The tricky thing about language is that it uses words, and words are based on definitions. Once we reject definitions, we not only begin to speak a different language than those using the definitions, we initiate a larger rejection of language itself. This is the problem that opponents of defining sex and gender are now finding themselves in the thick of. How do you speak about something without establishing a linguistic framework? And how do you establish this framework without admitting the existence of definitions, or “constructs”, as they are deprecatingly referred to by many ostensibly enlightened moderns? It is easy to see that what results is an inextricable dilemma – a Tower of Babel for our times. And with an ever-mushrooming host of proposed terms to describe sex and gender, this tower is getting to toppling height.
Before going on, I want to interject that I have very real sympathy with those who are hesitant to classify gender or sexual identity on the basis of biological characteristics, as long as this hesitancy is that of an honest scientist confronted by the “exceptions to the rule” that biology invariably presents us with. Are there individuals, however rare, with departures from the normal human chromosomal makeup and resulting sexual ambiguity? Assuredly. Given the complexity of human genetics and the development process, it would be surprising if it were not so. Where my patience with this hand-wringing ends is with the hypocritical rejection of definitions themselves. It is one thing to say that someone does not fit neatly into a category. It is another to say this means that the categories themselves are useless and that truth is unknowable. This capitulation to chaos would be the death of science, as well as language, and I doubt very much that it is the extreme to which most proponents of gender fluidity actually aspire. But to avoid hypocrisy, we must be prepared to accept – or at least be ready to discuss – the logical conclusions of our arguments.
A fine example of the quandary I mentioned at the beginning of this article can be found in a 2018 editorial in Nature arguing that the proposals by former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to define gender are scientifically baseless. According to the author, “…biology is not as straightforward as the proposal suggests. By some estimates, as many as one in 100 people have differences or disorders of sex development, such as hormonal conditions, genetic changes or anatomical ambiguities, some of which mean that their genitalia cannot clearly be classified as male or female.”
What is the problem here? For me, it is not so much the suggestion of sexual ambiguity. As a scientist, I have been trained to be quite comfortable in the presence of complexities that challenge existing theoretical frameworks. No. What really disturbs me is the peppering of an article – which elsewhere eschews the feasibility of any sexual definitions at all – with an ironically high density of implicit judgements. What are these “differences” mentioned by the author, if not differences from something else? How can there be a “disorder” if there is no expected order from which to deviate? What is a medical “condition,” if not a way of being which is unlike some other way of being? And from what do “ambiguities” arise, if not the mother of all questions – truth?
I wish to be gentle on the author of this particular editorial, since much of the language they used in 2018 has likely already become dated among their colleagues, and would sound suspiciously backwards to an up-to-the-minute gender ideologist brandishing a new, even more bewildering vocabulary composed of “cis,” “pan,” and “questioning.” I need not heap up any more troubles for them than their fellows have been preparing at a startling rate. On the contrary, I would urge the author and any with similar sympathies to begin dismantling this Tower of Babel before it falls on them. Has it not yet become apparent that efforts to avoid “labelling” and “assignment” have led to more categories than ever?
When it comes to sexual and gender identity, it seems that the world has started speaking a limitless number of different languages, and as a result, is in grave danger of losing language itself as a tool with which to work for the common good. How can we preserve the dignity and human rights of those individuals burdened by psychological turbulence, chromosomal abnormalities, or legitimately damaging stereotypes if we cannot even speak about them as differing from objective categories? Will not their uniqueness be swallowed up by the very diversity which now presents itself as an ally?
While I have been using the image of the Tower of Babel throughout the article, I think it is worth noting that in the Biblical account of the incident, humans were speaking a common language when they began building the tower. Confused speech was a consequence of their collective hubris that came later. Perhaps this could be taken as a timely warning to modern man that projects based on the erasure of all divisions are often those bringing us ever closer to the pinnacle of failure.