Tuesday, July 03, 2012

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter (3)

You see, this is where I get completely stuck. Is the Party line.

1: That plebs are not allowed to have certain Thoughts.

2: That plebs are allowed to Think whatever they like, but they are not allowed to speak those thoughts, in case they corrupt other plebs.

3: That they are allowed to speak whatever Thoughts they like, but they are not allowed to write certain thoughts down in case they corrupt other plebs?

4: That they are allowed to write down whatever Thoughts they like, but they are not allowed to publish these writings in case they corrupt other plebs?

5: That they are allowed to publish, in books or newspapers, whatever Thoughts they like, but they are not allowed to take out paid advertising to promote those Thoughts, in case they corrupt other plebs.

6: That they are allowed to take out paid advertising on billboards or newspapers to promote whatever Thoughts they like, but they are not allowed to take out paid advertising on the sides of buses, because advertising on the sides of buses is a special case.

People have been putting up posters with quotations from the Good Book on them since the year dot. In 1956 Mr C.S. Lewis expressed his impatience with people who "plastered the landscape with quotations about the Blood of the Lamb." But he was clear headed enough to note that this was an aesthetic, not a religious, objection: the beliefs of the people putting up the posters were presumably much the same as his own.

The Christian attitude to the Bible is in this respect almost completely unlike the Muslim attitude to the Koran: devout Christians are happy to hurl cheaply printed excerpts from the scriptures at all and sundry in the hope that one or two of them may read it. Muslims treat the Koran with great respect and on the whole prefer that it wasn't touched by unbelievers. There is a reason that you find Bibles but not Korans in hotel rooms.

Back in 2008 the Dawkinsbots became overheated because someone had paid to display a verse from Marks Gospel on the sides of London buses. Granted the Scripture Gift Mission - the people whose posters C.S Lewis had presumably seen on railway stations - is pretty non-denominational: all they want to do is put the word of God into people's hands. The Very Notorious Bus Advert, on the other hand, directed inquirers to a website which told you that if you had read and enjoyed Mark's Gospel, the next step was to find a church which practised believer's baptism. That is, they advert was in a strict sense, sectarian, although over a point which the Dawkinsbots would have at least pretended not to understand.

Had we been aiming for a quid pro quo, the sensible thing would have been for the Atheists to have paid to have had a quote from Origin of Species displayed on buses. Instead, they chose to up the stakes and stuck the never to be forgotten words "There's Probably No God" on the sides of the Routemasters. At this point, the more excitable Christians should have either matched them with "Oh Yes There Probably Is" or upped the stakes, say with something along the lines of "Richard Dawkins is a Tosser" or to be completely even-handed "Richard Dawkins is probably a Tosser." Instead, they went to law and attempted to argue that the advert was probably illegal, indecent, dishonest and untruthful because

a: believers shouldn't have to see their faith badmouthed on the way to work or

b: it wasn't true: lots of clever people thought there probably was a God.

The advertising standards people said there was probably no law against religious advertising and that it certainly wasn't their job to decide whether or not God existed. (They said the same thing when the excitable Christians took out counter-counter adverts saying “There definitely is a God”.) The atheist poster campaign lasted for a few months. The Scripture Gift Mission continued to put quotes from the books of Isaiah on railway stations. Civilization endured.

Back in April, we had to through the same thing all over again. Stonewall, the gay rights organisation, has been running adverts with the slogan "Some people are gay: get over it" for several years. (Readers with long memories may recall that I described the adverts as having an "admirably clear message, in admirably clear anglo-saxon words" but wondered if they "took the puritans and theocrats too much on their own terms.")

However when a longer, thinner version of the slogan was placed on the sides of London buses, a group of militant Anglicans (if such a thing can be imagined) decided that civilisation was imperilled. So they took out their own adverts, which were, I have to say, completely impenetrable, but which people who know about these things assure me insinuated that homosexuals could be ungayed. The Gay obviously found this highly offensive, but, once again, instead of responding in kind (with posters saying "You Can Be Cured of God") or raising the stakes ("John Sentamu Is Probably A Tosser”) they also sought legal redress . It turned out that the Church Militant had been fiendishly clever and run the posters by the advertising standards people in advance. They’d been assured that they weren’t against the Law of the Land.

And now my tale grows farcical, as a great man once said. For the past ten years, London has had a Mayor. (For the past thousand years, the city of London has had a Lord Mayor, but this is a purely symbolic role, generally given to pauper children with cats. The Mayor of London is a political role with actual power. This is a perfectly sensible arrangement. It also makes perfect sense for private schools to be universally referred to as “Public Schools.” If you are very good, I will explain the laws of cricket.) The then incumbent, game-show host and national embarrassment Borris Johnson, stepped in and unilaterally abolished the posters on the grounds that he was standing for re-election against Ken Livingtone, England's third most popular comedy communist, and needed all the votes he can get.

Even if we accept the Party Line that it can be offencive to display words on the sides of buses that it would be quite okay to display elsewhere, then I still doubt that arbitrary fiat by a single elected official is the best way of handling it. In 2000, it looked like a good idea to invent a new job called Mayor of London and give it to Ken Livingstone, mainly because it infuriated both Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. It also looked like a good idea that the powers of the Mayor of London should pretty much be limited to running the capital's transport system. This was a kind of consolation prize to Ken Livingstone for having been abolished in 1986. Transport is his favourite thing in the world, after newts and sci-fi movies. But was it ever implicit in the idea that one elected person should have overall control of all the cars and buses and trains in London that that person should also have the power to censor advertising on the sides of buses?

This kind of thing is never a good way of getting things done. It may seem very attractive to invoke the powers of the Lord Chamberlin to censor a play which might cause prols to have Non Party Approved Thoughts, but in the the end, the Right has far more reason to fear the free exchange ideas than the Left does. Including ideas which are wrong and silly. Especially ideas which are wrong and silly.

What would happen if I decided to put up posters on the sides of buses saying "The Earth is Flat" or "We Never Went to the Moon" or "Stan Lee created the Avengers"? It seems to me that we can be far more certain that the earth is round, that we did go to the moon and that Jack Kirby created the Avengers than we can be about sexual essentialism. But either we say that you can't use advertising to say stuff which is probably not true, which would make it impossible for the Liberal Democrats to ever run an election campaign again (no bad thing in itself, admittedly) or else we say that sexuality is a special case; or that buses are a special case; or that Boris Johnson is a special case. And special cases make bad laws.

Apparently, this has something to do with the debate that we are currently failing to have about gay marriage or equal marriage or whatever the party thinks I ought to call it this week. I understood the Stonewall Poster ("Some people are gay - get over it") to have been saying "Some people prefer to sleep with people whose genitals are the same shape as their genitals and this is none of your business". But apparently I have been caught out by their use of the verb "to be". It turns out that the "are" bit meant something like "are irreducibly, unchangeably gay due to genetic determinism and this is non-negotiable."

Which may, for all I know, be true. It certainly looks to me as if there are quite a lot of men who sleep with men at some times in their lives and with women at other times, but that may be a false impression. I imagine Stonewall know about this stuff. Certainly its very nasty for Christian psychiatrists to try to use therapy to make men who fancy men fancy women and women who fancy women fancy man, particularly if the light bulb doesn't really want to change. But I am very unclear how this relates to the semantic question about re-branding "civil partnerships" as "marriages", or inventing a third category called "equal civil marriage" or simply allowing prayers to be said at civil partnerships ceremonies one way or the other.

I believe we can prove this by means of a simple counterfactual. If very good evidence came to light that same sex attraction was purely a matter of nurture and environment (not something you were born with) then I don’t think that one person would say "Well, in that case gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married after all." And if equally good evidence came to light that proved that blokes fancying blokes and girls fancying girls was something written on their jeans the day they were born, then I don’t think one single person would say "Oh, well in that case I’ll change me mind — of course gay people should be allowed to get married in church." I don't think the question of why people are gay (whatever "why" means) and whether you can change you mind about it, can possibly be relevant to the question one way or the other. The discussion can only ever be between those who say "If a group of people want to apply the word 'marriage' to their relationship, then it is certainly no business of the state's to tell them that they can't" and those people who say "Two women can't be married any more than two men can be sisters or a lamb casserole can be "vegetarian" because that's not. what. the. word. means."

It does appear that we are thinking about changing the definition of marriage. And it does appear that, outside of the pages of the Guardian, there is no unanimity about whether this is a good idea or not. I’m not sure if the two sides even agree about what they disagree about it. According to some people, we are talking about hugely fundamental questions including “Is there any such thing as gender to begin with?” According to others, its not about much more than a bureaucratic nicety, a pen stroke that will clear up a minor but symbolically important injustice.

I think we should have the discussion. I think that before we have the discussion we should have the discussion about what the discussion is about. I am tempted to say that we should have a discussion about what the discussion about the discussion should be about, but only because I have an unhealthy addiction to those kinds of sentences. But it is somewhat bothersome to me that we may be having it in an environment where some people think that some people should not be allowed to say some things through some channels. Even if those channels turn out to be the sides of double decker buses.