The Big Lebowski: What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski? Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn’t that what makes a man?
The Dude: Hmmm… Sure, that and a pair of testicles.
When gender identity is divorced from biology, the only way to distinguish a male from a female gender identity is to rely on gender stereotypes. We can imagine a woman’s mind in a man’s body, or a biological woman who defies gender stereotypes with regard to preferences and behavior. But try to say something substantive about the gender identity “woman” – something that would distinguish it from other gender identities – without referencing either biology or gender stereotypes. The DSM-5, the most recent edition of American Psychological Association’s guide for identifying mental illnesses, includes having a “strong preference for toys, games or other activities stereotypically used or engaged in by the other gender” among its diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria. Why not assume that children with such preferences are simply members of their biological sex who defy the stereotypes?
When my generation was coming of age, it seemed like the commonest of sense that many of the general differences between men and women could still be blurred or even erased by individuals who were so inclined. The Lady of the House worked in some of the most typically masculine manual-labor fields when she was younger. She’s constantly doing the sort of “handyman” projects around here that involve trips to Home Depot for supplies, where the workers unfailingly look at me when asking if “we” need any help. I prefer tasks like cleaning the house, doing the laundry, and decorating for holidays. (The Lady says I’m also emotionally sensitive, “in touch with my feelings,” and in the sort of physical shape that, at my age, usually gets a fellow classified as gay.) And yet, despite the fact that in practice, we’re more genderbendy than half of the adolescent posers on Tumblr, we don’t make a fetish of it. There’s no existential angst over whether we might “really” be the other sex. Our biology doesn’t oppress or imprison us.
Had you told me then that in a mere couple decades, we would “progress” to the point where people would define masculinity and femininity by those very same, uh, social constructions favored by nostalgic conservatives and lazy stand-up comedians, I would have stared at you in stunned silence. But here we are. Racially-segregated public spaces and clichéd definitions of gender are now “progressive” stances. There’s apparently no idea so stupid it can’t come back into vogue, if for no better reason than boredom.
The American Civil Liberties Union describes itself as an organization that “champions transgender people’s right to be themselves,” which suggests that transgender activists are motivated by a “live and let live” philosophy. But because the underlying conception of selfhood is so radical, this implies a right to live in a society devoid of gender norms. It is far from clear that most people would flourish under these conditions. “In a culture where transgender identities are not only affirmed, but celebrated,” Anderson writes, “everyone will be compelled to construct their own gender identities, unaided by a common understanding of sex differences and why they matter.” Transforming society along these lines necessarily has implications for the rights and interests of others.
This is what mainstream liberals, the kind who think all this culture war drama is an annoying distraction from the serious business of ghost-dancing the Great Society back into existence, fail to understand. This is much more radical than just another partisan skirmish. The fact that the transgender political project relies on restrictive stereotypes for an epistemological foundation in the absence of biology is really just an ironic side issue. The act of choosing itself, the uncaused assertion of pure will, is the foundation of it. What this is really about is liberalism, as a political philosophy opposed to any unjust limitations upon the individual, taken to its most extreme logical conclusion. It’s not just tradition in the form of, say, fundamentalist religious practices that’s oppressive; it’s the very existence of a common frame of reference at all. Why should I have to abide by linguistic standards that I didn’t voluntarily assent to? Why should society get to have any say over my self-expression? It doesn’t matter if my choices make no sense; the important thing is that they’re mine. If I feel like changing my gender sixteen times a week and demanding validation from everyone else, that’s my choice, my right. Anything that impinges on my ability to do that is tyrannical and oppressive.
And thus the centuries-old drive to liberate the individual from any personal, social, or cultural entanglements that weren’t consciously chosen ends up in solipsism. Well, not precisely — they still technically recognize the existence of other people who need to be scolded and browbeaten into submission. It’s more a malignant form of narcissism. But still, mainstream liberals, fearful of being scooped up by the social-justice tumbrils which they helped set into motion, keep pretending that this is just one more logical, incremental extension of the sexual revolution that no reasonable person could have a problem with. And even if they did find the courage to call it what it is, they’d feel guilty over drawing what, to them, would feel like an arbitrary line — why should Obergefell be the final scene? How do you justify bringing the curtain down now? Who are you to decide that trans people or polygamists or whoever’s next don’t qualify as victims in need of liberation from prejudice and customs? Boy, isn’t it convenient that the revolution stops when you start to feel uncomfortable…! Etc. If individual choice and freedom from irrational customs are good things by definition, it’s difficult to articulate any reason why they should be curtailed without sounding like, *gulp*, a conservative, and if there’s one thing that wakes a typical liberal in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, it’s the thought of being called a conservative by their peers.
As long as status and power accrue to those willing to play this cynical game, it won’t end. As long as dysfunctional people are incentivized to project their misery onto society, they’ll keep seeking political solutions for it. As long as the clerisy keep reflexively genuflecting before anyone who claims victimhood, they’ll keep finding newly-discovered victim groups making demands. Conservatives are at least comfortable with the knowledge that mores and customs will never be “rational” in the sense of being founded on abstract principles rather than tried-and-true practices. Liberals aren’t. Faced with accusations of irrational hypocrisy, of failing to live up to their principles, they’ll continue to back down rather than risk sacrificing their beloved self-image as the heroic champions of the underdog. In a sense, they’ve been living off of cultural savings for a while now, having it both ways. They’ve been able to position themselves as the cool, tolerant, sophisticated alternative to those musty, archaic conservatives, while trusting that unchecked individualism would never actually gather enough momentum to threaten the social cohesion accrued over the ages. As those cultural funds dwindle, the bills are starting to come due. It looks like we may be the ones fated to live in some truly interesting times indeed.