O brave new world that hath such genders in it! Seems like everybody but me is talking about gender these days. My first reaction to the whole business is to think, “I am an old man, and this is not part of the fading world to which I belong. I don’t have an opinion about it and don’t need to.” But the more I think about the question, prompted by puzzling developments with which the news assaults me, the more I cannot help entertaining random ideas about it. Here they are.
First, I think I am noticing a rather important ambiguity, even a contradiction, in the discussion: Transgenderism advocates seem to be talking about trading one gender for another, switching teams. But much of their rhetoric appears to be saying something quite different, namely, that they are seeking to transcend gender distinctions, creating a new category of identity. I think of a book about homosexuality from some thirty or forty years ago, The Third Sex. Transgenderism as the transcending of gender categories marks the rebirth of a major movement in early Christianity. Already available in New Testament times (1 Corinthians 7:25-38 NEB; Galatians 3:27-28), the celibacy gospel of Encratism (from encrateia, “self-control”) flourished among various Christian sects (e.g., Gnostics, Marcionites, Manicheans) on into the third century. It was based on a literal reading of the Eden story. The Creator required but a single human to tend the garden oasis which he and his fellow deities frequented and which nourished them. The adam (the original, androgenous human) was allowed to share the bounty, including the Tree of Life prolongation, barred only from the Tree of Knowledge of sexual reproduction.
The adam’s simple duties left too much time on its hands, so Jehovah sought to supply a fit companion. The various animals proving unsuitable, Jehovah split the adam into male and female. But soon the Promethean serpent told the couple the secret of procreation. With access to both immortality and procreation, the humans must eventually become a rival race of gods. Thus their expulsion. Encratite Christians understood sex as the original sin, the origin of the division of humanity into classes, ethnicities, and genders with the resultant strife, prescribed roles, and oppressions. Their remedy was to undo that sin, renouncing gender roles and other conventional social structures. They embraced apocalypticism, anarchism, vegetarianism, and pacifism, simulating a pre-Fall existence. Encratism made it possible for women, freed of domestic servitude and male domination, to function as leaders and prophets. It is not too much to say the whole phenomenon was one of radical gender transcendence.
Jesus saw children being nursed. He says to his disciples, “These nursing children are like those who enter the kingdom.” They say to him, “Are we, then, to become children in order to enter the kingdom?” Jesus says to them, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male will no more be male nor the female be female … then you shall enter the kingdom.” (Gospel of Thomas, saying 22)
Here is the transcendence of gender and of the social duties and definitions that go along with it. This is something well beyond the decision of a male to become and to be henceforth considered a female, as in the cases of Kaitlin Jenner and Chelsea Manning and those guys who become gals and join the women’s sports teams where they take advantage of their leftover masculinity to win trophies that otherwise would go to the natural-born females. (Rest assured, this is no concern of mine, as I have not the slightest interest in sports.)
Maybe the confusion is only in my own mind. Maybe I am mixing together different factions. But if not, then I should think this contradiction requires sorting out. Are you exchanging one gender for another, or are you transcending gender itself?
My second point is a policy statement. There is a vogue for revising the English language to supply neologistical gender-neutral pronouns, and another movement to create various new pronouns appropriate to the rapidly multiplying gender classifications, some 75 by one count, over 100 by another. Every nuance requires a separate gender, and every gender demands a different pronoun, and in some places, you will be in trouble with the law if you slip and use the wrong pronoun. Well, I can only say I will not be joining the party. No one is going to dictate what I can and cannot say. You and Big Sibling can keep your Newspeak to yourselves.
Third, another policy statement. I take individuals as they come, with their charms, their needs, their problems, their opinions, their blemishes, their virtues. I value them and rejoice in their diversity. Different religious or anti-religious or non-religious positions, various sexual orientations, political views, whatever. They are people, and I love people. So be whatever gender you want to be; it’s fine with me.
My fourth point is in some tension with the third: I view the burgeoning gender confusion, as I consider it, a major symptom of the dissolution of Western culture and civilization. Various factors are fragmenting the “sacred canopy” of values and beliefs that historically hold any society together, providing a common identity. Definitions of marriage and family, together with wise child-rearing, are rapidly eroding. “Everyone does what is right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). “Without a [unifying] vision, a people perishes” (Proverbs 29:18).
I understand our present epidemic of gender confusion (and I know those are loaded terms) as the manifestation of what Giles Deleeuze and Felix Guattari (in their Anti-Oedipus) welcome and proclaim as the dawn of the Schizoid Man, a casting off of what neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan calls “the Law of the Father,” the identity definitions imposed on every child as part of the socialization process. Deleeuze and Guattari urge us to cast off the chains of that consistency that is the hobgoblin of little minds. Be all you can be, consistent or not. I see it as the psychological equivalent of what the radical philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend (Against Method) prescribes as the only principle that does not inhibit scientific research: “Anything goes!” The postmodern person should not hesitate to “be all over the place.” His proper name is Legion. It is a wild existential freedom that does not rein itself in by restrictive codes.
Again, it is the individual/psychological version of the death of traditional Narratives that used to supply national and cultural identities, a cultural crisis discussed by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his The Postmodern Condition. This is what makes possible today’s espousal of “world citizenship,” open borders, and the disdain for nationalism and patriotism as mere jingoism. Personally, I believe that these trends, though much may be said in their favor, are sowing the wind and will sooner or later lead to reaping the whirlwind. Even when chaos is constructive on one level, it can simultaneously be destructive on another, as the sad history of revolutions has amply demonstrated. Who can say what will eventuate? Who knows what rough beast is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born?
So says Zarathustra.