The Whole Christ

"He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17)

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Liberalism, Conservatism and Moral Psychology

What is it that makes liberals liberal and conservatives conservative? According to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, it’s primarily driven by five traits – Harm aversion, Fairness, In-group cohesion, Authority and Purity. What’s interesting is that in conservative thinking all five of these traits are prominent, whereas in liberal thinking only two of them are, namely Harm and Fairness. According to Haidt, one conclusion of this is that conservatives are usually able to understand why liberals believe as they do, whereas liberals are often unable to understand why conservatives believe as they do.

This creates something of a communication problem between the two groups. Two conservatives can typically disagree on an issue such as gay marriage and have a civil debate about it. Both of them can understand one another and why they are disagreeing – they can see that the other person is not a monster and is arguing for a different position from a similar moral framework. Here is how such a conversation might go:

  • Traditional Marriage Advocate:- All societies throughout history have always agreed that marriage is a male-female pairing. (Authority)
  • Gay Marriage Advocate:- That’s true, but many of them also allowed things like polygamy, which we don’t tend to allow anymore. So I don’t think the practice has always been as uniform as you’re suggesting. (Authority)
  • Traditional Marriage Advocate:- But if we open up marriage to same-sex couples then we divorce marriage from fertility, which could undermine the familial structure which is the bedrock of our society. (Ingroup)
  • Gay Marriage Advocate:- Well, gay couples can adopt children, and adoption is a natural extension of childbearing. To encourage them to adopt outside of marriage would be to promote social instability. (Ingroup)
  • Traditional Marriage Advocate:- Surely the complementarity of male and female is part and parcel of what marriage means? If you get rid of that, then why insist on marriage still only being two people? (Purity)
  • Gay Marriage Advocate:- Complementarity can still exist within gay relationships, even if not in the exact same way. No-one is advocating opening up marriage to more than two people either, so exclusivity still holds. (Purity)

Such a conversation would be entirely possible, since both parties understand one another’s concerns and the moral framework underlying one another’s thinking. However, a similar debate between a liberal and a conservative would be less likely to succeed. In many (but not all) instances, the liberal would not even recognise any of the conservative arguments as real arguments at all, since they are coming from a completely alien vantage point. They might well ask: Who cares what traditional societies used to do? Why does it matter what form families or social institutions take?

Indeed, they may well conclude that the moral arguments of their conservative interlocutor are merely a thinly veiled excuse for bigotry. You can already see how such an exchange could go very wrong. The solution, of course, is a more careful attention to the underlying assumptions and priorities which inform our discussions.

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Homophobia Versus Other Phobias

What is “homophobia” and what makes it different from other phobias? Typically, one who is scared of spiders, for instance, does not tend to be regarded as morally degraded. However, for someone to be accused of “homophobia” is precisely that: to be accused of backwards thinking and moral failure.

In my last post, I spoke about the issue of same sex relationships and cultural taboos. Here, I would argue, is another application of such principles. Namely, “homophobia” is a new name given to a traditional set of taboos regarding sex and relationships. Those taboos may exist for a variety of reasons, but it is the taboos themselves which can be equated with homophobia, irrespective of the reasons for their existence. ┬áThe term exists for the purpose of displacing such taboos through shaming those who hold to them, in order to establish a new set of taboos around sex and relationships.

This is why you don’t get people being accused of “pogonophobia” (fear of beards) or “arachnophobia” (fear of spiders), at least not in any negative moral sense. Those terms are not designed with a cultural end in mind, with the aim of re-structuring society in a certain direction. The designation of more traditional communities as “homophobic” is an attempt to re-structure the social fabric of such communities through the dynamics of honour and shame.

A corollary of this is that the term “homophobia” (and its derivatives) can be unhelpful when it comes to actual engagement between differing groups with differing social customs. It often functions less in a clarifying manner and more as a tool of propaganda, like the white feather handed out to British non-combatants during the first and second world wars (which had the intention of shaming them for not going out to war).

On Social Taboos and Same Sex Relationships

One of the most significant and yet rarely discussed ways in which the moral makeup of a society is formed is through social taboos. A taboo is a social custom which is enforced through honour-and-shame practices. In the 1950s, same sex relationships were commonly considered taboo by most people. The sight of two men or two women showing signs of romantic affection in public was considered shameful by many. Nowadays, our thinking has changed to the extent that a failure to affirm such relationships is often considered morally taboo. Indeed, many people today often struggle to understand why anyone would consider such practices to be immoral. After all, if same sex relationships don’t harm anyone, how could they ever be considered wrong?

To understand why the taboo existed in the first place, it might help to use an analogy. Consider the following story: A young woman gives up her son for adoption. 30 years later they are reunited as mother and son and become curiously attracted to one another. This leads them to form a long-term romantic relationship. Does that sound unusual? Well, it actually happened. This sort of thing happens a lot more frequently than you’d imagine, mostly because people are naturally attracted to those who resemble them, and if they’ve been separated from a family member for their entire life, they won’t have had time to socialise into what are considered to be normal parent-child roles.

Why is such a relationship considered taboo if it isn’t harming anyone? Because a mother is considered to have a natural, biological relationship to her son, a relationship built upon a partially shared biology. This pre-existing relationship (with all of its associated societal roles and expectations) is considered to be in conflict with a romantic relationship (which carries a different set of associated roles and expectations). Thus a taboo is created to prevent such situations becoming common, or else the natural, biological parent-child relationship would cease to have the norms that it does.

A similar dynamic can be at work in the case of same sex friendships. Two men, or two women, have a shared biological relationship (on account of sharing the same biological gender). This allows them to form close friendships with one another without such friendships being thought of as romantic. In more traditional societies, two members of the same sex can sometimes hold hands or embrace one another without any romantic connotations being implied. Think of David and Jonathan (“I have loved you more than women!”) or the beloved disciple resting in the bosom of Jesus. A friend of mine who lived in South East Asia for a time remarked that if a man wanted to impress a woman, he might walk down the street holding hands with a male friend and singing!

Once you introduce same-sex relationships into the mix, the social dynamics are changed and such forms of intimacy are considered to apply only to romantic relationships. As before, the two forms of relationship are considered to be in conflict and a social taboo is created. Thus an unforeseen consequence is that same sex friendships in liberal nations which have destigmatised same sex relationships tend to be less intimate. This can have the unintended effect of making such friendships less fulfilling or causing people to expect too much from their romantic relationships.

A lot of this sort of thing rarely comes up in discussions around same sex relationships. We don’t like to think of things in terms of trade-offs between differing social norms or taboos, instead painting such issues exclusively in terms of the individual pursuit of freedom. But to truly move forward in our thinking, such considerations are essential.

Why not #MenToo?

You can see it all over social media. Woman after woman re-posting and re-tweeting the same hashtag: #MeToo. It’s a sad reflection of the kind of world we live in. Yet there is a question that almost no-one seems to ask, namely, why don’t men typically protest in the same way about sexual abuse?

After all, it’s not uncommon. Many men have, at least once in their lives, been kissed or groped by a woman without their consent. I’ve seen it happen many times in my own friendship groups growing up. Yet none of these men tended to describe their experiences as abuse. They would simply make fun of one another over such experiences and then move on. This is not to say, of course, that some men are not sexually abused in absolutely horrible ways. Of course they are, and I’m not in any way trying to minimise that.

One thing is clear though: that men tend to draw the line very differently from women when it comes to what constitutes sexual abuse and what doesn’t. And why is that? It’s because many of the most damaging kinds of sexual abuse involve power, specifically the abuse of a weaker person by a more powerful one. And women by and large tend to be less powerful than men in both social and physical respects.

To put it another way, men and women are different. And we have spent much of the last 50 or so years trying to erase or minimise the distinctions between men and women, quite often to the detriment of women. Social conventions designed to protect women have now been freely abandoned in the name of so-called “liberation” and “equality”, creating opportunities for predatory men like never before.

To summarise then, why not #MenToo? Because men and women are different, and denying that reality harms women.