Dehumanizing Victorians, Dehumanizing Ourselves

It has long been fashionable in American political discourse to denounce as “Puritanical” any viewpoint that on its face seems to limit human pleasure. If someone suggests that alcohol taxes be raised for example, the P word will usually be flung at him or her to induce shamed silence. Perhaps it is true that if you are going to be rude to another person, being ignorant at the same time doesn’t make things much worse, but nonetheless, consider the historical inaccuracy of the P word insult. As I have discussed before, the Puritans opposed prohibition of alcohol because they didn’t want to deny people the fun of drinking (They also celebrated mutual sexual pleasure as an essential part of marriage).

This painting can't be sexy because it's Victorian

This painting can’t be sexy because it’s Victorian

It’s not just the Puritans who endure the calumny of being inhuman pleasure-haters. Pity the Victorians.

“I have no problem with sex workers making a living in their chosen way. The only reason American cities aren’t full of streetwalkers is because of our sexually repressive Victorian culture”. So declared a cultural sophisticate at a swish cocktail party which your humble scribe attended. Having no wish to do her an injury, I did not point out that tens of thousands of prostitutes walked the streets of Victorian London. But my forbearance doesn’t make her historical comparison less naive.

Lest my plaint be interpreted as mere professorial pettifogging, let me make clear why I defend the humanity of The Puritans and Victorians. It’s not for them. They’ve joined the choir invisible and will therefore not be offended by the serried slanders of what Chesterton called the arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. My concern is with the living.

When someone tries to silence a living person, for example by calling a feminist who objects to violent pornography a “sex-hating Puritan”, they are committing a sin not just against history but against humanity. Just as the accuser is degrading the past, they are also degrading the present. A Puritan then and an anti-porn feminist today could like sex just fine, because human beings rarely conform to cardboard stereotypes. Waking up to the reality that the Puritans, the Victorians and every other group of people who have ever lived were complex, contradictory, full-blooded human beings can help one better appreciate that the same is true of the people who live on the planet today.

To put it more bluntly: There has never been a time when human beings weren’t human. Deal with it.

Comments

  1. chris y says

    My historical hero, Henry Marten was a Puritan. After the English monarchy was restored in 1660, he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. With his girlfriend, to whom he was not married.

  2. James Wimberley says

    One of the historians who have debunked the Lytton Strachey view of Victorian sexuality was the late Roy Porter.

    The issue has become mixed up with gender inequality. Almost all Victorians, and Puritans before them, did if course believe in that, as in racial inequality. Science and the Bible concurred on both, didn’t they? The idea that (bourgeois) women were asexual, if it was held at all, coexisted with the older view that women were inferior because they were ragingly sexual and needed a firm patriarchal hand to control them.

  3. Peter T says

    I think it was Steven Marcus in The Other Victorians who made the point that a more restrictive attitude to sex was sometimes felt to be positively liberating by lower class Victorian women, as it held men to a higher standard than the previous culture of casual exploitation (very evident in say, Fielding).

  4. says

    “To put it more bluntly: There has never been a time when human beings weren’t human. Deal with it.”

    To put it even more bluntly, there has never been a time when the humanity of human beings was not a problem so grave and so immediate that its very dimensions could not even be candidly acknowledged. That is why we can’t deal with it, but have always retreated into shock, denial, and paralysis.

  5. says

    Like it or not, the words “puritanical” and “Victorian” have developed their own definitions. I would assume that when someone calls something “puritanical,” they are not specifically referring to Puritans, but the meaning of the word “puritanical.”

    From Merriam-Webster:

    puritanical: : very strict especially concerning morals and religion : of, relating to, or characterized by a rigid morality
    Victorian : typical of the moral standards, attitudes, or conduct of the age of Victoria especially when considered stuffy, prudish, or hypocritical

    And certainly, being very strict in application of moral standards doesn’t mean not enjoying sexual pleasure, But again, I would imagine in most cases when “puritanical” or “Victorian” is invoked it, in fact, refers to someone having particular moral views regarding the manner in which OTHERS enjoy their sexual pleasure.

    “sex-hating Puritan” is actually several concepts rolled into one, which, in fact, kind of rebuts your argument that “puritanical” is being misused. After all, by adding the adjective “sex-hating,” they’re clearly referring to a particular subset of Puritans that are “sex-hating” thereby acknowledging that others are not.

    • Anonymous says

      Like it or not, the words “puritanical” and “Victorian” have developed their own definitions. I would assume that when someone calls something “puritanical,” they are not specifically referring to Puritans, but the meaning of the word “puritanical.”

      Exactly. This is not a public policy post, it’s a post insisting on linguistic prescriptivism in the face of established usage.

      At this point in history, we have to have a word for people who are overzealous in their desire to regulate the conduct of others on the basis of pure morality concerns. The word we use is “puritan”. It doesn’t matter if it is a “correct” description of the Puritans or not.

      • Keith Humphreys says

        This is not a public policy post, it’s a post insisting on linguistic prescriptivism in the face of established usage.

        You are correct on the first part, but not the second. It’s a post about honoring the humanity of other human beings, living or dead.

        • Anonymous says

          So we can’t use Philistine to mean someone who is intellectually incurious either? We can’t use Luddite to refer to people who resist technological advance?

          The language is full of these sorts of words. Because language is democratic– whatever usage a majority approves in a reasonably formal register becomes a correct usage. There’s nothing you really can do about it.

          • Keith Humphreys says

            It’s a post about honoring the humanity of other human beings, living or dead.

            Language Log is a popular site devoted to language debates if that is what interests you.

          • Anonymous says

            Keith, I’m not the one who posted on this blog a linguistic complaint based on a criterion that, if taken seriously, would eliminate hundreds of useful words from the English language (and which actually can’t be taken seriously because language resists efforts of commentators to control it through these sorts of efforts).

            If you think this debate was better suited for language log, you should have guest posted there.

          • Keith Humphreys says

            I’m afraid you are missing the point entirely. The post was not about language it was about how human beings view each other and treat each other. If you don’t like the message of it, okay.

          • Anonymous says

            I addressed the substance below. We properly condemn Puritanism (as currently defined) because it is a character fault to want to dictate the private choices of others.

            The word- whether a slur on the actual Puritans or not- accurately describes a mindset that both exists and is worthy of condemnation. Indeed, Puritanism in its more extreme forms is a rejection of the concept of a free society.

            The American public is therefore correct to use this wonderful word and to condemn the mindset and worldview it stands for.

          • Keith Humphreys says

            As I said, the post is about honoring the humanity of other human beings. If you don’t like the message of it, okay.

          • says

            We can’t use Luddite to refer to people who resist technological advance?

            Obviously you can, but it perpetuates a lie about who the Luddites were, what they wanted, and what they achieved. And it’s a slur. You can, of course, use it if you wish. I’m seldom a prescriptivist, either. But you shouldn’t. That lie is very useful to powerful people today, and I find it irresponsible to help them. That’s all aside from the question of fidelity to the truth, and aside from Keith’s point, especially as it refers to the defenseless dead.

          • J. Michael Neal says

            The language is full of these sorts of words. Because language is democratic– whatever usage a majority approves in a reasonably formal register becomes a correct usage. There’s nothing you really can do about it.

            You assume that linguistics has value but history has none.

          • Anonymous says

            Michael, what about Philistine?

            You can’t cleanse language of every word that ever described a group inaccurately.

            I use Luddite because it has a useful meaning. If it offends you, maybe you should grow a thicker skin.

          • says

            The primary use I know for the word Luddite is to lie to people. It’s a lie that the original Luddites were anti-technology. They smashed the looms because the looms were being used to destroy their way of life and make them the earliest victims of the Industrial Revolution, not because they didn’t like the technology. It is usually a lie when it is used today, as it’s typically used to describe people who object to technology being used against their interests rather than people who object to technology per se.

            tl;dr? Try this: I’d find it useful to use words deceptively, too, if my conscience would allow it.

      • GiT says

        It clearly does matter, if people know the word puritan means prudish, and then assume that Puritans were prudish when this is false. Unless cultivating false beliefs doesn’t matter, of course.

        • Anonymous says

          Well, every time you eat a Hamburger and French Fries you cultivate false beliefs too.

          Society has 99 problems and this ain’t one.

          • Anonymous says

            This is a non-problem, not a minor problem. Language works that way, the only way for it not to work that way is for us to stop using language. The use of this sort of group labeling is inherent in symbolic communication.

            But even if it were just a minor problem, it is NOT a fallacy to say that declining to solve minor problems can be better than trying to solve them.

  6. Nick says

    So declared a cultural sophisticate at a swish cocktail party which your humble scribe attended.

    Courtesy of An American’s Guide to Canada: “Swish – A kind of liquor made from putting water into barrels that have previously held some sort of alcohol (whisky, brandy, whatever) and letting the alcohol leach out of the wood. Drunk by university students who like to go blind.”

    Be careful out there, Keith.

      • John G says

        Screech is a very high-proof rum usually associated with Newfoundland. Drinking it is alleged to give you delusions of Gander.

  7. Betsy says

    That painting is curious, by the way: it appears to be a circa 1890-1900 portrayal of people wearing fashions of the 1830s and sitting on a piece of upholstered furniture in the style of about 1900.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      @Betsy: I do love your quote.

      The painting is “A Conquest” also known as “A Heart for a Rose”. John Lavery painted it in 1882. I saw it in Glasgow and was enchanted.

    • Freeman says

      The painting certainly looks Victorian, but what’s that ipod-charger-cord-looking wire dangling from the gentleman’s right boot???

  8. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    It is true that words like “Victorian” or “Puritan” are a bit unfair. But the concept remains valid–the personality type is very real. Fortunately, we have the words that express the concept, without doing violence to history. “Prude” is one. I prefer the Australian import: “wowser.”

  9. Venice says

    Two great aphorisms: “To put it more bluntly: There has never been a time when human beings weren’t human. Deal with it.” and “Modernism: the fallacy that the current age has escaped the bonds of history.”

  10. Jean Lepley says

    “Machiavellian” joins “”puritanical” and “Victorian” in escaping the historical truth of its referent. Machiavelli was among other things a lover of freedom, jailed and I think even tortured for his political views.

  11. Anonymous says

    When someone tries to silence a living person, for example by calling a feminist who objects to violent pornography a “sex-hating Puritan”, they are committing a sin not just against history but against humanity. Just as the accuser is degrading the past, they are also degrading the present. A Puritan then and an anti-porn feminist today could like sex just fine, because human beings rarely conform to cardboard stereotypes.

    I don’t think the claim has ever been that puritan types don’t like sex. Of course they may enjoy doing the nasty and making hot sweaty monkey love with their significant other in 15 different positions whenever the mood arises.

    You are knocking down a straw man.

    The real significance of the claim that someone is a “puritan” is that they either derive pleasure from the regulation of the private conduct of others, or believe that they should have the right to impose their beliefs and choices about matters of personal morality on other people.

    In other words, it has nothing to do with how much fun the puritan is having in his or her own bedroom; it’s that he or she is way too concerned with what other people are doing in theirs (or what substances they are ingesting or what risky conduct they are engaging in).

  12. arjay says

    Just to add — the Puritans didn’t call themselves Puritans. It was a pejorative applied against Protestants that found the Church of England too Catholic — don’t know when it began to refer to sex and social behavior as opposed to theology. Anyway, it was inaccurate way back when. Part of dealing with humans being human, I guess, is that they invent inaccurate pejoratives when they encounter groups they don’t particularly like.

  13. Andrew Sabl says

    Keith, I’m afraid I agree strongly with Pete Guither and Ebenezer Scrooge above that you’re missing the point about the word “Puritan” (often used with lower case). It is *not intended as a historical referent* but has now become the generic label for someone who enjoys restricting others’ pleasure. I’m the first to want to get the actual Puritans right (chris y is correct; and one prominent supporter of the so-called Puritan or Presbyterian faction was the most notorious pimp in London). But people who call a position puritan–by the way, I almost never hear “Victorian” anymore–are simply adapting to the fact that “blue-nose” and Scrooge’s favorite and mine, “wowser,” are not common terms in contemporary American English. “Prude” is, I guess, but so is “puritan.” “Deal with it.”

    It really doesn’t make any sense to call this either a historical mistake or some sort of libel, because no referent to the historical group is intended. And unlike the case in which people use a live ethnic label for a negative quality (“Jew someone down,” “Indian giver”), the unthinking use in this case of what was originally a slur attached to a group of people cannot be objected to as likely to foster social disrespect or discrimination, because the Puritans no longer exist. (Do you also have a beef against “barbaric”?)

    Your desire to rehabilitate the Puritans and Victorians seems to me a distraction from your real point: that people who use the label intend to, and often do, shut down debate regarding regulating (not prohibiting) a certain behavior when there might in fact be a good case for doing so. That point is valid. But it has nothing to do with whether one uses, or misuses, a label that once named a group. The problem was identical when the Kiwi millionaire Bob Jones wrote a book “Wowser Whacking” attacking, among other things, tobacco regulation. (He lost.)

    • Keith Humphreys says

      Hi Andy — It was never true, not then or now, that people should be de-humanized by labels. It isn’t fair to the people in the past, or in the present. When you recognize that these labels don’t apply to their historical referent (because there is no historical referent, there cannot be because humans beings have always been human) it should lead I think to a realization that they don’t really apply now, i.e., people who are being dehumanized today don’t deserve it either, no one does.

      I recognize that some may feel that no, a certain portion of people then and now do deserve to have their humanity denied, for whatever reason. I’m not naive that I can stop that: There’s a world of hatred out there obviously. But that doesn’t mean I can’t disagree with the dehumanization or suggest a different way for human beings to treat each other.

      • Andrew Sabl says

        I guess I just don’t understand the part of your claim where you portray a label like puritan (or wowser) as dehumanizing. I suppose all political labels are an appeal to the kind of passions we should try to avoid in favor of using sweet reason all the time. But that’s a high standard, and politics would grow pretty silent pretty quickly if we placed a ban on any statement containing an unfavorable label of an opponent. As labels go, puritan or wowser seems far less virulent than many.

        Part of this is that I don’t think it’s actually very common to label proponents of porn regulation as hating sex in their own lives. (I think that the Anonymous of December 12 at 2 p.m. got this right: “The real significance of the claim that someone is a ‘puritan’ is that they either derive pleasure from the regulation of *the private conduct of others*…”) The claim, which strikes me as easily exaggerated but sometimes fair comment and not automatically false, is that many people have trouble realizing that modes of pleasure that are unfamiliar or distasteful to themselves may, *when experienced by other people constituted differently from themselves,* be similar in kind to the modes of pleasure that they themselves enjoy.

        Thomas Nagel has published some good work on this: Many people think it’s harmless to regulate, for example, unfamiliar sexual practices because they imagine *themselves* engaging in those practices (e.g. a straight man imaginines how it would feel *for him* to have sex with a man), and conclude too much from the fact that they would find those practices disgusting. They find it difficult to imagine how such acts feel *to the people who actually find them natural and enjoyable.* This failure of imagination is what people who use labels like wowser are driving at. It strikes me as a very common failure, and as somethign that commonly produces more regulation than ought in fact to occur. And I don’t think it’s dehumanizing to attribute this vice to proponents of moral regulation. In fact, I think that the prospect of such attribution has the good effect of forcing people to think very hard–*as we should*–when proposing regulation of things that others enjoy.

        • Keith Humphreys says

          Andy – I don’t find that distinction between different ways of shutting other people down important. That is, it’s dehumanizing to say to a feminist who doesn’t like porn that she hates the thought of other people having sex when in truth there is nothing inconsistent with liking sex in general (by anyone) and thinking that pornography degrades women. To admit that possibility is only to accept that an anti-porn feminist could be as human as the next human and not a cardboard stereotype. So no matter which way the attack is intended (She hates sex in her own life or she hates other people being happy in their sex lives) I don’t see it as humanizing.

          • Anonymous says

            So no matter which way the attack is intended (She hates sex in her own life or she hates other people being happy in their sex lives) I don’t see it as humanizing.

            But what if the second form of the attack is true?

            Heck, as Andrew points out, sometimes even the FIRST form of the attack is true. People attacked gays and lesbians for the base reason that they didn’t like that form of sex. Indeed, they sometimes engaged in violence against gays and lesbians based solely on that principle. If an LGBT advocate says “just because YOU don’t like having sex with someone of the same gender doesn’t mean that you should prevent other people who do enjoy it from having it”, isn’t that a TRUE statement? And if it is true, why does it matter whether it is humanizing, dehumanizing, or whatever?

            But let’s go back to the second form of the attack. The [person we are not calling "Puritan"] says that sex is fine between a husband and a wife wanting to conceive a child, but shouldn’t be engaged in between two college students who are casual acquaintences and who just want momentary pleasure. Now, the [person who we are not calling "Puritan"] is NOT saying that he doesn’t like sex. If the college students come back and say “that’s just because you don’t like sex”, that would be false. And maybe dehumanizing as well, I don’t know.

            But what if the college students come back and say “just because you don’t think it works in your life to have sex with someone you aren’t married to purely for hedonistic reasons doesn’t mean it can’t work in our life”, that attack is true. And if the college students then ask “does it give you pleasure to intervene in our lives and restrict our choices based on what you like to do?”, isn’t that a legitimate question? And if it is, why does it matter whether it is humanizing or not?

            It seems to me that “truth” is a lot more important value than “humanization” here.

            And finally, none of this has anything to do with being shut down. You can continue to make any arguments you want. But what it does have to do with is taking those arguments out of a bland cost-benefit analysis where you try to establish that a particular choice is harmful and then stop it. Instead, you have to first establish, as Andrew asks you, whether or not you are imposing your own standards of pleasure and benefit on other people.

            To take this back to drug policy, an area that you care a lot about, it wouldn’t mean that, for instance, you couldn’t still argue for particular restrictions on marijuana. But what it does mean is that you can’t simply assume that the pleasure experienced by marijuana users has no value just because you do not find it pleasurable or think that the pleasure is immoral or think that it is valueless because the activity is so risky. You have to take into account the fact that other people have different subjective experiences than you do, different values, and that their subjective experiences and values count even if you don’t experience them.

            Indeed, isn’t that approach– respecting the subjective pleasure of other people– part of “humanizing” other people?

          • Anonymous says

            And for a demonstration of this I give you Ross Douthat, who completely ignores the fact that perhaps all those women having sex with the Lotharios he despises are ENJOYING the casual sex and don’t feel that the experience is ruined just because the person whom they have sex with does not become their husband and the father of their children:

            http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/15/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-daughter-theory.html?ref=rossdouthat

            This sort of thing, which again, in deference to you I will not label “puritanism”, is precisely what Andrew is talking about. Someone not understanding that someone else might have different modes of pleasure than he (or his wife) does.

      • Anonymous says

        Why don’t you answer Andrew’s question about “barbaric”?

        And you are also trying to make a procedural objection do substantive work. Even if you were right about the word puritan, the desire to override other people’s choices is still arrogant and antithetical to freedom. We just need another word to strongly condemn it.

        • Keith Humphreys says

          And you are also trying to make a procedural objection do substantive work.

          You mistake me as trying to persuade you of something. I really like what I expressed in the post and I am happy many people resonated with it. If you didn’t, that’s not something in my view that needs to be settled in argument over whether you should’ve liked it VERSUS I shouldn’t have written it. It’s a big world with lots of diverse opinions in it (and lots of other people to read if what I write here doesn’t resonate with you).

          • Anonymous says

            I am actually glad you wrote it, because I think your cards need to be on the table when you make posts on issues like drug policy. You think that [concept described by the word "puritanism", but which I won't describe in those terms because we don't want to mischaracterize the Puritans] is basically an entirely defensible worldview.

            It isn’t, of course, in a free society, which is why we have this word. And I think Andrew gave you a very sophisticated philosophical rebuttal to your contention, which you basically waved off.

            But this isn’t about pleasing me. I think it is scary that the views of [people we are not going to mislabel as "Puritans"] have as much influence as they do. I think it is scary that you are a public intellectual of some import and you basically think there’s nothing wrong with imposing your choices over the choices of other people. And I actually think it is doubly scary that you didn’t take Andrew’s objection seriously– are you capable of rebutting his contention that there are people who condemn modes of pleasure that don’t seem pleasurable to themselves but may be pleasurable to others on its merits, and that when they are doing this they are making a grave error? It seems to me that this insight is a fundamental reason we allow human freedom and respect human choices.

            As I said, you don’t have to please me. But I do think you post a lot of material on how we can regulate this or that area of human behavior, and you really haven’t asked yourself the sort of self-critical, first principles questions about whether other people’s private conduct is really any of your business. You have defended [the thing we are not mislabeling "Puritanism"], but you haven’t justified it, even in the face of pretty sophisticated criticism of the idea.

  14. James Wimberley says

    My own hobby-horse along these lines is “Potemkin village”, denoting a sham, stage-set presentation to a ruler or the media to create a false impression of a real achievement. Catherine the Great appointed her ex-lover Count Grigori Potemkin as viceroy of the vast Ukraine, newly conquered from the Turks; a great responsibility. A few years later she went on a triumphal tour. On her return Potemkin’s enemies in St. Petersburg put about the story that Potemkin had shown her such bogus villages. Maybe he had gilded the lily, as you and Catherine would expect; but his achievements were great, including the creation of Sebastopol as a naval base. The lie has passed into the general culture, so I’m complaining against the wind.

    The implication that Potemkin got the job because he was good in bed is ridiculous. Catherine went through a good number of handsome, brainless young officers, but she did not give them positions of responsibility as rewards. Potemkin was a political confidant and friend long after their sexual relationship ended.