How the Sexual Revolution Gave Us Identity Politics
“If you ask the question, ‘Who am I?’, up until the sexual revolution, that was not a hard question to answer,” says Mary Eberstadt, author of the new book, “Primal Screams.” She joins the podcast to discuss identity politics, the “pre-rational emotional expressionism” present in our political discussions today, and more. Read the interview, posted below, or listen to the podcast:
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Daniel Davis: I’m joined now in the studio by Mary Eberstadt, and she’s author of many essays and books, including her latest work “Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics.”
Mary, thanks for being on today.
Mary Eberstadt: Thanks for having me, Daniel.
Davis: Mary, you write about identity politics. It’s something that Americans are coming more into grips with. It’s something college students certainly encounter on campus, of being labeled according to their identity group. And you argue that this didn’t come out of nowhere, but it actually came from the sexual revolution.
I want to ask you about that because part of this tribalism is also racial, which doesn’t seem like the sexual revolution, but explain for us your argument, how does all of this grouping people by tribes and labels come from the sexual revolution?
Eberstadt: When we get used to contemporary punditry, we fall into the idea that this is somehow about warring tribes, and we get used to people on the left yelling at the people on the right. But if we take a step back, what you really see in identity politics is that it’s coming from everywhere.
So, there are sexual identitarians and racial identitarians, and ethno identitarians. There are people who are identitarians politically, like who identify first and foremost as feminists, for example.
What I’m trying to do in this book is ask the question, “How did it happen that the question, ‘Who am I?’ has become the most pressing and passionate of our time? Because that’s true whether you look left or right, up or down, to the culture or to politics. There is a mania out there to know who we are. Where is this coming from? And my argument is that the rise of identity politics directly parallels the fallout of the sexual revolution.
The founding document of identity politics, everyone agrees, was published in 1977, it was the Combahee River Statement. It was published by a collective of African American feminists in 1977, so the first generation affected by the sexual revolution—in the sense of having grown up in it—is the first generation to say, “We can’t trust other people to have our backs. We can only trust people with our grievances to have our backs.”
That’s a remarkable change culturally and politically. And I give a lot of other examples in “Primal Screams” of the connection between the sexual revolution and the frenzy for identity that we see around us, but that I think is its root.
Davis: And something you talk about in the book is what you call the “great scattering” that resulted from the sexual revolution and how that paved the way for identity politics. Explain how that played out.
Eberstadt: If you look at the trends that have become omnipresent and unremarkable in many cases since the sexual revolution took hold in the ’60s, what do you see? You see abortion, a rise in fatherless homes, a shrinking of the family, where fewer and fewer people have siblings.
What all of these changes add up to—leaving aside the culture wars, leaving aside moral questions—is a deep arithmetic change. There are simply fewer people to call one’s own.
There are people growing up now who have, for example, no siblings, no cousins, fewer aunts and uncles, older parents, etc. And add to that what’s happened on account of abortion, subtracting members of the human community.
So, I call this collective phenomenon the great scattering because I think its effect has been to render individual human beings more atomized than they ever were before.
Davis: So, you believe that alienation led people to cling to artificial groups?
Eberstadt: Exactly. I think the way these identity groups function is as a kind of surrogate family. What do they provide for people? They provide emotional security. They provide the knowledge that there are others around you who are like you and have your back. That in effect is a kind of surrogate sibling relationship.
I think the reason that people fly to these groups so frantically is that they are not finding their bearings in the way that humanity has traditionally constructed its identity.
So, if you ask the question, “Who am I?”, up until the sexual revolution, that was not a hard question to answer. Most people would’ve said, “I’m a father,” “I’m a brother,” “I’m an uncle,” “I’m a cousin,” etc. These are the building blocks of human identity. They are relational. It’s all about, “Who am I related to?” But these days that is a lot harder to address by reference to the family.
For example, if you have a stepfather and then your mom moves on and leaves him behind, is he still your father? That’s an ambiguous question, and just multiply that as I do in the book by marching through the other ways in which our familial relations are a lot more attenuated now. It’s no wonder then that people are clinging to identity politics to answer these fundamental metaphysical questions that human beings always have. “Who am I? What’s my place in the world? Where do I belong?”
Davis: Some people might counter and say we’ve always had political movements that were in some way tethered to some identity group or some special interests. We’ve had workers rise up and unionize against the tycoons during the Industrial Revolution. And there were labels in those movements. How would you distinguish that from what’s become today’s identity politics?
Eberstadt: That’s a fair point and a lot of people tried to dismiss concern over identity politics by saying, “Well, it was ever thus, people always sought their identities in different groups.” But what’s different about today I think can be seen if we take the example of what’s happening on campuses.
If we look at the expression of identity politics on campus, you have, for example, in the case of what happened at Middlebury College with Charles Murray and Allison Stanger, you have a situation in which young men are physically assaulting a 70-year-old man and a middle-aged woman. That is irrationalism on parade.
There is something elementally deranged about that way of practicing politics, and we can multiply that by many other examples, too, that show the unbridled irrationalism of the expression of identity politics.
For example, students going to speeches by controversial guests and duct-taping their mouths shut, or putting their hands over their ears, or otherwise acting out in this way that I find fascinating because it’s so infantilized.
So, the irrationality of identity politics suggests that there is something pre-political about it. There is something so primordial about this way of doing politics that it’s very hard to square with liberal democracy and self-government.
By now it seems as if a significant portion of our politics is being driven by this pre-rational emotional expressionism, and that’s a problem for us. It’s also a new problem for us because when people identified as members of trade unions, when people identified as civil rights marchers, we didn’t have this way of destructive expression. And that, I think, is very new and very particular to identity politics as we know it.
Davis: You also write about the rise of modern feminism. How does that fit into this great scattering that you talk about stemming from the sexual revolution?
Eberstadt: I think this is something that’s not well understood by the left or the right. The right tends to dismiss feminists and the left tends to embrace them without question, without looking at what has been driving the phenomenon of modern feminism.
Today what we see—and I think it was very much literally on parade during the inauguration and the first marches of the “resistance”—is a swaggering feminism. We see a feminism that uses very coarsened language.
Just think about the hats that were emblematic of that march, and it’s a very aggressive kind of expression. And what it suggests, I think, is that in the world after the sexual revolution, feminists have banded together in part because they’re responding to a real phenomenon, which is that women are indeed more imperiled than they used to be.
They’re more imperiled because they have less nonsexual male companionship because the sexual revolution has emboldened the strong. It has definitely encouraged the predator. We see this very clearly in the #MeToo movement.
What I’m suggesting is that at the root of the feminist identity today is a kind of protective coloration, a way of behaving more aggressively in an environment where many women, whether consciously or unconsciously, feel cornered and threatened, and where many are right to feel cornered and threatened, but not for the reasons that feminism says, not because of some abstract free-floating “patriarchy.” That’s not what’s going on here.
What’s going on is that the sexual revolution has changed the human ecosystem and under that change, women are particularly more menaced than before.
Davis: Do you think feminism is actually capable of protecting women in that ecosystem? Or do you think the fact that we’re in this new ecosystem makes women’s flourishing and protection really impossible?
Eberstadt: This is the terrible paradox, Daniel, and it’s a paradox not only for feminism, but, I think, for all of left liberalism, which is because there is not a clear understanding on the part of those people of what’s driving the changes in our world, so their solutions are all self-defeating.
For example, what does feminism say? It says more abortion, more and more abortion, and later and later, up until the moment of birth now. Well, abortion, as discussed earlier, is one of the factors that has driven human beings into these isolated, atomized places, so that’s not going to solve the problem.
Making divorce easier to get—as happened under no-fault divorce, which was … something else that feminism embraced—is not going to solve the problem. That’s just making it worse, too.
What has to happen is a radical re-evaluation on the part of feminists and the left more generally of why it is that we’re all at each other’s throats these days. What’s really going on out there that a lot of people have the feeling America has come to be a worse place than it was?
We need to get the diagnosis right before we can do anything about it. I think feminism and the left will have an uphill struggle because they have misdiagnosed the problem for so long.
Davis: You also write that #MeToo reveals a breakdown in social learning. Something that’s important for us to have. Explain what you mean by social learning and how #MeToo reveals that.
Eberstadt: Part of the argument of “Primal Screams” is that we forget a fundamental fact about ourselves, which is that we are social animals. Like other social animals, like all mammals and many other animals, we pick up on social cues, and we learn by imitation. And I get into a bunch of research in the book that’s germane to this, but the bottom line is that in the case of #MeToo, we can see that something fundamental has broken down in relations between the sexes.
These, for the most part, were not the most vulnerable young women. In the cases of the exposures in Hollywood and the liberal media, we’re talking about women who were coming from privileged positions, college-educated women, sophisticated women who were over and over on the receiving end of all of this male predation.
The point in raising that is not to excoriate the victims, it’s far from it. There are victims and courts of law are making clear that there are victims. But it’s rather to say, “Why were so many women in a supposedly enlightened age in harm’s way in the first place? Why was there no self-protection? Why did so few young women seem to have gotten the message, ‘Don’t do certain things. Don’t go to a boss’ hotel room at night. Don’t put yourself in a situation where something bad might happen.’?”
This is parallel to the argument that you shouldn’t walk around in dangerous neighborhoods at night. If you walk around in a dangerous neighborhood at night and something bad happens, it doesn’t make you any less a victim. But it does suggest that the more prudent thing would have been to avoid that situation in the first place.
My question is, “Why are so many young women in harm’s way? Why do these terrible things keep happening to them?” I think it gets back to, again, the fact that many women and many men are not socialized the way humanity has grown accustomed to being socialized. That is to say without a robust family and extended family, without nonsexual knowledge of the opposite sex, people miss a lot of things about relations between the sexes, and I think that kind of incoherence comes through very strongly in these Rashomon-like stories that emanate from #MeToo. So, it seems to me a classic example of a breakdown in social learning by a social animal.
Davis: You’re very critical of the sexual revolution as having caused this. And some readers might think, “Mary, it sounds like you want to undo all of that and go back to the 1950s, is that really a realistic thing?” Is that what you’re advocating? Or are you advocating some other path forward that somehow refutes the sexual revolution but is not exactly the ’50s?
Eberstadt: What amuses me about that is that we have so many cliches for that. We have don’t turn back the clock. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. You can’t go back to the ’50s.
Davis: Handmaid’s Tale protests.
Eberstadt: “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Ozzie and Harriet, etc. And that proliferation of stereotypes suggests to me that there is a deep desire to avoid this analysis and this subject, and for understandable reasons.
For 60 years the sexual revolution has been a great big party, and now we’re at the point in the story where it’s two in the morning and nobody wants to call the cops. But at the same time, it is only one example of a social phenomenon that seemed as if it’s here to stay that could change. I can give several other ones from the last 50 years alone.
Once upon a time, for instance, tobacco smoking was ubiquitous and there was a deep denial on the part of smokers and corporations to say that there was anything harmful about this. It took a lot of argumentation and a lot of evidence of the harms of that practice to effect a social turnaround, but it’s a social turnaround that nobody in 1960 would have expected when smoking was ubiquitous. So that’s one example.
Another is that we are social animals, and what that means is that deep down there is a kind of animal sense of self-protection, and over the longterm that could rein in some of the more destructive aspects of the revolution. In some ways, I think it already is.
There is the argument put forward by Rod Dreher, for example, about the Benedict Option. There’s a great deal of interest in that among religious people. How can we strengthen our communities so that we are less effected and less buffeted by these kinds of social problems? That’s a healthy sign. That’s a sign of people wanting to re-norm themselves in a … direction that is better for their self-protection. And I think we will see more of that over time.
So, I’m not a pessimist about this. I’m not saying roll back the clock and put the women in uniforms, and take them out of the paid marketplace. It’s not about that at all, but it is about understanding something that the left especially has so far refused to understand, which is what is really underneath the more destructive currents of our time.
Davis: … You mentioned some of those cultural efforts to shore up communities like the Benedict Option, but what about political means? Does the state have a role in your view to try to shore up what’s been lost here? Some would argue that America itself almost fosters this alienation because we’re all so free and democratized. Is that a problem or do you see the state having any role in taking action to kind of fix what’s been broken culturally?
Eberstadt: It’s very complicated, isn’t it? Because the state, on the one hand, has to bankroll the broken family. The state has to step in to fatherless homes in the form of welfare and other benefits. On the other hand, the broken family gives rise to the empowerment of the state. And these two things are very closely bound up together. Yet, there’s always room for positive government action, I think.
For one example, we have laws on the books about obscenity, they’re simply not enforced. They’re not enforced because people feel powerless in the face of the internet and pornography on the internet. But people shouldn’t feel powerless and the state shouldn’t feel powerless. It should feel free to say, When we are faced with harmful products in society, we need to do something about that.” As cigarettes have been regulated, as alcohol is regulated.
Well, how do we know pornography is harmful? We know it because it is, for instance, often cited as a factor in divorces these days. The state has an interest in lowering the divorce rate because it’s more expensive for all citizens when there’s more divorce. So, that’s an example of where with enough determination, the state could play a very positive role in turning back some of the most egregious manifestations of the brokenness that I’m describing.
Davis: I want to turn this to a slightly personal angle because you mention in the book that you’re from the Rust Belt, and you see identity politics stemming from alienation also happening there. We often think about identity politics as a campus thing. You’ve got your LGBTQ alphabet soup, you’ve got your racial identities. But in the Rust Belt, explain how this is taking shape.
Eberstadt: Part of it is the big story that everybody in the mainstream media missed when President Trump was elected. But his appeal can be seen very clearly if you look at his speeches to working-class America. Because one of the first things he did was give voice to the astonishing carnage, which is the word he used, of the opioid crisis.
Now, this was something that no establishment politicians made much of at all. The body count from the opioid crisis—and this is only the body count, this is to say nothing of the disruption of families and communities—is now set at the lowest estimate at 400,000 Americans. That’s 133 9/11s right there. And again, the left didn’t notice it. Why? Because most of these people were white working-class people, they were not part of of an approved victim community.
The establishment didn’t notice it. Why? Because the conservative establishment is infused with libertarianism that just assumed everything was going to be OK with more free market, less regulation of drugs. And this is not what happened.
What happened instead was catastrophe, and a catastrophe that was made worse by the family dislocations and communal dislocations that were already in place throughout the Rust Belt.
So, going forward, what we need to do as citizens—never mind as liberals or conservatives—is just to have more empathy with one another. And that is something that identity politics gets in the way of for everybody because it says, essentially, there’s my group and the rest of you are threats, and we need to get past that. We just need to be able to talk as Americans again.
Davis: That gets to my last question. If you were speaking to a person, maybe a young person who finds themselves prone to identity politics, maybe they have this family dislocation that you talk about and they’re looking for meaning in a group, where would you say they should place their identity?
Eberstadt: You have to get back to thinking of ourselves as Americans. And what I find talking to young people is that their toughness, again, as in the example of feminism, their identitarian toughness and swagger is just there to mask something that is underneath, which is a sense of vulnerability and a sense of wanting to belong.
Though it doesn’t work well in a mob situation, one-on-one, all of those people can still be reached because underneath it what they want is what Hegel said everybody wants, they want recognition. And what they need to learn is that they can find what they want outside of their aggrieved and divisive chosen groups.
Davis: The book is called “Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics.” Mary Eberstadt, thanks for your time today.
Eberstadt: Thank you, Daniel.