I got bored today and started writing a letter to a friend about some of the points of political philosophy my mind has been working through lately. I ended up writing quite a few pages, more than I initially intended, and some of it I rather liked. I thought it could be redone as a blog too. A lot of these ideas are pulled from current theories and not totally my own ideas but I’ll try to own them with as little plagiarism as I can.
A major focus as of late deals with identity. Answering the questions who are we privately, as communities (whatever those are), and as citizens? Questions that have easy and difficult answers, but for the most part are historically determined and not best to simply leave to “because I am” or “because this is right/natural” explanations and move on.
I’m currently reading Jane Austen. It’s painful, but I believe reading even the boring classics builds character. One thing I find so hard is accepting the absolute rigidity of being an upper-class British man or woman. It seems like people are speaking not as human beings but as caricatured roles. Probably because that’s how British society worked for the most part in that age. You were born in a place and you played that part.
Enter in the modern eras and the steady erosion of caste and role. Women’s liberation movements broke the hegemony of women’s roles, and even men’s roles. Religion became scorned or replaced by the “I’m spiritual, not religious” creed. Teenager rebellion is treated as healthy development. Pop psychology contends that we all need to look deep into our inner selves and find our snowflake-like uniqueness. Even diet is no longer bound upon us, as clear by the ubiquitous presence of Chinese restaurants in suburban shopping malls.
Toss it all into the rubric of individual freedom. We need to be freed from rules, gods and old things. We need to become complete masters of our own destiny. And certainly there is quite a positive appeal to this. Sexual, racial, religious, etc. oppression has been put to the chopping block largely due to the erosion of their old limits. People are no longer enslaved by their identity (at least as much as they were.)
Yet we can learn from the past that often the present often appears as it ought to be. In the 1700s it was believed that scientific thought had liberated society from old bonds too. In hindsight we can see how the belief that *rationally-speaking* it was best for intelligent, rational white men to control and dominate “savage negroes” and women. So how then might we be disillusioned about our state of individual liberation? Do we even have a right to call ourselves freed?
I think one big crack in the wall of our certainty may be in sex. I don’t mean the kind of sex that determines what bathroom you use, I mean “doin’ it.” The popular myth states that back in the 1960s-70s a Sexual Revolution took place that made sex and love “free.” We could talk about it, do it, talk about doing it with no boundaries (unless you were a counter-revolutionary.) Men and women took equal share in sexual expression. It liberated us.
Nowadays a major billion dollar industry is porn. It’s impossible to miss the link between the sexual permittivity of the hippie era with the rise in pornography. Yet, much of, I’d guess most of, what the porn industry produces is highly misogynist sex. I sense the popular explanation is that while the revolution freed sex from the taboo, pornography still has a trace of archaic sexism that has not been cast off. While I’m not a scholar of porn, I can’t help but suspect that even while sexual equality is more and more normalized, porn simply remains exactly the same. This flies in the face of supply-demand logic.
So think of teenagers. The classic model of teenage sexual exploration is of sneaking through bedroom windows and narrowly escaping being caught. It’s not only how many to this day learn to be sexual, but it’s also really damn exciting too. Then imagine a super “liberated parent.” One who is so sex-positive they invite the kids to have sex, give them condoms and say “just don’t be too long, dinner will be done at six.” Is there any doubt that those teens will not be enjoying sex so much? If they’d even want to at all?
It’s not so much that transgressive sex is more exciting, but all sex needs to be transgressive somehow. Otherwise it’s just a series of tingling sensations followed by a quick endorphin rush. That’s if we ever did strip sex down to its core, freed from any illusions. Misogyny in porn isn’t simply for misogynists. I know people who get off on hardcore porn who are otherwise very positive toward women. They say, “I just like the sex, I can do without the misogyny.” My take: they like the misogyny, they can do without the sex.
It’s not secret “women hating” or “desire to be humiliated.” I think people can watch hardcore sex without succumbing to it in their own bedrooms. For men it may only be for the practical knowledge that if they ever *did that* it’d be the last time they get laid. But it’s the situation of the teenagers. As sex becomes something as plain and everyday as eating or showering, we lose a piece of the fantasy that makes for good sex. That’s where hardcore porn steps in, we see something transgressive and “ooo, bad” and that is what gets people to spend billions of dollars. It becomes the missing piece.
In fact, if people actually did being to imitate hardcore porn, what would happen? I think we can use violent movies as an example. People love action and horror films because of the transgressive nature of violence. But how might someone who commits massacres, say in a civil war, respond to a violent horror film? Are they going to react with the same psychological fear and horror that we peaceful folk do? Probably not.
Let’s go a little more political, homophobia. On a similar tack it may not be the case that conservatives are just truly dedicated to what the Bible says, and they aren’t actually disgusted by what two homosexual adults do. Really, they love homosexuality. Not because they are closeted; one needn’t assume every homophobe is gay. It’s that homosexuality becomes a form of porn. They adore this idea that everyone who is gay is a total pervert, shamelessly having wild sex with anyone and everything. Once upon a time this role was filled by black males seeking white women. Gays are a vicarious fantasy fulfillment because, like hardcore porn, the excitement must lie elsewhere.
The catch-22 of freedom is that you’re compelled to like it or else. We’re all sexually liberated, so if you’re not having your sexual needs met then something’s wrong with you. Maybe you’re repressed and need to buy a ton of handbooks on lovemaking (the capitalist solution.) Maybe you need to fantasize: read a romance novel, watch a porn (“softcore” is boring), or imagine fulfilling sex is what “those queers” have. Maybe find something the hippies didn’t “free up” (sadomasochism or two-girls-one-cup.)
Apply this rubric as you like. Why does the Tea Party movement protest higher taxes when taxes were never increased by the Obama presidency? It’s not that they’re that stupid (maybe some are) and it’s not as though they just need to be informed of actual statistics. Nor do I think they out to be called manipulative liars as that’s giving them too much credit. What they have is what many of us have, confusion regarding the collapse of the economic system. Hence, we need a stand in: taxes! Is that a sane conclusion? No. But were Jim Crow whites really addressing a problem of black rapists? No. Fantasy fills the gaps that our own (perceived inadequacies throw at us.) And what the Tea Party sees as taxes and government, a Mel Gibson type may see as Jewish conspiracy. We’re cut off from politics: we must make government tyrants. We’re cut off from sex: we must have S&M pornos. Secret fascist fantasies for all.
Essentially, the linking factor in all these scenarios is a sense of displacement caused by freedom in excess without a stable ground (tradition or culture.) Be it total sexual permittivity or the liberal, anarchic nature of markets. As Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov said if there is no God then all is permitted. Yet without guides and norms, all the permissible becomes disorienting, confusing, frustrating enjoyment. Ever try to play a chess game without resorting to rules? It’s not very fun. Unless you agree upon a set, a game isn’t happening. That is plausible with two players, but a society consists of a multitude of players. Imagine having to negotiate new rules every time you changed players.
Getting back to ground. The problem faced seems to be a choice between keeping a standard of conduct based on social roles, which is problematic because rules limit our choices or get bent to serve the powerful; or, the elimination of rules, which makes social interaction difficult, adds to mistrust, and often turns upon itself in the formation of new (but often hidden and indiscrete) rules. And back to identity, all identity is a rule, a set of lines drawn to say what is or isn’t allowed (e.g., I cannot identify as a French citizen because I wasn’t born there and never lived there.)
Yet this is not a complete impasse. Because identities need not be stable to exist. For instance, St. Paul introduced the concept of Christianity as breaking free from the major social classifications of the day “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female.” Although he did contradict himself in many ways, it was a novelty at that time to create an identity based on recognition of an event, rather than one’s tribe, social status or sex. Another example is the American Civil Rights movement. Inclusion was not merely based upon being black, but open to all who sought a new kind of social justice.
Learning to remobilize ourselves in this contingent and porous communities presents a potential break from essential identity politics as well as the deadlock of extreme individualism. Rather than freedom as privacy, we should see free identities, able to come together and apart as needed or desired.