Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Illiberal Liberations

     There’s probably no word in the English language whose meaning is subject to more divergent or more contentious interpretations than decency. It comes from the Latin word decens, which means “fitting.” Fitting to what? Why, to the circumstances that pertain, of course! And thereby we reach the contemporary contretemps over public norms.

     Be not deceived: every society that ever has existed has had public norms: standards of conduct for those who go into or through public places, as colloquially understood. Such a standard prescribes certain aspects of conduct and proscribes others. Some of those prescriptions and proscriptions are enforced by law; the rest are “enforced” by the commendation or condemnation of others. The extent to which they’re enforced will determine, roughly, the extent of popular compliance.

     Often these past few decades, some aspect of a prevailing public norm has been challenged, even defied, under the pretext that those who dismiss it were “liberating” themselves. This is not wholly inaccurate. To liberate is to free from constraint, and a norm is a constraint even if not enforced by law. Even so, many such “liberations” have a ludicrous aspect when compared to the struggles of genuinely oppressed peoples to throw off their yokes of subjection. Still, the phrasing persists.

     But no action is without side effects, and no gain is without cost. Indeed, the norms whose binding power comes solely from the opinion of others can shield a society from costs far larger than those who demand to be “liberated” from them might imagine.

Anna: [reads from a book] In 1857, it's estimated there were 80,000 prostitutes in the county of London.
Mike: Yeah?
Anna: Out of every 60 houses, one was a brothel.
Mike: Hoo, hoo, hoo.
Anna: At a time when the male population of London of all ages was one and a quarter million, the prostitutes were receiving clients at a rate of two million per week.
Mike: Two million?

[From the movie adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman]

     Don’t take the above as well-verified data, for heaven’s sake. It’s a line from a movie. Having said that, it’s well verified that Victorian era London did have a lot of brothels and a lot of prostitutes. Mike’s subsequent rough calculation that the average male Londoner was getting “about 3.4 fucks a week” outside of marriage was intended as a laugh-line to contrast with a rather more somber backdrop. (Incidentally, the movie is excellent. Jeremy Irons turns in the best performance of a stellar career.)

     The public norms of Victorian England were very strict. They covered just about everything one might do in the company of others. Sexual conduct of even the mildest variety was one of the things they forbade; for example, for a man to allow his gaze to linger on a woman other than his wife was regarded as grounds for expulsion from polite society. But they were far more extensive, touching upon virtually everything that might be said or done in the company of others.

     But in private – including the privacy of a brothel – things were quite different. For example, it’s been theorized that the extreme public constraints on sexuality were in part responsible for the extent of private debauchery. However, there were certainly other factors of importance, especially the upbringings of Victorian girls to disdain sexual intimacy and to resist sexual accommodation even after marriage.

     The norm itself is the important phenomenon. Because it bound Victorian men so tightly, it became a part of their responsibilities as fathers to inculcate its seriousness in their sons. While that pattern endured, the public places of London remained remarkably peaceable despite the frictions occasioned by the intermingling of persons of all social classes and altitudes.

     As the norm lost its binding force, the streets of London grew steadily rougher. Once again, there were other factors in play, including the anomie and futurelessness that followed Britain’s disastrous experiences in World War I. Yet the weakening and ultimate disintegration of that public norm correlates well with the rise of disorder and incivility. Similar progressions can be observed in many other First World cities.

     The most common term for observance of an agreed-upon norm is decency. Decent conduct is that which conforms to the norm and upholds it; indecent conduct flouts the norm and implies that it’s optional, arbitrary, or worse, silly.

     A society’s norms develop to protect what that society has come to value. The general attitude toward those values must be that they’re worth defending, even if no one consciously thinks of them. Whatever price the norm exacts, it will last only so long as a strong consensus holds that what it protects is even more valuable. “Decent behavior” will of course persist even once the norm has fallen, but without whatever mechanisms once enforced it, indecent behavior, whose “price” has fallen with the norm’s removal, will rise in frequency and intensity.

     And whatever values the norm was defending will find themselves threatened. Some might be destroyed completely...including in their observance in private places and times.

     The above thoughts were stimulated by this poignantly lyrical essay by Leslie Alexander. (Applause to Brock Townsend for the link.) Miss Alexander, “a Louisiana girl” who’s “accustomed to pleasant greetings and warmth,” finds herself in a place where the norms to which she was raised are not observed. It pains her greatly, to say the least. She yearns to return to the norms and traditions of her youth. But she senses a threat to them even in the environs of her girlhood:

     All over America, in small towns and large—but Southern towns are bigger targets—leftist transplants are scheming with dreams of transformation. They know how we should live, what our mode of transportation should be, what we should eat, how much property we should own, where we should park, how many children we should have (not many), how they should be educated, and whom we should befriend. The list is endless. There is, of course, a policy for each important item, if we could just wake up and recognize their genius.

     Read it, Gentle Reader. Please read it. Let its melancholy wash over you. Then reflect on the many norms and traditions – and what is a tradition but a norm of remembrance and honor? – the Left has attacked with intent to destroy, always under a banner of “liberation.” Reflect on what has become of social order and peace in places where the Left is in the ascendant, and what it would cost these United States should they prevail utterly.

     And do have a nice day.

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