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The Primal Scream For Identity

After the sexual revolution, our culture has found it harder to construct our identity, as people don’t feel firmly rooted in the more traditional communities of family and religion. The secularization of our culture made identity as a child of God harder, and changing family patterns made identity as a mother, father, sister, or brother, harder.

In her new book, Primal Screams, Mary Eberstadt analyzes this trend away from traditional identity and communities, but provides hope that we can survive it. Eberstadt is the senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and she joins NC Family for this week’s episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast.

“We are social creatures,” says Eberstadt. “We are made to live in community. I think part of the problem that we’re having as a society is in trying not to live that way.” As our culture has shifted away from the communities of family and religion, it has made way for the rise of identity politics. “Identity politics puts a wall up to keep other people outside,” continues Eberstadt. “And this is not like anything that came before because it insists that you can’t understand me unless you’re a member of the same victim group that I belong to.”

But there is hope, because “humanity responds to a record of harm,” and once our culture recognizes the harm caused by living in “this radical, new, non-familial way,” Edberstadt believes behavior will change accordingly.

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Mary Eberstadt explore the topic of shifting identity.

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: The Primal Scream For Identity

TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Many of us are struggling to provide some kind of explanation about the fever pitch of divisiveness in our culture today. Many cannot remember a time when our nation was so divided. Of course, there have been other times like this in our nation’s history: the Vietnam war; the struggle for civil rights in the 60’s, especially right after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination; and when we read about politics during the era of Abraham Lincoln, you’ll see much the same rancor. Of course, that’s not meant to minimize the importance or the danger of this division in our country, but perhaps provide hope that we have survived this before.

Our guest today is author Mary Eberstadt, a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. She’s just released a new book in which she talks about this divisiveness, and offers a possible explanation and some hope for the future. In her book entitled Primal Screams, she explains that a loss of identity that plagues many today may be a culprit.

Mary Eberstadt, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

MARY EBERSTADT: Thank you for having me, Traci.

TRACI GRIGGS: So first of all, what does that mean: “primal scream?”

MARY EBERSTADT: I think underneath the divisiveness that we see in our politics and our culture today is something really primordial, and that’s why I say “primal screams.” I think that people have lost a sense of their self. I think that questions of identity are the obsession of the age. And in my book, I try to get at why there is this feeling of having lost ourselves. And I think, Traci, the answer is that the two main ways that identity was constructed for humanity—that is the reference to religion and reference to family—are both ways that are harder to navigate after the sexual revolution. So we have secularization, which makes it harder to say, “I am a child of God,” and we have changing family patterns that make it harder to say, “My identity is I’m a mother,” “I’m a sister,” “I’m a cousin,” etc. And that’s what the book is about; it’s trying to understand what the emotional state is behind this obsession with identity.

TRACI GRIGGS: Interesting. So you’ve actually written a book about how difficult it is to be an outspoken religious person these days?

MARY EBERSTADT: I think that’s difficult, because so many things in the culture, of course, conspire against it. But what we have to understand is that the loss of religion, for many people, has also meant the loss of a community. And in these increasingly panicked slights to collective identities—you know, gender identities, ethnic identities, all of identity politics. I think in this impassioned flight, what we are seeing is that people don’t feel firmly rooted in other, more traditional communities, like the traditional family community and the traditional religious community. So our world has changed in a pretty radical way, and we can’t make things better until we understand the root cause of our division.

TRACI GRIGGS: Well, let’s talk about [traditional family and traditional religious community] and unpack those a little bit in a second. But tell me why you think this now contributes to the rancor and the division that’s happening so much in our national conversation

MARY EBERSTADT: There is something new in politics; it’s called identity politics. And this is not like anything that came before because it insists that you can’t understand me unless you’re a member of the same victim group that I belong to. And this is a very new claim, this idea that men can’t understand women, or people of one ethnicity can’t understand people of another ethnicity. Identity politics puts a wall up to keep other people outside. And I think we need to break down those walls and remind ourselves that we are all members of humanity. But the reason why people cling to these groups is fundamental; it’s that they’re not deriving their identities from other communities.

TRACI GRIGGS: So talk a little bit more about the family community and how that has broken down over the years.

MARY EBERSTADT: Since the 1960’s and the sexual revolution, we’ve seen a number of trends that we now take for granted. There is, for example, widespread abortion, fatherlessness, broken homes and shrinking families, which I think is very important and under attended. Regardless of the moral content of those decisions, or how people feel about them, every one of those trends has the effect of subtracting the number of people in one’s life who have your back, basically. In other words, the family has weakened as each of these forces has chipped away at it.

TRACI GRIGGS: So what about religion? I know these are intertwined. So, what’s been the primary assault on religion, do you believe?

MARY EBERSTADT: I think the assault on the family and the assault on the church amount to the same thing. I don’t think they can be understood apart from each other. And when we see the statistics about the increase in the number of people who belong to no religion at all, I think this too is a consequence of the weakening of the family. Because it’s in the family, typically, where religion is learned in the first place. When we have weak families, we have in effect interrupted the transmission of religious belief and religious practice. So that’s the connection.

TRACI GRIGGS: In this current book, you talk about the importance of community to human beings from a scientific perspective, so discuss that with us a little bit.

MARY EBERSTADT: It’s so interesting, Traci, because we are social creatures; we are made to live in community. I think part of the problem that we’re having as a society is in trying not to live that way. That’s why in the book I look at examples from the animal kingdom, which I think are fascinating. And what they’ve learned in the last 10 years or so amounts to two things. One is that animals are not born knowing how to do what they do; they learn it. They learn it in community, and in particular they learn it from siblings and parents. And that’s the second thing that scientists have learned is that animals are intensely relational and familial creatures. This is not something that was understood well before. You know, the myth of the lone wolf is an example. Wolves don’t actually live by themselves; they live and they thrive in the community of the family, and so do all other animals.

So my point is to take some of this research and apply it to ourselves because I think when we see how the family has weakened, we can understand that we are not learning the way we used to learn. We don’t have as many siblings and cousins and parents to learn from, for example. That’s what I mean about disrupting the transmission of society itself. That’s what we’ve done, and in order to be able to fix this, we have to first understand the radical nature of what’s happened to us.

TRACI GRIGGS: So before we get to the “hope” part of that, let me just ask you, there are a lot of very real crimes and injustices that have been perpetrated against various groups of minorities because of this new way of looking at identity politics. So how do we respond to that?

MARY EBERSTADT: I think it’s very important to recognize that of course, part of the reason that people flee to these collective groups is injustice. So in the book I give an example. Some years ago, Victoria’s Secret had a fashion show where they had a scantily clad model wearing an Indian headdress that was sacred to a certain Native American tradition. Now, in a case like that where someone is mocking your religion in such a public, flagrant way, and being so disrespectful, of course it makes sense that people were injured by that—that Native Americans and others thought that that was wrong and inappropriate.

So I’m certainly not saying those cases don’t exist. What I am saying is that there is an irrationality to identity politics that makes it very hard to distinguish cases like that from cases where people are just sort of mindlessly banding together, insisting they are victims when their victimhood is not in evidence. And I would give the example of some of the demonstrations that we’ve seen on college campuses, for example. So in a more rational political order, we could have a conversation about these specific grievances and what to do about them. But my point in Primal Screams is that a lot of what is driving politics, and especially identity politics, is not rational. And that’s why we’re not having these conversations as adults might have them. What we’re having instead are these emotional tantrums coming from a lot of broken people who don’t understand the source of their suffering.

TRACI GRIGGS: Boy, “irrationality,” I think that certainly is a key word. Many of us look at some of the arguments that are being made and go, “That just doesn’t even make sense.” So let’s talk about hope now. Are you seeing that there are signs of hope and do you think we can turn this around?

MARY EBERSTADT: Well sure, Traci. There are always signs of hope because we’re also rational creatures, and the reason I wrote Primal Screams was that I wanted to hold up the record of what we’ve done to ourselves, so as to make some people hopefully think, “Well, let’s change the way things are.” Humanity responds to a record of harm. We saw this in the example of tobacco smoking, for instance, where it took decades, but over time a lot of people changed their minds about whether it was a good idea to smoke. And they changed their minds because they were faced with evidence that for at least some people, this substance caused harm. And so I would argue analogously about the sexual revolution—that the record of harm that we’ve done to ourselves by living in this radical, new, non-familial way, is going to be recognized and behavior will change accordingly.

TRACI GRIGGS: So, how ought we as humans find those answers to the fundamental questions of, “Who am I?” and, “What am I here for?”

MARY EBERSTADT: I think the old answers are the best answers. If you ask a religious person, “Who am I?” the response there will be, “I’m a child of God.” And that’s the most important thing about me. It’s not my skin color; it’s not my sex; it’s not anything else about me. What’s the most important thing is that I am a child of God. That gives you a very firm answer to the question of identity. And similarly, so does the familial answer, “I am a mother,” “I am a father,” “I am a cousin,” “I am a brother.” These are the ways in which we have conventionally constructed our identities.

And it’s very interesting that there’s so much sociology about happiness, all of it pointing in the same direction, which is that people who are well-grounded in family are happier people. I think part of the reason for that, Traci, is that they know the answer to that question, “Who am I?” and they don’t have to go looking for it in these bands of aggrieved political groups. So I think those original ways of answering that big question, “Who am I?” are ways to which we need to return.

TRACI GRIGGS: All right, well thank you so much. So we’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go, Mary Eberstadt, where can our listeners go to get more information on this, and perhaps get a copy of your new book, Primal Screams.

MARY EBERSTADT: Thank you, Traci. I have a new website,, and listeners can find information about the new book and also other related works.

TRACI GRIGGS: Mary, thank you so much for joining us on Family Policy Matters.

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