Norms, Abnormality, and False Liberation

We don’t have more freedom, tolerance, and respect than we used to. Instead we have constraint, suppression, and condemnation with regard to different things.

What’s bad about normalizing homosexuality and other forms of sexual nonconformity? If a woman becomes sexually involved with another woman, or redefines herself as a man, how does it harm anyone else? Why not just assume she knows her own business, accept what she does, and get on with life?

Such libertarian arguments attract a lot of support, and even people who doubt them often have trouble responding to them effectively. The reason is that such situations are less a problem in themselves, at least for people other than those most immediately involved, than with regard to the effect on human relations of treating them as normal.

Accepted standards and expectations matter. They construct the social world in which we live, and since we are social beings they help us understand ourselves and our actions. Today there’s not much discussion of that kind of effect. Our age is liberal, meaning it wants to see each of us as a separate individual whose necessary practical connections to his fellows are best channeled through impersonal institutions like markets and expert bureaucracies. Whatever doesn’t lend itself to that treatment, the thought seems to be, is best treated as private, optional, and a matter of personal taste and preference. That approach, which has long been applied to religion, is now being applied to sex. Everyone can do what he wants, and how that works out is nobody’s business but his own.

It’s an odd tendency, since it’s usual to organize important aspects of human life so they become largely institutional and subject to standards. Thus, property relations are mostly structured through law. The advance of knowledge is organized through universities, research institutes, patterns of funding, and networks of recognition. And charitable activities are mostly carried on through the efforts of charitable organizations, as affected by the tax code, state regulation of nonprofits, patterns of public concern and giving, and laws of general applicability such as those against discrimination.

Beyond that, important aspects of those spheres of life have been merged into government operations, so that governments routinely own large amounts of property, engage in or contract for research, and carry on activities that formerly would have counted as charitable. To the extent that’s happened, those things have become wholly bureaucratized and determined by law.

Man is social, and he reproduces sexually, so sexual distinctions and connections are basic to human life. It is therefore apparent that specific arrangements regarding those things are needed, and until very recently such arrangements were considered socially fundamental. Today that’s changed radically. The new dogma is that people must be free to make their own decisions regarding sex, including decisions regarding “gender,“ and those decisions must be treated as both authoritative and irrelevant to anything of practical concern.

The idea, then, is that there’s no significant objective distinction between the sexes, and sexuality has no socially-recognized function beyond whatever role is given to it by those immediately involved. The whole area of life thus becomes wholly individual, subjective, and free-form. All that can govern the relations of the sexes are rules of general application like those against coercion. Indeed, “gay liberation,“ a specific application of the principles of freedom and social indistinguishability, demonstrates that some general rules, like public health requirements in case of an epidemic, must be loosened for the sake of sexual freedom, a principle that now holds somewhat the position religious freedom once did.

So where does all that put us?

America, until the Sixties, had a substantive common culture with regard to sex that incorporated something like a natural law understanding. Love, marriage, and babies were all thought to go together, and a variety of standards regarding sex roles and sexual conduct supported the connection. Those standards were considered a serious matter. To fail to live up to them was a fall, to ignore them more broadly or reject them altogether meant there was something wrong with you. Such attitudes were, of course, backed by various sanctions. The sanctions were mostly informal, but they reflected a public sense that something serious was at stake, so they were strong enough to mold attitudes and behavior.

The force and function of those standards can be understood by comparing them to that of current standards regarding racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like. If you violate such standards you’re violating principles that people who set the tone for social life view as fundamental for securing good human relations. Those people won’t like it, they won’t look kindly on you, and you’re likely to get in trouble that can easily become quite serious.

The result of the traditional standards was maintenance of marriage as a generally reliable social institution with a specific nature and specific functions. It was the unique legitimate setting for sexual activity, designed to provide a secure and favorable environment for bearing and raising children, and to protect adults from the vagaries of the sexual marketplace and give their connections a durable form that fostered loyalty and practical cooperation. The strength of the institution meant that most children grew up with both parents, most mothers of young children could securely devote their major efforts to motherhood, and most couples grew old together.

That of course has changed. Marriage is no longer viewed as something definite that can be relied on, Instead, it’s viewed as the free-form personal project of the two people most immediately involved. It has thus become less a functional institution than a sentimental ideal or public assertion that two people have established a life together that they view as settled. Even in the hierarchy of the Church there are now those who view it more as an ideal than an institution that makes demands we are all expected to obey. So it is not surprising that it has become a luxury good for successful people rather than a basic and very practical arrangement that helps all sorts of people carry on their lives by connecting them durably and cooperatively to others.

It’s said that the change reflects greater freedom, tolerance, opportunity for creativity, respect for persons in their individuality, and so on. Nothing of the kind is true, because unconstrained freedom is an illusion. One reason is that what we can choose depends on what’s available. If marriage does not involve constraints it won’t be marriage, and the freedom to choose it—which for most people is an extremely valuable freedom—will disappear. It seems unlikely that many single mothers really prefer their situation. It is far more likely that for them it is a matter of inhabiting a social world in which the support of a husband and the ability to offer their children a father’s reliable presence is not something they are free to choose. Does that situation mean they are free?

Another reason the change is not liberating is that there is always a common culture. Fundamental views are fundamental principles of social cooperation. They tell us the nature of man, how the world should work, and how we should act, so the coherence and stability of society depends on their general acceptance. It follows that mutual acceptance and respect among opposing fundamental views is never a social principle. Tolerance applies to secondary matters. If you reject principles that those around you consider truly basic then today—no less than centuries ago—you’ll be dealt with as a heretic. A different word like “hater“ or “extremist“ might be used, but the social purpose of the accusation and of the procedures used against you will be the same.

So we don’t have more freedom, tolerance, and respect than we used to. Instead we have constraint, suppression, and condemnation with regard to different things. The serious question is which system offers a better way of life, and how to promote and establish the better view as authoritative. Catholic doctrine, as well as reason and observation, tell us the traditional view is better. The question for Catholics and other well-intentioned people, then, is how to work toward re-establishing it.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About James Kalb 150 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008), Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013), and, most recently, The Decomposition of Man: Identity, Technocracy, and the Church (Angelico Press, 2023).