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Cultivating Truthfulness in Public Life
A clash between a conservative Senator and progressive law professor has served as a Rorschach test for culture warriors, with each side convinced it has coasted to victory on the strength of a few devastating sentences. Professor Khiara Bridges of Berkeley Law and Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) gave the pretense of speaking only for themselves at a July 12 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing ostensibly about abortion policy after Dobbs. Still, the reception of their tête-à-tête shows how our public discourse on the issue of gender theory and transgenderism is bogged down in shallow soundbites, with emotion substituted for argument. Both sides of the debate have vast incentives to stay stuck in the rhetorical mud, but it does our public discourse no favors. And it is a particularly bad strategy for gender theory’s opponents.
Both combatants in the Bridges-Hawley affair have reached the pinnacle of their fields, and serve as fitting captains of warring cultural teams. Both were well-suited to represent their sides, reflecting the deeper phenomenon at play, which is the widening chasm between Americans who cannot believe there is anyone who subscribes to gender theory, and those who cannot believe that anyone cannot believe it. It is a shallow debate for our shallow times.
You could not have picked more perfect figures to distill the argument into a few pointed soundbites. Bridges has made a career off of arguments exactly befitting most Americans’ idea of a Berkeley Law professor. She has made a career off of academic papers whose goals include “defending and rehabilitating the concept of white privilege by identifying poor white people’s race-based advantages,” and advocating a narrow understanding of what constitutes “life” to the point that “protecting fetal ‘life’ is no longer an interest that the state may legitimately pursue.”
Senator Hawley (R-MO) has made his fair share of waves by adopting the Nationalist Conservative mantle (and embracing the NatCons’ industrial-policy-and-trustbusting agenda), cosplaying a defiant revolutionary with raised fist during the January 6th, 2021 riot at the Capitol, and subsequently basking in the martyrdom of cancellation when his publisher dropped his book. (“A direct assault on the First Amendment,” he called it.)
On July 12, Hawley opened his remarks by asking Bridges to clarify what she meant by “people with the capacity for pregnancy” in her previous work.
Of course, he knew exactly what she meant: Female human beings with child-bearing capacities. But he also understood the emotions that gender ideology stirs. The fringe but increasingly popular idea that females can be men, males can be women, and people of both sexes can be any number of non-binary genders, still sounds ridiculous to most Americans. He wanted to hear Bridges repeat it.
Bridges was all too happy to oblige. “Many women, cis women, have the capacity for pregnancy,” she answered. “There are also trans men who are capable of pregnancy, as well as non-binary people who are capable of pregnancy.”
Media, social and mainstream alike, lit up. Conservatives touted the incident as proof that the left is so wrapped up in Orwellian jargon that it has lost its grasp of basic concepts. Progressives applauded Bridges for putting a man they see as a bigot in his place, with simple facts and logic. Within each group’s philosophical framework, they are right.
Another day at the theater. But we have seen this show before—many times, in fact. It is precisely the same as now—Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson saying she does not know what a woman is during her Senate confirmation hearing. It’s the same as Apple rolling out its pregnant man emoji, or the NCAA allowing biological males to compete in women’s sports. It is assuredly not a referendum on anything new—not even close.
For the umpteenth time, some viral moment revolves around whether transgender people are meant to be defined by their biological sex or by the gender with which they identify. That is all. If a biological female is properly understood as a man, then there is no novel inference to say that men can become pregnant and bear children. If a biological female is and can only be a woman, then only women can do so. And if one accepts the former proposition, the language of “people with the capacity for pregnancy” is simply an accurate term, however clunky.
The most basic implication of gender theory continues to masquerade as a variety of other arguments: Who can get pregnant? What do we call a person with a uterus? What can we assume about other people without direct instruction? But it is just the same question, over and over again: Are there really people who believe in gender ideology? And that question remains an obstacle towards sorting out whether it is a useful framework for understanding issues of sex, gender, and sexuality.
Neither gender ideology’s opponents nor its proponents have any incentive to give up the jig and move on to substantive arguments about gender ideology’s truth or usefulness.
Its opponents, including Hawley, can wield new-speak soundbites as wedges between progressive interest groups. After coaxing gender ideologues to replace the word “woman” with “person capable of pregnancy”—or worse, “menstruator,” “bleeder,” or some such reproduction-centric excrescence—many conservatives delight in presenting the result to feminists. “Inclusive” terminology does indeed disrespect women inasmuch as women see themselves as an interest group on account of shared characteristics and attendant public policy needs. Reducing a female’s experience to that characterized by her reproductive functions is crass, to say the least.
Yet many feminist organizations have adopted gender theory’s definition and embraced trans-inclusive feminism, demonstrating the perils of Hawley’s approach. Relying on trans-inclusive lingo sounding crazy to the average American assumes a risk rapidly becoming a reality—eventually this manner of speaking will become so culturally ingrained (thanks to educators like Bridges, and the mainstreaming of such language in popular culture) that the time for addressing and undermining its theoretical underpinnings will be over. Hawley will have lost by not moving past the first step of argument, as Americans become increasingly used to gender theory’s ideas and inured to its radicalism.
But far more troubling are the implications of gender ideology’s proponents having their cake and eating it too. Consider that the dissenting Supreme Court Justices in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, arguing for upholding Roe v. Wade, used the term woman (or its variants) well over two hundred times. This is no mere “gotcha” to somehow condemn progressive icons such as Justice Sonia Sotomayor for using terminology now considered archaic. “Woman” stands for something: a meaningful, thick identity that makes a natural interest group. Abortion rights, the dissenting justices argued, stood for that interest group’s progress: “Respecting a woman as an autonomous being, and granting her full equality, meant giving her substantial choice over this most personal and most consequential of all life decisions.” With righteous indignation, the dissent railed against the majority for “consign[ing] women to second-class citizenship.” They concluded that “One result of today’s decision is certain: the curtailment of women’s rights, and of their status as free and equal citizens.”
Agree or disagree with that characterization, the dissent makes use of a thick conception of what it means to be a woman. The relevant category for their discussion of abortion is not “people with the capacity to become pregnant”—though that is all that is necessary to bear the brunt of the Dobbs decision, by the dissent’s own logic—but “woman,” with all its attendant history, context, and implications.
Opponents of gender theory can and should point out the logical trick at play here. Progressives cannot simultaneously reduce womanhood to biology and use the notion capaciously to refer to a class of people characterized by both shared biology and shared interests. But that is precisely what they do by vacillating between trans-inclusive language and the traditional feminist language of womanhood and women’s rights. When they want to explain some social trend by reference to their intersectional axis of oppression, the man vs. woman axis is very powerful, since Americans recognize that women have in many ways throughout history been treated unfairly.
Lingering on the superficial element of gender theory also allows proponents to say, as Bridges did, that conservatives don’t believe trans people exist, which is violent erasure that causes transgender people to engage in self-harm. Gender theory’s opponents present those soundbites, too, as res ipsa loquitur evidence that its proponents are full of baloney, transmogrifying every disagreement into violence—possibly disingenuously, to boot. But the proposition that “trans erasure” causes tangible harms shows no sign of abating on its own, even as evidence mounts that comorbidities of gender dysphoria, rather than disapproval from Senate Republicans, are responsible for the tragically high rates of suicide among transgender people. Conservatives should not rest on their laurels, but should be forthright: Of course, they think transgender people exist; they disagree that the best course of action is “affirmation” for anyone expressing gender-dysphoric tendencies and debilitating social pressure for anyone who deviates from progressive gender-ideology orthodoxy. But they cannot do that so long as they linger on the surface of the issue, relying on what seems to them self-evidently absurd but what to many Americans is becoming just another fact of life.
If gender-ideology critics were serious about combatting error rather than using it as a prop for performance, they would get past the feigned incredulity of, “you mean to tell me men can get pregnant?” Yes, we have established that people who believe gender theory’s premises believe men can get pregnant. It is a theory riddled with logical and epistemological problems, one that reifies or downplays meaningful identities, such as womanhood, depending on their political convenience. Exposing those problems would be salutary to a confused American public, particularly parents of gender-dysphoric children. It would even expose the duplicity of progressives trying to claim the mantle of traditional feminism, while deriding so much of its language and logic. Actual reckoning with the theory’s tenets is a winning proposition in the long-run, even as surface-level reckoning presents itself as the winning strategy in the short run.
For now, it seems we have the public debate we deserve.