Friday, July 19, 2019
Psychoanalyzing the sexual revolutionary
When someone makes a claim or presents an argument and you pretend to refute it by calling attention to some purported personal shortcoming of his (such as a bad character or a suspect motive), then you’ve committed an ad hominem fallacy. The reason this is a fallacy is that what is at issue in such a case is the truth of the claim or the cogency of the argument, and you’ve changed the subject by talking about something else, namely the person making the claim or argument. But as I explained in , not every criticism of a person making a claim or argument is an ad hominem fallacy, because sometimes the topic just is the person himself. For instance, when a person is prone to committing ad hominem fallacies and persists in them despite gentle correction, it is perfectly legitimate to note that he is irrational and maybe even morally defective in certain ways – for example, that he is in thrall to , or has , or is guilty of .
Or that he is I noted in the tendency of critics of traditional sexual morality to demonize its defenders and attack their motives rather than address their arguments. The tendency has become more widespread and relentless as the sexual revolution has gone to ever greater extremes. (Read Rod Dreher’s blog to keep up to date on the latest permutations.) When I was a teenager, people with looser morals in the area of sex tended to characterize those with more conservative attitudes as prudes or killjoys. The attitude was that of the frat boy who pities the nerd or bookworm who doesn’t know how to have a good time. Nowadays the mentality is instead like that of a Bizarro-world Cotton Mather, or perhaps a mashup of Hugh Hefner and Mao Zedong. Critics of the sexual revolution are treated as agents of the devil or enemies of the people – bigots, haters, oppressors who must be hounded and silenced..
What accounts for this weird transformation? Of course, the sexual revolutionaries in question would claim that it reflects deepening moral understanding on their part. But that presupposes that traditional sexual morality is mistaken, which it is not. But this post is not about defending traditional sexual morality, because . What I am asking is: What accounts for this weird transformation, given the truth of traditional sexual morality?
There is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome among conservative religious believers of a certain mindset, which treats these developments as the regrettable but understandable excesses of well-meaning wounded souls who’ve been done wrong by overzealous and insensitive defenders of traditional morality. In my opinion, this is delusional. If it were true, you’d expect that the shrillness of the revolutionaries would decrease as the rhetoric of tolerance, compassion, and respectful coexistence with those who reject traditional sexual morality has become more prevalent among conservatives and religious believers. Instead, the shrillness has also increased, and dramatically. The more ass-kissing that religious conservatives do, the more what they get in return is ass-kicking.
An analysis of the situation informed by the traditions of natural law ethics and Christian theology – by Plato and Aristotle, St. Paul and St. Augustine, St. Peter Damian and St. Thomas Aquinas, et al. – will reveal that there is something much more sinister going on. I would argue that there are at least three psychological factors underlying the increasing extremism and nastiness of those with “progressive” views on matters of sex:
1. The daughters of lust: In Summa Theologiae For our purposes, the most important are what he calls blindness of mind and hatred of God. As Aquinas notes , “lust…is about the greatest of pleasures; and these absorb the mind more than any others.” Sexual pleasure is like the pleasure of alcohol use in being perfectly innocent in itself, but also very easy to abuse. Hence, even in someone with otherwise normal sexual desires, a preoccupation with matters of sex has a tendency to cause him to act foolishly in various ways – to exaggerate the importance of sex, to pursue it in ways that are detrimental to his own well-being and that of people who depend on him, to construct rationalizations for such foolish pursuit, and so forth., Aquinas identifies eight “daughters of lust” or malign effects on the intellect and will that tend to follow upon sexual vice.
In someone with abnormal sexual desires, the effect is even worse. For what determines the good use of a human faculty is the end or purpose toward which it is directed by nature. Hence a healthy moral psychology requires a firm intuitive grasp of what is natural and what is contrary to nature’s purposes. Repeatedly taking sexual pleasure in activity that is directly contrary to nature’s ends dulls the intellect’s perception of nature, to the point that the very idea that some things are contrary to the natural order loses its hold upon the mind. The intellect thereby loses its grip on moral reality.
Suppose that some people had a strange psychological deformation that led them to take intense pleasure in entertaining the thought that 2 + 2 = 5. Repeated indulgence of the desire to contemplate this proposition would make such contemplation addictive, and the very idea that there is such a thing as an objective arithmetical truth to the effect that 2 + 2 = 4 would lose its hold on such a person. He might judge that it is objectively true instead that 2 + 2 = 5, or he might reject altogether the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth where arithmetic is concerned. Either way, his intellect will have been blinded. That is analogous to the blindness of mind that can follow upon ingrained sexual vice.
Such a person is also likely to become hostile to those who try to convince him that 2 + 2 = 4 and that he is simply in the grip of a delusion to think otherwise. He might take this as a personal attack on him, on what he is. “I can’t help but believe that 2 + 2 = 5! That’s just the way nature made me! Why are you so hateful?” Other people might pity him and start to think it cruel to teach arithmetic as it has always been understood, since it will seem to be an implicit marginalization of those who have the odd predilection in question. They might go along with schemes to alter the mathematics curriculum so that it affirms the legitimacy of such alternative arithmetical beliefs, encourage people to affirm and even celebrate the predilection, and so forth.
The conception of God as having created the natural order according to eternal and immutable mathematical truths would also come to seem odious, as would any religion that incorporated this conception. Indeed, the entire cultural tradition that had incorporated traditional mathematics would appear oppressive and something to be torn down. All of this is analogous to the hatred of God, as author of the moral order, that Aquinas says follows upon ingrained sexual vice. Religion comes to be either rejected altogether, or replaced by an idolatrous ersatz more hospitable to the vice.
It gets worse. In Summa Theologiae , Aquinas teaches that disordered sexual desire is the chief source of sins against the cardinal virtue of prudence, which governs practical reason in general. Similarly, in Summa Theologiae he says that foolishness as a general moral vice arises chiefly from sexual sin. He isn’t saying that sexual sins are of themselves the worst sins – obviously there are worse sins, such as murder – but rather that they have a special tendency to dull general moral understanding, like the first domino that knocks down the others. A person or society which has become highly corrupted in matters of sex is especially likely to become morally corrupt full stop.
Hence, return once again to my arithmetic analogy. In a person or society which started to think in terms of a revisionist arithmetic that made space for the legitimacy of holding that 2 + 2 = 5, the corruption of the intellect would not be confined to arithmetic alone. General capacity for sound reasoning could not survive such a deformation of the intellect, because it would implicitly undermine the most basic logical principles (such as the law of non-contradiction).
Similarly, in a person or society dominated by sexual vice, it isn’t just moral understanding in matters of sex that would be undermined, but moral understanding in general. For the general idea of human faculties having natural purposes is unlikely to survive when the natural purposes of our sexual faculties, specifically (which are about as obvious as natural purposes can be), are obscured. And the capacity for a coolly dispassionate critical evaluation of our contingent desires in light of nature’s purposes cannot survive in minds that are in thrall to sexual passions, which are the most intense of passions. But an awareness of natural purposes, and the capacity for dispassionate and critical evaluation of desire, are prerequisites to morality in general.
The infection is bound to leap from the individual, to the culture at large, to the political sphere. In the Republic, Plato suggests that egalitarian societies tend to become dominated by lust, and have a tendency to degenerate into tyrannies. For souls dominated by lust are least able to restrain their appetites or to tolerate disapproval of them, which leads to general moral breakdown and an increase in the number of individuals with especially disordered and ruthless temperaments. Tyranny results when such individuals take advantage of the social chaos and impose their wills on the rest. In Plato’s view, nothing locks you into the allegorical Cave and its world of illusions, fanatically held on to, like sexual immorality.
I have discussed the daughters of lust at greater length in several earlier posts ( The point to emphasize for present purposes is that the analysis of the effects of disordered sexual desire offered by thinkers like Plato and Aquinas suggests that we should expect such desire to become ever more extreme in its manifestations, and that those in thrall to it will become ever more shrill and hateful toward those who resist them. And that is exactly what we are seeing today., , and ), and have discussed the way that sexual sins can destroy prudence at greater length in .
2. It takes a morality to beat a morality: People are naturally reluctant to talk about even the most normal and healthy of their sexual desires and activities, given the deeply personal nature of sex. The subject is simply embarrassing, even for the average person with liberal attitudes about it. He wouldn’t dream of casually discussing his predilections with a stranger, or with his mother, or at a dinner party. This goes double for sexual desires and activities that one takes in some way to be aberrant. A special sense of shame attaches to them, both because of their perverse nature and because of the way the pull of sexual desire can subvert what is most distinctively human, namely our reason and will. Sexual vice is experienced as dragging one down to the animal level, and when it involves what is contra naturam it is experienced as something even worse.
Or at any rate, it is experienced that way to the extent that at least a general and inchoate sense of the natural order of things endures in one’s consciousness. Even a person who comes to embrace sexual desires traditionally regarded as disordered, and publicly to define his identity in terms of them, will often feel a residual sense of shame and guilt – and this despite the fact that attitudes about sex have liberalized, and the fact that many sympathize with him and are keen to reassure him of his virtue and status as a victim of prejudice. An Augustine or Aquinas would attribute this to the voice of conscience. Knowledge of the natural law, they would say, is never entirely destroyed even in the person most in thrall to vice. It is only ever papered over with layer upon layer of rationalizations. And sometimes the truth still shines through, albeit dimly.
The sexually “liberated” person refuses to accept that, and not only because he is in love with his vices. He has dug himself into a hole. If he initially felt shame about those vices, the shame will only be worse if he decides to embrace them, openly proclaims his attachment to them and even defines himself in terms of them – and then, after all that, later has a re-think and comes to acknowledge that they really were vicious and shameful after all. The prospect is utterly humiliating, so that it is psychologically that much more difficult to turn back from the path of embracing sexual vice once one has taken it.
Now, nothing counteracts lingering feelings of shame and moral failure the way that feelings of pride and self-righteousness can. The former can be masked if one can work oneself into the latter. One can tell oneself: “It is those who call what I do shameful who should be ashamed. They are the bad people – they are bigots, haters, oppressors. And I am doing something noble in rejecting their opinions and fighting against them! Yes, that’s it!” By a kind of psychological alchemy, vice is transformed into virtue and virtue into vice, and one’s self-esteem is thereby salvaged and even enhanced.
It may seem odd for the natural law theorist to recruit Nietzsche to this analysis, but he is, of course, the great diagnostician of egalitarian transvaluations of values. Moralistic egalitarian rhetoric is, on Nietzsche’s analysis, a mask for resentment and envy – a way that those with a deep sense of failure and weakness can secure revenge against those who uphold the virtues they can’t measure up to. Of course, the way Nietzsche develops this sort of analysis is problematic. For example, he applies it to a critique of Christian morality, but his target is really a caricature of Christian morality. But the basic idea that transvaluations of values can reflect envy, resentment, and the desire for revenge is plausible, and it is as plausibly applied to liberationist views in the sexual context as it is to the kinds of egalitarianism Nietzsche himself had in mind.
It is also worth noting that as the sexual revolution has progressed, it has led to claims ever more bizarre and manifestly preposterous – such as the claim that the biological distinction between male and female is bogus and an expression of mere bigotry. How could anyone seriously believe such nonsense? The motive for wanting to believe it is not mysterious, since one might have gotten oneself locked into sexual vices so extreme that their rationalization requires such an absurd thesis. But how could one fool oneself into actually believing it? Here too a kind of Bizarro-world moralism rides to the rescue. If one can whip oneself up into a self-righteous frenzy that directs attention away from the absurdity of one’s belief and onto the purported bigotry of those who deny it, then the belief can (perhaps just barely) be sustained. And the more manifestly absurd the belief, the more moralistically shrill will be the rhetorical defense of it, because rhetorical force has to make up for the lack of any rational basis.
We might call this the law of compensatory moralism: The more manifestly shameful or absurd one’s sexual vices, the more shrilly moralistic one will tend to be in attacking those who object to them, so as to compensate psychologically for one’s own deep-down awareness of this shamefulness and absurdity.
3. Counter-Pharisaism: But why do so many people who do not share such vices go along with this compensatory moralism? Why do even many people whose personal sexual behavior is relatively conservative nevertheless strongly object to any insistence that such conservatism ought to be normative?
In part this is simply a consequence of the lazy relativism and sentimentalism that tend to prevail in egalitarian societies. The very idea that any one way of life is better than another, and the prospect of someone’s feelings being hurt if one were to suggest otherwise, become intolerable. (Again, see Plato’s analysis of democracy in the Republic.) Hence even those who prefer to live more conservative lives often won’t let themselves commit the thought-crime of believing that it is morally better to do so.
But I would suggest that there is more to it than that. Consider the following analogy. The Pharisees are often described as having built a “fence” around the Mosaic Law, so as to make it as unlikely as possible that anyone will violate it. The fence consisted of a set of secondary prohibitions, respect for which was meant to ensure that one wouldn’t even get close to offending against the primary ones. For example, if you do not allow yourself even to pick grain on the Sabbath, then you will be sure to avoid anything that might more clearly constitute working on the Sabbath.
Now, what I am suggesting is that tolerance of more recherché sexual vices allows those whose vices are more humdrum to build a “fence” of permissibility around them. It’s a kind of Bizarro-world parody of Pharisaism. If even really extreme things are not prohibited, then it is less likely that more mundane things will be prohibited. For example, traditional sexual morality condemns fornication as well as transsexualism, but it regards the latter as more directly contrary to nature than the former. Hence if even the latter comes to be seen as permissible, it will be that much easier to justify the former.
So, Pharisaism expands the boundaries of what is impermissible so as to safeguard the prohibitions that the devout person really cares most about. And the counter-Pharisaism of the “bourgeois bohemian” progressive expands the boundaries of what is permissible to safeguard the milder sexual vices that are what he really cares about.
* * *
I am not saying that the three psychological tendencies I’ve identified – the daughters of lust, the law of compensatory moralism, and Bizarro-world Pharisaism – are at work in absolutely everyone with more liberal views about sexual morality, or that they are equally strong in everyone in whom they are at work. But they are a big part of the story, and an increasingly big part as the sexual revolution metastasizes.
Nor, of course, am I saying for a moment that identifying these psychological factors suffices to refute the claims or arguments of those with liberal views about sexual morality. That would be an ad hominem fallacy. Those claims and arguments need to be (and can be) answered on their own terms, entirely independently of the motivations of or psychological influences on those who make them.
Still, it is important to consider these psychological influences. For one thing, bad ideas and arguments often have a hold over people even when the logical problems with them are laid bare. It can be useful for someone in thrall to such errors to consider the non-rational influences that might be leading him to give them more credence or consideration than they deserve.
For another thing, those who would defend traditional sexual morality need to have a realistic understanding of the cultural situation. As I have said, some conservative religious believers lack this. For example, even contemporary Catholic churchmen, on the rare occasions when they talk about sexual morality at all, often do so only in the vaguest and most inoffensive way. They will bend over backwards to attribute good motives to their opponents and to concede the alleged injustice and insensitivity of past upholders of Christian morality, even though such courtesies are never reciprocated by the liberal side. And they will deemphasize the importance of sexual morality relative to, say, questions of social justice.
The great churchmen and saints of the past would regard all of this as breathtakingly delusional. In reality, there cannot possibly be true social justice without sound sexual morals, because the family is the foundation of social order and the family cannot be healthy without sound sexual morals. The sexual revolution is the cause of millions of children being left fatherless, with the intergenerational poverty and social disorder that that entails. Nor is there any greater manifestation of the deep selfishness that makes social justice impossible than the callous willingness of millions to murder their own children in the womb. Talk about social injustice that ignores the fundamental role of the sexual revolution in fostering such injustice is mere chatter – unserious, sentimental, and prone to make modern people comfortable in their sins rather than telling them what they really need to hear. The warrior for true social justice must be an uncompromising reactionary in matters of sex.
And not the least of the reasons for this is the role that sexual immorality plays in undermining moral understanding in general, as Aquinas teaches us. We are not dealing with a mere intellectual mistake made by well-meaning people but nothing less than a culture-wide psychosis. As the twelve-steppers say, the first step is to admit the problem.