Monday, 4 March 2013
The right to apathy is an often overlooked, yet utterly vital democratic freedom.
The right to vote is not the obligation to: an obligation to vote is a soft (if ironic) form of oppression. The free citizen must be allowed disinterest as much as dissent.
Consider this fact, first:
I have no idea who or what won Oscars last week.
My understanding is that Daniel Day Lewis picked one of the little chaps up, which is great, because the one thing everybody knows about him is that he works so hard at his job. So it's only fair.
Don't get me wrong. All those actors work hard. All of them are out in all weathers, slaving away, selflessly, for your benefit, week in and week out, pretending to be other people for vast sums of money to save you the effort of buying a piano and entertaining yourselves like those poor bastards had to do in the dark days before internet pornography. They're all heroes, those actors.
But Dan's one of those extra special ones that goes above and beyond.
He sometimes actually makes himself ill, did you know that? All for you. So selfless. Seriously: he was playing Hamlet on stage, and it was so demanding, so taxing, so wearying, that he actually had to pull out of the production mid-run, citing exhaustion. I'm not making this up. He exhausted himself so much, from the strain of playing Hamlet so well, that he had to stop playing Hamlet before he was contractually supposed to, just so he could have a little rest from playing Hamlet for a while.
God, I'd like to shake that man by the hand.
Just the thought of it humbles me. The thought of this wonderful man dressing up and repeating lines he's learned, and doing it all so realistically, so convincingly, so incisively, that it makes him ill, and all just so I can have a decadent night out at the theatre at his expense. It's a bit like eating foie gras: the tacit acceptance that my pleasure is worth the infliction of unimaginable suffering.
God bless you, Daniel Day Lewis.
And now he's just as impressively taken on the mantle of Abraham Lincoln. Grew his own beard. Mastered the accent. Put on the stove pipe hat. And learned all the words and said them in the right order.
And, luckily for our consciences, managed to get through the ordeal this time without doing himself serious harm, thank the Lord.
If that's not worth the ultimate accolade of a twelve inch gold-plated statuette of a nude man I don't know what could be.
But as I say, I'm not certain he did win it. I think he did. Not so sure that Lincoln won best film; don't think it did, actually. But I'm not sure what did win. Haven't the first clue who the best actress was.
But please don't misunderstand the reason why I don't know any of these things. It's not because I'm not all that interested.
It's because I'm not interested at all.
But now, forget all that.
Pretend I was just a regular fellow, perhaps the chap on the next bar stool to you. A bright smile and a joke and gin and tonics all round. We're chatting away, and the subject moves to the Oscars, and I just happen to mention I don't know who won them.
You might, perhaps, be surprised, maybe even curious. But I doubt you'd be affronted. You certainly wouldn't leap instantly, as the only possible explanation, to the conclusion that I actively loathe Oscars, loathe even the fact that they’re called 'Oscars' in the first place (I mean for God's sake, how can you even say the word without feeling stupid? Only 'Pepsi Cola' sounds more idiotic coming out of the mouth of a fully grown adult), that I wish they’d stop issuing the things, and wish above all else that people would stop imagining they prove something objective or important or interesting, other than what an incredibly small group of people think of each other from one year to the next.
That, as it happens, is what I think. But you'd be unlikely to assume it. You'd probably just think I had no particular interest in that particular subject.
But if someone said they had no particular interest in gay marriage that would be totally different.
That really could mean only one thing, right? They oppose it.
The notion that it might be a subject they simply hadn't given much thought to, because it didn't strike them as particularly interesting or important, would be absurd.
For one thing, it's impossible: it's one of those subjects that everyone is interested in enough to have a fixed view of. I know. They said so on the telly.
And for another it's not acceptable: it's so important that to be uninterested is to be immoral. Apathy is a form of provocation, and what it must be, the only thing it could possibly be, deep down, is evidence of bigotry.
You may think you're a modern, switched-on kind of a person, with views on pretty much all topics.
But that's not enough if you want to really be in touch with the Zeitgeist and therefore safe from those who police it. To be really tuned in, and really safe, you need to prioritise. You need to know not only what's important but what's most important.
It's easy enough to find out what those extra-important subjects are. Just make it known that you have no fixed views on any topic. Even, if you're brave, let slip the dread phrase: "I've never really given it much thought, to be honest..."
If it's basket-weaving, fine. If it's the Oscars, you're an eccentric. If it's gay marriage, what the hell's the matter with you? Don't you care about anything? What are you doing later on tonight? Setting fire to an orphanage?
There are hundreds of issues the savvy thinking person may have talked themselves into a particular stance on. But does it define them? Does it matter? Does it matter what any given politician's view is? Or a policeman's? Or a TV sports commentator? Not a bit.
But imagine asking a politician what his views are on gay marriage and getting the answer, "I've never really given it much thought, to be honest..."
No reason in the world why they shouldn't, but just imagine! Neither apathy nor agnosticism are permitted when it comes to the issues over which the Zeitgeist obsesses. You’re either for us, or you’re against us, mate.
Even more confusing to the zealots is the idea that one can have an opinion and still not actually have any interest. But it’s self-evident to me. I can have an opinion, or can decide my opinion, on any topic whatsoever. But an opinion is not the same thing as a passion. Thus I find myself in the absurd position of being cast as an enemy of the progressives over the issue of gay marriage despite that fact that, if forced to find and give an opinion, it could only be that I agree with the idea.
Homosexuality does not bother or offend me. Never has done. I have no real comprehension of it, not in the trivial sense of never having had sexual feelings for my own gender, but in the deeper one of having no concept of what it must be like to allow my sexual preferences define me as a person in every aspect and regard, and to make my sexual preferences the most interesting and defining thing about me, when surely they are in reality the least interesting or defining.
But offend me, bother me, unnerve me? No, it does not.
I don’t have any problem with the use of the word ‘gay’ in this context either.
It seems to me that if people don’t like the word losing its lovely original meaning, as I do not myself, the thing to do is not moan about the new meaning but just keep using it in the old way too, which nobody except me ever seems to do.
It’s two different words, spelled and pronounced the same way, and far from unique in that: it doesn’t mean there is suddenly anything homosexual about the idea of brightness and vivacity any more than it means there is anything axiomatically delightful and cheering about homosexuality, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever been to an Elton John concert. Just keep using it the old way too, and let it have two meanings. No problem I can see.
I do have a problem with promiscuity, with sexual excess, senseless sex, sex as consumer choice, and with a popular culture that forces us to confront our sexual selves every second of the day, in everything we see and everything we hear, and as impetus and decider of every decision we make.
I like the idea of our sexual natures being private and mysterious, and something we seek to contain rather than exaggerate. It makes sex sexier, for one thing. And if the consequence of that is the old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon prudery we are told is not merely foolish but actually dangerous, well I can't say I have any great problem with that.
I like reticence and sobriety. I like to see the sexual arena governed by rules and rituals. And as for there being danger in repression, the evidence, it seems to me, points in the opposite direction.
I think it is reasonable to draw conclusions, and negative conclusions at that, of any society that progresses knowingly from a repressed attitude towards sex to an incontinently libertine one, and what's more that considers itself capable of defending the transition intellectually and morally.
I've heard all the arguments about personal freedom and the tragedy of lives lived in denial of the right to instantly chase each passing desire down the rabbit hole of sexual obsession. I find them dubious psychologically, and ludicrous in their pretence of rationalising an obvious Darwinian con trick.
There's nothing rational about sex. The sexual urge is the most potent and primitive animating force in our arsenal. What other instinct can outprioritise it when it's on the rampage? Personal safety? No. Hunger? No. The thirst for knowledge? Plainly no. The urge to create? Give me a break!
And yet we find ourselves in a society that has capitulated utterly to this most primal and least interesting of Darwinian imperatives, and yet lacks the honesty to say: yes, we caved. We gave in. We gave up.
The sexual revolution worked because the pursuit of sex, and the satisfaction of sexual craving, are pleasures more intense than any other on earth: drug-taking is a poor (but obvious) imitation. Strictly rationed they are beneficial; allowed to take possession of everyday consciousness they become not only too demanding but, subject to the law of diminishing returns, decayed and decaying.
All this talk about the liberty of the self and the freedom of the individual! Who cares about the freedom to watch internet gangbangs? What's that freedom worth, really? Don't know? I'll tell you then. It's not a rhetorical question. It's worth fuck all. Let me run that past you again. It's worth absolutely fuck all. If you thought otherwise, congratulations! You were wrong. Now get over it. Grow up. That particular freedom is worth fuck all.
And the benefits of denying that particular freedom to your fellow man are so obvious, so wide-reaching, so plainly a great thing for everybody, that there is no argument you can possibly mount to deny it. So don't try. I've heard them all anyway. I know the pseudo-right wing libertarian defence of pornography as well as the pseudo-left wing libertine defence of pornography. And they both add up to the same thing. Absolutely fuck all. If you disagree, I'm sorry you're an idiot but there it goes.
The problem with the sexual revolution is not the acceptance of gay sex but the wide acceptance of meaningless and promiscuous sex, and the subsequent dissolving of those bonds of commitment and continuity that enable society to function. That's a heterosexual problem just as much as a homosexual one.
If male homosexual relationships tend on average to be more promiscuous than heterosexual relationships or female homosexual relationships, on the sound Darwinian grounds that it’s two men, I can’t think of anything better than promoting stability and long-term commitment.
The normalisation and acceptance of homosexuality at all levels might even have the further happy consequence of relieving those thus inclined of the presumed obligation to bang on and on about it every second they’re awake, too.
It sounds like a good idea to me, and if my opinion is requested politely, I'd probably say let's give it a shot.
I just have five little objections to the idea, all negotiable, rooted in my innate regard for pedantry, caution, honesty, freedom and apathy.
Let's get the pedantry out of the way first.
The word marriage doesn’t just mean the joining of two entities. It means the joining of two different entities. Two entities defined by their difference from each other, with the aim of creating a third entity from the act of synthesis.
In the field of ideas, for instance, we might talk about some new scientific theory that marries one account of the universe with another partially contradictory account, to produce a third and better version. Darwinism was married to Mendelian genetics to create the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, because Darwin proposed a vague and unsatisfactory mechanics of heredity. Mendelism contradicted his suggestions, but Neo-Darwinism marries the two ideas to produce a synthesis that best reflects reality in a way that is preferable to each account taken individually, without denying the vital contribution of either.
In the sphere of human relationships marriage means uniting a man and a woman with the presumed end of producing children.
Why? Why should it?
Because that’s what the word means. I’m very sorry; I wish it were otherwise, if for no other reason than for putting this enormously tiresome argument to bed. But it ain't.
I’m all for every single legal right and responsibility being conferred on homosexual partnerships same as heterosexual ones. But ‘marriage’ in this context means joining a man to a woman. I’m not saying that’s what God wants, that the alternative is a sin, or that homosexuals should be ashamed of their true natures. None of those things I believe. I’m saying that’s what the actual word means. It’s pretty basic. You can join, unite, splice or combine two of anything, including two of the same thing. But you can only marry two different things. That’s why it’s a different word, to distinguish itself from the others.
Now, doubtless this is all very interesting to a linguist. In the field of equal rights, however, it doesn’t matter a damn. We have two different words for men and women, we even have different words for male and female homosexuals. It disadvantages none to have two different terms for heterosexual and homosexual partnerships. Not actually calling it 'marriage' is not some mean trick to deny gay couples one last vestige of equality. Marriage is not a unique right, it’s merely a unique word. And what it means is the union of a man and a woman. If, for whatever reason, a gay man married a lesbian, that would be a marriage. (It would also be one hell of a reception.)
Second, the note of caution, and this one I can probably be talked out of most easily. But I still resent the fact that it isn't heard more often, or taken seriously when it is, because I think it says something about our hubris as a culture more generally, which is an enormous problem: one that walks us into no end of trouble and may yet finish us off.
The fact that I personally have no problem with homosexual union being legally and socially recognised and not stigmatised, and the fact that many others are so keen on the idea that they are prepared to put little stickers on things that don’t belong to them saying ‘Some People Are Gay – Get Over It’, is not all you need to know to implement a course of action.
As a society we have, or should have, a much wider and more objective sense of responsibility than that, that extends far beyond our own wishes, comforts and prejudices and considers the effect of our ideas upon the community as a whole. Whatever the specific and limited aims of any wide-reaching change in how society is ordered and recognises itself, it is folly to believe that any such change will have no wider, unforeseen or possibly deleterious (no less so for being incidentally so) effects or consequences. And it suggests that the possibility of such consequences should be patiently explored, discussed and taken into consideration before any radical, potentially irreversible steps are taken.
It does not mean that there is anything iffy about the ideas themselves, merely recognises that ideas have consequences.
The complete normalisation of homosexual marriage will have a profound effect on how we see ourselves as a people, as a species. The one thrown stone of legalisation will ripple out endlessly, altering everything it touches. It’s a massive, fundamental change in how we understand ourselves, and always have understood ourselves, since the beginning of our existence.
Does that mean we should automatically rule it out of court? No.
Does it mean we should be cautious and incremental - and above all patient and non-hectoring – as we put it into practice? Yes.
So entrenched is the modern cult of selfishness that simply stating this basic and unquestionable appeal to reason, calm and consideration for all our futures will read to many as reactionary bone-headedness. So be it, for it is not.
As it happens, my cautious guess is that the effects of recognising homosexual marriage will not be injurious, and we will weather it with the relative ease with which we have weathered other changes, most comparatively, I would think, universal suffrage. But my cautious guess is not willingly shared with anyone incapable of grasping this basic point.
Now, honesty. Or, as some may prefer, cynicism.
Let's settle on realism.
Human nature: like it or loathe it, it's here to stay. I don't know what kind of opinion you have of human beings, but I have my reservations, especially when they join together in groups and start shouting at people.
Mistrusting motives, seeing the worst in people... it's just what I do. I don't reserve it for some people and give others a free pass. I spread it around equally. And we live in an age that venerates selfishness, triviality and petty point scoring.
Any homosexual couple that truly feels they are in love and should have the right to have that love sanctified legally and religiously has my sympathy and, thus expressed, my vote.
But is that what we're seeing here? Thousands and thousands of couples who are devotedly in love, just longing for the chance to settle down in Surbiton and go to church every Sunday in the range rover, then back home for a spot of tea with that lovely Mr and Mrs Henderson from number thirty?
This is a campaign organised in large measure by people who despise the institution of heterosexual marriage, dismiss it as slavery and the family unit as a tyranny, and hate the church even more. They want not to join but to dismantle, and in recruiting the sincere and the sensitive to their campaign they are guilty of a far greater cynicism than I am for daring to make the point.
Noisy campaigns piss me off. I can’t help it. And they retard progress, because they alienate. So I will not be marched into this, only reasoned.
Which leads directly to the fourth objection: that nagging little matter of personal freedom.
I cannot take only my own wishes and beliefs into consideration. It's not enough. I could if I lived on an island and accepted no help from anybody else in any department of my existence, but sadly, such is not my lot.
The world is full of people who, for all kinds of reasons, disapprove of homosexual marriage. Whatever informs their conviction strikes no chord within me. But here's where I go a bit zany and hard to understand. Just do the best you can. Once I've said it there's no unsaying it, so let's just hope we get through this together. Here I go now.
I’m not sure why those people don’t have a right to be listened to respectfully, to be taken seriously and to feel their voice counts, same as anyone else!
Please forgive me.
It's my burden and my curse to have been born in an age when tolerance and freedom were observed rather than just shouted about, and when fairness meant more than the square root of zip, too. When dissent from fashionable consensus was not taken as a priori evidence of bigotry or hatred, and it might even have been deemed wicked as well as inaccurate to automatically characterise it thus.
Thank God those dark days are behind us now!
Did we ever live an age so uncivilised that pensioners on street corners couldn't be frog-marched off to jail for saying homosexuality is a sin, or life-long foster carers couldn't be banned from taking on new charges because they would not accept the obligation to actively promote homosexuality, even after agreeing not to speak against it?
Incredibly, we did.
Doubtless, those who really do hate homosexuals for whatever reason and would like to penalise and punish them still exist, as rotten people exist in every area of life. But to feel unease at the social normalisation of a previously outlawed lifestyle, especially if one is from an older generation that was taught to reject it as routinely as contemporary generations are told to embrace it, is not to be deserving of demonisation, invective and threats (official or otherwise).
Again, it is an amazing sign of the times that so basic a statement of common decency sounds like provocation to so many thick yet influential ears.
There is never any excuse for outlawing opinion, especially when offered temperately. The painting of any opposition as hateful, retarded and fit only for brutal mockery further alienates me from a cause of which I am, within myself, broadly in support.
And then, finally, the objection that brings me back where I started: apathy. Or, rather, the fundamental right to apathy.
Yes, if I choose to consider the matter, I will come up with an opinion. Yes, as it happens, I don’t mind letting you know what that opinion is. Yes, as it happens, on this occasion it's the one the progressivist bullies want from me.
But I am not obliged to have an opinion, still less to give one.
The fact that it is the most important issue in the world to you does not mean it must therefore be equally commanding to me, and if you feel you have the right to demonise and even criminalise the free expression of views contrary to your own then you cross the tracks entirely and become my enemy.
To be honest, I'm really not all that interested.
I am personally very much concerned with speciesism. To me it’s of vital importance. I recognise that there are people who agree with me and people who disagree with me.
But there are also huge numbers of people, perhaps greater in number even than the sum of the first two groups combined, who have never given the matter much thought because it simply isn’t a priority for them. Other things take natural precedence, not because they have compared them and consciously ordered them, but because their natural inclinations point in some directions and not in others. Were they to consider it, they might just as easily fall into either of the first two categories. But they don’t.
My contention is that all three groups have a perfect right to their opinion – or lack of one.
If that is unfashionable now, then that is a terrifying reflection of how society is increasingly marching to the beat of a fourth group: those who not only hold a view but believe themselves possessed of the right to enforce it, to make it everyone’s priority, and to criminalise dissent, and are training the rest of us to pay most attention to those who are the loudest, most insistent and least willing to compromise.
Without compromise, patience, and respect for all views except the plainly (or consequentially) malevolent, civilisation would never have got off the ground. If we abandon them now, we are lost.
Yes, some people are gay, and if there really are people who need to get over that simple fact then yes, by all means let them get over it.
But some people still don’t like the fact that some people are gay: they’re humans as well and they have a right to hold any damned view they like, so get over that, too.
And some people just aren’t that bothered either way. Get over that, if you can.