Why I will always stand up for permissiveness
The liberal commentators now deifying Mary Whitehouse are wrong to blame Sixties experimentation for contemporary decadence.
It is difficult to uphold genuinely liberal values these days. So when the British broadcaster Joan Bakewell, a former symbol of the open-minded 1960s, hinted recently that the illiberal moral entrepreneur Mary Whitehouse had been right all along to criticise sexual permissiveness, before you knew it there was a veritable mea culpa across the media.
There has been a retrospective deification of Mary Whitehouse, the late Christian campaigner for the censorship of sex, swear words and ‘vulgarity’ on British TV, by numerous media commentators who now argue that, yes, we did push permissiveness too far. This deification reflects the moral disorientation of our times. At a time when society finds it hard to engage with complex existential issues, it becomes increasingly difficult to be truly liberal, open-minded and tolerant.
The affirmation of free speech and civil liberties, at least in any consistent fashion, is far weaker today than at any time since the 1950s. We live in a world where seven- to eight-year-old children are condemned for ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour’ and where there’s barely a murmur of protest when serious criminal cases are tried without juries. The curbing of freedom is frequently justified on the grounds that we have to protect children from abuse or civilians from terrorists. In such circumstances, it’s not surprising that many politicians and commentators claim that some of the more destructive and disturbing features of Britain’s moral landscape are the result of people having ‘too much freedom’.
Freedom and tolerance
As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, the word permissive means being tolerant and not forbidding or hindering people. The OED says a ‘permissive society’ is one ‘characterised by tolerance and liberal attitudes towards sexual behaviour, drug use, etc’. Permissiveness is underwritten by a belief that human beings are sufficiently mature to be trusted with making choices about how to live their lives. The affirmation of permissiveness does not imply that when people exercise their freedoms they will necessarily make the right choices – it merely upholds the right to make choices, while recognising that individuals should be prepared to live with the consequences of their actions.
In the 1960s, as today, people found it difficult to reconcile their personal moral commitment to permissiveness with being genuinely tolerant towards the behaviour of others. Former home secretary Roy Jenkins, the author of the so-called ‘permissive society’, was a rare political leader, in that he combined a distinct moral standpoint with a consistent liberal attitude towards other people’s behaviour. As he told my friend Mick Hume in an interview in the mid-Nineties, when he supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality or the legalisation of abortion he was principally motivated by the ideal of tolerance towards others. Jenkins told Hume that he was just as opposed to the banning of foxhunting as he was to the criminalisation of abortion. His opposition to such legal impediments was not motivated by any love of hunting or interest in terminating pregnancies, but by his commitment to removing legal obstacles to the exercise of choice.
Jenkins believed that his liberal reforms were a precondition for establishing what he called a ‘civilised society’. His use of the word civilised was underpinned by a belief that tolerance helps to cultivate the kind of climate in which morally autonomous people can make responsible choices. Liberals support the right to choose because they believe that it is only through having to make choices that people gain the maturity that is needed to conduct their private and public affairs. This was the central point made by the German liberal philosopher Immanuel Kant in his essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’. ‘Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without guidance from others’, he wrote. Individual maturity can only be developed if society is sufficiently permissive to allow people to make choices in line with their ‘own understanding’. And, for better or worse, the permissiveness of the Sixties provided some unprecedented opportunities for the flourishing of individual freedom.
The Sixties: choice without meaning
Of course the Sixties were not simply an era of enlightenment. This was a period of cultural and social experimentation, where many chose to conform to the imperatives of popular culture rather than accept the challenge of working out how best to exercise their freedoms. But if there was a problem in the Sixties, it was not that there was ‘too much’ permissiveness – it was the difficulty people had in giving meaning to the choices they made.
Permissiveness is often misinterpreted as a disavowal of moral values. This is wrong. Permissiveness should not be confused with acquiescence to the values and behaviour of other people that one happens to tolerate. Upholding freedom does not mean always supporting how people exercise their freedom. The pursuit of sexual freedom and experimentation in particular can have varying consequences. It can lead to a view of sex as a pleasurable experience that can be enjoyed in its own right, or as way of forging intimate connections, or as a prelude to procreation. But alternatively, sexual freedom can end up encouraging some people to live their lives in an estranged way, through pornography or fetishised forms of physical contact.
Joan Bakewell and others now argue that the permissiveness they once supported has given rise to today’s culture of pornography, casual nudity and vulgar sexual language – and thus they look back longingly at Mary Whitehouse’s efforts in the 1950s and 60s to nip permissiveness in the bud. But whatever you think of the consequences of the experimentation of the 1960s, it was not that decade’s new freedoms or liberal attitudes towards sex which normalised pornography or gave rise to the ‘sexualisation of everything’ in the contemporary era. Blaming tolerance and freedom for today’s pornographication confuses having choice – which is a good thing – with the cultural and social forces that foster a climate in which far too many of us make the wrong choices – which is a bad thing. Mary Whitehouse was wrong, not because of her archaic views and sentiments, but because her nannying instincts infantalised people, treating them as immature children who could not possibly be allowed the freedom to make choices and to live with the consequences of those choices.
Confusing experimentation with decadence
Those who believe that Whitehouse identified the right problems in her critique of the promotion of permissiveness make two fundamental errors. The first is the fallacy of chronological causation, a logic which assumes that contemporary problems are a direct consequence of what happened in the past. So today we live in a world where sex is often performed and promoted as a grotesque caricature of itself and where people rightly feel that things have ‘gone too far’. We also know that the culture of the 1960s helped to break sex out of its conventional norms. From these basic facts, some commentators wrongly draw a direct connection between the two periods, arriving at the conclusion that the permissiveness of the Sixties has inexorably led to the sexualisation of everyday life today. However, as anyone familiar with the Victorian era understands, you do not need a climate of sexual freedom in order for pornography to flourish.
Secondly, the emerging media consensus that Whitehouse Was Right confuses experimentation with decadence. The sexual experimentation of the 1960s was about kicking down doors (which were largely already open, as it happens), acquiring new experiences, and removing stigma from the enjoyment of pleasure. Probably its most important driving force was the aspiration to forge a new, more fluid kind of human relationship. Invariably, however, people found it easier to undermine traditional values and practices than to construct new ones that might offer meaningful guidance. In those circumstances, experimentation soon gave way to disappointment, even demoralisation.
But the excesses of the 1960s should not be confused with the decadence that dominates contemporary culture. The problem today is not sexual experimentation, but the tendency to alienate the act of sex from an actual relationship, and to recast it in a commodified and pornographic form. In a world where masturbation has been rebranded as ‘solo sex’, sex need not even be conceptualised as a relationship at all (unless people believe they can have a ‘relationship’ with their right hand).
It is not tolerance and permissiveness that have led to society’s obsessive attitude towards sex, but rather powerful cultural influences that trivialise human relationships, encourage people not to take passion and love seriously, and most importantly of all counsel us against making moral judgments about the behaviour of others. Sadly, the ideal of being ‘non-judgmental’ allows far too many people to evade their responsibilities for making judgment calls about different aspects of their lives. Hiding behind morally illiterate ideals of being ‘non-judgmental’, ‘inclusive’ or ‘diverse’ has fostered a climate where far too many people can dodge the burden of authority for their own choices. Why? Because if we’re discouraged from being ‘judgemental’, and lectured that there are no ‘right answers’ or ‘right relationship, then the exercise of choice becomes pointless. And yet if choices are deprived of moral meaning in this way, because no choice is any better than another, then we become disenchanted from exercising our freedom.
So contrary to what the new pro-Mary Whitehouse lobby believes, the problem is not that we have too much 1960s-style sexual freedom – it is our reluctance to assume responsibility for exercising our freedoms. And this strategy of belatedly clinging on to Mary Whitehouse’s coat-tails is simply another way of avoiding this responsibility.
Brendan O’Neill argued that unfettered freedom is the basis of the good society. Josie Appleton explained why the freedom of civil society is more important than ever. Neil Davenport called Ofcom, Mary Whitehouse in liberal attire. Mick Hume observed a rights kerfuffle. After the Convention on Modern Liberty, Tim Black asked what next for freedom? in 2004, Frank Furedi attacked Tony Blair for scapegoating the Sixties for the Western Elite’s own problems. And writing for LM in 1999, Jennie Bristow explained why contemporary ‘playful’ sexuality expresses a fear of other people. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.