Saturday, January 24, 2009

what do the Cold War and the Sexual Revolution have in common?

An awesome piece from Mary Eberstadt in First Things...

She starts with what she'll later use as an analogy, something that is stunning in its own right:

Imagine for a moment that much of the world is living under a set of ideas that has manifestly awful economic, social, and moral consequences. Imagine, in fact, that one of the most obvious things about the world is the negative impact of those ideas on the people who live under them—which is why some scholars have toiled long and hard to assemble an empirical record of the influence of these ideas, showing the various ways in which they are bad for human beings.

Now imagine one more step. Imagine that, despite the empirical evidence about the human costs of those pernicious ideas, many people, including many or even most leading scholars, don’t want to face the facts. Some simply ignore the data. Others try to explain them away as artifacts of something— anything— other than the bad ideas in question. Still other people, perhaps most perverse of all, argue that the consequences of these ideas are actually good—as in, they might seem bad to particularly unenlightened souls, but they make perfect sense once one’s consciousness is elevated in the right direction.

If it seems incredible that otherwise reasonable, educated people in possession of damning empirical evidence would want to ignore it rather than change their minds, rest assured that it isn’t. In fact, this picture of intellectual denial captures perfectly what went on for decades among educated people in the advanced West, over a not inconsequential matter that was resolved around the time many of today’s college students were born.

The matter was, of course, the Cold War.

Then, she expands on this amazing blindness:

Incredible as it seems in retrospect, even to those who witnessed some of those years, the moral facts of the Cold War remained disputed at the highest intellectual levels, especially on American campuses, until about two seconds before the Berlin Wall came down. Yes, incredibly enough—and despite the fact that most other people on earth knew exactly what to think about communism, especially those unfortunate enough to live under it—there was no intellectual unanimity in the West during the decades leading up to 1989 about whether communist ideas and governments, in practice, had proved to be a human disaster.

In fact, to the extent that elite opinion on the subject did exist, it lined up in the majority quite the other way....

Eberstadt eventually cites Jeane Kirkpatrick's contemporary analysis in her essay of the title echoed by Eberstadt: "The Will to Disbelieve". From there, she draws an analogy to "the sexual revolution"-- "the powerful will to disbelieve in the harmful effects of another world-changing social and moral force governed by bad ideas".

As Eberstadt notes on "the benefits of marriage and monogamy" and the impact of single-parent homes on children (on average):

...the empirical record by now weighs overwhelmingly against the liberationists...an empirical record has been assembled that is beyond refutation and that testifies to the unhappy economic, social, and moral consequences....Yet in both cases, the minority of scholars who have amassed the empirical record and drawn attention to it have been rewarded, for the most part, with a spectrum of reaction ranging from indifference to ridicule to wrath.

...[their] words and formulations like them have been fighting words among sociologists, with the majority lining up, sometimes ferociously...It’s not that they are unaware of the evidence. It’s just that they feel forced to explain it away. Such is the deep desire to disbelieve that shapes—and misshapes—so much of what we read about sex today....

Eberstadt continues by noting a few ironies:

In no other realm of human life do ordinary Americans seem so indifferent to the particular suffering of the smallest and weakest. Our campuses especially ring with the self-righteous chants [on Darfur, China, and cruelty to animals]. These are all problems about which real students shed real tears. I’m not saying their compassion is wrong. I’m just saying that it’s selectively deployed....

How many feminist-minded students who demonstrate for abortion rights realize that in many parts of the world, including the United States, girls are more likely to be aborted than boys?

[On rape prevention training:] Would we really need them so much if our campuses were a little less libertine, and the line between a plastered date and a real live rapist were a little easier to draw in the first place?

From there, Eberstadt asks "What to do instead?" and suggests a brilliant and provocative borrowing of language and tactic:

I suggest that moral traditionalists study one unlikely but potentially fruitful source of just such a moral vocabulary—namely, the highly successful and longstanding animal-rights, vegetarian, and vegan movement so popular on campuses and elsewhere today.

For a moral traditionalist, a borrowing of their vocabulary might go something like this. “No, of course I don’t hate sex/fun/gay people/love—any more than a vegetarian, say, hates people who eat beef/chicken/pork. In fact, let’s explore that analogy a little more, because maybe then you will understand where I’m coming from. And just as vegetarians don’t hate meat-eaters, I don’t hate people who do things I don’t, or things that I think are wrong. But that doesn’t mean the matter ends there or that I’m saying these things are a matter of taste only. Like the vegetarian, I think there are serious reasons for my aversion to what other people do. These reasons are moral. They also have to do with health. In general, I think it would be a better world if people didn’t do these things, again as the vegetarian thinks. But please understand that hatred has nothing to do with it. Reason and information and a desire not to do harm—these things do.”

Eberstadt concludes with an appropriately hopeful note:

In place of the historical materialism of those days, which seemed so towering and implacable at the time, Americans today face a different putative verdict of history: the idea that the sexual revolution is similarly a juggernaut never to be halted or reversed. History, however, doesn’t absolve everyone so easily after all. As it also shows, the empirical truth will out eventually—even when those who will be threatened by it seem unshakable in their denial of the facts, and even when those in possession of those same facts suspect personally that the historical gig is up.

That’s why it’s so important to get the facts right, even—or make that especially—when outnumbered by thousands to one. When people look back on this or any other momentous debate decades from now, one of the first things they will want to know is whose corner reason and empiricism and logic were in. That would be the corner of those willing to believe the truth—secured by the research of the scholars whose work testifies to it, whether it is welcomed by the rest of the world or not.

10 Comments:

At January 24, 2009 at 9:40 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

No, of course I don’t hate sex/fun/gay people/love—any more than a vegetarian, say, hates people who eat beef/chicken/pork. … Like the vegetarian, I think there are serious reasons for my aversion to what other people do. These reasons are moral. They also have to do with health. In general, I think it would be a better world if people didn’t do these things, again as the vegetarian thinks. But please understand that hatred has nothing to do with it. Reason and information and a desire not to do harm—these things do. [Emphasis added.]

It is no longer reasonable to rationalize an animus towards homosexuality using arguments based on medical science.

 
At January 24, 2009 at 10:23 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I can't think of *any* effective rationalization for animus toward homosexuals. Neither can Eberstadt. Although such animus exists, it is too commonly conflated with concern, disagreement, disapproval of conduct, etc.

 
At January 25, 2009 at 9:08 AM , Blogger William Lang said...

I'm afraid you misread my comment. I referred to an animus towards homosexuality, not homosexuals. I take her claim that she cares for gay people at face value. What I meant to comment on was her attempt to rationalize her disapproval of same-sex sexual contact by appealing to medical science("health," "reason and information"). My point is of course that homosexuality is no longer considered to be a mental illness or character disorder by medical science (it was removed from the DSM in 1973).

I note that Eberstadt belongs to an association of Roman Catholic scholars. Her comments seem to imply her belief in the stated position on homosexuality of the Church, which refers to homosexuality as "intrinsically disordered" and says homosexual behavior cannot be approved under any circumstance. (The Catechism also calls for compassion towards homosexuals and calls them to a life of chastity.)

Note, by the way, the language the Church uses in the Catechism, which refers to the unknown "psychological genesis" of homosexuality, as well as labeling it as intrinsically disordered. This is pseudo-medical terminology: homosexuality is not a psychological condition nor is it a mental disorder. This is my broader point: the misuse of science by religion.

 
At January 25, 2009 at 3:01 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Ahh...ok. In any case, there's no reason for animus toward homosexuality, homosexuals, or homosexual conduct. Do you mean something than "animus"?

Beyond word choice, I know about the medical literature's inferences about mental health. But I've also seen some literature on health risks associated with same-sex sexual contact. Do you believe that's a non-issue in general-- or just not in certain cases (e.g., if "practiced in a certain manner")?

Of course, a Biblical worldview which sees any conduct as "sinful"-- must see it as causing harm. Else, one worships a killjoy god. So, she may be getting there through the back door to some extent.

 
At January 25, 2009 at 5:16 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

>But I've also seen some literature on health risks associated with same-sex sexual contact.

Those health risks are primarily due to promiscuity. (Some gay men perform certain outré sexual practices which can be dangerous, but all of the transmissible disease associated with gay sex—in particular HIV/AIDS—is a function of promiscuity. Eberstadt has a point, when she refers to promiscuity, gay or straight.) So, yes, same-sex sexual conduct need not be harmful, dangerous or unhealthy. This is the clear message from medicine science, and the experience of very many gay people.

We have to assume that God wants the best of us and for us. But it is dangerous to assume that the prohibitions, taboos, etc found in the Bible must be applied to us today. The Bible was written in eras with drastically different cultures than ours. Many of the taboos, prohibitions and practices described in the Bible are today considered to be peculiar, obsolete or even morally offensive to us today. These practices include strange dietary restrictions, the prohibition of lending money at interest, slavery, and Levirate marriage. (Levirate marriage was the practice of a widow marrying her deceased husband's brother, so she would have someone take care of her. Jesus is assuming this practice when he answers the lawyer's trick question about whose wife will a woman be, when she goes to heaven with the seven brothers she has been married to.)

One critical example of a change in sexual morality that I've mentioned before on your blog: allowing remarriage after divorce. We allow this on grounds of compassion even though Jesus prohibited this practice. (Jesus prohibited it because in his day it was cruel to women; in our day, this is not necessarily the case.)

This is why and many other liberal Christians believe that we can also accomodate same-sex relationships in Christian morality.

 
At January 25, 2009 at 6:15 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

It is also dangerous to assume away various prohibitions and taboos on a cultural basis. You could assume anything away with that (at least eventually/hypothetically)!

One key is a consistent hermeneutic, including a distinction between the ceremonial, moral and civil laws of the OT. Conflation of those categories is common but not helpful.

Biblically, it's not at all clear that the church should allow remarriage after divorce-- at least carte blanche. And of course, our ideas of compassion may or may not be well-grounded. In any case, at least in broad terms, the Church has clearly failed marriage in not dealing appropriately with divorce and remarriage.

 
At January 26, 2009 at 11:09 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

One key is a consistent hermeneutic, including a distinction between the ceremonial, moral and civil laws of the OT. Conflation of those categories is common but not helpful.

These categories are blurred in the OT by the punishments indicated for transgressions. For example, same-sex sexual contact is to be punished by death (Leviticus 18:22), but so is breaking the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15).

 
At January 26, 2009 at 11:19 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

In the OT, for whatever reasons, both of those were considered serious enough to be capital offenses. It's more appropriate to conflate/combine there.

But we have the NT as well. And it introduces a different regime-- evident in many examples. To deal with the two you cited: neither excusing homosexuality nor the abuse of the Sabbath, but not advocating rock-throwing as a RX and redefining the point of the Sabbath.

 
At January 30, 2009 at 9:53 AM , Blogger Neal said...

"This is pseudo-medical terminology: homosexuality is not a psychological condition nor is it a mental disorder. This is my broader point: the misuse of science by religion."

There was no new scientific information used to "de-list" this pyschological disorder in 1973. It was merely the result of politics and politically correctness. The homosexual personality continues to manifest social and psychological disorders and pathologies (higher suicide rates, drug abuse, depression, etc.) that had been always been observed in the personality since modern psychology began to study the phenomena.

Finally, homosexual behavior is additional unnatural, being contrary to the laws of nature regarding sexual attraction.

The Church is merely reflecting the documented scientific truths about homosexual behavior even if the medial community refuses to do so for policially correctness reason.

 
At November 11, 2010 at 3:56 AM , Blogger john said...

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