Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Moving along the emancipation sequence

Christina Odone, former deputy editor of The New Statesman, in the course of arguing that religious believers are being pushed out of public life by a new intolerance, drew attention to the Law Society revoking permission for a conference on traditional marriage to be held on its premises.

Suppose it had been a conference on the need to reinstate traditional legal prohibitions on Jews. Or Catholics. Would it then have been unreasonable for the Law Society to say that you can not hold such a conference on our premises?

Suppose it was a conference on the need to revoke voting rights for women? Or re-impose coverture marriage?  (Which was, after all, for centuries the "traditional" form of marriage under English law.) For what group does opposition to equal protection of the law become an acceptable conference subject matter for the Law Society to provide a venue for? Would Ms Odone care to specify?

What used to be called the Old Commonwealth countries -- UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand (we can leave aside South Africa as a different case) -- have been moving along the Emancipation Sequence: abolishing the slave trade, then slavery, then Catholic emancipation, then Jewish emancipationfemale emancipation (in its various waves), now queer emancipation. 

"Emancipation" being used here to mean more than just the right to vote but to enjoy the equal protection of the law in the widest sense. One can tell how far along the Emancipation Sequence we are by how much, and in what spheres, equal protection of the law is taken as effectively a settled issue. It is for Jews and Catholics, it mostly is for women and it is still somewhat contested for queers but is clearly heading in that direction.

Almost certainly, it does not occur to Ms Odone that there is any parallel with coverture marriage, or the controversy over Jewish emancipation, etc. But, of course, that is precisely what is going on.  Indeed, the fight over queer emancipation is almost completely a re-run of the fight over Jewish emancipation, with exactly the same arguments being run -- they are offensive to God, giving them legal equality goes against the authority of Scripture and Western tradition, they will corrupt any institution they are allowed into, they prey on minors, they are predatory recruiters, they spread disease -- and almost exactly the same fault lines showing up in social debate.

The Catholic Church, in particular, is behaving in exactly the same role; keen to foster as much persecution of a vulnerable minority as it can get away with to display its credentials as gatekeeper of righteousness. With said vulnerable minority being a useful scapegoat for the stresses of modernity.

The parallel is even stronger, given how much of the Emancipation Sequence was about de-Christianising the law. Hence equal marriage is, indeed, a rejection of traditional Christian teachings and authority. But so was giving equal rights for Jews. 

Or, for that matter, much of the process of providing equal protection of the law for women. Particularly the fight over giving women control over their fertility, which the traditional Christian package of no contraception, no abortion, no divorce and no rape within marriage almost entirely stripped women of.

The role of gatekeeper of righteousness is deeply entwined with outcasting and moral exclusion. As the legal support of moral exclusion unravels, that entails the unravelling of legal support for traditional religious social gatekeeping.

Ms Odone wants to defend the advocacy of moral exclusion; of moral exclusion extending to denial of equal protection of the law. Moral exclusion always involves an impoverished epistemology, since it denies the experience and perspective of the excluded any standing.

The Law Society has decided that queer folk are full humans, entitled to equal protection of the law. Ms Odone wants the right to use other people's property to publicly advocate that that, really, they are not full and proper versions of the human and so not entitled to equal protection of the law. (For if queer folk are full and proper manifestations of the human, then equal protection of the law just follows.)

At the heart of the Emancipation Sequence is the dictum of Terence:
Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto (I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me).
The Rabbinical tradition was that the cities of the plain were destroyed for breaching the principle enunciated in Exodus 22: 21-27 of protecting the outsider and the vulnerable. That they were not merely immoral, but anti-moral, punishing those who helped the vulnerable. (The notion of their sin being of hostility to the outsider -- and specifically the messengers of God -- is the usage Jesus invoked, in his preaching.)

Moral exclusion, by contrast, declares that which is different to be alien, to be not fit for full membership of the moral community or equal protection of the law. Hence Philo of Alexandria's adoption of natural law reasoning to re-target the wrath of God in Genesis 19 against the vulnerable queer minority. Using the rhetoric of Athens in the name of Jerusalem to fight the Jewish-Greek kulturkampf which was such a feature of the Hellenistic East from the time of Alexander the Great onwards, and which was particularly intense in Alexander's most important eponymous city. Philo was being a good Jewish culture-warrior, contrasting Jewish "according to nature" sexuality and strict gender divisions against vile, flagrant pagan Greek "against nature" sexuality and gender fluidity.

The term "traditional" is so often a way of hiding from history, rather than understanding and learning from it.

In a sense we are seeing the return to past debates, of the return of things deliberately written out of the history that "counted". One can discern a pattern familiar from present clashes when Philo writes:
At all events one may see men-women continually strutting through the market place at midday, and leading the processions in festivals; and, impious men as they are, having received by lot the charge of the temple, and beginning the sacred and initiating rites, and concerned even in the holy mysteries of Ceres. And some of these persons have even carried their admiration of these delicate pleasures of youth so far that they have desired wholly to change their condition for that of women, and have castrated themselves and have clothed themselves in purple robes, like those who, having been the cause of great blessings to their native land, walk about attended by body-guards, pushing down every one whom they meet.
Officially fun
Parading pride
The Sydney Mardi Gras and other Pride Marches invoke the great pagan festivals and street parades, just as Philo is the archetypal monotheist denouncer of the same. These culture wars are millennia old.

Ms Odone is on the losing side of the Emancipation Sequence. But, of course, she would have to see queer folk as full people with fully legitimate aspirations whose experiences count to see that. Which she doesn't, so she doesn't. Thereby manifesting the impoverished epistemology inherent in moral exclusion.

The irony is that advocates of moral exclusion always believe they see more than their opponents, not less. For they see what a threat to moral and social order the excluded group "really" is.

As was said at every stage by opponents of the Emancipation Sequence. How do such claims look now?
Officially pagan
Pagan dates

The Emancipation Sequence has been about expanding social possibilities for previously legally restricted classes of people. Moral exclusion is about narrowing social possibilities, and narrowing them for other people. Based on understanding what a threat to order they "really" are. One suspects that sense of superior understanding and moral purpose is part of the appeal.

Ms Odone claims that traditional religious believers are being subject to moral exclusion, to having their social possibilities narrowed. And she takes her stand on the right of religious believers to seek to block the expanding of social possibilities for others.

Clearly, the irony is entirely lost on her. But that is, of course, the problem of moral exclusion. Once you set the game in motion, you have no control over where it will end up. Perhaps a game not to play, then?

It was, after all, the Jews who taught the Christians to pick on queers and to pick on pagans. And the Christians who taught the Muslims to pick on the Jews. How did that work out for them?

On the wider point that moral exclusion is not a game to play, Ms Odone is entirely correct. But that is not where she wants to make her stand, thereby demonstrating that she misses the point rather more thoroughly than those she is complaining about.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

UPDATE: To clarify, and in a response to a comment at Skepticlawyer, by moral exclusion I mean unilateral denial of moral protections. Exclusion that does not protect people, or the relations between them, yet still strips people of moral protections. It may instance a theory of human nature or social order, but it is a theory that denies moral protections to people, or the relations between them.

Also, while Muslim Jew-hatred was grounded in experiences in Medina and Muhammad's anger at the Jews for rejecting his prophetic mission, the legal restrictions on dhimmis were clearly based on the restrictions imposed on Jews in the Christian Eastern Roman ("Byzantine") Empire.

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