ocieties removed from theaters of confrontation and carnage once represented by world war are doomed to seek other distractions to act in war’s ferociously cathartic stead. Sexual identity and gender rights are the 21st-century’s favorite front lines, at least in the West. And there are many campaigns.
Should a man be called a man if he feels more like a woman? Should a woman who doesn’t identify with her born sexual identity spurn femininity’s social conventions? Should “he” and “she” be pushed aside as Mr. and Mrs. once were, replaced by a satchel of impersonal pronouns that allow for blurring?
Should men be legally allowed to form unions with other men, and women with women, thus broadening traditional, procreative definitions — what Christians called marriage — to include a bond between two humans, and not two genders?
Should men (and women) be punished for sexual aggression independently of the behavior and context that may have helped set the aggression in motion — excessive alcohol, for example?
Should a society redefine its views of sexual interaction bearing in mind the rampant availability of online pornography that now gives preteen children blunt visual access to libidinal fantasies most were barred from seeing, let alone copying, in the pre-online era?
Should notions of awkward, face-to-face courtship be accepted as permanently outdated in age that has made flirting into a virtual process largely carried out through devices that postpone face-to-face contact, replacing it with electronic image-making, some of it capricious or worse?
Each of these questions has dozens of tributaries, a Normandy Beach without the death toll, dividing public opinion and unsettling long-held religious convictions. The Roman Catholic Church’s loyalty to ancient dogma has seen it lose much of its Western traction. Yet that same loyalty holds fast in countries not yet affluent enough to put sexual and gender redefinition ahead of survival needs, since the Western tussle over issues such as gay rights, while billed as basic, are not.
But affluence comes with its own complications. The act of desiring is now closer to desire’s fulfillment, which makes for deeper crises when it’s not, or when it is but with doubt, since doubt has been has been altered from its moody metaphysical essence into a psychic ailment eligible for “repair.”
The 21st-century personal world should be a tolerant place, fair and rewarding, rich in goods, with a set of goals that include swift downloads and uninterrupted streaming in the same way the 1950s came with cars and refrigerators. Now as then, rewards cheerfully discount the less agreeable and often obstacle-laden realities of the human condition, realities that those who had known actual war could not fully paper over with cars or refrigerators— not in a time when the prospect of nuclear war and human extinction was tangible.
Ironically, the transformation of sexual concerns into a form of ideological conflict, seemingly adult, is often the opposite. Positions on sex and gender are debated with an emotional recklessness that obliterates critical thinking. Mature adults are indistinguishable from excitable children, introducing an impressionable, one-size-fits-all character that can last a lifetime.
Arguments quickly become ruinous skirmishes in which disagreements sound like artillery barrages. The mistake is in thinking non-lethal combat produces no casualties. It does. Only that therapists and counselors take the place of morphine-carrying surgeons, and individuals or networks of them persist in their rage whatever their wounds.
Righteous combat over personal, sexual rights is the battle of choice. It is the unperceived world war for those who can no longer take to arms, a war that the West embraces as its latest rite of passage — to what end is unclear.