If we take the most dramatic developments of the sexual revolution – say, the legitimation of transgenderism – it is interesting to ask what things wider society already needed to regard as normal in order for this first to be plausible and then normalized.
Not too long ago, had the sentence “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” been uttered to anyone – to a doctor, a friend, a relative – it would have been seen as a psychiatric problem in the one speaking the words. Help, from a psychiatrist or a priest, would have been advised or encouraged. Today, even to suggest any help or guidance is needed – let alone to provide such help or guidance – is criminal…even when the one saying such words is a child.
What has changed in our society and in the social imaginary to bring this new situation about?
Where we have arrived today is the position of granting decisive authority to inner feelings. No longer do we grant normative authority to the physical body. There is no “following the science” in this. We need not rely on the reality that when God created man and woman, He did not differentiate biological sex from gender identity. There is no place where the science has been settled for longer than the moment the midwife or doctor announces “it’s a girl.”
So, how did “inner feelings” take authority over the physical body? The story, as Trueman says, is a long and complex one. It isn’t that the idea of examining and understanding inner feelings is a new one. The Psalms are full of introspection; Augustine’s Confessions are a reflection on his inner life.
The Psalms and Paul look inward but then understand that inward life in terms of the prior authority of the external world as ordered by God. …Augustine moves inward so that he can then move outward to God and to the reality that is prior to and greater than his own feelings and in light of which those feelings can be understood.
Is it just me, or does the death of God in the Enlightenment keep coming up in discussions of “how we got here”?
The transgender person, by contrast, sees inward, psychological conviction as the nonnegotiable reality to which all external realities must be made to conform.
“External realities” to include how others see them, address them, treat them. It isn’t just the desire to have their inner feelings dictate their reality; their inner feelings must also dictate your reality.
Trueman points to a few philosophers and thinkers of the Enlightenment era that offered ideas – whether intended for good or ill – that led to the social imaginary in which we live today in the western world. First up is René Descartes, who lived in the first half of the seventeenth century. While he made significant contributions to mathematics, his relevance to this topic is his contribution to philosophy.
He set himself to doubting everything. In the end, his doubt ended with his famous “I think; therefore I am.” This could not be doubted. But this also placed human thought as the ground of certainty. He posited a distinction between mind and body, giving fundamental importance to the former. This gave runway for something Descartes could not have imagined: inner feelings, not physical reality, will dictate and control.
Next is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He lived in the eighteenth century, dying in 1778. Self-taught, he was an inspiration for both the French Revolution and what has become known as Romanticism.
He was also a rather obstinate, nasty, and at times paranoid man.
He also famously sent his five children to orphanage, which at the time meant near-certain death.
Rousseau offers two ideas that are relevant to this discussion. First, identity is located in the inner psychological life of the individual; feelings are central to who we are. Second, he sees society (culture) as exerting a corrupting influence on the self. Society prevents us from becoming who we really are – it makes us inauthentic.
He writes, in his Confessions, “The particular object of my confessions is to make known my inner self, exactly as it was in every circumstance of my life.” The real person can be found only in one’s inner thoughts. His focus is on his feelings and emotional responses. For us, this sounds bland – we hear such things daily, from confessional talk shows to classics of modern literature. But in Rousseau’s day, it was an explosive idea.
It is society that corrupts the individual; this corruption is not the result of original sin or the fall. Human beings are born essentially moral – acting outside in accordance with their inner feelings. (As an aside, it must be noted that Rousseau, who gave away his children to death, never had a grasp on the reality and delusion of what he was saying.)
The truly authentic individual must, inherently, see every institution and every other individual as an enemy. No one else or nothing else conforms to my inner self; every action of theirs potentially limits or hinders my authentic expression of my true identity.
“Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.”
Utter nonsense. A newborn human is the most dependent creature in the world – and for the longest period of time. Trueman rephrases Rousseau’s famous line as follows:
Man is born utterly dependent on others but everywhere tries to persuade himself that such an obvious fact is not actually true.
How has this played out in modern society? We have the idea of authenticity, where the person acts outwardly in accord with how they feel inside. And fair enough: to do otherwise is considered hypocritical or duplicitous. But historically, this authenticity was tempered by restraint and self-control.
So, where are the boundaries? If one’s inner self wants to harm or kill another person, are they a hypocrite for not doing so, or do we consider them as a psychopath if they do? Or, do we consider it a sign of maturity to grow beyond always acting in accord with our inner feelings?
But Trueman’s development of the story doesn’t end here. He next comes to Romanticism. Like all “isms,” a difficult word to easily summarize, but Trueman offers:
Romanticism sought to find authentic humanity in an acknowledgement of, and connection to, the power of nature.
It is through nature that one’s moral sentiments or instincts will be formed in the right way. It is the power of nature – and, therefore, the passivity of human beings – that truly shapes what it means to be human.
In short, the Romantics grant an authority to feelings, to that inner psychological space, that all human beings possess.
It is society that twists and perverts those feelings. Let’s call this the social constructs that get in the way of one’s true, authentic self.
Rousseau and the Romantics still held to the idea of a human nature – the inner voice was to work within a stable framework. Human nature possessed a moral structure, something shared by all human beings. The authentic human would return to authentic human moral intuitions of empathy and sympathy. According to Trueman, they did not see moral subjectivism as an outcome of their view.
Yet Rousseau gave up five children to almost certain death.
In any case, how did we get from this idea of still retaining a moral structure to this?
…the trans person who was born male but claims to be a woman is to be lionized because that is an act of courage and honesty whereby the outward performance is finally brought into line with the inner reality, despite what society might say about such.
Next Trueman will look at Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche.