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The New Criterion

Manners & morals


October 2012

A march of folly
by Kenneth Minogue On progressives, Feminism, and gay rights. The basic question in life is What is actually going on? and it often requires a great deal of time to pass before one can find the answer. That is why I have only just begun to understand what is actually at stake in the proposal to recognize civil partnerships as marriages. And the clue came when I discovered that Stonewall, the homosexual rights group in Britain, was proposing a memorandum that the terms husband and wife should be removed from the 1973 Marriage Act and replaced by parties to the marriage. This apparently trivial bit of semantics carries a large moral significance. It is part of a two-stage operation. In the first stage, some new liberating move is proposed, and anyone with an eye for personal freedomlibertarians and conservatives alikewill support the move. But then comes a new development: the propaganda that seeks to persuade usand usually also the luckless children in schoolsthat the new situation must change our attitudes to the world. Freedoms, in other words, become paradoxically entwined with the repressions of political correctness. Let me elaborate this thesis. We associate the 1960s with a set of liberations that set the seal on a decent way of life, opening up choice and a clean sweep of out-of-date restrictions on our conduct, especially in sexual matters. Above all, it is associated with Feminism as liberating women from the household, conceived of in those terms as a kind of prison. Changing attitudes and technology had been opening up new areas to women for at least a century, but now came a breakout by a set of female graduates who wanted to liberate the entire sexor should we say gender. And the best they could think to do was to demand that women should advance into the workforce. To become a unit of production, to acquire a boss (and perhaps eventually become one) was not everybodys notion of liberation, but theres no accounting for tastes. Men, it was thought, were respected for the work they did, and women in the workforce would get the same respect. This vast project had a number of important dimensions. One was that family life moved from the center of female life to the margins, requiring important adjustments in social life and a massive reconfiguration of the duties of men as well as women. Nor of course were all women happy about this move. Even those who wanted to have it all often had their doubts. Feminists, one should remember, may claim to represent women, but this is bluff; no one ever legitimized such a claim. Another vital dimension of feminist liberation consisted of a passionate rejection of the chivalric idea that women, as physically vulnerable, were to be protected by husbands, fathers, and men in general. Such complementarity between men and women was thought to entrench the idea that women, because weaker, were not equal to men. The solution was to switch the issue from one of fact to one of legal and moral status.

fact to one of legal and moral status. Both kinds of status were covered in the dominant codification of the moral life in recent times: namely, declarations of rights. The basic assumption of the moral life as the enjoyment of human rights is that all human beings are vulnerable creatures, as no doubt they are, and that tolerable lives depend on respect, by individuals but especially by governments, for a set of rights. These rights kept on getting more numerous, and they continue to do so. They began in the philosophers labs (as it were) as freedoms from interference, but modern versions (such as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948) moved into the positive, requiring advancing such claims as a human right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and his family (Article 25), and much else. As equipped with such rights, women moved from the protection of fathers and husbands to the much more powerful protection (as it seemed) of the state. The realities of rape or harassment might not have greatly changed, but women, as bearers of human rights, could no longer be thought of as more vulnerable than men. Nor were they still burdened by those responsibilities of sustaining social decorum that had often been central to respectable life. Women were liberated to manage their lives as men had often conducted theirs: sometimes, for example, in enterprising ways, sexually, alcoholically, commercially, etc. This change in the social role of women was generally accepted by liberals as the removal of one more oppression from society, and the opening up of choice to women previously restricted by inherited conventions. Its real significance, however, could only become evident with the passing of time. We now know that this liberation was part of what some Marxists call the slow march through the institutions. The technique exploits small, apparently liberal, changes that become, as they develop, devices for transforming society. Liberations that had the appearance of merely advancing opportunity turned out not to be matters of choice at all. Everyone, meaning especially all women, had to fall in with this new line. The idea of liberation has many problems, but the crucial one in this case is that the position of women had been changing for decades before the 1960s, partly in response to feminist pressures, but much more importantly because of developing attitudes and advancing technology (medicine and press button machinery, for example). Women had been exploring new worlds for over a century. The violent and resentful presentation of these changes in the 1960s, as if they were unprecedented uprisings against oppression, was no more than melodramatic public relations. And it served to obscure the fact that women as a class of persons were now losing elements of feminine identity because they were embracing an essence in which they were notionally non-gendered units of production in a modern economy. The idea that women in general could move into the workforce was certainly more plausible in the later twentieth century than it could possibly have been at any earlier period of history. Before, agricultural work and craftsmanship required physical strength, life was shorter, and the family world itself was vitally different. By the twentieth century, as we have seen, advancing technology had transformed these earlier realities. In the modern world, women could certainly take up about 80 or 90 percent of the jobs men did because these jobs now seldom demanded physical strength, and there were certainly plenty of bright and capable women available. In a few areas such as building skyscrapers or furniture removal, for example, women could not really replace men, and in a variety of other jobs such as servicing motor cars they had very little desire to do so. In combat situations women were certainly not appropriate, but feminists insisted that they should be trained to work on destroyers and fly high tech airplanes. That being said, if you were putting down a riot, only male policemen were really of much use. All of these changes, however, were standard features of developing modern societies. They did not

seem to signify modifications in our culture. But other changes were emerging. One of them was the march of welfarism, which compassionately took up the travails of young pregnant girls without a man to support them. They were accorded places to live along with subsidies, and became an increasing class of person. And they came to be described, by an extension of the term family, as one-parent families. Why not? one might think. Plenty of actual families, through death or divorce, operated with one parent. Another development was the removal of all criminal sanctions attaching to homosexual conduct. This, again, was an impeccably liberal project. Who could seriously support the criminalization of whatever consenting adults might do in private? All of these reforms were no problem in a liberal society. The significance of their conjunction only emerged a little later. The industrialization of women was widely accepted, and the most evident repression associated with it was the rejection of sexism, an offense covering any suggestion that women were not, in whatever relevant respects were advanced, the equals of men. It did, however, involve significant unrealities, many resulting no doubt from the brutishness of men, which required some legal concern with these vulnerabilities. Sexual harassment legislation is, of course, in principle universal but its main impact is to allow women to get redress for male aggression or for failures in promotion. Maternity leave raises problems for employers, and had to be entrenched in law, and then supplemented by paternity leave in order to sustain the presumption of equality. But it took the gay rights movement to make progressives agenda entirely clear, for it generated in its wake politically correct campaigns (often targeted in the first instance at schools) affirming (for example) that sexual preferences were merely matters of taste, and one preference was as good as another. Every liberal reform, it turned out, came now to demand attitudinal conformism. All these forms of conduct had to be recognized as equally virtuous. To prefer some to others was merely a survival from illiberal dogmatism. Prejudice, however, remained, because many people regarded the heterosexual family marriage as the basic institution of society. So, too, did Article 16:3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Heterosexual family life was obviously essential to society in a way that homosexual unions were not, because the notional basis of marriage involved the likelihood of requiring the disciplines involved in the nurture of children. Heterosexual unions were, further, unique because they incorporated both male and female experience in the way they worked. By contrast, homosexual unions were the formalization of desires that were certainly covered by the right of choice and privacy, but were eccentric in terms of the basic drives that sustained a society. They no doubt might well be admirable in many ways, but there was no obvious reason why they should be officially recognized and accorded some respectable status, beyond what happens in an individualist world of personal inclinations. Some people taking this view were Christians, but members of other religions often expressed a much more violent revulsion against this new order. And that, perhaps, provoked the new development. The suggestion that the law should give some recognition to homosexual unions is, again, an admirably liberal thing to do, and civil partnerships were recognized. We have now, however, reached the next stage of the march through the institutions, in which the demand is the one tiny step forward of recognizing gay marriage. The proposal is in fact the desire finally to remove the distinction between men and women entirely from social recognition. Husband and wife, as we saw, must go, and in Spain, it seems, that father and mother must also go. Since a law of 2005, they have been superseded by Progenitor A and Progenitor B. I imagine soon the toddlers will have to call the old folk progs. Butone must not deride, mock, disapprove, judge, laugh at, etc., any of these new categories, because that would be discriminatory, and indeed a whole barrage of laws has developed to sustain

illusions about the non-vulnerability of women and the respectability of these various forms of conduct. In other words, the advance of these notable forms of liberation, this modernization of our society, demands a servile response from all of us. Slaves knew very well not to deride, mock, disapprove, judge, or laugh at their masters, and so must we. The long march through the institutions is in part a matter of engineering the right attitudes, and the servility which that entails. What then does this sequence mean for Western societies? It is increasingly clear that the central point of 1960s feminism was in fact the destruction of the idea of women altogether. Feminists assimilated the class of women, in all essentials, to men. The feminine as traditionally understood had to go, because women were to be recognized as sexually undifferentiated or genderless units of production in the workforce. The economy here becomes the fundamental aspect of society from which all other judgments must flow. It is very odd, but certainly significant, that the basic assumption of liberatory feminism, as of Soviet communism, was that the conceptions of economic production must take precedence over everything else. The movement advanced itself as enhancing the choices made by women, but that is misleading. John Stuart Mill had argued that one ought to be free to act as one wished provided one did not harm others, but, as philosophers such as Derek Parfitt have pointed out, Mills question is not (or may not be) enough. The basic question ought to be: Will my act be one of a set of acts that will together harm other people? And of course the vast movement of liberated women into the labor force in the second half of the last century obviously so depressed returns to labor that many women who would have preferred to stay in family life (with the freedoms and enterprises that family life makes possible) also found it necessary to get jobs. Here was indeed a slippery slope. In the course of little more than half a century, our conception of human beings and of the structure of society has been steadily transformed. In the inherited conception, human beings were as male and female moral agents, and responded both to their desires on the one hand, and to ideas about what they ought, rightly or honorably, to do, on the other. In this conception of human life, both freedom and love were disciplines that certainly needed to be worked at. Freedom was our self-regulation in terms of the rule of law, good manners and consideration for others, a form of independent life unique to European societies. This self-discipline set clear limits to the powers that states might claim in order to sustain peaceful order. Within the law, we, as subjects of civil society, disciplined ourselves. Love required the discipline of commitment beyond the initiating desire. Only such an institution could give its members both a memory of the past and a commitment to the future. And in this conception of human life, male and female were recognized as the indispensable components of the family as the institution on which our social order rested. It is that recognition that is now under attack. In that world, being a man or being a woman had an anchorage in nature, and these roles entailed a certain institutional discipline, along with the generalized respect that went with it. Manliness went with a sense of responsibility (in ideal forms approaching the model of the gentleman) while womanliness involved a sense of decorum along with expectations of a specific kind of human understanding. Men controlled their tendency to use vulgar words of language in the presence of a woman. It is significant that both of these ideal forms of complementary respect between men and women have been significantly weakened, most notably in sexual conduct, and in such phenomena as binge drinking. Womanliness as a discipline has been abandoned as oppressive. We are now, then, for these and many other purposes, no longer to be understood as either male or female, but as essentially human and subject to universal human rights. Some of us are hetero, some homo, some bi or trans. But all of these are equal as legitimate preferences in the enjoyment of affection and pleasure. They are all modes of relating to one another amid the ceaseless group-grope of a population of identicals bent on exploring the many ways in which we may enjoy satisfactions, including sexual satisfaction. We belong to a single all-inclusive continuum.

It is not altogether easy to follow the many odd ramifications of this new conception of what we are and how we live, and ought to live. But there is no doubt that the central concept is the all-inclusive continuum of human beings who must not be differentiated in terms of sexuality or of sexual preference. It is a very abstract conception of what we are, and one may well wonder where it begins and where it ends. For in the Spanish parliament, the idea has been seriously floated that the higher primatesgorillas, for exampleshare with us some of the specifications of personhood, and ought therefore to be accorded human rights. And at the other end of this inclusive chain of humanity will be found a parallel idea that newborn babies have not yet attained the (presumably Lockean) identity of personhood, and therefore might, if necessary, be subject to what are apparently known, in the reflections of some ethical think tanks, as post-natal abortions. Here, then, is a fascinating new world of quite remarkable possibilities. And all of this seems to hang on nothing more formidable than a tiny semantic modification of how we use the term marriage.

Kenneth Minogue is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics. more from this author

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 October 2012, on page 33 Copyright 2012 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/A-march-of-folly-7453