The Non-Binary Genders as a Casualty of Modernity

Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish-born sociologist, has some very interesting views on the subject of modernity.

In his view, modernity- which seeks to erase uncertainties and to shuttle the whole of the world into easy categories (most often based on some sort of binary)- has created a situation where people have become increasingly self-reliant and insular, and has forced us to create categories into which we sort the people we know.  However, it has also forced us to reckon with the uncertainty of the stranger- the person about whom we know nothing, or who doesn’t fit neatly into the categories we set aside for those we know.

In psychology, this is called “splitting,” and is usually a sign of a psychological disturbance.  Someone who relentlessly splits the people in their lives between “good” and “bad” is generally exhibiting signs of psychosis or a personality disorder.  However, it is also a prominent feature of modernity, one of several that closely parallel the symptoms of sociopathy; modernity is therefore best described as collective sociopathy.

If anything, fear of “the stranger” is a salient feature of modernity.  We teach our children to be afraid of them from a young age.  We turn a curious and scornful eye to foreigners and to insular minority groups.  We suspect the “stranger,” this generalized “other,” is the source of everything bad because our binary schemas do not allow us to accept that a “known” can be harmful.

This has dire consequences, because within modern society there are groups who either do not share the same cultural views as the dominant modernist culture (quasi-insular groups such as the Jews, for example), and those who do not fit the schema of relentless modernity at all.

Non-binary gender is such a casualty, and I will explain why.

First consider the case of an intersex person, born with either no genitalia or ambiguous genitalia, or some genetic condition that makes them- at the very cellular level- neither male nor female.  From birth, they are pressured to be either male or female, and either have those roles forced upon them by family, friends, and society, or are given the choice, but must choose between one of only two options.  This is in part an indirect consequence of modernity as it is partly a concession to bureaucracy (read Max Weber’s work some time, it’s a real eye-opener).  However, it makes “strangers” out of those whose physical existence defies the categories laid down by ruthlessly systematic bureaucrats.

Now consider the case of the transgender spectrum and all its variants.  These people- and I am one of them- are distinguished from the intersexed in that they have no outwardly-visible physical difference between themselves and an ordinary man or woman (brain structure notwithstanding, but that’s still not used as a determining factor).  They have only their own mental and emotional wiring to distinguish them as something other than their biological sex.

Modernity affects those on the transgender spectrum in several ways.  First, it upholds the erasure of third-gender categories, such as two-spirits or Hijras.  This was first done in the West by Christianity, but Christianity has not been the driving force for the continued ignorance of non-binary gender in the West.  Rather, the binary gender system- even to secular thinkers of the modern era- has been seen as an elegant hypothesis that eliminates the uncertainty of subjective self-identification.  After all, the biological act of procreation only requires two physical sexes, and any physical or mental aberration from that purely mechanical model of reproduction is, to the mind of the hardened modernist, an aberration to be corrected.

Apologists for modernism often accuse religion, but across history, it is the religions that do not accept non-binary gender categories that have been the exception.  If anything, the modernists of the 17th and 18th centuries- Christian or secular- would have concurred with the idea that non-binary gender was a consequence of superstition and irrationality and a trait only retained by primitive inferior peoples, a view that is still championed today by some conservatives.  That the modern Protestant and secular view concurs with the earlier Catholic view that non-binary gender expression is aberrant is irrelevant; the rationale and apologetics behind the modernist position are based less on divine command and more on the presumption of rationality.

Remember too that ultimately, modernity was not originally in opposition to Christianity, but a part of the Protestant reformation.  John Calvin and his followers were relentlessly rational, and were inspired partly by Occam’s Razor (also a Christian contribution).  Anyone equating atheism unequivocally with what we term “modern” culture is ignoring the fact that the rational groundwork for today’s argument for atheism was laid in the Protestant reformation.  The split between atheist modernists and Christian modernists does not negate the common cultural root.  Once again, Weber can explain it much better than I can.

But perhaps the greatest indictment against modernity as a force against non-binary gender expression is the fact that you simply do not see any sort of movement in the West toward tolerance of the LGBT spectrum until after the First World War, with the birth of postmodernism.  There were those who pushed for tolerance earlier, but it was in Europe in the 1920s and 30s that the movement first gained momentum, only to be trounced.  It resurfaced in America in the 50s and gained traction in the 60s and 70s, but has suffered numerous setbacks at the hands of thoroughly modernist authorities, and not always on religious grounds.  Ayn Rand, herself a relentless modernist, famously decried homosexuality as a “serious error in judgement.”  Her view was not aberrant among modernists but rather, quite ordinary.

Ultimately, modernists who accept LGBT equality must concede that they have adopted a postmodern position by accepting that a person who is objectively identical to a heterosexual, cisgender peer could be inherently different on a subjective and self-identified level.  This is in no way, shape, or form a modernist position but a postmodern one.

The rise of LGBT equality is therefore one of the key signs of a thaw in modernity, which reached its terrifying apex in two bloody wars where several modern powers used cold rationality to kill, conquer, and suppress with increasing efficiency.  Modernity, in the world wars, revealed itself to be no better than animal cunning for building a civil society and the world, by and by, has come to rightly reject it.  The casualties of modernity- the “strangers,” the “others,” and queer ducks like me- have no place in a modern society, but are the vanguard of the postmodern world.  The day we started organizing and standing up for ourselves will be looked back upon as the end of the modern era.

There are those who will catastrophize the end of modernity as the end of humanity, and for a long time I was one of those people.  But the end of the modern era is merely the end of one period of history, one cultural epoch that has outgrown its capacity to serve humanity.  It is no more a tragedy than the end of the Stone Age, or the end of the Medieval era.  All that is missing from the postmodern era is a solid ethic on which the better part of the culture agrees and once that gels, there will be no going back.  It is my hope that tolerance and accommodation for non-binary gender will be one of the centerpieces of that ethic.


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