|(Not actually Rick and Bob)|
I recently read about as great a conservative Christian blog post on the “issue” of Gay marriage as I’m ever likely to read. (I put issue in inverted commas because as far as I’m concerned there’s no issue at all. If you don’t like Gay marriage don’t have one.) It’s here.
I am not going to get into attacking the arguments against same-sex marriage in this post. The arguments tend to pull us back from our real world into logic land or worse scripturesville – alternative realities of words, words, words. Instead of crawling up into our heads through our arses I want to show a different way of thinking about Gay marriage which is also a different way of being. It’s a way to stay in the world while being ethical. I’m calling it empathy led ethics.
To begin lets undefine our topic rather than define it. Let’s think of the relationships we know. Starting with our own – why did we enter them, why did they end? How gently do we treat their memory? Why? Seriously take a moment and absorb those feelings.
And then other people. Like your parents. Your best friend. Real people you know. Imagine an invite to their twentieth wedding anniversary. Is it a celebration? Excruciating? A distasteful hipocricy? A joyful or painful reminder of your own relationships? Something you wouldn’t miss or something you wondered why you were invited to? Now we’re really discussing marriage.
Notice how this real thing called marriage is massively messy. As a first step to being ethical it feels like a step backwards; nothing is clarified. Isn’t philosophy supposed to proceed from clarity? Maybe you thought you knew what marriage gay or otherwise was but all these real details have confused the picture. That’s just it if you want an ethical discussion of something real you don’t get to keep it neat.
Discussions of Gay marriage often try to retain this neatness. They cease to be about Rick and Bob getting hitched instead of just unceremoniously fornicating. It’s not really about gayishness or marriageness anymore. It’s about “the institution of marriage”, its about homosexuality and heterosexuality as eternal categories. It’s about Gods plan for human sexuality.
The very moment we start thinking about Gods plan for human sexuality it breeds an arrogance in us. Get in touch with your own body - you may feel it in your chest. Notice the swelling. Walk around talking about God’s plan for human sexuality. Notice the swagger. You’re thinking big for your boots. It’s intoxicating – a heady drug. Real peoples lives are best kept out of your sermonising though. This isn’t really about silver haired Rick and the new lover whose making his eyes sparkle. This is about absolutes.
But lets think instead about Gods plan for Rick and Bob. Really think about Rick and Bob. All of a sudden humility rushes in. You don’t even know Bob do you. Sure you’ve been kinda friends with Rick for a while but all you know about Bob is what Rick has told you. And now you think about it you don’t know what Ricks like outside of a few interests. You wouldn’t presume to steer him away from a large investment in painting as a hobby. Or from a holiday in North Queensland. Allow yourself to reflect on Ricks full personhood. Messy them up like we just did for marriage. Blow your mind and do the same for Bob. Now consider the proportion of what you know of them. Shut’s you up, eh.
Now this is not a general shut down of ethical discussion. If we were discussing Rick beating Bob or sleeping around on him– even if that was in a consensual pollyamorous bdsm way you might have an empathy attack that overrides your humility. Rightly or wrongly you can imagine Bobs reaction (relief perhaps?) to your intervention (maybe confronting Rick) and your imagination could guide your intervention. Notice that empathy encourages intervention – it’s not anywhere as good for just mouthing off - because empathy is concerned about the people involved not abstractions.
Now the effectiveness of empathy is that it self-corrects continuously. As you get closer to Rick and Bob you get feedback about your intervention. Keep putting yourself in their position, keep learning about their position. If Bob seems happy your humility may override your empathy again. That’s your message to back off. The default position is humility. The first thing you know is how little you know.
The real awesomeness of empathy though is that there is no leaving your body. You’re not required to spend long periods of time (in your head) wandering around the very ancient Middle East with Moses ,ancient Greece with Aristotle or even ancient Rome with Jesus. You can stay right where you are living your life. How cool is that?
For me there just isn’t any empathy attack when I consider Rick and Bob getting married. I tend to think marriage may kill the spontaneity in a relationship but without a clear sense that Rick and Bob are at risk of this I would let humility rule. I might be concerned if I thought Rick really loved Pete or Jenny instead but assuming he and Bob were likely to be happy  I'd have no motivation for any intervention. Certainly there’s not enough empathic concern to override humility.
What about those people who believe Rick and Bob are going to be unhappy for deviating from Gods plan? What about those friends and family who honestly believe that Rick and Bobs relationship will be fraught with tragedy because Gods plan is good for us? Can they claim empathy as a motivating force to break Rick and Bob up and to oppose a marriage which might make such a break up harder? In my opinion, yes.
There’s no real escaping that we have to base our initial empathy attack on prejudice – that is on a pre-judgement of the situation based on how we think the world works. Even Scripture can be a source of that pre-judgement. The beauty of empathy is that it corrects because it learns from the subjects of our concern. Approaching Rick and Bob, with the default position of humility riding shotgun, we check and re-check to see if they really need our help. If they don’t we slide over and give the wheel back to humility.
Now if your eyes never leave the gospel page to look at Rick and Bob then you’re not practicising an empathy led ethics. You’re claiming to be led by empathy by asserting that Rick and Bob need your help but you’re not living by it. You’re not staying in the world. You’re off touring the Meditteranean with St. Paul instead.
What if though the source of your concern for Rick and Bob is not visible in this world? What if it’s their afterlife you’re really worried about but there’s no way to discern why Rick and Bob are heading for hell from approaching them in this life? Quite frankly, then you’re stuffed. The idea of an afterlife which rewards without observable rhyme or reason is profoundly counter-empathic. “Rick and Bob are happy and healthy and will spread happiness and healthiness but they should stop it anyway or they’ll end up in a hell I can’t see” is about as anti-empathic a statement as you can make. Meditating on such an arbitrary afterlife rips you out of this world, disconnects you from other people and in my opinion renders your contribution to an ethical conversation unintelligible. If you think its’ a reason to bother Rick and Bob let alone sensible basis for government policy you’ve lost touch with the real.
Opposition to homosexuality (and let’s not pretend opposition to Gay marriage can be based on anything else) used to be about its real world implications. Lesbians were kleptomaniacs, Gay men were suicidal, and bisexuals were vampires. Now only a small number of people believe these have anything to do with sexuality itself rather than clinical sampling, homophobic environments and media bias. That was inevitable as more and more happy and healthy same-sex-loving lives were lived out in the mainstream. Now opposition to homosexuality has to be based on a retreat from empathy.
Often arguments “for” Gay marriage also avoid empathy. Partly this is because they meet their opponents on their opponents’ playing field. One you often hear is how weak the scriptural basis against homosexuality is. That’s true but surely that’s an argument “for” scripture not “for” homosexuality –unless we’re conceding that if a lost gospel emerges that explicitly says no to same-sex marriage we’d submit to it. I wouldn’t.
I used to be involved with Queer politics and one of the great dangers of queer politics is how many young people lead it. The danger here is that a lot of these young people haven’t had much sex. Falling in love was maybe more common – however the love you feel at 19 is (lets be honest) often self-love with company. All that might be changing now that Queer youth events are more common but in my day there wasn’t a lot of opportunities for young same-sex dating. This produced a queer politic that was very theoretical. There were more attempts to change language, curriculums and library collections than there was to walk down the main street hand in hand with someone you loved of any gender. We demanded the publication of queer stories but we didn’t actually have a lot to write about. Sometimes I thought we had imported a general cultural homophobia into our politics, as if our preferred queer political subjects were celibate. The reality is we were just inexperienced.
Back then I thought we were doing Queer politics wrong. Somehow semiotics had become more important than love and sex. Now I’m a helluva lot older and I’m even more certain that I want to live MY life, not someone elses manifesto. And I want my ethics to be based in this world as I learn with humility as my default and empathy as my guide.
Have fun messing it up.
 Lest anyone think I’m pushing for a simple pleasure basis for good there’s A LOT of complexity behind this simple word “happiness”. There are physical aspects but also character aspects (dignity for example). Rather than define it let’s undefine it so as to keep it both messy and real.