Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical left and Islamic terrorism.
56% of younger millennials identify as Christian, 2% as Jewish or Muslim, and 1% as Buddhist. Another 36% identify as nothing. That’s double the number of “nones” among baby boomers. Being a “none” often means having no sense of purpose, except to seek personal happiness and make the world a better place by recycling, opposing Trump and calling out racism. It also means a moral code based on an academic analysis of power relationships between races, genders and sexual orientations.
An editor at _The Atlantic_ writes of girls educated by the mores of the fifties being “strong in a way that so many modern girls are weak”. They were taught “over and over again that if a man tried to push you into anything you didn’t want, even just a kiss, you told him flat out you weren’t doing it. If he kept going, you got away from him… They told you to do whatever it took to stop him from using your body in any way you didn’t want, and under no circumstances to go down without a fight.“
The conclusion appends the modern metric of consent to another era. But the girls of that era weren’t taught to fight hard over consent. It’s not that they didn’t believe in consent. That was taken for granted. But they also believed in more than just consent.
Consent is a legal formality, not a moral purpose. We consent to things we don’t want to all the time. Often it’s because we make bad decisions. Consent is not a permanent state of being. It’s a quantum state. The decision I made yesterday looks much worse when I see its consequences today. Legal agreements can bind me to the car I bought on a whim yesterday, but no legal agreement binds the emotions of sexual consent.
The retroactive withdrawal of consent is one of the more controversial topics of the consent debate. Can consent be withdrawn retroactively? What if new information emerges? Is consent formalized over an extended period or is it a momentary event? That’s not how the law works, but it is often how the human mind operates. And we hold people accountable to the law, not to the complexities of the human psyche.
Consent is legally significant, but psychologically meaningless. I know that I will regret tomorrow the beers that I drink today. I did buy 300 lottery tickets, but that was only because I thought I would win. The true opposite of consent isn’t refusal, it’s apathy. We don’t make that many conscious decisions. Mostly we go with the flow.
That is what can make consent so ambiguous. The recent Aziz Ansari case, like so many others, didn’t emerge from a crucial refusal, but from a protagonist who was somewhat unwilling, but not truly conscious of her unwillingness. This general unconsciousness is how we often go through our days. We stumble into decisions without thinking about them. And only later do we realize how much they mattered.
Previous generations understood that our decisions, our whims and consents, had to be ordered by a larger purpose. But the millennial “nones” are the least likely to understand that. And without that purpose, there are only states governed by the emotions of the moment, hope, desire, disappointment, betrayal, loneliness, that are incomprehensible in any other state. Pain, joy, hunger, love and anger exist in the moment. They can be recollected, but the way that they drive us when we feel them cannot be duplicated in another moment. The decision we make under the impetus of one emotion can be swiftly negated by experiencing another emotion.
The history of human civilization is built on societies ordering the various states of human emotions to a higher purpose. That is one of the fundamental gifts of religion. Philosophers across thousands of years sought answers and offered solutions. And then in the last few generations, we tossed them all on the rubbish heap and exchanged them for Marxist pottage.
Macroscopic analyses of class, gender and race have replaced individual meaning. Millennial nones know that they should never vote Republican, but they have no idea how to make personal choices that reflect who they want to be, rather than what they feel right now.
The mixture of Marxist macro-analysis and Freudian psychobabble that defined the age has left them with the conclusion that their gender, class and racial categories have shaped them on a subconscious level. The left has told them that don’t make choices; instead they have power relationships that reflect their innate privilege.
These ideas have gifted them with the retroactive victimhood and preemptive guilt of people who don’t really make their decisions, but are ready to apologize for or rage over the inevitable outcomes of the power relationships that define their lives. That’s the difference between the ambiguous apologies of millennial celebrities like James Franco and Aziz Ansari, and the older boomer stars who clearly deny or admit their guilt.
Millennial male nones live in a world where their gendered guilt exists as a permanent blot that indicts them even as it frees them to misbehave. The impersonal guilt assigned to them by the power relationship of their identity robs them of purpose. All they have are the original sins of identity politics to check, call out, and be damned by.
The lack of purpose makes all human relationships casual. But the casual ethics of two people passing on the street are insufficient for more important relationships. And yet the more serious the relationship, the less postmodern ethics are up to its task.
Religious people or those with a conscious philosophy of life are quite capable of wrongdoing. But they also have an awareness of what they are doing wrong. The “nones” often don’t become aware of a moral component to their actions until they experience suffering. Robbed of a meaningful philosophy, they experience only the breaches of it, the way that children raised badly only learn through pain.
Consent tells them that they have the power to decide. But they have no basis for making their decisions. The abstract idea of consent has little to do with why people actually consent.
Reducing sexuality to the transactional ethics of consent satisfies legal, but not human requirements. It’s a recipe for retrospective anger and pain. The ethics of consent don’t make us better people. They reduce us to the barest and most exploitative ethics. And then they negotiate whether wrongdoing occurred within the narrow legal parameters of consent or the wider ones of intersectional privilege.
But morality goes beyond consent. Its ethics go beyond legality. It asks that we do more than just get the customer’s signature on the dotted line for the overpriced junkheap we’re selling him. Consent as the core of modern sexual ethics is Crowley’s Do What Thou Wilt modified with, As Long As Maybe They Wilt It Too. But truly moral and ethical people don’t ask or offer certain things. They don’t condition the rightness of their actions on momentary reciprocal feelings, but on their own values.
Consent sets feelings against law. Then it asks the law to encompass the mutability and ambiguity of emotions. And the only way to do that is to remove any possible defense of legal consent. The law superseding morality, only to then be superseded by emotion, is a capsule history of the militant left which begins with abstract codes and theories, and then replaces them with the violent whims of outrage.
The debate over consent is only one of the many ways that this upends our societies.
The left doesn’t believe that consent is absolute. It bases the degree of consent on the extent to which an individual has been educated about his privilege and the level of his oppression. It follows then that lefties and the oppressed should have the lowest rates of sexual assault.
But the opposite is true.
The #MeToo movement has mostly entangled lefties who pursued consent in predatory fashion. And they did so by creating an environment in which consent could be obtained with sufficient pressure. But what can be obtained with sufficient pressure can also be withdrawn with sufficient pressure. And in the absence of meaningful relationships, all that remains is the power struggle of pressure against pressure.
A moral society asks us to treat people, not based on what we want them to consent to, or even what they want, but as the principles of a higher being would want us to.
“We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion,” John Adams warned.
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,” Benjamin Franklin cautioned more simply.
These aren’t abstractions to be measured on the vast scale of civilizations. They define how we live our ordinary lives. They are why this debate is taking place.
Free people consent. But freedom comes from virtue. Freedom without virtue ends in brutality and tyranny. That outcome isn’t only expressed in riots in the streets. It emerges in smaller and more intimate matters, like the debate over consent.
The left wants to replace consent with the brutality of online smear campaigns and the tyranny of campus kangaroo courts. Its identity politics teach that we are either perpetrators or victims. But we are neither of those things. We are human beings.
The politics of the left reward bad choices by teaching learned helplessness. Its creed is the impotence of the victim and the perpetrator. Good choices come from what the left denies its victims: purpose. Consent without purpose is not a choice. It’s an erratic impulse that can vanish just as swiftly.
We don’t truly have freedom of consent until we have purpose. Consent is not meaningful. Choice is. And to truly choose, you have to know who you are.