The diminishing marginal returns to modern social liberalism
Rather than a coldly elucidated set of principles in a Benthamite fashion modern social liberalism is fundamentally a movement of justice rooted in feeling. That everyone get a fair-go, that everyone can engage in their own personal project of self-actualization. But at some point this universal principle is going to hit diminishing marginal returns. In the 19th and early 20th century progressives argued for women’s suffrage. About half of the population. In the 1960s in the USA they argued for civil rights for racial minorities, and blacks in particular. On the order of 10 percent of the population of the day in the United States. Over the past generation they have argued for civil rights for homosexuals who identify as gay or lesbian. Being generous, this is probably on the order of 5 percent of the population (I am willing to accept the proposition that the self-identified ~2 percent value may be an underestimate).
Last year the center Left publication The New Republic published a story, Transitions, which had the cover lead “America’s Next Great Civil Rights Struggle.” As a matter of numbers this is farcical on the face of it. Transgender people do face a great deal of discrimination and are the objects of hate, to the point of violence. But the reality is that they are far less than 1 percent of the population. As a matter of numbers it seems that modern social liberalism is running out of victims to uplift if it has to target such a small segment of the population.
More to the point, “transgender rights” are qualitatively different from previous civil rights issues. This is true for all the enumerated groups above. Women’s rights are not the same as racial minority rights, which are not the same as gay rights. Right or wrong modern social liberalism has secured the rights of gays by pushing for a strong hereditarian/biological position on the origin and expression of homosexuality. To some extent transgender individuals turn this argument on its head, arguably severing the connection between biology and sexual identity, which was such an important part of the ultimate victory of gay rights.
This issue has come to my mind because of a case in Washington state. Trans Woman In College Locker Room Sparks Title IX Debate:
Francis, who, after 20 years serving in the army, wears a low-dose estrogen patch, plans not to undergo sex reassignment surgery and says she prefers women, is outraged: “This is not 1959 Alabama. We don’t call police for drinking from the wrong water fountain.”
But for the time being, Evergreen’s temporary solution does sort of resemble that: after parents refused to allow their minor daughters to change in front of Francis, the girls’ sports teams were placed in a smaller ancillary locker room space to change and Francis was given the run of the main locker room—which is where Title IX comes in, say some: the old discussion of “male privilege” shuttling female athletics by the wayside.
Most people would balk at exposing their daughters to this sort of situation. To a great extent the gay rights movement has been a symbolic affair for non-gays in this country. The direct impact of the marriage of gays on non-gays is tenuous (which is why one has to make broader sociological or universal moral arguments). But the rise of transgender rights potentially has a much more direct effect on those of us who in our day to day take the conflation of sex and gender for granted.
The case of transgender individuals also shows the ultimate limits of modern social liberalism, as it may no longer be able to appropriately juggle its contradictions. On the one hand the transgender movement operationally seems to be suggestive that one’s gender identity is optional. And yet on the other hand modern liberalism is strongly committed to equality for women, ostensibly a sharply demarcated category. The case of Renée Richards is illustrative of this confusion. A world were gender becomes an entirely labile category is one where the organs of institutional liberal justice is unable to operate, because it is unable to identify victims and oppressors.