It should be evident, from my previous posts in this series, that I consider our modern cultural obsession with consent to be problematic. The problem is not insistence on consent: that is, or should be, a no-brainer. The problem is that consent has become an obsession while other important things fall by the wayside. In obsessing over what I’ve called consent (which might also be termed “choice,” were that term not already appropriated), the modern mind marginalizes decent stories (Passengers) while lauding silly ones (LaLa Land). More seriously, the modern mind marginalizes decent people’s decent behavior, reacting to it with the same sort of furor which truly outrageous behavior deserves (see the previous post in this series). And all of these mini-furors tire the public mind, to the detriment of real people who suffer real things.
Less seriously but closer to home: as a literary scholar I suspect that the modern obsession with consent makes it nearly impossible for many critics to read old works with anything like a sympathetic eye. I’m not even speaking of the distant past—heaven help Shakespeare—I’m thinking of Olivia de Haviland’s poor Maid Marion in The Adventures of Robin Hood, and how her eventual capitulation to the eponymous hero’s wooing would be deconstructed; or (to give an example which has already availed the internet of many a field-day) of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” That latter is admittedly a fuzzier case; but we are fast approaching a place where people will no longer be able to tell the difference between Persuasion and a certain trilogy whose protagonist operates under the ironic name “Christian”—simply because the former involves a military man who once upon a time tried to persuade the (obviously shell-shocked!) heroine to marry him. I haven’t read this particular instance of critical fantasy yet, but I am certain the day when I shall encounter it approaches apace.
Probably right after someone describes Dean Martin’s
“Let Me Tell You ’Bout the Birds and the Bees”
as an instance of mansplaining.
But I’ve wasted far and enough ire on instances of the problems inherent in putting all our eggs in the consent basket. How do we (culturally) dig ourselves out of the hole?
The only real answer is that the entire cultural mindset would have to shift towards a fuller understanding of love and interpersonal relations in general.
I gotta dream … I gotta dream …
Like everybody else I gotta dream!
Baring that, an intellectual understanding of what truly diminished consent entails is the most powerful (and perhaps the only) defensive tool that comes to mind.
What would diminished consent actually look like? I think it is helpful here to consider Aquinas.
Yep, it’s almost always helpful to consider Aquinas.
Specifically, Aquinas’s intellectualist account of how human beings act sheds some light on the problem. In the Summa (II.I.6.4, “Whether violence can be done to the will?”), Aquinas explains that
As regards the commanded acts of the will, then, the will can suffer violence, in so far as violence can prevent the exterior members from executing the will's command. But as to the will's own proper act, violence cannot be done to the will.
The reason of this is that the act of the will is nothing else than an inclination proceeding from the interior principle of knowledge: just as the natural appetite is an inclination proceeding from an interior principle without knowledge. Now what is compelled or violent is from an exterior principle. Consequently it is contrary to the nature of the will's own act, that it should be subject to compulsion and violence: just as it is also contrary to the nature of a natural inclination or movement. For a stone may have an upward movement from violence, but that this violent movement be from its natural inclination is impossible. In like manner a man may be dragged by force: but it is contrary to the very notion of violence, that he be dragged of his own will.
Two principles can be taken from Aquinas’s account of the will as suggested in this passage. First and most obviously, Aquinas calls involuntary those cases where a person is physically prevented from doing what they want to do, or physically forced into doing what they do not want to do (e.g., to use an innocuous example, being tickled while not wanting to laugh). Second, and more to the present purpose, Aquinas sees all acts of will proceeding from knowledge.
This sounds commonsensical: we can only act on the information that we have. We can only decide to drink or not drink the glass of water if we know that the glass is there, that it has water in it, that water is drinkable, that our throat is unblocked, etc.—a great many things that we might not actively think about, but which we nonetheless know at least in the background of our consciousness, and which (upon reflection) we discover are essential to our choice to drink this glass of water here and now.
Returning principle in hand to the problem of consent, we can further apply Aquinas’s insight to the problem in the form of a new principle, as follows:
Setting aside situations where physical force is used, one consents to a proposal or action only if one has sufficiently full knowledge of what the proposal or action entails.
Taking this back to the cases with which we began, of “Beauty and the Beast” and Passengers, it seems fairly clear that Belle and Aurora do know what they’re getting into: they’re quite aware of the flaws of the gentlemen involved—indeed, hyper-aware.
But what about things like addiction? (I hear a reader say). And what about Stockholm Syndrome, anyway?
I’m not going to deny that people make some really bad personal choices even in cases where physical force is not immediately (sometimes not at all) present. But I think we can parse those cases—and I think it’s helpful to parse them—as cases where the intellect is not fully operating; cases where, while the relevant information may be in some sense “available,” it is not regarded by the victim, who sees or pays attention to only the “favorable” parts of the story in front of them. (Cf. Aquinas’s account of how all choices, including mistakes and sins, occur via apprehension of some good.) This is not to blame every person who fails for a con artist (“You should have thought harder!”): after all, one does not blame a child for failing to take seriously concepts which they cannot understand. But it is to say that, when one examines whether a literary character like Belle or Aurora is a victim of their circumstances, one has to start by asking not “What bad stuff did the romantic interest do?” but rather “Did she know—really know—his whole story, good and bad both?”
But I suspect that for a diehard consentivist (if I may coin a term), even ensuring intellectual thoroughgoingness would not prove sufficient. For the idolatry of consent is really at bottom an idolatry of the will that cannot suffer the will to be moved by anything but itself, acting purely and simply in the cold white light of utterly unbiased—and thus free—choice.
Probably all consentivists are part of an evil voluntarist conspiracy,
that one first detected by Richard Weaver
and most lately denounced by Rod Dreher.
For the (rare and extreme) cases of thinkers who put an absolute premium upon consent, the intrusion of any emotion appears to be tantamount to insanity. As soon as the will moves towards a good contemplated by the intellect, so soon do they call foul. And then “Love is merely a madness”; for in it one is drawn by another. In this Kantianesque landscape emotionless acts in which the body moves but the mind remains aloof, acts formerly on the periphery of love, have become the most valued and the least critiqued, because everything else is a little mad, and nothing mad is free. For the truth of this, I submit to you the latest revelations from any modern American college campus; let us tremble for civilization, and thank goodness for the knowledge that in truth, being human …
We’re all a little mad here.