“The Primal Scream of Identity Politics,” an essay exploring the contours of contemporary American politics, our search for identity, and the importance of the family..- Catholic author Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and the author of several best-selling books, including Adam and Eve After the Pill and How the West Really Lost God. In the Nov. 6 issue of The Weekly Standard, Eberstadt published
In an interview with CNA editor-in-chief JD Flynn, Eberstadt offers important insights for all Catholic Americans.
What are identity politics?
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines identity politics as “political activity and theorizing founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups.” This is not politics as usual. It’s instead an assertion of identity with one or another group that’s said to be oppressed. Believing oneself to be a victim is part and parcel of “identifying” in this way.
Identity politics, as scholars note, has only come into existence in the last thirty years, meaning that it is mostly younger people who believe this is what’s meant by “politics.” The results include theatrical repercussions that we’ve all seen in person or in the news – violent protests, increased numbers of speaker shut-downs on campus, other disruptions on the quad and elsewhere -- whose common denominators are emotionalism and unreason.
I wrote the essay not to dismiss the primal nature of identity politics, but instead to try and understand where all that deeply felt irrationalism is coming from.
What do we lose because of the surge in identity politics?
For starters, we’re losing an elemental piece of Catholic and other theology: the idea of free will. Identity politics says that biography is destiny – that how you’re born determines your political and moral interests in life. Nothing could be further from the idea that we are made in God’s image, and given the unique power of freely choosing good – or, as the case may be, evil.
The anthropology behind identity politics amounts to a crabbed, crippled, unfree view of the human person. It divides the world into victims and oppressors, leaving no room for free agency or redemption. For that reason alone, Christians above all should be wary, and reject this new way of looking at the world.
Beyond Christians, though, identity politics is toxic across society. The decibel level of unreason makes it hard to advance a civil, rational case about anything. And the Manichean division of the world into victims and oppressors leaves little space for nuance or anything else. All identity politics, all the time, makes for a dumbed-down, dreary conversation out there – just one more reason why figuring out the attraction of such politics in the first place seems like work worth doing.
You say that our “generation-wide descent into psychiatric trouble” is not caused by helicopter parenting, social media, or white racism, all of which are commonly asserted theories. Why are these convenient speculative “causes” for our contemporary political situation? What do they have in common?
The signature moral and social denial of our time concerns the real and widespread fallout of the sexual revolution. The contortions of identity politics are related to that same denial.
Of course there is authentic injustice in the world, as America’s racial history shows; as the Harvey Weinstein and related cases of predation show; and as many other examples could be added to prove. But no single injustice explains what most needs explaining, which is the frantic nature of today’s identity politics across the board.
The same unreason shows up over and over, no matter the grievance: in the mania over “cultural appropriation” that results in censorship of Halloween costumes and lots else; in the social media of identitarians of all varieties, which brims with incivility and, often, rage; in the protests against credentialed, reasonable speakers who challenge anything about the progressive view of the human person, especially on the quad.
This isn’t just protest-as-usual, either. In the essay, I cite the fact that psychiatric problems among the young have been rising for years, and that experts think this isn’t just a matter of better diagnostics; they also believe something new must be afoot.
Isn’t the most obvious culprit here the implosion of the family, the removal from many young people’s lives of a reliable circle of not one, or two, but many reliable, consistent, loving figures in the home? The family has been fractured for many by various familiar factors, among them divorce; the continuing rise in single-motherhood; and the simultaneous shrinking numbers of siblings, cousins, and other extended family thanks to contraception and abortion.
The human ecosystem is a mess. It’s no wonder that denial of the revolution’s record is ubiquitous. But at the same time, for reasons put forth in the essay, that same record is the most obvious probable cause of the hysteria we see out there, literally and figuratively.
To millennials, and I speak as one, intentional self-definition feels like the natural mode of being. It's what we do on social media without even realizing it. Has that not always been so? Aren't existential crises a long-running theme in the past century of modernity? Have they changed, or heightened?
What’s changed is not human nature – everyone asks the same questions about identity. But the familial circumstances in which many contemporary souls now find ourselves are radically changed, and make that quintessentially human question harder to answer.
For most of history, that question, “Who am I?” was answered first in the context of the family: I am a daughter, I am a cousin, a grandmother, a niece, and so on. Identity of a most obvious and unquestionable kind was provided by how any given individual was situated within the family into which he was born. If you didn’t know anything else, you at least knew that.
As of the Pill, though, and its promise of consequence-free sex, family relations have changed fundamentally – and with them, familial identity. Modern contraceptives increased the temptation to people-shop, because so many more people were now sexually available. Bonds like marriage, which once had been seen by most people as immutable, were (and are) extraordinarily strained by this massive sexual consumerism.
As a result, many people now regard “family” as a voluntary association, rather than a primordial set of bonds. That’s why we have such high rates of divorce and single motherhood – higher than ever before in history: because as of the sexual revolution, many people have behaved as if the family is negotiable, rather than given.
In the essay, I give examples of just some of the resulting confusion out there. Are you a stepsister? That depends. What if your mother and your “stepsister’s” father were married once -- and aren’t anymore? Are you still related to that person? What if they were never married in the first place, and you were just living with your mother’s boyfriend’s daughter? Would you have considered her a “stepsister” at all?
Similarly: is that my grandfather? Well, if he’s your mother’s father, probably yes. But what if he’s someone who married your grandmother after she divorced your original grandfather – what then? And so on.
Add to all of these novel existential quandaries the related fact that the family has shrunk, and you can readily see what distinguishes us from our ancestors: we have fewer attachments to family than they did, and the ones that we do have are, for many of us, in constant flux.
How is a communal animal – man – supposed to derive identity from his first community, the family, at such a time? That’s where the barely suppressed hysteria behind today’s identity politics is really coming from, I think: confusion and loneliness and familial deprivation.
You’ve worked on issues related to the sexual revolution for years. You’ve long said that the sexual revolution is the “moral bedrock” of so many Americans that its views can’t be questioned in public conversation. In the past, you’ve called it the “new orthodoxy.” But we’re seeing the wholesale meltdown of Hollywood right now, as the mask of the sexual revolution falls off. Is it possible this will lead to a resurgence of virtue, and virtue culture? What would have to happen to make that so?
Backlash looks to be well-underway on several fronts, for this simple reason: we human beings aren’t made to live the way many do now, gorged to obesity on sex and fake sex, and simultaneously isolated from one another and from family life as never before.
That’s not us. We’re social animals. We can’t, and don’t, thrive otherwise. In this we join many other species, especially mammals, that live within kinship structures. We can understand this when we study elephants, say. We just don’t think of applying such knowledge about nature to ourselves. Pretending that we can endure as social isolates and porn potatoes, like pretending we can live happily without more robust families, is making a lot of people out there miserable.
The result is bound to be reaction to all that; and not surprisingly, there are new signs that at least some are starting to have second thoughts about where the revolution has led.
The continuing reaction to Hollywood’s systemic harassment-and-exploitation scandals, as you point out, is one example. The growth of campus groups dedicated to traditional Catholic teaching is another. FOCUS, the Love and Fidelity Network, and like-minded organizations didn’t even exist a couple of decades ago. Likewise, the proliferation of new resources to protect people from pornography is another kind of re-norming that’s part of the nascent pushback to the revolution.
Above all, even as many people have abandoned organized religion, the converts streaming into the churches are being driven in large part by the search for refuge in the world after the Pill – for a more ennobled and inspiring vision of the human person than the inferior one that’s on offer in the sexualized, secular mainstream.
There’s going to be plenty more of all of the above, I’d bet. And if there is another religious awakening ahead, great or small, we can be sure that this is exactly where it will be rooted.
You say that identity politics are the “primal scream” of our time—a “collective human howl…sent up by inescapably communal creatures who can no longer identify their own.” How do believers respond to that howl? What does the Church need to do, right now, to respond to this crisis?
The Church needs to do one thing: be the Church. The temptation to bend to the times is prodigious -- and has been ever since the technological shock of the birth control pill.
For clergy and lay believers alike, the temptation to soft-pedal Catholic teaching on sexual morality is probably greater than ever before, because secularist culture has now turned from mocking traditional teaching to attacking it with a ferocity not seen before. No wonder many people within the Church itself seem afraid.
But acquiescing to the times, and tacitly or overtly abandoning the very moral code that is a lifesaver for the family, isn’t going to spell relief from identity politics – or from the social changes that created such a culture of grievance. And soft-pedaling Church teaching also does a great injustice to human beings outside the flock. To acquiesce is to say, in effect, that the secularist alternative is right; that the Church would rather be approved than right; that we really are just prisoners of our color, our erotic desires, our national background, and the rest – the whole dreary list of determinism now found in identity politics.
Two thousand years of teaching says that humanity is better than that. The biggest problem with downplaying the Christian rulebook is that it sends exactly the wrong message to converts and would-be converts. They can find accommodation anywhere – in the secular orbit, in their information silos, in their schools and workplaces, in whatever’s on their phone or laptop, and for that matter, in other churches.
But the outsiders peering into the Church right now for help are not looking for accommodation. They’re looking for capital-t Truth. To borrow from Pope Francis, it would be wrong not to meet them exactly where they are.
If we understand that there’s something authentic about the primal scream we keep hearing, and that the root cause of identity politics is pathos brought on by familial destruction, we might be able to work with some of the damage out there. We might be able to bring some genuine victims – casualties of the revolution -- to a more elevated vision and a better home.