The Personalist Project

In this brief video from the Family Policy Institute of Washington, a series of fairly pleasant, fairly articulate American college students can't be persuaded that Joseph Backholm, a short Caucasian man who tells them he "identifies as" a 6'5"Chinese woman, is not a 6'5" Chinese woman. What are they thinking? How did it come to this?

First, a couple caveats: whenever I see man-on-the-street videos proving the utter imbecility of said man, I hold out a feeble but fervent hope that they've been doctored beyond recognition . Maybe the interviewer ran into six people who DID know which country America was fighting in the Revolutionary War but chose to show only the seventh and eighth, who though it was China or Australia. Maybe the videographer knew he'd snag more outrage clicks if he deleted everybody else.

The other caveat is pretty feeble, too, but it's this: Backholm keeps asking them whether he's "wrong"--not whether his statements are "false"--and I think the word trips a switch in today's students that causes them to spew gibberish. "Wrong" has moral connotations, and any halfway impressionable teenager with working eardrums has imbibed the conviction that moral judgment about somebody else's behavior and beliefs is a no-no. (There's an exception of course, for certain unacceptable beliefs which don't ever come up anyhow, right-thinking people being unanimous about them).

Also, when he says, "Am I wrong?" they seem to be hearing, "Are you a mean person who wants to make me feel bad?" so they hasten to prove they're not.

So semantics is part of the problem. Maybe.

But however you slice it, "identifying as" is running amok these days.

So where's the grain of truth? Every crazy or evil idea has one, though some take more digging than others.

In this case, the grain is very near and dear to my personalist heart: the insight that we really do have the power to make of ourselves "somebody" or "somebody else." We possess the gift of freedom and the capacity for initiating actions that are truly our own: not just performed by instinct or blind habit, nor in the teeth of pressure or manipulation, but really ours. By such an exercise of freedom, we can be transformed--not just modified, or adjusted, but transformed. We can "become who we are"--or fail to. We're not altogether at the mercy of instinct, upbringing, culture, moods, wiring.

But, for one thing, you don't effect such a transformation by "identifying as" a person who has attained his telos. You have to do something about it. You can neither simply feel deep down that that's who you are, nor simply announce it. The project of becoming who you are, of gradually bringing the heart, the intellect, and the will into harmony and developing them to the utmost, can't be reduced to something that simple, or that silly. Nor is it attainable without plenty of grace.

Another difference, of course, is that you can't become something you're not, no matter how much natural virtue or supernatural assistance you have going for you. You either have these ancestors, or that height, or those chromosomes, or you don't.

We can argue, I guess, about whether I'm doing you any favors by pretending you are what you're not. We can, like Bruce Jenner, alter our birth certificates after the fact, and we can change the signs on all the bathroom doors in North Carolina, but none of that rises above an elaborate game of make-believe.

More useful would be for us who value both transformation and rationality to do a better job of conveying that it's plenty astounding and freedom-affirming to become who you are, not to mention being transformed into children of God and transfigured into his likeness. That if we're looking for good adventure, it's already waiting for us.

Then maybe even nice American college students wouldn't be taken in by the incoherent make-believe their elders feed them.

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Comments (6)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Apr 20, 2016 9:37am

I'm glad you mentioned that grain of truth. There's another aspect, likewise not unrelated to personalism.

We've learned, in our day, that there is such a thing as "my truth"—i.e. the truth of my inward experience—that no on else can judge.

So, while "I am a man," is objectively and obviously false, "I feel like I'm a man," could be true. Lots of people report such experiences convincingly.

I think one reason these students are squirming as they answer his questions is because the key thing (the thing that makes sense of their acceptance) is missing.

It's not only obvious that he isn't a 7 year old, 6.5" Chinese woman, it's obvious that he doesn't think he is. So neither the objective facts nor the subjective experience is present.

Hence, the conscientious non-judgmentalism looks completely absurd.

And it is absurd on the objective level. It's alarming that the "denial of the given" has gone so far so fast in our society. It's alarming that an entire generation is being taught to think that objective reality is nothing.

On the other hand, that they're being taught to refrain from judging others' subjective experience is good. We shouldn't forget that.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Apr 20, 2016 9:12pm

Another point: I think it is not enough in this context to say that we are free to "become who we are" or not. That sounds as if our freedom is limited to just two choices: accept God's ready-made plan for us or reject it. In reality our freedom is much more creative than that. It's not just a matter of accepting God's choice for us, but also of making our own choices.

Berdyaev stresses this difference between freedom as mere obedience, and freedom as creativity. We underestimate the dignity of man, we make him way too passive, unless we exercise the second type of freedom.

Devra Torres

#3, Apr 21, 2016 3:54pm

Katie, yes: that's just what they're resisting: judging another's subjective experience. But they laugh and hesitate, because it's clear that's not really his subjective experience, just a "what if" exercise.

To add another layer--someone may genuinely experience something but then interpret it in a certain way, not because he experiences it that way but because the surrounding culture's encouraging him to do so.

For example, an adolescent may experience attraction to both men and women. In a different culture, he might feel confused and distressed but not immediately conclude that this means he's bisexual. In our culture, he'd be more likely to conclude that, and to interpret his subsequent experience in light of that "knowledge." He might feel that no one has the right to judge whether he's right about this "fact" which he "knows" about himself--treating a cultural assumption as part of his own, untransferable, unjudgable "truth."

Maybe that's a simplistic example, but it shows that even for the person experiencing it--as well as for the person encountering him--it can be hard to separate out the genuine subjective experience from the cultural assumptions in light of which we all decide what to make of it.

Does that make sense?

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Apr 22, 2016 11:30am

Yes. Elements of our culture are now essentially asserting that (at least when it comes to gender) there is no such thing as objective reality. What you "feel like" is what you are, and everyone else is responsible to behave as if your subjective experience is what is.

That means that people who are experiencing a disjuncture between, say, their bodily reality and their subjective impressions will be rendered even more confused.

Instead, we should be trying to help each other harmonize and integrate subjectivity and objectivity.

I was so glad to see that the Pope has formally opposed transgendering for adolescents. 

Devra Torres

#5, Apr 26, 2016 3:16pm

Jules, I forgot to say, I'll be addressing your comment in the next post. Stay tuned...

Jules van Schaijik

#6, Apr 26, 2016 5:39pm

Really, Devra, I think my question deserves a whole series of posts :-)

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