart knows more than the understanding. In the present case, that might take the form of someone who thinks that same sex 'marriage' is wrong finding herself unable to act on that thought when faced with a friend's happiness: the 'judgment' of the emotion outweighs the understanding (akrasia) but, in this case, it is right to do so (reverse akrasia).

So, in principle our emotions could tell us something we hadn't already recognized: here, that same sex 'marriage' is right when we thought it was wrong.

But having noted that general possibility, we're left with how an emotional judgment should be incorporated into our general reflective thinking, and, more importantly, into our general political thinking. LPW quotes the feminist saw that the personal is the political. As with most claims of identity, much depends on from which direction you read it. Certainly, there is a claim of the importance of engagement here: doing politics shouldn't be something done merely superficially, as a duty, but should be done with feeling. I'm happy, in broad terms, to accept that claim: politics matter and we should care about them deeply. From the other direction however, it is a claim about the political importance of what you feel, and, in the context of the time, whom you love and how. Thus political lesbianism argued that feminism shouldn't stop at the bedroom door: feminists should love, and have sex with, women, not men. Now, putting aside the specifics of political lesbianism, that too is a claim I would endorse: what you feel -in general and specifically in erotic situations- should not be immune to interrogation from your understanding of the good and, in particular, the good of the city or other social grouping. The thought that one has to adjust one's affections to one's understanding of the good is behind the very idea of akrasia (someone who lets her emotions overpower her intellect is displaying a flaw) as well as behind the Christian practice of ascesis: the disciplining of the self and, in particular, the affections.

Moreover, there is a particular unreliability inherent in the emotions: they lead us astray and are often not very nuanced in their judgments. As I commented to LPW:

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.

I could have added that, when I am moved by the film -and I am- it isn't immediately clear to me why I am moved. Is it simply bravery in the face of enormous odds? Or is it something else in the complicated struggle of Rorke's Drift? (For example, I'm not at all sure that one of the things I am moved by isn't the idea of Empire and the heroic struggle of the soldier to overcome enemies. Are those things, at a deeper, moral level, I really should be approving of?)

So, to conclude the general question of emotions in politics:

1) Emotions can express or constitute judgments about political goods that need to be taken seriously and reflected upon.
2) The evidence of such judgments needs to be interrogated by reflective thought.
3) Emotions are particularly liable to mislead us.
4) We should be emotionally committed in politics (but not stupidly so).

Let's move on to the second question: the role of emotions in the issue of same sex 'marriage'.  I've been a bit rude about this area in the past, referring to the 'clubbing care bears' argument. I meant by this the sort of argument that any questioning of same sex 'marriage' is out of order because it stamps all over gay couples' (and their friends') feelings. I suppose there's a bit of this in LPW's post, but it would be unfair to reduce it to that. Certainly, there's an aspect of politicians discussing people's intimate lives that is vile. But I'd much rather that the discussion of same sex 'marriage' hadn't arisen in the first place precisely because it does represent an intrusion of the state into an intimate space: this intrusion is not of the anti-SSM side's making. But once the intrusion is made, then I see little way of avoiding discussing it properly.

The reply here might well be that it is the existence of anti-homosexual marriage laws which have given rise to the problem: that was the initial intrusion and SSM is simply an attempt to redress a wrong. But here we're back into the question of the social purpose of marriage: on a natural law point of view, the reason that the state gets involved is not to support or assess the quality of intimate relationships tout court, but only insofar as they contribute to the interest of the state in ensuring the next generation: marriage is within the purview of the state only because of its procreative and educative aspect, not because of its status as an intimate, sexual union.

In sum, I think it better that marriage should have been left out of the political process. But since that seems too much to hope for, I see no alternative to a (sometimes painful) public discussion of private matters.

Having accepted (however reluctantly) the propriety of a political discussion of SSM, we come back first to the general points made about: feelings matter politically, but are neither the only thing that matters nor a particularly reliable guide to what matters.

But in the case of SSM, I think there is another aspect that needs to be considered. Love is itself an affection and therefore it might be thought particularly important to bring in emotions into this question. As LPW notes:

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.

One interpretation of this would be that love is not just the (emotional) bond between the couple, but that marriage is the occasion of an emotional bond between the friends and family of the couple: that a wedding creates a community by dint of creating a profound emotional bond among the people gathered around, and focused on, the couple. So emotions matter not simply as evidence of this or that judgment as to the existence of a good, but here as the mechanism by which a community or fellowship is created. By denigrating that emotion (or even simply ignoring or preventing it) you are undermining a social bond centred on a gay couple. In short, you are excluding gay couples from being integrated into wider society in ways that different sex couples can be. This sort of line of thought is, I take it, behind David Cameron's oft mocked remark that he supports gay marriage because of  (and not despite) being a conservative: by extending the occasions of social bonding by emotion beyond different sex couples, society is strengthened by the existence of new bonds.

I'd reply as follows. First, I concede that, in a society without same sex 'marriage', there isn't the possibility of creating that exact experience of emotional bonding based on a same sex couple that exists in a society that does have same sex 'marriage'. But then that is true of the absence of many types of celebration in our society: for example, the absence of a legal instituted circumcision ceremony is an absence in our society; or potlatch or whatever. Think of something that is ritually embedded in some part of the world or in some time and the absence of that ritual in modern Scotland, analytically, prevents the existence of the formation of a community created by the emotional sharing of that occasion. So the question really is: not so much whether such an absence exists (it does) but how much it matters.

A (traditional) marriage isn't really an unmixed emotional high. It raises complex emotions about loss and parting as well as expectations of a happy future. It represents a coming together of different families and sexes, marked by their biological history of past comings together of different sexes and families, and thrown into the future of an expectation of succeeding generations: it is that freeze frame of birth, life and death in Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium:

That is no country for old men.  The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Parents mourn the loss of a child to another life. Men fear being possessed by the alien world of femininity; women correspondingly fear being dragged into a masculine world.  Both fear being drowned by a current of biology and history that makes them rather than is made by them. Traditional marriage is as much catharsis as celebration: a laying of angry spirits as much as enjoyable party.

Here, we need to be more careful in distinguishing between marriage as an institution and marriage as the ceremony that makes the public creation of that institution. (For convenience, I shall term the latter ceremony a 'wedding' as distinct from a 'marriage'.) A marriage is what Aristotle termed a household: an institution that is the scene of raising children. A wedding is the ritualized ceremony that opens that institution: it encourages and dramatizes the emotions associated with the institution, but it does not simply create them.

In short, the institution of a same sex union is a very different thing from the institution that is a marriage: it involves different goods and different harms and (frankly) is simply not as central to the human story as the process of bringing together men and women to procreate and raise children. A wedding represents those emotions and forms a community around them; but a wedding marking the inception of one sort of union (SSM) is not the same as the wedding marking the beginning of another (traditional marriage). And the emotions and community that should be generated by traditional marriage are of quite a different order and importance from those generated by a same sex union.

I've gone on too long. To sum up:

1) Emotions do present information about what we should value, but need to be subject to reflective critique.
2) In the case of same sex 'marriage', the emotional community created by the celebration of that union is of inferior importance to that created by traditional marriage. The emotions generated by a union for procreation and education of the next generation are (and should be) more profound and complex than those created by same sex unions. If same sex weddings do not exist, we have lost the opportunity of a good party focused on a couple's love. If traditional weddings do not exist, we have lost the opportunity of contemplating central truths of the human condition and encouraging those involved in their struggle to perform the human story of birth, life and death. Whatever similarities may exist between the forms of the wedding, the underlying institutions and the appropriate emotions towards them will remain profoundly dissimilar. 

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