There is certainly no lack of victimary thinking in Europe, particularly with respect to migrants from Africa and the Middle East, or in Britain from the Indian subcontinent. And in certain respects, for example in the French insistence on parity between the sexes for such things as political candidacies or awards of the Légion d’honneur, its intensity exceeds that in the USA. Yet there is nothing in Europe quite like what Americans call identity politics. I do not believe that anywhere outside the US a man, merely by calling himself a woman, can become entitled to compete in woman’s sports and take showers in the ladies’ locker room.
I think the historical source of the greater American sensitivity to the victimary is our long and dolorous history of black slavery, followed by a century of Jim Crow laws of varying severity. My neighborhood in the Bronx was off limits to blacks when I lived there in the 40s and 50s; it has now become a mostly black neighborhood, the buildings solid enough to last another century. And when I went to Baltimore in 1960 to attend Johns Hopkins, I was shocked to discover that hotels, restaurants, and movie theaters were racially segregated, if not to the point of the back-of-the-bus segregation in the deep South. None of this exists today, but it gives White Guilt deeper roots in our culture than in Europe, where slavery was far less pervasive and abolished earlier (and without a Civil War), and where colonials, being foreigners, were a more distant source of disquietude.
White Guilt is at the origin of our identity politics. Its power explains why it is in the US that “intersectionality” is more than a mere slogan—but also, strangely yet logically, why our victimary passions are far less destructive, and our culture far more unified, than in Europe. The US has no “no-go” zones, no car-burnings and interminable strikes and riots, no French gilets jaunes, nothing like the British “grooming” scandals. Instead, we have boys running in girls’ races. If we must choose, this is certainly preferable.
I have no desire to mock sufferers from gender dysphoria who want to identify as members of the opposite sex. But whereas in the past, such individuals kept a low profile and tried to “pass,” as many no doubt still do, since the flourishing of gay liberation in the 1970s, the door has been opened for boisterous self-assertion and the expectation of provoking pharisaiacal denunciation. There is a need for ever-new ways of attacking the legitimacy of normality, stigmatized as an instrument of straight-cis-white-male oppression.
The self-assertion of the bearer of a problematic identity serves as a canary-in-the-coal-mine to detect discriminatory norm-enforcement. Discrimination is understood in ascriptive terms, and need not be deliberate; “disparate impact” is enough. But explicit norms such as toilet segregation for the transgendered are poster children for discrimination that provoke demonstrations and activist posturing, which often prove extremely effective—as in the recent decision of the Christian-principled Chick-Fil-A to defund the Salvation Army following complaints by the LGBT community.
We should not talk about identity politics as though it were an emanation of the “liberal” desire for self-assertion, as we often find it described by Christian thinkers. It is demand-, not supply-driven. Its applications of the epistemology of resentment are stimulated less by the real or fancied victims of discrimination than by the needs of the clerical brain-working class, who define their moral status by virtue-signaling and intolerance-shaming.
The ideological roots of this cultural pathology can be found in the era of deconstruction, when the critique of metaphysics became in effect a critique of “normal” language. After the demise of both Barthes’ naive “zero degree” and its supersession by the infinite degree of écriture in the scriptible text, the final solution was to turn the paradox around to fire on the metaphysicians who had from Parmenides onward sought a discourse of truth rather than opinion. This perspective denies the transcendental nature of language only to insist that language has hitherto been an instrument of central power, just as religion is denounced as a set of superstitions imposed on the ruled by their rulers. The revelation of this supposed original sin of public discourse, which in the hands of Derrida remained always at least potentially paradoxical, became the positive critique known as PC, which imputes to language not paradox, originary or not, but ascriptive discrimination, prejudice. Indeed, no term for this supposed original sin is strong enough. This is not an accident, but a necessary consequence of the system, similar to the fact that although antisemitism is a misleading and inadequate term to describe “prejudice” against the Jews, there is no better alternative.
In an earlier reflection on victimary thinking, I sought an explanation in the exaggeration of the Christian side of the Judeo-Christian heritage of Western Civilization at the expense of the Jewish—the aspect that Frost spoke of as “never taking its own side in an argument.” This attitude can be acceptable even in its extreme form in a strictly religious context, but it becomes monstrous as soon as it leaves this context for that of the epistemology of resentment that has dominated secular politics since the French Revolution. The failure to learn from history that makes “socialism” (and Bernie Sanders) more popular in the US than “capitalism”—two terms coined by left-wing revolutionaries—can be reduced to this.
The example set by Jesus’ sacrifice is not that of virtue-signaling. That is why Christianity postulates his prior divinity. Jesus has nothing to prove; he has pushed God’s love for humanity to the point of sacrificing his/His own life. Protection of the “widow and the orphan” was a key element of the Hebraic conception of nationhood; the Christian surenchère is to demand of the individual that he approximate Jesus’ universal sacrifice—in his heart, and only then in his practice, where he may well do more good for humanity by honestly exercising his profession than by giving away his possessions and entering a monastery. But behind Jesus’ not-of-this-world kingdom is the memory of the Hebrew kingdom, the same memory that would sustain the Jews for two millennia.
Whence what might seem the anomaly of identity politics, were it really about identity: that it deliberately excludes the Hebraic element that we normally consider most fundamental to our public identity, our nationality. I am a male, and a Jew, and if it is worth mentioning, a heterosexual, but the prime fact of my identity is that I am an American, a citizen of the USA. Yet those whose politics is that of “identity” are precisely those who reject their national identity for the sake of solidarity with the members of their race or one of the several senses of sexual preference. Which is to say, identities that bear the mark of victimhood, cultivated in particular by those of the unmarked who wish to demonstrate their “wokeness” by taking the marked side against their own, morally and symbolically, albeit rarely materially.
They misunderstand identity politics who view it as a sin of “liberalism” and trace it back to Locke or Mill. The norms that until recently less defined than protected the governmental operations of the US, and that still do in principle and to a large extent in fact, although their erosion cannot be indefinitely prolonged, are not the substance of liberal democracy, but its implicit framework. Its operating principle is, given these shared norms, to allow political tensions at the margins to work themselves out through discussion and negotiation, with a minimum of violence. There is really no alternative to this other than tyranny of one form or another—and the forms are really unimportant, although the degree of tyranny matters a great deal. It is the very contrary of liberalism to shout down or cancel speakers, impose absurdities like pronoun laws, or publish newspapers whose idea of “All the News Fit to Print” presents political evaluation first and fact below the fold.
The most problematic and revelatory aspect of identity politics is its focus on sexuality. Even if gay liberation can be understood as an extension of the civil rights movement, presenting the homosexual lifestyle as at the very least not felonious and therefore abolishing sodomy laws, and even if one is willing to consider as a reasonable extension of this recognition opening up marriage to same-sex couples, the insistence on such things as declaring one’s own gender, allowing people to change the sex on their birth certificate, etc., as though sex has suddenly ceased to be a biological category and has become an arbitrary “assignment” inflicted on newborns without their consent, demonstrates that combating “discrimination” is hardly the way to understand the victimary process. The abrupt switch from civil rights equality to affirmative action and its extensions was already a sea change; but the sexual dimension goes farther and suggests a different perspective on the entire history of the epistemology of resentment.
For if we can say that the gay liberation movement, like the anti-segregation civil rights movement, was in its origin an initiative of those on the receiving end of discrimination, this is difficult to conceive in the case of the tiny minority of sufferers from sexual dysphoria, let alone those who wish to be called by abnormal pronouns. The pressure to let men who “identify” as women use the ladies’ room is clearly an artifact of victimary thinking on the part of the majority, and any belligerency by the victimary group is generated by their perception that such expressions of resentment are effective in influencing popular opinion and granting the prestige of visibility.
What is there about sexual identity that makes it an exemplary terrain for identity politics, to the extent that biological fact is treated as an effect of discrimination? I cannot modify my birth time, or date, or place; I cannot declare my age, height, weight, or eye color as other than it is, but in an increasing number of places I can treat my sex as a “gender assignment.” Even if we might à la rigueur consider someone who has had his or her genitals modified as in some sense a member of a new sex, this is no longer necessary; it suffices to make a voluntary declaration. Surely this anomalous mode of victimary identity has something critical to tell us about the whole victimary phenomenon, something hardly reducible to a form of “sexual liberation,” given that it is independent of the kind of sexual activity, if any, the subject intends to engage in.
Among those few who take the trouble to “refute” the originary hypothesis, the most common objection is that sexuality, not eating, is the source of man’s archetypal conflicts. Adam and Eve on eating the fruit are ashamed of their sex organs, as animals are not, whereas no one is ashamed of eating. The old anthropological rule of thumb, which anthropologists have never really abandoned, is that a truly human society is defined by the incest taboo, not by food-related rituals. And certainly the universality among humans of sexual shame and the (at least nominal) prohibition of incest cannot be overlooked, even if I think I can say with confidence that there are no human societies without food-sharing rituals of a qualitatively different kind from any animal modes of food distribution, rituals whose continued vigor no longer depends on a strictly religious context.
And yet, of course, although there are certainly religious rites with an orgiastic element, just as moderns attend swingers’ parties, these are never at the center of any ritual culture. For sex is an intermittent and alimentation a constant requirement of animal life, whether ours or that of the lowest sexually reproducing invertebrate.
In Chronicle 419, I pointed out that the choice of Eve as Satan’s interlocutor can be interpreted as reflecting woman’s resentment at the male priority in inventing and using language. The intuition of this priority should not surprise us, given that a mere century ago women were not allowed to vote in elections, and that most major religions still bar them from priestly status. I would extend this analysis by noting that the conversation with Satan that leads to the couple’s eating the “apple” is followed by the famous scene of sexual shame in Genesis 3:7. What this suggests is that only when women as well as men could use language were both members of the couple inspired to cover their nakedness. As long as males alone made use of the deferring function of cultural signs, shame would presumably not have been experienced.
In short, sexual shame is conceivable only between reciprocal language-users. Originary sexual inequality had been a blemish on the moral model of human reciprocity; the male participants in the scene are “equal,” but their in principle equally intelligent spouses are not treated as such.
The Genesis story does not tell us explicitly how Eve acquired language, but we should not expect the Bible to do all our work for us. Clearly once men began to talk, even in a strictly ritual context, their partners could not long be prevented from learning language, although Eve’s story as well as the originary hypothesis suggest that this process was not fully reciprocal. We still live with traces of disparagement for women’s use of language in gossip and “old wives’ tales.”
How does this explanation of sexual shame affect our understanding of human representational culture? If we assume that the latter came into being in order to defer mimetic object-desire, how does it affect desire between members of the group, desire for each other?
There is no use attempting to construct a hypothetical series of events, as was possible for the schematic series of basic utterance forms. But we can understand the transition between sexual relations that did not and did involve language as opening up to cultural deferral woman’s self-presentation to male desire. Early anthropologists saw human sexual relations as indiscriminate (the “primal horde”), but before the usurpation of the sacred center by a “big-man” or equivalent, given what we can assume to have been the progress of neoteny occasioned by the evolutionary pressure toward larger brains, monogamy was almost certainly the norm. In any case, sexual shame can best be understood as reflecting the woman’s, and by extension, albeit less viscerally, the man’s self-consciousness as an object not merely of appetite but of desire. This self-consciousness would reflect the woman’s awareness of language, even if its actual use remained confined to masculine ritual activities.
That female resistance tends to increase male appetite is no doubt a pre-linguistic phenomenon; but the phenomenon whose vulgar form Girard describes in Mensonge romantique as coquetry is dependent on the woman’s self-representation as a desire-object. As an object of desire on the scene of representation, she stands “on a pedestal,” in the central place of the divinity.
Let us now return to our original reflection on the particular relevance of the transgendered as an exemplary victimary category.
From the preceding, we can understand why insistence on the freedom to change one’s sexual identity is from a victimary standpoint sexually asymmetric. In the past, given men’s greater social presence, for an ambitious woman to want to pass as a man required no sentiment of “gender dysphoria.” Throughout history, many women, real and fictional, have sought to pass as men. But although such women still exist, today the transgendered who raise ethical questions are inevitably men wishing to be women. Although from a victimary standpoint the reason is obvious, this observation does not exhaust the significance of the phenomenon.
The transgender phenomenon is taken by conservative Christians such as R. R. Reno of First Things as emblematic of what he sees as the liberal nature of the victimary, by which he links it to sexual libertinism as exemplary of its deconstruction of the norms of civil society. Blacks may have suffered under slavery and Jim Crow, but womanhood, as a status of otherness within the minimal human community, is invested with sacrality by desire, and I think it is this deviation of the sacred that troubles Christian thinkers like Reno more than sexual libertinism. The apparently contrary fact that classical culture emphasized male beauty and homosexual “romance” can most simply be understood as cultural overcompensation, hyperbolizing the deferral of the natural into its negation. The Hebrew and particularly Christian insistence on the sacrality of womanhood reflects this civilizational strain’s deeper intuition of humanity’s originary essence, an intuition that Sappho alone among the Greeks was able to realize in a mode that we recognize as our own—and would no doubt recognize better had more of her unique poetry been allowed to survive.
To recognize the depth of this male envy of femininity is not to excuse the nonsense of letting men use ladies’ rooms or compete against women in track meets. The TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) are certainly right on this point. But beyond mere victimary cry-bullying, male transgenderism may be seen as expressing an unavowed yearning for the sacred, as manifested more creatively in the drag-queen culture (see Chronicle 608). Most males are content to adore woman’s sacrality, but some feel the need to usurp it.
The upshot of this analysis is that today, with the decline of traditional religion, it may well be such apparently absurd extensions of the victimary that most clearly reveal, and even most effectively preserve, the transcendent basis of human culture. This is in no way an argument for cowardice in the face of victimary blackmail. But we should at the same time take a long view of the situation. It reinforces our conviction that, in comparison with the tyrannies that compete with it, Western Civilization is still the best environment in which to live, to desire, to worship—and to think.