Secular Right | Reality & Reason



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.

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  • Author comment by David Hume · November 4, 2012 at 11:04 pm

    one thing i should mention: in the late 60s and 70s modern social liberalism in some areas was more ‘advanced’ than we are today. think age-of-consent laws. that receded from common sense reasons, outside of extremely radical sectors. this shows that the march of social liberalism can, and will likely, reverse in some areas rather soon. i think the whole ‘trans’ debate is one area which will shake out in the next decade, some of the more bizarre arguments won’t be as viable.

  • ChrisB · November 4, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    “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.”

    I doubt this will be a problem. The designation of oppressor and oppressed may be theoretically arbitrary, but, once made, the designations are ironclad, and logical conflicts are dealt with through hysteria.

  • ChrisB · November 5, 2012 at 12:01 am

    “In the late 60s and 70s modern social liberalism in some areas was more ‘advanced’ than we are today. think age-of-consent laws. that receded from common sense reasons, outside of extremely radical sectors. this shows that the march of social liberalism can, and will likely, reverse in some areas rather soon.”

    It’s certainly true that for a time in the 60s and 70s “progressive” thinking on children and sex went far beyond current norms, but I think age-of-consent laws are a different issue.

    Typically such laws go back to Victorian times or earlier and were originally set at very young ages, around puberty. It’s as if they responded to the question, What’s the earliest age at which someone might conceivably get married? They certainly didn’t reflect a pedo-libertine view of sex. They have to be understood against the background of a traditional society with strong parental authority over minors (pre-age 21), legally and socially enforced. Age-of-consent laws were just one aspect of social control over minors’ sexual behaviour, and far from the most important one.

    In progressive societies, parental and social authority has dramatically weakened (partly stripped away by “children’s rights” advocates), so age-of-consent laws are one of the few remaining legal controls on minors’ sexual behaviour. (They aren’t, strictly speaking, a form of parental control, but they are often invoked by parents.)

    Moralists currently focus on raising the age of consent as a way of restoring a certain amount of lost social and parental authority. Meanwhile, libertines tend to slip in “Romeo and Juliet” clauses to sabotage the effort. So, your 13-year-old daughter is saved from the filthy paws of some 17-year-old boy but is fair game for any 16-year-old.

  • WmarkW · November 5, 2012 at 12:16 am

    When I saw the title about diminishing returns, I expected an article about how pernicious racism supposedly is, even though it barely exists today.

    Your own column is spot-on about its actual content. But the diminishing returns of racial engineering have become comical in their application. Its advocates talk about how often whites have visited black peoples’ homes, how segregated churches are (as if blacks want to be 15% of a white-dominated church, instead running 15% of the churches themselves) and forcing school kids to sit together in lunchrooms.

    Compared to things like 70% illegitimacy, almost 50% of males not graduating high school, and extreme ratios of crime compared to the rest of the population, it’s obvious the advocates believe in squeezing every ounce of possible blame from whites before even looking at rampant self-sabotage among blacks.

  • Chris · November 5, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    On a tangentially related note, this is why I can’t get all that bothered about the supposed “stagnation” that would set in if humanity engineered longer lifespans. Yes, social change would be slower (an argument oddly put forth by social conservatives), but it still wouldn’t be zero, and in any case, just how many more radical changes are left to be had? For the most part, I’m quite glad of the ones we’ve had so far (being gay), but eventually you just run out of genuine oppression.

  • TGGP · November 8, 2012 at 12:55 am

    You don’t have to be a “libertine” to favor Romeo-and-Juliet laws. There exist married couples with children where the father is still legally listed as a sex offender because the parents’ underage dalliance was reported to the police. At best these laws tend to prohibit being near schools or children, at worst people on the lists have to live under bridges or simply stop complying with the law. If there were more gradation in these laws and their punishments it could make sense to have a crime tailored to that circumstance, but not if consenting teenagers are going to be categorized with pedophiles/rapists.

  • Mark in Spokane · November 8, 2012 at 1:46 am

    I think you are also overlooking one of the prime motivators of social liberalism when it comes to sexual issues: hostility to Christianity and the other monotheistic religions. Gay rights is appealing to the Left and many on the Right not simply because of concern over homosexuals, but because it is a perfect opportunity to further marginalize traditional religious believers. The transgender issue provides another battering ram for the Left to use against Christians and other believers. The internal contradictions of the Left’s position will not be enough to get them to give up on the fight so long as the opportunity to harm religion is available.



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