The End of Traditional Civil Rights?
by Daniel A. Kaufman
I’m concerned that we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of civil rights, as traditionally understood. The fight for civil rights was born with the original women’s movement of the late 19th century** and may very well may die with the contemporary gender-identity movement that has engulfed both feminist and gay and lesbian activism. If allowed to continue and become even more generalized (and I don’t see why it wouldn’t, given its current trajectory), this “identificationism” will absorb the black, Latino, and other racial and ethnic justice movements as well. What a bitter irony it is that after surviving more than a century under the relentless assault of the forces of reaction, the fight for civil rights may very well end in the name of progressivism.
In my essay “Self-Made,” I described identificationism (though I didn’t name it such) as a simultaneously anxious and hubristic deformation of the modern conception of the self, whose origins lie in the philosophies of Descartes, Locke, and Kant. (1) The reasonable version of this conception entails a rejection of the pre-modern idea that a person is defined entirely in terms of his or her position in a social framework that is governed by a normatively thick conception of natural law, in favor of the notion that (to a substantial degree) who we are is a matter of our internal consciousness and thus, is determined by us. It was an idea whose ultimate aim was to ground the moral and political autonomy of the individual necessary for life in a modern, democratic polis.
What the reasonable version of this conception never entailed, however (substance dualism and noumenal selves aside), was a complete rejection of material or social reality, but this is precisely what contemporary identificationism does, maintaining that the individual is entirely self-made; that who and what I am is a matter of my own consciousness and will alone, irrespective of nature or social consensus. The result is an incoherent, unstable ground, on which identity and civil rights as traditionally understood can no longer be sustained.
Until about five minutes ago, everyone knew what a lesbian is, namely a homosexual woman. According to contemporary gender identity theory, however, a woman is anyone who identifies as such, even if the person in question has a complete complement of male reproductive organs, the result being that ‘woman’ becomes a sexually heterogeneous category and same-sex attraction becomes same-gender attraction.
The gay and lesbian civil rights movement was all about promoting the moral and legal prerogatives of those with same-sex attractions, pursuing same-sex relationships. The battles were hard fought, with incremental victories scored across the 1970’s, ‘80s, and ‘90’s, but in the United States, in 2015, the motherlode of all victories was won with the legalization of same-sex marriage, across all fifty states. It was a watershed moment for American civil rights, akin to women attaining the right to vote and the desegregation of American schools.
But it all was to be reversed, in the historical equivalent of a split-second. Not legally – at least, not yet, though that would seem to be coming – but morally, socially, and politically. For to assert one’s right to be exclusively same-sex attracted and to pursue exclusively same-sex relationships, today, is alleged by identificationists as being, at best, a kind of genital-fetishism and at worst, outright bigotry. After all, since (according to them) ‘man’ and ‘woman’ denote genders, not sexes, and since genders are sexually heterogeneous, not sexually homogenous, to be a lesbian or gay man is to be same-gender attracted, not same-sex attracted. This is how we wind up with the strange spectacle of people with a complete set of male reproductive organs claiming to be lesbians and the shameful move on the part of gender-identity activists to publicly excoriate homosexuals for not wanting to have sex or romantic relationships with people of the opposite sex, something that used to be the exclusive province of religious fundamentalists and other assorted social conservatives and reactionaries. (Why sex preferences are bigoted but gender preferences are not is never explained.)
You might think this little more than a weird fight, at the farthest reaches of radical politics, but you’d be wrong. All of the major feminist and gay rights organizations have jumped on the identificationist bandwagon with aplomb, apparently oblivious to the fact that it entails the wholesale erasure of heterosexuality and homosexuality, as human phenomena. And it is worldwide. Consider, for example, the announcement for next year’s Lesbian Lives conference, at the University of Brighton, which indicates that:
The Lesbian Lives Conference is open to all genders and any political and sexual orientations. There is an ethos of welcome and accessibility. We particularly want to extend a welcome to bi and trans communities. The Lesbian Lives Conference has considered and signed a comprehensive statement of support for ‘Feminists Fighting Transphobia’ (2)
The statement laments those feminists who believe that women have been oppressed as a sex and that the feminist movement should remain a sex-focused one and brands them as bigots, akin to racists:
There has been a noticeable increase in transphobic feminist activity this summer: the forthcoming book by Sheila Jeffreys from Routledge; the hostile and threatening anonymous letter sent to Dallas Denny after she and Dr. Jamison Green wrote to Routledge regarding their concerns about that book; and the recent widely circulated statement entitled “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Critique of ‘Gender,’” signed by a number of prominent, and we regret to say, misguided, feminists have been particularly noticeable. And all this is taking place in the climate of virulent mainstream transphobia that has emerged following the coverage of Chelsea Manning’s trial and subsequent statement regarding her gender identity, and the recent murders of young trans women of color, including Islan Nettles and Domonique Newburn, the latest targets in a long history of violence against trans women of color. (3)
You might wonder why any of this need be a problem, insofar as we retain the notion of sex, alongside gender. Let identificationists have their genders and their hetero- and homo-genderalism, you might say, and we’ll keep our sexes and sexual orientations. The problem with such a live-and-let-live strategy is twofold. As just indicated, all of the major feminist and gay rights organizations have joined the identificationist parade and are actively engaged in trying to stamp out any continued commitment to sex-based identity and activism. Of even greater concern, however, is the fact that the concept of biological sex itself has come under identificationist attack, with gender theorists and activists claiming that it too is “socially constructed” (hence all the talk one hears about sexes being “assigned” at birth, “girl-penises,” sex not being bimodal and the like). Most worrisome is the fact that it’s not just gender theorists and activists talking this way, but members of the scientific and medical establishments as well, and though at this point it is not entirely clear whether the latter, as a whole, will go over the identificationist cliff – we still have “women’s clinics” staffed by women’s doctors (i.e. gynecologists and obstetricians), and medical researchers still do sex-based clinical research, in light of the many, substantial physiological differences between males and females that entail any number of different medical needs – but the indicators are not hopeful, in the face of the intense pressure being applied by contemporary identificationists.
What is happening to contemporary feminism and gay and lesbian activism should not be underestimated, but understood as a sign of things to come. After all, unlike a person’s sex, one’s ethnic identity is obviously, demonstrably socially constructed, and race, (beyond the human) is an outright fiction constructed out of superficial differences in material appearances, like skin color or eye shape, so it’s hard to see how ethnically and racially grounded civil rights efforts will be able to resist the logic of self-madeness. (4) Rachel Dolezal’s efforts to “self-identify” as black may have backfired, but I would suggest that this is only because she came to the identificationist party a bit too early. (5) Another such effort, five or ten years from now, done offensively, rather than defensively, in the manner of contemporary gender activism (i.e. by way of accusing critics of bigotry and “violence” and demanding their silencing and worse), might very well succeed, and if it does, it will be the last nail in the coffin of the traditional conception of civil rights.
That conception was always about making the case against justifying social, political, and economic subordination on the ground of acknowledged material realities. The material fact that black people look different from white people was used to justify the belief that they, as a group, suffer a diminished humanity, which provided the grounds for their exploitation and enslavement. The material fact that women bear children and men do not was used to justify the belief that they, as a group, suffer diminished rationality and lack emotional discipline, which provided the grounds for men’s control of their reproductive cycles and ultimately, their lives. The material fact that gay men and lesbians’ natural sexuality was opposite that of the majority of people was used to justify the view that they, as a group, were a threat to society, which provided the grounds for criminalizing their romantic lives.
In short, the material realities of certain groups of people – skin color, sex, sexual orientation – were used as a way of denying the members of those groups the rights and prerogatives that are the principle fruit of the Enlightenment and of modernity, and the relevant civil rights movements arose around those material groupings, in order to make the case that such material realities are fully consistent with our equal moral dignity and worth and with our having an equal place in the modern polis. They did not deny that the relevant material realities exist, but rather, that they have any legitimate moral or political valence in a modern, democratic society.
Identificationism presents itself under a progressive banner, but is essentially a form of hyper-individualism and is thus an extreme variety of liberal, rather than progressive politics. If one follows the logic of contemporary gender-identificationism, according to which there literally are scores upon scores of self-identified genders, then there really aren’t any men or women or anything else, but only self-defined individuals. (6) Apply this logic to race or ethnicity and one gets the same result, and it becomes hard to see what a civil rights movement, as traditionally conceived, would be about. I think it’s fair to say that taken to its logical conclusion and stripped of all of its civil rights trappings, contemporary identificationism is essentially a form of liberal utopianism, for it denies that material realities place us into groups, the rights and prerogatives of which may need to be fought for in civil and political society, and insists instead that the only groups to which we belong are those of our choosing and that the only realities impinging upon those choices are those existing within the consciousness of each individual. Ultimately, this is a rejection of the very basis on which the need for civil rights movements rests, with the only remaining “cause” being that of getting people to accept other peoples’ self-identifications. Now, perhaps we have reached the point at which we no longer need the traditional civil rights movements. Perhaps, we have reached the point that Martin Luther King hoped we would one day reach, at which every individual is judged solely on the basis of the content of his or her character, rather than on his unchosen, material condition, but it seems to me that before we jettison the traditional conception of civil rights, we should probably have a serious, public conversation about whether that is, in fact the case.
**A reader pointed out to me that this claim may be untrue. Given the ambiguity of the term ‘movement’ and given that talking of civil rights as a movement is often commonly associated with black civil rights, I think it’s fair to say that for the US, the fight for female and black civil rights represent the country’s earliest organized civil rights efforts, whichever was first.