Choice, Part 2To speak of “wise” choices is subversive of the choice regime. Talk of wisdom implies nature in the Aristotelian sense of an enduring reality that we discover rather than construct. The choice regime prefers to consider the ways that humans create themselves. The theory is most fully explicated in Lacan-influenced feminism. Sex is biological and must be replaced with gender, which is constructed.
The choice regime is a land of illusion, but well-funded illusion with lots of support from the authorities. The governing committees can proclaim that there is no biological basis for maintaining distinctions between the sexes, marriage can be redefined, and appeals to any authority beyond the experts who set the policies is derided as extreme. We desire no durable standard for choice other than what we want, and talk of what we ought to want is tasteless and deranged. If a little boy wants to be a little girl, those who would stand against him using the girls restroom and locker room are opposed to diversity and democracy.
The choice regime will weigh in on the side of the individual’s right to self-creation, and if this is a problem for others–say the little girls who do not want a boy in the restroom–they need to overcome their bigotry and evolve. Those who favor dissolving traditional morality with a regime founded on authenticity and choice may waver as each new frontier comes into view–and there will always be a frontier–but they will evolve just as they did on same-sex marriage, unwed mothers, no-fault divorce and the rest.
Guilt and shame must be dissolved. One can see the process readily in the Anthony Weiner drama. Ordinary common-sense–not to mention principle-based reason–suggests Weiner is something of a fool. His adolescent eagerness to will a contradiction–he wants to indulge his horniness whenever the impulse moves him and he wants to be taken seriously and be given grownup responsibilities. Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon offers us help in thinking about this correctly. “Why does it matter?” she asks. “Of course, it probably matters to Huma Abedin, the mother of his child (that is, assuming that they have an agreement of monogamy, and that their definition of monogamy includes refraining from sexting with others)”–that is, if he and his wife have chosen to think that fidelity is important to a marriage. “But why should we care?”
The key to correct thinking is to get the focus off character:
We might tell ourselves that this reveals something relevant about Weiner’s character — his absurd ego or penchant for risk-taking, perhaps. But are these not also qualities that might make him a good politician? Have we not seen similar characteristics in Bill Clinton, John Edwards and so many other talented-but-philandering politicos? I can’t help but think that we are disturbed by his lack of sexual control not because it is relevant to his job but because it reminds us of the ways that we sometimes feel overpowered by sex.
Turn the attention away from Weiner and focus it back on whoever presumes to judge. Weiner did nothing wrong. Mention that John Edwards was “talented” but ignore the thought that he was dishonest, greedy, manipulative and cruel–somehow wasn’t his talent comprised of all his qualities? What are the motives of those who come to judgment, anyway? It’s okay to focus on talent and intelligence–the elite is elite for reasons–but not on character. People who bring up character are probably hypocrites: “We could act indignant about the fact that he hasn’t been forthcoming about aspects of his intimate life. But why not instead be angry that we live in a country that requires him to be dishonest about his struggles with monogamy in order to maintain his career?”
See? It’s not so much that he’s a fool as that he’s a victim–a victim of hypocrisy. And the real point is that if we don’t dissolve the old structures of guilt and shame, none us will escape suffering. Nonjudgmentalism (at least about sex) is a pact–it lets us all off the hook:
Well, let ye who is without embarrassing sexts cast the first stone. (Side-note: I read some of Weiner’s messages out loud to my partner, guffawing after each — until he jogged my memory about a few that I had sent to him in the early days of our relationship and I proceeded to shut the hell up forever on that topic.)
The old way to resolve guilt was through repentance and change. In the choice regime, it is the standard that is seen as the problem. It is forbidden to forbid. It’s a short step from this–dismissing old notions of goodness–to hating goodness itself. A good person restores the standard of judgment–and thus our guilt. People who attack people like Weiner, or Bill Clinton, are the problem. It is they who must be attacked.
To understand character as ordered desire–as the sort of wisdom that will, for example, abstain from a donut in order to preserve health–was not long ago the basis of our culture. The natural man is a tangled flux of disordered desires, living amid the perpetual crisis that surrounds the impulsive and improvident.
Those attracted to realms of truth–ordered desires amid enduring realities–are likely to repair the barn door before the storm, to plant the corn in season, to withdraw savings to handle emergencies, and to sit at peace under his fig tree watching the grandchildren play. It’s not possible for such people to reason with advocates for the choice regime. Their reason works by seeking truth–insights into enduring realities–but in the choice regime, desire is the main truth.
Language is taken as a self-referential performance circling the reality of desire. The discourse of cable talk shows is emblematic of the age. Guests rationalize and justify, frame and reframe, construct and reconstruct–but the goal is creation of a version that might justify a position. It is rarely communion.
Wendell Berry observed that the best way to judge intelligence might be the degree of order that surrounds one. Let’s turn to that insight next.