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The Left Unleashes the New Furies of Unfreedom

Trans-liberty, as it turns out, is not liberty at all, but the ceding of great power over thought and expression to the state.

"Orestes Pursued by the Furies" by William Adolphe Bouguereau. Wikimedia/Public Domain

Isaiah Berlin’s classic 1950s taxonomy of positive and negative liberty summarized three centuries of Enlightenment thinking about human freedom. For Berlin and others, drawing on the much earlier work of Immanuel Kant, positive liberty is the mindset, character makeup, physical state, monetary wherewithal, attainment of skills, or other aspect that allows a person to act freely. Negative liberty is the mere fact of there being no outside obstacles to a person’s doing as he or she pleases.

To give an example, I am quite free to speak Swahili anywhere in Japan (where I live). There is no law here that says I must not speak Swahili, and no one is going to try to prevent me from speaking Swahili if that is what I choose to do. (Of course, if I speak Swahili in Japan, I am highly unlikely to make myself understood. But that does not mean that I am not free to try.)

However, there is a big problem with this scenario, namely, that I am utterly ignorant of Swahili. I do not know a single word. Although there are no external constraints to my speaking Swahili (or, for that matter, Afrikaans, Danish, or Tagalog), the fact that I have absolutely no capacity in Swahili (or in the other languages I just listed) means that I am, from a positive liberty standpoint, not free to take advantage of the absence of obstacles to my exercising it. I am not able to actualize (positively) the liberty latent (negatively) in the world around me. Even if I wanted to, I could not act freely in Japan Swahili-wise. (Although were I to learn Swahili, then I would have the positive liberty to match the negative.)

But whether one has the liberty to act as one chooses (personal autonomy, i.e., positive liberty) or is free from anything impeding freedom, such as repression by a state (i.e., negative liberty), the liberal, individual self has long been the basic unit of reckoning degrees of liberty. I am my own man, as the saying goes, and whether I speak Swahili or not is up to me. If I speak Swahili to the bus driver in Tokyo and he does not understand what I am saying, well, that is my problem and not his. This is Japan, after all, and I can hardly expect others to accommodate me in my ignorance of the local language, much less to learn some other language just so I can exercise my positive freedom to the fullest extent.

Although debate about this has raged in the past, both positive and negative theories of liberty generally presuppose that we are each responsible for our own actions. Rousseau said that the democratic majority should force the recalcitrant to be free. But even Rousseau’s theory, we should note, does not work the other way around. The minority—and, a fortiori, the individual—cannot force the majority to conform to individual predilections. I can chat away to you in Swahili. You do not have to answer me or even pay attention.

That’s how it used to be. But that’s not how it is any longer. In many ways, the most recent turning of the sexual revolution has been a subtle drive to overturn the Kantian-Berlinian concept of negative and positive liberty and to force a raw collectivism on the world. It’s not just that Suzie is now Steve, for example. It’s that Suzie is making me call her he. It’s not just that new genders are cropping up daily in the mushroom field of gender fluidity. It’s that, if I “misgender” a genderqueer as a gender-nonconforming, I have committed a hate crime, a heinous violation of another person’s human dignity. That’s not negative or positive liberty. That’s trans-liberty, as it were. And what it really is, is no freedom at all. It’s tyranny, but of the Nietzschean variety. It’s ressentiment wedded to overweening state power, and it means that neither the resenter nor the resented have any real freedom.

What they have instead is mere personhood through the sole medium of the state, one side demanding that the other recognize the endless novelties and larks of the psychosexual imagination, and both sides being sucked thereby ever more deeply into the quicksand of “freedom through statism.” We used to have natural rights, or at least that was the earlier liberal conceit. The new liberal conceit is a sight different. Natural rights have yielded to state-granted ones, letters of marque issued by central government authorities that entitle the bearer to do some particular thing that others do not get to do. Genderqueers get to move around free from the suspicion of “transphobia,” a privilege not granted to the rest of us. Rousseau’s “forcing others to be free” has switched from majoritarian to minoritarian polarity.

But none of this is “freedom” of any kind. As the transgender movement comes ever more fully into its own, we find that it is not its own after all. It is the state’s, and the state is using it to erase freedom—both positive and negative—for all of us. (The entity that issues the letter of marque arbitrarily is free—there’s a dark irony—to revoke it at any time. Ask a tyrant to arbitrate your property dispute and he will easily find a way to take both of your houses.)

We should have seen this coming. Abortion on demand was the dress rehearsal for this new paradigm of radical unfreedom. When a woman carrying a baby wishes to be “free,” the state tells her that she may, even should, sacrifice the life of her offspring. One person’s freedom must end so that another’s can go on as before. But even this can be seen as just a perversion of the negative liberty idea. A woman, so the argument goes, should be as free as a man to have sex without consequences (as though this callous position were really possible for men either, who are, after all, not animals but people too). She thus has at least theoretical negative liberty, although negative liberty paradoxically indexed to the putative, envied liberty of the opposite sex. The only thing holding such a woman back from exercising this liberty is sexism, which is most concretely evident in the fact that women, not men, get pregnant. In order to “recover” her negative liberty (that is, to match the caricature of the male human person as a born-free libertine), the woman can, even must, get rid of the obstacle to that liberty’s full exercise: her preborn child. This is contingent negative liberty, though still negative liberty of a kind.

But transgenderism ups the ante on this perversion of freedom so greatly as to require an entirely new way of predicating freedom. If I am transgender, I can force anyone to say words to my liking. Call me a she, call me a xe, call me a ze, call me a hippopotamus. If you don’t, you will pay the price. But if you do, then I eventually pay the price, too. The state strong enough to force you to do my bidding is strong enough to curtail whatever real liberty I might have enjoyed. It is no coincidence that the surveillance state, the NSA-CIA-FBI stalker state, the “social credit” state, the Arnold Schwarzenegger nanny state, is also the state demanding that you call me Josephina, agree that my penis is a vagina, and keep your mouth shut when I pump small children full of hormones so they can play along, too. Whatever positive liberty you might have wished to exercise is a moot point. There is no more negative liberty left in which to exercise it. Sorry, the state is taking up all the room. Queer, that.

Taken together, abortion and transgenderism thus pose such a radical challenge to the human person as to require an entirely new conception of liberty: not positive (actual) or negative (potential), but transitive. Transitive freedoms are dependent, not on internal abilities or the external absence of constraints, but on the submission by one party to the libido dominandi of another. I am free to be transgender only insofar as you are not free to question me about it. Heads I win, tails you lose.

However, as iterations of the Hegelian slave dialectic (whereby the one who dominates another is never satisfied by the domination, because submission undermines the will to dominate), transitive freedoms are subversions of true freedom, which is always freedom to seek the highest good. Freedom that binds or harms another is un-freedom, the inverse of real liberty (which, as Berlin showed, requires both self-discipline and the absence of external restraint). Under the new regime of “trans-freedom,” the highest good has been quietly replaced by the state. While we were arguing about pronouns, Leviathan quietly strangled the Virtues, the Graces, and the defenseless Justitia.

All that he spared were the Furies.

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

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