Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who until recently was the Spokane chapter president for the NAACP, “identifies as black,” she says. Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn, apparently identifies as female. Dolezal was pressured to give up both her pretense and her position. Jenner made the cover of Vanity Fair, and was honored by our President and by ESPN.
Conservative bloggers have pounced on the irony of the two cases. If Jenner can be a woman, why can’t Dolezal be black? What’s the difference? And can I decide to be a squirrel if that’s what I think I really am on this inside? (Don’t laugh too quickly: have you ever witnessed a “furry” convention? I happened to be at a hotel where one was underway. It was quite bizarre.)
Usually I’m quick to jump on irony myself, but I sense something more important going on here this time. Paul McHugh alluded to it in his recent expert Public Discourse piece on the medical debacle that is “sex reassignment surgery,” which he concluded thusly:
But gird your loins if you would confront this matter. Hell hath no fury like a vested interest masquerading as a moral principle.
Vested Interest and Moral Principles
There is indeed a vested interest at work here. It’s most easily seen by examining the moral principles that might seem to be involved, but which are not.
Let’s begin with ESPN and President Obama, both of which have honored Jenner for his “courage.” (I am using the masculine pronoun for Jenner, for reasons I will explain presently.) Theres no doubt that it takes a certain amount of chutzpah for a man, especially an athlete, to publicly deny any desire to be a man. Merely doing something dangerous does not mean one is courageous, however. Once I saw someone carrying an 8-foot long 2″x8″ across Interstate 4 in downtown Orlando, in fairly heavy traffic. It was extremely dangerous and foolhardy. I’ve never been able to imagine any reason he would have done it other than maybe to win a large bet. That’s not courage, that’s stupidity, possibly with some greed attached.
Real courage, it seems to me, is the willingness to do what’s right even if it’s frightening or difficult. To call someone courageous is to say they have done the right thing when others might have balked at it. What then is the right thing that Jenner has done?
In another day, under other cultural climes, one might have thought it was that he acted on his own self-determination. He decided to be who he was, no matter what others might think of him. That was the moral value a whole generation was raised with, starting at about the time I was studying “values clarification” at Michigan State in the 1970s. To be one’s own authentic self was (in those days) to rise to the heights of moral praiseworthiness.
It might have been natural, then, for people to have praised Jenner for that, so I looked to see if that were what was going on. My search for anyone applauding him for “the courage to be yourself” resulted in just one hit, however. I’m sure if I’d looked harder I could have found more, but it doesn’t seem that “being himself/herself” has been touted very loudly as what Jenner did right.
C. Supporting LGBT, Standing Against Judgmentalism?
We may not know what ESPN considers most praiseworthy in Jenner’s transition until the ESPY awards night on July 15. Someone at CNN, however, thinks what Jenner did right was that he publicly supported the trans community.
Barack Obama praised him for his part “in the fight for LGBT rights.”
Nicholas Kristof, writing at the NY Times, stood up for Jenner’s contra-judgmentalism: “Come on, Wheaties. It’s time to put Jenner back on the box!” May I indulge in my moment of irony here? Need I even say it? If being judgmental is wrong, then just what is it that Kristof is about here?
D. None Of the Above
So let’s take note of what’s being presented as bad here, as not particularly good, and as very good. It’s bad for a white person to act as if she were black, even if she is very actively supporting black causes and if she “identifies as black.” It’s attracted no particular attention that Jenner has acted to fulfill his authentic self. It’s very good (supposedly) that Jenner has supported LGBT causes.
Is Dr. McHugh’s “vested interest” coming into clear enough view now?
Supporting Sexual Transition…
But let’s examine this further. What are people supporting when they applaud a decision like Jenner’s?
… In Disregard of Mental Health Evidence
President Obama has lifted up Bruce Jenner for submitting to a medical procedure that’s been shown—in Sweden, of all places—to result in almost a 20-fold increase in suicidal behaviors. This can’t be about what was best for Bruce Jenner. It can’t be about him finding his authentic self, if the theory is correct that being self-authentic leads to mental wholeness. (I could say a lot about that theory, but this isn’t the time or place.)
Jenner’s case isn’t about authenticity, wholeness, finding oneself, or any such thing. It’s about something else.
… With Clear Hypocrisy
The New York Times has a new Op-Ed up today titled Black Like Who? Rachel Dolezal’s Harmful Masquerade. The author writes,
Some people have pointed to this strange case as an illustration that race is malleable. I submit that Ms. Dolezal is a reminder that it is not. Racial identity cannot be fluid as long as the definition of whiteness is fixed. And historically, the path to whiteness has been extremely narrow.
I’m not sure what Nicholas Kristof is going to say about the judgmentalism soaked into that opinion piece. Well, actually I can guess: If he were to write anything, it would be in support of it (and in this case rightly so, for sometimes it’s right to judge).
The point is, Jenner’s case isn’t really about judgmentalism after all. It’s about something else.
… In Spite of Women’s Concerns
Call me pessimistic, but I’m not expecting the NY Times to run any op-eds titled “Female Like Who? Bruce Jenner’s Harmful Masquerade.” If I’m right about that (and you know I am), then this is odd, given feminism’s strict rejection of masculine incursions into its space, or (in another version, which this form of feminism also shares with certain genderqueer manifestations) its rejection of any sexual identification whatever. It’s especially strange given feminism’s visions of male violence against women; and if you think being transsexual automatically means setting aside all that testosterone-laden violence, think again.
This isn’t about supporting women’s issues. It’s about something else.
… In the Teeth of the Facts
It’s not even about Jenner becoming a woman. Dr. McHugh, who has more expertise on the subject than perhaps anyone else, has made it clear that sex-reassignment surgery doesn’t make a man into a woman, but into a feminized man.
Bruce Jenner’s legal name might be Caitlin now, and he might wear dresses and makeup, but he is still a he.
Sexual Freedom Above All Else
He is a he who has transgressed sexual norms, and who has supported others who transgress sexual norms. This, I believe, is the “vested interest” of which Dr. McHugh was speaking: absolute freedom to violate the received normality and morality of a man being a man, a woman being a woman, a marriage being the union of the two opposites, and the identification of any other sexually intimate behavior as sinful.
Remember, it isn’t about self-authenticity. It isn’t about mental health. It isn’t about anti-judgmentalism. It isn’t about women’s rights. I don’t know what else it could be about, except for sexual freedom as an end in itself, which necessarily leads to what we once knew as transgressive sexuality.
For that, President Obama will praise an act that’s known to increase suicidal behaviors by as much as 1800 percent.
It’s that important, right?