What makes a man a man or a woman or a woman? For a long time–forever to be exact–it was nature and its serendipitous allocations of chromosomes. A tiny, tiny, tiny number of newborns emerged with scrambled codes, but the rest of us fall to one side or the other: “Male and female he created them.”
That’s now changing. Australia recently adopted a system of self-selected gender: male, female, and, well, whatever. On all personal documents individuals can self-select one way or the other–or not at all. And they can do this irrespective of whether or not they have undergone sex-change operations or hormonal therapy. The will–what we want to be–triumphs over nature.
Germany is going the same direction, Spiegel reports. As of November, birth certificates will allow parents to select gender “X,” neither male nor female. The same new right goes to adults as well.
It’s fitting that Germany passed this legislation. It reflects our postmodern version of the will’s triumph over given realities. Nazism was an earlier version of this triumph, very different in countless ways, of course, but sharing a basic, underlying similarity. Hitler believed in the priority of the deed over truth, the will over fact, strength over established affairs. He wanted to forge a New Germany in accord with new myths, and part of his appeal rested in the fact that he affirmed the priority of this desire over all else. It’s intoxicating to believe that we can make our own destiny by the strength of our self-choosing.
This priority of the will made Nazism a hyper-modern phenomenon. It was not reactionary in any sense. The old regime was built on metaphysical claims about authority that were fixed and immobile. Hitler wanted no truck with a sacred order that limited the will. Force shapes destiny, and concepts of right and wrong must be made plastic to serve this new future.
A similar triumph of the will—or perhaps more accurately a triumph of desire—animates the gay rights movement. How our bodies function biologically can’t limit what we can and should do. This triumph of the will has been obscured by the fact that contraception has largely made sex sterile in the West, as I’ve pointed out on many occasions. But with this new approach to gender–assigned rather than recognized, chosen rather than given–makes the logic quite clear. Who we are—even our maleness or femaleness—depends on what we want, and nothing more.
This postmodern triumph of the will can seem benign. Very few people want there children to be “X”, and only slightly more are confused as adults. Moreover, unlike Nazism, which valorized violence and energized the will by identifying an enemy, our new triumph of the will focuses on individual empowerment, not communal assertion. But there is a common view of reality: What we regard as true gets redefined in terms of what we want.
This trend is bound to spread into reproduction, children, and family life. What a child is is defined by the will of the parents. We already do this in our abortion regime. The child in the womb is a child when the mother chooses it to be so. It’s not when the mother says otherwise. Why not say the same of new-born infants, as current proponents of infanticide suggest. The mentally disabled or senile?
The German gender law involves self-selection, which seems innocent of harm to others. But history shows that the harm principle is a wax nose. We easily slide from letting people go their own ways to “encouraging” them to “freely” make the decisions that we’ve already determined are the rational ones. Imagine what will happen when Michael Bloomberg turns to end-of-life decisions and embarks on a campaign to ensure that people make “healthy” decisions.
Our postmodern triumph of the will may differ profoundly from the twentieth century version—and for that we should be thankful—but one fact remains. It always privileges the strong. That’s why gay rights and its agenda of radically enhanced sexual freedom has had such stunning success in the West. Social democracy and the protection of the weak is declining in Europe–that’s what “austerity” means. As this occurs, social life gets reorganized around the needs and interests of the powerful, which is what we see in the magnified scope and rights of the will. Those who have a strong basis for self-definition win. Those who are vulnerable–those who need strong norms and clear guidance—become disoriented.