On today’s PM programme, one of the questions posed in the introduction was ‘why are the Conservatives divided on same-sex marriage?’. This is an interesting question, but one to which a fairly straightforward answer presents itself: this divide is symptomatic of a broader split in the Conservative party. The party is a slightly uncomfortable alliance between the true conservatives, and people on the libertarian right. The former group is attached to institutions, traditions, church and monarchy, while the latter is driven by a strong concern with a particular notion of negative liberty. On the whole it is the traditionalist conservatives who oppose equal marriage, and the libertarians who support it. Of course, the libertarian ideal would be a total privatisation of marriage: legally it would be given the status of any contract between two individuals, and could take whatever form the contracting parties decided. Equally, this view would logically seem to point in the direction of the disestablishment of church and state, such that the state would not (in their view) be overstepping the mark by endorsing any set of values over any other. Thus the question of equal marriage would simply drop out of what was considered the concern of government – it would be down to each individual, in the context of their own private, romantic, religious and political outlook, to decide what they thought ‘counted’ as marriage and what did not. This would fill most traditional conservatives with horror: for them, the state ought to be promoting certain forms of life over certain others, and the connection between the established church, the state and the traditional nuclear family ought to be maintained.
In a way, a more interesting question when it comes to equal marriage is not ‘why are the Conservatives divided?’ but ‘why is Labour not divided?’ The Labour party, like the Conservatives, has members with a broad range of views, and divisions that are in many ways roughly similar. I discussed this a few months ago in a previous post:
There are elements of the Labour party which are deeply embedded in tradition and history (recently we have seen most of this emanating from the ‘Blue Labour’ faction – something that concerns me, as I have previously said) and other elements that view themselves as more ahistorical, economistic, ‘rationalistic’ and ‘pragmatic’ (part of the Blairite legacy). We might expect to see a split among the Labour ranks on the equal marriage debate similar to that observed on the other side of the chamber, with the traditionalists rejecting equal marriage, and the rational pragmatists supporting it. Thankfully, this scenario has not arisen, but why not? I think that part of this comes down to who our traditions, and our language, belong to.
To see this, we should look at one of the very dubious arguments that has been wheeled out a lot in today’s debate by those on the Conservative benches who are opposed to equal marriage. This is that old chestnut of ‘Marriage is, by definition, a union between one man and one woman’. Quite apart from the many empirically recorded anthropological counterexamples, this line of argument is conceptually flawed.
Firstly, it conflates the concept of marriage with marriage as an actual lived reality – a confusion of a concept and what the concept stands for. If it were actually true that the concept ‘marriage’ had some sort of deep metaphysical reality aside from particular marriages, and that it was part of its very definition that it could only be exemplified by a man and a woman (which also assumes a very troubling kind of gender essentialism) we couldn’t even have this debate. It would be like saying that all triangles have three sides, and that therefore four sided triangles should be illegal.
These people are also saying that this means that we should not ‘redefine’ marriage. But that is no argument at all – if something ‘just is’ analytically part of the definition of marriage, redefinition is impossible. On the other hand, if it is not, the fact that certain relationships currently fall outside the concept does not mean that there is any necessity in them doing so.
It is assumed that what is at stake really is the ‘definition’ of marriage, but I’m not sure that this is true. When we ask ‘What is marriage?’, we might mean either (a) ‘What does the word ‘marriage’ mean?’ or (b) ‘What things are examples of marriages?’. The ‘definition’ argument jumps between the two different interpretations in a way that makes little sense. The ‘marriage is…’ line takes the content of its claims from (b), does some sort of wild leap from a statement of how things are to a statement about how they should be, and then recasts them as (a). This is a sneaky way of avoiding appearing homophobic. It is basically an unjustified assertion that things should remain exactly how they are, made to appear acceptable with a cover of ‘it’s not my attitude, it’s just the meaning of a word’.
But what becomes really significant here the further claim, made more than once today, that it is dangerous or immoral to ‘change the meaning of a word’. Then it is not just ‘things are the way that I want them to be, and that is true by definition’, but a supplementing of this with a statement to the effect that any suggestion that things should be changed is tampering with the sanctity of the English language. We collectively use and shape our language, it does not own us. To suggest that we ought to be ruled and subdued by the meanings of words in this way is making use of language as a tool to maintain unjust hierarchies. This is part of the distinction between the Labour traditionalists and the Conservative traditionalists, and it is a distinction that it is very important for Labour to retain.
On Saturday, David Aaronovitch will present a documentary on Radio Four about George Orwell, exploring among other things the way that the ideas of this socialist thinker have often been appropriated by the political right. I hope and expect that one topic that will be discussed will be ‘newspeak’, the fictional language imposed by the state in Orwell’s dystopian vision. The aim of newspeak was to limit the ability of the people to think in subversive ways – ‘thoughtcrime’ – by robbing them of the conceptual tools to do so. When people on the right appropriate this notion, they often treat ‘political correctness’ and various related notions as an instance of language policing. For them, the main message of this aspect of 1984 is that we should not tamper with the English language – basically that it is dangerous and even totalitarian to tamper with the use and meanings of our words. Thus, the proponent of equal marriage is seeking to ‘redefine marriage’ and thus imposing a kind of newspeak.
This is a partial misreading of Orwell. Of course it is true that newspeak is about restricting freedom of speech and freedom of thought, but where this interpretation goes wrong is in suggesting that any attempt to change our language, or even the gradual shift of the meanings of words over time, is a form of totalitarianism or oppression. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. To try to freeze our language in one place, and to say that we cannot change our activities or institutions because of the definitions of our words, is closer to what is wrong with newspeak. It is an attempt to deny people the ownership that they have of their own language, and to turn that language into a form of oppression that binds people to certain forms of life. In some cases these forms of life can be deeply unequal, hierarchical and oppressive. This is one of the many intersections between language and the traditions that it communicates. To play the conservative game of resisting change because of definitions is not just conservative about the use of language and our forms of life, it also takes the words out of the mouths of their speakers, and the traditions out of the hands of those who participate in them.
The traditionalist strand of the Labour party is, as things stand, more of a grassroots affair. This is influenced by a broad feeling on the left that favours folk songs and stories, local histories told by those who are immersed in the locality, and recovered histories and traditions of people who have been ignored by versions of history which are exclusively focused on the lives of a privileged white male heterosexual upper-class elite. This is naturally accompanied by a similar approach to language. The problem with newspeak was not just that it limited the ways in which people could think (all language does that to some extent, although importantly it also enables as much as it constrains) but that it was not in the hands of the people who used it. This is a form of alienation which sits along many other forms that are widely discussed by Marxists and other socialists. A person is not just alienated from her labour, the product of her labour, her fellow human beings and her own humanity, she is also alienated from her own words and her own thought.
Labour does not have the same sort of split that the Conservatives do when it comes to the ‘meaning’ of marriage, because the Labour traditionalists do not believe that meanings belong primarily to a social and cultural elite that governs the country and keeps people in their place. People will mean what they mean whether those in power like it or not, and in fact those in power should like it. I have said that this is the case as it stands, because I worry about the blueness of Blue Labour. Insofar as Blue Labour is a subversive reappropriation of Conservative language as a tool for left-wing thought, this is in keeping with the idea that we should have the use of our own words. Where the Glassman project could become dangerous is if the words start to use the people, and become a means of imposing inflexible conservative values which keep people in their place.