The Repression Delusion | Promethean Fire
Mary Harrington likes to circulate an interesting hashtag every so often. #NormaliseRepression is the battle cry of the just-turned-40 traditionalists who’ve realised they’ve got the responsibility of keeping their young kids on the straight and narrow for the rest of their lives. Apparently, the most intuitive response to this is not simply a matter of rigid moral instruction, or helicopter parenting, or sheltered private schools. To them, the only solution to the problem of debased, explicit living is an all out war on the mind itself.
On some level, I sympathise with their sentiment. There’s an increasing tendency to pursue “shock value” cultural content at the expense of actual creativity. The Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, for example, was a magnet for bored housewives and fantasy filled young people, despite its evident lack of literate value. Everyone these days is trying to push the envelope for no real reason besides a veneer of progressivity, and some elusive sense of “authenticity.” Consider the furry movement, which celebrates a sexual fetish based around dressing up as animals. Woe betide anyone who dares to point at this sort of behaviour and mock it in the slightest. Despite the fact that they’ve willingly displayed this to the wider world, you can be pilloried as a “kink shamer.” Similar taboos also exist, such as being called a “body shamer” for pointing out someone’s unhealthy body shape. Basically, like always, the millennials need to grow up, and to this extent I see what Mrs Harrington is getting at.
But to actively promote repression? Anyone with any rudimentary knowledge of human beings knows that this is merely playing with fire, setting the stage for even more destruction. Mrs Harrington readily admits herself that repressing desires only serves to “intensify libido.” She acknowledges BDSM’s rise in popularity as a response to the widespread message of egalitarianism today. She does understand that when you push a desire to the back of the mind, such as the drive for hierarchy. it manifests itself differently than anyone could foresee – in this instance, the tendency towards tight rope and leather. And yet her powers of analysis do not lead her to the most obvious conclusion one could draw. When you institute repression, you create guilt and longing simultaneously. The drives are bottled up and distorted, creating a volatile mind which seeks any opportunity to achieve fulfilment away from prying eyes. Repression on an individual scale creates a deviant ready to delve into the realm of crime. Repression on a societal level creates a fundamentally compromised and untrusting community.
My simple thesis is as follows. Our presumption should be one against repression. We need to be able to see just how messy human beings really are – both for their sake, and for our own. No amount of running away from truth will ever help us.
When Mrs Harrington says the following about porn, she nearly gets the point, but falls into what I describe as the trap of fear. I quote as follows: “Pornography should be brutally repressed because the aggregate function of pornography is as real-time visualisation tool for all the grossest antics of our collective id. A culture that makes space for unfettered expression of its collective id within ordinary public discourse is on track for a messy end.”
Let’s start on the first sentence. She’s completely correct to describe pornography as the best visualisation of today’s collective id. Indeed, Camille Paglia makes this point emphatically when she argues passionately for its very proliferation. As she puts it: “You discover what the taboos are in any culture by looking at pornography. It will tell you what is forbidden. The heat is in the violation of the taboo. All pornography contains social information.” In short, finding out today’s fetishes is the most efficient way to find out what’s eating people up inside – their self perceptions, how they see their place in society, what they feel is outside of their grasp.
Each and every explicit demonstration of drive is valuable information to all of us. Whatever people do and say and put online cannot be taken as acts in a vacuum. Those acts are unconscious signals to the wider world about people’s own pre-existing fixations, insecurities and frustrations. If a lot of people like to dress up like furry animals to have sex, this tells us that the underlying neurosis behind such behaviour is more widespread than we would expect. This is not a question of any “permissive society,” where the freedom to put on an animal costume automatically translates into wholesale adoption. Rather, these are useful indications as to the predispositions of people around us.
Take a sinister example which Mrs Harrington brings up herself in another recent article. Here, a young woman discovers her father’s search history to much distress. He had borrowed her iPad and left multiple browser requests for porn. What kind of porn? “Teen”, “Dad and Daughter”, and “Flat Teen Braces F***” convey the general area of interest. The woman cut contact off from her father, completely understandably. The shock and horror this individual must have experienced is evident. Mrs Harrington’s angle is just as you’d expect: that porn mandates “every taboo become searchable, so new buried ones must be found.” Here’s a question. What would have happened to that young woman if her father couldn’t watch that porn, and she could not have pre-emptively discerned the depths of her father’s objectification? Consider this angle: she was able to discover the truth. That browser history told her everything. She came face-to-face with the true understanding of who her father really was, and she could act accordingly. Is it better to go through life being around repressed people who have no real outlet, and so no early stage identification method, for their libidos? Or is it better to be able to tell who’s really who? The logical extension of repressing such erotica implicitly advocates the notion of the “beautiful lie” – which likely won’t end well.
It is not in anyone’s interest to stop this flow of data. Why wouldn’t you want to know about the mental states of people around you, from what they demonstrate? Let’s say your friend showed you his recent debit card purchases. You then notice that they just bought a bottle of Jack Daniels, a rope and some tranquilliser pills, maybe a gun. You might be concerned that they might want to top themselves. It would be perfectly reasonable to try talking them out of doing it. Like dressing up as a furry animal to have sex, buying Jack Daniels and rope and tranquilliser pills in combination is not inherently a concerning act. But you may question the underlying mental state which led them to that transaction in the first place. As concerned neighbours, we are obligated to look for clues, not disregard them. By desiring social repression, by calling for the explicit demonstration of drives to be subjugated, what Mrs Harrington is endorsing is the mandatory concealment of valuable, voluntarily surrendered details from all of us. Not very helpful.
Let me now tackle the second branch of her statement. She argues that a culture which allows for unfettered expression of the collective id just doesn’t end well. Here she falls into the trap of fear; an instinctive “get it away from me” reaction which precludes more reasoned analysis. It seems clear that unfettered expression of the collective id can never possibly exist in the first place. It is hard to imagine social convention being completely abolished. Even political correctness, which Mrs Harrington also dislikes, is a form of social convention which institutes its own version of linguistic and behavioural repression. Humans will always create methods of deciding “in-groups.” Even total disregard for convention can be interpreted as convention.
What we’re actually discussing here is a question of method rather than a question of degree. How many routes should be available for the individual to act on their impulses, given the existence of convention? This is where principles of localised risk come into play. Actions that affect others directly probably shouldn’t be allowed, given that the truth they convey to the rest of society is overshadowed by the harm done. This is why we ban torts, crimes and all other forms of wrong towards others. I can’t kill you in a fit of rage. People will know I have murderous tendencies, but at the cost of someone’s life. But what about actions that only affect the individual concerned, which localise risk? Like dressing up as an animal, or watching hardcore porn. Mrs Harrington wishes those banned as well. I disagree. I believe that the usefulness of such acts to the rest of us in the form of information completely outweighs the discomfort they may induce as well. Moreover, discomfort is useful in and of itself. After all, we learn best through subtraction rather than addition. It’s a good signalling mechanism for us to refrain from the act, or indeed from association with the person concerned.
Repression is not only misguided – it’s a recipe for disaster. I should be able to realise how weird you are. And you should be able to realise how weird I am. Desires are not created out of thin air; they are mapped onto tangible instances in the world. To hide this process is to deliberately distort our exercise of human association and virtue honing. Just like the young woman with the iPad, we need more information about the world around us, not less, in order to make real decisions about our lives.