Postmodern America is living a rather odd paradox. On the one hand, personal freedom and autonomy are seen as the supreme values in society; on the other, there is a marked tendency to see the federal government as the answer to virtually every problem, resulting in greater government control in our lives and thus less personal freedom. How are these differences resolved?
First, however, we need to look at precisely what is meant by personal freedom and autonomy. We can approach this issue from several directions. Let's begin by looking at the current definition of toleration, the ultimate virtue in American society.
The new toleration
The definition of "toleration" has been inverted in recent years. Historically, toleration implied disagreement. The powerful would tolerate ideas that they disagreed with or found unpleasant; they might argue against them or condemn them, but they did not suppress the ideas through violence or the courts.
Today, toleration means agreeing that selected categories—typically race, gender, and sexual orientation—are value-neutral, that is, that they have no significant bearing on human worth, moral standing, etc. To suggest otherwise is to commit the one unforgivable sin of being intolerant, judgmental or bigoted.
In other words, toleration has changed from referring to ideas to referring to people, and from learning to live with disagreement to agreeing that [specific] differences don't matter.
The Civil Rights movement has rightly made visible racism unacceptable in America, though it undoubtedly continues to exist below the surface. A similar case can be made with respect to sexism, which, though it still exists, is less overt and far less acceptable than it once was.
This leaves sexual orientation and gender identity as the key battleground for expanding the notion of "toleration" in society.
Sexual identity as a civil rights issue
LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) advocates link their cause to the Civil Rights movement, an identification many African Americans reject. Race, ethnicity, and biological sex are in a different category from behaviors that a person may choose to engage in, and so many in the African American community (along with most conservatives) argue that LGBT is not in any way equivalent to the Civil Rights movement.
The LGBT community and its supporters see things differently. First, they sometimes argue that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic—that people are born homosexual, and there is nothing they can do about it. To deny them the opportunity to act out that identity is thus every bit as much of a civil rights issue as discrimination against racial minorities.
This argument is more frequently made by male homosexuals than by lesbians, who often choose that lifestyle as a protest against sexism or abuse that they have experienced in their own lives. In this case, the argument is based on personal freedom to choose your own sexual identity and sexual partners without outside interference.
A similar dynamic occurs in the transgender community, where people either argue that they are psychically one gender trapped in a body of the other gender (and thus that theirs is a civil rights issue), or that individuals should be free to choose whatever gender suits them (in which case it is an issue of personal freedom).
There is no known biological basis for homosexuality, as some homosexual rights advocates privately admit. Similarly, the idea of being a woman trapped in a man's body (or vice versa) may not even make any sense—what does it mean to be a woman if it is unconnected to your body?
Much of the argument surrounding these issues thus has centered on the idea of personal freedom to choose identity and sex partners without regard to biology. This is seen as the critical element of what it means to be free.
The shadow of Freud
Ultimately, this thinking is based on Freudian ideas. Freud believed that psychological illness was a result of social repression of our sex drive. Although Freud himself had a generally conventional lifestyle and developed psychoanalysis as a means of dealing with problems arising from sexual repression, the implication of his theory was clear: to enable people to live happy, fulfilled lives, society needed to drop restraints on sexual activity. Hence the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies.
This idea is deeply embedded in the American worldview. This explains the vehement opposition to abstinence-only sex education despite the studies that show it is more effective in reducing sexual activity than "comprehensive" sex education. The real object isn't to reduce sexual activity, but to minimize the consequences. Why would you even want to reduce sexual activity if that's the route to freedom and fulfillment?
Unfortunately, Freud was wrong. Sexual "freedom" has resulted in an epidemic of depression among young women, an explosion of sexually transmitted diseases, rampant out of wedlock births and the associated poverty that comes from single parent households, a sky-high divorce rate, and on and on and on. And it has not made people happier or better adjusted. None of which makes any difference, of course, because as is all too often the case, ideology trumps evidence.
The primary human right
Since in this worldview salvation comes through sex, and since personal fulfillment and happiness is fundamentally about sexual expression, the freedom to express whatever you think of as your sexual identity is our most essential human right.
This thinking has been enshrined in a number of Supreme Court decisions. For example, Lawrence v Texas argued that moral views held by a majority of the population is an inadequate reason to make homosexual practices illegal, and that these practices are "a form of ‘liberty' protected by due process."
This reasoning does not only apply to sexual activity, but to its results. Sexual freedom means freedom from the consequences of sex every bit as much as it means freedom to engage in sex. Thus abortion must also be protected, and according to Justice Kennedy in Planned Parenthood of Southeast Pennsylvania v Casey, it too cannot be prohibited as immoral without violating personal liberty.
Kennedy's decision went even further, however. He argued that, "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State."
The "attributes of personhood" are thus determined by our beliefs, and the "heart of liberty" is our right to define ourselves. This is as clear an articulation of the postmodern view of human rights as we are likely to find.
Notice that in practice this view of liberty once again revolves around sex—our ability to define ourselves sexually and our ability to engage in sex without consequences. This is the most fundamental of our rights; all others are secondary.
This idea drives a great deal of current policy. For example, Chai Feldblum, President Obama's recess appointment as a commissioner on the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has stated that when homosexual rights and religious beliefs collide, she had "a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win," despite religious liberty being explicitly guaranteed in the First Amendment.
In Massachusetts and Washington, DC, Catholic charitable institutions have been forced to shut down because of their opposition to same-sex marriage. This has made it far more difficult to place handicapped children seeking adoption in Massachusetts, and cut access to a variety of social services in DC. But that doesn't matter as much as the postmodern vision of homosexual rights.
Freedom of speech is also trumped. People have been fired for expressing opposition to same sex marriage, even in venues that had nothing to do with their jobs.
Resolving the paradox
The examples can be multiplied. In all cases, "personal freedom and autonomy" applies first and foremost to sexual freedom, even where it tramples on the rights of others. And that is the solution to the postmodern paradox. As long as government supports sexual freedom, other liberties can be eroded.
In fact, expanding government power can be very helpful to the agenda. Same sex marriage has never survived a popular vote, but if it can be imposed by fiat by the courts or the legislature, that is perfectly fine.
Health care reform that allows expanded funding for abortions is likewise seen as a positive step, since it expands the potential for sexual freedom.
Including "perceived" sexual orientation and transgender to hate crimes laws—the criminalization of the presumed thought of an individual who commits a crime against people in a protected category—also fits here, even though it violates equal protection under law by treating crimes against some individuals as more serious than crimes against others.
In essence, the bargain is simple: as long as the "right" to sexual identity and expression is maintained, other rights can be eroded and the government can expand into more and more areas of our lives, particularly to silence opposition voices.
Ironically enough, the current emphasis on choice and autonomy may turn out to be one of the biggest threats to personal liberty we face.
Dr. Glenn Sunshine is the Chair of the Department of History, Central Connecticut State University and a BreakPoint Centurions faculty member. He is the author of Why You Think the Way You Do, available at the Colson Center online bookstore. For more information, visit www.colsoncenter.org
Also, read the article, "Does Freedom Mean Getting What I Want?" by Jennifer Roback Morse.