Remember the first time you got away with breaking a rule as a kid? Maybe it was your first cigarette, or maybe you stole something, or cheated on a test at school. Do you remember what happened afterward?
No angry voice from heaven. No dark clouds gathering with peals of thunder. No being struck with blindness or leprosy. ‘Just crickets and birds chirping…Hmmm. Remember how this made you wonder if maybe what you had done wasn’t such a big deal after all? If you were like me, your immature mind figured that if an action were truly wrong, then there must follow some unpleasant visible consequence. Instead there were only “artificial” consequences, usually imposed by adult authorities. This gave some of us the distinct impression as children that there was really nothing innately wrong with breaking these rules at all – these were simply things adults didn’t want us to do. They were “merely” social constructs. Therefore, all we needed to worry about was not getting caught. I watched as this became a way of life for many of my adolescent peers – breaking the rules and trying not to get caught.
It would be overly simplistic to say that the rebellious kids who saw the rules as disposable social constructs grew up to land on one side of the political spectrum, while kids who tried to obey their parents grew up to land on the other side. So I won’t say that. It would be only slightly more accurate to say that adults who view moral values as mere social constructs never grew up at all. So I won’t say that either. But I’ll say this: I think I’m seeing that the reasoning of a lot of us as adults is not much different from that of adolescent rebellious kids. I hear a lot of people who are arguing that if something is a social construct, then we’re probably all better off without it. The idea seems to be that discarding these artificialities will bring us closer to our “true” selves. And there seems to be an accompanying naïve assumption that our true selves must be good.
That is a wildly optimistic assumption if one looks at human behavior.
There is definitely a vocal and influential segment of modern culture who feels that, because an action may not have immediate visible, verifiable, negative consequences, then there are no consequences; all moral judgments must be relative, and are therefore, artificial. These well-intentioned people think that gender and monogamous marriage are malleable social constructs; that it makes perfect sense to treat sex as purely recreational; that personhood must be subjectively defined. That anyone who says otherwise is seeking to control women, or impose their morality or religion on others. Those who seek to uphold a societal moral code are judging people, which is now apparently on the same level as putting a kitten in a blender.
Now I’m on the other side. I’m a parent who has raised 5 children. I’ve worked with teens for a lot of years, and have watched a lot of other families raise their kids. I’ve watched a lot of kids (and adults) go off the rails. It’s clear to me now that as a parent, I did in fact know what was best for my children in most cases. I was wiser than they were, I could see farther down the road than they could, and I loved them and had their very best interest at heart when I administered “artificial” consequences. I understand now that the artificial consequences were preferable over the natural ones, because often the natural consequences would’ve come at too high a price, or would’ve taken years to see.
As I was thinking about my own childhood recently, a metaphor came to mind that explains postmodern American culture.
I’m pretty sure that every parent I know instructs their toddlers to stay out of the street. At the same time, everyone knows this is overstated. There is nothing innately dangerous about a street – it’s actually the moving cars on the street that parents are concerned with. But it’s simpler to say, “stay out of the street.” That’s the way taboos work. If you examine them closely you can see that they’re kind of stupid. You can always find an exception to the rule.
In the suburb where I grew up, as we toddlers became adolescents, it became quite common for us to play in the street. This actually became an annoyance to the adults. My friends and I played roller hockey in the street right in front of my house. My brother, sister, and friends sometimes took up a quarter of the block playing 3 Grounders or a Fly. Why did we do this when there was a nice park down the street a block away? Maybe it was partly because we were lazy. But partly, for me at least, it was because I thought it was cool to play in the street, because not playing in the street was for little kids. It felt good to me. The adults could really no longer tell us to stay out of the street because we all knew the point of the rule was really not to stay out of the street, but to not get hit by a car. So we would move over for the cars. Nonetheless, we would actually get frustrated whenever a car would interrupt our games. Ironically, some of us would jokingly shout at the cars and tell them to get on the sidewalk where they belonged.
It’s interesting that I never saw an adult playing in the street with us adolescents. There were probably several reasons for this. For one thing, none of us adolescents were driving yet. So we didn’t yet realize what an annoyance we were. Mostly, as in the political arena, the most important stuff was left unspoken. But periodically an adult would actually spell out for us that streets were designed to be driven on, and that yards and parks and private property were designed to be safe places to play. But the conversation would end with us saying that we were being careful of the traffic.
Here is where we are now as a culture. We now have lots of people playing in the street. There are respected people in academia and in the entertainment industry urging them on, arguing that even the idea of a street is a social construct. Saying this solves nothing, but it makes those who say it sound intellectual, perceptive, and cutting-edge. And technically, what they’re saying is true: cars could drive on the sidewalks and through people’s yards in order to get around the adolescents who want to play wherever the hell they want. One can no doubt find places in the world where this is done. And in a perfect world this could even work quite well. But this gets us to the heart of the matter: we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world that needs artificial boundaries to keep society from descending into chaos.
The intellectual elites apparently feel they are educating people by pointing out that the rule, or even the street, is a social construct, and that they therefore are dispensable; taboos restrict human autonomy. Taboos are bars on a cage. Taboos are designed by those in authority to control people. I now routinely hear that ideas such as gender, monogamous marriage, and virginity, are social constructs. The very act of saying such things is assumed to be enlightening, and a call to action. Everyone! Get out in the street and play!
Here’s an enlightening quote from a cutting-edge dead guy:
“Whenever a taboo is broken, something good happens, something vitalizing. Taboos after all are only hangovers, the product of diseased minds, you might say, of fearsome people who hadn’t the courage to live and who under the guise of morality and religion have imposed these things upon us.”
Henry Miller – frequently banned American writer, 1891-1980
Really? But could a subjective, culturally made-up taboo serve a good purpose, even though it’s not “real”?
I personally don’t get excited about taboos, and I don’t live by them at all. However, I think they serve a real purpose in a very imperfect, heavily populated world. Even though I’m inclined to question everything, I often find that there are good reasons for the things we are told to question. Sex taboos are one of those things. I see them as a lame, last ditch, imperfect societal safety net. They’re like guardrails on a dangerous curve in the road. How many of you rely on the guardrail to keep your car on the road?
Right. Neither do I.
However, if you’re a drunken idiot, or if the road conditions are unsafe, hitting the guardrail is better than sailing over the edge and bursting into flame. Call me a pessimist, but removing all the road signs and guardrails might not lead to freedom and wonderfulness for everybody’s “true self.” Doing so might actually make it impossible for one’s true self to reach its destination. Those things might’ve been there for good reasons.
The neighborhood can handle a few kids playing in the street. This has always been the case. But there is a tipping point. Eventually, if the street becomes too crowded with adolescents, either traffic is going to come to a halt, or people are going to get hurt. If the neighborhood loses a common understanding of what a park, a street, and a car are for, the neighborhood will eventually disintegrate. Regarding our existence today, there could not be more fundamental ideas than gender, marriage, and human personhood. These are the most weight bearing of societal pillars. So many are expressing surprise and delight at how quickly these pillars are being removed! At the inevitability of it all!
Allow me to make a prediction about freedom in America. Please excuse the fact that it’s not very original. (I’ll admit that I looked at history to make this prediction):
American pluralism has given us a maximum amount of freedom with a minimal amount of chaos. Historically, we have ordered ourselves through the unique concept of (largely religiously motivated) self-government, along with the usual societal taboos around these societal pillars. With the redefining of gender, marriage, and personhood, the religious segment of society will lose constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. (This is not really a prediction, since it is currently underway.) As self-government fails over time, and taboos and guardrails are gone, society will descend into chaos. People’s “true selves” will be surprised, but will be helpless to do anything about it. The State will need to step in to forcibly restore order, resulting in a net loss of basic freedoms for everyone. That, my friends, is how dictators get elected – desperate people elect them. (Plus dictators lie and cheat, but that’a another topic.)
Here’s a fascinating paradox, addressed to my socially liberal friends: You guys are taking all the fun out of being counter-cultural. Supposedly, cultural taboos are oppressive. But the truth is you were always free not to comply. The consequence for non-compliance was that you would be labeled a rebel, or a radical, or a freethinker. Big deal. America never had a state church. You were always free to give religion the finger and go your own way in our pluralistic culture, if you had the courage to do so. But now, “progressives” are enforcing their “enlightened” (but-still-subjective, btw) values on everyone else, necessarily becoming the oppressor. You don’t have a compelling basis for self-government. You no longer have societal taboos. You have no transcendent basis for innately valuing all human life. You are now left with the force of government, which we are not free to disregard, to force those of us who disagree to comply with your subjective values. This is going to get interesting.
I want you to know that I forgive you. And I still love you. And I’m not going to comply.
Wishing EVERYONE tolerance and freedom of speech, expression, and religion in the coming year!
(Because we are now down to wishing.)
– Scott Freeman