Saturday, 27 February 2010

Tis folly to be wise

I cannot be the only person to scratch my head in wonder at this week's catastrophic concatenation of events. On Tuesday the Commons voted in favour of a bill which will enforce sex and relationship education in schools, impose mandatory initiation in the use of contraception, and make it obligatory to provide children with information about abortion services. The message is: 'They're doing it anyway, so let's make sure they have all the panoply of bourgeois safety nets which will allow them to treat themselves and their sexual partners like everything else in the bourgeois world: a commodity hedged about with health and safety measures.' Oh, of course, it's not just sex education; it is relationship education too. But all that means is they should ensure the commodification of their partners is reciprocal. And then it doesn't matter if their partner is a man, a woman, or - give it a couple of decades - an animal of some kind.

A couple of days later a Home Office report authored by Linda Papadopoulos has criticized the sexualisation of children, especially through the media, fashion, advertizing, and the whole gamut of our information age. I don't happen to think Papadopoulos's review is quite as benign or useful as it at first appears. It wants to put up barriers to these forces which have been unleashed, but only in accord with the best consensualist mentality. Her recommendations include:

*more gender quality
*compulsory sex and relationship education
*the teaching of media literacy (how not to be conned by the media)
*more youth workers
*positive role models for children (ugly people can be admired as well)
*support for abused children
*tackling teenage-relationship abuse
*media campaigns to promote diverse and aspiration models for the young
*a working group of high-profile women in the media to tackle degrading image of women
*labels indicating where images have been airbrushed
*information on self-esteem and body image
*no sexy music videos before the watershed
*filters on computers, games, etc.
*voluntary codes for clothes retailers and mandatory codes separating lads mags from children's material
*no adult entertainment jobs in the Job Centre
*money for various kinds of research, notably research into the impact of sexualisation on black and minority ethnic groups, gay and lesbian groups and disabled populations

Some of these are of course to be welcomed, but look at the philosophy that underpins them. Consent isn't enough of course in this form of morality. It has to be an egocentric consent which is still aware of body image, gender stereotyping, etc. In other words, she can see there is a problem. She just wants to apply the wrong remedy.


And it is the wrong remedy, as we know, as is the imposition of sex and relationship education which, bewilderingly, is seen as part of the solution! Human cultures develop taboos for a reason, though we have been taught in our post-Freudian world to see taboo as an inescapably bad thing. Now, I'm not saying they are entirely benign. In certain circumstances they can be harmful. But one thing taboos are is humble. They are a self-effacing. They are a concrete confession that the control of human desire needs something more effective than a course in good body image and labels to tell me that an image has been altered. Remove those taboos and you unleash the forces of desire which together create the atmosphere of predatory commodification which now shapes so many of our economic and social relations. It is no accident that sexual liberation has altered our moral climate and steered our civilization into this tornado of self-consumming filth. Papadolpoulos's report only participates in the grand lie that all we need to do is make sure people have the right information and then they will make the right decisions. That isn't wildly optimistic; it is demonstrable folly.

In the natural order St Thomas says order comes from two places: on the outside law, and on the inside virtue. And that's it. If he had been born in the era of cultural studies, I'm sure he would have seen taboos as some sort of mid-way point between the two, emotional or cultural reservations about things reason knows to be wrong, even if the inconsistent thing that is human nature desires them. Still, you cannot replace what is on the inside by the ersatz virtues of good body image, self respect and mutual consent, no more than you can keep ordeer through dessicated taboos now unconnected to their moral roots. Or maybe an individual can keep himself out of immediate trouble on that basis, but a society, composed of myriad lines of agency, cannot.


  1. Sound reasoning, Innocent. Thanks for helping me to keep my thoughts on an even keel.