My beloved National Review posted an article by J. J. McCullough yesterday calling for compromise on the issue of transgenderism. I’m going to give National Review a mulligan because it’s a source of such stalwart conservatism, but not without addressing a few of the article’s many missteps and oversights.
I want to keep this post brief, so I’ll limit my comments to just a few of most problematic elements of his article.
First, McCullough seems to have absolutely zero awareness of the ontological and philosophical debates surrounding transgender ideology. Sentences like the following show a stunning lack of familiarity with deeply complex arguments:
Part one of the compromise will be borne by cultural conservatives and traditionalists. It asks for broad tolerance for the reality that transgender men and women exist, and are entitled to basic human dignity, just like everyone else.
What does he mean by “transgender men and women exist?” The language of “transgender” is problematic in itself. Is he speaking of gender dysphoria (a concept that the article makes no mention of)? If that is what he meant, that’s fine. Every conservative or Christian I know accepts that a small percentage of people sense a disconnect between their body and their perceived sense of gender. Or, is McCullough suggesting that conservatives should accept the premise that a biological male who identifies as female is, objectively speaking, a female? That does not signal compromise at all—that’s all-out surrender to the cultural zeitgeist. That is what progressives want and are working towards. The very next sentence he writes becomes thus untenable on its own grounds once you accept his prior sentence above:
This does not mean having to morally endorse behavior many may believe runs contrary to God’s plan for a just and healthy society, but it does imply that acts like ostentatiously calling people by pronouns they don’t want, or belittling their personal struggle, are boorish and petty.
Whether he acknowledges it or not, McCullough is already morally endorsing the concept of transgenderism while at the same time asking culture and government to exempt those that remain unconvinced. But in McCollough’s paradigm, the unconvinced do not remain because they’ve already assented to the underlying currents of transgender ideology and philosophy.
Conservatives and Christians ought to defend the dignity of every transgender-identifying American without accepting the underlying premises of transgenderism. We can acknowledge that gender dysphoria is a real phenomenon that produces anguish and distress. We can acknowledge the discomfort that some have with their internal understanding of gender. Both of these acknowledgments are possible without accepting the deeper ontological and philosophical commitments that require society to believe that a man who thinks he’s a woman is really a woman. He is not.
Moreover, the insinuation that an objection to pronouns is “boorish” or “petty” glosses over an enormous component at the very heart of the cultural debate around this issue: Compelled speech. It is one thing to voluntarily use someone’s preferred pronoun as a matter of situational prudence. It’s altogether different when conservatives suggest that as a matter of principle they ought to be actively complicit in furthering someone’s confusion. As I’ve written elsewhere,
Pronouns are not an insignificant issue. How a person wants to be referred to communicates how that person understands himself or herself at their deepest, most intimate level. This means that language has deeply significant meaning embedded in its usage. The use of language is an attempt to name and give meaning to reality. Pronouns and gendered names, therefore, refer to a reality in which the transgendered individual is wishing to live. The question we as Christians have to consider is whether the reality we are being asked to affirm is objective and corresponds to biblical truth, or whether the reality we are being asked to acknowledge is subjective and false. Nothing less than the truth and authority of God’s revelation over created reality is up for grabs in something as seemingly innocent as pronoun usage. Because, at root, the transgender debate is a metaphysical debate about whose version of reality we live in, and only one account—Jesus Christ’s (Colossians 1:15-20)—can lead us into truth about reality and human flourishing. No amount of willing something into existence that is at odds with one’s biology—such as one’s gender identity—can bring that desired reality about.
In short, McCullough asks conservatives to compromise by accepting the underlying premises of the transgender worldview. That, readers, is not a compromise. That is a surrender. A Christian and a conservative ought to extend maximal dignity to transgender-identifying persons. A Christian and a conservative ought to fight against bigotry and discrimination where it exists. The problem with McCullough’s argument is that the wholesale acceptance he unwittingly bows to ends up making Christians and conservatives guilty of offenses that impact free speech and religious liberty on the one hand while asking for an exemption on the other. So which is it? Is it a freedom to dissent? Or an obligation to assent?
Lastly, McCullough dismissively caricatures those who insist that culture and political correctness are perpetrating great harms against persons by suggesting that surgical mutilation of healthy body parts ought to be routine medical practice for someone who is confused about their gender. He accuses those who register dissent as being “theatrically repulsed.” Really? McCullough is theatrically deceived if he thinks amputating healthy body parts in order to heal the mind addresses the underlying tensions of gender confused people.
McCullough is asking conservatives to bow to every last premise of the deeper, underlying realities that attend to transgenderism while expecting the culture to play nice with those who dissent. The problem is that McCollough’s position does not actually dissent. It accommodates, entirely.