Fascinating lecture by Carl Trueman, examining the origins of our contemporary attitudes to sexual identity.

English poet Percy Shelley claimed in 1821 that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. With this in mind, Trueman entitled his lecture, ‘Acknowledging the Unacknowledged Legislators: From William Wordsworth to Kim Kardashian’.

Trueman argues

that today’s sexual identity politics rests upon a number of assumptions about what it means to be human, which are now deeply embedded in our culture. And these are:

  • that morality is a matter of emotional reactions or sentiments;
  • that those who can provoke these emotional reactions are those who determine our culture’s ethical norms;
  • that identity is now understood in psychological terms;
  • that sex is central to what it means to be free and fulfilled;
  • that oppression has come to be understood as a psychological category;
  • and that politics, technology, and the commercial entertainment industry all play key roles (7:55-8:45).

Here’s an outline…

  1. Ethics and sentiment (9:00). Rousseau. Sentiment, uncorrupted by external influences, is the basis for ethics. ‘The inner self, left to its own devices, is the truly authentic self’ (11:40).
  2. Poets: the unacknowledged legislators (11:45). Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake. Poetry aims to provoke an authentic emotional response. A return to the simplicity of rural life releases us from the outward constraints of ‘civilised’ culture, and enables us to be truly human. Poetry and art are the means of shaping taste, appealing to sentiment rather than to argument. A sexual revolution will be central to this. For example, Blake’s poem, ‘The Garden of Love’.
  3. The sexual self (22:40). Freud. Sex is about identity rather than simply about behaviour. But the repression of these desires is (according to Freud) essential to civilisation.
  4. The political sexual self (27:30). Marx. The problem: how to develop the proletariat consciousness? The fusion of Marx and Freud in Reich’s The Sexual Revolution (1936). Essentially, Reich claimed that ‘the repression of sexual needs … is actually the primary means by which men and women are oppressed by the ruling class’ (31:45). Similarly, Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (1955). The origins of the new left, in which oppression is primarily psychological rather than economic. Firestone, taking this to its logical conclusions in The Dialectic of Sex (1970).
  5. The therapeutic self (37:35). Decline in belief in original sin. The value of spontaneity. Self-awareness. (For example, as Roger Scruton has observed, people no longer dance with each other, they dance at each other.)
  6. The pornographic self (40:45). Advertising products by appealing to desire. Pornography reinforces the idea that sexual fulfilment is the purpose of human existence.
  7. The disembodied self (45:45). Technology. I am who I think I am, rather than who my body tells me I am. Transgenderism: ‘the latest and most extreme iteration of that inward psychological subjective turn which we find in thinkers such as Rousseau and the Romantic poets’ (47:05).
  8. The politics of recognition (47:15). Charles Taylor. Only some identity options are regarded as legitimate. Pop culture’s influence. Appeals to empathy. ‘The pop culture icons of our day are indeed the unacknowledged legislators of our culture’ (47:30).

Kim Kardashian represents all that this present age holds dear: sex, conspicuous consumption, physical beauty trumping character, an unremitting focus on self, aesthetics as ethics, surface instead of substance – in short, what it means to be the ideal modern person (50:55).

Watch the whole thing here (the lecture itself starts at 5:00).

Hat tip: Andrew Wilson.

Quick response: the sexual revolution’s consistent appeal to emotion and sentiment, rather than to argument, suggests that any effective response will need to appeal to something deeper than rational argument. This is the basic point (so I gather – I haven’t yet read it) of Glynn Harrison’s book, A Better Story. You can watch Glynn Harrison speaking on the topic here.