"Behold, I show you a mystery…we shall all be changed." --St. Paul
At Crisis Magazine, James Kalb makes the traditional—and seemingly commonsensical—case for human identity:
Identity precedes choice, because it tells the chooser who he is and gives him a perspective from which to define and deal with issues. So it’s not normally something people create for themselves, and someone who seems to do so is most often a con man, fantasist, or psychopath.
And yet, how often do we talk about people “reinventing” themselves? We seem to think that identity, while it may in some ways precede choice, is not entirely fixed or immutable. You don't have to be James Gatz, Robert Zimmerman, or Archibald Leach to understand the lure of personal re-creation.
Identities are social as well as individual. They make me what I am, and they make me who I am in society. How I understand myself, my good, the world and my place in it, what I am and should do, depends on stable and functional social networks to which I belong, the most important of which relate, almost by definition, to aspects of identity. If a network is sufficiently important, it defines who I am, and thus some aspect of my identity.
A good deal of the work of modernity, for better or for worse, has been detaching individuals from “networks” and thereby increasing options for identity. The cobbler’s son no longer has to be a cobbler in turn; indeed, today he no longer even has to be a son. This is precisely what bothers James Kalb:
A well-functioning system of identities seems basic to a normal and rewarding human life. It’s part of what makes us social and rational beings, since it tells us who we are in society and gives a perspective from which we can reason effectively. As such, it’s part of what makes human life—like any functional system—organized and articulate. So it’s troubling that the world seems to be in the midst of a comprehensive identity crisis: a time in which identities seem to be dissolving, even as they paradoxically take on obsessive significance.
The [new] official view is that the aspects of identity that I mentioned as human universals continue to be personally fundamental to the extent people feel them so, but they should be deprived of all relevance to social position and functioning, and made as voluntary and as subject to personal interpretation as possible. Any contrary view—for example that male and female are fixed categories that matter, or that marriage is a specific objective reality rather than the free-form personal project—is bigotry and demonstrates ignorance, stupidity, or psychological disorder. Exceptions to the subjectivist rule that seem indispensable, for example the obligations between parent and child, are dealt with by viewing them as creations of the law that can and should be changed whenever social policy demands.
When a sustained and serious effort to eradicate the social relevance of something as basic as sex or particular cultural tradition collapses, the result is likely to be something crude and unpredictable.
Let’s be clear: though he takes cover behind professed concern for “particular cultural tradition[s],” Kalb is concerned about sex and gender. That said: the reality that Kalb cannot avoid is that “identity” is simultaneously a biological given, a social construct, and a personal project. In different times and in different places, identity is more heavily weighted in one or more of those ways; in the modern West, for instance, we increasingly emphasize the “personal project” aspect of identity. We applauded it back in the 19th century when Ragged Dick transformed himself from poor boot-black into flourishing middle-class fellow; today, we are faced with Dick transforming himself instead into—well, into Caitlyn . Why can’t we applaud that transformation as well, if it enables Dick/Caitlyn to flourish?
Kalb correctly notes that as identity becomes more and more a matter of personal choice, the less predictable our human relationships become. Predictability is not everything, but it is not nothing either. A world where boys will be girls and girls will be boys is unsettling, even dizzying to those who have always believed otherwise; and yet that world is upon us, and—Mr. Kalb’s lamentations notwithstanding—I see nothing we can do about it.
The blunt fact is that medical technology makes gender transformation increasingly possible, albeit not (yet) inexpensive; and we all know the operative rule of technology, “If it can be done, it will be done.” Coupled with a reigning ideology of individual choice and autonomy which designates each of us as the arbiter of her own identity (just as consumer capitalism enshrines “Have it your way”), gender-change technology is going to be used whether we like it or not.
The impulse to transform ourselves is not new, even if the medical technology is; people have been re-fashioning themselves in various ways for millennia. I’m not talking about cross-dressers or transvestites, or necessarily about sex or gender; I’m talking about people changing the core of their identities and the core of their commitments in the world. Two thousand years ago, a Pharisaic Jew named Saul became a Christian named Paul, casting off an old identity in favor of a new one; centuries later, Augustine, a Manichaean philosopher with a slightly rakish past, became a Christian bishop and saint. Thomas Becket went from being the king's comrade-in-ribaldry to being a meddlesome priest who courted, and achieved, martyrdom. Compared to those transformations, "Bruce" to "Caitlyn" is a mere superficial modification, a tweaking of "accidents" rather than an overturning of "essence".
Christians have long sought to convert non-Christians; that is, to transform them utterly. They have preached repentance—a turning away from the old self in order to embrace a new self—and have emphasized the importance of being “born again”. Christian scripture is filled with such images and such injunctions, including the startling “There are those who make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven,” a kingdom, it should be noted, in which (as Paul said) there is neither male nor female.
James Kalb is not troubled, of course, by religious conversions or by the fading of cultural traditions; he is troubled, and deeply so, by the sudden social acceptance of “transgenderism”. The rapidity with which the transgender cause has advanced is indeed surprising and, to more than a few, unnerving. It may simply be a fad that will fade; albeit not without serious consequences for those caught up in it, some of whom may make decisions they will come to regret. The psychological issues involved in transgender cases are complicated; but then, everyone’s psychology is complicated, including mine and James Kalb’s (and Paul’s and Augustine’s). I can’t for the life of me understand what drove Caitlyn Jenner to abandon her Wheaties’ persona. I can’t say she was right to do so and I can’t say she was wrong; I’ve never lived in her skin or in her head and I’ve never competed in a decathlon in her shoes.
For James Kalb (and for me and for most of us, I suspect), the biologically determined bedrock reality of identity is simply not to be questioned; but can we not at least empathize with those of our fellow human beings who, for whatever reasons, do not live with that same certainty? Humans have always assigned gender on the basis of genitalia, but who says that’s the only way or even the proper way to do so? Might an individual not be “male” for reproductive purposes but “female” in other ways? Who are we, after all, to tell the Lord of Creation that “male” and “female” exhaust the possibilities? There may be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy; or is this all just cultural neurosis, collective insanity, a world gone mad? That is Kalb’s judgment, and he’s not alone.
As for me, I remain open-minded, a Possibilian to the core: Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? Those who cannot imagine the future, it’s been said, are doomed to repeat the past; is transgender our future and, if so, is that future to be welcomed or abhorred? James Kalb’s attitude towards transgendered persons is much like the attitude of a Dr. Seuss character towards a certain menu item: “I do not like them in a box. I do not like them with a fox. I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere.” And we all know (all of us except Senator Ted Cruz) how that story turned out.