Monday, February 16, 2009

In Defense of Snowballs

I have a theory: Bad ideas go downhill. Once a bad idea, set of beliefs, or a bad way of reasoning is allowed into your plausibility structure, it can only go downhill unless it is deliberately and aggressively stopped. I have several stories and reasons to back up the theory, but the latest case in point is provided by the insular and even inbred circle of Manhattan culture and intelligentsia. Often Christians and other conservatives are mocked for making a “snowball effect” argument about sexual morality in culture. In support of the snowball, enter Daniel Bergner and his book, The Other Side of Desire.

In it, Bergner tells the stories of people wrestling with and giving into different kinds of sexual perversion. There is the foot fetish, the sadist, the lust for amputees, and to top it off, a man who is overwhelmed with lust for his 12-year old stepdaughter. The overall tone of the book is sympathetic, and the clear tone of the interviews and reviews of the book are sympathetic of the project of blurring and even erasing moral lines. The article contains this:

In a series of four stories, Bergner grants us entree into dark worlds of extreme lust and longing: there is the foot fetishist wracked by shame, the dominatrix so turned on by inflicting pain on others that she once roasted a man on a spit, and the stepfather capsized by lust for his 12-year-old stepdaughter. There is even a love story involving amputee fetish. But what's remarkable about Bergner's book is not the way these tales shock or confound or titillate (though they do those things sometimes), but how sympathetic their plights and hungers become.... and in his hands, these characters do not seem like freaks so much as shadows of ourselves.

The article and interview take the approach that the shame is overwhelming, and so the best (implied) route out of shame is to engage in the act as openly as possible. Lori Gottlieb in the NY Times Book Review goes even further. After reading the book, she is no longer sure where normal and abnormal behavior begin and end.

Are all of them deviant? None of them? Or is deviance a matter of time and place,...? I’ll ruin the ending for you right now: these questions are unanswerable, but that’s precisely what makes the asking so engrossing.

Even the story of the pedophile is told with a surprising sympathy.

It’s hard to read these stories without a sense of discomfort, less about the paraphilias themselves than the way Bergner seesaws the reader between sanctimony and sympathy, sometimes just paragraphs apart. He does this beautifully in the story of Roy, a husband who finds himself irresistibly attracted to his pre-teenage stepdaughter.

So what is the bad idea that leads to these examples of sympathy with perversion? As a result of the moral relativism in our culture, sexuality is a matter of personal taste and can even be an inevitable behavior driven by childhood experiences. As Gottlieb reports:

A Greenwich Village psychoanalyst tells Bergner, “Perversion can be defined as the sex that you like and I don’t.”

Classic moral relativism rearing its ugly head. And it’s not just the professionals who hold to a moral fuzziness regarding the inclinations to have sex with little girls. The pedophile’s boss reports, “Everybody has these thoughts. The only thing that separates him from you and me is we didn’t act on them.”

Even granting the misguided premise that “everyone has these thoughts,” the difference between thinking these things and doing them is significant to say the least.

Here is where the Christian sticks out more and more like a sore thumb in our world. Or I should say, acts like a healing balm to the open and festering wounds in our culture. To begin with, a follower of Christ is able to believe and behave like they love people and hate behavior that tears them apart. They really can and should love sinners (everyone!) and hate sin (in everyone!).

Human sexuality is a powerful and beautiful force in the human soul, and nature teaches us that it is best left to monogamy within heterosexual marriage. The glut of studies that document the pain and dysfunction caused by all sorts of other sexual behavior are too much to mention here. The more we study it, the more we learn that monogamous heterosexual marriage is best for human flourishing.

The deeper problem, however, is moral in nature. There is a book to be written here, but I will leave my comments to the place of shame. As the articles and interview above illustrate, there is a growing consensus in many influential circles that shame is an unqualified evil. In other words, it is always bad to feel shame, and the way to get though it is to find a support network for your particular shame and work at feeling better about the behavior. The appropriate role for shame is as warning flag. Shame is one of the moral guardrails in our lives. To be certain, we often feel inappropriate shame (at eating a delicious double cheeseburger, for instance), but there is real shame. In this second sense, shame is good and should be paid attention to.

It is morally corrosive to portray a pedophile too sympathetically. If our sympathy is driven toward the goal of not judging their behavior, it is desperately misplaced. If our sympathy is driven toward loving the person and helping them out of shameful behavior, it is rightly placed. Aristotle argued that the virtuous person knows how emotions should work, and this book is a great example of how emotions can be manipulated to lead us to the wrong conclusions.

Overall, in an attempt to love people our culture has taken the step off the moral cliff to being “nice.” Love is not always nice, but we can’t tell the difference anymore, so we chastise any belief or behavior that isn’t “nice” and asks people to be responsible for what they do.

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