Acting wrongly

Daniel Henninger:

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.”

In his compelling history of pre-World War I Europe, “Rites of Spring,” the Canadian cultural historian Modris Eksteins similarly describes the emerging ethos: “Social and moral absolutes were thrown overboard, and art, or the aesthetic sense, became the issue of supreme importance because it would lead to freedom.”

After all these years, this debate seems old hat. Just now, though, it looks rather new hat.

One thing that happened gradually is sophisticated people simply refused to be shocked.

Just two years ago, the Metropolitan Opera staged Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” whose final act was described accurately to this audience member by the Huffington Post: “The Venetian palazzo in Act 3 is a model of debauchery with those same girls wearing next to nothing and who could double as pole dancers. An orgy of simulated sex is in progress.”

There was a time, not that long ago, when something like this would have caused a minor public stir. Not anymore. Today, no one reacts or even much cares.

So when one asks how these men could behave so boorishly and monstrously, one answer is that they . . . have . . . no . . . shame. They lived in a culture that had eliminated shame and behavioral boundaries.

Is there a road back from Weinsteinism? Once a society has crossed a Rubicon like this, can you ever cross back over? The possibility of return is not at all clear.

One of the intriguing stories of this season is how the Washington Metro system is banning ads on buses from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington that show shepherds on a hill beside the message, “Find the perfect gift.” The Metro says this violates its ban on promoting religion or religious belief.

During the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s, one question raised was whether religious belief deserved standing in public debates about the shape and direction of contemporary American culture. Because the case for belief was carried then by the “religious right,” secularists resisted, and still do.

In a recent homily I heard, a priest suggested that one of the purposes of confession wasn’t just to admit sin but to learn conscience. Maybe it’s time to ask if the long period of freedom from organized conscience formation simply isn’t working.

The reason to reopen this debate isn’t merely so that dissenters from the current culture can say they were right. It looks like we’re pretty far beyond either side winning this argument. The reason to reconsider is that otherwise, the evident shock at these stories of abuse, or any progress toward a better sexual modus vivendi, will wash out to sea.

Unless the critics of the current culture get a good-faith hearing, the forces that led to Harvey Weinstein and the others are going to win.

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