How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

* Book: Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution. By Carl R. Trueman.


Contextual Quote

"Mere tolerance of ... identities was never going to be sufficient. Tolerance implies at best legal indifference but allows space for moral disapproval. It therefore still grants legitimacy to precisely the kind of speech-acts that psychologized identities see as violence. It also connects closely to recent claims with regard to race that “silence is violence.” Identities grounded in a psychologized self need to be actively affirmed, whether that is by positively acknowledging their legitimacy or by explicitly speaking out against behavior that denies it. Mere tolerance of an identity requires neither. ... It is partly this: a psychologized notion of selfhood, that places inner needs, desires, feelings, and convictions at the core of its notion of human purpose, inevitably tends towards social fragmentation. Where the self is psychologically conceived, there are potentially as many ends as there are people; traditional external institutions cease to have any decisive power over who we think we are or what we share in common with others. Old frameworks for meaning—the nation, the family, religion—cease to be plausible as soon as they fail to fulfill the hopes and dreams of any given individual or group. At a time when these institutions are under intense strain from other pressures—the nation-state from globalization, the family from a myriad of economic and legal forces, and religion from internal corruption and external moral pressure of the kind described above—they are incapable of meeting the felt needs of the psychological self. "

- Carl Trueman [1]


"From Philosophy to Technology, Tracing the Origin of Identity Politics

How did the world arrive at its current, disorienting state of identity politics, and how should the church respond? Historian Carl R. Trueman shows how influences ranging from traditional institutions to technology and pornography moved modern culture toward an era of “expressive individualism.” Investigating philosophies from the Romantics, Nietzsche, Marx, Wilde, Freud, and the New Left, he outlines the history of Western thought to the distinctly sexual direction of present-day identity politics, providing readers with a clearer understanding of the modern implications of these ideas on religion, free speech, and issues related to personal identity. For fans of Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, this new book offers a more concise presentation and application of some of the most critical topics of our day."



A society built on the notion of radical individual autonomy where the policing of language by the authorities becomes a vital part of the social contract

Carl Trueman:

" I sketched the rise of a new normative kind of selfhood in the West, that of “psychological man.” I also suggested that understanding this development is an important element in understanding the times in which we live, because it lies behind so many of the seemingly disparate developments which are transforming our society, from sexual ethics to current concerns about racism. In today’s essay, I want to focus my argument on how this development is reshaping our cultural values: first, it has shifted attention to the use of language as central in discussion of oppression; and second, it is transforming traditional social virtues into political vices.

To return to my grandfather whom I mentioned in yesterday’s essay: for him oppression was a matter of not being able to find work, of not being paid a fair day’s wage for an honest day’s work, of not being able to provide for his family. For today’s psychological self, oppression is a far broader concept with far less tangible, stable content. Oppression involves making people feel bad about themselves, less than fully human, or preventing them from being outwardly that which they are inwardly. In practice, this means that much of what is now considered oppression is linguistic in character. Words become all-important because words are speech-acts by which we acknowledge or deny the identity of another. We all intuitively understand this: to use a racial slur is not to describe someone but to denigrate them, to do something to them, to put them in their place. Words are, to use the hyperbolic jargon of our cultural moment, instruments of violence because injury is conceptualized in psychological terms. This is why speech codes are now so important. Even the accidental use of an inappropriate pronoun can be seen as an assault on someone’s person because it is seen as a denial of their identity.

Policing language thus becomes central to a society constituted by psychological selves. The net result of this is that matters once considered basic social goods such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion become problematic. They may have been virtues to the American Founders, but today they are rapidly coming to be seen as vices. Where the psychological self is normative, speech becomes violence and freedom of speech thus a license for violence. This in turn creates the strangest of situations: a society built on the notion of radical individual autonomy where the policing of language by the authorities becomes a vital part of the social contract. Individual freedom perversely comes to require political authoritarianism."


The History of Identity Politics is rooted in the history of the Modern Self

Simon Kennedy:

"One insightful attempt to understand the historical lineage of this new world is Carl R. Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Dr. Trueman is Professor of Biblical & Religious Studies at Grove City College, PA, although The Rise and Triumph was largely written while he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University.

Rather than address the sexual revolution directly, Dr. Trueman looks at the ideas which lie at the foundation of the drive for self-expression and authenticity, and the concepts which undergird the militant defence of the plethora of sexual and gender identities. This revolution “cannot be properly understood until it is set within the context of a much broader transformation in how society understands the nature of human selfhood,” writes Dr. Trueman. Herein lies the key insight: “the sexual revolution is simply one manifestation of the larger revolution of the self that has taken place in the West.”

The Rise and Triumph is, in essence, a history of ideas. It traces a series of intellectual shifts from the eighteenth century onwards, which Dr. Trueman argues led to the usurpation of a mimetic view of the self by the poietic view of the self. The mimetic view is where one conforms oneself to the given external order. This view enjoyed ubiquity in the Western mind, from Plato’s Timeaus to John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. However, it was another Genevan, one probably more influential than Calvin, who moved the Western world towards poiesis.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1788) argued that a person was most himself when left unhindered by external forces. This is most evident in his 1755 Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (known as the Second Discourse), where Rousseau invokes the imagery of the noble savage, and where he characterises the person who first erected a physical boundary around a plot of land as bringing the ruin of humankind. Rousseau’s natural man was in a state of perfect satisfaction and authenticity, only to be wrecked by the constraints of civil society.

In short, the mimetic world of Plato and Calvin was one where the given order gave meaning to the self, whereas the poietic world of Rousseau was one where the raw material of reality was to be worked upon to find and shape individual meaning. Dr. Trueman documents how Rousseau’s basic philosophical anthropology was further developed by the Romantic poets, for whom the main game was, to use William Wordsworth’s phrase, the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” reflecting authentic human nature.

Tellingly, the drive for authentic self-expression in the Romantics was combined with the sexual radicalism of Percy Bysshe Shelley and the anti-Christian poetry of William Blake. As Dr. Trueman notes, “when the sacred order collapses, morality is simply a matter of taste, not truth.” This is what Dr. Trueman observes in the Romantic poets. The fundamental need for personal authenticity combined with political radicalism and aesthetic moralism. In other words, the Romantics pushed against traditional morality with an ethics of empathy.

This doesn’t get us to gender fluidity, militant bans on gender therapies, or gay marriage. However, we are drawn closer when Dr. Trueman’s story addresses the emergence of what he calls ‘Plastic People’. Rousseau and the Romantics set the stage, argues Dr. Trueman, for “the elimination of the notion that human nature is something that has authority over us as individuals.” Here, Dr. Trueman calls upon sociologist and Freud scholar Philip Rieff (1922–2006). In his 1966 The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Rieff outlined a schematic of civilisational types, which represented the dominant anthropology of the given age.

‘Political Man’ was foremost in the ancient world, where humans were primarily understood in terms of their relationship to the polis. ‘Religious Man’ was the medieval anthropological type, where people were ultimately understood as related to their society’s cultus. Karl Marx, of course, ushered in, or exemplified, ‘Economic Man’. And in the final stage, starkly represented by the thought of Sigmund Freud, Rieff argued that we had reached the epoch of ‘Psychological Man’. This latter anthropology emphasises, in Dr. Trueman’s words, “the inward quest for psychological happiness.”

Of course, the ideas of Freud, and the emergence of ‘Psychological Man’, were only plausible once Charles Darwin had finally undermined the teleological view of the natural world, once Marx put forward his dynamic, economically-driven view of human nature, and once Nietzsche metaphorically “unchained this earth from its sun” by ennobling an anti-Christian ethics. The latter’s work is dealt with particular deftness by Dr. Trueman, who notes that “the nonexistence of God is not like the nonexistence of unicorns or centaurs… [to] dispense with God… is to destroy the foundations on which a whole world of metaphysics and morality has been constructed and depends.”

All of this brings Dr. Trueman to Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who founded the controversial theory of psychoanalysis, and who, most significantly, sexualised the psychological anthropology of the epoch we are now living through. It was Freud who made sex the central aspect of human existence. It was Freud who proposed with great success, according to Dr. Trueman, that “sex, in terms of sexual desire and sexual fulfilment, is the real key to human existence, to what it means to be human.” Freudian authenticity demands that the self be allowed to express its sexual preferences and gain sexual pleasure.

The necessary constraint to this sexual self-expression is civilisation, which both brings order out of sexual chaos and causes the individual sexual self to be unhappy. This is reminiscent of Rousseau’s political anthropology, where the noble savage is sadly brought into a civilised state to both his detriment and his benefit. In Freud, Dr, Trueman observes the psychologised self made sexual. In Freud, Psychological Man becomes Sexual Man.

From the internal turn of the poietical self, to the aesthetic and atheistic turn in ethics of the Romantics and Nietzsche, to the reduction of human nature to a malleable social construct by Marx and Freud, Dr. Trueman shows how the way was paved for critical theorists to politicise the sexual. Dr. Trueman focuses his attention on Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) and Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979). He argues that these men combined “the political concerns of Marxism with the psychoanalytical claims of Freud,” by taking “the Marxist category of oppression and [refracting] it through the Freudian notion of repression.” Sexual liberation became a central aim of politics.

And so we have what Dr. Trueman calls the “psychologising of oppression and the placing of it at the centre of the history of human society.” Now, “merely tolerating certain sexual proclivities and activities would not be enough, for tolerance is not the same as recognition.” The Psychological Man, drenched as he is in his sexual identity, requires more freedom. He requires positive affirmation. Our sexual choices must be approved by one and all.

The sexualising of politics brings sexual liberation and the positive recognition of one’s personal desires to the centre of political discourse. "


A religion witout repentance, aiming for total victory

Carl Trueman:

" it is important that critics of identity politics take note of two things. First, we must take seriously the conditions that have given rise to this unfortunate phenomenon. The one thing that binds all identitarian groups together is the human experience of wanting to belong and yet finding no place in contemporary society. The family is a mess. Religious institutions lack authority. The nation state is no longer a source of unity but a theater of conflict in which we fight about what is and is not America with much heat and little light. And yet that basic human need to belong persists, a need that is now being met by new identitarian communities—which I would argue are unstable and often illusory. Identity politics is in part a response to this tragic state of affairs. Christians must take this lack of connection seriously and counter chimerical forms of belonging with the true community of the church.

Second, it is noteworthy that Marx considered the criticism of religion foundational to making people face up to the reality of their lives. We should similarly consider the criticism of identity politics to be central to our task in this present age. For all of its passionate rhetoric, identity politics witnesses to the social disconnection that results from the metaphysical void at the heart of modern Western society. We want something bigger than ourselves to which we can commit, yet the old forms of belonging seem lost to us. Unable even to agree on what humanity is and therefore on what binds us together, we fragment into constructed identity ghettoes and engage in an endless will-to-power war for center stage. Thus, exposing the empty promises of identity politics must be part of the quest for true human freedom and belonging.

In closing, however, it is useful to note one last point on which religion—at least, the Christianity that Marx had in his sights—and our current cult of identity politics differ. Identity politics, unlike Christianity, is not the heart of a heartless world. Far from it. Christianity calls out sin and demands repentance; but it has grace and forgiveness at its heart. The shrill voice of identity politics screams for repentance, yet it presumes that no actual act of repentance will ever be sufficient. It offers neither grace nor forgiveness. That is because total victory, not reconciliation, is the real name of the game."


Did the Sexual Revolution create identity politics ?

* Book: Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. Mary Eberstadt. Templeton Press, 2019.

Carl Trueman reviews :

"Whether as an atheist one goes with Sade, Nietzsche, and Freud, or as a Christian with Paul and Augustine, the answer to the current identity chaos is surely that human beings have a deep, dark, and destructive side that takes pleasure in dominating others, however defined, through sexual excess or cultivating feelings of superiority. It’s not just a need to belong that drives us; it’s also the need to assert ourselves, to feel superior, to negate others. Sex and violence have always been the obvious ways to do that, and technology and 300 years of expressive individualism—and the collapse of old forms of identity in their wake—have opened the way for our darker instinct to find public expression and cultural sanction.

This, in turn, goes to the heart of what Nietzsche saw as ressentiment, and it helps to explain why, as the traditional foundations for identity fracture and break apart, these new identities are emerging in the aggressive and snarling manner we now see. Whether we look at sexual politics or racial politics, and however legitimate the original grievances they seek to address, one obvious aim is to invert the old hierarchies in the quest to make “us” feel superior to “them.” The idioms for doing such are historically conditioned; the basic ambition is a function of the human heart.

What we need isn’t simply a sociology of identity but an analysis of the deeper psychological and anthropological dimensions of the human condition. The world of strong nation states, religious observance, and stable families was no Nirvana, as history demonstrates only too well. They too had their therapeutic aspects. The answer isn’t a return to the old ways of doing things; that would simply be to exchange one set of problems for another; it’s to confront what the poet Yeats described as “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

The above comments should be read as supplemental questions, not as major criticisms of Eberstadt. This is a good and helpful book, and the responses of Dreher and company are thought-provoking and constructive. It’s a good example of intelligent discussion in a world too dominated by the banal self-promotion, casual nastiness, and cheap identity politics of Twitter. And Eberstadt’s choice of “primal scream” is certainly a useful analogy, because it captures the irrational nature and intensity of identity politics.

But it also captures something Eberstadt doesn’t emphasize, yet which is essential to the modern political project: the therapeutic quality of identity politics. Identity politics is therapeutic politics because it allows any self-identified group to blame others for its misfortunes, to see its own weaknesses as a sign of its inherent virtue, and to foster thereby a feeling of innate superiority."