Our shared public spaces are becoming unbearable. Log into your email and avoid the bellies of obese women thrust at you from the sidebar as they flaunt their self-esteem. Travelling home from work, on the platform of the London Tube a lingerie company is suggestively advertising tights that fit snugly around their wearer’s, um, penis. Out in the street a rainbow-coloured poster proclaims a ghastly slogan about the joys of promiscuous homosexuality–“the family tree stops here, darling!”–without even the excuse of selling some unnecessary frivolity, apparently as part of some sort of obscene parody of a public information campaign. At home, turning on the TV, a gaggle of androgynous dancers gyrate vapidly to promote the latest alcoholic beverage, which we are supposed to want because it is apparently as resistant as they are to tyrannical “labels”.
Five years ago this was unthinkable. Remember when “because you’re worth it” was the epitome of narcissistic consumerism? It seems almost like an age of stultifying conservatism. We all laughed at Little Britain‘s Emily Howard (“I’m a laaady!”) because he obviously wasn’t. Now, high street shops are selling “gender-neutral” clothing to children.
Our culture was coarse, trivial, and hollow in 2013 and it is coarse, trivial and hollow now. But something deep seems to have changed. Our dominant motif has for some time been amoral self-expression, but it persisted within the limits of minimal human normalcy and common sense, which were reflected in our public spaces. Fathers would rail against boyfriends exploiting their daughters; men would boast about their virility while women tried to appear (relatively) chaste; everyone knew that obesity is unhealthy and unattractive. That common sense has now been declared thoughtcrime.
James Bond’s seduction and exploitation of women was glamorised following the cultural upheaval of the 1960s but it at least reflected a natural male desire. Contrast the trivial 2017 imitation xXx: Return of Xander Cage (sic), in which the eponymous hero’s female counterpart to Bond’s Q almost collapses with lust on setting eyes on his heaving chest and immediately starts telling him her “safe word”. A Bond girl would be ashamed of such wantonness.
The recent silly furore over millennials shocked by the “homophobia” of Friends shows just how fast our standards have changed. Even more so when you think that, at the time, shows like it were blasted by social conservatives for promoting degeneracy and fornication. Where are the social conservatives now? How many millennials have considered that within their short lifetimes, campaigns by churchgoing women to “clean up TV” had more power to promote censorship than the feminists did? Now, media bosses fear only movements devoted to promoting fornication. Perhaps this should prompt a moment’s reflection.
Exaggeration doesn’t behove serious analysis so we mustn’t proclaim a social apocalypse. Lifestyle magazines were pretty much the same bottomless cesspits of total permissiveness in the hedonistic ‘nineties. Christianity continues its rapid evaporation and marriage is in steep decline in the US, but there doesn’t seem to be a total collapse of social stability just yet. British women are moving in with partners and having children at almost the same age as the turn of the century, and the divorce rate has even fallen slightly. And while social norms do seem to be changing for the worse, the poisonous “hook-up culture” is only really entrenched in universities, and even in our Tinderised dating scene most young people have, or seek, some kind of stable romantic relationship. In fact, rates of teenage pregnancy, a bugbear for the old kind of anxious conservative, have actually fallen drastically. The curious fact is that this is probably because young people are having far less sex — one of the many bizarre paradoxes that exist in the age of authenticity.
What seems to be total is our anomie — the sense that there are no norms outside our own desires to regulate our choices. We live in a world of impersonal real or virtual public spaces and the image of human life they reflect and reify is no longer tempered by common sense. More than ever before, we are faced with a near-infinitude of choices and a minuscule number of norms to help us navigate them. You can review a thousand potential sexual partners on your phone in one evening and no one is allowed to tell you how to cope. Of course, healthy people still have a sense of indecency and abnormality–it’s an ineradicable part of the human condition–but with no public recognition of this, the instinct starts to press on the nerves.
And it is our nerves that are fraying. British medical statistics show that the number of teenage girls reporting mental health problems rose by fifty percent since 2012, and is now at nearly one third of the total. The frequency of suicide attempts and self-harm is skyrocketing too, and there are now large areas, like many of our universities, where you can almost smell neurosis poring out of the dorms and lecture rooms.
The website of Metro magazine yesterday featured a lifestyle article entitled Meet the polyamorous trio who are expecting their fifth child together (carefully purged of any hint of judgement). Politely declining, two articles below we have What it’s like when anxiety makes you spend every waking movement fearing for your life. What a world we’ve created for our children.
At the centre of all this is a weird new belief, the idea of “gender-fluidity”, which seems to be the central motor of this profound cultural change. It’s an idea so obviously false that it doesn’t need refuting, and this probably explains its great appeal in an era that professes radical scepticism about objective truth.
“What sex am I, Winston?”
“You are a man”
“And if the party says I am not a man but a woman – then what am I?”
Calling your opponents Orwellian is just about the cheapest move in the political play-book. A kind of lowest-common-denominator given our abysmal cultural literacy, Nineteen-eighty-four is pretty much the only political book every educated person has read. And worse, of course, it’s downright silly for those who object to our present gender trouble to cry persecution. When social conservatives were the establishment, in the 1950s, publishing the kind of fare we now read on a daily basis was a criminal offence, and rightly so.
But the usefulness of Orwell’s book is not in its description of hyper-totalitarianism, which shades at times into sadomasochism, but its social anatomy of a society that denies objective reality. Roger Scruton has said it was the first attempt in English to imagine a fully secular society, and he seems to be on to something — the party allows no trace of our post-Christian humanitarianism to survive in Oceania, and directs every religious impulse into war and state-worship. Freedom is Slavery and God is Power. Nietzsche would be proud, right before he was vaporised by the Thought Police. And truth, crucially, has no place in the radically disenchanted world that subjects everything to the will to power. O’Brien, Winston’s interrogator in the hateful Ministry of Love, explains:
Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation — anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wish to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature. We make the laws of Nature.
This is startlingly similar to the new ideas about gender. We need only replace the party with the sovereign individual and we have pretty much what we are now supposed to believe. Biology is ever so old-fashioned; Nature is dreadfully Victorian. If I think I float, and I identify as a soap bubble, then I drift away in effervescent bliss. Or something along those lines.
It goes without saying that this subjectivism is false. No matter what the party may say, two and two will never make five and humans will always be divided into men and women, and this distinction will be important. There are empirical arguments for those who want them, but sanity should not be craven enough to need them. If freedom is the freedom to say that two and two make four, we should be grateful we still have it, and assert these obvious truths whenever they are contradicted even if we encounter unpleasant reactions.
Orwell warned us in this way that modernity could culminate in collective solipsism. This was the twentieth century’s biggest fear: that the forces of Progress, rationalising, homogenising, regularising, would develop their incipient totalitarianism until truth itself was redefined by an omnipotent nomenklatura or Inner Party. Oceania’s Ingsoc was the logical next step from the Nazis and the CPSU.
We now live in what Ulrich Beck called “second modernity”, in which Progress’s destructive work is turned from the forgotten ancien régime to its own structures. The nuclear family, having replaced extended kinship structures, is ripped apart by divorce and cohabitation; the nation-state, abolishing tribe, is in turn made irrelevant by globalisation; the Fordist factory makes guild impossible, and then is asset-stripped and sold off, its owner downsized and the redundant time-and-motion men told to celebrate this “disruptive innovation”. When once, to be modern was to race to rationalise and categorise every speck of dirt, it is now to slyly tell those engaged in the counting not to impose their pre-conceived notions of space and number on the clods of earth, which are really very special snowflakes. We first broke down traditional structures in order to replace them with new, improved and efficient versions; and now we break down these, too, to prove our ongoing dynamism, undermining all stable markers of identity, making everything light, liquid and subjective to indefinite revision, bar the individual’s power of redefinition. The only thing that is certain is uncertainty and the only thing constant is an individual’s ability to change. The natural epistemic corollary is radical subjectivism, of a kind that easily supports our troubled sense of gender-fluidity.
It is logical, then, that while the totalitarian twentieth century came close to embracing collective solipsism, our individualist twenty-first is now approaching solipsism simpliciter. This is the real meaning of the gender revolution.
What is the connection of all this to the degeneration of the last five years? Gender is at heart of the change. It drives the whole motor of decay forward by breaking down our defences. If you accept the solipsism of the transgender advocate, how can you resist anything else? There is no possible basis on which to criticise the promotion of sodomy, promiscuity or obesity if you’re committed to the belief that the individual will is the ultimate arbiter not just of values but of reality itself. If you can believe that a man who affects a falsetto accent and wears a dress is a woman just because he says so, you can believe just about anything the monoculture tells you to.
The upheaval is sudden but it has roots in the basic structures of second modernity. TV docudramas about “trans teens” were pushing almost the same agenda in the early ‘noughties. Already in 1990 Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble had arrived at the mountainously incoherent conclusion that not just “gender” (a term not actually in use outside of grammar textbooks until the middle ‘fifties) but also what we take to be biological sex were really “social constructs” rather than features of mind-independent reality. The idea of gender-fluidity, that gender is only a malleable social performance, was already de rigour among academics in the humanities and most of the social sciences before that, and can be traced back through the (mostly fraudulent) work of “sexologist” Alfred Kinsey to the early twentieth century studies of Havelock Ellis, who coined the term “eonism” to describe the then unstudied trans phenomenon.
For the most part though, gender-fluidity only became a plank of a major social movement in the nineteen-seventies, and reflected the sudden shift in the discourse of the “liberation” movements of the previous decade from majority to minority rights. Once it seemed that the establishment would no longer begrudge the youthful masses their rights to sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, the revolutionary energy was transferred to liberating those whose deviant desires the suburban bourgeoisie still found hard to stomach. The soixante-huitards rioted for the right to visit the girls’ dorms at the Sorbonne, but within a decade their successors would have scoffed at their selfish desire for gratification when women, homosexuals, and other minorities still suffered such oppression. This is still basically the response when people wonder why the orgy of negative freedom hasn’t actually led to erotic satisfaction.
By the middle nineteen-eighties the contemporary language of “freedom” and “equality”, contrasted against the “phobias” of their opponents, had already become mainstream discourse, but its power to reshape society was constrained by several factors. First, the liberation movements initially had major difficulties in deciding exactly who deserved to be liberated – in the ‘seventies, Britain’s Paedophile Information Link embarrassingly attracted the youthful support of several of today’s feminist matriarchs; but it was then decided that the modernist, Victorian age of consent would have to be maintained, perhaps because teenage marriages would bring us too close to the normal state of humanity.
Second, they were resisted by political conservatives. America’s Culture War was really a battle between opposing readings of their civil religion and its Constitutional Scripture: did it found One Nation Under God or a contract for mutual benefit between consenting adults? Conservatives resisted the ‘sixty-eighter ethic of free love and fornication in the name of family, community, and tradition, and fought bitter battles over contraception, school prayer, and same-sex marriage; liberals felt obliged to moderate their goals in response. In Britain, there was never a general assault on the cultural revolution, but Thatcher’s government at least liked to sound critical of the “permissive society” and she clumsily tried to fight the LGBT movement by banning it from schools and cutting government grants to the “loony left” local councils that it influenced.
Today, conservatism is in more-or-less open retreat. The American Conservative‘s Rod Dreher reports almost daily on the surrender of Christendom to the sexual revolution, and with the partial exception of the hot-button issue of abortion, demographic shifts since the turn of the century have led the conservative coalition give up the ghost on these ephemeral “values” and return to the red meat of war-mongering, Zionism, and tax cuts for billionaires. The core Christian Right is still plugging away, but at least at a Federal level their notional allies have abandoned their goals, and are content to try to scoop up a little “religious liberty” in consolation as they negotiate surrender. And Britain’s so-called Conservative Party have given up the slightest pretense of standing for traditional values and embraced every single plank of the left’s lunatic agenda, and more.
Third, the sectors of society that always supported the liberationists has lost its sense of moderation. Gay civil partnerships sufficed for many liberals in the ‘nineties and ‘noughties but this is now unthinkably reactionary. The whole rhetoric of this group has changed, and their writers and bloggers now treat their goal, increasingly acknowledged to be absolute sexual autonomy, as some kind of axiomatic value, rather than a fallible moral belief whose detractors deserve a degree of respect.
This is closely tied to the rise of new media, which have allowed the ideas of lonely academics to penetrate deep into public consciousness. Millennial are probably no more likely to have read Judith Butler than their parents, but everyone has read her third, fourth, or fifth-hand commentaries on Tumblr and Twitter. These new fora disembed individuals from the epistemic structures of “first modernity” with its hierarchical NewsCorps and ponderous editorials; no grey-suited editor can tell you what to believe. Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers claimed to be able to decide a British election with a single front-page, sending thirty million empty vessels marching to the polls; their power is vanished now, and we curate our own front pages on Facebook, filling them with specially-selected articles that appeal to our individual tastes.
But this very dis-embedding is what has made young people so conformist in their beliefs. Social media weakens the power of cartoonists and op-ed writers but it also undermines the capacity for independent thought. You no longer engage with ideas as an individual, because the decisions about what to read, whether to believe it, and how to interpret it are all made socially, according to the rhythms of a network where every comment is scrutinised publicly and the effect of each individual’s actions on others are instantaneous and mediated only by algorithms. There is also a growing body of evidence that the use of online media undermines not only memory but the ability for deep and sustained reflection. Without this capacity for autonomous thought, for escaping the unconscious conformity that Heidegger called thrown-ness, humans are not so different from linguistically-gifted chimpanzees.
At the same time, it is the perfect medium for the ethic of self-expression. We blow our little trumpets through carefully designed profiles where every wart can be concealed, showing only the face we wish to prevent to the world in a space where the sovereignty of our own life-styles seems absolute.
So self-expression becomes an axiom because it is experienced as the foundation of our mode of congition, which itself permits reflection only through the mediation of others. Hence some millenial college students can be reduced to apoplectic fits by questioning ideas they would have laughed at ten years ago. No society could hold together if humans weren’t intellectually conformist to a point, but this involves a step-change in that disposition.
This explains the loss of restraint from liberals. Combined with the dwindling of the older, socially conservative generations it probably explains the surrender of conservatism too, and the centrality of gender-fluidity to our cultural gear-change is probably the cause of the wider shedding of inhibition documented in part 1 of this essay. Finally, the suddenness of the tipping point probably reflects a critical mass of consumer demand. The coporate brands who run our public spaces have realised simultaneously they can maximise profits by promoting themselves in a new way, and now you can barely walk down the street without encountering glamorous images of the utmost depravity.
What can be done? In the short-term, not much will change. Perhaps, before too long, the system will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, and dissolve into a puddle of serotonin. In the meantime, it seems a duty, when possible, to tell the modern world that its sacred beliefs are false: and in view of the destruction toward which we are heading, it will be worth it if even one person listens.