Thursday, August 18, 2011

Get Messy- Gay marriage and Empathy.

I'm throwing this up without the usual edit. I've been feeling a little safe in my writing. This is a little less safe. Hope it makes sense.
(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 [1]  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.

[1] 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.


  1. Hey Tony,

    Empathy and humility are wonderful guides to our ethics, although, as you point out, our empathy is always defined by our prejudice or "pre-judgement".
    In the end it seems that we go in a loop. In an effort to get away from cold doctrinal ethics, ELE (empathy led ethics) tries to be more genuine, more immediate, more heartfelt. But all of our genuine, immediate heart feelings are a product of what beliefs or doctrines we held in the first place (subconsciously or consciously).
    It seems we must first get our beliefs right, so we can make accurate pre-judgements, and only then can we then trust our feelings of empathy.

    Abortion is a perfect example. Empathy often leads both sides of the debate, it's just that one side is having empathy for the unborn child and the other side is having empathy for the pregnant woman. It seems the belief as to whether the feotus should be considered a human being with equal human rights to the mother, is at the heart of their different outcomes. Empathy led ethics has not actually helped which ever cause is actually right.

    Despite this, you are right that ELE helps us avoid cold and uncompassionate attacks against those who disagree with us. It should inspire humility and a sense of common humanity. Which leads me to comment on your incredible lack of these qualities when referring to those who talk of God's plan for sexuality.

    You paint a characature of someone with their chest puffed out, swaggering along as the very topic of God's plan for sexuality breeds in them an intoxicating arrogance. And of course, as soon as this buffoon considers empathy and just thinks about the actual people Rick and Bob they are silenced. "Shuts you up, eh?"

    I wonder, where is your empathy for that person who really cares about God and his plans? Why don't you see them as a real person rather than simply a two dimensional fool, just as you would have us see Rick and Bob as real people? How wonderful that all those arrogant swaggerers would simply just shut up if they truly understood your compassionate, humility-inspiring empathy led ethics. I must tell them all to try it.

    Or is it that your empathy led ethics (and your mocking of theists) relies on one major doctrine. One major prejudice and pre-judgement... The belief that God is silent or non-existent?

    If God is silent, then you're right. It is arrogant to speak of God's plan for sexuality and an ethic based on our own subjective sense of empathy is the best way to go. As the great Slartibartfast said, "I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied... I'd far rather be happy than right any day."

    Of course, if God isn't silent and if God actually did create sexuality for a purpose and has definitions on how sexuality should be defined, expressed and enjoyed, then those asking the question of what is God's plan for sexuality could actually be moved by humility, rather than arrogance. A humility that admits that our attempts at empathy need outside help to keep our pre-judgements in line with reality and truth. A humility that may point us towards empathy for the one person that seems to get left out of the equation... God himself.

  2. You've missed the central point, empathy learns by approaching the living subject of its concerns. So in this case approaching people about to enter a gay marriage.
    Focusing on a pre-known "gods plan for human sexuality" means anything that Rick and Bob have to teach lands on hard ground. Hence my statement that while scripture can launch the concern it can't close the debate... in empathy led ethics.
    I do think there's a massive hidden arrogance in knowing gods plan for human sexuality. We uncover the arrogance once we rephrase it as knowing gods plan for Bobs , Ricks, Jennys, Amals, ..... Tabathas and Mikes sexuality and we accept a) their unsimplified personalities and b) the messiness of relationships.
    This however isn't a criticism or mockery against all theists or all Christians. Only a certain stripe believe they know Gods plan for all our lives - with no need to meet us. Most Christians I know actually are very reticent to promote a sexual plan for all and would generally agree with this essay. They might even say that we grow in knowledge of God by learning from others and certainly not without them. That would be a very theistic empathy.
    You raise a good point though with the issue of abortion. I know our views differ but I consider it to be a very messy issue and am not sure if empathy is the answer here. In fact I'm prepared to accept that ELE will fail to deliver quite often. I think life's too messy for a single ethical model.
    Mind you empathy is not about replacing mess with clarity. It's about navigating the mess. Even with abortion Im not sure of a better way forward.
    Lastly I don't really get empathy - standing in someone else's shoes - in relation to God. I don't think you mean empathy so much as a sympathetic obedience, surely? Empathy has a specific meaning I can't see applying to God.
    In fact I would love to read a blog titled Empathy with God. (hint, hint)

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  4. I agree that life is often quite messy and meeting and listening is a wonderful way to navigate the mess and promote humility.
    Through my divorce I met many Christian friends who have engaged with the struggle between the reality of what scripture says about divorce and remarriage and the reality of my messy experience. Some have engaged with an open heart and a listening ear and others have struggled to do so. I have really valued those who have invested the time to get their hands dirty in my messy life whilst remaining faithful to the objectivity of God's character and revealed truth.
    The ones who have offended me, have been the ones who have not bothered to sit with me in my mess and I have found those people exhibit the arrogance you speak of.
    Then there are the ones who sit with me in my mess and are full of empathy, but have no regard for God or his revealed truth. Those people don't offend me. They offer me nothing else other than empathy.
    They're like a bed that's too soft. Lots of comfort but no lumber support.
    In the end we need truth and empathy working in unity to actually be able to help anyone.

    It grieves me that at times in the past I and other Christians have responded to the gay marriage debate with cold, uncompassionate legalism, with our eyes focusses on God's word but our hand clean of any of the mess of real life. Jesus was not like that. He sat and ate and talked with people. I don't think he changed his theology to fit people's experience (I think our theology should inform our experience, not the other way around), but he did communicate the truth with compassion and dirty hands. He also had a lot to say against the arrogant religious leaders who would never eat with "sinners".

    I hope I can learn to have the empathy that you exude so wonderfully, and I hope one day for you to see that God can and has revealed some truths about life, humanity and sexuality. Til then, I will continue to be inspired by you to keep the two in balance.