Men and women are a thing, but simply to be human is also a thing, with material reality – a body, not so large as a whale nor so small as a mouse; an eye that registers some frequencies of electromagnetic radiation and not others; an ear that registers some frequencies of sound and not others; a gut that can’t digest cellulose; a lung that can’t extract oxygen from water; perhaps a brain that can understand certain things and not others. That is, humans, whether they’re men or women, whether they’re modern or mediaeval, whether they speak German or Khmer, share something that isn’t fish or bird.
Yet this abstract humanity never can appear in itself; human persons are male or female, they’re born and grow up in a particular time and a particular place, speaking a particular language, with other particular oddballs from whom alone they can form their own ideas of what it is to be human. It is modern liberalism that seeks to do away with all these specificities. (Whereas modern fascism, of course, seeks to reify and petrify them and encode them in law.)
Liberalism lays great stress on our “common humanity”, while acknowledging “diversity” as a kind of entertaining but essentially superficial décor. In this regard, as usual, liberalism operates as the handmaiden of Capital, which considers us all as undifferentiated or minimally differentiated “human resources”. But liberalism’s “common humanity” has no concrete content. The materialist, natural-history concept of what it is to be human stresses bipedality, sexual reproduction, the opposable thumb and so on; but the liberal’s universal human can be anything; trans-humanism is an unacknowledged assumption of liberal modernist ideology.
Which of course brings us to the gender perplex. In its theoretical dimension, the replacement of sex with ‘gender’, and the purely subjective understanding of the latter, is really a quintessentially liberal (and modern) project. (So, of course, bashing it is a quintessentially fascist – and modern – project.) The abstract undifferentiated liberal-modern human subject regards his material reality, his actual, irreplaceable, unique human body – a thing which has never been seen before in the history of the universe, and will never be seen again – as something incidental, imposed upon him, subject to modification by technology and hormone shots and surgery. His body may look male, but he’s in some inward way really a woman. Or maybe he’s neither a man nor a woman. Or he’s a man today and a woman tomorrow. One is tempted to suggest that liberal modernism is not just stoic, but also, weirdly, rather Gnostic.
But perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised at this development. In our day, the whole field of sex has become something of a minefield. Nobody knows what to expect or how to behave; the culture abounds in double binds and contradictory messages, invigilation and attitudinizing, shaming and calling-out. It’s hardly surprising that people might want to keep their options open, and it’s hardly surprising that some might just want to call the whole thing off, as Noel Coward put it. And who could blame them? Getting oneself to a nunnery is no longer a respectable way out.
It’s a demoralizing picture. But for me, at least, a decent respect for the autonomy of every actual human subject demands, on the civic plane, that everybody be able to navigate it as best he can in his own way, absent some very compelling, clear, demonstrable claim that others can make. What’s now called “gender dysphoria” is certainly a thing, and, it would seem, always has been. Or at least, there have always been men who dressed and, as we now say, “presented” as women, and vice versa. Sometimes, no doubt, these choices were made for practical reasons; but given the centrality of sex and the extraordinarily varied experiences of human beings growing up with it, surely it must also have often occurred, since forever, that a he or a she felt insufferably boxed-in by the expectations implicit in he-ness or she-ness, as he or she immediately experienced these categories, and saw jumping the sex fence as the way out. And why not? Who is entitled to say No to such deeply personal and utterly inoffensive individual choices?
Nobody, I think. The absolutely autonomous private choices of an individual – an adult individual, of course; transitioning children is felonious medical malpractice and child abuse – an adult individual, I say, seeking his own happiness, or such approaches to happiness as there are to seek in this vale of tears: those choices are not, should not, should never, be the subject of politics. Contrary to the old Sixties slogan, the personal is not necessarily political. (Nor should the political necessarily be taken personally, of course.)
But the currently prevailing ideology of gender is another matter. Ideology and theory are always fair game. Perhaps the canon of specificity might help us out here. Perhaps every human story is so specific that we don’t even need, or want, a theory of gender as such – except that people deal with it in various ways. (I mean a political theory, of course; a credible psychoanalytic theory, or even a moderately serious one, would be very welcome.) We would certainly be better off without a theory than with a bad one – and a bad one is what we have, a weird muddle of shoddy metaphysics, empty phrase-mongering, and wishful, data-free speculation about DNA and neurology.
The concrete political content of the gay movement originally might be characterized concisely as “liberation”, or, in an older and possibly more accurate term, “emancipation” – specifically, the right to have the sex life you like without state interference or legal penalty or discrimination in the marketplace. It was, and is, rather difficult for reasonable and well-disposed people to argue against this demand. Can’t the same be said for the more recent swirl of activism around “gender” – that is, people have the civic right to present or enact or perform sex or gender as they please, without interference or penalty or discrimination? On that practical plane, as with gay liberation, it’s difficult to make the case against; who’s got a legitimate interest in stopping it? (I leave the topics of locker-rooms and rest-rooms and competitive sports to be thrashed out by those who have a dog in the fight.)
Asking for more than this might be a case of not taking ‘yes’ for an answer. But much gender-related activism currently does in fact seem to go well past such concrete political goals, and to come down to a demand for explicit acknowledged adherence to a specific theory of gender – a theory which I personally find dubious – and for explicit recognition of one’s cause at every turn, or better, at every turn of phrase, as with the mandated revision of the English pronominal declension. One suspects a certain understandable but misplaced impulse to be in the front row for every group picture.
Sometimes, in fact, the quest for the foreground can become so absolutist and divisive that one is almost tempted to wonder whether the Red Squad isn’t behind it. A recent example from England is a formation within the Labour Party called Labour Campaign for Trans Rights (LCTR), which has been demanding that anybody who won’t sign off on its rather expansive twelve-point program be expelled from the party. Now reasonable people can argue about the specific contents of these twelve points – personally I could sign off on most of them, though not all – but an electoral party like Labour needs to accommodate some divergence of views.
There is nothing at all wrong with single-issue politics. We all have our red lines, and we are all much more interested in some topics than others. I, for example, won’t vote for anybody who has a kind word to say for Israel; to quote a coarse old proverb, there is some shit I will not eat. But I don’t think that if I were, say, a member of DSA, I would be trying to expel anybody less maximalist on this topic than myself. In fact I would view such a stratagem as a serious and highly sectarian mistake, to say no more than that.
Liberalism of course takes a very sunny view of contemporary gender theory, since far from threatening the social order, it is thoroughly aligned with the ideology of liberal modernism – among the freedoms which modernity has conferred is freedom from the inconvenient particularities of one’s own vertebrate, mammalian human body. (Compare Engels’ profound and highly dialectical observation that freedom entails the recognition of necessity.) And the good modern liberal feels a certain flush of righteous self-congratulation with every deployment of a suitably woke pronoun.
We might usefully ask ourselves to what extent the substantive political content of activism on the sex front in general isn’t adequately subsumed by a general claim for individual autonomy, privacy, non-interference and non-discrimination, which het as well as gay, cis as well as trans, might embrace without hesitation. Indeed, the highly fluid alphabet-soup acronym – LGB plus a rather unstable series of suffixes – suggests as much. After all, the social experiences and social praxes of – for example – lesbians and gay men aren’t, in any obvious way, very similar. Similarly, trans people are very interested in gender, and strongly prefer to be one gender rather than another; while gender abolitionism apparently seeks to liquidate the concept altogether. The purely negative commonality seems to be that none of the identities subsumed by the acronym is stolidly cis-het. Which is, of course, the double reification of a negative – not being something which itself consists of not being anything else.
In the Left context, an insistence on individual autonomy and privacy often seems rather shocking, as if one were espousing a kind of radical individualism, or rather atomism: the individual monad, arithmetically summed, as solely constitutive of society. But it’s not necessary to make that kind of sweeping (and rather vulgar) claim about the foundations and constitution of human society in order to recognize that the human individual is a thing; that there really is, within the polis, a legitimate private sphere, which has been envisioned and created by the historically specific unfolding of our actual human social world; it is a valuable gift from those who went before us, and lies among the things which we Lefties ought to promote and defend.
There is no reason on earth why socialism need be run by nosey-parkers. That is the fascist’s canard – and also, of course, the liberal’s, who is very much a nosey-parker himself, and would very much like to run the show. Here as elsewhere, the Left needs to purge itself of the contaminating influence of liberalism.