The Death Of Self-Restraint
Daniel Henninger, The Wall Street Journal
The Harvey Weinstein sexual-harassment fire burns on, consuming famous men. Corporations and institutions are on automated rapid response: proclaim zero tolerance and throw offenders into the street, while directing human-resources departments to design fine-grained standards of acceptable behavior.
It would be a comfort to think that HR specialists could solve this problem, but what has gone wrong runs deeper than calling in the lawyers. A question persists: How did this happen?
How have so many intelligent, accomplished adult men crashed across the boundaries of sex? Psychiatric explanations—reducing cause to a uniquely individual neurosis—are insufficient. This isn’t just “really weird stuff.”
Some may have a distant memory of the culture wars of the 1990s. This looks like a moment to revisit some of its battlefields.
Incidents of sexual abuse on this scale don’t randomly erupt. They grow from the complex climate of a nation’s culture. These guys aren’t blips or outliers. These men are a product of their times.
Their acts reveal a collapse of self-restraint. That in turn suggests a broader evaporation of conscience, the sense that doing something is wrong. We are seeing now how wrongs can hurt others when conscience is demoted as a civilizing instrument of personal behavior.
Intellectuals have played a big role in shaping arguments for loosening the traditions of self-restraint in the realm, as they would say, of eros. In Oscar Wilde’s quip, “There is no sin except stupidity.”
There are in fact intellectuals who have watched these sexual passages with alarm and described how they were putting us on dangerous ground.
The definitive critical history of this moral transition is Rochelle Gurstein’s 1996 book, “The Repeal of Reticence.” Ms. Gurstein describes how “the sense of the sacred and the shameful” gradually declined across the 20th century as writers and artists rejected former ways of thinking about personal propriety or reticent behavior.
“They demanded,” she writes, “that the traditional union of moral and aesthetic judgment be dissolved; the functions of the body needed to be considered apart from the values of love, fidelity, chastity, modesty or shame.” The result, she says, was a culture’s slow but steady estrangement “from any coherent moral tradition.” [Subscription required.]