Provocations

by Daniel A. Kaufman

  1. The current transgender moment

It’s a strange time, now, on the cultural Left, with a lot of circular firing squad style activity going on, particularly between old guard feminists and mostly younger, transgender activists.  At the surface, the fight is over things like women’s colleges and other all-women’s spaces and whether they should be open to trans-women. More deeply, the conflict would seem to be over some of the fundamental assumptions that have traditionally been associated with gender identity movements, especially the socially constructed nature of gender.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/opinion/sunday/what-makes-a-woman.html?_r=0

http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2015/10/28/comment-the-attack-on-germaine-greer-shows-identity-politics

I’ve actually been a bit surprised by the swiftness with which the younger types have been ready to chuck their venerable elders over the side of the social justice boat, employing rhetoric that one would think they would save for people like Donald Trump or James Dobson.  The battle for women’s equality and for the creation of what has become a quite impressive set of American, all-women institutions was very hard fought, and there is something rather dispiriting about the cavalier way in which millennial social justice warriors are just ready to dismiss it all as irrelevant.  One wonders whether this is not at least partly a result of (a) the shocking degree to which the younger generation is utterly ignorant of history, even recent history, and (b) the fetishization of choice and the rejection of givens, against the backdrop of which the sudden, gushing enthusiasm for transgenderism makes a certain kind of weird sense.

As for my own partially-formed thoughts on the subject, here they are, scattered and incomplete:

  • Gender identity activists are going to have to make some sense of the mess that currently is their conception of the relative roles of nature and acculturation. For decades, now, we have been told that while sex is natural, gender is socially constructed, and that this is why, for example, someone might be a woman, in terms of sex, but might more strongly identify with what have traditionally been male roles.  Indeed, this was the underlying message of much of Free to Be You and Me, a magnificent record put together by Marlo Thomas and a group of high profile actors, musicians, and other assorted celebrities, and one that I listened to constantly, as a child.

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLFh9kVO9_BWOwGnw1Kfuwsm3jYZ2h1287

Now, however, we are being told that people are being “born in the wrong bodies” or that while their bodies may be male or female, their brains are the opposite, all of which speaks to a sort of essentialism that contradicts the older, social construction model.  Clearly, this will all have to be sorted out, before the conversation on these issues will be anything better than an intense, often angry muddle.

  • There is a disheartening tendency on the part of trans-activists to react to any question regarding the current movement by some appeal to “the science,” as if (a) these matters were settled and enjoyed wide consensus and (b) are all amenable to scientific investigation. I call this “disheartening” because (c) the science on all of this is brand new and can hardly have reached any sort of settled position – I would argue that at our current stage of investigation, we know little to nothing about the phenomenon, regardless of what the activists might like everyone to think – and (d) to the extent to which the question is one of how we employ certain socially-inflected terminology and kind-classifications, it cannot be one that will be decided by any scientific discovery, but will have to undergo sustained philosophical analysis.
  • The transgender activist position on all-women’s colleges – namely, that trans-women ought to be able to attend them – if widely adopted, will spell the end for those institutions, as the institutions they have been. I am not making the case that this is a good or a bad thing – simply that it is the inescapable outcome of what seems to be the current trajectory on which the issue is headed.  To the extent to which these institutions exist because of a specific set of arguments that have traditionally been made of all-women’s spaces, the inclusion of trans-women makes little sense.

The traditional arguments for all-women’s spaces had to do not just with the mistreatment of women by men, but with the distinctive experiences of women, in the US, experiences that are directly related to what feminists see as “the problem.”  And yet, someone who was physically male and lived as a man for decades, prior to transitioning — like the ubiquitous Caitlyn Jenner — will not have had those experiences.  Indeed, even someone who transitions at a much earlier age will never have some of these distinctive experiences – menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, abortion, post-partum depression, etc.  This is not to say that the transgendered do not have their own distinctive experiences or face their own distinctive challenges, but simply that they are not the same as those of women.  To this extent, Elinor Burkett, in the New York Times piece I linked to above, seems correct.

Perhaps the trans-moment has revealed that all-women’s colleges are no longer necessary.  That may be the case.  But if all-women’s colleges are still necessary, for the reasons traditionally given, the admission of transgender students is hard to make sense of.

  1. Generation Wuss

I am somewhat puzzled by the current enthusiasm among, mostly younger millennials, for “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” “micro-aggressions,” “calling out,” “checking privilege” and all the other concepts that make up so much of the contemporary social justice landscape and which characterize what Bret Easton Ellis has called “Generation Wuss.”

http://www.vanityfair.fr/culture/livre/articles/generation-wuss-by-bret-easton-ellis/15837

At the most superficial level, the appeal is easy to see.  To be able to direct the regulatory, administrative, and legal machinery of one’s society, so that it punishes your enemies and provides you with layers of protection is a way to acquire social, political, and cultural power and position, without having to do it the long, hard, and boring way.  And given the merciless reality of the current economy – one that is unlikely to change – it’s easy to see why a generation, whose prospects for accumulating wealth and power are much worse than those of the other generations currently still alive, would find this sort of thing appealing and even a bit intoxicating.

That said, I still don’t understand it, and especially, its popularity with teens and young adults.  Indeed, in my gloomier, very Gen-Xy moments, I wonder whether it signals the death of everything that used to define youth.  Some admittedly only partially formed thoughts along these lines.

  1. One’s teen and young adult years are typically those in which we are most inclined to take risks. But the “wuss” regime bespeaks a level of risk-averseness that one would normally only associate with frail, elderly people.
  2. One’s youth is when one’s fundamental identity-formation occurs and hence, is a time of intense concern with social position. Why, then, such a passionate commitment to a posture of weakness and fragility that inevitably will engender social contempt, rather than respect?
  3. Can anyone really believe that once they have left school and entered the workforce, these sorts of poses and postures will continue to work?  With the exception of a few high-profile cases of the sort that you read on Gawker, does anyone really think that they will be able to tweet-outrage their enemies into hiding or convince employers to fire “offenders,” in perpetuity?  Put another way, can any young person really believe that they will never need to accumulate money and social capital the traditional way, but will be able to navigate their way to success and social position, by manipulating the regulatory and legal regime?

Clearly, this issue is hot right now, and there are a gazillion pieces out there, trying to make sense of it.  Here are some of what I think are the better ones.

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/the-anti-free-speech-movement-at-ucla/410638/

http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/blog/2015/10/20/wesleyan-students-defund-paper/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201509/declining-student-resilience-serious-problem-colleges

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/

59 Comments »

  1. A wonderful meditation and empirical exploration relevant to the issues hers is Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson is author of The Men Who Stare at Goats. He’s kind of a “new journalist” who writes in partly memoir style, but unlike say Hunter Thompson, he’s a sort of schlubby empathetic guy who seems worried about what his subjects are doing to them selves but nevertheless sticks to the Prime Directive. Very very funny too.

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  2. Daniel Kaufman,

    Hopefully I’ll be able to get my point across better in the future. I think I probably could have avoided most of that if I’d focused better on stating my last two points more clearly and toned down the soapboxing. Of course that’s clearer to me after the fact, but when I’m pressed for time and think there’s something important I want to say, it often comes out preachy, condescending, or both. But that’s not a justification.

    In the current debate I see two fundamental and separate issues that need serious attention. First one, I think we agree that the psychological health of youth is a serious problem. All the links I included were to help convince those who doubt that that’s the case (by the way in the Psychology Today article you linked to, there was a link to another Psychology Today article, that’s the one I linked to). Second, social justice issues, and the research on those, like the detrimental effects of systematic racism, sexism, and marginalization, is solid too (I think today’s youth is not special in that sense, past generations were just as involved in social justice issues themselves).

    In that context, I don’t understand most of the current media focus.

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