Home/Rod Dreher/Sex, Gender, And Unreality

Sex, Gender, And Unreality

Catholic philosopher Michael Hanby marvels at the gay-marriage revolution, and how, in his view, it has led to the state severing humans from their humanity. Excerpts:

As troubling as this practical consequence is, more worrisome still is the fundamental anthropology—the philosophy of human nature—implicit in it. Of course, the state’s imposition of a philosophy will be largely hidden by the fact that it is never actually stated and by the pretense that it is merely a neutral arbiter of rights, and most proponents of same-sex marriage would probably deny that they hold a philosophy of human nature other than the freedom to love whom one will and equality before the law. We can concede that people support ‘marriage equality’ for what seem to be compassionate and humane reasons. But we’re talking about the objectivelogic of a position, its presuppositions and its practical implications, not the subjective content of one’s mind or the sincerity of one’s motivations and beliefs. And to declare that there is no difference between conceiving a child through procreation in a marriage and through the technology necessitated by same-sex unions is to say something definitive about what a child and the human being are, even if this goes unrecognized. Indeed it is all the more definitive the more it goes unrecognized.

Underlying the technological conquest of human biology, whether in its gay or feminist form, is a dualism which bi-furcates the person into a meaningless mechanical body made of malleable ‘stuff’ and the affective or technological will that presides over it. The person as an integrated whole falls through the chasm. This is the foundation of the now orthodox distinction between ‘sex’ which is ‘merely biological’ and ‘gender’ which is socially constructed, as well as the increasingly pervasive (and relentlessly promoted) idea that freedom means our self-creation of both. Technological dominance over procreation imposes this bi-furcated anthropology upon parents and children alike, and codifying it implicitly makes this anthropology the law of the land.


Thus what seems at first glance to be the latest step in the forward march of freedom turns out, on closer inspection, to be a decisive moment in the triumph of technology over the human being, though these aren’t really the opposites that they appear to be. When freedom is understood as limitless possibility and is elevated to the highest good, it is inevitable that anything that would define us prior to our choosing—even our own bodies—will eventually be regarded as an obstacle to be overcome. We then become both protagonists and victims, though not all of us in equal measure. The Craig Venters of the world, making their fortunes by imposing their designs on subsequent generations, will be more the former than the latter; while the women farming out their wombs in the Third World and the newly assembled children of many parents and none, who will have no say in what we have made of them, will be more the latter than the former.

Huxley and Lewis saw that the plastic body emptied of its dignity through eugenics had as its necessary counterpart the plastic soul deprived of its human inheritance and emptied of its capacity for truly human thoughts, feeling, and experiences.

This triumph of technology over the human person will not be merely technological. It will be internal as well as external, ‘spiritual’ as well as material. Huxley understood this with great clarity and C.S. Lewis with even greater clarity, though the gulf between them is otherwise infinite. They saw that the plastic body emptied of its dignity through eugenics had as its necessary counterpart the plastic soul deprived of its human inheritance and emptied of its capacity for truly human thoughts, feeling, and experiences. This process too, which is even harder to see than it is to understand, is already well underway.

A culture that accepts such deep violence at the origins of life will have every incentive not to think about the profound questions of human existence that for so long animated Western culture—they cut too close to the heart—and so education, even now scarcely distinguishable from ignorance, will largely consist in learning not to ask them. And people who have come to understand themselves as artifacts will be unable to think deeply about them because there will be no depths to think about. For they will have already reduced reality to an assemblage of superficial ‘facts’ and truth to an arrangement (or re-arrangement) of the facts.  And so they will have already reduced thinking to some technique for assembling or manipulating data and things such as sociology, engineering, or journalism, that light minded empiricism which is the predominant form of rationality in our age. (This reduction of reason underlies recent court decisions denying that arguments for the exclusivity of natural marriage meet even the minimum standard of a rational basis.

Read the whole thing. On this same topic, Kevin D. Williamson explores the nominalism required to pretend that Laverne Cox is a woman:

The phenomenon of the transgendered person is a thoroughly modern one, not in the sense that such conditions did not exist in the past — Cassius Dio relates a horrifying tale of an attempted sex-change operation — but because we in the 21st century have regressed to a very primitive understanding of reality, namely the sympathetic magic described by James George Frazer in The Golden Bough. The obsession with policing language on the theory that language mystically shapes reality is itself ancient — see the Old Testament — and sympathetic magic proceeds along similar lines, using imitation and related techniques as a means of controlling reality. The most famous example of this is the voodoo doll. If an effigy can be made sufficiently like the reality it is intended to represent, then it becomes, for the mystical purposes at hand, a reality in its own right. The infinite malleability of the postmodern idea of “gender,” as opposed to the stubborn concreteness of sex, is precisely the reason the concept was invented. For all of the high-academic theory attached to the question, it is simply a mystical exercise in rearranging words to rearrange reality. Facebook now has a few score options for describing one’s gender or sex, and no doubt they will soon match the number of names for the Almighty in one of the old mystery cults.

Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman. Sex is a biological reality, and it is not subordinate to subjective impressions, no matter how intense those impressions are, how sincerely they are held, or how painful they make facing the biological facts of life. No hormone injection or surgical mutilation is sufficient to change that.

Shorter Williamson: Even if he has no clothes, the Emperor still has a penis.

These two articles help flesh out what I meant when I said last year that the gay-rights revolution is cosmological. 

UPDATE: Great comment from Thursday:

It seems to me that, as we believe in the incarnation, Christians in particular really need a sophisticated theology of matter and how it relates to spirit/soul/mind. There seem to be four basic positions:

1. Classical – Both the material and the mental/spiritual really exist. Spirit may be able to exist on its own (God, souls), but matter is inextricably bound up with spirit. It is never “just” matter. Matter and spirit in the human person are not the same thing, but there is no absolutely clear boundary between the two.
2. Cartesian – Both the material and the mental/spiritual exist, but they are entirely separate kinds of things which can still be linked up in some inexplicable way in a person.
3. Idealist – There’s really nothing except the mental/spiritual and matter is an illusion.
4. Materialist – There is really nothing except the material, considered as meaningless “stuff.” Often the reality of the mental/spiritual is outright denied.

There are, of course, some variations on these. For example, Plato somewhat anticipates Descartes in separating the material and mental/spiritual, and in denigrating the material as he does so, though he most certainly does not view the cosmos as composed of a bunch of meaningless stuff either. But, in any event, I think the four above are the most basic, most coherent positions.

Notice that 2-4 all implicitly deny any real meaning to matter. For the Idealist, matter doesn’t really exist, while for the Materialist it exists but is inherently meaningless. The Cartesian definitely affirms the existence of both mental life and matter, but again denies the inherent meaning of the latter.

Now other monotheistic faiths may (or may not) be able to better get away with some other position, but I think that anything like 2-4 cause huge problems for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation:

A. The Idealist position makes the incarnation pointless. Matter doesn’t even really exist.

B. The Materialist incarnation simply dumps God into a hunk of meaningless bits. What’s the point in that?

C. The Cartesian affirms that a person is made up of both matter and soul. But again what’s the point of the incarnation if the soul is the really important thing? I suppose one could see the incarnation and the crucifixion as God coming down to understand and identify with the sufferings of the soul, chained as it is to matter. This “feel our pain” view of Christianity has a certain kind of appeal, but it seems to me it makes utter nonsense of the bodily resurrection. Isn’t it better for the soul to be liberated from an attachment to matter? Isn’t that attachment painful at worst and meaningless at best? In addition the Cartesian view conflicts with how the incarnation has traditionally been viewed: the Word became flesh; it wasn’t just chained to flesh.

People have different preferences among all these positions. The Dawkins and Dennett crowd like materialism, the New Agers go in for idealism, lots of people are implicit Cartesians, and most switch between all three in an utterly unprincipled way.

Needless to say, modern sexual ethics can go with 2-4. If the human body is meaningless stuff, or if it doesn’t really exist at all, then who sticks what where doesn’t really matter.

So, yes, it’s cosmological.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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