(Note: This is the first part of a series venturing an opinion on issues of human sexuality, and offering a framework for understanding the relationship between morality and politics. The overall article will not venture opinions about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of particular sexualities or positions on abortion. This article will come in several parts. In this part, I want to clear the ground for actually having a productive moral conversation.)
Part 1 – Contested Moral Frameworks
There is so much you and I are told by the mass media about who we are. It seems rather odd that either science or media can inform me of my identity as a man, a husband, a father, a heterosexual, “white”, or a Christian. While I too am shaped by science and the mass media, most of these fundamental categories have been worked out in communities that have their own spirit. My identity has been shaped in the midst of significant others whose care is neither “objective,” as in the common understanding of Science, nor is it infected with agendas, as in the mass media; the formation of identity has occurred outside the bright lights of the media or the telescope.
However, one assumes in the present political atmosphere that everybody must be on one of only two sides, liberal or conservative. How you vote is who you are. We appear thus to have evolved into a culture of wishful thinking, of contending “positions,” oversimplified and absolute, requiring no knowledge and no thought, no loss, no tragedy, no strenuous effort, no bewilderment, no hard choices.
No matter what the case is, (and the two I shall consider are abortion and gay marriage), I am almost uniformly convinced that both sides of the political divide are fighting issues on terrain on which they both cannot win. Appealing to the government or corporations (some corporations who will pay for travel expenses to obtain a safe and legal abortion) to govern a person’s choice is a sign of eroded actual moral responsibility when the power and authority of government are invoked to enforce moral responsibilities, instead of merely legal ones. Moral responsibilities find their proper home in the given social relationships of family and community, and the identity-forming and morally strong bond of voluntary relationships that are constituted by significant others. The appeal to government is made, whether or not it is defensible when families and communities fail to meet their moral responsibilities. Between the liberals and conservatives now contending for political dominance, the terrain of moral life seems to be glided over with no notice. The terrain of morality belongs to communities and families whose coherence and authority have now been destroyed by the economic determinism of the corporate industrialists, under the blessing of both the conservatives and the liberals. Both sides, after accepting and abetting the dissolution of the necessary structures of family and community as an acceptable “price of progress,” have made possible the reality that the government will fill the vacancy. Fault lines have emerged, but the crack between liberal and conservative is only symptomatic of the abyss that separates us from ourselves.
To advocate, as I do, that families and communities are necessary despite their present decay is to step again on the real terrain of hard choices, i.e. to walk on moral ground. Practically, a government should not be asked or expected to do what a government cannot do. A government cannot effectively exercise familial authority, nor can it effectively enforce communal or personal standards of moral conduct.
Mass Society, undergirded by distorted ideas of “progress” and by undistorted extension of “instrumental reason”, has accelerated the collapse of families and communities; under more or less disguised terminology such as “mobility” or “growth” or “progress” or “liberation”, a social catastrophe is hidden. Individuals are subject to no requirements or restraints except those imposed by the government or the corporation. A liberal individual desires freedom from restraints upon personal choices and acts, which often has extended to freedom from familial and communal responsibilities. The conservative individual desires freedom from restraints upon economic choices and acts, which often extends to freedom from social, ecological, and even economic responsibilities. Preoccupied with these degraded freedoms, both sides have refused to look straight at the dangers and the failures of government-by-corporations.
Those that want government protection of their version of family values have struck a Faustian bargain with the conservatives of corporate finance who wish for government protection of their personal wealth earned in contempt for families. These protected homes, which are no longer affordable through hard work alone and are abandoned all day, house these “families”. Those that call for some restraints upon incorporated wealth wish for enlargement of personal rights and liberties by means of government. They promote liberation that assures little actual freedom and no particular responsibility. We are thus talking about a populace in which nearly everybody is alone, anxious, needy, and greedy. Mutually estranged, these two sides attack each other with zealous self-righteousness in defense of brittle absolutes that cannot bend without breaking. Mass Society has eroded the ground on which our political discourse stands.
Nowhere have these shallow politics asserted themselves more thoughtlessly and noisily than on the so-called rights of abortion and homosexual marriage. The real issue here is the erosion of both the nourishing structures of the public sphere and the protective structure of private life. The reductive and polarizing discourse is thus a consequence. In addition to distracting from interests authentically public and political, the corruption of personal life in its exposure to the public is inhumane and inherently tyrannical.
After Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago received the Nobel Prize in 1958, thus earning the Soviet government’s reprisal, Thomas Merton wrote:
Communism is not at home with nonpolitical categories, and it cannot deal with a phenomenon that is not in some way political. It is characteristic of the singular logic of Stalinist-Marxism that when it incorrectly diagnoses some phenomenon as “political,” it corrects the error by forcing the thing to become political. (Disputed Questions)
Seventy-five years onwards, Merton’s sentences are prophetic. After fighting our enemies for so long, we become like them. This is the deeply embedded logic of warfare.
In our investment in Mass Society, liberal-democratic societies have skilled us at politicizing the nonpolitical. Most notably, we have invented a politics of gender and sexuality, which, if there is to be a continuing political distinction between public life and private life, is a contradiction in terms. This distinction essentially holds that people’s thoughts and beliefs are of no legitimate interest to the government. The government is not in charge of our personal lives, our private affections, our prayers, or our political opinions. It is not in charge of our souls. Those who formed our governments also limited it, forbidding it of any freehold in our homes or in our minds.
I, and many others, worry about big government. However, I venture to guess that the government has gotten big in the much-needed effort to regulate big corporations and support their victims. I add at least an equal fear of unlimited government, which is to say total government. It is ironic, though not entirely surprising, that after long, costly resistance to communist dictatorship and autocracy, we should now see the rise of passions and excuses tending toward capitalist dictatorship and plutocracy. The most insidious of these passions tend towards the abolition of the dividing line between church and state and the liturgical institution of consumerism. These two examples pose the threat of being total regulation of private lives outside the control of the individual. In other words, it isn’t merely tyrannical; it is totalitarian.