Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Celebrity Juice.

N.B My blog has since migrated to http://bennveasey.wordpress.com/

I am not pro monarchy. Firstly, I just think it’s a bit silly. Secondly, it's anachronistic, flies fervently in the face of equality and secularism, is neither derived from an implicit nor explicit popular mandate from the people, not to mention the fact that it is a tremendous burden placed upon the royals without their consent- often to the detriment of their own well being. Positive arguments for the royal family generally fall under the ‘it brings in tourism, and hence money’ camp. But this claim is unverified at best, as the monarchy is far from a transparent institution- and in any case, I’m not convinced that this money is worth the aforementioned harm the royal family (in its current conception) causes.

Having said all of this, I’m not too fussed about all the media attention they get. Why? Because regardless of whether I see the royal family as an illegitimate institution, I can’t deny that it exists and that a great many people take an interest in it, and as such, royal events will inevitably receive significant amounts of coverage. And if I want to take the Windsors down single handedly, complaining about the insignificance of articles and television pieces about them probably isn't the way to do it. As such, I'll put up with the non-stories about Kate Middleton’s baby bump, or the Prince of Wales’s new organic oatmeal highlander maroons made from golden sheep’s wool (or whatever it is he’s pedalling these days) because there are worse injustices in the world than pointless news items. 

But this time it’s gone too far. The media are currently reporting that the Queen has had the shits. Stories have focused on the fact that this is a very common ailment for people of her age, that she hasn’t been to hospital in ten years and that her cancelled trip to Italy was just a precautionary measure because she’s probably not that unwell. Whilst I feel sympathy for anyone who falls ill, the very mundane nature of this content undermines its status as an item worthy of public attention. The whole thing is akin to the puzzling statement ‘This sentence is not true’, only instead of five words buried deep inside an academic journal, the paradox is a headline for all to see, that reads; ‘Shock News: The Queen’s Doing Okay.’.

I seriously doubt that the inconsequential nature of the Queen’s bowel movements are of interest to the majority of the population. But I’m willing to admit that some people may be fascinated by this story. In this case though, for these people the monarchy is just a very peculiar type of celebrity. Stories of personal and unremarkable events of the royal’s lives frequent newspaper articles and television programmes just as much, if not more, than stories about their efforts as international ambassadors or champions of charitable causes. Quite often then, the kind of public profiling endured by the royal family can’t be understood as constituting current affairs, but instead is a vacuous kind of celebrity; boring events it would be utterly absurd to report on if they happened to anyone else. Furthermore, vague and speculative coverage like the BBC interviewing a gastroenterologist about the common symptoms of a stomach bug doesn't actually tell us anything about the Queen's condition. All it really does is show that the media is clutching at straws, and that this is unwanted attention on part of the royal family who are not willing to divulge much information. The dynamic is all too similar to that which holds between the intrusive paparazzi and celebrity figures.

Ultimately it comes down to this: I’m willing to put up with meaningless news about an institution I find quite disagreeable, but the least we can do is stop kidding ourselves that these stories are actually anything else other than celebrity ogle pieces. With the upmost sincerity I wish Elizabeth Windsor a speedy recovery, but I do hope news of her ability to once again stomach spicy food doesn’t grace the headlines or the ten o’clock news.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Revolution Will Not Be Sanitised.

N.B My blog has since migrated to http://bennveasey.wordpress.com/

A friend of mine recently took the liberty of tucking his penis between his legs and urinating on my garage floor. He was a tad worse for wear, but I realised something quite profound: Real men wee sitting down (strictly speaking, he squatted, but I think the point remains). I know a fair few males would consider the sit down wee as flying in the face of all that is masculine. It's understandable that they think this; women tend to sit down to piss, so if a man sits down to have a wee then they must actually be a woman. Although this kind of argument is well thought out and rigorous, after careful consideration I've realised it's actually misguided.

When my other friends saw him get up to perform the deed, they asked my urinating friend to stop. Far from it for them to tell him to wee standing up and into a toilet though. Oh no, my friend wasn’t going to be bound by some prudish throw back from the Victorian era. Whether they liked it or not, he was going to wee on the floor with his willy tucked through his legs, unusually purple and bulbous as a result of being sandwiched between his unfathomably hairy thighs. And he made this quite clear by shuffling over to them (his trousers were around his ankles at this point) and explaining that he would hit them if they dare challenge his right to urinate on my lovely, freshly mopped floor. The first thing to note then, is that in relieving himself, my friend actually exhibited many of the features we would normally associate with a red-blooded man right here in the United Kingdom. You know, long held virtues like extreme stubbornness and unwarranted threats of violence.

But as great as drunken aggression is, this is not a vindication of the British conception of manliness. My friend is part Turkish and I have it on slightly dubious authority that many Turkish men wee sitting down. Furthermore, a Taiwanese minister publicly endorsed this particular toiletry practice last year and the prophet Muhammed certainly indulged in the sit down wee from time to time, if not exclusively. It thus follows, that cultural relativism (descriptively speaking) is true. By this I mean that the idea of ‘man’ varies greatly around the world. That’s not to say that all of these ideas are equally desirable (or even that any of them are desirable), but just that it would be a gross misconception to think there is a universally agreed upon definition of ‘man’ which includes 'he who urinates whilst standing up'. As such, my friend wasn't just being a drunk idiot, he was expressing himself within the cultural and social norms he perceives to embody all that it is to be a man. By, um…. pissing on my floor.

What does this all mean though? Well, quite simply, ‘man’ is many things depending on who you ask: It’s sitting down to wee as well as standing up; It’s biting your lip and crying over Disney’s heart wrenching film ‘Up’ as well as taking an interest in certain, nipple based aspects of Piranha 3DD’s mise-en-scene; It’s something determined at birth as well as something we can choose to be if and when we want. You might disagree with someone’s definition of manhood, but you can’t deny that they think it to be true. This might seem trivial, but if you really take this observation seriously then it becomes clear that whatever definition of 'man' you prefer, it is far from uncontroversial. Moreover, your definition is not synonymous with 'normal'. And the same goes for any concept of 'woman' you can think of too. There is no normal when it comes to gender. Once this realisation has been made, men can start doing shameful things like ordering a chicken korma or drinking a white wine spritzer. Women can do horrendous things like not removing every follicle of hair below their eyebrows in order to look like a pre-adolescent girl (apparently it's the only way to look sexy). And society can do truly shocking things like acknowledging the existence of transphobia (if you think that it already does, try explaining why spell check doesn't even recognise the word) or maybe even actually taking steps to prevent it.

As such, I think my Turkish friend’s choice to piss in the way that he did was far from a drunken mistake. It was a heroic act of defiance in the face of the patriarchy. It was a piece of performance art ridiculing the old and out-dated idea that men only wee when upright. It was powerful rhetoric in which he shouted loud and clear, ‘I will not be defined by the manner in which I am expected to urinate! I am a man, and real men wee sitting down.’. We should be proud of the sit down wee. I know I am. It’s like a little treat every now and then, just to mix things up a bit. And I shouldn’t be ashamed to say that. This is such an important lesson I think I might pass it down to further generations in the form of a fable: 'The Turk Who Chose to Tuck'. And the moral of the story? Sitting down is one step to making a stand.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Religious Oppression and the Freedom to Discriminate

N.B My blog has since migrated to http://bennveasey.wordpress.com/

The culture secretary Maria Miller has announced plans to allow some groups to perform same sex marriages by 2014. This is fantastic for many reasons. Obviously this is great news for same sex couples who wish to enter into these kind of ceremonies. It's also a win for gay rights, and equal rights in general. Finally, it's a win for religious freedom as some religious groups who want to perform same sex marriages will now be able to do so.

This is only a partial victory though. In one way, a great blow has actually been dealt to religious freedom. This is because Miller also announced that she would actually legally prohibit the Church of England from offering same sex marriages until further legislation was passed. Miller also appeared on Radio 4's 'PM' show along with Peter Smith the Archbishop of Southwark. The Archbishop offered the same old arguments by essentially banging his head repeatedly, against the hard surfaced definition of marriage as 'between one man and one woman'. You can read my response to this kind of thinking here, but today I'd like to focus on Miller who said "What I'm not about is telling churches or any other religious groups what to do. We believe in religious freedom in this country, and indeed so does the European Court.".

I do feel for Miller (in spite of her dubious voting record) because I think that she is caught between a rock and a hard place. She is attempting to redress a serious inequality from within a political party of which 40% disagree with her. However, it still remains ludicrous to refer to legislation that would ban Church of England clergy from performing same sex marriages, as pertaining to 'religious freedom' (we won't even mention the elephant in the room of institutionalised discrimination against same sex couples).

Comments like these get me wondering about the concept of 'religious freedom'. I am a supporter of religious freedom, but what I cannot stand is when morally reprehensible actions are brought into acceptability under its guise. I think that Maria Miller's comment is absurd because it suggests that discrimination shouldn't matter as long as it is in the name of 'religious freedom'. Furthermore, it puts religious freedoms on a moral pedestal where they are exempt from considerations that apply to all other types of freedoms. Finally, it is hypocritical because this 'religious freedom' is actually tantamount to religious oppression for the pro-gay and gay members of the Church of England who would be legally bound not to perform or enter into such unions. The Church of England's exemption from same sex marriage is unwarranted religious privilege for some and religious oppression for others. It religious freedom for no one.

It's at times like this that I like to introduce what I call the 'Racist Freedom Test'. It's quite a simple but effective test for telling whether a particular religious freedom is actually an inexcusable act of discrimination. Below, I present a three step instruction kit so you can carry out your very own Racist Freedom Test at home:

The Racist Freedom Test.

Step 1:
Take one dubious religious freedom which secures a group's ability to discriminate against another group of people. It is crucial that this 'freedom' is being vehemently defended in spite of common sense and the general public's opinion. Today I'll be using the 'Freedom to Deny Same Sex Couples Marriage Ceremonies' as this fits the criteria perfectly.

Step 2:
Replace the group which gets discriminated against with an ethnic group. Which ethnic group you pick is up to you, there are many to choose from. Today I'll be using African Americans as they've been a popular choice in the past. As such, the freedom from Step 1 is transformed into the 'Freedom to deny African Americans Marriage Ceremonies', or in other words 'Being Racist'. This is a freedom afforded to, and defended by racists. It's their racist given right to practice racism freely and it's racist oppression to deny them of this.

Step 3:
Well done, you've created your very own racist freedom. Step back and marvel at it. Now all you have to do is decide whether it's a freedom worth defending. So: is the 'Freedom to Deny African Americans Marriage Ceremonies' a freedom worth defending? No, it is not. In that case you are now in a position to tell the group defending their 'Freedom to Deny Same Sex Couples Marriage Ceremonies' that they are talking bollocks. A big, old pile of hairy bollocks.

Sarcasm momentarily aside, the point is that whilst religious freedom is certainly something worth defending, it's not always worth defending if it's the freedom to do something nasty. Not to conflate racism and same sex discrimination, but if we wouldn't defend the religious freedom to be racist, why should we defend the religious freedom to discriminate against same sex couples? Those wishing to defend this religious freedom have to explain why it would be so wrong to turn away a black couple who wanted to get married, but fine to shut the door on a same sex couple. Essentially they have the task of denouncing racism, and espousing homophobia. And all in the name of 'religious freedom'.

It's unfortunate, but my Racist Freedom Test doesn't convince everyone. If it's not for you, then not to worry though! You might find this website interesting. In any case, I have another test up my sleeve which is sure to tickle your fancy! It's my 'Non-Religious Freedom Test'. In this test, the freedom to discriminate stays the same, only this time you get to change the group that's doing the discriminating! Specifically, you change it to a non-religious group. This test is really good for telling whether a group should be allowed to practice discrimination on a religious basis. If you're still a bit confused, then why not take a look at my easy-to-follow three step instruction kit:

The Non-Religious Freedom Test.

Step 1:
Take one religious group which champions the freedom to discriminate against a particular type of person. It is crucial that this group vehemently defends their right to behave in this way (preferably on a moral basis), despite everyone else in society being bound by law not to do the same. Today I'll be using the 'Church of England' and their 'Freedom to Deny Same Sex Couples Marriage Ceremonies' as this fits the criteria perfectly.

Step 2:
Replace the religious group from Step 1 with a non-religious group. All you have to do is imagine that this non-religious group also enjoys to discriminate against a particular type of person, but this time on a non-religious basis! Which non-religious group will you pick? I've gone for the British Humanist Association (BHA). Et voila! We are now entertaining the idea of the BHA championing their very own 'Freedom to Deny Same Sex Couples Marriage Ceremonies'.

Step 3:
Take a deep breath and gaze at your homophobic non-religious group. Marvel at them as they discriminate against innocent people on a non-religious basis. Isn't it wonderful? Now it's time to decide whether this group should be allowed to discriminate in virtue of not believing in god. No, that's silly. That's a bad reason to be homophobic. In fact, any reason to be homophobic is a bad reason. There's a law against that. You are now in a position to tell the religious group defending their 'Freedom to Deny Same Sex Couples Marriage Ceremonies' that they are talking bollocks. A big, old pile of hairy bollocks.

I'm aware that like my Racist Freedom Test, the Non-Religious Freedom Test isn't everyone's cup of tea. Alas, you can't convince all of the bigots all of the time. If you have found either of these tests useful though, then you'll be pleased to hear that they work equally as well on sexism in the church. Go on, why not give it a go?

Endless and unceasing sarcasm aside, the point here is that if any other group is deemed wrong to defend their own freedom to be homophobic, why should a religious group be an exception? No group should be persecuted on the basis of their identity or practice of peaceful customs- religious and non-religious alike. As such, all groups should be afforded the freedom to retain their identity and to practice these peaceful customs. But there are limits to these freedoms, and these limits apply to everyone. If it is wrong for a non-religious group to act homophobically then it is wrong for a religious group to act homophobically. To deny this on the basis of religious freedom, is to demand special treatment for religious groups over non-religious groups. Unfair religious privilege is not the same as religious freedom.

At the end of the day, the plans revealed in Parliament are a step forward. But it's only a step forward for some. It is extremely important that the exemptions made for groups like the Church of England are not heralded as a mark of religious freedom. I am not arguing that the government should force all of the Church's clergy to offer same sex marriages (that is a larger and more complex debate). What I am insisting, is that the government should at least make it possible for those members of the clergy who want to, to do so. Anything short of this cannot seriously be called 'religious freedom'.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Equality at the mercy of a vote.

N.B My blog has since migrated to http://bennveasey.wordpress.com/

I was recently asked “Why should we care what the Church does?” in response to my criticism of the General Synod’s failure to pass a motion allowing women to become Bishops in the Church of England. As a male atheist it seems that what I was being asked was really this: ‘Why get so worked up about something that doesn’t affect you?’. My aspirations to become a female Bishop certainly haven’t been thwarted by the Church’s actions, that much is true. But as a feminist (and reasonable human being) I think that no group should be allowed to practice sexism. So although the Church’s actions might not appear to directly affect me, their actions do indirectly affect me, in the sense that they are a universal affront to gender equality, which is something I strongly believe in.

This is not all though. The Church’s actions do directly affect me, and every other British person, by forcing us to exist within an inherently sexist political system. My reasoning is as so:

For better or for worse the Lords Spiritual exist. For those of you who are unaware, because the Church of England is England's established Church (hint: it’s in the name), 26 seats in the House of Lords are reserved for the Church’s Bishops who are known as the ‘Lords Spiritual’ or ‘Spiritual Peers’. This means that because the Church refuses to allow women to become Bishops, 26 seats in the House of Lords are reserved for men and men only. As such, the House of Lords is constitutionally sexist all because of the Church’s refusal to enter the 21st Century.

The sad truth is that the General Synod’s refusal to allow female Bishops does not only make the Church of England a sexist institution, but the upper chamber one too. Our Government continues to be implicitly sexist, in part, because of the Church’s behaviour. It’s one thing to drag your feet in the quick sands of bigotry, it’s another thing to pull everyone else down with you too.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The definition of love.

N.B My blog has since migrated to http://bennveasey.wordpress.com/

I’ve read yet another article recently about a set of prominent religious figures joining the rally against the legislation of gay marriage. First of all, let’s be clear about what this new bit of law actually is. Up until now same-sex couples have been able to enter into a civil partnership by either a secular or a religious institution. The new law would make it possible for secular institutions to marry same-sex couples, religious institutions would not be able to do this.

With that in mind, it’s very hard to understand why these spokespeople have taken such a hostile approach to the proposed legislation. Often religious figures say that such a change in law impinges on their religious freedom. In fact, the head of the Network of Sikh Organisations, Lord Singh, described the proposed legislation as “a sideways assault on religion”. Yet the law does not even give religious institutions the option to marry same-sex couples, let alone make it mandatory.

Institutions, individuals, groups, sects, the police, squatters, immigrants, animals, and perhaps- but probably not- bacteria should have certain rights and freedoms. I think that religious freedom is a very important freedom and should be protected. Some religious leaders think that their right to not perform gay marriages should be protected. Here I think that the religious group’s claim is as about as valid as an axe murderer’s claim to deny me of my right to have my head remained attached to my shoulders. But that’s just me, I may be wrong. I mean it is a pretty radical idea that same-sex couples should enjoy exactly the same rights as different-sex couples isn’t it? So let’s pretend that I am wrong. What I mean to say is, let’s respect an institution's right to not perform same-sex marriages.

Well that’s exactly what the government is doing. Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone went to great pains to make it “crystal clear” that the Government will “not force anyone on religious premises to marry same-sex couples". So my point is this; those religious groups that consider same-sex marriages an assault on their religious freedom have nothing to complain about. They are still allowed to retain the right to not perform same-sex marriages. The legislation does not affect their religious freedom, all it does is provides new rights to same-sex couples to get married on secular premises. To complain that the law amounts to religious oppression is utter rubbish. The religious oppression that will actually occur will be endured by those religious groups who want to offer same-sex marriages but are not able to do so. So whilst Lord Singh describes the reforms as “an attempt by a vocal, secular minority to attack religion”, I describe his objection to the reforms as an attempt by a dogmatic, religious minority to attack pro-gay religion.

Why does Lord Singh even care when his institution will be able to carry out marriages according to it's own homophobic ways, regardless of whether the law passes? One answer that has been given is that they are trying to protect the definition of 'marriage'. Religious leaders argue that ‘marriage’ has historically and traditionally been ‘the union between a man and woman’. If we change that definition such that it includes ‘the union between two men or two women’ the definition of marriage would be so utterly different that marriage would not be the same thing any more. This is, in a way ingenious, but ultimately a fallacious argument.

Arguing from definitions is more often than not a misguided approach to life. As a philosophy graduate I’ve learnt a thing or two (but no more) about arguing from definitions. Contrary to popular belief (and etymology) 'Philosophy' is not ‘the love of wisdom’. Philosophy is actually a process whereby people argue about the definition of a concept for a few thousand years and get no where. Now it’s not exactly like religious groups have plucked the current definition of 'marriage' out of thin air. There is obviously a very real reason for their understanding the definition to only include different-sex couples, namely that in a limited sense, marriage has historically been a union between a man and woman. I say limited because there have been a variety of marital practices prevalent throughout the ages, many of which do not resemble the religious definition. Nether the less, we can accept that in this country in recent history marriage has been between one man and one woman. Thus, this historical 'fact' is a perfectly good explanation for why religious groups define marriage as they do, but it is a very bad reason for resisting any change to the definition what so ever. Just because something has always been a certain way does not mean that it should continue to be so. Historically women did not have the vote, but that did not merit their never having the vote.

Religious groups may point out that marriage is steeped in a rich tradition and that tradition is a virtuous thing. I do not deny that tradition can be virtuous; it can bring a sense of community and belonging. It can inspire, give one pride and even the confidence to affirm themselves. But tradition, if stubbornly stuck to, can stand in the way of progress because not all traditions are good. It is my personal view that systematically denying same-sex couples the same treatment as different-sex couples is a bad tradition. And if it really is such a fundamental part of the definition of ‘marriage’ maybe it won’t be such a bad thing to change this definition after all. In fact, I would prefer it if marriage was as far detached from the idea of oppressing same-sex couples as possible. Call me insane, but I thought that the defining feature of marriage was people's expression of love for one another, not that two men or two women shouldn’t express their love for each other?

The leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, does make the more nuanced point that allowing same-sex marriage could lead to institutionalised polygamy saying that "If marriage can be redefined so that it no longer means a man and a woman but two men or two women, why stop there? Why not allow three men or a woman and two men to constitute a marriage, if they pledge their fidelity to one another?". I'm not going to enter into the debate over polygamy here, but what I would say is that this line of reasoning is laughable. One might as well argue that redefining 'voter' to include women makes it likely that there will be a call for women to have multiple votes, or for children to have the vote.

The protection of religious freedoms, traditions and definitions does not justify any group denying the legitimacy of the non-mandatory practice of same-sex marriages. Despite their claim that same-sex couples are welcome to celebrate their faith and enter into their community, some religious groups consider same-sex relationships as being obscure in such a fundamental way that they do not deserve the same treatment as different-sex couples. This constitutes tolerance not acceptance, which is simply not good enough.