Published on September 29, 2021
Social conservatives are always losing, yet never quite defeated. In politics and the culture wars, it feels like we have fought a long rearguard action, with counterattacks only covering for a general retreat. But we should not despair, for human nature ensures that our insights will remain relevant and our principles will be unexpectedly revived.
Just ask Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times, who reports that “sex-positive feminism” is on the outs. Goldberg’s column is an exercise in admitting that social conservatives were right without saying that social conservatives were right. Thus, she presents this as a debate between sex-positive feminism (“the idea that feminism should privilege sexual pleasure and fight sexual repression”) and anti-porn feminists, whose warnings are finding new resonance among young women who “feel brutalized by the expectation that they’ll be open to anything.”
It is now undeniable that for many women the sexual revolution brought exploitation and immiseration, not freedom and fulfillment. Sexual liberation unshackled a multitude of evil, so Goldberg confesses that, “Somehow, as sex positivity went mainstream and fused with a culture shaped by pornography… Sex-positive feminism became a cause of some of the same suffering it was meant to remedy.”
“Somehow” indeed. If only there had been warnings from some sort of extensive cultural and political movement with deep religious and philosophical roots. But Goldberg presumably finds it more palatable to focus on a few dissident feminists than to credit the foresight of the likes of Focus on the Family.
‘Anything Goes’ Is Unworkable
Nor, despite its manifest failure, is she entirely willing to abandon the sex-positive feminist dream. Thus, her concluding imperative is something of a whimper, as she insists that “now that the old taboos have fallen, we need new ones. Not on sex, but on callousness and cruelty.” Good luck excising those permanent evils of human nature from a sexual culture dedicated to self-indulgence.
Goldberg and those like her are rediscovering the truth that “anything goes” is unworkable, and that society will therefore always have manners, norms, and taboos. These are, of course, imperfect, as are their supporters. But in considering manners and mores, social conservatives have the benefit of drawing on the experience and wisdom of ages, whereas today’s taboo-builders are working from scratch.
No wonder they are often in a moral panic. Having destroyed traditional restraints on the darkness within human nature, they are scrambling to build new norms out of corporate media think pieces and the Twitter mob.
Struggling to Find New Solutions
Faced with the failure of the sexual culture she has championed, Goldberg therefore has nothing better to offer than suggesting that cruelty should be taboo, as if moral philosophers and teachers had previously overlooked the point. But though moral reminders and instruction are perpetual necessities, there are few new moral discoveries to be made, except by those who presume there was nothing worthwhile before themselves.
This highlights the real problem with Goldberg’s reluctance to acknowledge the perspicacity of social conservatives. Spiteful refusal to give credit where it is due is trivial in itself, but significant insofar as it cuts her off from those who might offer solutions to the problems she has belatedly noticed. This ideological self-bubbling may be comforting — and keep her from being challenged on other issues as well — but it is why we often see progressives rediscovering truths that social conservatives never stopped declaring.
For instance, it took decades of bitter experience and a multitude of studies for many self-proclaimed social progressives to admit that divorce is bad for kids, and fatherlessness is really bad for kids. Likewise, after decades of tearing down manners and norms, they are now frantically trying to reconstitute some sense of public decency — left-wing activists are now troubled by many of the same vulgar lyrics that once perturbed the Moral Majority.
The Social Conservatives Saw It Coming
Societies require norms and manners regulating everything from sex to speech. Conservatives understand this, which enables social conservatism to be more than a mere defense of the status quo. We know that the permanent things of human nature are foundational to human society and flourishing. Among the most important of these permanencies is that men and women are different but complementary, and that their coming together provides for the continuation of humanity.
These simple truths are often ignored, or wished away, in our materialistic culture dedicated to individual autonomy. They were vehemently rejected by the sex-positive feminism Goldberg still can’t quite quit. But conservatives never forgot them, and we will continue to proclaim them and other essential truths about human nature and the good life.
This is not to say that we have a master plan for how to reconstitute society. We recognize that culture is largely organic and that humans are fallible and finite. This is why conservatives prefer reform to revolution. We know the fragility of even a tolerably good order, and that tearing a culture down is much easier than rebuilding one.
This is evident in the mess of Goldberg and her comrades attempting to develop new taboos. They are incoherent about what should be prohibited, and the punishments they dole out are disproportionate and capricious. Also, with their previous vision of human flourishing having ended in disaster, they have no idea what they even trying to build.
Instead of taking advice for those frantically trying to undo the damage their ideas have inflicted, we should listen to the social conservatives who saw it coming, and who have preserved ways of family and community life that promote genuine well-being.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.