Repelling an Alien Idea: Marriage, Life and ‘Gender’ Aren’t Really Real
There’s an old science fiction short story that begins when a human lands on an alien planet and meets an obviously intelligent life form. He points at a rock and says “Rock.” The alien looks at the man, then at the rock; the man points and repeats, “Rock.”
At this point the author tells us what the alien is thinking:
This creature must not be intelligent. He gave it the same name twice. He thinks it’s still the same thing! If he knew anything, he would have recognized how many changes it’s gone through: all its constant subatomic internal changes, and that’s been altered through the heat and chemicals and radiation around it. This stupid creature thinks what was ‘rock’ before is still ‘rock’ now. He’s too dull to notice the differences.
This is an unintelligent life form. Therefore I shall eat it.
Now, I probably got some things wrong in that story. I don’t remember who wrote it, since it’s been at least forty years since I read it. (Maybe someone will recognize it and tell me where to find it again.) It contains a whopper of a logical fallacy,* which might bother you if you caught it, but doesn’t matter. I’m only using it to illustrate a lesson — one that helps explain how a once-familiar world has turned so dramatically alien in the last few decades.
An Alien Idea Taking Root
The fact is we’ve allowed an alien idea to take root among us: that things aren’t what they are; they’re always too busy becoming something else.
For example: marriage isn’t what marriage is. Marriage is one thing today, something different tomorrow and even something else across the state line. Sex isn’t what sex is; it’s “gender,” and gender can be “fluid.” Morality isn’t what it is, it’s whatever people think it should be — which evolves from day to day and is never the same from country to country. Humanness isn’t real, at least as far as the unborn humans are; what matters instead is some abstract idea of “personhood” that magically changes from week to week.
This way of thinking is called “progressive.” Just as the alien thought it was more intelligent than the human, progressives think they’re smarter than conservatives. Here’s the huge problem with that, though: the alien doesn’t know what a rock is. It doesn’t even have a word for it.
Rocks Are Real
That’s a real problem for the alien. Rocks are real. Their reality consists in more than the sum of their protons, neutrons and electrons. Rocks have an enduring, continuing reality of rock-ness to them, despite all the changes going on inside every second. That reality lasts a very long time for rocks, until erosion finally grinds them down to sand.
Granted, there are some philosophers who wonder esoterically if rocks are technically “real.” Even those thinkers’ problems with the reality of rock-ness, though, don’t go so far as denying use the same word for rocks from one moment to the next. And they will agree that rocks are rocks, and that they stay that way (as I’ve already said) for a very long time.
Marriage is Real
Marriage stayed what it was for a very long time, too, until there came a moment in the dark, distant past — almost ten or twenty years ago, if you can imagine that! — when some thought it was time for it to change. Marriage was, well, marriage. Its meaning had been dinged in the late 20th century by the sexual revolution and damaged even more by no-fault divorce, but it still was what it was: the committed union of a man and woman.
Marriage was real. Just as a rock has real rock-ness to it, marriage had a real marriage-ness to it; and any union that didn’t have that marriage-ness couldn’t be called marriage. Now we can call anything marriage. We’re as confused on marriage as the alien was on “rock.”
Human Life Is Real
Human life used to be what human life was, too. To be human is a real thing, or so we once thought. It was easily definable — even for the youngest unborn child — in terms of parental lineage, genetic structure and so on.
But progressives prefer to kick humanness off the table. They want the abortion debate to be about “personhood.” Personhood for them isn’t a matter of being but of somehow becoming. It’s an abstract quality that a fetus gradually acquires along the way — and who knows when it’s really real? Maybe (per Peter Singer) it isn’t even real until sometime after the child is born. So whatever that thing is inside the womb, until some magic event happens to finally make it a “person,” it’s an it, and it’s okay to kill it.
Progressives Have Lost Track of What’s Real
Abortion wouldn’t even be a debate if we could focus on what’s solid and real: the unborn child’s humanness. Obviously, though, progressives have a stake in keeping our eyes on this wispy, changing, indefinable concept of personhood. Just as the alien doesn’t know what a rock is, they’ve lost all knowledge of what a human is. They’ve lost track of what’s real.
I could say similar things about “gender fluidity,” but what I’d have to say about that would be too obvious to spend time on. You can see for yourself how it would go: we know sex well enough when we see it in bonobos and bumblebees, but we don’t even think it’s real in humans. At least that’s the progressive viewpoint; and like the alien, they think they’re more intelligent for thinking that way.
But also like the alien, progressives are confused and stunted in their knowledge. The alien may not know what a rock is, but rocks are still real.
*The fallacy, in case you really want to know: the alien sees the human as one thing all the way through, even though it denies the rock is one thing from moment to moment. As I said, though, it doesn’t really matter to my purpose for using the story.
Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream and the author of Critical Conversations: A Christian Parents’ Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens (Kregel Publications, 2016). Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.