How the sexual revolution unleashed 'primal screams' among millennials, identity politics: author

Mary Eberstadt at a panel discussion, 'The American family: How a ‘new normal’ is reshaping religion, work, and today’s economy,' American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., Oct. 10, 2013.
Mary Eberstadt at a panel discussion, "The American family: How a ‘new normal’ is reshaping religion, work, and today’s economy," American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., Oct. 10, 2013. | American Enterprise Institute

The massive breakdown of marriage and family in the West, due in no small part to the sexual revolution, has given rise to identity politics and all its accompanying anger, says author Mary Eberstadt.

Although it is debated as to when exactly this revolution started, many believe that it took off, gained steam, and has continued to morph ever since the 1960s, a tumultuous decade marked by cultural upheaval. And in the intervening years its victims have been responding with howls of misery. But their gaping wounds and anguished cries have not been well understood and have largely gone unheard.

Fast forward to 2019, where scores of people, especially in younger generations such as the millennials, are detached from a strong sense of self and now frantically chase after all kinds of identities and join ideological tribes in pursuit of validation, often reacting with fury against any perceived threat to their social group.

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Such is the argument set forth in Eberstadt's latest book Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. The novelist and essayist, who is a senior research fellow with the Faith & Reason Institute, explains that few people have realized just how powerful the sexual revolution would become and how it would transform seemingly every sphere of human life.

"Sixty years into this vast social experiment we are seeing developments that no one ever anticipated," Eberstadt said in a recent episode of The Christian Post podcast.

Decades of hammering away not just at the nuclear family unit but also at the extended family have yielded a world in which so much of life is consumed by the existential question "Who am I?" And this is a moment unlike any other in history, the author maintains.

Thus, Primal Screams provides a cogent, prophetic take on how and why it is that so many well-educated, materially well-off people — after all, this is mostly a Western political development  — do not seem to know who they are.

"We don't know who we are in many cases because identity is constructed relationally," Eberstadt asserted.

"Most people would answer that question 'Who am I?' by saying 'I'm a wife, I'm a mother, I'm a sister, I'm an aunt, et cetera.' Yet what we have to understand is that for a lot of people in our world, those answers are not easy to come by."

While the tendency for some is to consider devotees of identity politics as silly, coddled, self-consumed "snowflakes," Eberstadt maintains that the "scream" of identity politics is indeed real and that it should not be dismissed. That scream is borne of significant trauma.

"Identity politics is pre-politics. I think it's being driven by something primordial in all of us, which is the desire to know who we are, which is to say, who we are related to, who are the people we call our own, who has our backs," she offered, noting that the popularity of genetics research sites like 23andMe and is evidence of this profound yearning in people to know not only their national origin but the people to whom they are related.

"Our macro-politics have become a mania about identity because our micropolitics are no longer familial. This, above all, is what happened during the decades in which identity politics went from being a phrase in an obscure quasi-radical document to a way of being that has gone on to transform academia, law, media, culture and government," the author writes in an Aug 27 Quillette essay, which was adapted from Chapter 2 in the book, titled 'The Great Scattering.'

"Up until the middle of the twentieth century (and barring the frequent foreshortening of life by disease or nature) human expectations remained largely the same throughout the ages: that one would grow up to have children and a family; that parents and siblings and extended family would remain one’s primal community; and that, conversely, it was a tragedy not to be part of a family. The post-1960s order of sexual consumerism has upended every one of these expectations."

However, such sexual consumerism, fueled by the promise of liberation through unfettered recreational sex, has caused slavish social pathologies. Rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, general unhappiness and loneliness, have all skyrocketed in recent decades.

"To say that marriage is an ideal or a way of living for which we seem to be made is not to say it isn't problematic," Eberstadt told CP, when asked in a follow-up phone interview to respond to the issue some feminists raise about the problem of male violence, given that domestic abuse is often an impetus to break down the imperatives to form a family.

"I don't think there is anyone who has ever been married would say that there haven't been challenges, including extreme challenges like domestic violence for which I'm glad we have laws," she replied.

Yet what happens in a world where there is a lot less marriage proves much worse, she stressed.

"My view of marriage is probably like [Winston] Churchill's view of democracy. It's the worst alternative we have except for all the other ones," she said.

"It's a fallen world," she acknowledged, soberly. "And domestic violence, like racism, sexism, or any form of cruelty, is always to be deplored."

"I think domestic abusers should be in jail and we have laws to put them there. So if we can work together [with feminists and others] on better law enforcement for that kind of thing, I think that's a coalition a lot of people would be willing to join. But that doesn't make marriage intrinsically wrong. It means that marriage, like any institution, can be exploited and corrupted."

Despite the revolution's ravages, Christians should take heart, she believes.

Faithful churches now have an important opportunity, she explained in the CP podcast, and that is because they have had thousands of years of history in answering that pressing question: "Who am I?" Such history is bolstered by what churches naturally do by design, deliver people into a community of brothers and sisters.

For Christians, the answer to 'Who am I?' is 'I am a child of God,' a bedrock spiritual reality that can and should shake up the race toward the thin-on-substance collective identities of postmodern identity politics, she says.

"The sexual revolution has paradoxically increased the likelihood of sexual activity but I think it has decreased what the sexes know about each other by shrinking the family, which is the main Petri dish for how we learn about one another," Eberstadt elaborated.

"The trauma out there is real," she reiterated, "but it's being misdiagnosed in the secular world, which sees [the rage of identity politics] as coming from old grievances and abstractions."

The author mentioned that she frequently encounters many younger observant Christians who have come to Christ because they were in a broken place, young men and women intimately acquainted with the pain from sexual chaos and family breakdown.

These are people "who knew something was wrong and wanted something different," and who also do not resonate with the view of human nature held out by the secular world "according to which we're just the sum of our appetites," she explained.

"It's important for Christians not to just have a circle-the-wagons mentality because this is a moment for reaching out," she emphasized.

Eberstadt recently met an Ivy League university student who became a Christian in part because he could not stand the culture of political correctness on campus.

"People should have courage because for 60 years now traditionalists have been told that they are on the losing side of the culture wars, they're on the wrong side of history," she continued.

"But if you look back to the 1960s and you ask who prophesied what the future would look like, it wasn't the progressives of that time. It wasn't the liberationists of that time. The people who said, 'Look, some really bad stuff is going to happen to humanity if we go down this road of recreational sex,' those are the people whose predictions have held up."

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