Tuesday, February 03, 2004

"I just went *gay* all of a sudden!"
(and an equality rant) 

Classic line from Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby". I always wanted to use it as one of my coming out lines, but the chance just never came. Apparently, however, I am only 66% gay, so perhaps I was never destined to have a truly fabulous coming out scene anyway....

I'm a bit behind on this, but here's a debate as to whether gay marriage would benefit heterosexuals - pro and con. My answer would be 'Who cares?' Not all of us are entirely self-interested, rational choice theorists (though perhaps on this I could be accused of being so). I don't demand that an end to racism benefit me; I don't care whether my quality of life will be improved by telling the Oxford University Russian Society that their members' anti-semitism is not an acceptable excuse for absence at a Holocaust Memorial day event (yes, I know, getting caught up in petty student politics is a bad idea, but this really riled me). This is convoluted, but the point is that the demand for the right to gay marriage is simple a demand for equality. If we are not concerned with equality, then perhaps rational choice theory comes in, but I am concerned and I think everyone should be concerned, so I'll pretend that the articles were too, just for now. If we are concerned for equality, then we must listen to the demands of those that seek it. Leaving aside, for the moment, the pros and cons of marriage as such, what we are demanding is the right to be considered as equally human, with equal human dignity. Dignity (contra Parekh, which I'll get to in a minute) includes the right to have one's deepest loving commitments considered on the same level as the commitments of everyone else in society.

Whatever we think of as being the 'point' of equality - the article I want to cite (Elizabeth Anderson's 'What is the point of equality?') isn't available online, so here's a symposium in reaction to it instead - we have surely missed that point if we who are not members of the group whose equality is at stake demand to know what benefit *we* will gain from measures to improve their equality, or arguably even to have any say in the matter (though I know this more contentious, I include it because I've had abortion debates (again, I can't find the article I want to cite - Mackinnon this time) in my mind all afternoon, and I'm quite tempted to say that I don't think men should have any say on this at all). Unless the benefit discussed is identified with the warm fuzzy feeling inside which we feel when people are treated truly as equals, then it is completely irrelevant.

On separate point no. 1 (whether marriage as such is something for which we should be aiming) - see Hak Mao. I agree to a certain extent. I don't want marriage, because I don't have a high opinion of the institution of marriage. But if marriage is what society esteems, then I want at least an equal right to obtain it. As with the age of consent, I'm as much for its complete elimination as anything else, but if either of them exist, and they probably will for the rest of my life at least, then I want them to exist equally for everyone.

On the other, and main point, made there - I agree again. Homophobic human rights violations are appalling and among some of the most horrific in the world. And this is in no way to justify the way in which such real fights have been sidelined, but the fact is that none of us do all we should for those who suffer more than us. Humans are fundamentally immoral, if we consider morality to consist in acting as we think we should. We all think that we would act to save lives and end suffering if the price to our own lives was not too high, but the fact is that we wouldn't and we don't. We don't all spend our time working for aid agencies, and not every homosexual can be expected to fight against the governments in Egypt, Zimbabwe etc. We all should, and we are morally culpable, I would say, for not doing so, but homosexuals are no more to blame for their narrow focus on equality at home than people in Western society at large are for their failure to intervene in human rights violations all over the world. Personally, I think that if we are to accept that we are all immoral in this way, then to be immoral while actively fighting for equality in some other sphere seems much better than to be immoral and simply wish that one wasn't. I could go to Zimbabwe tomorrow (I think), and spend the rest of my life trying to put Mugabe under citizen's arrest, but I would feel no better for choosing that crusade over any other. I believe passionately in genuinely revolutionary action, but in the meantime, let's demand all the change we can in the areas where it's necessary and easy to obtain.

On separate point no. 2 (Parekh) - I went to see Bikhu Parekh give a marvellous lecture in the Oxford Amnesty Lectures series last week, in which I think he argued (though my memory is certainly not perfect, and I probably didn't grab all the nuances anyway) that the language of human rights has been applied too extensively, so that it has begun to lose its impact among those who generally support the doctrine and has/could become the object of ridicule for those who don't, or do so only in speech. He argues for a stringent limitation of the term 'human rights', so that it applies only to those which are most basic (and from what I could tell really only included 'human dignity', beyond the basic right to life and liberty). The other things which we think follow on from that are things which any good society should guarantee absolutely, but which do not have the same fundamental status. Gay marriage was discussed here, in response to a question I think, and it was made clear that on all the substantive issues what the egalitarian movements are demanding is justified, but not a matter of human rights thus defined. To put it briefly, what Parekh was saying was in no way reactionary and seemed more to be an attempt to protect the advances we have made from those who would attack them. To this end he argued for the separation of the debate on equality from the debate on human rights. The basic human rights, insofar as they concern equality, are ensuring only that we are all treated as equally human in being granted our basic right to human dignity.

But I'm sure I must have missed the point (I think my only reader at the moment - from what my stats are telling me - may be someone who can tell me that I have), because by placing the limitations that he does on the application of the language of human rights, Parekh seems to reduce it so far that it remains only as language. 'Human rights' have lost all substantive content when we cannot argue that the key demands of egalitarian movements are demands for things which are just as fundamental as anything else, because they are inherent in the concept of basic human dignity and as such are human rights. I would simply not allow that these should be guaranteed but are not of the same status. They may be secondary, in the sense that their importance is in their contribution to the right to human dignity, but not in any other sense, and that which is primary is primary in no sense if these secondary principles are not contained within it.

Parekh is right - many people do deride the language of human rights as we try to extend it to the real-life demands of minority movements, but this is all the more reason to say that it should be extended in this way. We gain nothing in the fight for human rights or in the fight for equality if we do not demand that both be accepted by those who currently pay lipservice to one and no notice to the other. Human rights are not advanced by the limitations which Parekh proposes. Rather, they are reduced to an empty shell, which all might be persuaded to accept, but at the cost of rejecting what it is that they really stand for.

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