Cultivating Truthfulness in Public Life

Cultivating Truthfulness in Public Life

A clash between a conservative Senator and progressive law professor has served as a Rorschach test for culture warriors, with each side convinced it has coasted to victory on the strength of a few devastating sentences. Professor Khiara Bridges of Berkeley Law and Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) gave the pretense of speaking only for themselves at a July 12 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing ostensibly about abortion policy after Dobbs. Still, the reception of their tête-à-tête shows how our public discourse on the issue of gender theory and transgenderism is bogged down in shallow soundbites, with emotion substituted for argument. Both sides of the debate have vast incentives to stay stuck in the rhetorical mud, but it does our public discourse no favors. And it is a particularly bad strategy for gender theory’s opponents.

Both combatants in the Bridges-Hawley affair have reached the pinnacle of their fields, and serve as fitting captains of warring cultural teams. Both were well-suited to represent their sides, reflecting the deeper phenomenon at play, which is the widening chasm between Americans who cannot believe there is anyone who subscribes to gender theory, and those who cannot believe that anyone cannot believe it. It is a shallow debate for our shallow times.

You could not have picked more perfect figures to distill the argument into a few pointed soundbites. Bridges has made a career off of arguments exactly befitting most Americans’ idea of a Berkeley Law professor. She has made a career off of academic papers whose goals include “defending and rehabilitating the concept of white privilege by identifying poor white people’s race-based advantages,” and advocating a narrow understanding of what constitutes “life” to the point that “protecting  fetal  ‘life’ is no longer an interest that the state may legitimately pursue.”

Senator Hawley (R-MO) has made his fair share of waves by adopting the Nationalist Conservative mantle (and embracing the NatCons’ industrial-policy-and-trustbusting agenda), cosplaying a defiant revolutionary with raised fist during the January 6th, 2021 riot at the Capitol, and subsequently basking in the martyrdom of cancellation when his publisher dropped his book. (“A direct assault on the First Amendment,” he called it.)

On July 12, Hawley opened his remarks by asking Bridges to clarify what she meant by “people with the capacity for pregnancy” in her previous work.

Of course, he knew exactly what she meant: Female human beings with child-bearing capacities. But he also understood the emotions that gender ideology stirs. The fringe but increasingly popular idea that females can be men, males can be women, and people of both sexes can be any number of non-binary genders, still sounds ridiculous to most Americans. He wanted to hear Bridges repeat it.

Bridges was all too happy to oblige. “Many women, cis women, have the capacity for pregnancy,” she answered. “There are also trans men who are capable of pregnancy, as well as non-binary people who are capable of pregnancy.”

Media, social and mainstream alike, lit up. Conservatives touted the incident as proof that the left is so wrapped up in Orwellian jargon that it has lost its grasp of basic concepts. Progressives applauded Bridges for putting a man they see as a bigot in his place, with simple facts and logic. Within each group’s philosophical framework, they are right.

Another day at the theater. But we have seen this show before—many times, in fact. It is precisely the same as now—Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson saying she does not know what a woman is during her Senate confirmation hearing. It’s the same as Apple rolling out its pregnant man emoji, or the NCAA allowing biological males to compete in women’s sports. It is assuredly not a referendum on anything new—not even close.

For the umpteenth time, some viral moment revolves around whether transgender people are meant to be defined by their biological sex or by the gender with which they identify. That is all. If a biological female is properly understood as a man, then there is no novel inference to say that men can become pregnant and bear children. If a biological female is and can only be a woman, then only women can do so. And if one accepts the former proposition, the language of “people with the capacity for pregnancy” is simply an accurate term, however clunky.

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