The Biggest Debate

OK, gotta brace myself for this one; it’s the gay marriage debate.

Even now, over a decade into the 21st century, it still isn’t too hard (if you’re looking in the right place) to find somebody to tell you that homosexuality is wrong/sinful/weird/unnatural/ARE YOU A FAG?!?!?!?! (apologies for using that word). Normally this blog does not go into my Views on any subject, but on this occasion I think I might relax these opinions to say that there is absolutely no justification for any of these opinions that is not a load of dingo’s kidneys. Yes, homosexuality isn’t exactly evolutionarily selected for and doesn’t produce babies; but given that it’s been observed in a range of animals from bats to swans, nature apparently doesn’t have too much of a problem with the idea, so anything along those lines is out of the window. Yes, homosexuality is kind of a weird concept for your average straight person and you might find the idea a bit ‘icky’, but unless someone of your own gender starts hitting on you then there’s no reason why this should affect you. And if anyone starts quoting the Bible at me, I’m going to start pointing out how Jesus was a socialist and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.

Ahem. Sorry about that.

Anyway, the point I was getting at is that any debate concerning homosexuality is generally confined to this group of people shouting very loudly at the gay community and the rest of the civilised world. And, in recent history, said civilised world has been doing a lot of the winning; the gay community is a well-recognised part of our society and now the sight of two dudes making out, whilst uncommon, isn’t exactly something to write home about. History will probably record the recent gay marriage debate in countries across the world as just another stepping stone along the road to sexual equality, but from my point of view one interesting thing struck me about the debate, or more specifically the debaters. Those opposing the idea of gay marriage frequently were, or at least came across as, people who didn’t have a problem with gay relationships or civil partnerships but who were specifically opposed to gay marriage as a thing, which I found quite interesting. I’ve actually been putting off writing this post for a while because, well… controversy is not my strong suit, but I haven’t really been able to get the thought out of my head so I guess you’re stuck with it now.

To me, this aspect of the gay marriage debate really centred on what definition of marriage the person in question was using. To those who think that marriage is simply a strong, legally binding before-God-under-oath etc. expression of binding love between two people who want to spend their lives together, then sexual orientation doesn’t really come into the picture; love is universal regardless of orientation, so according to this definition so too should marriage be. However, those opposed to gay marriage had some other idea of what marriage was meant to be, something that, by its very nature, made it something that could, almost by definition, only be between a man and a woman, and that civil partnerships exist for gay couples separately for a reason (incidentally, I personally think that the main bone of contention with the idea of a civil partnership among the gay community concerns the lack of cultural identity it carries, making it seem like a label more than a true, fundamental expression of love). Not being in this camp myself (and not having much first-hand experience of marriage), I thought I might investigate exactly what this definition of marriage might be, in order to get to the heart of the disagreement.

Since the only difference between a same-sex and straight relationship is, fundamentally, the bits of genitalia involved, it seems natural to begin from a standpoint of biology. Maybe the definition of marriage we’re looking for concerns itself with a bond consummated through y’standard heterosexual mating procedure? My mind is instantly drawn to the image of marriage proposed in ‘Game of Thrones’ (books, I haven’t seen the TV series’), in which the bride is publically stripped and ‘bedded’ on her wedding night in an elaborate piece of tradition that is mostly (the final act excepted) performed in front of a large, drunken feast. In any case, this definition falls at the first hurdle; heterosexual sex is, if we’re talking about the pure emotional link of mutual enjoyment, satisfaction and emotional bonding, no different from homosexual sex (or else… well why would they do it?), so on its own this doesn’t seem enough.

The end result of heterosexual sex, however, may point us in a better direction. Unlike homosexual relationships, heterosexual ones are biologically capable of producing babies (I will ignore for now the idea of sperm banks and such, which are a whole different business) and expanding the population, so maybe the basis for our alternative definition of marriage is a union through which to produce children, or something along those lines? This has some grounding in theology too; Adam and Eve were, according to the Bible, the first married couple (I think, anyway; I’m not too hot on my Bible study), and since God wrote the laws of  biology it makes sense that he’d start off with a pair capable of continuing the lineage of the creatures made in his image. Or at least, after he made Eve, he sensed the potential the idea could have. It is presumably for this reason that the Bible incorporates specific instruction for Adam & Eve, and the book’s subsequent readers, to ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28), and why the Church has such strong views on the concept of sex outside marriage. But anyway; really, the validity of this argument, of the idea of marriage as a vehicle to producing children, is a personal rather than religious one, although you do have to wonder what such people think of people who have sex and children out of wedlock. Or maybe such people don’t exist. I dunno, I’m speculating here.

And whilst we’re on the subject, let’s talk about religion, a favourite point of reasoning from internet comments sections (yes, occasionally I make the cardinal sin of reading those things). There is an argument that runs roughly along the lines of ‘religion hates homosexuality, marriage is a religious ceremony, therefore the two are incompatible and a homosexual marriage is a ridiculous idea’. Proponents of this argument are less opposed to the introduction of a gay marriage bill than they are just thinking it’s kinda weird, and are the source of a hilarious turn of phrase that has cropped up all over the web ‘giving gay people the right to marry is like giving men the right to an abortion’. The second tenet of this argument is, however, rather a large assumption and the matter of considerable debate for, in modern society, marriage is technically a legal process. This is a concession made to respect those of other faiths (and quite right too), but is responsible for why a wedding can take place in a registry office just as easily as the church. It is also true that marriage was initially nothing to do with religion at all, but a matter of business; one family trading a woman to another in exchange for cash, and that religion rather inherited the concept as the idea of love in marriage became steadily more important over the centuries… but how you interpret this one is really down to personal debate. I happen to know for certain that this group exists, because I’ve seen plenty of arguments with them.

However, I personally think that the most likely reason a person would be against the idea of homosexual marriage but not homosexuality itself concerns the idea of ownership. The very idea of ownership is a quite strange and interesting one, but the thrust of the issue in this context is that human beings frequently feel a strange sense of belonging and ownership of a lot of things, be they objects, people or even ideas. A good example is patriotism/nationalism, where the idea of ‘belonging’ to a particular patch of land with a certain type of people can get so strong that they want to stop other people coming to their patch of land and ‘stealing’ their identity. And I think the same thing applies to marriage; married people have a sense of ownership over the idea, that it is fundamentally theirs and they don’t want to share it with other people. It sounds both a childish and bigoted point of view and, to an extent, it is; but hey, humans are irrational creatures in the end. I can only hope that holders of this view don’t feel quite so angry with it a few years down the line.

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“If I die before I wake…”

…which I might well do when this post hits the internet, then I hope somebody will at least look down upon my soul & life’s work favourably. Today, I am going to be dealing with the internet’s least favourite topic, an idea whose adherence will get you first derided and later inundated with offers to go and be slaughtered in one’s bed, a subject that should be taboo for any blogger looking to not infuriate everybody; that of religion.

I am not a religious person; despite a nominally Anglican upbringing my formative years found most of my Sundays occupied on the rugby pitch, whilst a deep interest in science tended to form the foundations of my world beliefs- I think (sometimes) to some personal detriment. This is a pattern I see regularly among those people I find as company (which may or may not say something about my choice of friends)- predominantly atheists with little or no religious upbringing who tend to steer clear of religion and its various associated features wherever possible. However, where I find I differ from them tends to be when the subject is broached when in the present of a devoutly Christian friend of mine; whilst I tend to leave his beliefs to himself and try not to spark an argument, many others I know see a demonstration of his beliefs as a cue to start on a campaign of ‘ha ha isn’t your world philosophy stupid’, and so on.  I tend to find these attacks more baffling and a little saddening than anything else, so I thought that I might take this opportunity to take my usual approach and try to analyse the issue

First up is a fact that most people are aware of even if it hasn’t quite made the jump into an articulate thought yet; that every religion is in fact two separate parts. The first of these can be dubbed the ‘faith’ aspect; the stories, the gods, the code of morals & general life guidelines and such, all of the bits that form the core of a system of beliefs and are, to a theist, the ‘godly’ part of their religion. The second can be labelled the ‘church’ aspect; this is the more man-made, even artificial, aspect of the religious system, and covers the system of priesthood (or equivalent) for each religion, their holy buildings, the religious leaders and even people’s personal interpretation of the ‘faith’ aspect. Holy books, such as the Bible or Torah, fall somewhere in between (Muslims believe, for example, that the Qur’an is literally the word of Allah, translated through the prophet Muhammed) as do the various prayers and religious music. In Buddhism, these two aspects are known as the Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community), and together with Buddha form the ‘three jewels’ of their religion. In some religions, such as Scientology (if that can technically be called a religion) the two aspects are so closely entwined so as to be hard to separate, but they are still distinct aspects that should be treated separately. The ‘faith’ aspect of religion is, in most respects, the really important one, for it is this that actually formulates the basis of a religion; without a belief system, a church is nothing more than a place where people go to shout their views at those who inexplicably turn up. A religion’s ‘church’ aspect is its organised divisions, and exists for no greater or lesser purpose than to spread, cherish, protect and correctly translate the word of God, or other parts of the ‘faith’ aspect generally. This distinction is vital when we consider how great a difference there can be between what somebody believes and what another does in the same name.

For example, consider the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban currently fighting their Jihad (the word does not, on an unrelated note, technically translate as ‘holy war’ and the two should not be thought of a synonymous) in Afghanistan against the USA and other western powers. Their personal interpretation of the Qur’an and the teachings of Islam (their ‘church’ aspect) has lead them to believe that women do not deserve equal rights to men, that the western powers are ‘infidels’ who should be purged from the world, and that they must use force and military intervention against them to defend Islam from said infidels- hence why they are currently fighting a massive war that is getting huge amounts of innocent civilians killed and destroying their faith’s credibility. By contrast, there are nearly 2 million Muslims currently living in the UK, the vast majority of whom do not interpret their religion in the same way and are not currently blowing up many buildings- and yet they still identify as Islamic and believe in, broadly speaking, the same faith. To pick a perhaps more ‘real world’ example, I’m sure that the majority of Britain’s Catholic population steadfastly disagree with the paedophilia practiced by some of their Church’s priests, and that a certain proportion also disagree with the Pope’s views on the rights of homosexuals; and yet, they are still just as Christian as their priests, are devout believers in the teachings of God & Jesus and try to follow them as best as they can.

This I feel, is the nub of the matter; that one can be simultaneously a practising Christian, Muslim, Jew or whatever else and still be a normal human being. Just because your vicar holds one view, doesn’t mean you hold the same, and just because some people choose to base their entire life around their faith does not mean that a person must be defined by their belief system. And, returning to the subject of the ridicule many practising theists suffer, just because the ‘church’ aspect of a religion does something silly, doesn’t mean all practitioners of it deserve to be tarred with the same brush- or that their view on the world should even matter to you as you enjoy life in your own way (unless of course their belief actively impedes you in some way).

I feel like I haven’t really got my point across properly, so I’ll leave you with a few links that I think illustrate quite well what I’m trying to get at. I only hope that it will help others find a little more tolerance towards those who have found a religious path.

And sorry for this post being rather… weird

Fitting in

This is my third post in this little mini-series on the subject of sex & sexuality in general, and this time I would like to focus on the place that sex has in our society. I mean, on the face of it, we as a culture appear to be genuinely embarrassed by its existence a lot of the time, rarely being referred to explicitly if at all (at least certainly not among ‘correct’ and polite company), and making any mention of it a cause of scandal and embarrassment. Indeed, an entire subset of language has seemed to develop over the last few years to try and enable us to talk about sexually-related things without ever actually making explicit references to it- it’s an entire area where you just don’t go in conversation. It’s almost as if polite society has the mental age of a 13 year old in this regard, and is genuinely embarrassed as to its existence.

Compare this to the societal structure of one of our closest relatives, the ‘pygmy great ape’ called the bonobo. Bonobos adopt a matriarchal (female-led) society, are entirely bisexual, and for them sex is a huge part of their social system. If a pair of bonobos are confronted with any new and unusual situation, be it merely the introduction of a cardboard box, their immediate response will be to briefly start having sex with one another almost to act as an icebreaker, before they go and investigate whatever it was that excited them. Compared to bonobos, humans appear to be acting like a bunch of nuns.

And this we must contrast against the fact that sex is something that we are not only designed for but that we actively seek and enjoy. Sigmund Freud is famous for claiming that most of human behaviour can be put down to the desire for sex, and as I have explained in previous place, it makes evolutionary sense for us to both enjoy sex and seek it wherever we can. It’s a fact of life, something very few of us would be comfortable to do without, and something our children are going to have to come to terms with eventually- yet it’s something that culture seems determined to brush under the carpet, and that children are continually kept away from for as long as is physically possible in a last-ditch attempt to protect whatever innocence they have left. So why is this?

Part of the reasoning behind this would be the connection between sex and nakedness, as well as the connection to privacy. Human beings do not, obviously, have thick fur to protect themselves or keep them warm (nobody knows exactly why we lost ours, but it’s probably to do with helping to regulate temperature, which we humans do very well), and as such clothes are a great advantage to us. They can shade us when its warm and allow for more efficient cooling, protect us from harsh dust, wind & weather, keep us warm when we venture into the world’s colder climates, help stem blood flow and lessen the effect of injuries, protect us against attack from predators or one another, help keep us a little cleaner and replace elaborate fur & feathers for all manner of ceremonial rituals. However, they also carry a great psychological value, placing a barrier between our bodies and the rest of the world, and thus giving us a sense of personal privacy about our own bodies. Of particular interest to our privacy are those areas most commonly covered, including (among other things), the genital areas, which must be exposed for sexual activity. This turns sex into a private, personal act in our collective psyche, something to be shared only between the partners involved, and making any exploration of it seem like an invasion of our personal privacy. In effect, then, it would seem the Bible got it the wrong way around- it was clothes that gave us the knowledge and shame of nakedness, and thus the ‘shame’ of sex.

Then we must consider the social importance of sex & its consequences in our society generally. For centuries the entire governmental structure of most of the world was based around who was whose son, who was married to who  and, in various roundabout ways, who either had, was having, or could in the future be having, sex with whom. Even nowadays the due process of law usually means inheritance by either next of kin, spouse or partner, and so the consequences of sex carry immense weight. Even in the modern world, with the invention of contraceptives and abortion and the increasing prevalence of ‘casual sex’, sex itself carries immense societal weight, often determining how you are judged by your peers, your ‘history’ among them and your general social standing. To quote a favourite song of a friend of mine: ‘The whole damn world is just as obsessed/ With who’s the best dressed and who’s having sex’. And so, sex becomes this huge social thing, its pursuit full of little rules and nuances, all about who with who (and even with the where & how among some social groups) and it is simply not allowed to become ‘just this thing everyone does’ like it is with the bonobos. Thus, everything associated with sex & sexuality becomes highly strung and almost political in nature, making it a semi-taboo to talk about for fear of offending someone.

Finally, we must consider the development of the ‘sexual subculture’ that seems to run completely counter to this taboo attitude. For most of human history we have comfortably accepted and even encouraged the existence of brothels and prostitution, and whilst this has become very much frowned upon in today’s culture the position has been filled by strip clubs, lap dancing bars and the sheer mountains of pornography that fill the half-hidden corners of newsagents, small ads and the internet. This is almost a reaction to the rather more prim aloofness adopted by polite society, an acknowledgement and embracing of our enjoyment of sex (albeit one that caters almost exclusively to heterosexual men and has a dubious record for both women’s and, in places, human rights). But because this is almost a direct response to the attitudes of polite culture, it has naturally attracted connotations of being seedy and not respectable. Hundreds of men may visit strip clubs every night, but that doesn’t make it an OK career move for a prominent judge to be photographed walking out of one. Thus, as this sex-obsessed underworld has come into being on the wrong side of the public eye, so sex itself has attracted the same negative connotations, the same sense of lacking in respectability, among the ‘proper’ echelons of society, and has gone even more into the realms of ‘Do Not Discuss’.

But, you might say, sex appears to be getting even more prevalent in the modern age. You’ve mentioned internet porn, but what about the sexualisation of the media, the creation and use of sex symbols, the targeting of sexual content at a steadily younger audience? Good question, and one I’ll give a shot at answering next time…