In defence of permissiveness

Wednesday, 4th February 2009 at 9:00 UTC 4 comments

I’ve heard some large swipes being taken at permissiveness recently, so without any specific references to recent occurrences of such arguments (some of which were quite vile and others quite reasonable if misguided, I’m going to try and cobble some kind of defence of permissiveness together.

Permissiveness as a concept seems to be an encapsulation of various shifts in societal views and national laws that took place around the 1960’s, and as such, had been going on for time beforehand. This includes attitudes around drugs that have never been legislated upon, and attitudes towards sex that, in many cases have. It includes the permission to divorce in both abusive and non-abusive failed marital relationships and to reject marriage completely.

It can appear to some that permissiveness in this sense is also tied to the arrival of child abuse scandals. Whilst these might have been more common, it is also quite possible that, with the reduction in stigma placed on non-marital sexual activity, permissiveness has allowed many victims just enough room to raise the alarm without feeling that they will be further stigmatised. Both are possibilities.

A lot of what became possible was expression of our real selves. In a sense, we got more honest about who we really are. People were no longer forced to pretend to want to act in certain ways. Indeed, some of the ways we used to act were pretty pointless.

Lets take women’s clothing for an example. It would be hard to argue that permissiveness, as an encapsulation of processes and trends, does not include this. Indeed, given that revealing clothing is generally assumed as part of this, trousers for women are quite inseparable. Were skirts practical? Not really. If this doesn’t bother women, fine, but then how come so many seem so utterly delighted to be able to wear trousers instead?

In arguing for resistance to, or a new movement against, permissiveness Church leaders and others are basically calling for these changes in societal outlook to be rolled back. Now, some genuinely do want these roll-backs. But I’m sure most don’t, particularly not people like Mike Pilavachi of Soul Survivor, who gladly invites women in jeans to the stage to deliver sermons, and who berated “permissiveness” when talking of the rising occurrence of marriage break downs.

I think permissiveness does have something going for it. If we see it as a process, it is a process which enables us to question assumptions. It represents an ability to face up to aspects of reality we feel it would be safer not to pay attention to, such as the rules that society holds without question. We would assume that no one is being abused, because we simply wouldn’t be asking the questions.

Permissiveness allows people to stop lying to themselves and to the world. Admittedly, its difficult to keep track of which impulses one is wise to act upon when it suddenly becomes acceptable to display a large number more, and we might realise some wisdom and back-track (as an example, drug regulation). We should not lose sight of the positives whilst focusing on the negatives.

The family is an area where this needs some very clear examination. The de-stigmatising of divorce has been a powerful force in unearthing abusive relationships. Where the Victorian world simply refused to deal with the number of men abusing their wives, whether physically or emotionally, instead pretending that all marriages are happy, or not even considering the importance of women’s happiness, our society can now appreciate people’s desire for such things, even if it gives many people unreasonable expectations.

Of course its possible, indeed likely, that the number of extra-marital (as separate from pre-marital) sex has not increased significantly in the last hundred years, and in fact, it might be going the other way because those who place less importance on fidelity are less likely to marry. But perhaps what people are looking for is a world where they don’t know their partner has been unfaithful.

Indeed, there seems to be a sense that the world “out there” is scary and dangerous and that people need protecting from it. Some of the anti-feminist writing I’ve encountered has only just drawn short of saying that women shouldn’t want to move beyond being housewives because their privilege is to live lives removed from the world of sinners beyond their doorstep. The sense is that the home they make is a refuge for their husbands, who must daily enter the world of the fallen. I could scream.

So permissiveness is good as a concept, as a movement, because it allows us to evaluate our values and rules, and to figure what is hindering and what is genuinely useful. It would be wrong to argue that every outcome of permissiveness is positive, but it would also be wrong to assume that the world would be better without it. We should have the maturity to select those advantages that permissiveness offer us, as a community and as an individual, and to apply just those benefits.


Entry filed under: Community, Culture, Freedom, Politics, Religion, Theology, Women.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. brainduck  |  Wednesday, 4th February 2009 at 11:54 UTC

    It’s interesting how much women’s ‘clothing reform’ was tied to the advent of the bicycle, along with a lot of other social freedoms we think about even less.

  • 2. misterbunbury  |  Thursday, 5th February 2009 at 23:59 UTC

    Theo Hobson’s recently done an interesting about this, which largely puts the other side from what you’ve written, from someone with broadly similar views.

  • 3. Lois  |  Friday, 6th February 2009 at 13:53 UTC

    “People were no longer forced to pretend to want to act in certain ways.”
    Are you suggesting modern society doesn’t do this? I’d disagree. Different ways, certainly, in some cases the opposite, but there’s still pressure to conform to what society sees as ‘normal.’

    Interesting though, I have a lot of sympathy with what you’re saying, but I think you’ve got to remember there was a down side to some of this as well as an upside.

  • 4. Graham Martin  |  Saturday, 7th February 2009 at 13:27 UTC

    Well, just so long as everyone remembers there’s an upside as well as a downside to this! Yes, there is a downside, but just because society made several significant changes, some of which were bad, doesn’t mean we should wish for a pre-cultural-shift state to return, or that there aren’t good things to come out of it.


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