The Reality-based Community, 2015

…And, right on cue, here comes a perfect test case for the problems I outlined in my last post.

I'm black y'all, and it's a fact y'all.
I’m black y’all, and it’s a fact y’all.
Rachel Dolezal was, until recently, the leader of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP. As everybody on the Internet now knows, she was pressured to resign because it turns out that she has been going around falsely claiming to be black. Incidentally, there’s nothing wrong with a white person being an NAACP leader — I read a news story the other day where they managed to find at least one local NAACP chapter headed by a white man. The organization does not impose any racial qualifications on its members or employees. Some fun little facts which usually get left out of the history books: The three folks who originally came up with the idea for the NAACP — Mary Ovington, William Walling, and Henry Moskowitz — were all white. And five of the six people on its first board of directors were also white.

Rachel Dolezal, version 1.0.
Rachel Dolezal, version 1.0.
But Rachel Dolezal isn’t just a white person working for the NAACP. She was working for the NAACP while simultaneously claiming to be a black woman. Unfortunately, it appears that she is no such thing, as the picture at right attests. Her parents claim she doesn’t have even a trace of black ancestry. Dolezal, however, insists that she is black. Using the same language as Caitlyn Jenner, she says she “identifies” as something which she manifestly is not. So, how are we supposed to handle this?

I have never understood why, exactly, “transracialism” is apparently unacceptable while transgenderism is A-OK. In fact, “transracialism” is actually a concept on much firmer scientific footing than transgenderism. Unlike gender, race really is, to whip out the old PoMo phrasebook, “socially constructed” — often fascinatingly so. True, notions of “race” are typically based on objective facts about one’s physical appearance and genetic heritage — but how society deals with these facts is incredibly complicated and can vary enormously from one society to the next. There is nothing like a rigorous scientific definition of “race” — everything that’s interesting about it can almost literally be reduced to purely social questions. Hence the phrase, “socially constructed.”

Gender, by contrast — I am one of those insufferable cranks who insists that “gender” is synonymous with “biological sex” — is just a stubborn, fundamental trait in human beings. (Again, I’m not talking about the extremely tiny number of people who are born with some kind of intersex condition. This is a red herring that always crops up when cranks such as myself insist that gender is an objective reality.) You’re either born a boy or a girl, and that is a fact that exists independent of how you or “society” feel about the issue.

So if Caitlyn Jenner was born a man but can live as a woman and we’re supposed to be fine with that, why can’t a woman declare that she is black and demand to be treated accordingly? What’s the limiting principle here? I have never heard a convincing response to this question. In the past when I’ve seen the question raised, liberals always handwaved it away. Since Dolezal was unmasked last Friday, though, they’ve been forced to confront the issue more directly.

So far, the responses have not been terribly convincing. See, for example, this one. Or this one. Or this one — which I found the most infuriating, because it was written by Nick Gillespie, who is usually quite reasonable about these things. Gillespie, like a lot of folks, thinks right-wingers who ask these questions are just trolling, and that we’re really all a bunch of uptight, cruel haters who are uncomfortable talking about weird sex stuff.

Is it a joke? How can you tell?
Is it a joke? How can you tell?
But I’m being quite sincere. I am actually looking for a consistent principle here. For one thing, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to separate reality from parody. The image at right was going around Twitter the other day. It was intended as a joke, but some news outlets mistakenly reported on it as if #WrongSkin was an actual movement. But can you blame them?

The point is, adherence to “reality” is supposed to be fundamental to the progressive way. Throw it out, and where, exactly, do you draw the line? For a conservative, wacky religious claims are limited by competing values of respect for tradition, authority, and order. The modern left rejects those limitations as roadblocks to the betterment of humanity. So if you take away the limitation of objective reality, where do you stop?

The fact that progressives find these kinds of questions so self-evidently preposterous as to constitute bad-faith arguments does not render them invalid. Rachel Dolezal’s actions have been profoundly unhelpful to the left, yet somehow that did not prevent her from doing what she did; the fact that other hypotheticals are similarly uncomfortable — such as questions about “transabled” people — is no basis for dismissing them.

The human race is diverse, remember? People acting in all sincerity do crazy things and make crazy claims all the time; it is one of our defining characteristics as a species. Rachel Dolezal is a perfect demonstration — here is a woman who is making a claim that is at odds with rude, objective fact. So what is the bright-line principle that separates her from Caitlyn Jenner?

This is a serious question: If you have no neutral basis for adjudicating between competing parties, disputes can only be settled with fists and blood and bullets — figuratively at first; literally, if things get out of hand. And ultimately, that means all questions are ultimately settled in favor of the strong. The weak have no voice, no way to appeal, no hope apart from the whims and mercies of the mighty.

I thought the point of progressivism was to get away from that. I mean, that doesn’t sound like a very nice world to live in. It certainly doesn’t sound like a world that will be very understanding about quirks like “transgenderism.” But if you throw away the anchor of tradition on one hand while opening the door to explicitly mystical, anti-rational beliefs and arguments on the other, that’s what you end up with. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually.


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