The Culture War: Why Sexual Whateverism Hurts Me As Much And In The Same Way As Traditional Sexual Morality Hurts Them

I am perfectly comfortable with being thought wrong by those who think gay marriage a huge moral victory. But they do not seem to be OK with me thinking them wrong. Why is this?

There is a serious imbalance in the way our culture views its own culture wars. Those who promotes traditional sexual morality, including the prohibition against sexual relations outside of dual-gendered marriage, are criticized for promoting ideologies that are hurtful and insensitive towards LGBT and other non-conforming persons. Those who promote the “new sexual morality” (really more of a sexual amorality) are praised for granting those who were previously considered sexual deviants the respect they deserve.

So far so good. I have no problem with the proponent of traditional morality being criticized in this way. I have no problem with the proponent of the new [a]morality being praised in this way either. My problem–and the “serious imbalance” to which I referred–is that I have never heard anybody criticize the proponent of the new morality for promoting an ideology that is hurtful and insensitive towards the nonconforming tradition, and I have never heard anybody praise the proponent of traditional morality for granting tradition and its proponents the respect they deserve.

The two cases are perfectly parallel. These are two different moralities, two different ideological systems. They are mutually incompatible. Both ideologies are deeply wrapped up with the narratives, identities, and lifestyle choices of the people who hold them. It is impossible to choose one without rejecting the other. There is no neutral ground. We each choose a morality with every moral choice. We inevitably take sides in the war.

If you agree with the new [a]morality, I say you are wrong–and you say I am wrong. We think each other wrong not just in our moral systems, but presumably also in our behavior and our identities. Neither side should be painted as the bad side because it dares to think the other side wrong and to reject important aspects of the self-identities of individuals on the other side.

Yet one side is painted as the bad side for precisely these reasons, and it is my side. My side has other reasons for claiming that the other side is the “bad side.” But my side does not prefer to use these particular weapons–the weapons of identity politics (hurt feelings, “it’s who I am,” etc.). This may be partly because my side more clearly recognizes the parallelism of the situation–and therefore recognizes that those weapons cut equally in both directions.

So why do they seem to think that my side is wrong precisely because it does something their side also does? (I.e., rejecting aspects of the beliefs, behaviors, and identities of the other side.) How can they think this a legitimate basis for condemning me?

It cannot be that their moral or sexual self-identities are more important to them than mine is to me. It cannot be that their lifestyle or ethical convictions are closer to their hearts than are mine.

One explanation that I consider inadequate is that the other side has an uneasy conscience. This would certainly explain the discomfort with dissenting opinions. You are more likely to become angry when you have a sore spot in your psyche; you are more likely to be bothered by a contrary opinion when you are insecure in your own.

While I consider this explanation inadequate, I am not willing to dismiss it completely. In some cases, at least, I think it is an important part of the reality. However, I have no access to other persons’ psyches, and I have come up with other factors that I find more interesting–and less likely to provoke the ire of my liberal friends.

The traditional view has had a whole century to reconcile itself to its own displacement from the mainstream, and to become acclimated to contrary views. The self-satisfied triumphalist ethos of its opposition is not available to it.

By contrast, the new morality is ascendant and feels itself (with great presumption) the herald of the dawn. This is one reason for its comparative impatience with the (by its own lights) benighted views of bygone ages–views that were previously majority views–as recently as two years ago in the case of gay marriage, for instance.

Also, to the degree that the traditional view taps into the Christian roots of our cultural heritage, it is used to accepting people even though they are fundamentally wrong. The Christian terminology is a little different: not “wrong,” but “sinful.” But the idea is the same. The whole religion centers on the fact that even though we are all deep-down wrong, we are nonetheless capable of becoming right with God’s help. (“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved”). This Christian sentiment, to the degree it survives in those who hold the traditional view, conditions them to mercifully regard those who are, by its own standards, deeply wrong–as I believe the proponents of the new [a]morality to be. For after all, I too am deeply wrong.

By contrast, the new [a]morality is fundamentally ambivalent and even paradoxical with respect to the whole idea of wrongness and sin. It sometimes seems to be promoting an obvious falsehood–that there is no good or evil, no right or wrong, no valid moral standard. But it this were true, there would be no need for protests, no basis for moral outrage, no reason to condemn the patriarchy or the jew- or muslim-haters or the homophobes. Clearly, the ascendant moral sentiment does feel that protests and outrage and condemnation are sometimes appropriate.

The truth, I think, is that the new morality has such a shallow and unexacting moral standard that it is actually possible to pass as righteous by one’s own efforts. No doubt everyone wishes they were a bit kinder and less forgetful of others–but these failings are excused, understandable, and inevitable. No need to feel guilty–it won’t do any good. Just treat yourself to a green smoothie and some quality “me-time” and “every manner of thing shall be well.” What really matters is that you hold the correct opinions, refrain from abusing other people, and nod the head at everyone else who is doing likewise. Now, supposing that this were indeed “what really matters,” it would be possible for most people to pass as righteous with only moderate effort. Therefore, those who are wicked under this standard are felt by those who hold this standard to be at an immense moral distance and to deserve the shaming heaped upon them.

And finally, while the new view considers the opinions everybody had yesterday as belonging to a chapter of the human story now permanently closed, the traditional view has spent millennia developing and churning and shifting–it is the product of a much deeper and more interesting history than the “liberation” from the old morality that has taken place since the 60s. It has witnessed the rise of thousands of movements, revolutions, philosophies, sects, and societies. It has waxed and waned from decade to decade. It has witnessed the fall of ideas that were once even more accepted than it ever was. It knows that history’s march is dangerous to the settled truth of the past and it knows the fickleness and changeableness of popular opinion. It is like an old fighter who patiently lets the passionate youth vent his fury and exhaust himself, letting him win a few rounds in a row while he awaits a more favorable time to go on the offensive.

I am confident that the traditional view, embattled as it is, will out-endure the newfangled and untested newcomer into the ideological ring. It’s wisdom garnered from the ages will keep better than the moral fashion of the day.

But then, this is a war and not a mere boxing match. And for you to take the other side injures my system’s chances of survival. Which side of the ideological battle you choose helps determine which side my grandchildren and my nation’s future self will find themselves on. It is personal, and it matters.

Now, this language about the culture war being personal will no doubt seem strange for a blog that has insistently promoted respectful discourse and “courteous conversations.” But there is no contradiction here. The romantic ages that gave us characters like Sir Philip Sidney knew that courtesy is possible on the battlefield as well as in the court. As David points out in an essay in progress, our own more recent history gives proof, in the persons of Lincoln and Chamberlain, that it is possible to fight a bloody civil war without jettisoning the courtesy that raised them (and Robert E. Lee, among others) to the apex of their countrymen’s esteem. And some of us even in this unchivalrous age of ours–especially, perhaps, the Christians–still remember that there is an absolute distinction between the person who thinks or says or does something wrong and the wrong thing itself.

Our ideologies must fight to the death, but we need not hate each other. Let us condemn each other’s opinions and behavior; let us critique each other’s self-narratives and blind spots. And let us do it because we deeply care about each other.

What I ask those publicly dedicated to the principle of “equality” is to let the ideologies fight on equal terms. That feelings get hurt in the process is not an argument for either side. To use the hurt feelings of the liberal/LGBT community to silence the traditional view is illegitimate. It is also ineffective. The new morality will not forever be able to ride on the contemporary wave of blind enthusiasm and outrage, and nobody except for intellectual sophomores will be persuaded by this wave–and even them not lastingly, if their opinions ever grow to be worth anything.

I freely admit that some defenders of the new morality use more rigorous and more respectable means than those I am targeting here. Hurrah for genuine arguments, even if they be wrongheaded. Hurrah for truth-seeking, even if, for the moment, it fails in its object.

But what I mainly read about in the news is that such and such prominent employee was terminated because she spoke in favor of traditional views (and is therefore deemed a “bigot”), and this movie was boycotted or that concert in North Carolina was canceled in protest over the fact that the traditional views are still visibly fighting. Well, news flash: they will keep on fighting for the foreseeable future and the squelching of views will accomplish nothing more than deepening the gulf between camps. These methods of protest derive from a populism at least as puerile and almost as pathetic as our current president’s. And I would venture to prophesy that, taking a long historical view, the approval ratings of at least this populist aspect of the new morality will prove only slightly more durable than his.

7 thoughts on “The Culture War: Why Sexual Whateverism Hurts Me As Much And In The Same Way As Traditional Sexual Morality Hurts Them

  1. I quite agree with your thoughts and arguments here. I would like to offer another reason, one that I think the other side would be likely to advance themselves, as to why they feel justified in using “the weapons of identity politics.” It is largely a grammatical issue, but makes a difference in the rationalization. Those “…praised for granting those who were previously considered sexual deviants the respect they deserve” and those who are “granting tradition and its proponents the respect they deserve” have different objects of their respect-granting. The former grant it to a group of persons while the latter grant it to a “tradition.” This depersonalization of our side makes them feel more comfortable in attacking it, whereas identity is the bulk of their position and thus any counterattack must be taken personally. Much of this, and the subsequent lack of civility in discourse seems to tie back to the lack of distinction between persons and behaviors that you already described.

  2. I agree completely with you, but am troubled by your ending–“Populism at least as puerile and almost as pathetic as our current president’s”—Explain that to me, please. (excellent essay and beautifully written, by the way)

    1. Grandma, I find President Trump’s approach to presidenting to be childish and egoistic (which, in a man his age, is very sad–even “pathetic”). He expressly appeals to the non-elites and blue-collar workers who constitute his main base of support, so he is a “populist.” Everything seems to be about him in his own mind and his Twitter feed (not that I’ve ever read it straight through) is teenagerish. That’s my opinion, at least.

  3. The claim you make in your second paragraph is false. The topic of gay marriage was thoroughly and publicly debated for over 30 years. All sides of the issue were presented repeatedly across both conservative and liberal publications. Eventually, the question came to a head and the side for gay marriage won. Since then, the topic of gay marriage isn’t covered at all generally. I no longer see articles with debates about it in the Wall Street Journal, in the Weekly Standard, or in the National Review. If “our side” isn’t covering the topic and presenting your point of view, why would “the other side” be bringing it up? At what point is America allowed to move on and debate something else? 

    Women won the right to vote in 1920. For 30 or 40 years before the 19th amendment, the topic was vigorously debated. Interestingly, many of the same arguments traditionalists have made against gay marriage were also made by traditionalists against the women’s right to vote. As you know, eventually the debate was settled and women could vote. We can assume the people on the “side who lost” were still very concerned about it and wanted to keep debating it. Should we still be debating it?

    1. Dave, thank you for reading and (especially) for bothering to respond.

      The claim I made in my second paragraph is that there is an imbalance in the culture wars insofar as only one side seems to think that the other side is wrong for a particular reason–specifically, that it dares to disagree with and/or condemn important aspects of the behaviors, beliefs, and self-narratives of the other side. Now, both sides have other arguments too, but I’m not concerned with them here. Do you think it is inaccurate that it is primarily the liberal side using this particular argument? This was my claim–is it this claim you say is false?

      Gay marriage has no doubt been debated for some time, but you say “the question came to a head and the side for gay marriage won.” When did that happen, exactly? With Obergefell? A poorly-reasoned five-to-four decision that should never have been judicially decided to begin with, and that elicited vastly better-reasoned dissenting opinions from every member of the conservative block of the Court? If not that moment, then when? If there was some binding debate at which all reasonable persons acknowledged the victory of gay marriage, I missed it. Do you contest my assertion that as recently as two years ago, the proponents of gay marriage were still a minority? And even now, as insanely fast as the numbers have shifted, it is still not an overwhelming majority of Americans who support gay marriage. By the way, the very speed of the shift betrays the populist aspect of the movement–the group think divorced from solid reasons, working more by social pressure than by reasonable argument.

      Regarding the right of women to vote–certainly at this point that is a dead issue in America. However, I would say that we should indeed still be debating it, insofar as it is not a dead issue elsewhere and insofar as the debate is part of our history. In cultures where women do not vote, would it be your position that there are no reasonable arguments on the side of withholding that right? That those who take that side today in those cultures and those who took it yesterday in ours are/were either idiotic or evil? If so, I think you are mistaken. Now, I am in favor of affording them this right. But rather than condemning out of hand and without a hearing all arguments of the other side, I think we would do better to validate the underlying impulses where we can, acknowledge the force of whatever arguments hold water, and give our reasons for extending the franchise to women.

      Also, in the immortal words of Stephen Hopkins, as imagined by the play/movie 1776, “Well, I’ll tell you, in all my years, I never seen, heard, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yes, I’m for debating anything!”

  4. To answer your questions, yes, I think it is inaccurate that it is primarily the liberal side using that particular argument. You seem to be interpreting it that way because the debates about gay marriage have generally stopped, so you’re not hearing our side being covered any longer.

    I would say the side of gay marriage won when the first state legalized it. But officially it’s when legal gay marriage became the law of the land.

    Some portion of my reaction to your essay is that as a fellow Mormon, I find your arguments suspect because you don’t acknowledge your Mormonism. If the church embraced gay marriage, members would get on board and their arguments against gay marriage would become meaningless. Since that’s the case, can we believe your arguments are sincere? Or are you ultimately writing as an apologist for the church? There’s nothing wrong with being a Mormon apologist, but it’s misleading to claim to have other motives.

    1. Dave, thanks again for responding. Are you the Dave Sewell on Provo’s city counsel? It’s an honor to have you reading the blog. May I ask how you came upon it?

      I disagree that the conservative side often uses the identity/hurt feelings/the “it’s who I am” argument. But I’m open to evidence. At any rate, my more fundamental point is that this kind of argument is illegitimate. I condemn it when used by conservatives as well as when used (much more commonly in my opinion) by liberals.

      I don’t know how you conclude that the side of gay marriage won when the first state legalized it or “officially” won with the Supreme Court’s illegitimate re-writing of the Constitution in Obergefell. But my fight in this blog with regard to gay marriage is for public opinion, not for legal action. And that fight is not even close to being over. The law permits it. Very well. It’s not likely to be reversed anytime soon, given the state of public opinion. Very well. But whether a person who feels so inclined should actually marry someone of the same gender is very much still up for debate, and that is where I intend to make what difference I can.

      I am absolutely not an undercover Mormon apologist in this blog.

      You write as if there was no reason to oppose gay marriage than the bare fact of the prophets’ teachings. This puts the cart before the horse. Presumably, the prophets oppose gay marriage and homosexuality for good and adequate REASONS. Some of those reasons might not be discoverable and/or publicly accessible. But I fancy that I have discovered some of them that are publicly accessible. And because of the reasons I have discovered, if the prophets were to reverse course and embrace gay marriage, that would be a real trial of faith for me, because my own personal convictions are very strong on this point. In other words, I would be very strongly inclined to DISAGREE with the prophets if their teachings were other than they are.

      Stand by for a post wherein I intend to set forth my main reasons for these personal convictions.

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