It’s a funny thing, the enigma that is Choice. Do we, don’t we; free will, fate; agency, society’s fixed pathways. Exerting its control over us with more than a splash of irony, whether we have it or not, Choice has been seen to be a bit of an all-or-nothing, absolute concept, one that produces a clear outcome, a tangible end product that we carry with us as we scrutinise our decisions and see if hindsight measures up to precognition. But this digital divide, this binary barrier, of yes or no, on or off, is arguably one of the things holding us back from evolving into a society that lives up to its billing: civilisation. This uniquely human effort to break free of some of the more restrictive shackles of our primordial origins, origins which have until now and will continue to serve us well, no doubt; ‘see lion, run away from lion’ has stood the test of time pretty well. But if we constantly seek improvement, and it appears that we do, then Choice is going to have to lighten up a little and give us a little more to go on.
We ourselves are the results of Choice, its personification, and living breathing examples of why it is so important. In short, we are Choice. And we’ve taken control of the reins of late, with each generation endeavouring to outdo their predecessors by creating – or at least attempting to do so – more and more opportunities for more and more people. Opportunities can be daunting, though, and so we often grasp at thin air, desperately reaching out for something, anything, to cling to in our efforts to make our environment more predictable, easier to negotiate, and less likely to bring on a coronary event by surprising us with a curve ball. The tried and trusted lifeboats that admirably if misguidedly have kept us afloat hitherto, well, these venerable institutions, be they physical or abstract, will, like all lifeboats, need maintenance, and perhaps even replacing. Clinging to these institutions, we somehow or another nearly always made progress, and so their tenets are worthy of closer inspection
Clear distinctions are something I personally yearn for; to take the thinking out of something greatly simplifies the burden of existence. Instead of unsignposted crossroads, numeric, unambiguous signs advise us of which exit to take next, their flashing lights entering on just about all levels of consciousness, subliminally directing our unconscious to keep track when a conversation hogs our precious resources or a personally relevant song bounces across the airwaves. While being necessary and manifold in our daily lives, clear distinctions are the domain of circuit boards and disciplines that necessitate Boolean thinking. They’re not so much an addictive substance as a core elixir of society’s fabric, called upon immediately when required but used discretionally and sparingly at all other times. This all points towards that morally ambiguous beast, that indecisive rogue, the loitering vagabond that straddles the fence and is known to us all as the ‘grey area.’
Sustained by homo sapien’s inherent capacity for deception and contradiction, and deployed by a great many exemplars of the aforementioned species, the grey area leads us down dark alleys only to unexpectedly find hidden exits exist. We change our minds; what was once right is now wrong; or, like the essay of an student not brave enough to take a side, the middle ground is black with people. You wouldn’t steal a car, they warn us in the agonising build up to the main feature, urging us to be a little more consistent in our efforts to be good citizens. But the greyness that exists out there is so luminous, so prominent, so ubiquitous, that, at the very least, it needs to be acknowledged, and it’s not beyond the realms that it could one day form the apex of a very special and equilateral triangle, a triangle with black and white and the newly christened g(r)ay with a silent ‘r.’ This trinary delight, this shady threesome of shades, would, of course, be open to suggestion, with squares, pentagons, hexagons not being out of the question. Hell, why not open things up to polygamy – I mean, of course, polygons of all shapes and sizes.
Given this g(r)aynesss, the underlying principles of one of the aforementioned institutions, namely, Tradition, take on a whole new light. Often manifesting itself in discourses and philosophies that are never far removed from “that’s how we do things around here,” Tradition has hidden behind its own shadow since time immemorial. Built into Tradition, however, is a latent and subtle mechanism which facilitates change if and when the time is deemed to be right. This hard and fast, this resolute institution, which has stayed the same only in name, is the consummate shapeshifter, a morphing and dynamic creature of great flexibility. The chameleon of the world of abstract concepts, it waits, waits, and waits, observing its environment, and at the most appropriate moment, seizes its opportunity and changes its form to seamlessly blend in with whichever prevailing opinion is causing the most uproar at any given time. This inherent g(r)ayness in Tradition, while diminishing its standing in some people’s eyes, has cleared a path for just about every change to our customs; too many to mention, really, but a few stand out more than others.
In 1922, women in Ireland were granted the same voting rights as their male counterparts. Deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes had been traditional – and as we all know, it seems we’ve yet to clear the final hurdle in this ongoing campaign of discrimination against women, for it seems that vision of the eyes but not of progressiveness pass through the glass ceiling – everywhere, and when the women’s suffrage movement gained enough currency to take it to the masses, a rethink was necessary. On the ropes, Tradition faltered a little at first, with the pants-wearing conscientious objectors advancing arguments of all shapes and sizes expect for ones that had a leg to stand on. Then, calling on its limitless reserves of flexibility, which usually turn up right around the point at which the old order would crumble and be overthrown anyway, that g(r)ayness emerges from the ether, taking in equal measures the emerging light of dawn and the encroaching darkness of dusk, the amalgamation of which eventually creates the era-friendly way forward. Blazing a trail, we compromise. There are an infinite number of ways to do an infinite number of things, and barring coercion, abuse, violence, and all the other behaviours and attitudes that impinge upon free will, it’s incumbent upon us to accommodate as many of these different approaches to living as we can.
Sadly, the tempestuous relationship between women and Tradition goes far beyond the polling booths. At some points in time in certain countries – yes, Ireland, we’re still looking at you – a married woman couldn’t refuse her husband sex. Marital rape was A-ok. It was a duty, a service performed by women, one they were obliged to fulfil. Unquestioned for generations, perhaps even centuries, it was another of these traditions, the tacit agreements forming the foundations of our social bridges, and back in the twentieth century, with new ideas, incontestable arguments – common sense now, yes, but it takes time for sense to become common – and the passage of time, we realised the error of our ways and the laws were amended accordingly. The traditions we base our behaviour on are as flawed as their fallible creators; AND their fallible implementers; AND their fallible perpetuators. That would be us, then.
Religion plays its part too. It’s damn near centre stage in some ways, although the government seem to have made some efforts to distance themselves from the various churches’ stances. Violations of directives – okay, let’s call them sins, for when in the Vatican, do it like catechism – are frowned upon by all spiritual movements and world religions, but it is the interwoven nature of these directives that catches one’s attention the most. (Apologies for the Roman Catholic bias, but it is what I was indoctrinated with by my society as a child). Liberties are often taken with biblical interpretations, with ambiguity engulfing the issue of, for example, masturbation. Those who abstain or at least confess – a show of hands please, and leave your hands up where they’ll be out of harm’s way! – might be granted an audience with St. Peter while those who don’t – keep your hands down, we’ll just subtract the infinitesimally small first showing from the planet’s population – are destined to journey wearily the road to perdition. But what is this, this blatant disregard for directives, this self-serving behaviour and greedy hedonism?
Many have moved on. Adherents, as is their right, will adhere, but moral codes have shifted – were they always there, and some were just too afraid to practice them openly? – and secularism is on the rise. Mass exodus – a happy accident, the pun – notwithstanding, what of the core teachings etched in stone and retrieved from the hills? “Honour thy father and thy mother” can just be taken in its literal sense but it also oozes respect, conjuring up paradises in which the decisions and wishes of others are tolerated, even celebrated. And “love thy neighbour as thyself,” well, wow! Credit where credit is due – although the editors back in the day might have a thing or two to answer for! – as to so succinctly and eloquently encapsulate our mission in this life is a crowning achievement and surely one of religion’s great contributions to our cause; it must be said, however, that this sentiment is likely to have pre-dated organised religion, for though primitive, we were often noble in our savagery.
Cross-tolerance, mutual respect, and acceptance are surely the keys to unlock a more harmonious future, a future in which our neighbour’s choices and lifestyle are respected, a future in which we rejoice at diversity, and share equally our cramped spaces even though our views may differ. This future can redefine Tradition as a malleable, fluid entity, one that takes stock of what we’ve learnt from the past and looks at the ever-emerging schools of thought that continually seek to redefine what it is to be a person and what it is to live in this exciting world of ours.
Running to Tradition in opposing same-sex marriage is tantamount to endorsing some of the more embarrassing traditions we’ve thankfully left behind us. Turning to religion is somewhat of a catch-22 – disapprove because it’s a violation of a directive but, in loving thy neighbour, the directive appears not to have been violated.
You can be black, white; gay, straight, bi, trans; Muslim, Buddhist; Conservative or Labour; and any of the countless divisions that exist. We’re the same, different; extroverted, introverted; night owls, morning people. We share views, we disagree.
But the one common thread, the one thing we all want to have, the one thing many of us are privileged to have and in fact abuse which privilege, is the choice to live in the manner we see fit. No encroaching on others’ turf; no impeding the free will of others; no defecating on the hopes and dreams of our neighbours. Just to be allowed to choose.
C’mon, Choice, let us marry whomever we please.