I have decided that the only way to understand American liberal society is through the mystical practices of Asia’s ancient religions. Let me explain.
Hundreds of millions of the world’s Buddhists have at the heart of their faith a seemingly irreconcilable mystery. For two millennia, they have been taught that emptiness (sunyata) is a fundamental principle of reality. When properly analyzed, nothing in fact has any content or substance beyond what we attribute to it: All is empty. At the same time, though, mystics teach the goal of finding the ultimate cosmic reality that is at the heart of all things, the Buddha Nature that is within all of us. But doesn’t that doctrine flatly contradict the idea of emptiness, in that at least something is absolutely valid, a rock on which to stand? Is everything empty, or not? Scholars and contemplatives debate that baffling paradox.
That religious conundrum has struck me often in recent decades, as Western scholars and academics preach the theme that all things are constructed, whether we are looking at nations, classes, or (especially) “gender identities.” However solid and real it might seem, nothing is innate or inevitable. Our identities are made and remade through social influences and interactions, and especially through the power of language. From our earliest years, we learn to be Americans or Afghans, Jews or Arabs, white and black, and, yes, men and women. Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Not only is it wrong to suggest that identities follow us from birth, but any such belief represents a deadly sin—namely, essentialism, the false and misleading quest for any fixed and underlying essence.
That does not mean that everything is illusion, that we are all living in a Matrix world and just imagining a material reality. Yes, beyond argument, there are people out there who use harmful drugs and destroy their health. However, the “drug addict” is a constructed reality, one that might be imagined very differently in different societies, and the same is true of the “drug problem.” How we construct such things depends on our history and our culture, as reflected above all in our patterns of language. Things don’t “mean” anything in themselves, but rather, they are “made to mean.”
Nothing is innate, all is empty. So far, so Buddhist.
You may agree or disagree with any of those ideas, but they have a certain consistency, or at least they did until they were applied to recent controversies over sexual identity. Any postmodern thinker knows that identities are fluid and constructed, and that essentialism is a deadly sin against the Secular Spirit. But observe the appalled and angry reaction if you suggest to that same person that homosexuality is an acquired or constructed behavior, or that it is anything other than innate and, indeed, genetically determined.
That belief in innate characteristics runs through many years of debates on homosexuality, such as arguments over “gay conversion therapy.” An excellent case can be made that such therapies are quite unnecessary, not to mention cruel and generally ineffective. The usual critique, though, is that it is utterly unacceptable because it attempts to change one’s fundamental essence (if I might be allowed to use the deadly e-word). Nor can you ever suggest that homosexuality can be acquired, whether through association or abusive acts. That would seem to be contradicted by the many cases of men (say) acquiring homosexual behaviors and identities through their experiences in same-sex environments; but no, those examples do not count. You are gay or you are not, and that is an absolute.
Nothing is innate, all is empty. Except, we now find, in matters of gender-shifting, and transgenderism. It is easy to mock the seeming triviality of feuds over access to bathrooms, but do look closely at the rhetoric of transgender activists, as expressed starkly in statements by the last administration. Whatever the configuration of your genitals may seem to proclaim, you have an authentic gender identity, which represents who you really are. (I am being restrained here in my use of capitals, but every phrase in that litany is usually offered as if it is declaring Who You Really Are.) One should “use the bathrooms consistent with one’s gender identity.” Such an identity is an essential fact, a metaphysical truth, however many years you may need before you discover it fully. In many cases, we are now told, children recognize their authentic Gender Nature at a very early stage, and it is essential for parents and society at large to help them make the necessary physical transitions.
Please, sir, how is that idea different from essentialism? And isn’t essentialism very bad?
Perhaps we can seek expert help in resolving this paradox. Is there a Lama in the house?