Making the Perfect the Enemy of Humanity

As I write this, people are debating whether or not it’s okay to have “genital preferences” when it comes to sex.

Suppose you’re attracted to women, but you don’t want a girlfriend with a penis. Is that wrong? Does it make you transphobic? Wouldn’t it be better–more loving, more egalitarian–if people could get past these crude linkages between sex and gender and anatomy?

Better, perhaps. But possible?

I understand the sentiment. I think it would be better, in some ideal sense, if we were all highly fluid, even numinous, in our sexual tastes. That’s how I’d like to be: open to the beauty in every human body, sensitive to the spiritual interplay of sex, turned on by touch and attention and tenderness, attracted by the singular alchemy of soul and substance that animates each unique individual.

Wouldn’t it be excellent if we could decouple the good parts of sex–the sweet sensations, the sympathetic communion, the cleansing exercise–from the gross old baggage of anxiety and jealousy and disgust? Sex would be better in a world where people felt that way. Life would be better in a world where people felt that way.

But that’s not how most people feel. I’m not sure that’s how anyone feels. So asking whether it’s wrong to fall short of this ideal seems to me about as useful as asking whether it’s wrong to feel anger, or struggle with addiction, or think stupid thoughts. We all have those problems. We’d probably be happier if we didn’t. The question isn’t one of right and wrong. The question is how to cope.

I’m usually suspicious when people compare progressivism to religion. But old-school Christians and cutting-edge wokists do seem to fall into a lot of the same traps. When I was going to church, we were told that all mortals were inherently sinful, and that therefore we should treat our fellow humans with humility and compassion and focus on finding personal redemption through loving communion with God. Which doesn’t sound like such a bad message.

But somehow, when you look at the way Christianity is actually practiced, that message gets twisted, over and over and over, into the idea that all mortals are inherently sinful, and that sin must be purged through punishment, and that therefore anyone is susceptible to being punished at any time, and that the best defense against the arbitrary infliction of torment is to make darn well sure that you’re the one doing the punishing.

I see something similar happening with this genital-preference debate. How is it that what starts as an aspirational ideal–let us try to be free of hate, let us strive to overcome fear, let us work to be universally welcoming–degenerates so easily into a punitive standard?

Is the temptation to punish others so irresistible that higher ideals inevitably end up serving as a convenient excuse for cruelty? You say we’re all sinners, all prone to greed and selfishness, that we all have biases and sexual hangups? Fantastic! This means I can wage all-out reputational warfare against anyone I want! Thanks for the rhetorical ammo, Jesus.

Is it that higher ideals make people who aspire to them feel frustrated and inadequate, and the only way to assuage those feelings is to go on the attack against others? I really wanted to get over my hangups. I tried so hard. And I failed! What does this say about me? What if people find out? Am I fraud, a phony? Or is it … hmm … is it someone else’s fault? Yes, that must be it. I wouldn’t have gone astray myself if I weren’t living in a wicked world. The sinners have to be brought in line if the rest of us are to be redeemed …

Or is it that social sorting ends up reinforcing the connection between idealism and fanaticism, through a kind of 1-9-90 principle? At the beginning of the process, people come together around shared values. Voluntary communities form. But over time, a few crazed fanatics start jockeying for power and hogging all the attention. Those fanatics end up competing for the allegiance of a small but cohort of devoted followers. They pick fights over doctrine and wage sectarian warfare. They get absorbed in personal vendettas, denouncing enemies in the name of the cause. They give the ideals they supposedly stand for a bad name. Meanwhile, most believers, the laity of the movement, sit back and watch with a mix of dismay, disgust, and bemusement, or simply drift away. The original ideals are fine–they’re not the problem. The problem is that the ideals helped to bring together a large group of people, at which point problems of social organization kicked in, concentrating power in the hands of a few attention-hungry maniacs.

Whatever the case, these visions of perfection, inspiring as they are, always seem to become, over time, the enemies of humanity. Is there any way for large groups of people to rally around a conception of The Good without using it as a cudgel to beat up The Not Quite So Good?

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