Friday Philosophy

Butler, Butt Out!

Who’s Afraid of Gender?
by Judith Butler
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2024; 308 pp.

Judith Butler is a well-known feminist theorist, and one approaches her latest book with interest, all the more so because of its puzzling title. By “gender,” Butler means the view that the roles of men and women in society are not determined by biology but vary in different cultures and times and, further, that there are some people who do not fit within the “binary” categories of men and women at all. If this is what she means by gender, why does she think that people are afraid of it? No doubt some people have been critical of gender, in particular to the suggestion often drawn from the stress on variability that the nonbinaries should be celebrated rather than condemned, but is it right to say that these opponents fear gender? Butler certainly thinks so, and in what follows, I shall endeavor to examine her reasoning. Doing so is more than merely of academic interest, as what she has in mind for us poses a grave threat to individual liberty, in particular to the rights of parents to protect their children from compulsory indoctrination in controversial opinions that oppose the parents’ own convictions.

There is an obstacle to undertaking this examination, though: it is often quite difficult to understand what she is saying. Here is a sample passage, by no means the most obscure in the book: “A phantasmatic sliding—what [Jacques] Lacan calls glissement—happens amid the kinds of arguments considered above. Are they even arguments? Or must we see the way that the syntax of the phantasm orders, and derails, the sequence of an argument?”

Faced with prose of this kind, the familiar words of Juvenal come to mind: Difficile est satiram nonscribere. Let us nevertheless press on, as certain things do emerge clearly enough from the thicket of her rebarbative prose. In her view, dark forces of reaction—spearheaded by the Roman Catholic Church—claim that “gender ideology” assaults the moral foundations of society. Butler says:

For some Christians, natural law and divine will are the same: God made the sexes in a binary way and it is not the prerogative of humans to remake them outside those terms. . . . Regardless, this older science holds to the proposition that sex differences are established in natural law: that is, that the content of that law is established by nature and therefore, presumably, has universal validity.

Butler argues against this position that relations between the sexes in fact vary widely: the notion that there are standards having universal validity is an outdated, “medieval” view. Whether the Catholic natural law view that Butler opposes is correct is an issue that far exceeds my competence, but Butler is guilty of an elementary confusion. Natural law theory is a claim about what is best for human flourishing, not a scientific theory describing and predicting what is found in the natural world. The existence of thieves, for example, does not refute the claim that theft violates natural law. In brief, natural law theory is about nature as it ought to be, not nature as scientists take it to be. In order to assess this theory, one would need to examine the arguments for it, but there is no indication in the book that Butler has done so or is even aware of them.

Suppose, though, that Butler is entirely right to reject the natural law view that defends what she in fashionable jargon calls “heteronormativity.” How would this show that defenders of the natural law view fear the “gender ideology” rather than simply reject it, deploring what they take to be the bad effects of its propagation?

Butler makes another misstep, one if anything even worse than her error about natural law. She maintains that those who do not acknowledge that people who “identify” as men or women are what they claim to be are denying the existence of such people:

Imagine if you were Jewish and someone tells you that you are not. Imagine if you are lesbian and someone laughs in your face and says you are confused since you are really heterosexual. . . . Who are these people who think they have the right to tell you who you are and who you are not, and who dismiss your own definition of who you are, who tell you that self-determination is not a right that you are allowed to exercise, who would subject you to medical and psychiatric review, or mandatory surgical intervention, before they are willing to recognize you in the name and sex you have given yourself, the ones to which you have arrived? Their definition is a form of effacement. . . . Perhaps we should all just retreat from such a person who denies the existence of other people.

Isn’t Butler guilty of a very elementary confusion? To deny a claim that a person makes about himself is not to deny that the person exists. Indeed, unless, the existence of the person is acknowledged, one could not question what he says about himself. Further, to deny a person’s claim is not to deny that the person has the right to view himself in the way he wishes. It is rather to deny that he has the right to compel others to accept him on his own terms.

Here precisely is where Butler’s view of the “anti-gender ideology” threatens our liberty and, not incidentally, why her book ought to be of interest to libertarians. She wants children in public schools to be taught the opinions about sex and gender that she favors and denies that parents have the right to exempt their children from “education” of this propagandistic sort. She discusses a bill introduced by Rob Standridge, a state senator from Oklahoma, who said:

Our education system is not the place to teach moral lessons that should instead be left up to parents and families. Unfortunately, however, more and more schools are trying to indoctrinate students by exposing them to gender, sexual and racial identity curriculums and courses. My bills will ensure these types of lessons stay at home and out of the classroom.

A reasonable idea, one might have thought, though an even-better one would be to end public education—which inevitably generates intractable disputes on controversial issues—altogether. Butler disagrees and is outraged:

Just as teaching young people about LGBTQIA+ lives, or arranging health care for trans kids, is considered “abuse,” being “exposed” to literature on such topics is like being exposed to pornography or exhibitionists on the playground, another example of the phantasmatic sliding that stokes fear and hatred as core political passions.

One can only say, “Butler, come off it.”

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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