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Progressivism’s Fragile Gender Realism

source: http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/05/progressivisms-fragile-gender-realism

 

Is there a fact of the matter about a person’s gender? To answer in the affirmative is to adopt a realist stance on questions of gender identity. We could formulate such a realist position as follows: there is a mind-independent feature of reality that decides a person’s gender, and it is not open to interpretation. This is the conservative’s position, and she rightfully appeals to the physiological and psychological distinctiveness of gender types to argue for sensible limits to further abuse of gender norms by progressives. But the logic behind the progressive demand for admitting transgendered persons into restrooms of their choosing also betrays a realist commitment: there is a mind-dependent reality about gender, and it is not deducible from physiological appearances. Whereas the conservative’s realism is immutable, the progressive’s gender reality is an elastic function of the will, created not discovered. The differences are significant, but it would be a mistake to think that the progressive accords any less authority to her characterization of gender identity than the conservative. How else can the aggrieved transgendered person hope to claim rightful admittance to a restroom of the opposite sex than by invoking as proof of injustice the authority of their will against the tyranny of their anatomy? The fact concerning my transgendered self, so the argument goes, finds true expression in my gnawing perception that something has gone horribly awry in the execution of my personhood; my body does not accurately reflect my gender, the real me. Were the progressive to deny the facticity of gender she would undermine the transgendered person’s claim to possessing an accurate perception of their true identity and vitiate their appeal to reparation.

Progressives are every bit the gender realists that conservatives are, only they locate the seat of gender in the capricious impulses of the will. This opens the progressive position to any number ofreductio ad absurdum criticisms. In promoting the will to arbiter of gender reality, progressives empower transgendered persons to change genders spontaneously and endlessly, oscillating as the mood seizes them. After decades of feminist toil and sacrifice, the joys and entitlements of womanhood now stand open to all free of charge. That anyone should have bothered to defend so tenaciously the merits of a universally accessible gender orientation over another testifies to the incompatibility of the many strains of gender revisionism jockeying for position within the progressive agenda.

As insoluble as these quandaries may seem, progressive gender realism faces an even greater obstacle. Once the progressive admits of the possibility of an error concerning gender identity—which she must do in order to lend legitimacy to the transgendered person’s grievance in the face of obvious physiological incongruities—she exposes to the possibility of error her professed organ of gender reality, the will. Having insisted that biology erred in rendering authentic personhood, the progressive must now show the will to be immune from exactly the same vulnerability. Whether she can succeed in insulating the will from error depends upon the explanatory resources at her disposal, and if she is a materialist—and she is almost certainly a materialist—scant resources offer the promise of assistance. On materialism the will, along with the sense of self that actualizes it, is merely a feature of the human organism and is no less prone to error than the biological mechanisms responsible for inaccurately manifesting the transgendered person’s identity. Without recourse to an immutable reality impervious to biological aberration, the progressive cannot defend the will as any more reliable an indicator of gender identity than the rest of the fallible human body to which it belongs.

Nor can she backtrack and reject the possibility of error, for the plausibility of her whole case for transgender rights rests on the presumption of an error. If no error, then no credible claim to righting an injury inflicted by the body upon the transgendered person’s true self. If no error, then segregating restrooms based on obvious anatomical differences cannot violate a civil right, for no deeper gender reality obtains to offend. If no error, then no grievance, and the progressive’s argument loses even the pretense of logical coherence.

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