Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Tyranny of Equality: The first Story.

John and Joyce have been attending a rally for Equality at the local council offices. In the past few minutes, John has proclaimed, wearing his chains of office, that anyone who does not accept that all human beings are equal, that all viewpoints are equal, and who proclaim one belief over others, is denying human rights and ought to be locked up. He has decried all religious folk as being enemies of peace. He has called the Catholic Church a misogynist, homophobic organisation fuelled by bitter old men whose mindset lies in the past. He has spoken loudly that Science proclaims that there is no difference between human beings and that the rights of all to be what they want to be should be respected.

Now they are in the car on the way home. John is feeling really happy, delighted with how his speech has gone down. Joyce smiles at him, "John, you were brilliant tonight. I'm so proud of you. You've shown those chauvinists that we women are just the same as men. You've shown those bigots that homosexual relationships are just the same as heterosexual relationships. You've shown that twentieth century thought is so much better than anything that has gone before. I feel so liberated! Let's have a lovely evening together."

And so when they get home, John and Joyce do have a lovely evening together with the most passionate night they've had since the were married. As he falls asleep, John looks happily at the beautiful naked body of his girlfriend and passes a quiet night.

The alarm goes off the next day, and before he even opens his eyes, he reaches out for Joyce. His arm brushes her cheek, but it feels different - it's stubbly. Confused he opens his eyes and sees something which shocks him to the core. There next to him in bed, stark naked, is a man. He looks very much like Joyce's elder brother, but subtly different. John cries out. The man awakes.

"Who the Hell are you?" asks John, somewhat conscious of his nudity. "John, what's the matter?" says the man, "it's me, Joyce!" "No, you're not. Don't be a fool!" The man looks confused and reaches for the mirror. As he does so, John notices on the man's back the same little birthmark that Joyce had, the same birthmark that John had kissed so passionately the night before. The man-Joyce cries out as he catches sight of his face in the mirror. "John, I'm a man!"

So what now for John and Joyce? Does it matter to John that his girlfriend is now male? Why should it? Men and women are equal. Can he continue to live with him-her? Well of course, homosexual relationships are the same as heterosexual relationships. Will John's modern thought allow him to continue like this, or will the instinct of ages drive him away from Joyce?


poetreader said...

Equality is a goo0d thing, a worthy objective, something certainly to be sought. No man or woman is ultimately worth more than another or less to be respected. But is it true that to be equal is to be the same? Are there no differences worthy of respect? John and Joyce may indeed have treated one another as equals, but what they neglected to think upon is that their marriage, from its very first night, and in some ways even before that had been a celebration of difference. The contours of their bodies were very different, the textures of their skin, the quality of their voices, some aspects of the way they thought. These were different, gender-specific, and this did not lessen equality, but it did provide something to celebrate. The “plumbing” was gloriously different, and that difference was the means of nightly celebration, and the source of a promise. When that promise came to be, and children finally came, it would be Joyce and not John who would bear the child in her womb and suckle it in its early stages of life. What a profound difference! What a wonderful and glorious difference!

When that difference was gone, the basis for that marriage no longer existed. Whatever relationship John and he-Joyce might have, it would not be the same relationship, or even very much like it. In this story, the change apparently can only be ascribed to some sort of fairy tale magic, but there are those in real life who try to approach it, through surgery and various medical treatments, but the fact remains that each of us is genetically marked, in every cell of our body, as male or female, and none of those procedures can change that mark by one iota. The existence of certain abnormalities in a tiny number of humans merely serves to confirm that they do not represent healthy human development.


poetreader said...


Equality is not identity. Two equal humans may be differently endowed with talents. Two equally talented persons may have achieved different levels of expertise. I would not want a carpenter to do major surgery upon me or an English teacher to repair my car. These people are essentially equal, but equipped for different roles. The rallies that John and Joyce have been attending have moved far beyond the worthy objective of removing harmful prejudice, and have begun attacking the very foundation of human society. If they are successful, society is lost, and any meaningful freedom with it.

ed pacht

Nicholas Jackson said...

Jonathan, old chap, I'm afraid I'm having difficulty seeing what point you're trying to make here.

You seem to be saying that "if we take equality to absurd extremes it becomes absurd". This is (a) clearly tautologous, and (b) certainly doesn't imply that the concept of equality is therefore dubious or tyrannical.

It's also something of a straw man argument: by no means a majority of atheists, scientists, feminists, or gay rights advocates hold the position you ascribe to John and Joyce. (Although, speaking as a scientist and agnostic myself, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to give the Catholic Church the benefit of the doubt.)

What I tentatively suspect you're trying to say is that modern concepts of equality should not be unilaterally (or tyrannically) applied to theological issues such as the ordination of women and/or the treatment of gay people. If so (I don't want to misrepresent your viewpoint, so please accept my apologies if I've misunderstood what you're trying to say) then I'd argue that Christianity is exactly where modern concepts of equality should have come from, and the fact that they still haven't been taken on board by the higher echelons of many of the most prominent branches of Christianity, is a severe failing in those churches, not in the concepts themselves.

Yes, men and women have certain biological differences that render them incapable of doing certain things. But one of the great successes of the twentieth century was the widespread propagation of the viewpoint that apart from certain specific tasks (mainly those concerned with the production of children) men and women are equally capable of doing pretty much anything they turn their minds to: voting in elections, running companies, studying or teaching at university, serving in the armed forces, and a whole host of other things. There's still a little way to go (women's salaries are still, on average, lower than those of men doing comparable jobs, for example) but we're moving in the right direction.

If one agrees that this is so (and I hope that we all do) then it seems only a very slight extension to suggest that women are also just as capable of being priests and bishops as men. I acknowledge that some people (yourself included) claim that there are theological reasons why this isn't the case, but no matter how hard I try to understand them, those reasons have always seemed somewhat tenuous, mostly based on a particular reading of certain carefully-chosen segments of the bible. Is it really any wonder that increasingly many people (especially those who haven't tried as hard as I have to understand the details of the arguments) regard the position of the Catholic Church as inherently misogynistic and hence untenable in modern society?

(Also, going back to your rather peculiar little parable, I do happen to know a couple whose relationship survived the gender-transition of one of them. They've been together for about ten years now, and got married a couple of years back, when the law was changed to allow them to do so.)

poetreader said...

Ah, Mr. Jackson, but ...

As I attempted to point out in my probably over-elaborate comment above, Much of the argument is misdirected.

Equality is a given, but equality is not the same thing as identity, and this conflation of two distinct concepts is a misconception found in every corner of human society, not merely in the theological. Yes, each human being is essentially equal to every other one. That is the foundation of what we call democracy, and that is, as you point out, derived from the teachings of Christianity. However, it is just as true that every human is endowed differently from every other with talents, abilities, and other attributes to fit him or her for a particular role. I'm a writer, well fitted (I like to imagine) for such a role, but Lord help anyone who would try to make me a carpenter. It's just not possible. I do not have what it takes for such a role. That's just one trivial illustration of a pervasive principle. But the upshot of it is that I am not inferior to Joe the carpenter, nor he to me, but neither of us would be well advised to take on the role of the other.

Sex (or gender if you prefer) is definitely one of God's good ideas, and pervades much of biological existence -- and not merely as a reproductive mechanism. Everywhere, and quite notably in mammals, the secondary characteristics of sex include very specific roles. Nowhere in the "higher" reaches of animal life are these roles identical in the two sexes. This is not inequality but rather difference of function.

One's sex or gender, BTW, is not merely a matter of what external appendages one may or may not have, but is a matter of what is marked on every single cell of one's body. I'm not going to here debate the propriety or not of trying to change one's sex by surgery and other means, but will note that such means simply don't change the genetic identity of the person -- and please don't go on about the rare cases where the genetic marker is unclear -- these cases are clearly a genetic error, and exception, and need to be treated as such.

All that leaves the Church, while bound to proclaim essential equality, still free to identify the qualification for a given role. With regard to ordination, the appropriate texts have been read with striking unanimity by Christians of every generation up until the last century, and there is no tradition whatever of ordaining women. Is it therefore appropriate to act as though those generations of thinkers were all too stupid to see what was said?

You may or may not agree with what the Church has said -- as a nonbeliever, one would assume you disagree -- however, it does not seem reasonable for one outside a fellowship to lecture it on what the fellowship itself does believe.

ed oacht

Nicholas Jackson said...

Oh, I'm not trying to lecture Jonathan, you, or anyone else on what to believe or how to live your lives - that would be quite rude of me.

What I was trying to do (apart from highlight what I saw as questionable reasoning in Jonathan's argument) was explain why those of us who don't share this particular doctrinal viewpoint are often quite baffled by the position adopted by those who do. In a society where it's now accepted that (apart from certain specific things related to biology) women are just as capable as men at doing pretty much everything, an organisation which claims that this is not quite so is going to have to try extremely hard to explain the reasons for this position if it doesn't want to face accusations of misogyny and sexism.

And I think it has to be said that it's been doing incredibly badly at this: I'm actually interested in understanding the reasons, and am starting from the premise that it surely can't be just misogyny behind it all. (Quite apart from anything else, I know Jonathan to be a splendid chap, and I simply can't believe that he'd have any patience with that sort of thing.) And yet, for all that, I'm struggling quite hard to see the merits in the arguments that have been presented thus far, even taking into account my agnosticism and my general suspicion of theology.

To be clear: I'm not looking for an argument that's going to convince me that women can't be priests or bishops, (because I'd first need to be convinced that the God described in the bible actually exists, and also that He requires a special class of people trained to talk to Him in the right way). I'm just trying to understand why some Christians believe that women are in some way unsuitable for this role, and why this position is at least internally consistent within that system of belief.

I'm not convinced that the appeal to tradition holds as much water as some people think: yes, as far as we can tell no women were ordained as priests in the Anglican communion until relatively recently. But then again, it's only in the last hundred years that women have been allowed to vote in UK elections, and the arguments against that look utterly ridiculous now. Also, there are some Christian groups which have a long tradition of female ministry: the Methodists and the Quakers in particular.

Once again, I'm certainly not trying to tell you what you or anyone else should believe. You're welcome to believe whatever you like. I'm just trying to understand why some Christians believe that women can't be priests or bishops. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter whether I succeed or not - it makes no real difference to me what one group of Christians does amongst itself, as long as they're all happy with whatever they choose to do, and that it doesn't affect the way the rest of us want to live our lives. But it's an issue that is important to some of my friends (including Jonathan) so I'm keen to understand it all from that perspective.

I do understand the sense of dismay that Jonathan and others feel at the way the debate currently seems to be going in the Church of England: it's not nice when those in power seem to be bent on doing something that you believe to be wrong, even if they believe with equal confidence that they're right. I'm in a similar position myself regarding the prospect of an elected House of Lords - the political elite seem set on making it happen, whereas I believe (for a lot of reasons, mostly related to the need for effective, expert scrutiny of proposed legislation) that it's a terrible idea.

Warwickensis said...

Thanks, Nick. I don't feel terribly splendid, but heigh ho...

I think I try to see what you're getting at, but I'm not sure that you've fully understood my page on the objection to Women's "Ordination" (W"O"). I wonder whether as an agnostic you can in full since the idea of Tradition is something that runs through the blood of a Catholic - if you want a more precise definition of that, then see it as something in the "worldview" of a Trad Catholic.

It's quite clear that women can say the words and move the hands in the rituals of the Eucharist. I will also concede on their pastoral, academic and leadership capabilities as being as effective as their male counterparts, but I do contest whether they are the same in their character. Men and women are biologically different, and they have different mindsets.

I'm not a scientist insofar as that I believe that evidence is enough to describe what is really there. Ed and I disagree about Transubstantiation, but we do agree on the idea of some real change happening to bread and wine under the prayers of a priest acting as alter Christus (i.e. in effect becoming Jesus as High Priest)

Warwickensis said...

Sacraments (certainly in the BCP) and to an extent in Catholic theology have the nature of being a visible (i.e. observable) sign of and invisible (i.e invisible) grace. For the Catholic, these sacraments are not just signs and rituals, they present us with some unobservable reality of a Transcendent Being (in which you doubt). The point is that God set us (via the Bible and through the extrabiblical teaching of the apostles preserved in Tradition) very specific restrictions on whom He regards as being able to do this -i.e able to step into Christ's shoes. Christ Himself made the choice - certain Jewish men, which then went on to be certain Gentile men according to the scripture. Except this is where it stops. It doesn't go onto accepting women. In trying to be obedient to the pattern Christ set us (and therefore regarding Him as the centre of our lives) he did not choose women. Knowing Jesus, this is in no way meant to denigrate women, but rather to set a pattern on the character of masculinity and femininity. That men and women are very different - equal in genus, but not in species - is a testament to their unique gifts. (continues)

Warwickensis said...

I find it a slur on a woman's woman-ness that she finds herself believing that becasue she can say the words and do the gestures, she has a right to do so. I fear that this is a lie that modern "equality" philosophy has forced upon women that they look for "equality" by becoming male which completely destroys the feminine character of who they are.

I do not think that the Church has done enough to isolate and confirm the peculiar ministry of women in the Church. That, however, is not enough to say that women can be priests just to redress some imbalance - two wrongs just don't make a right.

The point is that the Church is being told by society that it must make amends by making the jobs of priest and bishop open to men and women - largely by a secular society and the influences of a secular society. The point is that being a priest is not a job - it is being chosen to receive a special grace of God. Ordination is a Sacrament to a Catholic, so a priest is endowed with an invisible grace through a visible act (to wit: the consecration by a bishop) following the pattern set by Christ Jesus as revealed in Scripture and Tradition.

Not all Anglicans accept Ordination as a Sacrament which perhaps explains why they see the position of priest as just a job to which men and women can apply. To a Catholic, just as an Oreo does not have the correct character to become the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, so a women does not have the character to become a priest according to the pattern that Christ set us.

This is less than a question of sexual equality and more a question of trying to be obedient to Jesus Christ following a pattern that has been set up for 2000 years.

Nicholas Jackson said...

Nonsense - you are too a splendid chap, and up with no disagreement shall I put.

Anyway, there are several points that I'd like to try to respond to here, but I think I'm going to have to split them up into separate posts. (Blogger's comment subsystem is really not conducive to involved discussions - no threading functionality, and I find it difficult to keep an argument straight in my head when I have to type everything into a tiny little text box.)

Nicholas Jackson said...

Gender identity is an interesting subject, and one that has been hotly debated by sociologists, psychologists and many other people for some time now. I'm certainly not qualified to comment on the details of that ongoing debate, so I'll have to restrict myself to the following ill-informed mumbling.

I believe a terminological distinction is usually made between sex (which is a biological aspect) and gender (which is a psychological, social or cultural aspect). So as poetreader says, the transgendered friend I mentioned earlier is on a genetic level still male, but psychologically and socially is female.

I'm willing to accept that there are, on average, certain psychological differences between men and women, but I'm not convinced whether those differences are inherent, or a result of thousands of years of social conditioning. Certainly, I think that most of the traditional concepts of "woman-ness" are due to social conditioning rather than anything inherent. It may still be that if one were able to strip away that conditioning, there would remain some psychological differences, but I'm not sure what those differences would be.

I do think that we all have certain aspects to our personality or mindset which either goes deeper than social conditioning, or is fixed at a very early age: You and I have a certain facility for abstract mathematical thought that many (otherwise highly intelligent, splendid and clever) people don't have - and as poetreader says, that doesn't make us necessarily better or worse people, just different.

Another example: some people have (chiral, rather than political) concepts of "left" and "right" wired into their brain at a deep level - I don't, and have to think for about half a second before I know which one's which.

So I do accept that we're all different on some deep level, but I'm undecided whether this is inherent or conditioned: maybe I was never taught the words for left and right until that bit of my brain had set, maybe non-mathematicians aren't exposed to pattern-recognition games at an early enough age. Or maybe I was always going to be an achiral mathematician, and nothing was going to change that.

I'm also undecided whether gender or sex has anything to do with this: if these deeply-embedded traits are due to early conditioning, then maybe it needn't; if they're inherent then possibly it might.

I also disagree that it's a "slur on woman-ness" to encourage or enable women to fulfil roles that have traditionally been reserved for men: I think that people should be free to do whatever they like (subject to obvious legal caveats, and matters of informed consent, etc) without being unduly constrained by what previous generations thought. For that matter, are men who choose to do traditionally female roles in some way betraying their "man-ness"?

Anyway, you seem to agree that women are in principle just as capable as men of fulfilling the pastoral, academic and leadership aspects of being a priest (whether or not this might harm some sort of inherent "woman-ness" they might have). Part of your position seems to be that there is (a) some mystical additional aspect to being a priest, over and above the pastoral/academic/etc stuff, that (b) women inherently don't and can't have. Have I understood this correctly?

If so, then I can certainly accept that (a) is at least consistent with the rest of your belief system, but (b) seems to be the sticking point.

Interesting. I'll have to think about this some more.