Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Weaponized Compassion & The Culture War

The advance of AIDS and the advance of ROGD (Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria) follow a similar paths
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I can't figure out how to caption photos on this stupid new software (a software format that has destroyed this blog's comments section; we're trying to figure out a fix for it), but that photo above is of the activist Billboard Chris, who is a true prophet speaking out against the Mengele-like exploitation of children by the transgender-industrial complex. He's the kind of person that gets denounced as an alarmist. He is indeed an alarmist -- but you want someone to sound an alarm when the damn house is on fire!

I subscribe to Fisted By Foucault, the Substack of the right-wing writer and controversialist Niccolo Soldo. Since the advent of monkeypox, Soldo has been revisiting, in a newsletter series, the advent of AIDS, and the culture of gay male promiscuity that produced it. Soldo liberally quotes from official public health sources and the memoirs of gay writers who were present in the 1970s when many gay men gave themselves over to extreme promiscuity and radical sexual practices. He focuses in part on people like gay physicians who were terrified by the fact that so many gay men's bodies were becoming petri dishes, as well as on people like the gay activist Larry Kramer and the gay journalist Randy Shilts, who were early alarmists about the new "gay cancer," and whose warnings were quite unpopular. In today's issue, Soldo writes:


All animal species have a natural instinct for self-preservation thanks to evolution. Those that never developed this mechanism to a sufficient extinct died out a long, long time ago. It is a vital function that keeps us alive.

Despite humans creating civilizations that worked to diminish some of the rougher and more dangerous aspects of nature, this instinct remains strong in our constitutions for the simple fact that societies are fragile, and threats to our lives can appear immediately. How we choose to assess and then mitigate these threats depends not only on how our societies are organized and what resources we have access to, but also how we personally assess these threats. This will often come down to personality traits that are inherent or are developed over time due to environmental factors and/or personal experiences. Some types select social conformity, others will choose gun ownership, and so on. The examples are endless.

One type of personality known to us all is the ‘Alarmist’. This person will warn others in advance of a threat that they see coming, often exaggerating the actual threat for desired effect. We all know this type, as it has saturated our minds in the age of instantaneous communication and clickbait journalism. A problem with the Alarmist is that they can often be wrong, leading to a “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” reaction from the targeted audience. Excessive alarmism negatively impacts credibility. But for those of you who have been paying attention this past decade, these alarmists actually have a pretty good track record. This is why it pays to not completely discount the paranoid rantings of the ‘internet schizophrenic’.

Larry Kramer (whom we have met earlier in this series) was one of those alarmists. Something in his gut was telling him that the hyper-charged sexual activity of gay men in the 1970s posed an existential risk. He had no way of knowing that the HIV virus was already making its way through the gay community (and IV drug users as well), but he could sense the danger. His 1978 novel “Faggots” sounded the alarm, and Kramer became persona non grata on Fire Island because of it, as he was seen as spoiling the party.

Some people will react early, others will react too late. Some people will overreact, others will choose to put personal interests above those of the affected community as a whole. Others still will place politics as the primary lens through which to perceive the threat and react to it, pushing down actual public health concerns. Still others will deny that something is happening, with even more others seeing conspiracies unfolding before their eyes. All of the above took place with regards to those first years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

In Soldo's history, the alarmists like Kramer were shouted down because what they were saying was not what people wanted to hear. Aside from the fact that if they were right, then an ethic of unlimited pleasure was going to get a lot of people killed, there was the matter of these warnings standing as a denial of the promises and ideals of the Sexual Revolution. They could not be true, because if they were true, then so many people were wrong about the thing that they had given their lives to.

But they weren't wrong. The death and destruction caused by the failure to heed the warnings is impossible to calculate.

The failure to heed the warnings was both ideological (the Sexual Revolution's ideals), and instinctive (the unleashing of raw desire). This is the same thing that's happening now with the epidemic spread of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria -- a mental illness that does not, thank God, kill you, but which is leading many thousands of young people to embrace their insanity, and mutilate their bodies with surgery and/or chemicals. It is also destroying the foundations of society.

Here's a fascinating bit from the podcast conversation that Wes Yang had recently with Leor Sapir, about the phenomenon. In this part of the conversation, Yang suggests that this wave of crazy is passing over society because of "gender ideology." Sapir says it's more complicated than that, and also simpler. Emphases below are mine:


[Sapir:] ... And, you know, let me end by making a point that in some circles it’s controversial and other circles it’s treated as well, yeah, of course, that's obvious. You know, women have more empathy than men, more natural empathy than men. On average, of course, you're gonna find holdouts on both sides, but on average, they do. And one thing that I've discovered in my research and talking to parents, especially to mothers, believe it or not, to teachers on the ground, is that if you look at the foot soldiers of the transgender revolution–now, I'm not talking about the high-level donors behind the scenes and stuff like that, I'm talking about the people on the ground, the teachers, the therapists–almost all of them are female. Interestingly enough, those fighting back against transitioning kids are also female. Not all of them, but a lot of them–Abigail Schreier, people like that, right. So you have women on both sides of the issue, but if you look at the pro-affirming side, it's very female. It's always couched in compassion and the language of empathy. You do find some men, but to the extent that men get involved in this debate, they usually tend to get involved on the opposite side of it. Again, these are generalizations, I don't mean that they apply to 100% of cases, but it's important from just a kind of a sociological perspective, because I think it underscores the extent to which empathy unmoored from any kind of rational assessment of the evidence is driving so much of this stuff. And until we understand that, and come to terms with that, it's going to be really difficult to turn the clock back.

Wesley Yang: I hear what you're saying in terms of the way things are now, but when you have a generation of kids who are raised from infancy on the belief that gender ideology, or their gender identity, is just a matter of subjective identification, and that no one else can see it, some secret that's hidden inside of you, that you have access to, and that others cannot see. Which is, you know, I think it's foundational to the form that gender ideology takes, that's now being taught–it's going to lay the foundation for a vast expansion of other–those who have been primed since early childhood to be taken in by gender identity, and, you know, for themselves and for others…

Leor Sapir: So that's true, but just to push back a little bit, talk to these kids, Wesley. Talk to them. I have, when I used to have office hours when I taught in college, and I have spoken to students, I've spoken to colleagues, to friends, family members on the left–you talk to them, you spend five minutes investigating their ideas about, you know, we all have this internal sense of gender, all the, kind of, these bizarre, kooky metaphysics, and within a nanosecond that gives way to therapeutic cliches. They don't–they have no philosophical defense of these ideas, it just immediately gives way to, kind of, this full relativism of–everybody should do what they feel makes sense, makes them feel good about themselves, and who am I to judge? And if we don't agree with them, that they're going to experience subjective distress, and they're gonna want to kill themselves. 

So, you know, again, it's not that gender ideology doesn't play an important role here, it really does. But when you scratch below the surface, when you push back a little bit, it's incredible how quickly all of this gives way to this unhinged compassion, and empathy, and concern for feelings of suffering. And so I think that's important because it also gives us a plan of action for how to push back against it, which is, no, the compassionate thing to do is to look at studies about suicidality, to see that there is in fact no connection between affirming and reducing suicidality. And there's actually one new study that shows weak evidence–I want to emphasize, it's evidence, but it's weak evidence–that affirming with puberty blockers may actually increase suicidality. That social transition–meaning using a person's preferred pronouns and names–is not just the nice, kind, compassionate thing to do, but it may actually lock in a temporary state of distress that would have relieved itself over time if you just leave it alone. So again, recognizing what's driving this thing, that it really is compassion, empathy, unhinged from any form of rational introspection and assessment of the evidence, is really key to unlocking how we can move in the direction of other countries here.

Wesley Yang: So there's also like, two key, sort of, inflection points that I see, both when it comes to our conception of rights and then our conception of therapy. Because there was an idea that you had, you know, you will have the individual adjust himself to a world that existed beyond the limits of his will and his subjectivity. Right. And now, there's the contrary idea that, no, you must remake the world, you must mandate the world participate in the patient's–you know, some would call it delusions or– their strongly held subjective beliefs. And then also the idea that, not just that I have a right to believe what I want, but that my right to believe what I want is not fulfilled unless others affirm. And that, to me, seems a major and significant step in the progress of rights. It evolves kind of naturally out of it, I guess, but it also turns the whole concept on its head at the same time.

Leor Sapir: Yeah, I think that's right. And this is a problem, I think, inherent in the American style of relativism, that we wanted to say, you know, to use Justice Kennedy, in that Planned Parenthood v. Casey case–we all have the right to define our meaning of existence. But of course, the existence that we want to define is not just purely our own subjective understanding of the world, we want it to be objectively true. We all want our belief to be grounded in something more than just a spurious feeling. We want the confidence that our feelings are grounded in something more real, more permanent. And so it's important to us that others recognize our subjective understanding, to meet our own meaning of existence. And that's where subjectivism slides easily into a kind of a totalitarianism, where we recognize no limits to our will, no limits to our desires.

And, you know, the classical liberal formulation for this problem is tolerance–to recognize that to live in a society means to live alongside people who, you know, in the old formulation, are condemned to burn in hell, and to corrupt your kids, right. I mean, these are people who are deeply misguided, theologically, morally, but that you let them live in their false beliefs. We've moved beyond that. I think that's clear. The question now is, can we gain a little bit of that back, and I think the transgender moment or movement or whatever you want to call it is so significant for so many people because it is a kind of a test case for whether we can hold on to this classical liberal understanding of rights, or whether it's going to give way to this kind of boundless self-expression, with the ensuing demand that everybody agree with my every feeling and judgment inconsistently, because I'm not willing to agree with theirs, right. So it creates this war of all against all where necessarily the strongest will survives. 

I don't like to quote at that length from work that somebody is charging others to hear or to read, so let me say that I hope it will encourage you to subscribe to Year Zero, Yang's must-read newsletter.

What I find so fascinating about that is the role that weaponized compassion plays in the culture war. It's based on the idea that to be compassionate, you must give the suffering person whatever they want. To fail to do that is to harm them. Sapir suggests that the way to fight that is with the relentless application of facts. I don't have a better idea, but as the history of AIDS shows, facts where powerless in the face of desire -- and this, I think, is where the whole ideological basis for weaponized compassion (or weaponized desire) comes into play. As Yang avers, if you have been raised from childhood to believe that there is no such thing as nature, and that you not only can be whatever you want, but that you have a metaphysical right to be, then it is going to be very hard to convince you that you have it all wrong, and that if you follow this path, you are going to ruin your life.

Then there is the fact that in a therapeutic culture like ours, one of the most powerful substances known to man is a woman's tears. I have known otherwise sensible, level-headed men reduced to effectively gibbering by them, and to giving the weeping woman whatever crackpot thing she wants. It's not for nothing that, as Sapir points out, most of the leading allies of the trans-revolutionaries are women.

Here's the point: AIDS was a disease made possible ideologically by the radical individualism of American culture (the Seventies as the Me Decade) and the Sexual Revolution, which was incubated by the emerging therapeutic culture of the early 20th century, and set free by the advent of mass-produced, effective contraceptive technology: the Pill. And it was made possible by the total valorization, within the gay community, of sexual desire.

Similarly, the transgender explosion is a disease made possible ideologically by the radical individualism of American culture (think Anthony Kennedy's "sweet mystery of life" passage cited above). It is made possible technologically by the Internet and social media, which work to fragment the personality and remove it from the guardrails of reality. And it is made possible socially by the total valorization of compassion as an emotion unmoored from any external standards.

To render society immobile in fighting AIDS by stigmatizing gay male promiscuity, the culture-makers had to render promiscuous gay men as holy innocents victimized by villains like Ronald Reagan. To render society immobile in fighting ROGD by stigmatizing transgenderism, the culture-makers have to render children and minors with gender dysphoria as holy innocents who need to be protected from bigoted ogres.

We have had our defenses compromised by ideology.

Don't get me wrong: in both cases, those suffering from AIDS or ROGD deserve human compassion! But where is the compassion in turning these souls over to phenomena that cause them to destroy their lives? Similarly with monkeypox, which so far doesn't seem to kill people, but cause immensely painful suffering: we are unable to speak honestly and straightforwardly about the disease because the culture-makers are more afraid of stigmatizing gay men and stigmatizing sexual liberty than they are about protecting individuals and the collective from this hideous disease spread by promiscuous gay men.

Compassion is valuable. Compassion is important. Compassion is necessary. But compassion is about wanting what is best for the sufferer, not what the sufferer wants for himself. If a 14-year-old anorexic asked for diet pills, you wouldn't give them to her, because you would know that she is deluded about what she needs to be healthy. We only give child and teenage ROGD patients what they want because the sentimental, sexually revolutionary ideology that has conquered American elites and elite institutions tells them that the sick and desperate are truly healthy and thriving.

Sentimentality is not the same thing as compassion -- and sentimentality is going to destroy a lot of people's lives. It already is. We have been here before.