Friday, May 27, 2016

Say Now Shibboleth

Damon Linker:

Too lazy and impatient to do the hard work of formulating arguments and trying to persuade, and too addicted to sanctimonious displays of moral righteousness, these liberals now prefer to use the ever-expanding edifice of anti-discrimination law to impose edicts from the top down.

Such liberals get to enjoy the satisfaction of reenacting the civil rights movement every few years, holding up victims of ever-new forms of discrimination as heroes of a great moral saga and demonizing those on the other side as bigots. Once the courts accept the narrative, the logic of anti-discrimination locks in, new rights become codified, and the former victims of injustice get to enjoy total victory while decades or centuries of communally based norms, practices, and beliefs get pulverized.

A few short years ago, if you had asked me my opinion on transgender rights, I would have shrugged and paraphrased Thomas Jefferson's line about religious belief: whether my neighbor says there are twenty genders or no genders, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. And in the context of an individual's choice to dress and present themselves however they want, I still feel that way. In a personal context, I still have the ability to opt out. If you're the kind of person who wants to force the issue over your pronouns, to demand respect and validation from me regardless of whether it would have been naturally forthcoming or not, well, fine; I'll likely just decide you're too much trouble to bother talking to at all. Problem solved.

I've come to see this as a bit short-sighted. The problem is, that strict libertarian-ish stance essentially forfeits the right to have any say in deciding which issues even become part of the agenda, the conversation, or whatever else you want to call it. Like a political form of Stoicism, it accepts that other people will act to create the normative framework, and the only thing you can control is how you react to it. And as I just said the other day, the whole fight over trans rights, as silly as it can be in some of the particular details, is fundamentally an important philosophical argument over whether we even share a common reality. It is not merely a logical extension of already-existing rights to an excluded group who simply want to be seen as, and treated like, everyone else. It's a demand for a special exemption from a bedrock social consensus. It's an argument over the significance of biology versus a postmodern dogma that asserts reality can be changed through linguistics and abstract theorizing. What does it truly mean to be a man or a woman, and what is the basis for making the distinction? Partisan activists naturally have no interest in debating the question for the sake of truth; they simply want to impose their standard by fiat.

Even Snopes, in the course of debunking some of the wilder, inflated claims about NYC's new law, allows that:

For instance, an individual who simply mistakenly uses the wrong pronoun when referring to a transgender individual will not be fined under the new law. However, a person who intentionally and repeatedly refuses to use an individual's preferred pronoun would be subject to fines (that could reach as high as $250,000 for multiple violations) under the the law...

I don't care if you want to believe in an absurd form of mind/body dualism that involves being a different gender "on the inside"; it's no crazier than most religious beliefs. I don't care if you want to challenge the arbitrary cultural standard that says men can't wear makeup and dresses; in fact, I'd support you. But that kind of respect is earned, not given as a birthright. It develops in the context of strong personal relationships. Forcing people, under threat of financial punishment, to deny their very perception of reality in deference to an alternative version which, as we've said, is by no means conclusively settled, is unjust. You have every right to demand that people not overtly discriminate against you in housing, employment, education, etc. even if they think you're a delusional weirdo. But you shouldn't have the right to use the power of the state to compel them to participate in your delusional honorifics. It's a question of individual conscience. I may not be legally permitted to heap abuse and vitriol upon you, which is fine, but I shouldn't be legally compelled to address you with your preferred terms of respect either.

Perhaps as a result of life under a two-party political system, arguments like this tend to break down along stark partisan lines. Black/white, left/right, you're either with us or against us. Progressives, as Linker says, are indeed hopelessly addicted to their own narrative, compelled to invent new categories of victimization, if need be, simply to avoid having to give up the righteous thrill of crusading against oppression. Part of that narrative is the assumption that anyone with misgivings about the latest crusade is plainly a fascist who wants to see members of the oppressed group beaten to death in the streets. That sort of relentless bigotry-baiting serves well to enforce ideological conformity within the tribe — progressives who have participated in the group shaming rituals directed at opponents are viscerally afraid of receiving the same treatment themselves if they fall out of lockstep. But I can't help but think that oppression narratives are the new fossil fuels — increasingly labor-intensive and cost-prohibitive to extract. We're getting into the fracking stage at this point, becoming increasingly reckless in our pursuit of cheap sources of outrage and righteousness. Perhaps some of the more far-sighted progressives should be attempting to develop more sustainable sources of self-worth and purpose before the inevitable crash.

I happened to be reading this just last night, from Andrew Potter's excellent The Authenticity Hoax:


Despite all the sensational media coverage, the bathrooms in question are actually peripheral. Why do we have segregated bathrooms by gender anyway? Who knows — probably because of the fact that exposed genitals are involved. Why do men and women have to occupy different rooms in order to void their bladders and bowels? Why is a metal stall door not an acceptable barrier, but a layer of drywall and plaster can keep chaos at bay?

You can go on at length, but the basic point is, social norms and taboos are produced at the end of a long cultural game of Telephone. At some point in the distant past, someone probably noticed that a significant number of people who ate shellfish or pork were puking their guts out shortly thereafter. After a couple centuries of the Telephone game, the message morphed from "Don't eat that stuff because it'll make you sick" to "God says don't eat that stuff or you'll burn in hell forever." Likewise, the fact that men and women go to different restrooms in public is just one particular reflection of the widespread, underlying assumption that there are some essential differences between the sexes that require ritual acknowledgment for society to function smoothly. Like making small talk with strangers about the weather, it's just gear oil for the social machinery — one of those things that's not strictly necessary, but not really worth the energy to make a scene about either. This is what people are reacting to — the perception that a useful, fundamental social norm is being needlessly destroyed by an elite progressive vanguard without anyone's else's desire or consent. As the above excerpt suggests, a widespread perception like that is just as corrosive to a society as all the economic inequality that progressives are so monomaniacally obsessed with.

Taboos don't have to be precise or efficient; for society's purposes, they just have to be clear and easily understood. There's always a certain amount of arbitrary absurdity to them, which isn't necessarily a serious problem. But for progressives, who look at culture the way Frederick Winslow Taylor looked at workers on the factory floor, taboos are irrational remnants of an archaic, superstitious past, illegitimate rules imposed on us by illegitimate rulers, and obstacles to true, rational human flourishing. The sooner they're demolished and replaced by rules based on the latest brain scans and sociological studies, the better.

This isn't to say that taboos are sacred and can never be challenged or modified, of course. But you're more likely to be successful at it if you modify them from within, as someone with a certain amount of standing and earned respect within a community, rather than as an imperious outsider giving orders and dripping contempt. I realize that it's progressive dogma at this point to have a Menckenesque sense of themselves as isolated, civilized cosmopolitans in a wasteland of ignorant, inbred, fundamentalist, redneck barbarians, but as satisfying as it may be to keep indulging in that sort of ego-stroking, it's ultimately dangerous. Even from my own perspective as an antisocial loner who can't stand people in any group with more than three members, it doesn't require much effort to feel genuine sympathy for social conservatives. I mean, on the very day of the Obergefell ruling, Freddie deBoer published a viral article explicitly urging progressives to start pushing for legalized polygamy next. The bottom-feeding progressive tabloid Salon has recently published several articles attempting to humanize the public's attitude toward pedophilia. Even for those who just want to tune out all this political bullshit and watch ESPN, they still had to endure an extended propaganda barrage over how Caitlyn Jenner is an amazing beautiful woman with the exquisite bravery of a beautiful butterfly flying against the wind. All after having been tirelessly mocked for raising concerns about a slippery slope during the push for gay marriage. And now, this top-down edict from the administration ordering public schools to accept the new, tendentious party line on gender. Now, I'm just wondering what form the inevitable backlash will take.