Some time ago I wrote a post which began with the question: “What just happened, how did we come to this?” Recently I read something about sexuality during the early middle ages which got me thinking more about the process in which things seemed to change so quickly. Maybe it hasn’t been such a sudden turn around. Rather, looking back I see a series of significant changes in societal thinking and attitudes which seem to have built upon each other. (This is not based on any real sociological study or backed by any experts, just my personal observations through the decades of my life.)
Societies have always prohibited certain behaviors. It is one of the primary functions of society to attempt to regulate behavior for the safety of individuals and the benefit of the society as a whole. In the earliest known societies and specifically during the early middle ages with the growing influence of the Catholic Church, certain sexual and other behaviors have been prohibited. Regulating behaviors which are usually acted out in private is always challenging, but there were prohibitions with specific penalties attached. The intent in having prohibitions was to prevent such behaviors. Of course, just about everything we see today was also done previously, but with a social stigma and consequences. Such things were seen as undesirable, deviant, dangerous, perverse and simply wrong. The thing that struck me was that the focus was always on behavior – specific actions which people could choose to do or not to do. Behavior involves choice and with choice comes accountability. Prohibitions and consequences were set to entice people to make the choices that society deemed as proper and avoid those that were not. Even in the 20th Century laws were primarily directed at controlling behaviors.
Looking back over my life, I necessarily start with the 1960’s because that is where my personal awareness and observations of the world actually began. This was a pivotal time in the history of our country with some significant attitude and behavioral changes. Many of these, such as the civil rights movement, were undoubtedly beneficial. Others, though seen by some as “progress”, actually started a process which I see as a breakdown of the societal regulation of propriety.
Behavior to Feelings
I remember hearing slogans about “free love”, “flower power” (whatever that meant), “make love, not war” promoting what seemed like such obvious feel good and be good to everyone stuff. This seems to have resulted in a shift from a focus on behaviors (as being good or bad) to feelings. If feelings were good, (and what feeling is better than love?) then whatever behavior followed naturally was okay. This of course was fueled by the drug culture – the effect of drugs was all about feelings. But drugs also affected behavior, specifically by breaking down inhibitions. Along with this came the first great lie: feelings naturally should – even must – be expressed in behavior. But “free love” was not really about love at all, at least not in the sense of affection or expressions of love by true caring and treating others with respect. The real meaning was – if you feel love (actually sexual feelings) it is perfectly natural to act out those feelings freely, without any restrictions or prohibitions.
Another big lie quickly followed, or maybe it has always been there, but not necessarily applied to these behaviors. This lie is that feelings are outside our control. We tend to think of feelings as something that happens to us, rather than something which we could choose or control. People have always wanted to believe that someone else “made them” feel particular ways – “I can’t help it, that is the way I feel.” Applying this lie to sexuality resulted in the belief that people have no control over sexual attraction, even to convince them that they were “born” in some way that they became sexually attracted to the same sex. (I have yet to see a baby showing any sexual attraction to anyone)
Feelings to Identity
More recently we have seen the emergence of another lie, which added to the previous ones has put us in a very different and I feel dangerous place as a society. This lie is – “feelings determine identity”. What this lie has done is make a shift not only from behavior to feelings, but now to identity. Not only do we not have control over behavior or feelings, but by attributing these to identity, we can take offense at any criticism or regulation of behavior as a personal attack on who we are. Those who would want to maintain previous regulation of or even definitions of proper or inappropriate behaviors are labeled as discriminatory and even bigoted because they are seen as attacking an individual’s identity – who they are – rather than their actions.
To present an example, a man might see his identity as a “macho lady’s man”, which comes with ideas of being charming and romantic. But when women come forward with examples of behavior – unwanted kissing, groping, suggestive comments, using positions of power to coerce and override choice, even using drugs to render women unable to resist – most of us are shocked, repulsed, disgusted and outraged. We might offer some other identity labels – negative ones. But the whole idea of identity these days is that we can only self-identify and always in positive terms. It would not be politically correct to identify others in negative terms and who would self-identify as a pervert or sexual predator? How different it would be if rather than talking about people in alphabet letters, we talked about specific behaviors.
What a simple world it was when we all identified as human beings capable of making personal choices to behave in socially acceptable or unacceptable ways and were accountable for the consequences which follow our actions.