Sexual Politics and our Soft Despotism

Ross Douthat followed up his weekly column that hit on Chick-Fil-A with a few more thoughts that are worth reading:

The cause of gay marriage has indeed advanced because many millions of people have been persuaded of its merits: No cause could move so swiftly from the margins to the mainstream if it didn’t have appealing arguments supporting it and powerful winds at its back. But it has also advanced, and will probably continue to advance, through social pressureideological enforcement, and legal restriction. Indeed, the very language of the movement is explicitly designed to exert this kind of pressure: By redefining yesterday’s consensus view of marriage as “bigotry,” and expanding the term “homophobia” to cover support for that older consensus as well as personal discomfort with/animus toward gays, the gay marriage movement isn’t just arguing with its opponents; it’s pathologizing them, raising the personal and professional costs of being associated with traditional views on marriage, and creating the space for exactly the kind of legal sanctions that figures like Thomas Menino and Rahm Emanuel spent last week flirting with.

This entire affair has brought me back to a notion James Poulos described a few years back, the “pink police state.”  As he put it then:

What gives me fear is the idea, which large numbers of people seem to be buying into, that a growing sphere of libertinistic freedoms compensates (or more than compensates!) for our shrinking spheres of political liberty and the practice of citizenship….So citizens of a Pink Police State (I should say subjects) are apt to surrender more and more political liberty in exchange for more and more cultural or ‘personal’ license. And the government of a Pink Police State tends to monopolize and totalize administrative control while carving out a permissive playpen for the people.

Judging by recent events surrounding our sexual politics, that “permissive playpen” apparently can only be built if traditional sexual teachings are kept cordoned off on the side.  We may not, as James mused in a longer exposition of the theme, yet have a government that owns our homes and is installing stripper poles for us.  But we do have one that is willing to mandate contraception coverage even by religious employers.  And some of the leaders of our largest cities have taken it upon themselves to make businesses that signal they aren’t quite on board with the playpen’s rules play somewhere else.

It’s tempting, I realize, to dismiss framing all this as unduly restrictive to Christians because of the real martyrdoms that are happening around the world.  And I understand and sympathize with the critique.  But the rightness or wrongness of a state of affairs isn’t determined comparatively, and to say that the calls by mayors and city councilmen to use the force of law to restrict Chick-Fil-A’s sphere of operations is wrong is not to say it’s the most grave wrong.  Soft despotism may be soft, but it is still despotic.

 

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  • Keith Buhler

    Thanks, Matt. The term Pink Police State I’ll use. And it’s true that the (less and less) disguised aim of “liberal” people is to restrict the sphere of liberties… Ross Douthat just keeps hitting it out of the park. Wish I could write that smoothly.

  • Keith Buhler

    By the by, if we wanted to play dirty it’d be just as easy to come up with a fictional term (“theophobic”?) that pathologizes those who disagree with my Christian or theistic traditional beliefs.

    Then, instead of arguing with reason, we could just name call!

    Sigh, too bad we have intellectual honor.

  • Ryan Lunde

    Good post, Matt.

    I’m reminded (yet again) of something Ross Douthat said a while back, “The more things we ‘do together’ as a government, in many cases, the fewer things we’re allowed to do together in other spheres.” Ironic that the more libertine we become the less free we truly are (both in the spiritual and political sense). It seems fitting to compare soft despotism to arsenic: nearly undetectable when administered in small dosages over a long period of time yet fatal to the health of a republic.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Ryan,

      The arsenic line is a perfect description. Thanks for that: it’s very good.

      Matt

  • Naomi

    ARGH. No surprise that all of this makes me want to put my head through a wall for just one reason: If you substitute in consensus attitudes about mixed-race marriages in the middle of the 20th century for yesterday’s consensus view of marriage as described by Douthat, it becomes clear that consensus is NOT THE RIGHT MEASURING STICK for this or any other such issue. The issues involved here have to do with justice and reason and definitions of personhood and categories of personal identity and lots of other things, but NOT consensus. Either it’s immoral to support gay marriage or it’s immoral to oppose gay marriage, but exerting pressure on whichever side is being immoral to shape up, morally speaking, would be the right thing to do regardless of how many people did or didn’t support it. “Pathologizing” racism was only coercive insofar as it called out people who were being unjust and forced them to behave more justly. If (IF) not supporting gay marriage is unjust, then the same sort of tactics have to be fair game; ditto if the case is the reverse. But consensus has less than nothing to do with it, which I think Douthat well knows; so far as I can see here, he only invokes consensus because he feels that he’s being unjustly called unjust by the majority. Whether he is justly or unjustly being called unjust is the root issue, not how many people are doing the calling. (Unless he also thinks that calling other people racists is unfair for precisely the same reasons, in which case I think he’s wrong. But my hunch is that he doesn’t. Thoughts?)

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Naomi,

      One question: did you read his entire post, or only the excerpt?

      Because this is what he goes on to say:

      This reality is not a judgment on the cause of gay marriage itself. Many admirable causes, including the cause of civil rights for African-Americans, have advanced through a similar legal and social redefinition of what constitutes acceptable opinion, and obviously gay people have historically been the victims, rather than the victimizers, where the human tendency to use law and custom to pathologize difference and marginalize dissent from respectable opinion is concerned. But it’s naive to think that gay marriage is only winning because of the power of sweet reason, and that the climate created by the bluster of figures like Menino and Emanuel isn’t a big part of the story as well.

      Best,

      Matt

  • Naomi

    Addendum: The assertion that pathologizing racism “forced” people to behave more justly wasn’t a good one; I would rather say that it created fairly intense social pressure to behave more justly, and I do think that kind of social pressure is absolutely fair game when questions of justice and injustice are on the line. The trouble is that social pressure is massively powerful and can just as easily be recruited into punishing just behavior, so we have to tread very carefully with it. But I count it as a massive victory of the past 100 years that being racist is no longer “socially acceptable” in the way that it used to be (same goes for being sexist) because cultural attitudes shape both public and private behavior and also have the power to wound people very deeply even without the behavior-shaping aspect (since words and attitudes matter even when they’re not directly influencing actions). If Douthat is on the wrong side of this one, morally speaking, he should be prepared to have the full force of cultural disapproval mounted against him and be grateful, in the long run, that it’s helping to curtail his immoral behavior and attitudes; if he’s not, he’s going to have an uphill (but just and worthy) fight against it on his hands. Social norming theory is something of a dovetailing between how humans socially influence one another and how governments sometimes do make decisions based on justice rather than public opinion. (I notice people don’t complain about that last part when they think the government is making the right call. [And I also suspect that a lot of states’-rights sentiment is fueled by the same set of opinions about individual or small-group decision-making over against mass consensus.])

  • Naomi

    Aha. No, I did not read the entire article. My bad. :o) But then it sounds like Douthat does agree with me and shouldn’t complain about the tactics being used; his only real complaint is that those tactics are, in his opinion, being unjustly used against him. Yes?

  • Naomi

    (Relatedly, the problem with “Pink Police State” is that it suggests the use of unjust tactics rather than unjust application of neutral tactics, to my way of thinking…)

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Again, I’d encourage you to read James’ essay before you draw that conclusion. It’s worth a full read.

      As to Ross ‘complaining,’ I don’t think that’s the right word for it at all. He’s observing, just as he did in his op-ed this weekend that if people are going to be against religious liberties they ought to bring their opposition into the light of day. So what’s at stake is Christians being bigoted and having their liberties reduced: okay then.

      Which is to say, the real complaint is that the sphere of liberty is actually being shrunk under the pretense of its expanse.

      Best,

      matt