Louise Richardson-Self – Reading through Rainer Forst and Luce Irigaray: On Same-Sex Marriage

Rainer Forst refers to the example of same-sex marriage in order to demonstrate his ‘Respect Conception’ of tolerance in practice. This Respect Conception is characterised by a community of individuals who respect each other as autonomous and as having an equal basic right to justification. Here, the parties recognize each other reciprocally as equals, despite the fact that their ethical beliefs and cultural practices are deemed to be disagreeable. Tolerance is owed given the fact that all citizens are entitled to live by norms that they can accept and which do not favour one particular ethical party. Forst argues that to oppose the introduction of civil unions and the possibility of same-sex marriage is intolerant and unjustified. Equal respect and rights can call for a new or more comprehensive interpretation of existing social institutions, and marriage is an example of one such institution. He claims that while the argument for same-sex marriage is based on reciprocity, counterarguments rely on, for example, religious views which violate the demand of reciprocity. Thus, justice demands equal legal recognition for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women (LGBTs). However, Forst also argues:

To tolerate them [LGBTs] out of respect is not to appreciate them or to have some kind of esteem for them. All that is required is the understanding that such a kind of ethical critique is not sufficient to draw the limits of toleration (‘The Limits of Toleration’ in Constellations, Vol. 11, No.3, pp. 312-325, 2004, 319).

‘Respect’ in this context means recognizing the other person as being entitled to equal rights; it does not mean respecting their personal identity as such. The question which arises is whether this so-called ‘respect’ conception of tolerance is the best that LGBTs should hope for. Why is tolerance of same-sex marriage the appropriate response, rather than respect for LGBTs in recognition of their difference? It must be convincingly argued that the ‘objection component’ of homosexuality (the reason people oppose it) is purely prejudicial.

This is where I turn toward the philosophy of Luce Irigaray. Irigaray’s politics of sexuate difference can offer reflections for encountering other kinds of difference, which may then be read with Forst’s human rights theory in order to help re-conceive how LGBTs should be encountered. This can remove the ‘objection component’ of homosexuality and reveal that those who oppose it are prejudiced, rather than legitimately partial. Irigaray stresses that humanity must be recognized as (at least) two, male and female, who are not reducible each to the other, but are acknowledged as truly different. Irigaray starts from two to contrast the phallocentric model of subjectivity as one alone that she seeks to disrupt. The point is that difference itself needs to be reconceived. In Irigaray’s later work, it is apparent that her model of being and thinking two can adequately respect other differences alongside sexuate difference. This becomes possible because the process of starting thinking from two, two who are radically different to each other, leads subjects to recognize that their own subjectivity is limited. Reconceiving the two of sexuate difference therefore has methodological value for marked persons. It provides an avenue for distinguishing and articulating more clearly instances of discrimination from within specific groups. It may therefore be possible to more adequately understand how and why discrimination against LGBTs has taken various forms and varies depending on one’s sex. Irigaray’s politics of sexuate difference can thus be interpreted as necessary for all others to become subjects in their own right.

There are several similarities that can be found in both Forst’s and Irigaray’s objectives. Irigaray strongly advocates that difference must inform the rights owed to all people. Her goal has been to think starting from two. One subject cannot stand as the representative for the whole of humanity because difference exists among all people. What ‘thinking two’ is supposed to provide is a new way to imagine humanity as is, creating a new reference point and allowing people to have their difference positively recognized. The new reference point focuses on humanity built from (at least) two who are truly autonomous, different, and irreducible to each other. In a similar vein, at the core of Forst’s ‘basic right to justification’ rests his grounding assumption that all people ought to be regarded as equals, without forgetting their specific identity traits. On this account, a person’s individual and/or shared experiences will define their claim to specific rights. Thus, a claim to equal recognition avoids reliance on a neutral and singular subject position. Differences should inform the needs of citizens of various political communities who then build the shared norms they are to live by. Irigaray and Forst also share a focus on communication. Irigaray argues that an education in civility among people requires the development of certain values, specifically “values of communication, not only in the sense of transmission of information but as communication-between” (Democracy Begins Between Two, New York: Routledge, 2000, p. 9), where ‘communication-between’ means between subjects fundamentally diverse from one another. Forst’s approach to human rights also has a focus on the importance of communication insofar as it is a kind of discursive constructivism. That is to say, the norms a society needs to exist ought to be mutually constructed by all particular members of humanity. Hence, both Forst and Irigaray have a clear commitment to the idea that ‘communication between’ people is not only desired, but is necessary in order to ensure the fairest social context for all. This means that respect for difference in the building of shared norms, and a retraining in civility which ensures such respect, appear to go hand in hand. Furthermore, Irigaray’s and Forst’s ideas of what it means to treat a person with dignity closely coincide and can mutually enrich each other. Dignity, for Forst, is a status human beings ought to be granted in accordance with their specific identity features, since they have an equal right to build the shared norms of their community. Dignity, for Irigaray, unifies the recognition of the other as irreducibly different to oneself and the respect for the limitations of one’s own subjectivity in encountering this other.