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.
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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.