[Editor’s Note: Mary Eberstadt is Senior Research Fellow at the Faith & Reason Institute. Between 1985 and 1987, she was a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State George P. Schultz. Her latest book is Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. She spoke to Charles Camosy.]
Camosy: What motivated you to write a book about the source of identity politics? What do you hope to come from such a book?
For several years, following the discussion over identity politics, I kept feeling as if something were missing.
Conservatives and traditionalists tend to write off identity politics as the expression of “snowflakes,” or overly coddled youngsters. Liberals and progressives tend to embrace such politics as a way of attaining power.
In listening to the various manifestations of identity politics, I was struck by something else: Suffering. Rage. Despair. Watching footage of demonstrations by identity-first groups on campus, say, or reading the movement’s characteristically furious prose, I was impressed by how rancorous this phenomenon is – and how sad.
A lot of people today really seem frantic to know who they are, frantic to attach themselves to collective and exclusive political groups based on shared characteristics like ethnicity or erotic longings — as opposed to universally shared humanity. That is a remarkable fact, and a remarkably moving one.
I concluded that beneath the noise of identity politics lies something real: A desperation to find in collective identities some simulacrum of a family, at a time when the literal family of humanity and the figurative family of God are in decline across our civilization.
Folks have pointed to the shrinking of the U.S. family for a host of ill and worrying trends – but you tie it explicitly to the rise of identity politics. What’s the connection here?
Look broadly at what happened after the sexual revolution: Unprecedented levels of abortion, divorce, cohabitation, single parenthood, and fatherless homes. Add to that the shrinkage of the family itself. Leaving aside the question of their moral content, all of these forces have the same effect: They subtract the number of people in our lives who can do what family has traditionally done – include us in a primal community of people who have our interests at heart, who have our backs, and who explain our place in the world.
These same trends have made it harder to answer the question of identity relationally, by reference to one’s own. Is that my sister? Is that your cousin? Where, if anywhere, are my siblings? Because of the post-revolutionary interruptions of the transmission belt of the family, identity is constructed more and more outside family or religious ties – and in politics.
The historical timeline bears out that the rise of identity politics and the rise of familial chaos are twinned. Primal Screams makes the case that this is a causal connection: When people are deprived of knowing who they are through the most basic of measures – i.e., through familial relations – they will look for collective identities instead.
We’re teleological creatures. We can’t help ourselves. And the increasingly desperate need to answer the question – Who am I? – is coming from that ineradicable aspect of our nature.
You also argue that the shrinking and breakdown of the family led to a lack of opportunities for what you call “social learning” about the opposite sex – and that this has led to the kind of hostile behavior toward women that lead to #MeToo. But you’ve no doubt heard folks argue that this kind of mistreatment of women was going on well before the breakdown of the family – and that the Hollywood culture (the outing of which really made #MeToo into a cultural phenomenon) under scrutiny was treating women this way when U.S. families were at their strongest.
Of course, sexual predation has always been with us – and cads, and sexual harassment, and for that matter, false accusations, too. It’s a fallen world.
But #MeToo also reveals something new on the scene, and in several ways: A lack of knowledge about the opposite sex. Recall, for instance, that so many of the men in these stories claimed their sexual advances were welcome, even though the women in question insisted otherwise. Why would these men and women report such vastly different takes on the situation?
One guess would be that post-sexual revolution, a lot of men are learning about the opposite sex through the Playboy philosophy and other pornographic narratives. That’s one example of a breakdown in social learning.
Another is that the women in these stories often seem to have been sent into the world with no protective knowledge whatsoever – no one to tell them not to go to a boss’s hotel room at midnight, say. Yet another striking feature of these stories is what isn’t in them: There is practically zero mention of fathers, brothers, cousins, uncles, or other men intervening on behalf of these women, against the alleged predators.
That’s stunning. But of course, in the post-revolutionary order, many women don’t have brothers, fathers, and other masculine relatives of estimable number – just as many men don’t learn about the opposite sex via family life, either.
To observe that isn’t to blame victims. To the contrary, it’s to emphasize that we’d have fewer victims if we had more robust families. It’s a tragic fact that the family itself can be corrupted, including by sexual and physical abuse. But for most of humanity, the family has been the petri dish for learning about the opposite sex in a safe, non-sexual, loving way.
For many, the revolution crushed the petri dish. That’s why we see signs of a breakdown in social learning.
How can the Church best react to the important story you’ve told in this book? Can we help push the culture toward a different future?
The Church is the most critical sign of contradiction in the world – including and especially about these exact issues. The empirical record since the 1960s shows that the simultaneous and related breakdowns of family and community have generated massive human suffering of different kinds, particularly among the most vulnerable. That record has been part of my work now through several books, including How the West Really Lost God and Adam and Eve after the Pill, in addition to Primal Screams.
That ledger is inadvertent but profound testimony to the truth of Catholic teachings about human nature. Those teachings go all the way back to the earliest of days, when new and stricter rules served both to set Christians apart from pagans, and helped them to construct a tight and enduring community. The Church can’t afford mixed signals about those teachings, especially when so many people are suffering because attempts to throw out the rulebook have left so many post-1960s souls atomized and unprotected.
OK, that’s obviously very important for those bearing the burden of church leadership to consider. But what about the folks in the pews. What can we do to address the issues you raise?
Grassroots Catholicism is essential here. Parishes should look for any opportunity to help families flourish – say, by organizing people to drop off meals when a new baby enters the world; by helping those with troubled marriages into counseling; by doing something interesting with youth groups, so that kids aren’t at the mercy of social media 24/7; by visiting the elderly, who often have no one (the astonishing rise in loneliness among both seniors and Millennials was one of the hardest parts of the book to write.)
There’s one other take-home for readers that isn’t about the grassroots. For many years now, Catholics have been told they’re on the wrong side of history. But in the specific matter of upholding its sometimes-tough teachings about the family, the Church has gotten one of the most important calls in history right.
“The family” isn’t some sentimental construct designed to oppress its hapless victim members. To the contrary, as the evidence in Primal Screams goes to show, it is a shelter like no other that confers unique benefits of all kinds on the human social animal – just as living in families turns out to be essential to other social animals, too. We can see this when we’re concerned about elephants and other fellow creatures. We just need to do something countercultural here and apply some of that same empathy to our familial selves.
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