The House of Commons voted this week to reject an amendment by Nadine Dorries MP to the Health and Social Care Bill 2011, which could have had the effect of limiting women’s right to abortion by redoubling the social pressure against their decision. It is only one news story this week in which people’s decisions about what to do with themselves bodily was brought into focus. It has two unlikely bedfellows in the Scottish newspapers:
- A declaration by the Catholic archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti, that gay marriage is ‘meaningless’ because it doesn’t produce a ‘natural family’ (reported in the Herald)
- A brother and sister being caught on CCTV having sex in a train station lift (reported in the Scottish Sun)
All liberal-minded people can be expected to find the first story a reprehensible and all too familiar example of ultramontane priestly prudery, a sex-abstaining man telling people how to live their sex lives. But nobody in their right mind would defend the second, would they? Well, I think Wagner might, and while I don’t condone having sex in a public lift, on CCTV, I suggest both that we might do well to listen to him, and to reflect on the connexion between these three disparate stories.
What unifies these stories is the way people tend to respond psychologically to the terrifying and disgusting Other, whose difference they are willing to tolerate only insofar as it is sanitized, controlled, regulated, normally at the level of what it does with its body. Social liberals tolerate their ethnic and cultural others as long as the others remain (or become) as liberal as the liberals (so, no forced marriage, no ‘honour killings’); tolerate homosexuals as long as they are essentially heteronormative (be monogamous; settle down into relatively normative couples, even getting married or civilly partnered); and so on. But even in the most progressive and understanding, kindest and most reflective people, an urge towards irrational control of the bodies of others asserts itself from time to time, and from case to case, in response to horror and/or disgust.
Wagner is good on this. The centrally spotlighted tragedy of the Ring (not its central thrust, but a vital component) is the betrayal and death of Siegfried, the great German hero. He is the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, pictured above, who get together in the first act of the opera before his own (Die Walküre, the second of the four-part cycle). Theirs is a wonderful love, set to some of Wagner’s most sumptuous and erotic music. Siegmund rescues Sieglinde from a loveless and violent marriage to the monstrous Hunding. When, in a supernatural moment, Siegmund is offered a death of a thousand luxuries (including the familiar offer of all the virgins he can cope with) he rejects the offer for continued life and love with Sieglinde. I think it might be psychologically impossible for anyone listening to Wagner’s music not to take Siegmund’s and Sieglinde’s side, to love their love. And that is despite the fact, which I’ve suppressed, that they are brother and sister (and know it). Fricka, the goddess of love, is irked by this and confronts her husband Wotan, asking ‘when was it ever known that brother and sister should love each other erotically?’ He shrugs and utters the exemplary Wagnerian jocular rebuff: ‘Well, you’ve seen it today’ (‘Heut’ hast du’s erlebt’). Incest is an important minor theme in the Ring, always with people for whom the radical Wagner has his greatest sympathy. So, when Siegfried comes to have his own sexual relationship, the revolutionary love that will found a new world (it is Wagner’s vision, in nuce, of a communist society), it is with his aunt, Brünnhilde.
It’s clear that Wagner is inviting us, if not to embrace incest (who could do that in one move, even under the sway of this music?), then at least to reflect on our opposition to it. Who, in response to the story of the Scottish siblings having sex in the lift, could think ‘good for them’? More people would, of course, say ‘good for them’ if they heard of a gay wedding or a woman feeling relieved from the disastrous effects of having a baby by aborting before 12 weeks. But I want to suggest that things aren’t so very different from the question of incest, because ultimately the question always hinges on the disgusting and terrifying Other.
What are the arguments against incest? Perhaps the most obvious are:
- It’s icky
- It’s immoral
- It’s biologically dangerous (for any children)
On closer inspection, none of these arguments really holds water. I find lots of things icky, like kissing Tories, but I realize that my icky feeling is no sane argument against other people doing it. No law can be based on ickiness. Morality seems a better bet, and has a religious and non-religious basis. Religions tell us that it is against the will of the deity that a brother and sister, or nephew and aunt, etc., should marry (or have sex). For the non-religious this carries no force whatever, and can by them be dismissed. But what about the non-religious argument, which is that since sexual relationships have a tendency to break down and in many (though of course by no means all) cases there is a lasting or permanent tension between the two former members of the sexual relationship, the beginning of a incestuous sexual relationship poses a real hazard for family relations. If two siblings start having sex then a third sibling or a cousin or a mother is put at risk both of the social consequences and of the potential emotional fallout from a breakup (a breakup which, because of the social pressure against the match, is even more likely than normal). But many things cause tensions in families. In fact I’m not sure that a good definition of family is not ‘a grouping of human beings, based on power imbalances and a more or less begrudging sense of debt that binds people in grim closeness to one another, without positive ties to bind them, and with a guilty inability to admit, even to themselves, that this is the case’. So the non-religious opposition is dubious too.
It’s the biological objection that interests me most. Siblings, we are to understand, should not have sexual relationships because their children stand an increased chance of inheriting genetic problems. We need immediately to stand back here. Why is it that children are both presumed and used as a basis for moral judgement? We rub up immediately against Archbishop Conti’s traditionally Catholic position here, that the ‘natural’ union of two people is intended for the purpose of procreation. This makes homosexuals, and for reasons of consistency should also make sterile couples, ‘unnatural’ and even ‘immoral’ unions, since no children can result. (Ditto the union of old, post-menopausal women and young men, though not – god bless patriarchy – old men and nubile young women.) Any love relationship, between whichever two people are involved, may or may not result in procreation. Procreation and love are separate issues, and any moral system that fails to understand this has no serious claims to intellectual value.
Is fear of producing a genetically ‘defective’ child really a good reason for two people not to have sex? Very quickly this line of argument takes on uncomfortably eugenicist colourings. Furthermore, it is not only sexually active siblings who are at risk of creating genetically problematic children. Two completely unrelated people stand a risk of producing a haemophiliac child, for instance. If we’re being consistent here we should require everyone to undergo sophisticated genetic screening before the age of 12 or so, and to be put into a database so that, before having sex with any member of the opposite sex they can determine whether they are ‘morally’ allowed on grounds of the likelihood of genetic interactions between them producing ‘wrong’ children.
There may be other arguments against incest that I haven’t mentioned, and dismissing these three main ones is no encouragement for siblings to mate. (Obvious arguments against, for instance, intergenerational incest, are not unique to incest: power relations between old and young figure too in non-incestuous relationships.) Given the social pressures against it, it is a phenomenally difficult life choice to consider, though people do take hard life choices for love: ‘interracial marriages’ in early 20th-century America, for instance.
But how does this all relate to Nadine Dorries’s barely concealed war on abortion? I wouldn’t take more than the time it takes to write this blogpost (or to discuss the Siegmund/Sieglinde relationship in my Wagner seminars) to stand up for incest, but would make concerted and loud efforts to protect a woman’s right to abortion. Yet they are, despite the difference of scale (all women potentially need the right to abortion; probably very few people want incestuous relationships) broadly parallel situations. The arguments from ick, (non-)religious morality, and biology all come into play. Aborting a ‘baby’ or an ‘unborn child’ (rather than a clump of cells) is icky, for starters: the thing will clutch your hand as it comes out, dying, according to one particularly vivid myth. The holiness and sanctity of ‘life’ (here, a thing that cells have but women do not) makes it an affront to any particular god to ‘kill’ it. (Killing spiders, or microbes, alike god’s creations, carries of course no such moral opprobrium, but by now we should not expect consistency.) The non-biological moral argument is the argument for the unborn child or for the father: why don’t they get a say, the question goes. And on biological grounds, it is a woman’s ‘natural’ function, the reason why she ‘lacks’ a penis, that she should gestate and suckle a contribution to the next generation. Taken separately or rolled together, those reasons justify, in the minds of anti-abortionists, the restriction of the freedom of the Other to have abortions. Icky, (non-)religious morality, or biological prejudice makes people feel justified in preventing others from undertaking behaviour that they themselves do not want to perform: like me preventing people eating mushrooms just because I despise them. The Other must be sanitized and controlled so that it is like me.
The disgust most people feel at the decisions that some other people take, for all we know in conditions of real, if difficult to comprehend, love (incestuous, gay, intergenerational, interracial, whatever), is a structural parallel of the disgust and horror that anti-abortionists feel at the Other’s performance of this fundamental human freedom. That is why as a force the war on abortion, only one manifestation of psychological horror in the face of the Other, is unlikely to go away. Of course I’m making a deliberately spectacular comparison of abortion to gay marriage and incest. They’re radically different things, but they share the ineradicable and vital element of the universal human urge to control other people’s bodies. They are cases where the moral question is not ‘What should I do for the general good?’ but ‘What should I legislate to prevent other people from doing, simply because it disgusts me?’ And while that is psychologically comprehensible, it is a moral error.