The Personalist Project

Accessed on August 10, 2022 - 10:55:12

The Limits of “Identifying As”

Devra Torres, Apr 18, 2016

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.