One of the striking features of the brouhaha surrounding the RFRA protests of last week is the violence of the rhetoric used by those who accuse many of their (comparatively mild-mannered) opponents of being motivated by hate. When the advocates of peace and tolerance call for the burning down of a Christian-owned pizza parlor, Rod Dreher asks the obvious question: Who are the ones who are really full of hate?
Even as the Indiana incident fades from the headlines, Dreher’s question is likely to become more, not less, apposite because it touches on the consequences of a development which at first glance seems counterintuitive: The transformation of the libertarian impulse of the sexual revolution of the sixties into the totalitarian ambition of today’s sexual politics. How did this happen?
Last week I commented on the detachment of love from any prior notion of virtue and its reduction to emotional and sexual self-fulfillment. A moment’s reflection, of course, reveals that a change in the definition of love requires a change in the definition of its antonym, hate. Thus, if love is rooted in self-realization, then hate is anything which prevents this. Hence critics of the revolution are by definition those who hate, however moderately they express their dissents.
To this we should add a point I have noted before: Oppression is now a highly psychologized category. Put bluntly, it is not about hurting bodies or bank balances. It is about hurting feelings. Once the preserve of the post-Marcuse New Left, this view has gradually gained general social acceptance. And thanks to the influence of Freud refracted through Marcuse, political oppression has come to be closely associated with sexual repression.
The final piece of the puzzle is provided by the way sexuality has been made fundamental to identity. Again, this is an obvious legacy of Marcuse and company and one with great practical significance for the public square. For in contemporary Western society, once something is a matter of identity, it often has the privilege of functioning as a legal category. Thus, the civic debate about sexuality has shifted from the ballot box to the civil courts, and the rhetoric of individual liberty has been exchanged for that of civil rights.
As a self-proclaimed persecuted minority, the sexual revolutionaries enjoy the greatest unchecked privilege of our time, that of identity victimhood, with a monopoly on the positive language of love and freedom. That gives them the uncritical sympathy of the news media. At the click of a mouse and at no personal risk or cost they are then able to raise a #PitchforkWieldingMob to intimidate any opposition into silence. And, as always, there are those whose conveniently confected outrage makes them happy to administer the coup de grace: The pinkie-to-the-wind politicians and those principled champions of the people, the corporate CEOs who are happy to do business with the humanitarian House of Saud while courageously calling out the mutaween of Indiana.
In short, these lobby groups have shifted the categories of discourse and changed the rules of practical public engagement on the issue of sexual ethics in a way that preempts any and all deviation from the party line. For such totalitarian ideologues, there can be no common ground upon which to build a compromise with critics. Thus, it does not matter how moderately we word our arguments against the sexual revolution. To disagree is to indulge in hate speech, to oppress the weak, and to recapitulate the sins of Southern segregationists.
L. P. Hartley famously commented that “the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Not any more. For anyone who today rejects the claims of the new sexual orthodoxy, it is not the past which is a foreign country but the present. It is here and now where they do things differently. Very differently indeed.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.