I’ve never thought I’d have to search my conscience about a ‘political’ matter. But I have found myself doing so over gay marriage. But why conscience, and what does conscience mean? And why conscience in relation to gay marriage?
Conscience votes in parliament, to help us clarify, are for those who would otherwise be constrained by a party line, on whatever issue, around which it is recognised that the remit of traditional politics and party discipline cannot fully hold. In the mainstream political field it’s a worthy recognition that layers of self exist, and that the personal and the political often aren’t easy bedfellows. One might be a true conservative in relation to the economy, say, but be swayed by personal experience, or historical fait accompli, or argument in relation to ‘matters of conscience’, say abortion or euthanasia, when those who are otherwise one’s confreres aren’t. In the idea of the conscience vote there is a recognition that some issues cut to the core of the individual’s sense of self or deep commitments, without which their basic orientation in the world might be threatened. At the least it is an important safety valve for politics and important to rational-ethical beings that we guard against hypocrisy, and not be forced to act against our true wishes on personally deeply important matters.
But many might say that surely politics around such matters as gay marriage has shifted far from this. Politics today is just as much about rights and identity as it is about economy, say; the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and elements of social democracy in the Australian context put paid to the model of the core of politics being the division of the social product: sexual rights and personal identity are properly political matters, not those of conscience. And indeed, we have long been debating what Jürgen Habermas once termed ‘the grammar of life’ much more broadly than that earlier model of politics allowed—what second-wave feminists hoped for when they said that the ‘personal is political’. Moreover, that emergent field of debate has itself been significantly shaped and drawn into new lines of division and conflict over fifty years: from the emergence of ‘recognition’ as a key dimension in demands upon the state (women, gays, migrants, Indigenous Australians); to the culture wars; to the further development of this emergence and cultural counter-attack into something in many respects narrower: identity politics. Narrower or not, don’t we already have, then, a reconfigured set of political/discursive options, around which debate and commitment must fall? Aren’t the choices and the field already clear? Why would conscience come into it?
There is a militancy around the issue of gay marriage and the postal survey now in process, which many have commented upon, that certainly suggests this kind of challenge. Indeed the identity politics that most fuels a section of the pro-vote (although an identity politics has increasingly come to encapsulate the conservative Right too) appears to hold there is no room for anything other than agreement: that to be against ‘marriage equality’ is to be anti-‘LGBTIQ’. But the choices, in terms of argument and justification for political positions and action in this field, aren’t definitive; even the differences among proponents are more varied than many might see. If the choices and their reasoning aren’t in fact clear, then there is plenty of room for people to question, to adjudge their position, to bring a variety of standards or concerns into the mix of considering where they stand. These are the materials for deeper reflection.
This kind of concern might lead proponents to investigate the sources of their particular alignment: for example, are they liberals with a certain view of rights, or social liberals with a certain view of fairness, or leftists tacking another category of marginalised group onto a broad view of ‘capitalist’ oppression, or are they queer theorists, who believe in a great deal more sexual and identity fluidity than those other outlooks? What ‘rights’ stand for, for these different ideological constituencies, might prove useful in delineating paths of clear thinking, helping one to establish a logical and personally satisfying viewpoint.
But the choices in this emergent political field can certainly be muddied much further than any such reference to political philosophies or commitments at this level. And this can go in two directions.
First, there’s the very common view being put that there’s a simple no-nonsense response to the question of gay marriage: there is a natural empathetic response to those discriminated against; a ‘do unto others…’ approach that should be self-evident among people of good heart (and to children, it would seem, whose heart drawings I’ve seen popping up in nearby front windows). This is a kind of anti-politics, in much the same vein as ‘love’ (one of the movement’s stickers is a rainbow heart) is meant to transcend everything and move others to charity and identification (as with Jesus’s call to his disciples to leave their tribal identifications behind and follow a more universal Love). So, sorting through one’s political-philosophical position is only one layer of how one might feel or on what basis one might believe. Here in the appeal to love there is something more like a deep call on our basic humanity, something that works intuitively, even bodily, and it is not so readily available for rational thought (although it may inform political rationalisations). Few are entirely immune to this deep-set injunction.
Second, and very different from the love ‘position’ and its particular difficulties for thinking through the issues, there is the possibility of a complex social view that sees the progress of the politics of recognition and, later, identity, as connected to large social forces whose ends and consequences we can’t entirely know. In this view, arguments for ‘marriage equality’ can’t be understood without recourse to an understanding of the forces shaping the social and cultural context and new conditions of discursive practice. What has shifted to allow the possibility of reconceiving marriage as possible between gay partners?
Thus this kind of broader, social approach might raise questions not only about the political philosophies in play but about exactly the appeal of and to ‘love’ in this campaign. Is the pull of ‘love’—both as empathy on the part of the public and as encapsulation of the meaning of gay marriage—merely an emanation from the heart? Or is it a heavily socially conditioned idea, and if so, what are the particular historical lineaments of ‘love’ today? Such a larger social view must hold any love-as-pure-emanation in suspicion, but in the present historical context it more particularly asks about the conditions of the rise of new social forms, the emotional commitments of new subjects and the hidden assumptions that inform our desires. Further, if we are suspicious about appeals to love-pure-and-simple in the political realm, what ‘work’ might ‘love’ be doing that we are unaware of? Might love’s deep-cultural, and perhaps bio-cultural, power blind us from seeing other, even destructive, tendencies in the new social field? If one values love, but understands it (both the capacity for it and its different expressions) as constituted—not (purely) natural but deeply formed in our species’ history—how do we understand, and protect, the conditions that make it possible?
That question obviously can’t be answered in an editorial. But the argument so far put is in line with deep concerns about our techno-capitalist culture of disruption and acceleration, and a radical ‘openness’ not merely towards new social developments but interventions too into basic categorical distinctions—like ‘man’ and ‘woman’—which are now, seemingly, able to be re-engineered by techno-science and in emboldened social processes. To me there is nothing more disturbing than gay couples buying the bodies of surrogates (women) to produce babies and justifying it as right. One has to ask: will gay marriage sanctify gay procreation? Will it lead to agitation for ‘the right’ to use whatever techno-scientific means available to produce children because normalised gay marriage ‘suggests’ it?
Identity politics, and various of its justifications, as a driver behind gay marriage falls squarely within that same fluidity offered by the central engines of the emerging social whole. The issue for this onlooker is not difference itself. The problem is that the choosing individual sits at the centre of identity politics, where the choice of sexual and procreative identity is seen to be divorced from the body, and from any complex notion of the body as bio-social ground—as grounding us in relations that are by human necessity bounded. Our bodies dismissed as impediments—an amazing throwback to some of the earliest feminisms, though applied to male bodies now too—we are nothing but the technologies we bring to bear upon them, and thus we are completely open to, on a mere continuum with, any chosen techno-scientific intervention into or reconstruction of our bodies and genders. In a context that celebrates a proliferation of sexual identities (not merely gay politics, for example, or a women’s politics that sees lesbians as women and sisters first and LGBTIQ second, as another example) and gender as purely a social construct and thus the object of radical choice, love will have to do a lot of work to bind us and to make relations between us rich and meaningful.
I am of course ignoring so far the curious desire for marriage at all among gay and other LGBTIQ people. For love will, after all, have a social form, indeed it will be harnessed to an institution with regulative power over individuals, if not sexual identities. Marriage and family are organising principles that constitute a bounded entity within the normative structures of a larger whole. But it is a new normative—an old institution but that now plays by different principles. If marriage is a warrant for intimacy and its proper recognition among friends and by other institutions, the extension of it to gay partners seems right—indeed fair and human and loving. But if it implicitly introduces the commitments of identity theory, or radical choice, into the core of our thinking about children, the family and the generations, then we may rightly worry that embodied being is quietly being put on the scrap heap as we move towards a radically ungrounded techno-future.
Like many of my political generation, who didn’t marry, and who have a scepticism and caution about the state on the one hand, and the blandishments (the super freedoms) of techno-capitalism on the other, it’s hard to understand why marriage is pursued by LGBTIQ people. But what marriage represents today is not clear. It is resoundingly popular with children of old leftists and second-wave feminists I know, and the younger generations, heterosexual and otherwise, in general. Is there a premonition of the need for structure in the very world the likes of identity theory and techno-capitalism are ushering us towards? It is something to examine.
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Conscience is a guard against too readily applying an otherwise accepted frame of reference that misses elements when some countervailing tendency in you, or some countervailing viewpoint you value, or can’t ignore, emerges into your considerations. Above are my tracings through the questions that have occurred to me and troubled me in the crux and contradictions of social critique versus ‘human feeling’.