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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Connections

History is a funny old business; an endless mix of overlapping threads, intermingling stories and repeating patterns that makes fascinating study for anyone who knows where to look. However, the part of it that I enjoy most involves taking the longitudinal view on things, linking two seemingly innocuous, or at least totally unrelated, events and following the trail of breadcrumbs that allow the two to connect. Things get even more interesting when the relationship is causal, so today I am going to follow the trail of one of my favourite little stories; how a single storm was, in the long run, responsible for the Industrial revolution. Especially surprising given that the storm in question occurred in 1064.

This particular storm occurred in the English Channel, and doubtless blew many ships off course, including one that had left from the English port of Bosham (opposite the Isle of Wight). Records don’t say why the ship was making its journey, but what was definitely significant was its passenger; Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and possibly the most powerful person in the country after King Edward the Confessor. He landed (although that might be overstating the dignity and intention of the process) at Ponthieu, in northern France, and was captured by the local count, who subsequently turned him over to his liege when he, with his famed temper, heard of his visitor: the liege in question was Duke William of Normandy, or ‘William the Bastard’ as he was also known (he was the illegitimate son of the old duke and a tanner). Harold’s next move was (apparently) to accompany his captor to a battle just up the road in Brittany. He then tried to negotiate his freedom, which William accepted, on the condition that he swear an oath to him that, were the childless King Edward to die, he would support William’s claim to the throne (England at the time operated a sort of elective monarchy, where prospective candidates were chosen by a council of nobles known as the Witengamot). According to the Bayeux tapestry, Harold took this oath and left France; but two years later King Edward fell into a coma. With his last moment of consciousness before what was surely an unpleasant death, he apparently gestured to Harold, standing by his bedside. This was taken by Harold, and the Witengamot, as a sign of appointing a successor, and Harold accepted the throne. This understandably infuriated William, who considered this a violation of his oath, and subsequently invaded England. His timing of this coincided with another distant cousin, Harald Hardrada of Norway, deciding to push his claim to the throne, and in the resulting chaos William came to the fore. He became William the Conqueror, and the Normans controlled England for the next several hundred years.

One of the things that the Norman’s brought with them was a newfound view on religion; England was already Christian, but their respective Church’s views on certain subjects differed slightly. One such subject was serfdom, a form of slavery that was very popular among the feudal lords of the time. Serfs were basically slaves, in that they could be bought or sold as commodities; they were legally bound to the land they worked, and were thus traded and owned by the feudal lords who owned the land. In some countries, it was not unusual for one’s lord to change overnight after a drunken card game; Leo Tolstoy lost most of his land in just such an incident, but that’s another story. It was not a good existence for a serf, completely devoid of any form of freedom, but for a feudal lord it was great; cheap, guaranteed labour and thus income from one’s land, and no real risks concerned. However the Norman church’s interpretation of Christianity was morally opposed to the idea, and began to trade serfs for free peasants as a form of agricultural labour. A free peasant was not tied to the land but rented it from his liege, along with the right to use various pieces of land & equipment; the feudal lord still had income, but if he wanted goods from his land he had to pay for it from his peasants, and there were limits on the control he had over them. If a peasant so wished, he could pack up and move to London or wherever, or to join a ship; whatever he wanted in his quest to make his fortune. The vast majority were never faced with this choice as a reasonable idea, but the principle was important- a later Norman king, Henry I, also reorganised the legal system and introduced the role of sheriff, producing a society based around something almost resembling justice.

[It is worth noting that the very last serfs were not freed until the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the 1500s, and that subsequent British generations during the 18th century had absolutely no problem with trading in black slaves, but they justified that partly by never actually seeing the slaves and partly by taking the view that the black people weren’t proper humans anyway. We can be disgusting creatures]

A third Norman king further enhanced this concept of justice, even if completely by accident. King John was the younger brother of inexplicable national hero King Richard I, aka Richard the Lionheart or Couer-de-Lion (seriously, the dude was a Frenchman who visited England twice, both to raise money for his military campaigns, and later levied the largest ransom in history on his people when he had to be released by the Holy Roman Emperor- how he came to national prominence I will never know), and John was unpopular. He levied heavy taxes on his people to pay for costly and invariably unsuccessful military campaigns, and whilst various incarnations of Robin Hood have made him seem a lot more malevolent than he probably was, he was not a good King. He was also harsh to his people, and successfully pissed off peasant and noble alike; eventually the Norman Barons presented John with an ultimatum to limit his power, and restore some of theirs. However, the wording of the document also granted some basic and fundamental rights to the common people as well; this document was known as the Magna Carta; one of the most important legal documents in history, and arguably the cornerstone in the temple of western democracy.

The long-term ramifacations of this were huge; numerous wars were fought over the power it gave the nobility in the coming centuries, and Henry II (9 years old when he took over from father John) was eventually forced to call the first parliament; which, crucially, featured both barons (the noblemen, in what would soon become the House of Lords) and burghers (administrative leaders and representatives of the cities & commoners, in the House of Commons). The Black Death (which wiped out most of the peasant population and thus raised the value of the few who were left) greatly increased the value and importance of peasants across Europe for purely economic reasons for a few years, but over the next few centuries multiple generations of kings in several countries would slowly return things to the old ways, with them on top and their nobles kept subservient. In countries such as France, a nobleman got himself power, rank, influence and wealth by getting into bed with the king (in the cases of some ambitious noblewomen, quite literally); but in England the existence of a Parliament meant that no matter how much the king’s power increased through the reign of Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts, the gentry had some form of national power and community- and that the people were, to some nominal degree, represented as well. This in turn meant that it became not uncommon for the nobility and high-ranking (or at least rich) ordinary people to come into contact, and created a very fluid class system. Whilst in France a middle class businessman was looked on with disdain by the lords, in Britain he would be far more likely to be offered a peerage; nowadays the practice is considered undemocratic, but this was the cutting edge of societal advancement several hundred years ago. It was this ‘lower’ class of gentry, comprising the likes of John Hampden and Oliver Cromwell, who would precipitate the English Civil War as King Charles I tried to rule without Parliament altogether (as opposed to his predecessors  who merely chose to not listen to them a lot of the time); when the monarchy was restored (after several years of bloodshed and puritan brutality at the hands of Cromwell’s New Model Army, and a seemingly paradoxical few decades spent with Cromwell governing with only a token parliament, when he used them at all), parliament was the political force in Britain. When James II once again tried his dad’s tactic of proclaiming himself god-sent ruler whom all should respect unquestioningly, Parliament’s response was to invite the Dutch King William of Orange over to replace James and become William III, which he duly did. Throughout the reign of the remaining Stuarts and the Hanoverian monarchs (George I to Queen Victoria), the power of the monarch became steadily more and more ceremonial as the two key political factions of the day, the Whigs (later to become the Liberal, and subsequently Liberal Democrat, Party) and the Tories (as today’s Conservative Party is still known) slugged it out for control of Parliament, the newly created role of ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ (or Prime Minister- the job wasn’t regularly selected from among the commons for another century or so) and, eventually, the country. This brought political stability, and it brought about the foundations of modern democracy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; what does this have to do with the Industrial Revolution? Well, we can partly blame the political and financial stability at the time, enabling corporations and big business to operate simply and effectively among ambitious individuals wishing to exploit potential; but I think that the key reason it occurred has to do with those ambitious people themselves. In Eastern Europe & Russia, in particular, there were two classes of people; nobility who were simply content to scheme and enjoy their power, and the masses of illiterate serfs. In most of Western Europe, there was a growing middle class, but the monarchy and nobility were united in keeping them under their thumb and preventing them from making any serious impact on the world. The French got a bloodthirsty revolution and political chaos as an added bonus, whilst the Russians waited for another century to finally get sufficiently pissed of at the Czar to precipitate a communist revolution. In Britain, however, there were no serfs, and corporations were built from the middle classes. These people’s primary concerns wasn’t rank or long-running feuds, disagreements over land or who was sleeping with the king; they wanted to make money, and would do so by every means at their disposal. This was an environment ripe for entrepreneurism, for an idea worth thousands to take the world by storm, and they did so with relish. The likes of Arkwright, Stephenson and Watt came from the middle classes and were backed by middle class industry, and the rest of Britain came along for the ride as Britain’s coincidentally vast coal resources were put to good use in powering the change. Per capita income, population and living standards all soared, and despite the horrors that an age of unregulated industry certainly wrought on its populace, it was this period of unprecedented change that was the vital step in the formation of the world as we know it today. And to think that all this can be traced, through centuries of political change, to the genes of uselessness that would later become King John crossing the channel after one unfortunate shipwreck…

And apologies, this post ended up being a lot longer than I intended it to be