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Social identities or social physics?

Rationalized insanity like “zero tolerance” and political correctness suggests there is something basically irrational in social life today that has to do with a conflict between publicly compulsory standards and normal human expectations. Some people try to laugh the conflict off and make jokes about PC or whatever. Others deny it or explain it away—these are exaggerated marginal situations, and everything’s basically moving in the right direction. No one seems to have a grip on the situation.

Recent discussions here at Turnabout related to sex suggest the beginnings of an explanation. Traditional sexual morality depends on the thought that sex should have some connection with its natural reproductive function. Otherwise it won’t have the practical weight or the connection to definite human relationships and obligations that seem called for by its importance in our experience. What sort of connection though? If the connection is total, so sex becomes purely a means for the end of reproduction, it becomes dehumanized (and extremely rare). If the connection is looser, though, it’s easy to point out cases in which sex traditionally considered moral is in fact non-reproductive and one can ask why other non-reproductive sex is so different.

The solution to the problem, I think, lies in asking what sort of concepts normally order human life and make social institutions and ideals and standards of a good life possible. It seems to me those concepts—we, they, friend, enemy, promise, favor, offense, man, woman, marriage, family—have to do with the identity of things, with a general class they belong to that determines what they are for us. Such classifications can’t be reduced to specific consequences in particular settings even though they have a functional significance and are basic to our understanding of how the world works.

The rationalized insanity of the present day is the result of a way of thinking that rejects common-sense understandings of the identity of things and views physics as the one true description of reality, so that concepts of the kind used in physics become the only ones rational enough to be really authoritative. On that view the kinds of concepts that have always ordered human life—even ones as universal as those just mentioned—become irrational stereotypes that should be done away with as much as possible and certainly can’t be used to justify treating people one way or another against their will.

A consequence is that it becomes impossible to make common-sense distinctions among persons and actions. Common-sense distinctions can’t be demonstrated with the universality and rigor of physics, so they’re prejudiced and irrational. Also, distinctions in physics—between an electron and a proton, for example—are total, eternal and always exactly the same, so it’s assumed that if you draw a distinction between men and women, or Americans and Frenchmen, you must mean something of that sort.

The result is an absolute binary way of thinking. The only two possibilities are PC on the one hand—total equal acceptance as an absolute moral imperative—and “zero tolerance” on the other—a determination that if something like “drugs” or “weapons” calls for non-acceptance then the non-acceptance has to be total, categorical and equal for everything in the class.

To me, at any rate, it seems clear that the current “enlightened” way of thinking isn’t going to work. In social and moral affairs, identity and not physics is the way to go. Unfortunately, the current outlook involves a basic understanding of what it is to be rational that’s been growing up for centuries, so it’s going to be extremely difficult to dislodge. The point of education today is to train people to believe that if you object to that understanding you’re irrational, evil, mentally ill, or all three. So the struggle to overcome it is going to be a long one, and very likely will be much more interesting and dramatic than comfortable.