The populist voter insurgencies of 2016 are complex, but one important aspect of them is the rejection of a seamless liberal order and worldview. Despite its unbearable claims to be the only possible worldview, liberalism has been rejected because it does not work for the majority of people. And just as liberal economics are now being questioned, so are liberalism’s cultural and ethical assumptions – in a way that the highly intelligent liberal Richard Rorty prophesied 20 years ago.
The backlash against liberalism
Liberals have too casually spoken as if being white, male and heterosexual were in itself a cause for suspicion, rather than a condition that white heterosexual males cannot help. So liberals should not be surprised if they now face a backlash from ordinary, not very successful WHMs who have dangerously started to think of themselves as a threatened “identity”.
This “whitelash” may well sometimes take on unpleasant forms of racial prejudice, misogyny, dislike of all Muslims, nationalism, even anti-semitism and so forth. But more commonly it is a reaction to liberals’ tendency to obsess over their favourite issues to the neglect of what the majority needs: family, community and work security along with a sense of cultural identity. (An identity that is all the more precious to the less-privileged, and often the key to their survival.) Too often liberals can sound not just as if they do not care about these things, but even as if they should be disparaged.
What is more, it is possible that liberals have too easily assumed that there exists a new consensus over abortion rights, euthanasia rights, gay marriage, transgender issues and positive discrimination (as opposed to formal equal access) for women and racial minorities. In reality, it may well be that a large number of people either reject or have doubts about these things, but feel that it is no longer acceptable to say so. Their real views perhaps emerged anonymously as one aspect of the votes for Brexit and for Trump.
In the face of all this, one can well feel a divided reaction. On the one hand, a fear of mass tyranny and new reasons to feel hesitant about the undiluted virtues of pure democracy. (See my new book The Politics of Virtue, co-written with Adrian Pabst). On the other hand, a certain sense that the voters have grasped several truths. Last year’s votes showed an inchoate popular recognition that liberalism has become a violent and elitist global tyranny, that economic and cultural liberalism are really at one (Blair, the Clintons, Cameron) and that we may have modified or abandoned ultimately Christian norms about sex and gender all too casually and with no serious debate. These popular instincts may all be far more intellectually cogent than the vapid conclusions of a thousand postmodern academic seminars.
This point was for me well illustrated by a recent radio phone-in programme where an academic rightly said that “race” was a mere European ideological construction, but a listener then asked why, in that case, the academic wanted to validate “black history” and “black studies” in isolation? Would that not just reinforce the ideological delusion? she naively but perceptively asked. The academic had no serious answer, illustrating the dialectical illiteracy of so many supposed intellectuals today.
In what follows I am not denying that there are some people with confused bodies who deserve our every help towards a viable individual solution. Nor that there are others with unfathomable psychological conditions estranging them from their own corporeal manifestation. Perhaps, in extremis, surgery is the only solution for them.
But many people rightly sense that the liberal obsession with the transgender issue has gone beyond merely wanting to help this minority. It has become a whole movement to change our notions of gender. And its preoccupations come across as irrelevant to most people, unjustified in its conclusions, and apparently condemnatory of the normal with which most people identify.
As with the new post-liberalism in general (in both nasty and wise variants), the point is not “conservatism” versus “progressivism”. It is rather a question of essentially liberal novelties tied to an individualist, positivist philosophy which recognises only “facts” and “choice” as real. To reject this philosophy does not make you a reactionary.
The contemporary liberal worldview, influenced especially by Judith Butler, sharply divides the mere “fact” of given bodily sex from the “chosen” cultural construction of gender. Bodily appearances of engenderment are no longer seen as manifestations of a psychic-bodily unity, but as meaningless physical circumstances. Real gender is seen as something that our culture has collectively fantasised.
However, more sophisticated exponents of cultural theory, including many feminists, have asked whether nature and culture can be so easily divided. And in reality, liberals cannot sustain an account which denies so much of our experience. Instead, they end up shamelessly muddling nature and culture. Exceptions to the gendered and heterosexual norm are at one moment deemed to be non-negotiably “given” as natural, even biological facts (nature), and at the next deemed to be valid individual preferences (culture).
Why liberalism hurts the poor
Liberalism, then, drives the attempt to displace the heterosexual norm – which leads to the (shockingly illiberal) criminalisation of those who do not endorse either gay practice or gay marriage. But liberalism includes capitalism: in the end, liberalism defines people as simply property-owners, narcissistic self-owners, choosers and consumers. Aquinas thought that our natural orientation to something outside ourselves was fundamental to our being. Liberalism, by contrast, denies the importance of relationships. Thereby it encourages the undoing of community, locality and beauty – and also marriage and the family.
And there is, naturally, money to be made out of all this. Husbands, wives, children and adolescents (this last an invention of the market) are more effective and exploitable consumers when they are isolated. Fluctuating identities and fluid preferences, including as to sexual orientation, consume still more, more often and more variously in terms of products and services. The fact that the market also continues to promote the nuclear family as the norm is not here to the point – of course it will make money from both the “normal” and the “deviant” and still more from their dispute. Ultimately, profits will accrue from reducing the heterosexual norm to the status of just another “lifestyle choice”.
The populist (as opposed to the well-heeled and ultra-liberal) faction amongst Brexiteers and Trumpists implicitly see all this – and realise that the marginalising of the family, as of secure labour, coherent community and safe environment, is not in their interests. For, as RR Reno and others have pointed out, the poor or relatively poor simply cannot afford the experimentation with sex, drugs and lifestyle that can be afforded by those cushioned by wealth. Thus the result of sexual liberalism and the decay of marriage as a norm for working people is too often women left on their own with babies, and young men (shorn of their traditional chivalric and regular breadwinning dignity) driven to suicide.
The intellectuals’ mistake
I repeat that there are some people who really do have a psychic disparity with their gendered body. They may be a very small minority, but they should be listened to – and liberalism has certainly helped us to treat them with understanding and compassion.
But we should still consider irremediable psychic disparity with one’s gendered body to be a highly rare exception, and normatively one should assume (with the sensus communis of all ages) that gender indeed follows upon biological sex. Otherwise, one is embracing a most bizarre dualism of mind and body or soul and body.
Normatively, we will identify with the indications of our given bodies and be propelled by them towards attraction to “the other” body, or alternatively (in the case of gay people) to “the same”. But this is too much for liberalism, which finds such thought “essentialist” and limiting. For liberalism, inner feelings about sexual identity and attraction may imply that I am not really in the “right” body, or alternatively that it is my right to choose the body that I “really” want. There have also been stories, following the same logic, about people choosing to be disabled, to be of “another race” or even another species.
So two controversial points about transgenderism follow from this. First, that we are not talking here about simply the discovery of “another” minority condition that demands recognition and emancipation, but rather about a necessary extended footnote to the rendering of homosexuality as the new norm. For once we give equal status to attraction towards “the same” as to attraction towards “the other”, we have already rendered sexual difference a subordinate irrelevance.
Secondly, that the contradiction I described earlier is still there: “transgender” oscillates between being merely a matter of choice, and being something unchosen, something lodged in a presumed non-pathological soul.
A neurological or corporeal basis for transgender seems unlikely. It is just possible that genuine neurological evidence will alter our perspectives on all this, but so far it is very inconclusive. In any case, the mere discovery of a neurological equivalent to a state of psychic/corporeal confusion is unlikely to show which came first – the formation of the brain or of a person’s psychological responses to social interactions. Arguably, the psychology is more likely to come first, given the known extreme responsiveness of the habits of synapses to our patterns of behaviour.
Unless one could identify an unambiguously physical source at the genetic level for an abnormality of brain functioning, it would be very difficult to presume that transgender has ultimately neurological causes.
If transgender is alternatively considered to be a matter of choice, then one might suppose that collectively we should encourage people to stay in the bodies and psychic guise they were born with, since that is more likely to further social happiness and the perpetuation of the human race – or more immediately, the continuance of the European legacy (however much one may allow for the conversion and inculturation of incomers). Yet already there are suggestions and practices which demand that gender-neutrality be rendered normative, so that children can eventually choose (but how, with what guidance, with what formed habits?) their own gendered identity mix.
This is to ignore the overwhelming evidence familiar to us all (with no need for dubious accounts of experiments and statistics) for biologically-given gendered behaviour in babies and infants. So educating children this way is a recommendation for liberal tyranny and oppression. Most people rightly think any such educational programme is nuts. They are the intellectuals, and the liberal academics are the lunatics.
And without bodily sexual difference, there would of course be no prompting to the social imagination of gender. This is the very simple point that is naïvely overlooked as too naïve by the Butlerian thinkers. It is dangerous to suggest that any and every claim to be in the wrong body requires the expenditure of scarce health resources, rather than some form of guidance. If we treat gender identity as so easily laid aside, we could lose our bedrock understanding of what human nature is.
The new intolerance
The present is here in some ways less tolerant than the past. As with homosexuality, past cultures did not so readily label transgender tendencies, much less make them all-defining of someone’s identity (think of late Victorian broadmindedness here, as in the case of the strange archiepiscopal Benson family). Instead, previous generations allowed that young girls might often be boys and – a little less readily – vice-versa. Screeds of nonsense are now written and enacted about gender-bending in Shakespeare as “subversive”, but the whole point about such ironic games is that they depended on seeing gender as a bi-substantial absolute (ie to be human is to be either male or female, period), while recognising that our deepest spiritual souls transcend gender even as they do not wholly do so.
By comparison, transgender as promoted today is a deadly earnest attempt to abolish gender altogether. Naturally, this promotion is most of all directed towards adolescents and children (rendering our fears, legitimate and not, over child abuse, somewhat hypocritical) by the commercial music industry.
What comes after transgender? Surely no gender at all, but only the lone self, wandering trapped in a labyrinth of endlessly binary forking paths, by which it is more controlled than it can ever be controlling. With gender vanishes sex, save for self-pleasuring, and with both sex and gender vanishes the most fundamental mode of eros and relationality: that between man and woman. Most non-tyrannical human self-government has been built on male-female relationality, as Ivan Illich showed. It also provides the metaphors on which most of religion is founded, from Hinduism to the Wisdom literature of the Bible.
And with this vanishing, reproduction would be more and more removed from the sphere of free and loving relationships and handed over to market forces and state scientific control. Increasingly isolated individuals would still want babies and it would be in the interests of both commerce and the state to provide them with the artificial means to do so and to seek to exert influence over that process and its outcome. This is just what Aldous Huxley predicted in his Brave New World, whose title of course ironically invokes the founding cultural shock of the recognition of sexual difference in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. His brave new dystopia is really a world that puts an end to the true human novelty.
It is not surprising if the majority of people feel threatened by transgender obsessions, both for the way in which they themselves are perceived and for the fate of their children and their own way of life. Dimly, perhaps, they also discern the post-humanist direction in which this is all heading. Both the unchurched and Christian dissenters may have now obliquely spoken up for the western and Christian legacy more abruptly and absolutely than the mainline churches.
The cult of transgender is of course but one manifestation of a rejected liberalism, but it is highly symptomatic. And it may well be one of the things that has provoked an altogether unexpected populist reaction. Like so many, I do not admire much of the form this takes. But the people may sense that, in this case as in others, things have gone too far, and they are by no means wrong.