“WE CAN’T CHANGE THE DEFINITION OF MARRIAGE!” – the irrationality of worshipping the dictionary

I’ve been saying the following for months, but with the Commons vote on Equal Marriage rights finally on the doorstep, I want to reiterate it once more.

If you, like me, have the sadomasochistic tendencies required to want to read the comments sections on newspaper websites, you will be more than familiar with the argument that “marriage is between a man and a woman”. This is the same argument which, ad nauseam, we’ve been hearing from the Church for months.

Take this spectacular rendition of this horror show of an argument from Guardian contributor Lionel (who, for someone so evidently irate about the editorial practices of the Guardian, seems to have a surprisingly good knowledge of their recent publishing history – see the rest of his comment by following the link);

I’m not blinded by a fear of homosexuality or by bronze-age superstition, but it greatly distresses me to see how papers like the Guardian have agreed to go along with this unilateral attentuation of the English language. In all my seventy years on Earth, minus maybe the last two or three, the word “marriage” has denoted strictly a relationship between a man and a woman. If two homosexuals want to live under contractual conditions as close as possible analogous to what obtain between a married man and woman, fine, I am one of those many who have no objection, but why must English be interfered with? And why must a paper like the Guardian, a fine paper in its better moments, take part in this Orwellian practice of wiping out nuances?

Aside from my inability to recall the section of 1984 where Orwell warns us that the inevitable and terrible consequence of totalitarianism would be rights for gay people, I have to wonder why this commenter, like so many others, cares so deeply about the continuation and conservatism of the official definitions of language.

We could raise questions about whether, at a moral level, the impulse (for those who have it) to preserve the status of words should have any real significance, when there is so much to be gained in terms of equality, fairness and social cohesion from the opposite.

I could go on about the fluid nature of language and meaning. An important consequence of that argument would be the ability to point out that the meaning of the term “marriage” may well already have changed in the minds of many, and simply preserving the dictionary definition of it in the face of that is just stubborn folly.

Instead, for now, I want to focus on one specific thing – the sheer hypocrisy. The baffling hypocrisy of those who suddenly are so passionate about arbitrarily preserving the dictionary definition of words, yet who seem to have sat idly by for generations whilst we’ve changed the meaning of many other words, without batting an eyelid.

Every June, the publishers of the OED put up a list of the new entries they’ve created. Here’s June 2012’s. I anticipated it being long, but the sheer length even surprised me. Did these language-obsessives weep bitter tears upon the addition of the terms “paywall”, “dogtrot” and “apatosaur” to the dictionary? (An apatosaur, by the way, is a very large dinosaur from the late Jurassic period.) When the Australian Macquarie dictionary changed the definition of “mysogyny” from “hatred of women” to “entrenched prejudice against women”, were Lionel and his mates howling at their TV screens in disbelief and anguish? The definition of “flying” had probably been static for millennia prior to the invention of the airplane. I’m not sure anybody went ape about that alteration to the English language – rather, they probably welcomed it as progress.

No. People usually don’t care when the definition of words changes. In fact, they usually couldn’t care less. Because it doesn’t matter. If anyone genuinely profoundly objects to us changing the meaning of words when it’s appropriate to do so, they probably need to seek help.

The meaning of words changes all the time. One cannot selectively start objecting to this established fact now that the definition of “marriage” is going to change from a “union between a man and a woman” to a “union between two people”. Rather, you could stop stubbornly clinging to Victorian concepts against the changing tide of history.


The Monarchy: Give Them an Inch and They’ll… Become an Inappropriately Influencial Lobby?

The Queen sits between David Cameron and William Hague at a Downing Street cabinet meeting on the 18th December 2012.

The Queen sits between David Cameron and William Hague at a Downing Street cabinet meeting on the 18th December 2012.

At the moment, the national debate on whether we want to continue to have an inherited monarch as our Head of State is quiet. There is still plenty of grumbling from the liberal left, but it’s recognised that this is an issue which has little currency with the majority, and it’s hardly a priority for all but the most fervent. However, it is impossible for us to know whether this is okay or not, because we don’t know whether the terms of said consensus are valid. Accordingly, it is crucial that the relationship between the political elite and the social elite is made more transparent.

What I term, in the title of this post, the “standard conservative” defence of the monarchy is, I will confess, anecdotal. It is what I almost always encounter when I, as a tentative republican, suggest that we perhaps don’t require the monarchy, and it goes something like this;

  1. The Royal Family more than outweigh the financial burden they impose because they generate so much revenue via tourism.
  2. Although it would be unacceptable and undemocratic to have a monarchic ruler, this is not the role that the Queen plays. Her political role is purely ceremonial.
  3. The monarchy are popular with the public, perform a public service (the aforementioned ceremonial role) and represent part of our culture and history.
  4. Ergo, so long as (1) and (2) remain true, the validity of (3) means that the British monarchy is a good thing.

Patently, however, the value of this justification is dependent on points (1) and (2) remaining true. Point 1 is always contentious, but I don’t want to enter that debate right now. It is the second part of the argument which concerns me – do the Royals have an undemocratic influence on our politicians?

Today we found out that Prince Charlie has been liberally chatting up cabinet ministers* for the last 12 months;

Prince Charles has held private meetings with eight government ministers in the last 12 months, including Michael Gove, the education secretary, and Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury.

Palace records show he also met with ministers with responsibility for defence, culture and further education, as well as top civil servants involved in British defence interests in the Middle East and the UK economy.

Details of the meetings with senior political figures in the Westminster and Cardiff governments, including why they were held and what was discussed, have not been not made public, in line with a convention of secrecy around communication between both the Queen and the heir to the throne and government ministers.

[via Guardian Online – Robert Booth]

This is significant. We should be clear – although I don’t personally like it – that there’s nothing inherently wrong with Prince Charles meeting government ministers and discussing state business. Ministers meet all kinds of people, all the time. It was well highlighted when the Queen attended Cabinet that she was only doing the same as many others have done (it was pointed out by a former cabinet secretary that Lord Coe attended cabinet whilst the London 2012 bid was being prepared). If they wanted to, the likes of Gove and Alexander would be well within their rights to hold meetings with the Merseyside Spelunking Society.** The important question is: does Prince Charles wield undue influence because he is the Prince of Wales?

The complexity of “undue influence” is incredibly difficult to unravel, and I’m not going to attempt it here. What I think we can say is that if ministers go out of their way – change their plans, feel pressure – because of conversations they have with members of the Royal Family in their capacity as Royals, then this is a problem. At the very least, it would mean we need a new national debate about the Royals. My intuition is that the sweeping popularity of the Royal Family, highlighted by the Royal Wedding, doesn’t extend to the Royals wielding significant undemocratic political influence. Whether or not it does, I certainly don’t think that this – “do you want the Queen and her offspring to hold a notable role in determining national policy?” – is the question most people have in mind when they say that they endorse the monarchy.

But to really form opinions on this, and know whether we do need a reappraisal, first we need to know what actually goes on in these meetings, and crucially why it’s deemed appropriate to hold them. It may be that there is no problem at all, but we can’t know this. We must have more transparency.

* Not literally.
** I have no idea whether this society actually exists. If it does, I mean no offence.

Bullying Tories

A couple of days ago, if you’d told me that Tories at Oxford in the 80s were being bullied for supporting Margaret Thatcher, I’d have raised an eyebrow to say the least. That was until I read this;

“Miss Wyatt,” said the don, Harry Pitt (now deceased), “please translate the first paragraph.” I stumbled over it. A small man with a face like cake batter, Pitt was big on bile.

“Do Thatcherites refuse to learn French or are they just stupid?” he demanded. The other undergraduates giggled. Tears pricked the back of my eyes. “I suggest you take some basic French lessons in your spare time – that is, if you’re not too busy socialising,” Pitt snarled.

[Petronella Wyatt in the Telegraph, 2012]

I am intuitively sceptical about the OUCA’s claim that they are in need of equal opportunities protection. I’ve seen first hand the tendency of right-wing students to say awful, bigoted things reminiscent of some dreadful Mail article, and then express horror when the response is intensely negative, and it’s important to be sure that this isn’t what’s going on at Oxford. (Incidentally, I’ve also watched, first hand, drunken Conservative students chant “we pay your benefits” at passers-by – being nice is a two-way thing.)

That said, it would be a sad day if simply being an 18 year old Tory merits “personal attacks”, and Wyatt’s case in particular includes clear examples of unacceptable levels of victimisation and bullying.

It’s worth consideration.

Hello again.

This is the first post on this blog for a very long time.

The reason for my unannounced break is that, in September, I started at a new University, reading Medicine in a Graduate Entry Programme (in other words, “thrown in at the deep end”), and have since been extremely busy trying to get my head around my new world.

I always intended to come back to this blog, because I reason that regularly maintaining it would give me a guarantee that my newfound, scientific path won’t completely stifle my ability to think about society, politics and philosophy. I’m finally getting round to it!

As a point of interest, it pleased me a lot to note upon signing in to WordPress that the views haven’t completely dried up. This may well be the product of clumsy Google searches, but it’s still nice to imagine that, after the initial rush of views no doubt largely attributable to my Facebook and Twitter friends, these posts might continue to be read.

Hopefully, in the coming days, more posts will follow this one.

Viennese Whirl – Assange, Ecuador and the Vienna Convention


Ricardo Patino, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister, is pretty angry about a threat by the UK to storm the Ecuadorian Embassy in Knightsbridge to arrest Julian Assange, who is seeking diplomatic sanctuary and political asylum there. Something that caught my eye reading about this was the citation on both sides of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations: the Foreign Office believes that Ecuador hosting Assange unconditionally in their Embassy is in violation of the Convention, whilst the Ecuadorians believe that the threat to storm the Embassy is in violation of the Convention. I thought, accordingly, I’d do a bit of research to try to figure out who’s right here.

The first thing to note is that this debate is always going to be a tougher battle for the UK. Ecuador can cite the very explicit Article 22 of the Convention, quoted here in full;

1. The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.

2. The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission of impairment of its dignity.

3. The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.

That’s fairly clear stuff, and it’s almost as if it’s written in response to the current story – the premises are inviolable and are explicitly rendered immune from search.

The UK, however, might wish to swiftly retort with clause 3 of Article 41;

The premises of the mission must not be used in any manner incompatible with the functions of the mission as laid down in the present Convention or by other rules of general international law or by any special agreements in force between the sending and the receiving State.

That the UK considers that the use of the Knightsbridge property to secure Assange to be in contradiction with the “functions of the mission” seems fairly clear from the letter they sent to the Ecuadorians;

We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna convention and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations.

So what are the “functions of the mission”? Well, I’m no expert on international law, and I suspect we’d need one to give a definitive, all-encompassing answer to that question. A helpful start, though, is Article 3 of the Convention, which sets out the following;

1. The functions of a diplomatic mission consist, inter alia, in:

(a) Representing the sending State in the receiving State;

(b) Protecting in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and of its nationals, within the limits permitted by international law;

(c) Negotiating with the Government of the receiving State;

(d) Ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State, and reporting thereon to the Government of the sending state;

(e) Promoting friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving State, and developing their economic, cultural and scientific relations.

So it seems to me that if Assange is granted political asylum in Ecuador later today, under part (b), the use off the Embassy to house him should become legitimate. But what until then? What about the situation up until now, which the Foreign Office are so obviously peeved about?

I can’t see anything clear in the above quote which sets out that they have the right to house fugitives and applicants for diplomatic sanctuary. One complication is that they are supposed to avoid using the premises in a way which might contradict functions of the mission, so alongside the potential lack of affirmative rights to house Assange, it seems they also need to consider the apparent negative impact of the contradiction to part (e) of the above quote.

At the same time, I can’t really see anything definitive which says they can’t use their embassy in that way.

It’s all a bit cloudy. The picture I’m getting, however, is that we may have a stalemate between two vague elements of the law. If Assange is granted asylum then it seems that he should then be allowed to stay in the Embassy – unless, under Article 9, the UK informs Ecuador that he is persona non grata and gives them notice to remove him to Ecuador. The thing is, that doesn’t seem in the Foreign Office’s interest, because they actually have to let Ecuador do it – i.e. they couldn’t arrest him on his way to the airport as many in the media are speculating that they might.

In short, I hope Mr Assange is comfortable in that Embassy.

Of course, a very different story emerges if he is not granted asylum. I can only see that ending with him walking out of the Ecuadorian embassy and immediately being arrested.

References to the Vienna Convention are to the UN Convention on Diplomatic Relations signed in Vienna on 18 April 1961 and enacted on 24 April 1964. Available at “United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 500, p. 95″.

Bad Badminton and Hearty Hypocrisy

N.B. I normally try to avoid the inclusion of personal anecdotes in my blog posts. This post does include a bit of waffle about a personal experience, for which I apologise. I shall try very hard not to do it again.

Badminton players discuss with referee

In case you’ve been living under a rock, eight badminton players have been disqualified from the Olympic games after appearing to deliberately and farcically throw a match in order to obtain a more favourable draw in the next round. Spectators booed, Lord Coe condemned it as “depressing”, and (hugely qualified commentator on sporting matters) Piers Morgan has spent most of the morning tirading about the affair on Twitter, culminating in;

I’m not a fan of this condemnation at all. That’s not to say I endorse their actions: I simply can’t envisage wanting to succeed through corrupt means. Slightly clichéd as this might sound, I do think success is sweeter when you know you’ve done things the right way. My problem is that it’s all so hypocritical. Firstly, let’s take Piersy. He, with no sense of his own hypocrisy, followed up his ranting about the badminton players with a barrage of rhetoric about the value of coming first and how nothing else counts, e.g.

Morgan’s hypocrisy is much the same as the rest of the UK media. The BBC, for example, stopped showing the medal table in the TV coverage when it became evident that the UK’s lowly position of 21st wasn’t going to be vastly improved any time soon. The papers this morning were full of stories about the wait for Britain to win a gold, with everyone asking “is this the day?” every day. The media demands gold medals and success from our athletes, their coaches and support staff, and heaps inordinate amounts of pressure on them to succeed. Little surprise, then, that teams plot and scheme to optimise their chances of success.

I think it goes wider though, and here’s the awful personal stuff. It seems that as a nation, we heartily condone cheating and scheming (albeit within the rules) in order to get ahead. David Cameron famously told us that he was “very relaxed” about handing out invaluable internships to personal contacts. In the midst of the competitive application process for Graduate Entry Medicine, I repeatedly refused to use personal contacts in order to gain experience that others couldn’t access, insisting on sticking to the proper channels. I was told by friends and family alike that I was, bluntly, a fool. I remember such comments (from unnamed sources) as, “what on earth are you doing?” and “if you think you’re being noble, you’re an idiot”.

My take, thus, is that it’s really bizarre for there to be such an intense backlash against the conduct of these badminton players, undesirable as it may be. Such plotting to get ahead is the stuff of everyday life – what Cameron categorises as the essential nature of the modern world. We just don’t want to see it, so it’s unacceptable when it comes to sports people. I think this should be a cause for reflection.

Beyond that though, I want to move back to the more solid, earlier point, which should stand up regardless of how you take the point about internships, experience and such. Our media is braying for gold medals as if there’s no tomorrow, but has no hesitation in condemning those who discard propriety in pursuit of the same goals.

People in glass houses, and all…

George Osborne has to go, but probably won’t.

Vince Cable said to much media response this week that he thinks he’d make a good Chancellor, in a blatant hint to the Prime Minister that he thinks Chancellor George Osborne needs to go. I’m skeptical about how great Cable would really be – after being elevated to the position of “politician who might actually be a decent bloke” before the election, since the origin of the coalition he’s been habitually disappointing, favouring dark, egotistical murmurings about how much control he really, secretly has over the government over actually doing anything about the deluge of crap his party has been complicit in.

George Osborne

George Osborne

At the same time, I think Osborne’s position is beginning to look rather uncomfortable. The Tories have been celebrating the announcement by self-important, American bank sponsored, credit-rating agency Standard and Poors that our prized (don’t worry, any regular readers, I’m not going to start talking about Freud again) AAA credit rating is safe (for now).

But Osborne and his OBR (no, it’s not ‘independent’) were promising us growth at this stage – steady growth at 3%, in fact. Actually, what we have are squabbles between economists over whether the official data (which suggests that we’re actually still in recession) is quite accurate or not – either way, there’s no dispute that we’re stagnating, and that nothing is getting better.

GDP graph

UK GDP since 1980, courtesy of Sky News Online

All the discourse from Osborne is that of the trenches – we will not be swayed, we will hold fast to the course, and grind it out – when what we’re all waiting to hear is a plan, something different, a novel map for how we’re going to generate growth.

At the same time, stunningly, we here speculation over how much time Osborne actually spends on his job – a job which is one of the most important in the nation. Surely he should spend every waking hour trying to come up with a way to generate growth?!

Small wonder that in a very interesting article by Will Hutton (seriously, read it), he suggests that Osborne is the worst Chancellor of recent times;

His problem is that he is intellectually wrong, very unlucky and far too political for his own good. His eight predecessors certainly made mistakes: all were too complicit in financial deregulation, none interested themselves enough in creating structures to drive investment and innovation, and the Tory group was too indifferent to unemployment. Yet all would have been more careful to preserve the fabric of the country even as they tackled today’s deficit; all would have sought a more reasonable balance between tax rises and spending cuts – and many would have experimented with Lamont’s timing about exiting a recession.

Krugman has long been talking about the ‘confidence fairy’ – the mistaken belief that if you can cut deficits and talk the talk, then this economic mess will resolve itself because everybody will become confident in the ability of the government to sort it out and miraculously start lending, spending and generating.

I dare guess that Krugman is correct to say that the fairy doesn’t exist – we’ll need something solid from the government; a change of policy, much like that suggested by the IMF last week. But the Tories are invested in the belief that it does exist, that it will emerge, and that if we hold fast to course growth will come sooner or later.

There’s three options, then. The first is to abandon that policy, and to introduce some much more significant expansionary activity. That would probably, but not essentially, involve sacking Osborne. The second is to stick tight and true to the policy of clinging on for confidence – that would necessitate ditching a Chancellor who is increasingly inspiring apathy and despair. A final option would be to continue to pay lip service to that policy whilst continuing to support Osborne, which seems almost contradictory. We will have no, or limited, policy for growth, except to hope for confidence – a message which will be pushed by a Chancellor who is achieving nothing and inspires nobody.

Despite all that, I have serious doubts over how easily Cameron can sack Osborne. Cameron is still seen as a lefty in the Tory party. In the leadership contest first round, the majority of the party voted for one of the two “right-wing” candidates, Fox and Davis. Osborne is regarded as a true Thatcherite, and popular with a lot of the party on that basis. He holds a senior position in the party itself. Could Cameron so easily set him aside?

Let’s see.

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