Dialectics of Moralism
On the surface, the ongoing wave of denouncing male sexual aggression, and the wave of firing influential people on accusations of such aggression, is not an issue for a philosopher’s blog to consider. One does not need a philosopher to agree that coercion and blackmail are not an appropriate way to enter into a sexual relation. At the same time, the ongoing scandal in the US media does not particularly rely on intellectuals, and its emotional, one-sided, accusatory style is rarely moderated by an intellectual style of argumentation. This is normal for a democratic public sphere. Finally, while the problem of women being courted and/or harassed in public spaces is ubiquitous, the current struggle is concentrated in the USA. Not being a US citizen, I could have taken an easy position and say that this is a culturally specific reaction to a universal problem, which I respect but can reserve my judgment on the specifics.
Since the problem is ubiquitous, however, we face a general question of how to resolve it without engaging in a war of the sexes. US politics is, for obvious reasons, highly influential around the globe, so that we may expect both an export of the campaign (which is already happening in Europe) and a counterstrike of gender traditionalists (which is already happening in Russia where several escort women recently demonstrated to support Harvey Weinstein). Moreover, the sexual politics of the kind that in this case seems to come from below and be directed against the establishment has in the past been perceived, from outside, as a US policy and, as such, has affected international relations. Thus, the recent standoff of the Russian state against the US has been presented to the home audience in the former largely as a battle of traditional sexual mores against aggressive feminism and homosexuality.
I still remember my youth in the Soviet Union, where a strict public policing of adultery, particularly at the workplace, was the norm. My peers and I supported «Perestroika» and a rapprochement with America and the West partly because we knew no party meetings to discuss one’s extramarital affair were possible in the post-1968, emancipated West. I have maintained sympathy for US politics, because, in this and some other respects, it plays out the destiny of my generation’s bygone utopia.
Finally, the #metoo campaign is conducted in the same newspapers and TV channels, in the same accusatory style, and often by the same journalists as the campaign on the Russian meddling in the US election, the campaign that has an explicit macropolitical thrust and that seeks, among other things, to escalate a new cold war with Russia by attributing to it a criminal and immoral series of actions. Trump, Russia (as emblematized by Putin), and Harvey Weinstein fuse into one vague figure of an obscene father of a primal horde.
If, reluctantly, I engage in the ethical and political analysis of these ongoing events as a philosopher, I can first of all see the failure of most participants to recognize a dialectical mirroring in the subject positions between the targets of the campaign and its spokesmen and spokeswomen.
The alleged male harassers are guilty of hybris: they take their formal authority too far, into the private sphere, where they lay claim on a woman’s body. Their passion for power prevents them from limiting themselves. However, we see the same limitless passion on the part of their persecutors. The movement that started with a very clear and hard issue of serial blackmail by Harvey Weinstein continues with firing males from their positions based on anonymous claims, often without a hearing. Their attempts to defend themselves are ridiculed and the broad public consensus, which even Trump claims to share, gives the denunciations a force of moral authority.
Here’s what a feminist writer Katie Harding wrote in The Washington Post on the occasion of the Democrat Al Franken’s resignation from the Senate, pleading for him not to resign: «go on a listening tour to learn what the women of Minnesota — Native American women, Somali women, Hmong women, Karen women, disabled women, queer women, working-class women — most want him to fight for in his remaining time, and go to the mat for their needs. Accept that some women will not want to talk to him at all, or will only want to yell at him for being a pig. Go anyway …. Don’t just apologize and drop out of sight. Do penance. Live the values you campaigned on. Be a selfless champion for women’s rights”.
Hard to miss in this comment is the sadistic enjoyment and the endorsement – in men – of an extreme ethics of the Other, a heteronomy that would arise, according to her wishes, from the feeling of guilt. But such heteronomy is a self-destructive ethics, since it neither endorses nor understands the very fact of agency.
It is trivial but true to say that such essentially conservative and repressive moralist movements «go too far», engage in what Katie Roiphe calls the «extremes of Twitter feminism». It falls prey to Oedipal hybris, which German poet Friedrich Hölderlin once interpreted as a wild overzealous passion of denouncing a suspect who allegedly put a stain on the moral purity of the land. The cause is just, but such movements overstep the limits by falling into the whirl of anti-sexual affect which feeds on the very nuclear energy of sexuality that it tries to delimit. Since human society, like the sexual relation (according to some), «does not exist», that is, exists against the stakes of its own ideal impossibility, there is usually more than one just cause, and one contradicts the other.
Sexuality is an affect and institution that by definition violates borders among individuals and risks going against the liberal ideal. The law imposes limits on «animal» passions, but it also produces a temptation for crime, or sin. Morality goes even further and sets, for an individual, an appealing but unrealistic ideal of affectless contractual behavior. It inevitably helps the person, who momentarily falls outside social ties and violates the ideal, to understand himself or herself as evil. A relative antagonist or an enemy becomes an absolute foe. Therefore, a dialectical gaze perceives at the same time a wave of passionate denunciation of male sexual aggression (which New York Times journalists rightly attach to the prevalent form of masculinity as such) and a parallel wave of shootings in the US schools where young males, failing to build their emotions and social relations into an acceptable scenario, understand themselves (not without Hollywood’s help) as hostes generi humanis. In response to an obsessive regulation and suspicion of aggression, they follow a hysterical avalanche of the stereotypical outbursts of evil.
Less demonically, but also dangerously, the foreign strategy of USA’s international counterparts, such as Russia, increasingly demonstrates an «hysterical» spiral of subversive political acts (like organizing fake Twitter and Facebook accounts) that could not have even come to a «moral» mind. In the terms of contemporary dialectical psychoanalysis, the present psycho-political structure is even more interesting: the dominant media put the scandalous “hystories” (Elaine Showalter) into the obsessive form of a new moral guilt, while the armed outcasts act out their obsessive destructive desires in a contagious hysterical form of “showing to everyone who had not listened”. But in both cases, a justified emotional reaction to injustice escalates to put the subject into a passive and therefore unethical position.
Against this moralization and immoralization of politics, two things, I think, should be reaffirmed:
- The rule of the letter of public law and due process, which would leave space for everything that is not forbidden but would severely punish what is. Modern liberal law is the other side of tolerance for milder evil that is not in the law.
- An increased emphasis on sentimental education at the school and college levels. The pattern of aggression against women is an issue of habit that must be unlearned. But not all sexuality should be unlearned. We lack a new ethics of dealing with conflicts without reaffirming the mythical unity and harmony of the ego. In this particular context, I’d say that what we, philosophers, can help construct is an ethics of hysteria and an ethics of obsession. We cannot remove these predispositions but can at least understand them. What appears as a race for the just cause risks surrendering our future to the passionate horses of the psyche that we must learn to guide.