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How Transgenderism is rooted in the modern notions of the self

Carl Trueman:

"Perhaps the best way to see what is involved in the modern notion of selfhood is to look at the most extreme recent example of such: transgenderism. While those identifying as transgender remain a very small segment of the population, it is noteworthy that the plausibility of transgenderism enjoys increasing cultural cachet, to the point where the Supreme Court itself has determined that it is protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and where it is increasingly controversial to express any skepticism on the issue. These clearly indicate that the basic concepts underlying transgenderism are part of the common currency of how modern society thinks of selfhood.

Transgenderism rests upon a set of assumptions and social conditions that together serve to make it a plausible concept. The most obvious of these is the repudiation of the idea that the physical body exercises any ultimate authority over an individual’s identity beyond the obvious limits of time and space. The traditional notion of being a man or a woman by physical determination is rejected. Indeed, any attempt to include physical characteristics in the definition of man or woman is rejected out of hand. As the author J. K. Rowling discovered, menstruation is irrelevant to the modern definition of woman, to which we might add such things as chromosomes, pregnancy, and breast feeding. Gender—maleness and femaleness—is separate from bodily sex.

The specific intellectual genealogy of the separation of gender and sex finds its most influential expression in the work of Judith Butler and her notion that gender is a performance, not something determined by biology.[2] The roots of this idea lie in the work of earlier second wave feminists, such as Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone, but also find some precedent in the observation by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto that industrial technology, by reducing the importance of physical strength, would slowly relativize the distinction between men and women. The story of our culture over the last two centuries could be told in terms of the increasing irrelevance of the physical differences between men and women for the way we think of ourselves. The authority of the body no longer grips the moral imagination as it once did.

The loss of the authority of the body is connected to a parallel rise in the authority of psychological feelings. A world where transgenderism is plausible must be one where inner feelings have come to carry significant weight in matters of identity. It is easy to imagine someone struggling early last century with what we now term “gender dysphoria.” That person would have been told that the problem was with his mind, his psyche, and any treatment would be aimed at bringing those inner feelings into conformity with the physical body. Today, any doctor giving that advice might find himself subject to a charge of medical malpractice, not because the phenomena present in a different way but because the grid through which society interprets them has been radically inverted. Now the patient’s feelings possess normative authority for identity, and the body is merely an instrument for the realization of this, to be treated appropriately with surgery or hormones when there is any conflict between the two.


In our current technological age, we find it easier and easier to think of nature as raw matter for manipulation rather than a substantial reality possessing an inherently meaningful structure. Further, technology has made things possible and therefore plausible, — transgenderism being the most obvious example: prior to hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery, it was not surprising that the body was accorded more authority. Nothing else was remotely plausible. The linguistic shift from gender reassignment to gender confirmation surgery is, of course, emblematic of the authority now invested in feelings or psychological states. The body is raw matter, while feelings are absolute. Any conflict between feelings and biology, therefore, requires a gerrymandering of the body by surgery and hormones. And this point has been established as part of the modern social imaginary more by mass consumption of pop culture—sitcoms, soap operas, song lyrics, reality TV—than by any widespread reading of cultural theorists."


Freedom vs Community

Carl Trueman:

"Indeed, it is clear that the modern self faces a terrible and irresolvable dilemma. It conceives of freedom as the almost limitless capacity of the human will to shape the self into anything it wishes to be. “Existence precedes essence” neatly summarizes how we are trained instinctively from birth to think of ourselves. Yet this limitless freedom is not simply part of the self-consciousness of the individual; it is now part of the moral imagination of society which therefore conceives of any attempt to restrict this as oppressive. In short, we want limitless freedom. But we also want to belong, to be recognized by others. And that is an impossible situation for several reasons.

First, with no larger metaphysical framework and no moral imperative beyond “freedom for all,” the terms of belonging become inherently volatile and, hence, in need of top-down authority. Because society cannot practically organize itself on the basis of unlimited freedom for everyone (serial killers? drunk drivers?), there must be limits, and these limits—absent a recognition of some objective standard—will simply be functions of the tastes of those who possess social and cultural power. Ironically, this radical freedom will therefore tend towards authoritarianism, as the only means for justifying the necessary limitations on freedom will be by the diktats of those with power. We see this already in the move to police pronouns."