The left-wing iconoclast Fredrik de Boer has a piece in the Observer contesting the conventional wisdom that social liberalism has won the culture wars in America. Citing the public’s widespread sense of amusement or indifference toward the hacking of Ashley Madison (a dating site for adults looking to have affairs whose users’ identities were exposed), de Boer argues that the culture remains overly moralistic and judgmental. He concedes that social conservatism is in decline, but doesn’t like what’s taking its place:
That social conservatism has lost seems inarguable… And yet I can’t help but feel that social liberalism hasn’t exactly won, either. Once, a central pillar of progressive attitudes towards love and sex was the right to be left alone, the right to have privacy, the right to undertake adult behaviors that others might not agree with but which nevertheless must remain permissible. That version of social liberalism—the one associated with tolerance and personal freedom—seems almost as dead as the religious traditionalism that we’re so eager to discard.
De Boer is clearly on to something here. The type of cultural politics currently ascendant on the left is not just about “the right to be left alone” when it comes to sex and romance. It’s far more complicated—and internally contradictory—than that. The new social liberalism is “at once radical and profoundly conservative”—a distinctive mix of cultural libertarianism on the one hand and cultural Victorianism on the other.
Consider, for example, the “Yes Means Yes” rules for campus sex currently spreading across the country with the blessing of such elite liberal cultural arbiters as the New York Times editorial page. The rules are born out of the progressive impulse to fight misogyny and protect sexual autonomy, but have the effect of giving authorities unprecedented leeway to regulate peoples’ romantic lives. As we’ve written before, “Yes Means Yes” (and the campus rape crackdown in general) is best understood as an effort to mitigate some of the unintended consequences of the sexual revolution—to impose formal restrictions on casual campus sex at a time when the cultural taboos against it have been swept aside.
Or consider the culture war skirmish prompted by an activist group’s video showing a woman being catcalled as she walked along the streets of New York City last year. The controversy led progressives to argue that the government needed to take aggressive measures against the offending men (most of whom appeared to be poor or working class), which is yet another example of social liberalism meaning something quite different from “letting adults express themselves as they please so long as it is within the law.” Of course, “improving” the behavior of lower-class urban men, and protecting supposedly fragile women from unwanted encounters, were important Victorian projects in the 19th century as well.
In other words, the type of social liberalism that won the culture wars has a different flavor from the libertarian, live-and-let-live movement de Boer identifies with—but it isn’t conservative, either. It’s about expanding personal expression in some domains but sharply restricting it in others.
Conservatives generally doesn’t see much to like in the new social liberalism. They have argued that it is too heavy-handed, too authoritarian, and too prone to violating the civil rights of people who get in its way. But maybe they should look on the bright side: the Victorian quality of today’s liberalism means that the taboo against marital infidelity is still standing—and Ashley Madison users aren’t getting too much sympathy from our cultural elites.