The Can of Worms

I’ve been thinking quite a bit since I clicked “publish” on the post just prior to this one about the potential can of worms that is opened when contentious issues like transgenderism and abortion are brought into any conversation. In that post, I used examples drawn from these very contemporary and very relevant topics to illustrate what I see as denials of things that I believe everyone inherently knows to be true. Specifically, those examples are that insisting that “not all men have penises” or that unborn children are not really persons amounts to a denial of reality. My overall point was that saying these things doesn’t make them so, even if our current cultural and intellectual milieu insists that they are so and that everyone ought to say so. I stand by that assertion. 

However, something else that comes along with that current cultural and intellectual milieu is the claim that not saying so amounts to a form of hate speech, or outright hate, against those who hold to those views. Thus, my claim that the statement “not all men have penises” is factually false means I hate transgender persons or that I see them as less-than human or something else along those lines. That, too, is false. 

If a transgender person shows up on my front steps hungry and cold, I will welcome them into my home, to my family’s table, where I will feed them and offer them comfort and care. If a transgender person shows up at my church, where I serve as an elder, I will welcome them, introduce them to my family and friends, seat them next to me, and invite them to stay after for lunch. In other words, just because I disagree with the culture’s outright rejection of truth and I refuse to cooperate in the popular celebration of non-truths does not mean that I harbor any ill will towards anyone. I can disagree with someone’s decisions and opinions while still respecting their humanity and the fact that they bear the image of God. 

Let me give a parallel example. I have a co-worker friend who has had no fewer than ten different sexual relationships in the last year or so. He knows that I disapprove of this behavior on both moral and practical grounds. But this does not stop us from being friends. It doesn’t prevent him from sharing his struggles with me, nor does it stop me from maintaining a caring stance while remaining consistent with my beliefs about his behavior. I think his behavior is both wrong and destructive and he knows it. But that doesn’t eliminate our friendship nor does it mean that he is somehow less free to behave however he wants. 

These issues about maintaining love and respect even amidst disagreement are important to me because I have family members and close, intimate friends who have sexual preferences and lifestyles that I do not approve of theologically. In some cases, a few of these family members and intimate friends have accused me of rejecting them as people and as family because of this disapproval. I still struggle, in some of those situations, to communicate that my disapproval of some of their choices does not amount to a rejection of them for who they are or their value as human beings. This is another unfortunate by-product of the irresponsible way we’ve allowed the cultural mood to infect our understanding of one another. 

When I say that the insistence on repeating certain semantic slogans is an insistence on denying reality–one in which I will not participate–I am not saying that the real feelings and struggles of the people to whom those slogans are directed are invalid or unreal. In the example of transgenderism, I have no doubt that the feelings and struggles they have are real and that those feelings and struggles affect them on a deep level. And I understand that affirming them as valuable people is important. However, going along with the crowd by participating and lying to myself and others by pretending that things like biological sex and DNA are irrelevant and that our mere words, by convention, can change reality in spite of biological sex and DNA does nothing to alleviate the problem. In fact, it ignores many of the problems by, again, pretending like they do not exist and then saying I believe they don’t exist because I said so. 

Furthermore, I stand by my claim that everyone engaged in these games of semantic nonsense knows that what they’re saying is false. 

Finally, it is not my primary point in the series of articles to deal specifically with things like public norms on sexuality or abortion or whatever other major topic falls into this category. I brought those examples up in the last post only because they are salient and very much out in the open in our culture. That doesn’t mean they aren’t relevant discussions. They are and that’s why we’re having these public debates. But these debates are not what I’m focused on in the series about intellectual freedom. 

With that being said, I’ll move on to continuing my argument in upcoming posts. I’ll end with one final thought. I’m currently reading Uncommon Decency by Richard Mouw. He dedicates a chapter in the book to the topic of public sexual ethics. In that chapter, he makes an important observation about how we hold public leaders to standards about sexual fidelity and morality. The reason we do this, he says, is because sexual intimacy and fidelity is one of the most-sacred forms of trust. This is why we severely punish and condemn things like sexual assault and pedophilia. And while it is obviously inconsistent for a culture that, for now, celebrates what is arguably an over-exposure of sexual freedom to condemn an expression of that freedom in leaders, that condemnation betrays our inherent knowledge about the importance and sanctity of sexual intimacy and relational fidelity. When our public leaders violate this trust through things like adultery, it is taken as an indication of overall untrustworthiness. In other words, if he or she would betray that most intimate form of trust, then it is likely they’ll betray less intimate forms of trust in their public duties. Extrapolating that to the topic of intellectual freedom and the possibility of public discourse, I think it’s fair to say that our culture’s current emphasis on semantic conformity and the willingness in some circles to support coercive measures to enforce that conformity is an indication of how public trust among citizens has broken down. And that is yet another indicator of why the topics of reality, knowledge, and intellectual freedom are so important.

3 thoughts on “The Can of Worms

  1. Great post. Do you think that people are consciously choosing what they know is wrong? I am not convinced of that. I think that people may have a sense of unease in their lives when they live apart from the sort of natural order God intended, but I would not agree that everyone is asserting things they are consciously aware of as being wrong.

    1. Hi Kevin,

      As always, thanks for the interaction. The short answer to your question is no, I don’t think that. I agree with your basic sentiment, that in many cases there is likely a sense of unease but not necessarily an outright denial of truth or a conscious effort to deny what one knows to be true.

      However, I would qualify that with two other assertions. First, I think that theologically it has to be recognized that it is possible to depart persistently from the natural order of things for so long that one’s inherent sensus divinitatis, to borrow Calvin’s terminology, is so dulled that it is of little to no effect.

      Second, I think that there needs to be some contextualization. For example, I would say that anyone who says things like “trans women are women,” and related tropes, are consciously choosing what they know is wrong. Perhaps not morally, but certainly in terms of empirical reality. That is, they may think that it is somehow morally good (e.g., in the interests of equality or justice) to say such things, but they know that the claim of such grammatical statements is empirically false.

      Of course, in that instance, they’re ultimately relying on a presupposition–moral goodness–that is irrational in a non-theistic universe.

      I’d also point out that in these instances they do so consciously because they without a doubt hold to other beliefs based on empirical reality. For example, if someone were to say, for example, that climate change is real because the science is indisputable and then claim that transgender persons are factually the gender of their target identity, then I would say they know the second statement to be false because the first statement betrays a sort of scientific realism that necessarily excludes any truth content of the second.

      So speaking for myself, I think that climate change is real on the same methodological and epistemological grounds as my denial of transgender “affirmations.”

      1. Good response. I would largely agree with that. I like your climate change example, because I think it illustrates that the belief that Science and Reason alone are sufficient to replace religion is simply not what is happening. Those who are attacking the Christian framework are increasingly, in my opinion at least, abandoning genuine science and reason.

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