The Unnatural is the Political

26 June 2017

The belief that some things are natural while others are unnatural is part of the common currency of human thought, but we rarely pause to consider exactly what it means to say that something is unnatural. It’s important to do so, because—strange as it might sound—this concept is politically very potent. As I’ll shortly explain, the concept of the natural gets used to justify the social order, and the concept of the unnatural fuels efforts to punish or destroy those who deviate from it.

Unnaturalness is the flip side of naturalness. So one way to get at the concept of the unnatural is to figure out what it is for something to be natural. Natural things are supposed to be things that accord with nature. But this doesn’t get us very far, because it’s not clear what’s meant by “nature.” So the first step is to get a handle on what “nature” is supposed to be.

Thankfully, the great 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill can help us out here. Mill wrote an essay on the concept of “nature,” published in 1854, that teases apart three separate meanings of the term. “In the first meaning,” he wrote, “Nature is a collective name for everything which is.” This doesn’t give us a grip on the concept of the unnatural, because it makes everything natural. If you’re using the word in this way, and you describe something as natural, all that you’re doing is saying that it exists. And worse, if you use the word “natural” in this way, then the idea that any existing thing is “unnatural” makes no sense at all. If you did so, you’d be saying that an existing thing doesn’t exist—a flat-out contradiction! So, the first meaning described by Mill gives us the dichotomy between things that are natural and those that are nonexistent, but not between those that are natural and those that are unnatural.  

Mill goes on to tell us that “nature” can also be “a name for everything which is of itself, without voluntary human intervention.” Something is “natural” in this sense if it hasn’t been tampered with by human hands or fashioned by human artifice. When philosophers talk about “natural kinds”—the sorts of things like chemical elements and biological species that are discovered rather than invented—this is the notion of the natural that they have in mind. The opposite of this kind of “natural” isn’t so much “unnatural” as it is “artificial,” or maybe “non-natural.”  So we’ve got to look further.

Mill’s third sense of “natural” brings us closer to our destination. Sometimes, he says, “Nature does not stand for what is, but for what ought to be, or for the rule or standard of what ought to be.” It’s this idea of what’s natural that gets put to political use in statements like “It’s unnatural for women to prefer high-powered careers to having babies.” When people say such things, they’re not claiming that women can’t pursue such careers. Instead, they’re saying that there’s something deviant or wrong—something contrary to female nature--something unnatural about it. As Immanuel Kant once expressed this idea, “a woman who has a head full of Greek…or carries on fundamental controversies about mechanics.… might as well even have a beard.”

Consider the concept of miscegenation, sexual relations between members of different races, as described in the 1869 case of Scott v. Georgia, which ruled, “The amalgamation of the races is not only unnatural, but is always productive of deplorable results. Our daily observation shows us, that the off-spring of these unnatural connections are generally sickly and effeminate, and that they are inferior in physical development and strength, to the full-blood of either race.” And think of the horrific persecution of gay men in Chechnya—going on as you read these words—for their purportedly unnatural desires and practices, and the acts of violence directed against transgender individuals. Tarring people with the brush of unnaturalness can have very serious, in fact deadly, consequences.

When we think of nature in this normative way, we get a notion of the “laws of nature” as analogous to human laws. Unlike scientific laws, which are exceptionless or near-exceptionless regularities, these laws can be broken. We can all chuckle at T. S. Eliot’s description of Macavity the Mystery Cat, who has broken every law, including the law of gravity. But this idea of what’s natural as the way things ishould be has a powerful and insidious influence on our lives, even though it’s a relic of a prescientific age.

Historically, the idea of a natural order was that of an order legislated by God himself. According to this metaphysical framework—often described as the Great Chain of Being—every kind of thing has its proper place. Goodness or rightness means submission to the order, and badness or wrongness means defiance of it. The good society, it was thought—and is still thought in theocratic states—is a microcosm of the cosmic order ordained by the Diety. This idea has outlived its religious origins. Even in the secular West, where God is dead, or at least terminally ill, the fantasy of a normative natural order continues to be used to support and legitimate the political order.

Here’s how it works. Every society operates with a framework of categories, conceptual boxes into which things are slotted and through which they are ordered, that it takes for granted. And, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas brilliantly described in her classic book Purity and Danger, whenever such systems are imposed on the world, it becomes possible for things—including people—to be out of place because they are where they don’t belong. In misogynistic cultures, women are out of place if they challenge male hegemony. In societies where the male/female binary is rigidly enforced, trans women are out of place if they use women-only public restrooms. And in racially stratified societies like our own, members of the subordinate race are out of place if they are present in arenas reserved for members of the dominant race. In all of these cases, the offender must be put in their place—by means of violence if necessary—in order to restore what is deemed to be the natural order.

But there is an even more sinister conception of the unnatural that falls out from all of this. In any system of categories there are things—in this case people—who don’t wholly fit into any of the boxes. It’s not that they’re out of place, it’s that they don’t even have a place. Such people implicitly call the whole system—the whole conception of a society—into question, because in transgressing boundaries, they undermine socially entrenched conceptions of the natural order. They pose what the philosopher Noel Carroll calls a cognitive threat.

The British writer Arthur Machen beautifully expressed the idea of cognitive threat in his 1922 novel, The House of Souls. “What would your feelings be,” a character asks, “… if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents?”

You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?....These examples may give you some notion of what sin really is.

If you think that Machen’s remarks, the stuff of horror, are remote from real human concerns, you are sadly mistaken. Some of the most hideous acts of atrocity have been perpetrated against those who do not fit into the boxes endorsed by their culture. A person who’s out of place may be put in their place, but a person that has no place, because they straddle the categories used to define what is normal, are marked for destruction or shunted off to the margins of society—in the past, exile, and in the present, prison.  

In my next posting, I’ll explain in greater detail how we turn ordinary human beings into monsters and demons: avatars of the unnatural.