Under Justine Greening's proposal, the will is supreme. Nothing else matters.
The government is putting forward new proposals that will make changing your gender easier. This has already happened in some other countries, and various wise commentators have already pointed out the practical consequences of this move. I would recommend everyone to read what Dr Tim Stanley has to say on the subject, as well as the trenchant criticism from the ever-stimulating Brendan O’Neill. In the Times, Clare Foges echoes what many must feel when she calls the government’s proposal “idiotic”. Perhaps the pendulum has started to swing back, and opposition to the transgender rights movement is growing.
The practical consequences, as all the writers mentioned above point out, are grave. People will now be able to go back in time and alter birth certificates, for example. Men will be able to declare themselves women and take part in sporting competitions against women. The proposal may well hurt those it most seeks to protect. But putting all this aside, also troubling are the theoretical underpinnings of this proposal.
Right now, and up to now, each and every one of us finds ourselves thrown into existence. We did not choose to be the people we are, or the sex we are, or to be born of the parents we were born of, or to be born in the country we were born in. Some of these things we can change. A British subject can apply for American citizenship, for example, and he or she can choose to become American. You can change your name, if you do not like it; you can change the way you speak, through speech therapy. But the truth is that there are certain things you cannot change – the year you were born, for example, or the sex you were born in. This latter is a scientific fact because every cell in your body is sexed, and sex does not rely on outward appearance, which can be changed. So, we find ourselves, in certain important aspects of existence, thrown into the world, and there is nothing we can do about it – except morally, which is an important freedom. We are male or female, and how we live as men and women is a matter of moral choice for us. Moral freedom is perhaps the greatest of all freedoms.
The government proposal about gender reassignment seems to indicate that gender is purely a matter of human choice. If I, born a man, declare myself to be a woman, then I become a woman. In other words, I am the sole arbiter of my fate, and my will is the absolute legislator. There is no need for my choice to have any reference to objective fact. In other words, biology and nature, and the structure of the world, must, in this important matter, be utterly malleable to my will.
This idea is troubling and dangerous, because it is simply not true. The world is not infinitely malleable. There are laws that we did not make but discover, and those laws cannot be abolished or set aside.
What the gender proposals reveal is the way the government had made a Nietzschean turn in its thinking. From now on, the will is supreme. Nothing else matters. We all know where that idea led us in the past.
The gender proposals also reveal that our government really does not seem too bothered by the philosophical implications of policy. This lack of care means pulling up everything by its roots. If the will, without reference to the law of nature, is the only legislator, will we, for example, now have to believe that a black person is one who declares him or herself to be black, without any reference to racial heritage? Indeed, this has already happened, in the case of Rachel Dolezal. If that is true, then the concept of blackness loses all meaning, just as the concepts of male and female lose all meaning if they depend purely on personal choice. We already have to endure the tyranny of personal choice in the question of abortion, where the choice to abort (“a woman’s right to choose”) is seen as the final arbiter. What about the choice not to pay taxes? In the end, who or what will decide between the conflicting choices that we make?
The government’s philosophical naivety is to blame in this matter; but the Church is by no means innocent either. Certain theologians have tried to decouple the idea of God from that of Fatherhood and the use of the masculine pronoun, ignoring the fact that God chose to reveal Himself as “He” and that His Son was made incarnate in a male body. These theological efforts are decades old: perhaps they represent the beginnings of the attack on our traditionally received ideas of gender and the first undermining of our traditional understanding of it?
Just as it is well worth challenging clergy who avoid using the pronoun “He” to refer to God, and even use the ugly neologism “Godself”, for this undermines the entire Christian revelation, so too we must challenge our politicians. Let us hope someone in the cabinet speaks up against this madness. There are thinkers in the cabinet: they need to lead a much-needed revival in our national conversation on gender issues, and remind us all that all policies need to be properly thought through. This debate is by no means over; in fact, it is just beginning.