With all the Janus-like looking back and looking ahead that goes on at this time of year, we once again confront the awkward paradox of progress. Not even self-styled progressives really believe in progress any more, in the sense that things can only get better over time or that everything in the present is axiomatically superior to everything in the past.
You just have to look at the current state of the Labour Party to shed any such illusions. And yet even the crustiest reactionary is forced to admit that, all things considered, we are truly fortunate to live today rather than, say, 300 or 3,000 years ago.
So we comfort ourselves either with a woolly abstraction about there being a linear progression in the potential for mankind to build a better world, or with the down-home, practical truism that some things sometimes get better while others do not.
I’m not sure that it is a rule, or even a trend, but I fancy that one thing that does develop over time is the range of society’s sympathies and benevolence. All sorts of people who were once routinely shunned and insulted nowadays are not: ethnic minorities, the disabled, homosexuals, the mentally ill and so on.
Of course, political activists, anti-racism campaigners and social justice warriors will not be slow to step forward to claim credit for all this. But they do not really deserve it. Their raucous denunciations and strident shaming on Twitter changes few minds. The extension of our collective range of sympathies is really the work of artists, novelists, the writers of screenplays and, yes, the deliverers of homilies.
Occasionally, the odd news journalist might make a small contribution too. But all these are only the channels of something else. Cutting through the crusts around our hearts and letting the feeling flow is surely the action of divine grace, the work of the Holy Spirit, though there is fat chance of a secular society finding any way to acknowledge that.
I reckon the chief beneficiaries of the process at the moment and for the coming year will be transgender people. I confess that, like Eddie Redmayne, I had not given transgender issues much thought until recently. Except perhaps when packing a copy of Jan Morris’s book for a trip to Venice the subject did not often spring to mind. And not being a Kardashians fan, the whole Caitlyn Jenner thing largely passed me by. I doubt whether most people are fluent in the proliferating transgender terminology: aware of the distinction, for instance, between transgender and transsexual; comfortable with terms such as non-binary, two-spirit, multigendered etc.
The Danish Girl, in which Redmayne plays the transgender artist Lili Elbe, will lead lots of people to think about it more. But thinking, mastering arcane jargon, conforming to new orthodoxies of behaviour, outlook or belief are not the important things; indeed, not even necessary things. Getting past instinctive, irrational revulsion is more important than assenting to the theoretical proposition that gender is a social construct. Most important of all is developing a sympathetic imagination that allows us to act with kindness. We need to be able to imagine what it would be like to be Vikki Thompson, a 21-year-old transgender woman who was found dead at Armley jail, Leeds in November. Thompson had threatened to kill herself if sent to a male prison. Lili Elbe’s story can help in developing society’s capacity to imagine that in ways that political hectoring cannot.
People will wonder where it will all lead. People are always wondering where it will lead and citing something as an absurd, outlandish extreme that actually turns out to be grounded in precedent, something familiar even. At the height of the debates over legalising same-sex marriage, for instance, some warned us that if it were allowed it wouldn’t be long before people were demanding to marry their dogs.
Wouldn’t be long? People have been wanting to wed their pets for years. In the US, litigants have been fighting that one through the courts since way back when. Here, it’s a hardy perennial for tabloid news editors to reach for on a slow news day. On July 21 this year, a full 10 days before the official start of the silly season, the Daily Mirror introduced us to Dominique Lesbirel. “Dominique’s first husband, Doerack, was her cat. And her new love is her dog, Travis.” The forthcoming nuptials will be celebrated on marryyourpet.com, a website set up as
long ago as 2003.
The downright wacky is, then, not a consequence of other social changes, but something on a parallel track. And so it is with the group known as “transagers”. Stefonknee (formerly known as Paul Wolscht) is a 52-year-old father who now prefers to live as a six-year-old girl. He left his wife and seven children to live in his new identity. “I can’t deny I was married. I can’t deny I have children,” Wolscht told an interviewer. “But I’ve moved forward now and I’ve gone back to being a child. I don’t want to be an adult right now and I just live my life like I couldn’t when I was in school.”
So, do we declare there are limits and our sympathies should not be stretched in every direction? Or do we say heck, Jeremy Corbyn is the Leader of the Opposition; Donald Trump could be the President of the United States. Weird is the new normal. Get used to it.
Dennis Sewell is a contributing editor of The Spectator
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