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).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.