Caitlyn Jenner, taking pride in his or her decolletage with a smart new frock for his famous Vanity Fair photo shoot, started the madness of the summer of '15, but he's got nothing on the educational establishment. . . .
The University of Tennessee, once known mostly for its football as she was meant to be played, has joined seats of advanced learning in Michigan, Maryland, North Carolina and Vermont in performing imaginative radical surgery on the language. We can be sure that California will not be far behind.
Though new pronouns are not official university policy, not yet, the university's Office for Diversity and Inclusion is officially encouraging students, professors, athletes, cooks, parking-lot attendants, groundskeepers, latrine orderlies and many others -- everyone who bleeds orange and white -- to think not only beyond male and female, but beyond pronouns used for centuries to describe such creatures. The new, gender-neutral pronouns are "xe," "xym," and "xyr." And you thought "Ms." (pronounced "Mzz") invented to describe women who had not yet caught a man, was gross enough.Anyone who has read the writing of Wesley Pruden knows him as a satirical opinion columnist. But, quoting the Director of the University's Pride Center, he writes: "[W]e should not assume someone's gender by their [sic] appearance, nor what is listed on a roster or in student information systems. ... Transgender people and people who do not identify within the gender binary may use a different name that their legal name and pronouns of gender identity, rather than the pronouns of sex they were assigned at birth."
In the words of Charlie Brown from the Peanuts comic strip: "Good grief!" One Tennessee state senator remarked that "the biggest lack of diversity we have at the University of Tennessee is people of common sense." But, as Pruden advises, we must march into the indefinite future in a world safe for those who can self-identify their genders according to Facebook's 58 gender identities, protected from English teachers lurking in the shadows waving a copy of Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.
If this is the case, and words have ceased to have their meaning, where facts no longer matter, where history and truth no longer are accepted as guides for thought and dialogue, and where we are followed and bullied by the guardians of our current culture, where are the voices to be heard in this now contested public square?
What the increasing litigation and political posturing reflect is just how congested the public square is. And, yet there are voices that seek to block out those voices from segments of society with which they do not agree. And indeed, which attempt to marginalize those with whom they do not agree, rather than simply debating or even rejecting those ideas with which they disagree. Hence, rights such as freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion all seem to be challenged.
As Os Guinness wrote in The Global Public Square,
How do we live with our deepest differences, especially when those differences are religious and ideological, and very especially when those differences concern matters of our common public life? In short, how do we create a global public square and make the world safer for diversity?This, then, is what I wish to address in this post, a follow-up to my last two posts, and two posts yet to be published concerning the final weeks of the recent term of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Os Guinness noted in this book that there are three trends that affect all of us who are concerned about this issue and which we must recognize and confront.
The first is that when freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief. which is clearly established by evidence, is recognized and respected for people of all faiths and none, important social goals, such as peace, stability, social cohesion, generosity, enterprises are unleashed as positive forces on civil society.
The second is that restrictions on fundamental and foundational human rights are mounting across the globe in most nations in the world, including those with histories that are democratic and built on dignity and worth of every human being, which were once champions of these freedoms. Although the majority of people in the world believe in someone or something higher than human, as Os Guinness points out and research establishes, "the overwhelming majority of them do not have the freedom to practice their faith freely." Even in the United States, according to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2012, there has been a rise in both government restrictions and social hostility toward religion, moving the United States in 2010 into the top sixteen countries in the world where there are such restrictions and hostility. If there is any doubt about this, one need only look at the litigation over the past few years concerning the contraceptive mandate provided by the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court decisions on same-sex relations and marriage. and the hostility generated over social media to bakers, florists, and companies that decline to participate in same-sex "weddings" because such participation violates their sincerely held religious beliefs.
The third is that the greatest threat to religious freedom is no longer simply the result of age-old authoritarian oppression and sectarian violence. Rather, it is the convergence of trends that Guinness characterizes as a perfect storm: the general disdain for religion that leads to discounting religious freedom, with a sharpened aggressive atheism and exclusion of religious thought and discussion from public life; the aggressive advancement of the sexual revolution which treats all religious thought as oppressive and as an obstruction to sexual freedom and to dismantle religious freedom forever, and current forms of "hate speech."
I have said on several occasions and previously written herein that there are three common threats or challenges to civil society. http://www.rvanbroekhoven.blogspot.com/2013/02/global-trends-in-civil-society.html These are: (1) internal threats or challenges, such as issues of integrity, transparency, and accountability within the civil society organization, itself, that adversely affect the reputation or trust of the organization and/or the sector; (2) external threats, such as political threats to the right to exist or to its right function in society for the common good through its common operations, but may also result from the external public pressure through social media and protest driven by a particular agenda; and (3) those general threats that face humankind as a whole, such as violent conflicts, poverty, natural disasters, and profound inequality, although some these are the result of human causes.
However, my focus here is on those external threats and challenges which we face in society generally, and which affect organizations in the economic marketplace and in civil society, with some subordinate glances at the first or internal threats, that may result from some responses to the external forces.
In my last two posts I wrote about the final weeks of the 2014/2015 term of the U.S. Supreme Court. My interest was primarily on those decisions in which words were twisted beyond their normal, plain meanings, or where biological reality, facts, history, truth, law, and morals were of no consequences. Shortly before these decisions, 64 year-old former Olympic decathlon champion, Bruce Jenner decided that he was not satisfied with his biological and genetic status, and decided he could do something about it, coming out in a splashy cover-page story in Vanity Fair as Caitlyn Jenner.
Perhaps you remember when "gender" was defined in the dictionary as a grammatical term, primarily denoting the the formal classification by which nouns were grouped and inflected, or changed in form to reflect certain syntactic relationships to pronouns or modifiers, and in which verbs may also be inflected. The term "gender gap" referred to the apparent disparity between men and women in values, attitudes, wages, and voting patterns.
But, something happened with the language and the use of words. Colleges and universities started to use the term, "gender" instead of "sex" to distinguish between men and women students. I remember an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education some 15 years ago that stated, somehow we discovered that there were then five genders, largely based on the new ideas of "gender identity." As I noted above, we now learn from Facebook, that there are 58 genders by which subscribers can self-identify. Do words mean anything anymore, and does language provide a means of clear communication between people?
Reflecting on this and what it says about society today, I thought of the recent book by well-known sociologist Christian Smith, where he wrote about sociology, or as he referred to it, The Sacred Project of American Sociology. The idea behind this use of the word, "sacred" came from that famous sociologist, Emile Durkheim, and referred to something that was not ordinary, mundane, or instrumental, rather was set aside, venerated, defended, revered, honored as beyond questioning or disrespect. In defining the sacred project of American sociology, Smith wrote:
We might start by saying that sociology is about something, like exposing, protesting, and ending through social movements, state regulations, and government programs all human inequality, oppressions, exploitation, suffering, injustice, poverty, discrimination, exclusions, hierarchy, constraint and domination by, of, and over other human beings (and perhaps animals and the environment). . . . If we want to really understand sociology well, we need to dig harder. Sociology's deeper sacred project is more fully and accurately described as follows: American sociology as a collective enterprise is at heart committed to the visionary project of realizing the emancipations, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratifications of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures. That is the deeper vision that undergirds and justifies the first description about ending oppressions, etcetera. It provides the more positive, constructive account of why all of those bad things need to be exposed, protested, and ended. [Emphasis in the original]It seems to me that this is what is going on in society, at least Western society. It seems particularly reflected in much of the protest movement, and especially in the decisions of courts at all levels, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
As Smith wrote in his Introduction, "a great deal of sociology is devoted to showing that the ordinary world of everyday life as it seems to most people is not really what is going on -- in short to debunk appearances" as stated by Peter Berger in his 1963 book, Invitation to Sociology. "Thus, for example, ordinary people's naive experiences of religious faith and sacred practice ought not to be taken seriously on their own terms, but are better understood through sociological interpretations of their scientific meaning and causes in terms of concepts like resource exchanges, status struggles, coping mechanisms, gender inequities, class interests, social control, etc." [Emphasis in original] As stated above with regard to certain trends we see, there seems to be a growing general disdain for religion that leads to discounting religious freedom.
Since there is profound skepticisms in all the institutions in society, including government, it is strange that only government has any chance of getting it right, of effecting the change sought by these forces of the Enlightenment and post-modernity. And since democracy, whether direct democracy by the people or representative democracy, is too messy and slow, the responsibility for effecting the desired change is too often left to the courts, or public opinion advance through the means of social media.
Engraved on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. are the following inscriptions:
Do these statements of principles represent some level of reality, or are they merely aspirational?
While these are the expressions of one man and represent at least a part of the history of the United States of America, the principles are sound and should have some meaning to others who don't share this particular history. We watch the discourse in public square, and we read decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, such as those just discussed in my most recent posts, and we wonder whether we as a people have any sense of our historical heritage and in what world we inhabit. Or maybe these statements do not truly represent our past historical thinking. Maybe that is what we are led to believe today; they they are merely relics of a day long ago.
But, they also raise an interesting question in my mind. Are these statements, those rights protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and those identified in the Declaration of Independence pre-political? Do they include freedom of religion, both to believe and to exercise that belief, freedom of speech and of the press, freedom to assemble, freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances, the rights that flow from the fact that all are created equal and are endowed by their Creator, not by the government, with certain inalienable rights, including the right to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness, consistent with the language of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, or are these merely aspirational desires? The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, and its earlier decisions, for example, in United States v. Windsor raise the question whether marriage, as always understood to be pre-political, is not that at all. In other words, do those rights all exist apart from, and before government, or are they granted and revoked at will by government?
At some point, we have to understand to what end this all matters. If they are merely abstract concepts articulated without shape or form in some ancient document that does not have particular relevance to America today, or indeed to any society, then they can be ignored with impunity. After all, what are the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, in a culture in which life is not respected, where liberties are increasingly limited based on government determinations (perhaps on what is thought to be the common good), and where the pursuit of happiness is merely the immediate gratification of one's own needs or desires, without regard to how they might affect the very structures of society? Are there broader applications beyond the United States of America as suggested by Thomas Jefferson in his Summary of Rights quoted above, or are these rights, including freedom of religion and belief, freedom of speech and of the press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition the government political rather than pre-political and limited to the United States?
This seems to fit with what the authors collectively known as the "Bellah group" reported from their research in the 1985 national bestseller, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. The authors raise several questions: How ought we to live? How do we think about how we live? Who are we and what is our character? But the fundamental question posed in the book is how do we preserve or create a morally coherent life.
Moreover, as the "Bellah group" found, the problem of articulating a public good is bound up in confusion about citizen and religious life, where religious life seems strikingly similar to political life. Further, the American search for spontaneous community with like-minded people is made urgent by the fear that there may be no way to relate to those who are too different.
As Gary Wills reminds us, the notion of public virtue to earlier generations was not an abstraction, but a visible quality exemplified by people of virtue. Accordingly, the notion of virtue described an ideal of character made concrete not simply by the works of ancient writers, but also by the stories of those who lived lives of virtue in the early days of America. This was true, in part. because the life of relatively small-scaled communities was shaped by a religious and civic morality that generally worked to channel and transform public ambition into the public concerns of individual citizens.
If all of this is true, then it invokes the age-old idea of the common good. The historic, and perhaps most frequently articulated definition in Catholic social teaching about the common good is that it is "the whole network of social conditions which enable human individuals and groups to flourish and live a fully, genuinely human life, otherwise described as 'integral human development' where all are responsible for all, collectively, at the level of society or nation, not only as individuals." Indeed, as stated in the Catholic Church's social teaching on the common good:
Public authorities have the common good as their primary responsibility. The common good stands in opposition to the good of rulers or of the ruling (or any other) class. It implies that every individual no matter how high [including members of the Supreme Court and Executive Branch] or low, has a duty to share in promoting the welfare of the community as well as a right to benefit from the welfare. "Common" implies "all-inclusive", the common good cannot exclude or exempt any segment of the population. If any section of the population is in fact excluded from participation in the life of the community, even at a minimal level, then that is a contradiction to the concept of common good and calls for rectification.However, it is important to read this statement from the Catholic Church in the context of the broader outlines of these themes in the document itself. For example, although the principles and theories of natural law, have been largely discounted in legal circles discourse, they can be understood, as Professor John Finnis repeatedly points out, particularly in his Natural Law and Natural Rights, as principles of reason for judging or acting in the absence of understood reasons, or for discarding some reasons which are understood and may be relevant, providing certain boundaries for dialogue regarding things that may be contested in the public square. Much of the discussion today concerning the role of law, politics, and ultimately government is not contained within any reasonable boundaries for discussion of the important issues of the day, including the contested social issues and the role of the U.S. Supreme Court for establishing major social policy on such contested issues. What the Supreme Court did in Obergefell v. Hodges, had little to do with the Constitution and with law.
As often is the case in these discussions, we go back to the French social philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville and his most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the relationship between character and society in America in his 1830s book, Democracy in America, which on occasion he called "habits of the heart." What is interesting is the way he singled out family life, the American religious institutions, and our participation in local groups and political life as helping to create the kind of person who could sustain a connection to the wider political community and thus support the maintenance of free institutions.
But Tocqueville also warned that some aspects of our character, what he once called individualism, might eventually isolate Americans from one another and thereby undermine the conditions of freedom. Moreover, in a world of potentially conflicting self-interests, no one can really say what value system is better than another. Benjamin Franklin was more interested in the individual, and although he agreed generally with Thomas Jefferson regarding the protection of rights and security of equal treatment under the law, his focus was almost entirely on individual self-improvement that the larger social context hardly came into view.
The Bellah group touched on a number of issues, including success, freedom, and justice that offer different voices in a common tradition. What struck me was the description of freedom, which as the authors described, gave Americans a respect for individuals, while stimulating initiative, creativity, and sometimes tolerance of differences in a diverse society and resistant to overt forms of political oppression. At the same time, this idea of freedom leaves many with a fear of acknowledging structures of power interdependence in a technologically complex society dominated by giant corporations and an increasingly powerful state. And, this was written in the mid-1980s before the explosion of the Internet and social media, and the increasingly disappearance of brick and mortar shops and factories where people gathered to shop, work, and be in community.
For Jefferson, the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, equality was political equality, not equality in all respects. He held equality as a fundamental and universal principle, true at all times and all places. As a result, he listed the essential principle of government as "equal and exact justice to all men, of whatsoever state or persuasion, religious or political." With respect to freedom of religion, i.e., where Congress is prohibited from making any law respecting the establishment of religion or preventing the free exercise thereof, Jefferson's first freedom was aimed at insuring that government authorities did not have the legal power to force their views on others. Jefferson, in general, favored freedom of the person from arbitrary state action, and freedom of the press from censorship.
I am not persuaded that the so-called Civil War Amendments, and particularly the Fourteenth Amendment changes that basic understanding. Justice Kennedy writing for the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges, did mention the "due process clause" and the "equal protection clause" of the Fourteenth Amendment, Indeed, the "due process clause" in the Fourteenth Amendment basically quotes verbatim the language of the Fifth Amendment. As I wrote in my last posts, what was absent in this decision was any legal rationale founded in the U.S. Constitution. But, this is not intended to be a legal brief on the subject. In other words, it is not my intent to discuss how this decision and similar decisions, including King v. Burwell, reflect on the doctrines of separation of power, both horizontally between the three branches of government and vertically between the federal central government and the states, or the effect on democracy. Rather, my purpose here is to address the effect on culture or society and on civil society in particular.
However before doing that, just to see how far we have gone in the 180 years or so since Tocqueville published his Democracy in America, the Bellah group pointed out in their Habits of the Heart:
Tocqueville argues that while the physical circumstances of the United States have contributed to the maintenance of a democratic republic, laws have contributed more than those circumstances and mores have more than the laws. Indeed, he stresses throughout the book that their mores have been have been the key to Americans' success in establishing and maintaining a free republic and that undermining American mores is the most certain road to undermining the institutions of the United States. He speaks of mores somewhat loosely, defining them variously as "habits of the heart"; notions, opinions, and ideas that "shape mental habits"; and the "sum of intellectual dispositions of men in society. Mores seemed to involve not only the ideas and opinions but habitual practices with respect to such things as religion, political participation, and economic life.
In short, Tocqueville, unlike [the French settler, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur] saw the great importance of the American mores of his day of continuing biblical and republican traditions -- the traditions of [John] Winthrop and Jefferson.The use of the term, "civil society" is quite intentional, especially in the context of these past two posts where I posed the question: "What Difference Does it Make?" There is a great deal of misunderstanding, some simply as a result of political concerns, about what we mean by the term, "civil society." Part of the fear in some countries comes from the way the term, "civil society" was reintroduced to our lexicon during the independence movement throughout Eastern Europe. This simply ignores the ancient and long history of both the term and concept of civil society.
But, it is important to suggest some of the confusion or reasons for this rejection of the historical idea of civil society which goes back to Plato, Aristotle. Although Plato refers generally to the concept in his Republic, Vol. , the concept and term were more clearly articulated by Aristotle in his Politics where he refers to community characterized by a shared set of norms and ethos, in which free citizens on an equal footing lived under the rule of law. The telos, or end of civil society was thus defined as the common wellbeing of society. In its general sense, "civil society" describes elements such as freedom of religion, of association, of speech, of an independent judiciary, etc., that make up a democratic society.
Civil Society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes, and values. Its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family, and market. though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family, and markets are often complex, blurred, and negotiated.Yet, as I read Tocqueville and the Bellah group's Habits of the Heart, I get the idea that civil society could well include all those intermediate associations we have in life, whether family and extended families, small community associations of people with similar interests, or the array of larger organizations that make up the nonprofit sector.
This also fits in with much of the social teaching of the Catholic Church of subsidiarity. The principle was articulated in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931) as follows:
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also its is an injustice and at the same time, a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought by its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social and never destroy or absorb them.
The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinated groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands.
After having taken each individual in this fashion by turns, into its powerful hands, and having kneaded him in accord with his desires, the sovereign extends its arms around society as a whole. It covers its surface with a network of petty regulations -- complicated, minute, and uniform -- through which not even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know how to make their way past the crowd and emerge into the light of day. It does not break wills; it softens them, bends them and directs them. Rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting on one's own. It does not destroy, it prevents things from being born, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally, it will reduce each nation to nothing more than a heard of timid, industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.
We are reminded of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's widely reported commencement address at Harvard University in 1978, when he said:
Every conflict is resolved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the ultimate solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restrain of a renunciation of those rights, call for sacrifice and selfless risk; this would simply be absurd. Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of; everybody strives toward further expansion of the extreme limit of legal limits. . . .
I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale is also less than worth of man. . . . Whenever, the tissues of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man's noblest impulses.Is that true? Have we become such a people of laws that all of this litigation about health care mandates and about the legitimacy of transgender and same-sex marriage is nothing more than an attempt to provide the ultimate solution to every conflict with respect to language, morality, and claims of human or civil rights? Is there an objective basis for the legal scale, and if not, what other scales are there?
Is possible to agree today that the terms or clauses, "due process of law" and "equal protection of the laws" in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution are, in today's society, broad, ambiguous, and perhaps aspirational? Or, perhaps that they are the objective legalistic scale, without clear definition, to which all conflicts must be resolved? Certainly, there is a great deal of history in our courts, and particularly the U.S. Supreme Court, in which these words are defined over the period of time, or if not defined, their limits are broadly described based on the particular facts of the case and the philosophies of the judges and justices. Unfortunately, what makes this difficult, particularly as outlined ambiguously in Obergefell v. Hodges, these lines of thought are not all consistent with the history of the original meaning of these terms, nor even with the history of the Amendments when passed by Congress and ratified by the States.
So, what are we to make of the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions over the past few years that go to the heart of our ability to communicate, both rationally and relationally? What are we to make of how they have turned so much of human history upside down, and are bound to open up a floodgate of litigation and unsettle life for a long time to come? I will try to explore some of these questions in future posts and what they might mean for the culture and for civil society.