The wave of media cheerleading for Bruce Jenner’s splashy debut as Caitlyn Jenner, his new putatively female identity, is one of those moments that has a lot of us of looking around and wondering if the whole world has gone insane.
Obviously, Bruce Jenner is not a woman. But the fact that so many people want us to think this is true, and that they appear to want to believe it themselves, is ominous.
For those who are at risk of being swept along by the groupthink, please read Denise McAllister’s long recollection of the actual experience of being a girl growing up to become a woman. It’s a bit confessional and perhaps a little too much information for your taste, but it conveys in concrete terms—particular for the benefit of those of us who were never girls—the formative experiences that influence a woman’s psychological development, much of which is based on the basic physical realities of growing into a woman’s body.
This sort of thing is what makes a woman a woman—not getting fake breast implants and putting on a bustier.
(At this point, the folks in charge of baiting the clicks around here will probably want me to post one of the Vanity Fair photo of Jenner so you can see what I’m talking about. Since, like this guy, I have no shame when it comes to clicks, here it is.)
I am perfectly willing to grant that Jenner does not feel comfortable being a man. And I don’t doubt that he wants to be able to think of himself as a woman. But judging from what we’ve seen so far, his concept of what it means to be a woman consists—in the absence of the actual experiences that would form a genuine female psychology—of a grab-bag of stereotypes and clichés. It’s drag queen femininity: an exaggerated parody of the real thing.
This has not escaped the feminist left. A “women’s studies” professor laments that she has spent years fighting against crude, over-sexualized stereotypes of femininity, only to see them all glorified in the frenzy over Jenner.
I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women—our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods—into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side—people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination—are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us…. People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or Mr. Summers, shouldn’t get to define us…. They haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails.
This gives the lie to the root claim, which is that Jenner is “psychologically” a woman. But how can he be, if he hasn’t been through the actual, specific, concrete experiences that would form such a psychology? The usual answer to this is a brute materialistic determinism: it’s all genetics and hormones—cited with no explanation of the mechanism by which one is genetically programmed to, say, want to wear lipstick and wear a dress, which is Jenner’s whole concept of what “being a woman” is.
But if this is determined by genes and hormones, isn’t the physical body even more so? Yet the presumption behind Jenner’s “transition” is that it’s easier to change the body than to change the mind. Gender “dysphoria” is defined as distress caused by the conflict between the sex one is physically born with and one’s mental self-image of one’s gender. And the universal assumption now in the field of psychology is that when there is a clash between the image in one’s mind and actual, physical reality, it is physical reality that needs to be cut to fit.
At the very least, this is a confession of helplessness by the science (or proto-science) of psychology. But I’m afraid it’s worse than that. It is very likely a case of mass malpractice.
Studies have produced little evidence that “gender reassignment” surgery yields mental health benefits for those who receive it. In what other field of medicine would it be considered acceptable to perform massive, transformative surgery without any clear evidence of a therapeutic benefit? A more old-fashioned practitioner, a former chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins, makes the case that this is an unnecessary and negligent medical intervention.
We at Johns Hopkins University—which in the 1960s was the first American medical center to venture into “sex-reassignment surgery”—launched a study in the 1970s comparing the outcomes of transgendered people who had the surgery with the outcomes of those who did not. Most of the surgically treated patients described themselves as “satisfied” by the results, but their subsequent psycho-social adjustments were no better than those who didn’t have the surgery. And so at Hopkins we stopped doing sex-reassignment surgery, since producing a “satisfied” but still troubled patient seemed an inadequate reason for surgically amputating normal organs…. Claiming that this is civil-rights matter and encouraging surgical intervention is in reality to collaborate with and promote a mental disorder.
He also offers a more profound and fundamental objection.
Psychiatrists obviously must challenge the solipsistic concept that what is in the mind cannot be questioned. Disorders of consciousness, after all, represent psychiatry’s domain; declaring them off-limits would eliminate the field.
Perhaps that is the ultimate point: to eliminate the very distinction between a normal psychology and a disordered psychology, even between sanity and outright insanity. And that’s precisely where we are headed.
That is my ultimate concern, not the specifics of this case. I’m not on any kind of jihad against transsexuals or cross-dressers. (I am, after all, a reluctant culture warrior.) I’m not sure psychology, in its current state, has much in the way of alternative treatments to offer them, so they have to make the best of a difficult situation. And their choices, no matter how incomprehensible I may find them, are no direct harm to me. But it feels like we’re being asked to participate in some kind of mass delusion where we’re all supposed to affirm that something is perfectly normal and healthy when it obviously isn’t.
To say that a particularly psychology is abnormal or disordered does not imply it should be an object of hatred or hostility. I believe we need more tolerance for the abnormal and for those outside the mainstream—call it freak lib—and I would note that part of the reason the left has to insist so stridently that Jenner is normal, and demand that everyone agree, is because they are the ones who have no real concept of freedom for those outside the social consensus.
As for me, I can tolerate transgendered individuals perfectly well—so long as they don’t require me to mouth contradictions as platitudes. The point is best expressed by the blogger Ace of Spades.
I don’t care about Jenner that much, and have avoided writing about him, but I do care about my own mind, and the freedom to think not only things that are wrong, but increasingly, things which are obviously, demonstrably true.
Notice the way people are attacked for questioning any aspect of this. I have already noted how the actress Alice Eve was forced to recant when she didn’t get on the Jenner bandwagon. Or consider the New York Times author above, who has been dismissed with the derisive new epithet TERF, which stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.” This is going to be a great intramural battle: feminists who have fought for years for special rights and the special perspective of women, only to find that the beneficiaries of their efforts are men pretending to be women. Then there is the latest target, sportscaster Bob Costas, who hasn’t even challenged any of the core claims in this case but is merely guilty of being insufficiently enthusiastic.
The most revealing question about this mass delusion is asked (in somewhat cruder terms) by Ace: if Jenner is a woman, would you have sex with her? It’s fair to say that 95% of the leftist male commenters who dutifully insist that Bruce is a “she” wouldn’t touch her with a 10-foot pole. Why? Because they know he’s not really a woman. (As an example, consider the last item from this column.)
So if they don’t really believe it, what is the status of their proclamations? On the one hand, this is a modern, “progressive” version of an old-fashioned freak show, with Jenner put on display as a lurid oddity. In the old version, at least the carnival barkers were open in regarding their subjects as curious abnormalities. In the modern PC sideshow, you gawk at the freaks while congratulating yourself about your compassion and understanding.
But this is more than mere hypocrisy. It’s a sign of what Orwell called “doublethink”: the practice of holding two contradictory ideas in one’s mind at the same time, and doing so as a deliberate act of loyalty to a political cause. I’m reminded of what Winston Smith’s interrogator tells him while he’s being tortured at the Ministry of Love: that he needs to be “cured” because he is “a lunatic, a minority of one”—that is, because he insists on seeing reality through his own eyes and not through the consensus of the collective.
You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal.
Orwell captured the infernal, twisted logic of the politics of collective delusion. If you believe something that differs from the social consensus, then no matter how illogical that consensus is, you are the one who is insane. Those who have the sense to state the obvious become the dangerous freaks in need of social quarantine. That’s precisely what we’re seeing at the moment.
And there’s plenty more crazy where that comes from. It’s astonishing to see how smoothly the logic of the transgender movement can be borrowed for a new movement of the “transabled”: people who feel like cripples trapped in a fully intact body, and who therefore demand the right to amputate unwanted limbs. If the body must be cut to fit one’s self-image, no matter how delusional, what’s to stop them except for the fact that they don’t yet serve anyone’s political agenda? Then there’s the newest front in identity politics, the claim that multiple personalities are not a disorder but merely a different way of organizing the mind. You have to admit, it’s the ultimate campaign for “diversity.”
Those of us who insist on maintaining that reality is external and the mind ought to conform to it, not the other way around, can expect to be written off as bigoted reactionaries, as the real crazies and wingnuts.
Because in an era when the insane are normal, the normal are insane.