The Ideology of Hang-Ups

The central flaw of the social conservative project is confusing one's own lifestyle preferences for universal truths about how everyone ought to live.

Often when I talk about social liberalism, and particularly when I push back on reactionary moral panics about LGBT issues, I hear some version of this reply: “Sure, a lot of the right-wing response to increasing tolerance is overblown. But don’t you think there is something we should be worried about when kids are going to drag queen story hours?” Or when gender fluidity is normalized. Or when people identify in other ways orthogonal to “traditional values.”

The answer, and I think it’s the obvious one, is “No.” Not at all. A drag queen, for example, is just a guy wearing cloth composed in one way (“for women”) versus another (“for men”). A dress, like all other clothing, is a costume, and any meaning it has is entirely what we—socially, culturally, or individually—project onto it. If there’s no reason to object to a Star Wars story hour, there’s no reason to object to a drag queen one. If there’s no reason to object to a judge wearing a robe around kids, or soldiers wearing excessively ornate uniforms, surely the kids can manage a dude in a dress.

The difference, of course, is that a dress transgresses a boundary that cultural reactionaries insist is fixed, important, and damaging if crossed. There’s an obsessiveness with policing those categories they’ve fetishized—in both senses of the term. In other words, a great deal of the “but shouldn’t we be concerned?” soft arguments for social control is just ideology constructed upon hang-ups. In the end, the children at drag queen story hour don’t have a problem with it, aren’t offended by it, and haven’t sexualized it. It’s not clear why we should give credence to the peculiarities of those adults who do.

But there’s a broader issue at play, and it’s one that I think is central to the current conflict between genuine liberalism and the rise of various forms of illiberalism, particularly those on the cultural right. Namely, we frequently say that a liberal society depends on tolerance of diversity. But I don’t believe that goes far enough. Instead, liberalism depends upon—and also encourages, incentivizes, and rewards—certain liberal virtues, and among these is the embrace and celebration of diversity and diverse self-authorship.

To explain what I mean, let’s shift from the realm of politics and talk for a moment about what I take to be a pretty straightforward and obvious ethical claim: If you find yourself reacting strongly against peaceful people pursuing their own ends (“Living their best life,” to put it in contemporary terms)—if you catch yourself thinking “That’s yucky, they need to stop, and we ought to exercise social or political pressures to do just that”—take a moment, step back, and consider that you haven’t identified non-virtuous behavior of on their part, but instead exposed a failure of your own character.

The fact is, there’s nothing wrong with, for instance, gay relationships. Loving gay couples should be celebrated just as enthusiastically as loving heterosexual couples. To believe otherwise is to make a moral mistake. If it’s a moral position you’ve arrived at through reasoning, then your reasoning process went wrong somewhere. If it’s a moral position grounded in scripture, then it tells us either you’ve misinterpreted your scripture or that your scripture runs counter to an obvious moral truth.

This same applies to drag queens, to expressing fluid gender identities, and countless other, “non-traditional” ways people exhibit diversity of self-authorship and find joy, meaning, and belonging in doing so. To hate that, to shun that, to condemn that isn’t to hold fast to virtue, but to fail to exhibit it.

Stated more abstractly, mere toleration of diverse lifestyles and identities isn’t enough. Toleration is, of course, better than the alternative. Grudgingly accepting that there are gay couples out there or drag queens out there or transgender people out there, even if you wish there weren’t, is worlds above not tolerating them or, worse, bringing coercive force against them to get them to knock it off.

But just as a virtuously compassionate and generous person will seek to help others, instead of merely being content with not harming them, so too a virtuous person will go beyond toleration to cultivating sympathetic joy in the diversity of others’ self-expression. A virtuous person will take delight in others’ delight, will find a degree of fulfillment in the fact that others have found the same. He won't just grin and bear the self-authorship of his fellow humans, but celebrate it. Even when the particulars aren’t what he'd choose for himself. [Note: Since writing this essay, this, I’ve expanded this argument about the need for “sympathetic joy” into a series on the liberal virtues.]

There are plenty of genres of music I don’t have much interest in. But it’s awesome that music is diverse, and that so many people, with such divergent tastes, can find joy in one or more of its myriad styles. There are plenty of TV shows I’m not a fan of, or cuisines I don’t particularly care for, but it’s amazing the wealth of options out there, and the pleasure people find in their favorite sitcom or comfort food—even if I wouldn’t want to sit through or consume either.

We rightfully judge the person who insists there’s no good music outside his narrow interests, or hates even the thought of foods outside his comfort zone. We recognize the cramped preferences of the curmudgeon as just that. We should apply the same critique to the person who stops at mere toleration of social diversity, even if, again, tolerance is to be preferred over intolerance.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t counsel against choices we believe are harmful or that the person making them will regret. But such advice needs to come from a place of love and empathy, or at least genuine concern for the other’s wellbeing. It shouldn’t be grounded in aversion to their self-expression. And while many of the people who react strongly against gay couples, transgender expression, and drag queen story hour claim to have loving or supportive motivations, or tell themselves that they do, a few moments listening to the rhetoric makes clear that in most cases—though certainly not all—they’re kidding themselves. Further, it is clear that these particular instances of advice against self-expression, even if motivated by loving concern, as mistaken. Loving advice can still be bad advice, and telling people to stop being gay or to stop being trans or to stop expressing themselves peacefully through their choice of clothing in ways that bring them happiness, belonging, and meaning is bad advice.

Getting finally back to politics, cultivation of joy in diversity, instead of reaction against it, is necessary for the functioning and maintenance of a liberal society. Without it, cultural and social dynamism—which are, after all, just the natural, inevitable consequence of individual liberty—will eventually become too much for the merely tolerant to handle. “I’m okay with change, okay with difference, but that’s too far. Sure, men can wear dresses if they want, but not in front of the children. Sure, gay couples can express their love for each other, but only so long as they don’t do in public, or they aren’t represented so much in media that it’s treated as normal.” This is soil for reactionary social control, and social pressures fail to reign in the dynamism and self-expression, the reactionary will inevitably turn to the state.

Conservatives are right that societies need virtue to function. Getting over your hang-ups and celebrating diversity is a virtue.

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