Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
I want to write about assisted suicide, the baking of pro-gay cakes, and the impossibility of the law. I probably will. But I saw a demon this week, and his face is haunting me. Perhaps I should leave him until later.
Should Christian bakers be forced to produce pro-gay marriage cakes? Should the governing body of ballroom, the British Dance Council, be allowed to ban same-sex couples from participating in their contests?
Cakes and dancing: not natural bedfellows, perhaps, but these fusses are one of modern Britain’s running “isshoos”. Can religious conscience be squared with equality “under the law”?
There are two simple answers, each (honestly) available to two mutually distinct groups of citizens. If you’re a Leftist secularist, the answer to the cake-baking question is “Yes.” The bakers have no right to inflict their private views about religion on their customers. Refusing to bake “gay cakes” is no different (morally) to hanging “No blacks, no Irish” signs outside a guest house.
This is the argument used against that small number of bed-and-breakfast hoteliers who don’t want gay couples to sleep under their roofs. If you offer a public service, you have to offer it on equal terms to every citizen. And if you won’t, you deserve to be criminalised.
At the other end of the political bell-curve are those for whom religious freedom and property rights trump all other matters. Of course the British Dance Council has the right to insist that only couples consisting of “one man and one lady” may participate in amateur and professional competitions. No-one is forced to dance (Arlene Phillips may disagree.) The British Dance Council isn’t an arm of the state. If gay people want to dance, let them set up their own Council (there used to be a Sunday tea dance in Limehouse for exactly this purpose.)
If I now label both the Left-secular and Right-religious views as “extreme”, I do so in only a statistical sense: I don’t think there’s anything politically “extreme” about either side’s proposition. These views are extreme in that only a small minority of voters would apply either the secular or the conscience rule universally.
Most of us – the bulk of the bell-curve – can agree with both propositions at once, or with both views in different circumstances. In these two cases, for example, I think that prosecuting the bakers would be ridiculous, but I also think the British Dance Council should be shamed into repealing its same-sex ban.
So how can we produce a law, a rule, that will apply justly in all circumstances? We can’t; we should stop trying. We need to learn to live with messy pluralism. Two guys dancing together won’t kill anyone; the Dance Council should grow up. So should the bakers; but until they do, buy your cake elsewhere.
There’s a resonance here with the assisted dying proposals. That debate, too, devolves into a Left-secular vs Right-religious polarity, though (honestly) I think there’s less doubt that most voters support reform.
The problem is to understand how the effectively infinite (as far as lawmakers are concerned) number of end-of-life experiences could safely be codified into a few pages of a law. That a law would be required to protect the vulnerable is something on which everyone agrees.
What fewer seem willing to consider is that many vulnerable people are now helped to exit life comfortably (through the application of “pain killers”) precisely because of a law’s absence. If I’m “just dying” (i.e. clearly close to the end of my life), and I’m no longer conscious, and the physician asks my family if they don’t think I might like a stronger opiate to help me with my obvious discomfort: will a new law allow the unspoken words, that hang heavy in such rooms, to remain unspoken?
The demon, then. There exist angels among us, whose magic is that most worthwhile miracle: the good things that human beings can do. (Kindness, mostly.) Angels are here to remind us to be better people.
It follows there must be demons, also? One appeared in my dream last week (don’t quibble with this manifestation: Iris Murdoch wrote about dreams, how they give us the power to haunt one another, and that there is nothing that can be done to prevent such a haunting, which makes a dream both real, and powerful.)
I was part of a crowd that was rushing forward – I didn’t know where we were heading, only that each of us was powerless to resist, or had decided to act as though this were the case. There was an exhilaration to the flow, the presence of danger: “what if someone falls?” We – the dream-we – knew exactly what would happen. We surged onward.
Somewhere in front of me, a black-haired man turned his face to me, and met my eye; a still-point within the maelstrom. This was a demon, I knew at once, with that sudden inrush of dream-certainty. Look at his knowing, callous features! He was one of the “ringleaders” who’d pushed the crowd to its frenzy, was orchestrating the mindless, headlong crush of running bodies. He knows what disaster is coming, and it makes him glad. That sudden realisation gasped me awake.
Where I reflected, as the sweat cooled, thus: the dream was real, and so, therefore, was the demon. But he existed within me; either I invented him, or was “open” to him while asleep.
What’s worse? To have forged the demon in one’s own subconscious? Or passively to let him in? I’m not sure. I do know that I’m left opposed to the passage of an assisted dying bill, at least for now. It’s not wrong to stand back from an onward surge; not always. Not till you’re sure why you’re pushing.