Mary Eberstadt has a new book called Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics where she makes the case that the 1960s sexual revolution is what gave rise to identity politics today. I think, while that may have played a part, the identity politics craze can’t be completely laid at the feet of the sexual revolution.
You can get a good synopsis of the book’s thesis from this article. Essentially, what she says is that the sexual revolution led people to see pleasure – namely sexual pleasure – as a birthright. This leads to the dissolution of the family because as soon as people decide they might not love each other, they split up. Without the family there to help give people a sense of identity, people ask the question Who Am I? The answers they come to result in the various identities that people adopt. As Rod Dreher at The American Conservative blog puts it:
This is not to say that all people who get caught up in identity politics therefore come from broken family situations, and that all people who come from broken family situations are therefore destined to become identity-politics fanatics. Her point is that in general, we have become a society in which the family has been undone primarily by the Sexual Revolution, and that that unbinding of the primarily socializing institution has effects on our politics.
The problem with this analysis is that it doesn’t tell us why the sexual revolution came about in the first place. The sexual revolution was a symptom, not a cause. The real cause is human nature itself.
Humans are biased creatures. Our minds evolved for a certain hunter-gatherer lifestyle. A lifestyle wherein danger lurked around every corner and the only way to remain safe was sticking with the family. This sort of danger survived into the times of peasantry and feudalism, where the family was required for survival – indeed, many children were needed just to work the fields.
As a result, security has always been a bigger concern for people than liberty. Giving up rights to live under a government ruling over more and more people was something people were more than willing to do. Governments grew more and more powerful and people sought the security of a strong state. Indeed, the Italian allies fought bloody wars with Rome in order to become citizens of the Roman republic, wanting to be under Roman power – and security. Before that, the Achaemenid Persian Empire often annexed peoples by offering them security. The Greeks famously declined such offers, leading to the Greco-Persian Wars. In both cases, the societies degenerated and fell.
The same is happening in the U.S. today. We are more secure than anyone has ever been in human history. Without some external danger, institutions like the family are no longer seen as necessary. It’s been security itself that led the creation of such individualist ideas as classical liberalism. It was the security of being the most powerful nation on earth after the Second World War that led to the sexual revolution.
Now, without any real dangers outside the country, and with the loss of identity, people create threats of their own countrymen. That security eliminating any real dangers, along with the internet, has created this self-segregation into identity groups that view all other groups as threats (i.e. oppressors).
This is a paradox between human nature and human desire. Human nature requires threats, since that is what we evolved to deal with, but we desire security. Humans are in a unique position to make themselves overly secure, but we still see those threats – to ourselves and to the groups in which we sublimate our identity. Indeed, in-group allegiance is another aspect of human nature that juxtaposes with the diverse, multicultural, globalized society we have created for ourselves.
Being able to untie these Gordian knots is the only way to solve our current problems. Perhaps we ought to cut the Gordian knot and find some way of fixing human nature itself?