Identity: the hysteria of both the left and the right

Identity has become a contentious topic on both sides of the political and social divide in Western societies. Much of the contention arises from completely irrational, hysterical straw-manning of the other side's positions and intentions, giving rise to a situation in which both sides are, by and large, fighting self-invented ghosts. And although there surely are a few toxic people on both sides, who truly take extreme and unacceptable positions, they are just that: a few individuals who aren't representative of any significant social group.

In this essay, I'll try to address the topic of identity in a way that, to me, seems to be balanced and informed by calm reason, as opposed to hysterical emotions and prejudices. In the process of doing so, I'll deliberately give voice to both sides of the divide, alternately, so to illustrate how I think both incur in irrational straw-manning. I believe doing this is important, because our societies are eating themselves alive due to the bellicose psychological energy constantly mobilised by straw-manning. We are dehumanising one another, in a process that poses more danger to Western societies than even the deranged barking of that loser called Vladimir Putin. This essay is my personal attempt to contribute something to resolving this dangerous and unnecessary internal conflict.

The key tenet of the Western social value-system is this: you are entitled to be who you are, love who you love, and live the way you want to live, as long as you don't interfere with my right to be and do the same. This is the Golden Rule of Western social life. Admittedly, there are nuanced situations in which this rule doesn't lead to immediate and unambiguous solutions to social conflicts, but it goes much farther than those indulging in hysterical straw-manning believe it to go.

Take the question of LGBTIQ+ rights, for instance: even Christian fundamentalists will grant that God has given people free will, otherwise the concept of 'sin' would have no meaning. In other words, God—although He could—did not make it impossible for us to sin. There is thus a very important sense, even under fundamentalist Christianity, in which we have been given the freedom to sin by the Divinity Itself. Therefore, if being an LGBTIQ+ person is a sin, who are we to take away their freedom to sin, given that God Himself didn't? Even under the premises of fundamentalist Christianity, the Golden Rule of Western societies still applies: LGBTIQ+ people must have the right to be who they are, love who they love, and live as they wish to live, as long as they don't interfere with the freedom of others to be and do the same.

However, the right often straw-mans the issue to ludicrous extents, insofar as they think that LGBTIQ+ rights—which, frankly, are just human rights—infringe on the personal liberties of non-LGBTIQ+ people. Take the following fragment of a comment recently posted on this blog (which I, of course, deleted), referring to LGBTIQ+ rights as "the rights of sexual deviants to force us to jump through whatever hoops their sick minds can come up" with. The vast, vast majority of LGBTIQ+ people don't want to force anybody to do anything, let alone jump through hoops; they just want the basic human right to be who they are and love who they love. It is a completely hysterical straw-man to portray them as essentially fascists. It dehumanises a vast, vast majority of decent, good people who stand to contribute perhaps disproportionate amounts of creativity and valiance to our culture. And that there may be some truly toxic people among them, who do constitute a danger to society, isn't surprising either: toxicity is a general human potential present in all social groups, and thus it stands to reason that the LGBTIQ+ community will also have their statistical fair share. That only makes them as human as the rest of us. To portray them—the oppressed—as oppressors borders on the criminal.

Which is not to say that hysteria doesn't plague the pro-LGBTIQ+ left also. In the well-justified drive to protect the basic human rights of all members of our society, some overlook very concrete, practical and important issues, such as how well-meaning laws can be abused.

In my country, a new law is being debated in parliament this week. It is meant to protect the right of transgender people to be treated for who they truly are from within: all Dutch citizens may soon be allowed to change the sex assignment in their identity cards, as well as all official registration records, simply by going to the city hall and saying whether they identify as male or female. No sex reassignment surgery is required; no psychiatric evaluation is required; no hormonal treatment is required; the person doesn't even need to dress according to the chosen sex. I—facial hair and all—would be able go to the city hall and change all my records to 'female,' if I so wished.

Before I point out the problems with this, let me first acknowledge the most important thing: for the vast majority of people who would use this potential new law, the law would be a good and fair thing. Non-transgender people don't need sex reassignment surgery, hormone treatment or psychiatric evaluations to have their registration records reflect who they are from within; why should it be different for transgender people? In an ideal world, I would support this law. That I might feel confused and uncomfortable about what pronoun to use when talking to a transgender person is my problem, not theirs.

But we don't live in an ideal world. As discussed above, transgender people are a normal demographic in any society (even those that pretend it doesn't exist). And any demographic has its statistical share of toxic, dangerous individuals; as humans, transgender people are no exception. In this context, the problem of a law that allows sex assignment to be changed based purely on subjective feeling—important as the latter is—is that it conflates gender with sex, thereby rendering objective identification more difficult. And that does infringe the Golden Rule, in that it can affect all of us, not just transgender people.

To make my point clear, I will exaggerate: imagine that the law allowed me to change not only my sex, but other identification parameters related to my biology, such as age and height. Both age and height also have inner, subjective counterparts that may not agree with biological externalities: some small people feel tall (I bet Volodymyr Zelenskyy is one of them), some old people feel young, and so on. How they feel is very important, and I, for one, am perfectly willing to treat them for how they feel from within, not their outer biology. But if every small person who feels tall, and every old person who feels young, could legally change their records to reflect their subjective age and height, we would have a serious social problem, in that the records would become meaningless for being disconnected from recognisable outer appearances.

Imagine that a crime were committed and the criminal were described by witnesses as a small old man. Imagine also that the actual criminal had legally changed their official records to say that they are, in fact, a tall young girl. How would police find the culprit? Yes, this is an exaggerated and implausible hypothetical, but it does illustrate the problem of conflating subjective inner reality with objective, biological, recognisable outer characteristics.

Problems can still occur even if we take the exaggeration out of the picture. Once one's sex is legally changed, everything has to legally unfold consistently with that. So all government statistics pertaining to, say, heart disease prevalence in males and females, would be skewed; and so would insurance costs based on such statistics. And since the sex change is legally binding, public bathrooms in Dutch swimming pools, gyms, clubs, etc., may soon have biologically male individuals, who didn't undergo hormone treatment or sex reassignment surgery, showering naked next to my naked female partner. I don't think that's a good idea. Insofar as my partner is directly affected by this, allowing it does violate the Golden Rule. I could go further and discuss how similar situations could bring children under risk from pedophiles, who could cynically regard this law as a fantastic opportunity to do harm under the cover of the fair sex. But I am sure you understand the point already.

A well-meaning attempt to cater to the rights of all of us becomes a problem the moment it overlooks the practicalities and implications of its implementation. It gives those who were already opposed to transgender rights, due to hysterical straw-manning, a legitimate reason to become entrenched in their position. It feeds polarisation. The person who wrote that deleted comment on this blog would now gain some legitimacy in stating that transgender people "force us to jump through hoops." Everybody looses with this, particularly transgender people. Even the best intentions can constitute a form of hysteria when they careen out of control, ignoring reason and level-headed judgment. And it's difficult to absolve the left of this offence.

Unfortunately, the situation is yet more nuanced and complicated than it may appear from the above. What our culture needs to do is to disassociate gender from sex. The former is a psychological inner fact, while the latter is a biological outer fact. But such a disassociation will take decades, even generations, to fully happen. In the meantime, honest and good transgender people will effectively be discriminated against, for the sex assignment in their documents will still be taken, by the culture, as their gender. Is this fair? Clearly not. What is clear is that the problem is a very difficult one, and that hysteria and straw-manning only make the situation even more difficult than it already is by nature.

Gender identity is not the only identity issue that is plagued by hysteria and straw-manning. Another one is cultural identity. Peculiarly, the left and the right swap roles here: as I've just discussed, while insisting on their own cultural identity, the right denies the LGBTIQ+ community their right to gender identity. However, not to be outdone, while the left goes out of its way to defend LGBTIQ+ and immigrant identity, it seems to completely disregardeven actively attack—our own cultural identity. Here is a comment recently published on my Facebook page, in the context of a discussion about the European Union: "National identities have no future." Really?

A salient characteristic of the left's ethos is the pretence that we are born in a kind of vacuum, without a past, without a history, without traditions, merely as fully mouldable creatures—tabula rasa—which somehow pop out of nowhere, as if by magic. Not only is this factually untrue, it raises the question: Why? Why try to deny the obvious fact that we do have a history, a past, ancestors, traditions, roots, all of which give context and meaning to our lives? It is our roots and traditions that allow us to understand our role in the development of human civilisation (in the Hegelian sense), provide us with contextual references, and anchor us in a form of temporal transcendence that seems to be entirely lost in the left. What makes the left insist on gender identity on the one hand while, strangely, denying cultural identity on the other? Why this flagrant inconsistency?

I think the answer is not maliciousness—in my experience, very little human nonsense is malicious—but a fear that cultural identity may be misused to curtail the rights of minorities, such as the LGBTIQ+ community, ethnic groups and immigrants. After all, it is also a fact that some of what we inherit from the past is toxic, obnoxious, dangerous and even criminal. For instance, insofar as racism is a cultural inheritance in some parts of the world, it isn't an acceptable one.

But to recognise that we must revise some of our inheritance—for, after all, we do learn a thing or two over time—doesn't entail or imply that we have to get rid of all of it. Doing so cuts the anchors that keep us rooted in meaning and significance; it imbues life with the "unbearable lightness of being" that Milan Kundera wrote about: a ghostly weightlessness that renders life insignificant and pointless, like a fallen leaf in the wind; a situation we desperately seek to alleviate through addictive patterns of consumerist behaviour (this, in turn, may be a clue to why the liberal media seems to foment uprootedness).

Even in the European Project, national identity—as long as not driven to nationalist extremes—is what gives colour and life to Europe. Entities can only meaningfully contribute to a collective project when they bring something of their own—their particular character—to that project. So national identity is not only not antithetical to Europe, but in fact crucial to the success of the European Project. Europe is a rainbow only when each country brings its own colour to it. Otherwise, we would turn the glorious cultural richness of Europe into a drab, uniform, unremarkable and ultimately lifeless sea of grey. How dull. How undesirable.

love Europe, with all my heart. Born a son of European emigrants in a far away tropical land, I never took it for granted. But what I love most about Europe is precisely its cultural diversity. Going from country to country, experiencing the various local traditions, festivals, values, foods, music, etc., is beyond enriching to me. I want Austria to remain Austria; Italy to remain Italy; Germany to remain Germany; Denmark and Portugal to remain Denmark and Portugal; and, above all, The Netherlands to remain The Netherlands. Otherwise, I would feel literally robbed of something very dear to me.

Although there are many things I don't like about my biology—such as my pale skin and big head—I delight in knowing that Iberian and Northern European colours flow through me, and are culturally reflected in my active presence in the world. Surely enough, out of all the national diversity that constitutes the European nations, we can still distill what is common to all of us Europeans. But as this commonality is the glue that binds the European Project together, so what distinguishes us from one another are its colours.

As long as not driven to nationalist extremes, cultural identity is no threat to anyone or anything. On the contrary: it is the lifeblood of civilised humanity; it's our anchor, our root, our life-giving context, our compass. To acknowledge and nurture our roots precisely reduces the threat we may pose to minorities and guests among us, for when a culture feels strong in its roots and traditions, it doesn't perceive other cultures in its midst as threatening.

Moreover, as a child of immigrants born in a distant land, I know one thing very well: immigrants hold on to, and nurture, their own cultural identity more than those who stay behind in their original countries (I can still fondly remember a cousin of mine sweating buckets while dressed in a full Scandinavian Santa Claus suit, in a 42-degree Celsius December 24th evening in Rio de Janeiro's tropical summer). So why shouldn't the host culture also hold on to, and nurture, its own cultural inheritance? Why should we drift away from our roots and references, into the sterile vacuum of no-identity, like a fallen leaf in the wind, just to see our insecurities increase as a result, to the point that we begin to regard our guests as threats?

Instead of thinking through the issues of identity in a rational, clear-headed way, both the left and the right now fall prey to Hallucinated Implications Creep and replace reality with straw-men. We give our worst prejudices free rein and not only marginalise, but also dehumanise one another. Our societies fill up with imagined ghosts and enemies, projections of our own hysteria onto other human beings just like us. And as a result, we forget the Golden Rule that holds the fabric of Western societies together. What a tragedy. What an immense existential risk.

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10 comments:

  1. Most Christians that I know preach don't hate the sinner, hate the sin. They largely do not think being gay, for example, is a sin but the instead regard the acts that many gay people do to be the sin. They see the acts as a choice and they are. Also, many churches, teach the doctrine of original sin. It is that everyone is already a sinner and damned to hell regardless if you are gay or straight or whatever.

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  2. Thank you for this much-needed plea for balance. Here in the UK, a lot of the top politicians move to politics after training as lawyers. The adversarial legal system here encourages the polarisation of views and when times start to get tougher, the commonsense centre ground becomes a bit of a wasteland. Agenda-driven newspapers make everything worse, of course. (BTW –typo: “encroached” = “entrenched”).

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  3. As always, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the article from Bernardo. One thing is not quite clear to me. On the one hand we talk about the universality of the “golden rule”. On the other hand we talk about cultural diversity. Would it be fair to say that the essence of cultural diversity is the diverse interpretation and application of certain “principles and rules” such as the “golden rule”? If so, the culture that restricts sexual identity to binary is equally valid as the culture that prefers the fluid identity version. In both cases, there will always be loser’s coz the “golden rule” works only in theory. In reality, it is subject to interpretation.

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  4. As someone who previously identified as nonbinary, I think you are really on to something when you suggest dissociating sex from gender. If I'm understanding your metaphysics correctly, though (I'm thinking in particular your work on Jungian archetypes)--wouldn't this mean dissociating gender from its correlation with masculine and feminine archetypes?

    I find your work very compelling because you do such an excellent job of clarifying why the materialist perspective of the brain doesn’t work—that the brain is an image or representation of an essential process, not the generator of the process itself. In several of your books you allude to the broader implications this has for the body in general, which I find utterly fascinating.

    Oughtn’t we do the same for the sexual binary as it is expressed in the human body (or, further as it manifests in bodies generally)? It seems to me that, from an idealist perspective, the sexual binary is reflective of archetypal images as they appear from the outside. The archetypal images being some combination of Masculine, Feminine, Human, Twoness (vis a vis von Franz’ work on number). The body is a representation of twoness in so many ways (right left, top bottom, back front, male female). There is something crucially important about the relationship between the experience of the body and the experience of number. Many of our most powerful religious myths teach us how to navigate this. We cannot explore the symbolic meaning of the world without recognizing the reality and deep mystery of archetypal numbers.

    It is clear to me that trans people exist and deserve the rights you lay out. It is also clear to me that the reasoning offered by many activists is extremely flawed, and goes against the fundamental experience of the body. What knowledge of the human experience could be gained if we really listened to the experience of gender dysphoria, and opened our minds to what it points to in our true nature? I would love to see you apply the logic you've used with DID and see where it leads.

    Another side note: the issue with abusing these laws (nontrans people identifying as trans to gain access to vulnerable people) comes about because the left rewards difference, rather than compassionately acknowledging and addressing it. I believe this happens because of the antagonism between left and right, and the antagonistic stance toward binaries/dualities/twoness in our culture generally.

    Thank you for your work, it has been a significant blessing in my life.

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    1. Hi Grace I think your insights on the way Jungian archetypes manifest in the human form is quite spot on. Also I have a question and please don't feel the need to reply if you don't feel comfortable, but was your turn away from the nonbinary label in any part due to its association with academic Queer theory and French Post Structuralism by any chance? I have multiple friends (trans, lesbian and bisexual respectively) openly distance themselves from the queer label for that reason after attending university and being exposed to the more extreme ideas of figures like Michel Foucault and Gayle Rubin.

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  5. Bernardo, first of all thank you for your work on non-dualism and your passionate writings. You and Rupert Spira have helped shape my innate ontology.
    I think we have to be aware that throughout history, racial and gender politics have been a favorite tool to exert power and sway the masses. This has been used by ruthless religious leaders and politicians alike often independent of the basic beliefs expressed by their favorite references, whether it is, for example, the Bill of Rights and Constitution or the preachings of Christ.
    Given slavery and racial prosecution, the US has had a sordid history throughout its existence and has been recently flamed by a cynical faction of "conservative" politicians supported by fascist media interested in maintaining their power elites, who have started to preach "returning to moral, religious basics" purely to rile up extreme parts of the population to donate and vote. They have managed to gain undue control in relation to their actual voter base due to the politics of voting. In most of these cases, these politicians did not propound their "current beliefs" in the past nor do they live up to their expressed standards.
    It is not about the health of the nation and its people or strongly held personal beliefs of what is right, it is about funding their PACs and campaigns and getting the vote out. Worse, rallying for outlawing abortions is purely about female suppression and fear. It's all about power.
    In religion we see the same issue. In Iran, the brutal requirements for the hijab and other elements of behavior and dress code are not about the religion, but gender suppression and control of not just women, but whole groups of the population who dare to differ from the suppressive religious dictatorship. The brutal actions of the "Moral Police" do not follow the dictates of the Qurʾān.
    The majority of people are not supporting any of these actions, but they must stand up or they will live under the dictatorship of the few.

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  6. I am glad that you drew distinction between normal everyday LGBT people and the LGBT agenda that is being pushed by extremists with your statement "The vast, vast majority of LGBTIQ+ people don't want to force anybody to do anything, let alone jump through hoops; they just want the basic human right to be who they are and love who they love."

    I agree, and I believe that homosexuals should have the same rights as the rest of us, but I am completely against the agenda that is being pushed on society in the LGBT name.

    For example, the agenda to get to children at an early age. The minds of children are very malleable. Normal children are being steered in the direction of identifying as the opposite sex before they have even undergone puberty!

    Tell me, how can a boy possibly know that he is a girl before he knows what manhood actually is? Obviously, he cannot. These children have no true concept of sexuality at that age. They are confused by the twisted adults around them and pumped full of enough puberty blockers to ensure that they enter adulthood with a micropenis before they reach a level of awareness that would allow them to break free from the programming. They are destroying the future sex lives of many normal children. It's sick and wrong.

    I am a man, but when I was a young child, I enjoyed activities that were typically seen as "girlish", such as playing house with dolls. I also exhibited "girlish" mannerisms. I sometimes wonder if I grew up in today's day and age, if I would have been steered in the direction of identifying as a girl. That would have been terrible, because shortly after puberty hit me I naturally shifted into a normal heterosexual man and I would not have it any other way.

    In my opinion, when it comes to children, it's not "who they are on the inside". It's who they have been brainwashed to believe they are on the inside by groomers and globalist enemies of civilization.

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  7. Hi, Thank you for your post Bernardo, although I do disagree slightly with the tone of it. And specifically your principal treatment of the law in the Netherlands. As you say the law is well meaning, and its practical shortcomings should therefore not make the left more responsible than those on the right who are opposed to transgender rights with hysterical straw-manning, unless you mean to attribute a higher degree of responsibility to the left, which I think you implicitly do in this blog post.

    I would argue that the problem with the law in the Netherlands is perhaps more fundamental. It is not that it conflates gender with sex, it is that society and the laws critics and even the legal system itself conflates gender and sex. The problem is perhaps rather that the golden rule, and the legalism upon which societies functions is itself based on a view which conflates subjective experience with individuality (the golden rule). Individuality IS in itself the "objective" societal attribution we give to people with subjective experiences, but that does not mean these two things are the one and the same. (This also seems consistent with analytical idealism, correct me if I'm wrong.). But this is also a dangerous idea that can be taken to extremes - as you discuss - a sort of void existentialism or fascist nationalism.

    The law basically redefines what legal individuality means, or what it means to be a legal subject in the Netherlands, giving the right of changing legal attribution of biological traits. The question I think we ALL have to ask ourselves is, how does our society place so much emphasis on gender as a determinant in subjective experience and individuality in the first place? As you say, in the IDEAL world, it need not be that way.

    Overlooking your exaggerated examples, I think it for instance is problematic that individuals should carry a higher medical insurance cost for belonging either to the group man or woman, characteristics which we (I would argue) have a lower degree of control over AND are less accurate predictors of health than say BMI. And I would argue getting rid of communal showering facilities is an even better way of ensuring the safety of everyone, problems that very much exist today and can be acted on.

    On your point about cultural identity i wholeheartedly agree that "we must revise some of our inheritance—for, after all, we do learn a thing or two over time—doesn't entail or imply that we have to get rid of all of it."

    I am a political science major and a big fan of your writing and would love to hear back from your thoughts on my comment.

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  8. Dear Bernardo,
    While I agree with what you have said, ought we not add that while ignorance is never not annoying to us as individuals, ignorance must be a choice made at the level of the Absolute (or pure/phenomenal consciousness)? I should hasten to add that I use the word "choice" because it's the easiest conception for us as individuals to grasp. However, a more accurate formulation instead of "choice" might be the natural unfolding of pure consciousness. Therefore, even though ignorance is annoying to us as individuals, and ignorance is part of the nature of pure consciousness, we as pure consciousness remain unaffected. Just as in a dream, the dream avatar is affected by the dream, while the dreamer isn't. Though the dream avatar is nothing other than the dreamer ignoring their true nature, so as to allow the dreamer to enjoy the dream. (I should add that using your terms, ignorance = dissociation.)
    Love you man!

    Also, a small typo: "loses" instead of "looses".

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