Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sacrifical Sham

Okay, so I have a soft spot for 80's music, so what? On a bitterly cold November Sunday, the only thing more comforting than Journey's "Faithfully" is perhaps Elton John's "Sacrifice," which, to me, is actually a brilliant piece of self-indulgent poetry. No, I don't do drugs--but I do enjoy listening to these (soy)-cheesy songs and ruminating just a bit. So, in honor of National Elton John Day (which I totally just made up), let's start with sacrifice, since the whole meaning of it has been percolating in my brain as of late...

The concept of sacrifice is based on the fact that I'm entitled to this. I'm entitled to eat animals, I'm entitled to get married, I'm entitled to have whatever car I want, as long as I want it. People seem to think that doing the right thing is a sacrifice. Is abstaining from marriage a sacrifice? Is not eating animals a sacrifice? Is car-pooling more often, getting a more eco-friendly vehicle, or choosing public transportation a sacrifice? Our touchstone in deciding whether we're entitled to do something is not whether we personally can afford it; it's whether everyone could do it and if so, whether the planet and all it's inhabitants could survive.

We have a nation which just elected the first African American president, yet same-sex couples are still not able to get married. Marriage itself is an institution that is based in handing over property (women). Oodles of years later, half the time marriage winds up falling apart anyway.

Instead of gay people seeking what straight people have, maybe straight people should consider seeking what (some smart) gay people have, to figure out their relationships in a way that makes sense for them, including taking into account what happens when the marriage falls apart. There is something so icky here--straight people get engaged, can't bare the idea of a pre-nuptial agreement, and then when they split up and sue each other over beach houses and stubborn pride, it's our tax money--and by "our" I'm including people who aren't married either by choice or force--that pays for the court's time. Here's a hint, engaged folks: Get a pre-nup! Or better yet, why not just consider the "pre" part and ditch the "nup." You wouldn't go into a business relationship without a contract. A romantic relationship is like a business relationship, except, if you're lucky, your romantic relationship also includes some nooky.

Now, I won't bore you with my in-depth feels about the entire institution of marriage. I will, however, point your attention to an essay called "I Do Not: Why I Won't Marry," written by straight woman Catherine Newman. This essay is full of many ingredients I look for in a story: a pinch of self-righteousness, a smear of radicalism, and a dollop of smart wit. But the author, who chose not to get married, has an annoying (and hypocritical) habit of making too-many crude meat-comparisons.

In a way, it was a breath of fresh air to read this essay, in which Newman uses this sensible rationale--"because the Religious Right and their Defense of Marriage Act use marriage as a vehicle for homophobic legislation"--as a reason for why she "does not." But then, she kept talking about things like "pulling the skin off a roast chicken and eating it right there in the kitchen, before the bird even makes it to the table," and several other gross things like that...things that made me wonder how someone can be so right-on with issues of unjust privilege, and recognize the necessity of standing in solidarity with gay people who aren't given marriage "rights," but then turn around and flippantly take the life of another animal. Gay people have continued to be subjugated throughout history, in ways such as not having the right to marry (though I'm not sure why they'd want to partake in something so deeply flawed, but they still should be able to make that decision for themselves), as well as the other end of the spectrum--violence and murder.

Speaking of violence and murder, vegans (those who choose not to consume beings who were murdered) are not "noble" because they are choosing not to take something that is not theirs to take in the first place. Just because we are given that unjust power does not mean we are virtuous for not using it. Same thing with marriage: by abstaining from the legal privileges it comes with, you are not making a huge gigantic sacrifice, though you are making a teeny tiny one (but a necessary one, nonetheless). More importantly, you are simply doing the right thing, and, much like Newman, making an important statement while you're at it. Now if Newman would only ditch the carcasses...

But by abstaining from eating animals even though you can eat one if you want, by not driving around in an gas-guzzling SUV, you are not sacrificing anything. It is our moral imperative in today's society to help preserve the earth and all the earthlings on it, and to do our part to not contribute to the degradation and commodification of the planet and the non-human animals.

We are currently faced with an economic crisis, and people are being forced to look at things from a slightly new angle, holding onto their assets like it's nobody's business (which it's not). If it's true that things have to fall apart before they can get fixed, then I certainly hope that the last decade has counted as falling apart, because bureaucracy and participatory patriarchy is so 2005.

As Sir Elton John once said... "And it's no sacrifice... no sacrifice at all."


Casey Martinson said...

Jasmin, I like your insight into the idea of sacrifice; when something is truly a sacrifice and when it isn't. As you say, the defining factor seems to be one of entitlement. If we are entitled to something, giving it up is a sacrifice. If we aren't, it isn't.

But I you've lost me on how marriage is not a matter of entitlement. It sounds like you're saying that living without marriage, like living without meat, is just a matter of "doing the right thing." Is there some ethical imperative to abstain from marriage? If so, I think that idea deserves a more detailed explanation. Am I missing something? (Probably).

I would also love to see a more detailed exploration of how we should determine what we ARE entitled to. Are we entitled to health care? To an education? To property?

jasmin said...

It's not totally the same thing. Giving up meat is a moral imperative. Abstaining from marriage doesn't save any lives--so in that way I suppose it's not a moral imperative, but since it's not available to everyone, I do think it should be MORE of a moral imperative (though not quite as much as abstaining from meat, since that directly affects lives). I once heard that "you wouldn't join a country club that black people weren't allowed to join," which I think sums it up quite well. Sorry--I know you're married and so this becomes personal. This is an issue, as you probably have noticed from not only this blog but also from Zaftig Vegan, that is very sore for me, and I'm not sure why exactly. Because I don't want it... but I want to know I could have it if I wanted it... and the fact that more straight people don't recognize it as the type of injustice they should stand against by BOYCOTTING it, is kinda sad. Let me know if I'm still not being clear. (I'm probably not.) As for your other questions of entitlement, I'll give it some thought...

Casey Martinson said...

I originally had posted a much longer response, but it upon rereading it, I felt like it was rambling. So I'll just boil it down to one question.

Does a poor straight person with no health insurance have a moral imperative to forgo marriage--and the insurance they would get under their spouse's plan--to show solidarity with a much wealthier gay person who has health insurance?

(And for the record, I am happy to hear your arguments, and I don't take them personally. I had good reasons for getting married, and I would make the same decision if I had it to do again.)

jasmin said...

I don't have that answer, I don't claim to. Just like your reasons for getting married were probably justified based on your situation, this isn't black or white. People obviously need to do what they need to do to take care of themselves. And though I think there are times where marriage is warranted, there are a variety of ways it can be handled, so as to avoid the social hierarchy that goes with it. Again, there's no one right answer. This is all stuff I'm trying to figure out, too. Personally, I'd love Liz's thoughts....

Liz said...

There are always going to be situational exceptions to any decision that is based in morality. I don't think anyone is debating that.

However, I think everyone has the responsibility to recognize how their actions relate to larger systems of oppression and injustice.

I think what Jasmin is saying is that there is a larger, overarching moral imperative for everyone of any sexual orientation to abstain from the fundamentally biased and oppressive practice of marriage until the institution can be corrected to account for such injustice.

In the same way that we expect all people to abtain as much as possible from eating animal products because of the obvious oppression that it is responsible for.

Just because the right to marry doesn't cost or spare any lives does not mean it is not responsible for injustice and oppression.

Marriage in its current state is a privilege that every human feels entitled to participate in. Just because no one will live or die from their choice to marry does not mean that it isn't of grave importance to those who desire it.

As the institution stands now, choosing whether and whom to marry is a privilege. Giving up that privilege is merely a way of recognizing that to benefit from a system that not everyone has the right to participate in (but everyone is entitled to participate in), is a way of expressing a demand for equality.

Also, it's unfair to ask whether a poor straight person with no health insurance should forgo marriage, because that diverts attention from the real question which is "Why should we have to join into the institution of marriage just to be given basic rights such as health care?"

That question is where Jasmin's larger imperative is based. Why should we have to be validated by this exclusionary institution just to be granted the basic rights of personhood? Since gay people can't get married does that mean they don't deserve equal personhood?
Sorry gay people, if you want health insurance you have to get rich, but us straighties can get it just by signing this document!

Isn't that inherently oppressive? And if it is, don't we all have a duty to stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed until the system is changed?

Casey Martinson said...

"'Sorry gay people, if you want health insurance you have to get rich, but us straighties can get it just by signing this document!'

Isn't that inherently oppressive?
And if it is, don't we all have a duty to stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed until the system is changed?"

It is oppressive. But there are a lot of ways to express solidarity with an oppressed group, other than trying to put yourself exactly in their position, which is both impossible and presumptuous. Are you going to volunteer yourself for invasive medical experiments to show solidarity with chimpanzees trapped in labs? Are you going to turn down health insurance provided by your employer to show solidarity with the millions who are uninsured? Are you going to live on the street to show solidarity with the homeless? Are you going to abstain from voting to show solidarity with the disenfranchised? If you get charged for some heinous crime, would you turn down a good lawyer if you could afford one, to show solidarity with those who could not? Even if it meant risking life in prison or the death penalty?

Rachel Corrie sat in front of an Israeli bulldozer to show solidarity with Palestinians.


She died as a result. It was a courageous and morally powerful act. But do we all have a moral duty to put ourselves in front of bulldozers (either real or metaphorcal)? I don't think so.

Even gay people have not shown solidarity by refraining from marriage when given the opportunity. Did Ellen and Portia shirk their moral duty, even though they knew Prop 8 might pass and close the door on all those lined up behind them? Even though gay couples in 49 other states could not enjoy the same right that they were (briefly) given?

Did freed Northern slaves shirk their moral duty by living free while most blacks were still in bondage?

I think if you look hard enough, you can find some quantity of oppression in nearly every aspect of your daily life. Products that we use every day were often produced under terrible conditions, both for the environment and for laborers--cell phones, paper, computers, clothes, cars. The land that we own or rent was stolen by oppressive colonists. Even the English language could be deconstructed as a tool of oppression. And we should examine all these things so that we can understand their impact and use them in a conscientious way. But boycotting every last ounce of oppression is both unrealistic and counterproductive.

Casey Martinson said...

This discussion would have made a good point/counterpoint blog.

jasmin said...

I totally see your point that boycott is not always an effective tactic, and, especially as activists, it is an important excercise for us to strategize when it is and when it's not useful. Casey--we obviously disagree on this one. (Duh.)

I don't think, IMHO, that it would have been an effective tactic for Portia and Ellen to abstain from marriage. There's a difference between the oppressed group who is given nominal rights (even gay marriage is not recognized federally, thus there are many holes in even that system) saying "no, I won't take those few rights that you're alotting me" from the un-oppressed group staying in solidarity with the others. It's a choice *I* personally wouldn't have made since, like Liz, I feel like it's not an institution that is worth imitating.... though I should I have the right if I wanted, which I'm sure you agree.

So again, we just differ in our opinions on whether this is a strategic or necessary step--for straights to abstain from the marriage privelages until gays can have it too. From my POV, since I'm the one who can't have it, it is totally worth the boycott. But then again, I'm not the one who loses anything, because I didn't have it in the first place.