DO YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE MORE THAN RAINBOWS IT IS PICTURES OF TWO WHITE PLASTIC MEN ON TOP OF A FUCKING CAKE. Helen Razer, April 19 2013.
Razer’s tweet caused me to reflect on sentimentality, what it is, and just how much it has to do with our society’s attachment to getting married. It seems to me that rainbows, and cakes such as the above, symbolise easily accessible emotions and contribute to a wider cultural inclination to substitute such emotions for critical thinking and reason. This isn’t peculiar to same-sex weddings: there seems to me to be a strong element of the sentimental in the very nature of weddings, no matter how “tasteful.” Which, of course, can be half the fun, but just how much does that aspect blind us to the faults of the institution?
“Sentimental” is in current usage a pejorative term, though it was not always thus. The sentimental is considered shallow, excessive, spurious, dishonest, false, and mawkish. It is emotion devoid of reason and critical judgement, indeed the sentimental stands accused of privileging diluted and short-lived emotional experience over logic to such a degree, that ethical and intellectual judgements that ought to be applied to a situation are abandoned in favour of the thrill of a temporarily heightened state.
In a sense, the sentimental has served to obfuscate the debate we have to have, which is about the institution of marriage itself, and redirected our attention and energies to the question of marriage equality. I don’t think anyone can deny the presence of the sentimental in this dispute, and perhaps the wonderfully excessive Maori wedding song sung by that joyous group in the New Zealand parliament the other day is an indicator of the rush of heightened emotion associated with all weddings, but especially so when those weddings have been forbidden and are now sanctioned. We don’t think about the failings of the institution, and how it functions in society, so carried away are we by the uncomplicated thrillingness of the romance of it.
I have to say here that as long as we have marriage in our culture and remain in its thrall, there is no question but that it ought to be available to everyone who desires it and is of an age to consent. Forbidding a group of people what they very much want to have while it is freely available to everyone else, simply on the grounds that they have the same genitalia, is absolutely wrong, and counter productive. The marriage equality debate brilliantly demonstrates how we are distracted from arguing the deeper considerations of the ethics of the institution itself.
No one who wants to marry and is prevented by our laws from doing so, is going to want to start questioning the institution from which they are unfairly excluded, because the exclusion and the desire to be admitted will take precedence. I don’t believe we will be in any position to seriously challenge marriage until it is available to everyone, and the dust of the fight for equality has settled.
Rainbows, hearts, and plastic gay or heterosexual couples on excessive confectionery, can be read as symbols of the sentimental, signifying a dominant aesthetic of sentimentality that obscures the deeper questions and feelings, and quite rightly thoroughly aggravates observers such as Razer who rail against our collective willingness to settle for the sentimental, and allow it to dull our judgement and reason. Judgement and reason ought to cause us to first think critically about this institution we are celebrating: sentimentality seduces us into settling for the heightened emotion that inevitably surrounds the desire of two people to commit themselves to lifelong state-sanctioned monogamy. Sentimentality is strongly present in that desire: the desire is, I would argue, not born of logic and reason, and it is perhaps not particularly ethical either, unless qualified as an intention, rather than a vow.
I recall a wedding a few years ago, non-religious, colourful and casual, pretty much your north coast upmarket hippy event, and a lot of fun. After the couple exchanged their vows, a friend standing next to me said in a voice that was much louder than she’d intended, owing to a sudden lull in the celebrations, “Well, it’s all down hill from here.” The bride and groom looked aghast. I dug her hard in the ribs with my elbow. “Well, it’s true,” she hissed at me defensively. “I know, but you don’t have to bloody well say it,” I hissed back.
All the weddings I’ve attended have been joyful, including both of my own. But there has been a great deal of sentimentality associated with them and more, with the idea of them. Personally I’m very taken with the love and hope that cause two people to throw their lot in together for life. I suppose that’s why I’ve done it twice and would probably do it again, because third time lucky and anyway I’m closer to death than I was the first two times.
The impulse to fidelity and mutual trust seems to me a worthy one, however I think I would add “To the best of my ability” or “I’ll do my very best” next time, because one never knows what’s ahead, and reason and logic suggest vows are sentimental in their very nature, and therefore untrustworthy.
Then there is the question of the regulation of the expression of emotion. It makes people very happy to marry one another at the time, and on the whole. It usually, one hopes, makes their friends and relations happy as well. Who has any right to deny others this happiness, even if the aesthetics and politics of it are not to one’s taste?
Yes, the institution may be a flawed foundation stone of a conservative agenda. Yes, conservatives love marriage because they love what they consider family. There is actually nothing in the least bit wrong with loving family, it is the traditional conservative notion of what a family consists of that is at fault here.
That the state has no business deciding who may or may not marry is a given. The fact that our Prime Minister does not approve of marriage equality ought to be of no consequence to anyone other than Ms Gillard herself. Nobody will make her marry another girl. It is remarkable to me that Ms Gillard, herself living in a de facto relationship, continues to take this obstructionist stand against marriage equality. Apparently marriage is not an institution she values for herself, yet she is perfectly willing to deny it to others on the spurious grounds that it is supposed to take place only between a man and a woman.
It is not so very long ago that Ms Gillard’s de facto relationship would have made her occupation of the Lodge an impossibility. The Prime Minister has much to be grateful for. Society’s changes have worked to her great advantage. Why then, does Ms Gillard persist in denying these same advantages to others? I’m certain her stand has little or nothing to do with the sentimental.