My recent column on the difficult relationship between human nature and sexual politics has generated a response that itself is worth talking about. The wave of anger and condemnation that has come from some quarters is dramatic evidence that the column’s central contention is right. At the heart of the culture wars is a very deep-seated disagreement over whether or not women’s natural bodies give women unique or particular purposes — and, if so, what those purposes are, and how our morals, politics, and laws ought to treat the relationship between those purposes and women’s choices about how to actually live.
It’s not very controversial to point out that sex and gender are foundational to the culture wars. But it is apparently extremely controversial to claim that we can’t make sense of how and why they’re foundational without acknowledging that the root of the battle is over reaching — and enforcing — a consensus about the relationship between what women do and who women are.
This despite the fact that many on both sides of the culture war are frank about their desire to craft an enforceable consensus on issues like abortion, birth control, prostitution, gay marriage, and gay adoption.
For many on both sides, the belief is that their opponents really do stand for barbarism and against civilization. Supporters of the right to choose to have an abortion are believed by many pro-life people to support a barbaric, uncivilized act. Those who would restrict officially recognized marriages to one man and one woman are seen by many gay marriage advocates as using the power of the law to atavistically reverse the partly organic, partly hard-fought progress of civilization.
It’s easy to see how such high stakes can lead to large-scale anger. It’s more difficult to understand how the most measured invocation of some important social contributions by women drawn from the functions of the female body can produce shock waves of horror and derision — especially from a column that points out that a society which rejects the premise of a question about sex, gender, and natural purposes might very well have achieved a great leap forward in the progress of human civilization.
After all, as some have pointed out, Christianity itself — often associated with Aristotelian views tightly tying sexual biology to social role — is in fact a creed that in many ways profoundly liberates individuals from their natural bodies. In practice, however, and probably inevitably, Christianity has become tangled up in an institutional mess of competing moral and natural claims. As I’ve written for a symposium at Cato Unbound:
“Traditional marriage” is an institution without a fully authoritative account of which moralities, which traditions, and which human characteristics command us to say no, by varying degrees, to which others.
Because what we call traditional marriage masquerades as what it isn’t — an institution without any radical internal tensions — culture warriors on both sides turn to the state to enact or interpret into law an authoritative account of what marriage is.
The same is true for the meaning of the relationship between women as sovereign individuals and as beings with female bodies. Increasing numbers of Americans on both sides of the culture wars think that barbarism will win and civilization will lose unless the federal government establishes that relationship by law, on birth control, abortion, prostitution, and other issues.
The premise of my recent column is that this increasingly common view is placing a burden on American politics that it may not be able to bear. This is one reason why embracing agnosticism on the whole question might be such a civilizational leap forward — there may, practically speaking, be no other way to avoid a fundamental crisis of governance that Americans won’t be able to successfully recover from.
Nevertheless, there may be a successful way to talk about how women’s bodies might equip them to play a particularly important social and political role. Since my original discussion of this point has led a number of people to imagine that I must want nothing more than to reduce women to bio-serfs, it’s worth rearticulating.
Relative to men, women have a naturally privileged relationship with the process of creating and recreating human life. If you think this claim is an act of patriarchal essentialism, consider that this claim helps justify the right of a woman to freely choose an abortion without regard to the interests or opinions of the inseminating male. In most ways, in fact, that naturally privileged relationship — call it the power of fertility or fecundity — doesn’t actually carry much moral weight, as the development of our civilization has made clear. Women are largely freer than ever to pursue their life plans without the burden of a moral obligation to center their activity and their ambitions around exercising their unique reproductive capabilities.
Yet the story doesn’t end there. We still argue and wonder about which life plans to choose in a civilization that has greatly and productively loosened the once-intense moral link between women’s fecundity and women’s lives as unique individuals. And one area in which patriarchal dominance has persisted is in privileging some kinds of human pursuits over others. Philosophers from Plato to Rousseau to Heidegger have disapprovingly warned of the apparently natural propensity of men to fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.
Difference doesn’t presume or ordain inequality. I’m not alone in thinking that women are uniquely able to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men. But this sort of insight is far more circumspect and modest than the central principles of virtually all social conservatives. If my claim is doomed to be met with an avalanche of contempt, it seems likely that in our lifetimes social conservatism as we know it will be mocked, despised, and shamed right out of existence. You might be deeply uncomfortable with that even if you do hope to see an America without a social conservative movement.
James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.