Notes on Freedom

Tag: public debate

‘Gay cake’ wars and the eclipse of conscience

An Oregon baker has been ordered to pay $135,000 damages to a lesbian couple after refusing to bake a cake for their wedding. A Colorado bakery was ordered to fulfill gay wedding orders and to send its staff for sensitivity training. The ‘gay cake’ wars show the lamentable position into which the idea of conscience has fallen.

These cases are not about an actual conflict of interest: the couples could have found another baker who was happy to fulfill the order and attend the wedding with good heart. Instead, a battle of conscience is being sought where it could have been avoided, brushed over. One person is taking the case in order to force another to affirm their values or way of life.

Indeed, it appears that in some cases gay activists are searching out traditionalist bakers in order to ask them to bake wedding cakes. They had specifically chosen the bakery that they knew would not want to make the cake. In a similar spirit, Christians are seeking out liberal bakers to ask them to make cakes bearing slogans such as ‘God hates fags’, and going to court when they refuse. The cake becomes a means to make someone else voice your views; the case plays the role of the victory of one conscience over another.

These battles show how sorely we are missing the idea of conscience – one’s grounding in a private life or belief, and one’s respect for other people who are similarly grounded. When the idea of conscience emerged in the 17th century it was as an almost sacred faculty implanted by God. The one and only rule of ethics was: do not go against your conscience and do not violate the conscience of another. The primary value was sincerity, and your rights to free expression were derived from your duty to be sincere, to only say things you sincerely believed (1).

In the view of philosopher Pierre Bayle, it was not a sin to err, only to go against one’s conscience;  the ‘erring conscience’ had rights to respect and toleration as much as any other. The notion of conscience at heart implied a reciprocity, that ‘each could recognise in the other the sincerity of their convictions, even if the truth that he sustained differed from ours’ (2).

In these terms, belief was a largely private matter, something like one’s internal reckoning or inner relationship with God. When the formation of belief moved into the public sphere in the 18th century – with coffee shops, publications, salons – and people came together in discussion, these were independent consciences that were brought into dispute. The public culture brought together independent men and women, independent consciences, into reciprocal relation. The relation of argument or persuasion is one that respects this inner core: a person can be won only through reason, and of their own volition.

Now, this reciprocal relation has collapsed. There is at once a lack of respect for the conscience of the other, and a concomitant lack of grounding in oneself. This is why the refusal of a cake order is experienced as a violation or delegitimation of oneself. A man who had a pro-gay marriage cake refused in Northern Ireland said that this made him feel ‘unworthy, a lesser person’. The two Oregon women claimed 88 and 90 different forms of damage respectively, covering every aspect of their psychological and physical being, including: ‘acute loss of confidence’, ‘doubt,” ‘excessive sleep’, ‘felt mentally raped, dirty and shameful’, ‘high blood pressure’, ‘impaired digestion’, ‘loss of appetite’, ‘migraine headaches’, ‘pale and sick at home after work’, ‘resumption of smoking habit’, ‘shock’, ‘stunned’, ‘surprise’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘weight gain’ and ‘worry’.

If one is grounded in one’s own private values, then the encounter with alternative values does not lead to unraveling in this manner. There is no reason why the polite refusal of a cake order need make someone feel unworthy or shameful, or strike at the core of their being.

When a conscience lacks its own grounding, it is touchy and offended at every turn; it is also through overcoming opposing views that it seeks to ground itself. In forcing someone else to affirm your views or way of life – even, or especially, against their own beliefs – then your own values are apparently affirmed. By winning court cases against Christians, gay activists seek to establish the value of their way of life. The relation of mutual respect between independent consciences is transformed into a fight to the death, where one seemingly exists only through the violation of the other.

Yet in truth, the violation of the other turns – with all the justice of the dialectic – into the violation of the self. Ultimately, ‘gay cake’ cases strip these gay relations and weddings of their intrinsic meaning and value. By becoming the subject of a court case, these relations become a parody of themselves, just as a religion is emptied out when it is forced down the throats of heretics.

(By the same accounts, there is also a parody version of Christian marriage, defined against gay marriage: Christian marriage is not grounded in itself, but becomes not-gay-marriage, and defines itself by the question of the ‘compatibility of organs’ and the act of physical consummation. This may be the thing that separates it from gay marriage but it is an entirely brutalist account of the marital union which harks back to the primitive marriage ceremony, with the demonstration of blood on the sheets to the awaiting relatives. As Hegel wrote already in 1821 (3), modern marriage is primarily a ‘spiritual union’, and the physical or ‘natural character’ is downgraded.)

The demand that gay relations or families be universally celebrated is just as distorting of these relations as any criticism. The value of a family – gay or straight, single parent or step-parent, religious or secular or hippy – is that it is a private life-world, founded in the bonds among the members and their friends and extended family. The couple or family does not have to justify itself to society at large, nor does it require universal affirmation for its existence.

The principles of tolerance and formal respect in public life allow different people to pursue very different paths, yet to mutually respect one another. The urbanist Jane Jacobs argues that discretion is essential for public civility. She describes how people would leave their keys with a particular Deli owner for friends borrowing their flat: the deli owner owner combined a ‘feeling of good will with a feeling of no personal responsibility about our private affairs’. He did not judge who they had chosen to lend their flat to, and they did not ask for his approval. Mutual respect requires a certain formal distance, an understanding that people have their own lives to lead that are nobody else’s business.

Public coexistence requires a certain discretion and not forcing the issue. If a Jew cannot work a Friday night, or a Muslim cannot eat sausages, then they require neither condemnation nor enthusiastic affirmation, but merely an accommodation of their private position. It requires a certain tact and avoiding of conflict: this is how very different belief systems can coexist harmoniously.

Such formal respect is as vital to the freedom and equality of gays as it is to other groups. We should halt these absurd battles over the icing of confectionery – live our own lives, and allow others to live theirs.

(1) La Tolerance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Flammarion, Paris, 1999

(2) La Tolerance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Flammarion, Paris, 1999

(3) The Philosophy of Right, OUP, 2008

(4) The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, p78

The censorious student and the corrosion of character

The growth of censorship in universities (highlighted this week by spiked) indicates that something fundamental has changed in human character in the past decade or two.

For the new generation of young adults, opinions are not things they hold privately as a matter of conscience, nor are they developed through argument and debate. Instead, opinions appear to be integrally bound up with their identity and sense of self. They experience the encounter of opposing views almost as a threat to their existence, as an unravelling of the self: as ‘unsafe’, ‘dangerous’, or causing ‘severe distress’.

This week a comedy act was cancelled after the threat of a picket from some women who disagreed with her views on ‘sex work, religion and trans issues’. The comedian wasn’t going to talk about prostitution, yet it seems that the female students objected to the presence on campus of a person with a different view to their own. For a campus to be ‘their’ campus, for that person to feel as if they belong in an institution, they attempt to keep off those who present a counter-point to these views.

The invitation of external speakers becomes a process fraught with risk: the National Union of Students has produced a guide on ‘managing the risks associated with external speakers’, with a lengthy and legalistic filtering process before a bearer of opinion can express themselves in the public space of the campus. The ‘safe spaces’ in universities are muted, restrained, free of conflict and the encounter with opposition: student unions ban items exuding a charge of controversy, including ‘racist’ sombreros or the ‘sexist’ Sun newspaper, as well as critical ‘hand gestures’ or sarcastic applause.

This means nothing less than the unravelling of the modern individual: the individual who forms opinions in the process of debate. In the late 1600s and 1700s people began to view the conflict of opinion as productive, and argued that it was in the contest between ‘for and against’ that truth could be discovered and one’s own view developed. In 1684, Basnage de Beauval argued for religious toleration on the basis that truth resulted from the ‘confrontation of dogmas’; the ‘opposition between two parties’ serves to ‘pressure and excite’ one another to virtue (1). He saw conflict as like a ‘sting’ which keeps one awake and shakes away ignorance, and argued that disputes between learned men were ‘advantageous and useful for the public’.

By contrast, in the Medieval period the moment of conflict of opinion was seen as singularly destructive, of both the individual soul and civic life. It was thought that heretical opinions undid the social bond: the moment of conflict undid the order of things, the unified trinity of faith, law and state. Social relations could only be constituted through a single faith and worldview: to relate meant to be of the same mind. The heretic dissolves the social bond, argued St Thomas Aquinas (2). Those who tolerated difference, it was argued, were those who did not really care about truth or the inner life (the pragmatism of the Roman Empire), or those who for reasons of weakness were temporally unable to constitute a proper social order.

So now, again, the self unravels when faced with the opposition of another, and the battle against ‘heretics’ is a fight to maintain one’s own integrity.

Yet this new censorious self appears to be a fragile sort of thing, lacking deep foundations in inner conviction or conscience. The opinions students and others are defending do not seem to have much private or authentic character, which is perhaps why they are so prickly. It is the instability of identity which means that people are unsettled by alternatives.

Opinions are bonded with the self, but this is not the inner core of the self, and more a shirtsleeve or a lapel. A YouTube video shows a speaker at the University of Galway trying to make the case against a boycott of Israel, drowned out by a student dressed in the colours of a Palestinian flag shouting ‘Fucking Zionist fucking pricks […] Get the fuck off our campus now.’  The student’s position seemed to be something like the shirt he wore: thin and constituted only in the view of others, which is why he might seek out the public occasion at which to stage this aggressive performance.

Therefore, the new generation also lack that other dimension of modern character: the inner dimension of conscience. The reflecting, private conscience, elaborated by John Locke and others in the 1600s, experiences opinion and truth as inner and personal, a conviction. This feeling of conscience developed in private spaces – private worship, private discussion, inner reflection. The public sphere of people debating and opposing one another presumed the inner world of conscience; conscience provided the space where a person’s opinions were grounded and the point to which they returned. The inner conviction is the counterpoint to the more transitive, provisional character of views developed in public debate, whereby an opinion held today can be changed tomorrow in the face of new evidence.

In today’s students, we see how these two dimensions of modern character have collapsed into something much more one-dimensional. Opinions are bound up with something like the outer shell of the self, which is neither developed through public engagement, nor is it privately developed or held.

The new dialectic is not between the public and private sides of the self: it is between the virulent hostility of someone screaming ‘get the fuck off our campus now’, and the ‘safe space’ of inexpression where individuals exist side by side in their separate shells.

That is, instead of private reflection and public debate, there is rage, and silence. Which should make us fear for the public sphere of the future.

(1) La Tolérance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, p71

(2) La Tolérance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, p21

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