Monday, November 19, 2012

An Uncomfortable Asymmetry

A young man told me recently that all sex-based social norms should be abolished.  He said that a sex-blind society would be incomparably better than our own.  I suppose this view is common today.  I responded to the young man, however, with a little skepticism.  I asked why he was so sure that a sex-blind society would be a better society, and I suggested that every flourishing society to date has distinguished the social roles of the sexes.  In fact, all societies have distinguished the social roles of the sexes.  I asked if it wasn't naive--perhaps foolish--to abandon a deep structure that has shaped every successful, just, and happy society.  Shouldn't we fear losing what we have?  Shouldn't we at least be wary of unexpected ill consequences, as we tear out a piece of the framework of every extant and past society?

These sorts of concerns, however, did not move the young man with whom I spoke.  Progressives, I suppose, do not worry that their merely imagined futures will turn out to be unworkable, or less happy, or less just, than the world we have seen in the past and the world that we see today.  Perhaps it's laudable.  They are optimistic.  People are good, they say, we have well-intentioned goals, so the future--though radically different from what we've known--will bring new goodness, and new happiness.  My conversation  partner himself had no doubts.  His sex-blind world will certainly be better than any world we have yet seen.

I allowed those words to sink in.  And I began to think that all was well, all was right.  I was encouraged, I was heartened.  Yes, men are good, and their future is even now glowing just beneath the horizon of today.  But then the harbinger of newness and optimism whipped me around and faced me in the opposite direction from that glowing light.  Looking into the past was looking into a grey, receding storm.  It was all hail.  It was all wind.  And every person that I saw there was bent low under that oppressive weather--under the hammering of the rain.  This is how the young man with whom I spoke described the past.  All men, he said, have till now been brutes, and all women have been horribly, shamefully, consistently oppressed.  This is why, he said, any appeal to the past, on my part, leaves him unconvinced that the future should be anything like the past.  The past is horrible, horrible summarily, and the mores and standards of the past must be largely discarded. 

Suddenly, I was struck by an uncomfortable asymmetry in the doctrine of my new teacher--the young man--at whose feet I sat with all requisite docility.  Yesterday's men were monsters, tomorrow's men are heroes.  Every society till now has been deeply unjust.  But tomorrow's society, though wholly unrepresented, will be wholly better than those of the past.  The progressives have no need to test the workability of this new society.  They have already foreseen that it will be just and that it will be happy.

Intense pessimism about the past and intense optimism about the future.  Why isn't the progressive troubled by this troubling asymmetry?  I can only imagine one answer.  A simple answer.  He thinks his grandfather stupid, or perhaps even bad, and thinks himself such a source of luminous reason, that he has no need to see his social theories tested to see that they will work, and no need to see his own grandchildren to see that they will be good--like him.   

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