freud-marx

In the latest edition of The Hedgehog Review , Wilfred McClay has an excellent article examining the importance of teaching children moral frameworks, even if they eventually choose to reject them. Near the end, he offers this profound insight into the general cultural dispositions which have given rise to the current aversion to such an approach:

In the end the therapeutic revolution appears to have gotten one thing terribly wrong. And that one thing is its opening premise: the reduction of the moral to the therapeutic.

The phenomenon McClay notes in the realm of education also has  much broader application. To reduce the moral to the therapeutic is to reduce the essential to the psychological. This was a move the political theorists of the left made as they came to see the key category of oppression as not so much economic or political (in the strict sense) as psychological. This philosophical shift was catalyzed by the failure of Soviet communism and expounded in the influential work of Herbert Marcuse. He appropriated Freudian insights as a means of salvaging a form of Marxism from the wreckage of Stalinism. One might say that this effectively replaced notions of oppression with those of repression, and thereby dramatically politicized issues of sexual identity

That oppression is now seen as a psychological/sexual category explains various modern tendencies. The intense pressure on freedom of speech makes sense in such a context, since words become much more deadly as weapons of oppression once the latter is seen as a psychological category. We might also note that the moral limits for the regulation of individual behavior have over recent decades become increasingly arbitrary as the notion of the public good has become a more psychological, more subjective, and thus a more confused, notion.

There are thankfully still moral limits which society recognizes. For example, we do not allow serial killers to ply their chosen trade, even though preventing them from doing so stops them from being true to themselves. Serial killing is unacceptable because it involves the physical and emotional violation of unwilling victims. Protecting the innocent requires us to oppress serial killers. Yet the principle of protecting the well-being of the innocent is inconsistently applied. The category of psychological oppression is already used, legally and culturally, to justify the infliction of harm of various kinds on unwilling victims. In the law courts, the psychological well-being of the mother as a rationale for abortion is the obvious example. In wider popular culture, we might note the media’s lionization of celebrities who “come out” and abandon their spouses and families in order to be “honest” with themselves. Such psychological self-fulfillment seems to eclipse and even to justify the emotional carnage inflicted upon the once-loved ones who in retrospect now appear as agents or instruments of psychological oppression.

It also explains the politics of sexual identity. While it is true that homosexuality has been a common phenomenon in many societies throughout history, it has now achieved the novel status of defining the very essence of a person. Some Christians do not understand the significance of this and have naively attempted to put their their critique of homosexual sex into some kind of perspective by arguing that they also object to premarital heterosexual sex. In so doing, they miss the point. If sexual orientation is identity, then the Christian objection to premarital heterosexual sex is of a different order to the objection to gay sex. The former is a denial of the legitimacy of an activity; but the latter is a denial of the legitimacy of an identity. Contemporary political discourse regards that as homophobic hate speech and as morally equivalent to racism.

As psychological sexual identity comes to define who individuals are in the most basic sense, then everything else—-from society’s moral norms to our physical bodies—-has the potential of becoming simply so much external tyranny to be overthrown or turned into plastic, something to be escaped, ignored, or remade in accordance with individual whims. ‘I felt I was a woman trapped in a man’s body’ is a common—-and philosophically eloquent—-part of the testimony of many transgender people. The assumption in such a statement is that the body is not of the essence of a person. It is a cage in which the real person is trapped.

For my late grandfather—-a (nearly lifelong) working-class socialist—-all this would have been virtually incomprehensible. He was no trained philosopher but he would have regarded the notion of, for example, being a woman trapped in a man’s body as meaningless, not simply because of the particular details of the claim but also because he would have considered the phrase being trapped in a body to be arrant nonsense. For him, freedom from oppression was not essentially psychological, something to which his body was either irrelevant or opposed. It was exemplified by being able to work so that he might put bread on the table to feed his family and buy shoes for his children’s feet. His inner psychological state was not really that important to the bigger questions of the meaning of his life.

The first time he cast a vote, it was for Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party. The last time he cast a vote, it was for Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservatives. That was powerful testimony to how the the times—-and the concerns of the left—-had truly changed.

Articles by Carl R. Trueman

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