Michel Foucault, the first public intellectual in France to die of AIDS, was arguably the most innovative and influential thinker of the Sexual Revolution. As the left-leaning The Guardian put it, Foucault’s ‘work explored the ways in which modern societies imposed various forms of intellectual and physical control on their citizens, ranging from dominant norms and coercive state controls to medical and sexual practices.’
In his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, Foucault applied Jeremy Bentham’s idea of a ‘panopticon’ (an efficient surveillance structure in prison) as a symbol of a disciplinary society’s exercise of power for surveillance and behavior management – the sort described in George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Foucault catalogued the intrusive modern state and its abuse of power not just through sovereign political power but also through what it deemed ‘normal,’ as if what was normal was thereby moral.
This notion of normativity, Foucault stressed, was a mode of oppression.
Foucault’s conceptual framework is key to Judith Butler’s concept of gender identity. Gender identity (and gender expression) employ Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of gender, the social conventions associated with sex, but give them an ontological sense previously lacking.
For Butler, binary normativity in sex is an expression of power, but so for that matter is the idea of binary notions of gender.
There was of course an obstacle to this ontologizing; asserting the reality of gender necessitates denying the reality of natural sex. For most people, the choice would be easy. We will deny the reality of gender, which cannot be observed, in favour of sex, which can.
But it is precisely the fact that gender cannot be seen, and can only be self-identified which makes it a perfect vehicle for the absolute freedom of the individual from sex. It just so happens to coincide with the absolute tyranny of the state in insisting that it be held to be valid.
The ontological sense of gender identity and expression are now being adopted as human rights to be defended throughout the Western world. And the oppression of dissidents has now begun.
It took fifty years to get where we are now.
Since the Sexual Revolution, the citizens of the Western world have steadily removed legislation related to Christian sexual ethics. For its critics, they were oppressive; for its defenders, they were ineffective. In the wake of the activities of the Sexual Revolutionaries, the popular expression of resignation emerged: ‘you can’t legislate morality’.
As its best Canadian apologist, Pierre Elliott Trudeau famously put it in 1967, ‘there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.’ Trudeau’s genius, which led him to decriminalize sodomy and loosen restrictions on abortion in an Omnibus Bill, lay in connecting the conservatives’ sense of resignation that morality ‘can’t be legislated’ with the progressives’ sense that the state was far too harsh, intrusive and prudish.
Laws relaxing norms around sexuality would force the state to ‘butt out.’
Removing Christian sexual ethics in favour of a less normative, more neutral position, was thus presented as the path to greater individual liberty.
Is Neutering a Neutral Act?
The truth, however, is that is impossible to be legislatively neutral.
Inherent in every law is some idea of the good that it seeks to promote or preserve. No governing authority, furthermore, can be understood to be morally neutral. If it were, it would claim no good and there would be no reason to follow it outside the threat of its coercive power.
Without promoting some good, authority is indistinguishable from tyranny, being above the corrections of rational objection and appealing purely to power.
Pure neutrality could not be the foundation of a civil society.
But Trudeau did appeal to a sense of the good, the good of human freedom liberated from the Christian sexual ethics woven into English common law. And he claimed that his legislation only applied to the private realm. [Whatever Trudeau’s intent was, legislation would not remain in the private realm for long]
Sexual liberation vs individual freedoms
Conservatives will regularly note the fact that the good promoted by the Sexual Revolutionaries has been nothing like as advertised. It has allowed for abortion on demand, a practice even rejected by doctors in the ancient world (as is evident in the original Hippocratic oath), and it has encouraged both the dissolution of the family and the widespread sexual exploitation of the most vulnerable.
No one suffers more from this than the political identity groups that vote for progressive parties.
As the recent cases of Harvey Weinstein and politicians ranging from former U.S. President Bill Clinton to current President Donald Trump make clear, there is a growing sense across party political lines that the good of the Sexual Revolution in these areas isn’t so good after all. Removing the norms of Christian sexual ethics seems to have enhanced abuse.
More troubling still however is the way in which the historic freedoms enjoyed in the West, woven into the common law tradition, are also being sacrificed in the neutering of progressive legislators.
What is abundantly clear is that the original premise that ‘you can’t legislate morality’ could not be more erroneous.
It is plainly impossible not to legislate morality. The question is which vision of morality will be enforced and by what sort of government?
Bill C-16, which added gender expression and gender identity as protected grounds to the Canadian Human Rights Act, and also added provisions dealing with hate propaganda, incitement to genocide, and aggravating factors in sentencing to the Criminal Code is yet another bill that claims to be an extension of the logic of the Sexual Revolution, i.e. it maximizes individual freedom.
What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that it promotes group rights at the expense of individual rights, that it is immune to rational scrutiny or criticism (thus tyrannous), and that it accordingly suspends everyone’s individual liberties.
The Panopticon State
Contrary to its original stated ambition of limiting the state and maximizing individual freedom, it is apparent that there is no realm in which the state will not involve itself.
This includes into the realm of academic freedom, upon which University of Toronto Professor Jordan B. Peterson made his dissent known. Peterson has stated before the Canadian Senate that he refuses to assent to using pronouns related to gender identity because he refused to use ‘compelled speech’ on a point of principle.
Is there any room for people of principle in tolerant Canada?
It is starting to appear that there isn’t.
‘Lindsay Shepherd, a Wilfrid Laurier University graduate student and teaching assistant, landed in hot water with the university over a video clip, featuring controversial University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, she used in a critical thinking course. After receiving complaints, the university claimed she created a toxic environment. Shepherd had a meeting with faculty and administration, here are excerpts from the secretly recorded conversation.’