Home/Rod Dreher/Resisting Trans Tyranny: Science, Not Religion?

Resisting Trans Tyranny: Science, Not Religion?

The queering of schools is not really a scientific or a religious matter. It's metaphysical (Lorelyn Medina/Shutterstock)

In the case of Peter Vlaming (see here for background), the Virginia high school teacher fired for “misgendering” a biological female student who now presents as male, a reader says we should stop framing this as a religious liberty issue:

Just STOP IT with calling this a religious issue. You see how far that got Christians in the gay marriage thing. There were all sorts of good non-religious arguments in favor of putting the brakes on gay marriage, but opponents insisted on getting all religious and Bible about it. That just won’t cut it in a secular society, and it was totally uncreative.

This is about biological reality, the integrity of the English language, the stability of the language we use to orient ourselves in the world, compelled speech vs free speech…

ANYTHING other than religion. Nothing constructive will come from framing this as a religious issue. We will lose.

There is maybe 5-10% of people in the country who are strongly traditional Christians, and I am one of them, but I know how to do math.

To be fair to Vlaming, he’s a teacher of the French language, and the source of his own deep discomfort with transgenderism is no doubt his religious faith. I agree, though, that it is probably better to treat this as a scientific issue. After all, a science teacher who claimed a religious liberty right to only teach Young Earth Creationism wouldn’t get far at all, nor should he.

There are solid scientific reasons to resist the claim that biological males and females who consider themselves to be of the other gender, and who demand that everyone else recognize that, should be accommodated. Unfortunately, science itself is being coopted by the cultural revolution. The authoritative science magazine Nature published an editorial in October strongly denouncing a reported initiative by the Department of HHS to define male and female by biological characteristics.  The editorial takes the line that people ought to be defined by the gender they choose. Nature is a very big deal.

We should by no means assume that science is immune from politicization. In the Soviet Union, as in our own materialist order, Science is considered to be the greatest authority. Science was corrupted by the communists as a matter of course, made to serve the revolution’s ends. The same thing is happening here.

One of the best lectures I ever heard was back in 2009, in a seminar at Cambridge University. The speaker was Dame Gillian Beer, a distinguished professor of literature who specialized in 19th century books and culture. The purpose of her talk was to illustrate how scientific findings are not received in a vacuum — that is, the facts scientists discover always get interpreted by interested observers. She lectured on how various parties in the 19th and early 20th centuries took up Darwin’s findings on evolutionary biology.

  • British imperialists seized them as scientific proof that the British have a right to colonize weaker countries. Survival of the fittest, after all.
  • British abolitionists took them as scientific proof that slavery should be abolished, given that all men come from a common ancestor, and possess equal dignity.
  • Eugenicists took Darwin’s findings as scientific validation for the theory that humankind should manipulate the gene pool through selective breeding to weed out the “unfit.”

And so on. In every one of these cases, the interested parties assumed their position was objective true, because proved by science. They did this because Science was the ultimate authority. If you could plausible claim that Science required one to believe in a certain thing, then you had a good chance of winning your case.

Dame Gillian’s point was by no means anti-scientific. She was rather saying that we should be very, very careful about claiming the authority of Science in service of a cause we favor. For one, we are susceptible to blindness about our own interests. For another, one reason Science has such power is its foundational principle of objectively and empirically describing the world.

I bring this up here to say that while it is certainly true that in our materialist order, Science is far more authoritative than Religion, especially among elites, we should not assume that Science is free from ideological abuse and contamination. If you don’t know about the case of Dr. Kenneth Zucker, one of the world’s leading authorities on gender dysphoria, by all means stop and read this long 2016 article by Jesse Singal in New York magazine.  Zucker supported transgender people, but because he believed that it wasn’t wise to put all gender-dysphoric children immediately on hormones, transgender activists got him fired. It is an absolute outrage, but who knows about Dr. Zucker today?

If they can take the scalp of one of the world’s top scientists, you’d better believe that a high school teacher in Virginia has a steep hill to climb.

I suppose one could say that a teacher like Vlaming ought to refer to the trans student by the kid’s preferred pronoun as a courtesy. When I was little — pre-kindergarten — I went through a stage in which I demanded that my parents call me by the name I preferred at that time — usually a character from a favorite storybook. They accommodated me because they knew that I was just an eccentric little kid with a big imagination. My insistence that I was not Rod, but was instead ____, was amusing.

Why isn’t the case of Vlaming’s student like this? I mean, why does the kid’s request that Vlaming (and everybody else) refer to her by masculine pronouns mean that everybody who does assents to anything beyond courtesy? Why can’t Vlaming just do as she asks, even though he may not personally believe that she is male any more than my parents believed their little boy was named anything other than Rod?

Here’s the answer: because this trans kid’s request is not a singular case that can be accommodated without threatening the social and epistemological order. To assent to this kid’s request, even if you don’t believe that she is actually a male, is to play a part in redefining social, legal, and scientific reality around a falsehood. Vlaming already showed himself willing to call the kid by the new male name she chose. That is a reasonable courtesy. But he rightly understood that to use that pronoun would be in a real sense to affirm that 2 + 2 = 5.

It’s the difference between calling the Pope or the Dalai Lama “Your Holiness” because that is one courtesy title of those religious leaders, and affirming by your speech that Catholicism or Tibetan Buddhism is true.

My point here is that making an anti-trans stand on scientific fact is perhaps stronger than doing so on religious liberty, but only superficially so, given the advanced state of decadence of our culture. Consider the case of Andrea Long Chu, the male-to-female transgender who caused controversy recently with a New York Times column conceding that the simulated vagina he was about to have surgeons make for him after they removed his male genitalia would not make him happy. In fact, said Chu, he has been feeling even worse, at times suicidal, since beginning his transition to female.

And yet, in Chu’s view, his desire to live as a female, and have medical science and everybody else accommodate that desire, is self-justifying:

But I also believe that surgery’s only prerequisite should be a simple demonstration of want. Beyond this, no amount of pain, anticipated or continuing, justifies its withholding.

This is the bottom line: desire creates reality. The battle here is neither religious nor scientific, ultimately; it’s metaphysical. LGBT activists only force the rest of post-Christian society to live out the consequences of their nominalist convictions. This is why, contrary to the reader I quoted at the beginning of this piece, no scientific or otherwise strictly secular argument for putting the brakes on gay marriage would have worked. As a civilization, we have privileged desire. We believe that, contrary to the Rolling Stones, you should be able to get what you want — at least if you are one of a class privileged by our elites, which the Virginia trans student is, and poor Vlaming is not  — and those who won’t give it to you are villains who deserve to be destroyed.

You know what makes me angry? That politicians from the Republican Party are sitting back watching this happen all over, and saying nothing. Not a damn thing. I’ve written here before about a visit I made to Capitol Hill in the fall of 2015, four months after the Obergefell decision. On that trip I met privately with staffers for key GOP leaders in the House and Senate. I asked them what plans the Republicans had for shoring up religious liberty protections in light of Obergefell.

The answer: no plans. None at all. It was not on their agenda.

I remember leaving the Capitol that afternoon, walking across the grounds, thinking, “We really are on our own.”

Trump has been better than any other Republican would have been — it’s his HHS that offended the Nature editors with its commonsense proposal — and it has come down to having to trust that the judges Trump will have appointed will be willing to carve out some kind of protection for dissenters in the new order. I’m doubtful of their prospects of success, but really, that’s it. Peter Vlaming — a high school teacher and father of four children — has been martyred by political correctness, and so far, we have heard nothing from the Republican Party. I doubt very much that we will, even though I believe that most Americans would sympathize with his plight.

Here’s what social and religious conservatives have to recognize: Peter Vlaming is one of Vaclav Havel’s greengrocers. In this passage from The Benedict Option, I explain what that means:

Havel, who died in 2011, preached what he called “antipolitical politics,” the essence of which he described as “living in truth.” His most famous and thorough statement of this was a long 1978 essay titled “The Power of the Powerless,” which electrified the Eastern European resistance movements when it first appeared. It is a remarkable document, one that bears careful study and reflection by orthodox Christians in the West today.

Consider, says Havel, the greengrocer living under Communism, who puts a sign in his shop window saying, “Workers of the World, Unite!” He does it not because he believes it, necessarily. He simply doesn’t want trouble. And if he doesn’t really believe it, he hides the humiliation of his coercion by telling himself, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Fear allows the official ideology to retain power—and eventually changes the greengrocer’s beliefs. Those who “live within a lie,” says Havel, collaborate with the system and compromise their full humanity.

Every act that contradicts the official ideology is a denial of the system. What if the greengrocer stops putting the sign up in his window? What if he refuses to go along to get along? “His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth”— and it’s going to cost him plenty.
He will lose his job and his position in society. His kids may not be allowed to go to the college they want to, or to any college at all. People will bully him or ostracize him. But by bearing witness to the truth, he has accomplished something potentially powerful:
He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.

Because they are public, the greengrocer’s deeds are inescapably political. He bears witness to the truth of his convictions by being willing to suffer for them. He becomes a threat to the system—but he has preserved his humanity. And that, says Havel, is a far more important accomplishment than whether this party or that politician holds power (a fact that became painfully clear during the debasing 2016 U.S. presidential campaign).
“A better system will not automatically ensure a better life,” Havel goes on. “In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed” (emphasis mine).

The answer, then, is to create and support “parallel structures” in which the truth can be lived in community. Isn’t this a form of escapism, a retreat into a ghetto? Not at all, says Havel; a countercultural community that abdicated its responsibility to reach out to help others would end up being a “more sophisticated version of ‘living within a lie.’”

What are we going to do to support Peter Vlaming and his family? Believe me, there will be more Peter Vlamings. You might be one of them.

I have put a phone call in to the person who started the Go Fund Me account for the Vlaming family.  I am trying to verify that it is on the up and up. Please keep checking back here, and I will let you know what I’ve learned.

UPDATE: Matt in VA:

This commenter doesn’t go far enough. Time to start giving up on arguments altogether.

No argument will work. The time is already past. You probably have about 2-4 years until they ban you from Twitter, etc., and the payment processor company you use to allow people to pay for subscriptions or to make donations tells you to take a hike with your hateful bigotry. You can see, I can see, and more and more people can see the direction things are going.

Time (long past time) to start thinking about alternatives to arguments, period. They are fun to make! But there is no argument that will work against the spirit of our age. Conservatives are supposed to learn from the lessons of the past. One of the lessons of the past is that there are quite often times when the argument — no matter what it is — is not going to get the job done. You don’t have to be happy about that. But it is what it is.

UPDATE.2: I have verified that the Go Fund Me for Peter Vlaming is real. Please give if you can.

UPDATE.3: Mrs. DK:

Our Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria support group met for two hours this past weekend — all white parents, almost all liberal, including married same-sex parents, educated, middle to upper middle class. All aghast and looking like we’ve been hit by a train. Most of us are under severe pressure from all quarters to unquestioningly affirm our kid’s sudden declaration of trans-ness. Yet no mental health or medical professional can give us real answers based on data and objective tests.

Cross-sex hormone therapy is not FDA-approved, and the surgical procedures are invasive and irreversible. Not to mention they don’t make you the opposite sex, which is what our kids want. No one can explain to us how our kids differ from the people who are now detransitioning after sometimes years on hormones and living as transgender. If so little is understood about this, then why is rapid social/legal/medical transition now treated as an unquestionable good?

We all know that lawsuits are the only thing that might call this into question — no comfort for those of us like me, the mother of a kid who signed an “informed consent” form and is injecting hormones in order to mimic the opposite sex — never mind what this is actually doing to my kid’s objectively healthy body.

One thing we sometimes ask in our group is — what makes us question gender ideology? Why haven’t we, including those of us who are far left with no religion at all, drunk the kool aid? The answer is that we care about our kids, we care about the facts that our laws and medical protocols are based on, and we don’t trust the money and propaganda and the big expansion of the pharmaceutical and plastic surgery industries to push this. The stats are out, by the way. What is now called “Gender Conformation” surgery increased in the U.S. by 41% last year for males who identify as female — and a whopping 289% increase for females who identify as male. That’s right — from less than 1,500 surgeries on girls and women the year before to almost 6,000 last year. It’s well understood that anorexia, bulimia, and cutting are social contagions, especially among young girls — and no one on their right mind would “affirm” these things. Yet a mother who questions her young daughter’s desire for hormones and surgery to destroy her female body is considered a transphobic bigot in 2018.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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