Both the Boy Scouts of America announcement and the #metoo phenomenon indicate a cultural problem: We have difficulty understanding the role distinctions play in our interactions with one another…
“The most portentous general event of our time is the steady obliteration of those distinctions which create society.” Richard Weaver penned these words in his 1948 book, Ideas Have Consequences. Facing a post-World War II West, Weaver saw the potential in democracy for destroying the very structure that made a self-governing people possible. Far from seeing distinctions as “privileging” one group over another, Weaver argued that distinctions made human interactions possible; in the absence of distinctions, he argued, people have no framework within which to know or be known. Distinctions, according to Weaver, create society.
Weaver made this argument sixty-nine years ago, and his insight is no less true today than it was then. October of 2017 brought about two significant cultural moments that illustrate the problems of collapsing distinctions; should this trajectory remain unchecked, we stand poised to lose what Edmund Burke called “the spirit of an exalted freedom,” which founds freedom within distinctions enabling actions. This essay will confine its analysis and examples to two recent developments: the Boy Scouts of America’s inclusion announcement, and the Facebook #metoo phenomenon.
On October 11, 2017, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) announced that they will permit girls to form Cub Scout units and eventually attain the rank of Eagle Scouts. This movement becomes culturally significant in light of Anthony Esolen’s excellent 2013 essay, “A Boy’s Life with Unisex Scouts,” in which he describes the value that the Boy Scouts contributed to the development of masculine identity. Dr. Esolen writes that in an earlier time the Boy scouts affirmed the “commonsense view, that a boy is a boy, a vir futurus, meant in the very structure of his body to be for a woman, for the begetting and raising of children, would have been shared by everyone else. In particular, it was shared by the Boy Scouts. For the Boy Scouts were, to quote the pastor whose homily appears in the first issue of Boys’ Life magazine, to ‘quit themselves like men.’ The boy in the title was, if anything, more important than the scout.” By 2013, Esolen observed that such a common-sense view was no longer held by the Scouts; they had surrendered the core of their identity as an organization dedicated to the training of boys.
That identity piece implies a distinction; the organization existed particularly for the male sex. Between the writing of Esolen’s essay in 2013 and today, that distinction has been surrendered. As the New York Times reports this event, the Scouts’ shift follows a focus on the BSA’s leadership skills and the organization’s desiring to pass those skills to both boys and girls; by surrendering their distinction, the Boy Scouts of America give away what made them different from all other leadership-oriented clubs; time will tell if parents, much more grounded in the reality of boys’ and girls’ uniquenesses, will continue to support the Boy Scouts when they no longer focus on the uniqueness of masculine identity.
The Boy Scouts’ decision is indicative of a cultural abandonment of the distinction between men and women on an institutional and national level; a recent Facebook hashtag illustrates the lessening of distinction on an individual level.
Recently, I began preparing for my teaching day and hopped on Facebook for a brief glance at the latest posts. “Me too” appeared with nothing but a hashtag; I scrolled down, and this “me too” had the moralistic approach that only social media can have, explaining that the person posting the hashtag was a victim of sexual harassment and was voicing her experience (in a clearly reposted, generic statement written to accompany the hashtag) in order to spread awareness of a problem. As the day went on, the #metoo spread; by the next morning, the clear connection to harassment and assault had vanished, at least on my newsfeed, to be replaced by stories of catcalling, glances, and strange interactions, which could be threatening but which might not have been.
This hashtag movement illustrates two problems that both reflect a lack of distinction: oversimplification and ambiguity. First, it boils down the complexities of real sexual assault to a hashtag. Rape survivors experience significant personal trauma; boiling their experience down to a hashtag strikes me as disrespectful to the unique trauma these women walk through. Secondly, within twenty-four hours the hashtag lost what little definition it originally possessed. “Assault” and “harassment” are already broad categories, but when I saw three friends in three different regions of the United States—a graduate student, a young professional, and a young mother—identify themselves through this hashtag but use it to describe ambiguous interactions, the hashtag devolved to such a level of ambiguity that it lost any real meaning.
Why then has this hashtag become prevalent as a social media phenomenon? In her book Rape Culture Hysteria, Canadian feminist Wendy McElroy offers an explanation. She contends that the United States particularly (and the Western world generally) has bought into a false myth of “rape culture” that portrays all men as the enemy, all women as (real or potential) victims, and activism-raising awareness as the solution. Through her book, Dr. McElroy analyzes seven national statistical surveys studying the prevalence of crime. Rather than the “1 in 5” number (retweeted by Regent University, for example), she found that occurrences of rape exist between 0.8 and 1.6%, a far cry from former Vice President Joseph Biden’s claim that 20% of women will be raped.
As a rape survivor herself, Dr. McElroy argues that rape culture “infantilizes women” while claiming to empower them. Under the guise of liberation, women are taught to see themselves as perpetual victims in a man’s world. Dr. McElroy makes many fascinating claims, but the heart of her argument is this: The narrative claims that men are out to assault women, and the narrative is wrong. Specific men do attack specific women, but there is no assault epidemic. By the conclusion of her book, Dr. McElroy shifts to the ways in which this “rape culture” myth harms men. She argues that it destroys the ability of the sexes to interact positively, and ultimately harms Western culture as a whole.
Certainly, rude catcalls exist; there are men in the world who fail to respect women; and there are attacks which sexually violate the image of God borne by every woman. The #metoo does not address these real problems in the world; perhaps it began as an effort to identify with those who experienced real assault; regardless, twenty-four hours later it has been co-opted by a variety of other women who are using it to (unknowingly) advance a false myth in society. Let the real victims of assault and harassment not scream their rage into the vacuum of the world wide web, but instead let them convey their real grief to real people through actual conversation. In that human interaction, we have the hope of finding healing.
Both the Boy Scouts of America announcement and the #metoo phenomenon indicate a cultural problem: We post-postmoderns have difficulty understanding the role distinctions play in our interactions with one another. When we conflate genders and pretend that they have no differences, we lose sight of the real ways in which humans interact. When we lump anything and everything under the term “harassment” or “assault” and propose a universal danger, we lose sight of the real harms done to real individuals by real perpetrators. We need instead to ground ourselves in the real world pursuing what Marion Montgomery called “the truth of things.” It is in this truth that we will find flourishing; we will not find it by destroying the distinctions that allow our society to exist.
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