I finally found time to read through Ross Douthat’s bizarre piece in Wednesday’s New York Times. The consequence of doing so was a sort of malaise resulting from recognition of the bankrupt state of intellectual culture and the realisation that those life minutes simply aren’t coming back.
Mr Douthat, the media avatar of what now passes for moderate Catholicism, has seen fit to take up the cudgels in defence of Alek Minassian and all the other “supreme gentlemen” who have responded the feminist repression rampant in modern society with acts of homicidal violence. Given the state of current media environment, it should hardly be surprising that the conservative agenda in response to Minassian’s driving a van into a group of complete strangers should be to shift the blame to where it belongs: those venomous harpies who refuse to allow their bodies to be used venues for the sexual gratification of whatever male feels so inclined.
In the particular case of Mr Douthat, the avenue to be taken is that modern conditions have created a sort of sexual disequilibrium. On its face that is a very odd position, and the true depths of its pernicious weirdness are signalled by opening of Douthat’s piece in which he writes, “One lesson to be drawn from recent Western history might be this: Sometimes the extremists and radicals and weirdos see the world more clearly than the respectable and moderate and sane.”
i’m gonna design sex robots with such advanced AI that they still reject incels
— i bless the rains down in Castamere (@Chinchillazllla) May 2, 2018
When uttered by someone with a modicum sense, such a sentiment can indicate a recognition that mainstream opinion can often fail to take account of the views of those who do not share its presuppositions. In Mr Douthat’s case, it signifies a willingness to entertain the idea that vaginas should be viewed in terms analogous to hundredweights of iron or quintals of wheat.
Mr Douthat begins by citing the work of Robin Hanson, an economist at that rookery for half-baked libertarianism that is George Mason University. “If we are concerned about the just distribution of property and money, why do we assume that the desire for some sort of sexual redistribution is inherently ridiculous.” At first blush, it is hard to know whether this is meant as a serious proposition or merely some sort of passive-aggressive attempt at payback against the collectivist left. Assuming it is the former, it simply beggars belief that neither Douthat nor Hanson seem to grasp the fundamental difference between property and sexual gratification.
This may, perhaps, be explained by the proclivity in neoliberal modes of thought to view every human capacity as a variety of capital. If one holds the view, as many conservatives do, that the individual is merely a pool of capital, and that the duty and purpose of the individual is the reproduction and augmentation of the self as capital, the view that intimacy is an element of said capital stock does not appear that farfetched.
Mr Douthat concedes that there is, strictly speaking, no right to sex. He then goes on to suggest that those burdened by being on the losing end of the distribution of sexual satisfaction will eventually systematically catered to by sex robots, virtual reality porn, and sex workers. The underlying thrust of his argument (so to speak) is that the spread of (and increasing acceptance of) these ersatz solutions is a depressing, yet somehow unavoidable future, to be arrived at via changed laws, new technologies, and “evolved” mores. “Whether sex workers and sex robots actually deliver real fulfilment is another matter. But that they will eventually be asked to do it, in service to a redistributive goal that for now seems creepy and misogynist or radical, feels pretty much inevitable.”
Let us try to parse the premises here. First, sex unequally distributed between the Chad Thundercocks and Stacys who horde it and poor benighted incels who are shut out. Second, the latter are shut out for some other reason than the preference of women for sex partners who aren’t repugnant to them. This amounts to an uncritical of the self-indulgent whingeing of the incel crowd. “We are nice people. If women refuse to have sex us it is because they are bitches, or prudes, or sluts” (the contradiction between these last two appellations is utterly ignored among even the most discerning incels). Third, the disinclination of women with regard to incels is grounded in modern feminism which prompts them to limit their sexual encounters to men that they actually find appealing or (horror of horrors) other women.
To be clear, the inaccessibility of sex is one of the most overblown myths in modern culture, and not simply due to the availability of prostitutes. As an acquaintance of mine pointed out, the existence of Tinder and other such technologies means that anyone capable of swiping and of resisting the temptation to detail their homicidal fantasies in their personal descriptions has de facto ready access to sexual intercourse. That this is insufficient to satisfy the needs of the incel crowd points to a deeper pathology. It is not merely that they can’t have sex, but rather that they are unable to coax women into the sorts of relationships of sexual and intellectual submission that their insufficiently restrained ids demand.
Here’s the deal: getting to fuck robots won’t make incels happy because their unhappiness isn’t rooted in lack of sex. It’s rooted in misogynist anger at not being able to control women.
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) May 2, 2018
For this, it is fair to say, feminism does bear some responsibility. Whereas in years past, women have been compelled by law, circumstance, and social mores to form connections with practically any man with a pulse and a paycheque, the expansion of economic opportunities and the dissemination of feminist ideas in society have cost men a degree of leverage. The bleating of the incels is a requiem for this dream and a remembrance of things past. That repeated choruses of song serve to gin up the aggression of those men who can’t adjust themselves is taken by people like Douthat as a melancholy comment on the deficiencies of Western society and another step along the path to ultimate moral collapse.
How odd it is to see people whose normal pose is the obsession with individual responsibility making concessions to incels, whose guiding premise is that their own deficiencies are invariably someone else’s fault. Yet this oddity is easily explained by the desire of the former to reconstitute the traditional social order of society in which men were men and women made do with whatever they could get.
The willingness of intellectuals like Douthat and Hanson to pen apologetics for incel misogynists (and murderers) is a pretty clear indication of the fundamental insolvency of modern intellectual culture. The desire to make excuses for rampant hatred of women is symptomatic of the persistence and radicalisation of patriarchy. One here recalls that Slavoj Žižek at points enjoins his readers to “love your symptom”. Sadly, this is a symptom that not even a philosopher could love.
Photograph courtesy of Ars Electronica. Published under a Creative Commons license.