How getting love wrong leads to culture wars…
Humpty Dumpty is alive and well in contemporary culture. His view of language has escaped the pages of Alice in Wonderland and shapes the most important debates of our day. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
We “live in an age where Christians need to think clearly.” And “clear thinking depends upon precise categories and distinctions.” Building on these assumptions, history professor Carl Trueman has written a series of short blog posts about the shifting meaning of the very important word “love.”
Love has become detached from “any prior notion of virtue.” It has been reduced “to emotional and sexual self-fulfillment.”
A moment’s reflection, of course, reveals that a change in the definition of love requires a change in the definition of its antonym, hate. Thus, if love is rooted in self-realization, then hate is anything which prevents this. Hence critics of the revolution are by definition those who hate, however moderately they express their dissents.
To this we should add a point I have noted before: Oppression is now a highly psychologized category. Put bluntly, it is not about hurting bodies or bank balances. It is about hurting feelings. Once the preserve of the post-Marcuse New Left, this view has gradually gained general social acceptance. And thanks to the influence of Freud refracted through Marcuse, political oppression has come to be closely associated with sexual repression.
The final piece of the puzzle is provided by the way sexuality has been made fundamental to identity. Again, this is an obvious legacy of Marcuse and company and one with great practical significance for the public square. For in contemporary Western society, once something is a matter of identity, it often has the privilege of functioning as a legal category. Thus, the civic debate about sexuality has shifted from the ballot box to the civil courts, and the rhetoric of individual liberty has been exchanged for that of civil rights.
As a self-proclaimed persecuted minority, the sexual revolutionaries enjoy the greatest unchecked privilege of our time, that of identity victimhood, with a monopoly on the positive language of love and freedom. That gives them the uncritical sympathy of the news media. At the click of a mouse and at no personal risk or cost they are then able to raise a #PitchforkWieldingMob to intimidate any opposition into silence. And, as always, there are those whose conveniently confected outrage makes them happy to administer the coup de grace: The pinkie-to-the-wind politicians and those principled champions of the people, the corporate CEOs who are happy to do business with the humanitarian House of Saud while courageously calling out the mutaween [religious police] of Indiana.
In short, these lobby groups have shifted the categories of discourse and changed the rules of practical public engagement on the issue of sexual ethics in a way that preempts any and all deviation from the party line. For such totalitarian ideologues, there can be no common ground upon which to build a compromise with critics. Thus, it does not matter how moderately we word our arguments against the sexual revolution. To disagree is to indulge in hate speech, to oppress the weak, and to recapitulate the sins of Southern segregationists.
Dr. Trueman’s observations warrant careful reflection. Even though he doesn’t make this point, the shifting meaning of important words like “love” signals more than a mere shift in culture. It is more foundational, more fundamental—it signals a shift in civilization.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. The quote above is from his First Things post, “Love and Hate in a Foreign Country.” “A Protestant’s Passion for the Virtues of Thomas” and “When Pastoral Language Becomes Political Rhetoric” are also available at First Things.