Nietzsche said that the nineteenth century was not distinguished by the victory of science but by the victory of the scientific method. His point was that once a claim could be dressed up as the result of a scientific procedure, it became culturally incontestable. Were Nietzsche writing today, he would need to modify the statement a little.
Take, for example, this intriguing 2016 article from Quartz, which was reposted last week. The writer, Thomas Page McBee, is a transgender person who claims to have experienced the workplace first as a woman and later, after transitioning, as a man. This modern-day Teiresias confirms what we have come to expect—that men are at a significant advantage in the workplace, at least according to the criteria she uses. More interesting than the predictable conclusions she draws, however, are the cultural pathologies she reflects.
The politics of contemporary social science now has an iron grip on what are deemed legitimate perceptions of reality. This is explicitly clear in what the article says and implicitly clear in what it doesn't say. The article presents the assumption that workplaces are best explicated by gender specialists as a simple matter of fact. And its lack of any reflection upon the Promethean philosophical presumptions of transgenderism indicates that the culture is at such a point on this issue that the writer feels absolutely no need to do so.
Whether McBee has reflected on the philosophical foundations that make transgenderism plausible is not clear, but her last two paragraphs are replete with what should be contentious metaphysical assumptions. Here she transitions from Teiresias to Aristophanes, proposing that there is a male and female “version of ourselves” inside each of us—a tale worthy of an after-dinner speech at Agathon’s place. Then there is the fascinating comment in the final paragraph that “most of us have the bodies we occupy because of luck of the draw.” This is revealing because it makes clear that the distinction between sex and gender, now presented as an incontestable truth, rests upon an even more radical distinction: that between a person’s identity and their body. What is fascinating is that none of this comes in the form of argument. It is presented as obvious, something only possible because of its conformity to the spirit of our age.
Yet there is no “I” behind or before the body. There is no “us” that exists (logically, let alone chronologically) independently of our flesh and that is then randomly assigned to the bodies we have. Our bodies are an integral part of who we are. And I do not “occupy” my body as I might occupy a house or a space suit or a deck chair at the beach. On the contrary, it is an integral part of me, inseparable from who I am. It is perhaps the foundational piece of evidence that, were I to claim that I am, for example, Attila the Hun or Nancy Pelosi, I would be talking nonsense, with my body as Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution. It is not simply instrumental to my identity; my identity is inseparable from it. To downgrade it to a mere incidental, or to set the real me in opposition to it, is a recipe for chaos. Even Christian theology, with its body-soul distinction, is clear on this: I am not my soul or my body. That is why Christianity teaches that we do not just leave our bodies and go to heaven. We are actually resurrected.
The article’s implicit assumption, foundational to gender theory, is that gender is a performance, not a matter of biological sex, and therefore rooted in the ways in which power putatively works within any given society. But—to play the critical theorist card—gender is not the only category by which societies exert power and control. Age also plays such a role. And age, like gender, also has a culturally specific performative aspect as reflected in social practices, law codes, and cultural expectations.
To give a trivial example, I remember as a teenager lying about my age in order to see Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life at a local cinema. I was sixteen but pretended to be eighteen. I performed the role: I provided the wrong birthdate when asked, and generally tried to look as cool and confident as I thought eighteen-year-olds did—and, amazing to tell, the girl at the ticket booth did not treat me as the sixteen-year-old I really was. She sold me a ticket and let me see the movie. The pretense made a difference and confirmed what I already knew: Adults are treated differently than children. But it did not make me eighteen. I was merely a sixteen-year-old pretending to be an adult. And even if I had been utterly convinced that I was eighteen and deeply hurt by anyone who said otherwise, I would still not have been eighteen.
What is striking about the transgender debate, therefore, is that something so counter-intuitive and rooted in such untenable philosophical positions is actually not a matter of debate at all at any significant level. Naysayers are simply dismissed as ignorant or bigots or both. The advent of the derogatory term TERF points to this, as does the social media fury that descends upon anyone who dares question the idea. The furor surrounding J. K. Rowling is just the latest example. And behind it all lie the highly contentious assumptions of gender theory marketed under the label of social science. But social science as it manifests itself in the work of Judith Butler and her progeny is really no more scientific than Marx’s scientific socialism. And it serves the same purpose as it did for Marx: It creates an appearance of objectivity and thereby enables a highly contentious way of looking at the world to delegitimize any and all dissenting voices. It will not allow its hypotheses to be contested—indeed, even to think about contesting them is to show how benightedly reactionary one is. Yet make no mistake: It is merely ideology hiding itself under the fig leaf of scientific rhetoric.
In a 1979 article, Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out how social science methodology had become a fundamental tool of power in managerial bureaucracy. Forty years later, it is no longer merely managerial bureaucracy over which it holds sway. The cultural disenfranchising of anyone who wishes to question transgenderism’s assumptions indicates that the same thing is now far advanced in society at large. To update Nietzsche, the twenty-first century looks set to witness not so much the triumph of social science as the triumph of the social scientific method.
Carl R. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. His forthcoming book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, is due to be published in November.
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