Why Gender Ideology is Decadent
“When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” — Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence (2000)
Prof. Barzun’s whose life and work spanned most of the 20th century. He saw the trajectory. We’re just about there.
Gender ideology is a striking example.
Biologically male “transwomen” can now strike a blow for equality by dominating women’s sports. Children who feel they are the opposite sex from their biological sex get to override their parents’ veto of “transitioning” treatments. Transgender activists deride old-line feminists as TERFs: “trans-exclusionary radical feminists.” Male gay couples “have a baby” when they rent some woman’s womb to bear a child conceived artificially with sperm from one of them.
Thus, absurdity trods the path to normality. Decadence is upon us. But what, exactly, is absurd about gender ideology?
The Absurdity of Gender Ideology
Consider just a few questions.
Progressives peddling gender ideology like to say that one is a woman if one sincerely believes one is a woman. But if that’s true, then what exactly is it you’re believing when you believe you’re a woman?
Have you measured yourself against some generally accepted standard of womanhood? If so, then you believe you conform to that standard, and defy anyone to contradict you. But if that’s what you’re doing, then you don’t really think it’s enough for being a woman that you believe you’re one. You grant that “being a woman” has some objective meaning apart from your beliefs. You just hold the further belief that said meaning covers yourself (among others). Your belief that you’re a woman can thus be judged true or false by some standard that others accept as well as you. That at least would make sense, even if you’re wrong about meeting the standard. Whether right or wrong, though, you’ve given up the idea that believing one is a woman is enough for being a woman.
But some claim to reject any such “objective” standard — like many people fond of incanting that “gender is fluid.” In such a case, a biological male who rejects the “objective” standard of womanhood, but still believes he’s a woman, would hold that “being a woman” means only what his imperial self decrees it means — if only for himself. But if that’s so, we’re back in Wonderland:
“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’”
So the claim that being a woman (or man) means just what one chooses it means destroys the usefulness of such terms as “woman” and “man.” It’s just an exercise of raw will-to-power that destroys the boundaries of the relevant concepts, so that nobody but oneself knows what they’re supposed to be.
It’s quite a dilemma, really: You either give up the claim that believing one is a member of a certain sex suffices for membership in that sex, or you make the very terms involved meaningless, save as clubs with which to beat others if they dare to question you.
What Does Transgender Mean?
Then there’s the question what the term “transgender” could itself mean.
Many have thought it means changing one’s sex. But how can anyone plausibly claim to to do that? If one “feels like” a member of the sex opposite to one’s natal sex, that’s a motive for changing one’s visible sexual characteristics to conform to the opposite sex’s. But that doesn’t change one’s chromosomal makeup, which itself determines one’s natal sex even at the embryonic stage in the womb, and thus causes the development of visible sexual characteristics. That’s just scientific fact. So why can’t we say that a person who changes their body so as to appear to be a member of the opposite sex has just — mutilated themselves, not changed sex?
The now-common answer is that if one feels like a member of the sex opposite to one’s natal sex — whatever that means — then that is one’s true “gender identity.” So a female can think of herself as a male “trapped in a wrong body.” Such “gender dysphoria,” unfortunately, is now a problem epidemic among pubescent girls, even though physicians and psychiatrists don’t agree it’s a problem.
But the answer just given lands us back in the original dilemma. If “feeling like” a member of the opposite sex is tantamount to believing as much, that cannot suffice to make one a member of that sex, unless membership in a sex means all and only what one says it means — in which case the very concept is useless. And I’m not even getting into the conceptual difficulties with the concepts of gender fluidity and multiple genders.
It is politically correct to swallow the absurdities of gender theory, or at least to pretend one does. That’s the truly decadent, and alarming, development.
Michael Liccione earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and has taught at several institutions, mostly Catholic. These include the Catholic University of America, the University of St. Thomas (Houston), and Guilford Technical Community College. A former editor at First Things, he writes regularly for Mind and Spirit, Intellectual Takeout, and other sites.