A week or so back I read an article in the national media that was almost incredulous that the issue of trans athletes should be considered a topic worthy of our federal election. Both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader had been quizzed as to their views on transwomen taking part in female-only sport. The article seemed to suggest that this was not worthy of the political debate of our national election. There was genuine surprise. What has this rights issue to do with the rough and tumble of our economy and geo-political thinking?
Leaving aside the fact that both major parties are pretty much lock, stock, and barrel in tandem on the issues surrounding the economy and what we do about China and Ukraine, the writer must have a short term memory.
For was it not just a mere three years ago that the then Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, seeking to wedge the Prime Minister, forcefully asked Scott Morrison in Parliament whether gay people would go to hell? This was off the back of the hotly contested same sex marriage plebiscite in 2017, in which Morrison – then a mere front bencher – had abstained from voting in the Parliament, a point highlighted by the ABC at the time, which listed those who had both voted “No” and those who had abstained. (In other words, we know who you are).
But the fact that both these matters should come to the fore at the pinnacle of our government, and at the prime time when the public is interested in politics, should be of no surprise at all. For what we are witnessing across the secular Western democracies at the moment, is a battle over of who gets to determine reality. And governments are increasingly seeing themselves as those who get to do that.
Indeed that is why both these issues: marriage, and the question of who is a woman, are integral to the political discourse of the West, and in increasingly heated debates. Whatever else one thinks about gay people marrying, or who constitutes a woman and how, it is clear that governments have taken the lead in defining reality rather than paying deference to an already existing reality. Do governments recognise a reality that pre-exists all governments, or do they not? That’s the question that the Sexular Age keeps throwing up, and which keeps being answered, if the results are any indication, in the government’s favour.
When the same sex marriage Bill went through in Australia (as it did elsewhere around the world), the result was that one institution (government) told another institution (marriage) that it had won the definition debate. Agree or not, when this occurred everything changed at a far deeper level than over the issue of whether two gay men could make a life-long commitment to each other. This was about who has the power to define realities.
And in that act the government declared that it defines reality. It does not defer to a higher authority, whether that’s a transcendent authority, or a trans-national/transhistorical reality. And now the task of citizens is to align ourselves with this government-determined reality. And if we’re not up to the task then all sorts of legal and bureaucratic strictures will ensure it at least in terms of public compliance.
The same is true for what it means to be a woman. The government has moved into the zone in which the definition of a woman will be determined by the government, and then the arms of executive and legislative power will enforce that definition.
At the moment in Australia this issue is still not settled. The recent furore over this redefinition push reveals that sports is a case in point. A spanner has been thrown into the works, and it has to do with that most Australian of pastimes, competitive sports.
Trans women in sport can be seen in a way that trans women in prison or DV shelters cannot be seen. Gold medallists, famous women, they have a voice in a way that also-ran women do not. And who will decide how this lands? The “sport” will decide – the institutions that run the game from grassroots to Olympics, that’s who. The “sport” has become personified and will have a louder voice than any one sportswoman.
Meanwhile in other progressive Western settings such as Scotland, legislation will enforce (utilising actual force where necessary) the government’s attempt to define reality. It’s becoming pretty unpleasant for people to push back on the government in these matters in places such as Scotland. But that’s the point. Governments are by definition, designed to make things unpleasant for citizens that refuse to recognise the legitimacy of their power. And the power to define reality is so intoxicating. Once defined there can be no turning back. This is a zero sum game.
So here we are, two election cycles in supposedly secular Australia and two defining of reality events: marriage and women are hot button topics. What next? What might be the issues that come to the fore in the elections of the 2030s and 2040s?
Well, after speaking with a friend today about this very thing, the conclusion can only be – and indeed the signs are there already – that the next two cabs off the reality rank will be around the “ownership” of children (if indeed ownership is the right term), and any meaningful distinction between an adult and a child. And yes, you can see where this is going. Statism – the push by government to dominate all facets of life and present itself as the defining authority across spheres it once stood a happy distance from -, is setting its sights on redefining the family bond, as well as age-appropriate sexual relationships.
There’s something about the Sexular Age, and the foundations of social contract theory upon which so many of its edifices are built, that utilises sex as the means in which to push this increasing statism, one which is hostile towards mediating institutions, particularly those of the family and alternate ethical communities such as faith-based education settings.
First to the ownership of children. It should be no surprise that the conversation around who has access to children, why, and in what capacity, is now being discussed quite openly. Do our children belong to their families, or do they belong to the state? Already I have seen a quiet demurring around this question even among Christians, many of whom seem naive to the incompatibility of a “Why can’t it be both?” position.
Where is the state allowed to intervene, and for how long? When the child is deemed “safe” within the care of parents? And who gets to determine what “safe” is in this current cultural clime? Increasing the conversation is that any child who wishes to transition gender against the wishes of their parents is in an unsafe situation at home. That parents are increasingly viewed as in the no-longer-need-to-know category when it comes to such decisions, or viewed as hostile agents in this debate, shows the direction that this is taking.
Of course many people will simply dismiss this as scaremongering. Yet this is the sociological tip of a massive cultural iceberg in which the individual is regarded as merely an atomised unit (Rousseau anyone?) who is enslaved and bound by myriad conventions, especially religious ones, that diminish the authentic freedom of the individual to truly be their authentic selves.
Hence it is no coincidence that the most pointed and tactically aggressive focus of the Sexular Age is the education sector. Revolutions are always interested in your children and their education – or in a re-education designed to launder out the early education that parents instilled. Children are fair game and schools are, not surprisingly, full of ’em! This is why there was so much heat around the faith-based education sector in the Religious Discrimination Act discussion. Creeping, cloying statism is hostile to alternate ethical communities that hold the state at arms’ length.
Such communities challenge the absolute power that the late democratic liberal state wishes to impose Of course the state does not see it that way. This is all being done for the sake of social order and cohesion. If an iron fist is needed to ensure this, then it must be so. We have seen that the ends justify the means in this regard, even the means of bald-faced lying about the manner in which Christian schools engage with their students who identify as gay or trans And that parents should even have the right to be informed by a state school as to the long term decisions their child is making – often at the encouragement of the education system – in terms of their sexuality and gender identity, is a bridge too far for the state.
The irony of course, is that if the state wishes to take children from parents because it deems the parents unsafe (not in regards to food, clothing, education, but in terms of matters around sexual identity) then it tacitly approving of the ideology that, in Australia, led to the Stolen Generation. And the language of “safety” is key here.
For let’s face it, that was an approved state act in which the safety of children (especially their racial safety in light of the “clear” problem their indigenous culture presented to their wellbeing) was supposedly paramount. The future could well involve a stolen generation of children from religiously-observant families who refuse to comply with a child’s self-identified gender. I say “the future” but that’s already happened in a number of settings. Which simply means the future will be more horrific. Brace yourselves.
And irony of ironies, many of those who have rightly decried the Stolen Generation ideology, are ever so keen to line up with the state in its new definition of what constitutes an unsafe family set up. Those most vocally and (rightly) ideologically opposed to the indigenous Stolen Generation may well be the cheer leaders for a whole new generation of children removed from their parents, for all the “right” reasons of course. And, of course, we will see the tsunami of damage that results in, but not before that huge wave sweeps up a heap of bodies and deposits them on our doorsteps.
Which brings us to what has, until just recently, been the taboo issue – the sexualisation of children. In addition to the ownership of children, we are now seeing the queering of the distinction between an adult and a child, especially and specifically in terms of sexual boundaries. Once again the government will be – already is – at the forefront of this. The bloated bureaucracy of the education system across the West may in general terms move “vaster than empires and more slow”, especially in relation to much needed change to halt falling literacy and numeracy standards, but when it comes to sexual matters, where it is well ahead of the curve. And that’s how the government wishes it to be.
If the information given to younger and younger children, the inquisition around their sexuality, and the ideology being promoted in the classroom were to take place between another adult and a child other than a teacher and a young student, and if it were to take place within any other room other than a classroom, we would call it grooming. Which is exactly what it is, and state-sponsored grooming at that. It’s just another way in which the government is set on redefining reality, rather than recognising a prior reality to which it itself must adhere. And it is going hell-for-leather in doing so.
Yet the outrage – publicly at least – is so much the other way. Witness the Disney Corporation’s outcry over the Florida legislature’s brave, – and increasingly rare in terms of US legislatures – decision, to limit gender identity discussions to children above Year 3 level. The great justice crime, apparently, was that kindergarten-aged children were being kept from determining their true selves in terms of sexuality and gender. The conflict was pitched at the “don’t say gay” level as if secrets and lies were being promulgated, rather than what the issue surely is: the appropriateness or otherwise of sexually explicit conversations with four to seven year olds.
Nancy Pearcy’s book Love Thy Body, explores the framework behind this push to redefine the relationship between adults and children with brutal honesty. She states:
Contrary to what Rousseau said, we are not “born free”. Humans are intrinsically social beings who thrive on interdependence and nurturing. As philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenal noted, “social contract theories are the views of childless men who must have forgotten their childhood”. A realistic political theory must begin not with rational adults calculating their interests, but with the helpless infant who needs a network of love and care to become a rational adult.
So we see that, contrary to the astonishment felt by the journalist at the trans topic sucking so much oxygen in an election campaign, the reality is that these matters are deeply, deeply political. They will set the tone of public discourse around such matters for decades. These concern the polis at every level.
If the role of government at its best is to aid human flourishing, and to do so with a light hand, allowing mediating institutions to determine the course they set in line with realities that pre-date and take precedence over government, then government at its worst is defined by an overreach that seeks to legislate its own redefinitions of reality, and to enforce these redefinitions in a manner hostile to alternate ethical communities that refuse such redefinitions in their philosophy and practise. The result can only be social catastrophe, for as Alan Noble states in his excellent You are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World:
One significant political implication of a Christian anthropology is that identity politics can be replaced by a vision of the common good. If we are all ever only our own, then there can be no common good. There may be negotiated tolerance or groups with some overlapping goals, but no good we share in common, no vision of life together that involves desiring and pursuing the good of every member.
It may have been the Right’s Margaret Thatcher who said there is no such thing as society, but the Left’s anthropology is now in complete agreement with the Iron Lady in the race towards an atomised, individuated polis in which governments get to define and redefine reality, realities that preceded them, but which, arrogantly, they no longer wish to acknowledge or affirm.