Today, biological men who identify as women are celebrated. Young girls taking puberty blockers are hailed as brave. How did we arrive at this place in our culture?
Carl Trueman, a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and author of “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self,” says humanity’s search for identity played a large role in the sexual revolution and the embrace of gender identities we see today.
“I set the sexual revolution against the background of what I call the revolution in selfhood, which … is a fundamental transformation in the way that human beings think of their personal identities,” Trueman says.
Trueman, a theologian and historian, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain how he believes society has come to embrace gender identity ideology.
Also on today’s show, we read your letters to the editor and share a “good news story” about a 9/11 remembrance event hosted by Wreaths Across America.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to be joined by Dr. Carl Trueman. He’s a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and he’s also an author of a number of books, including his latest, “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.” Dr. Trueman, thank you so much for being here.
Carl Trueman: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me on.
Allen: Well, you have, like I mentioned, a brand new book out, the full title is “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.” A lot to unpack there, so let’s just start off with, why did you choose to write this book and what is really your hope for what you’re seeking to achieve through the book?
Trueman: Yeah. Good question. A number of reasons I wrote the book. One of them was I was approached by Rod Dreher and Justin Taylor—Rod works at The American Conservative; Justin Taylor is the editor at Crossway, the publisher—in … 2015, asking if I would write an introduction to the thought of Philip Rieff, who features pretty heavily in the book.
And as I was working on that topic, it became clear to me the more interesting project would be to apply the thinking of Philip Rieff to a contemporary situation. And of course, 2015 and beyond has been the era of tremendous transformation of certainly the legal status of certain sexual identities and the cultural triumph of transgenderism, trans ideology. The book morphed somewhat and became an attempt to try to set these very dramatic changes that are taking place within our culture within a much broader understanding of what has gone on culturally over the last 300, 400 years.
So what I hope the book does for those who have the stamina to wade their way through it, is to enable them to see that the dramatic changes taking place today are actually very deep-seated and make a kind of cultural sense, given the trajectory of the culture and many of the cultural dynamics that have been in plain air for several generations.
Allen: I think that’s so critical to begin to think about these issues not just as something that happened overnight. We didn’t arrive at a society that embraced men trying to become women just all of a sudden. There are these larger issues and larger conversations and deep-seated cultural things that have been happening for generations. And it’s really important to go back and look at those. I know you’ve done that so, so well in the book.
As you mentioned, one of the issues that you tackle is sexuality, gender identity, and you make the assertion that the sexual revolution was really just a symptom of this very human search for identity. What exactly do you mean by that?
Trueman: Yeah. What I do is I set the sexual revolution against the background of what I call “the revolution in selfhood,” which, as you’ve hinted at in the question, is a fundamental transformation in the way that human beings think of their personal identities.
If you were to go back 500 years to medieval Europe, your identity would pretty much have been given to you. You’d have been born into a particular point in society. Maybe you were the son of a peasant farmer. If you’re the son of a peasant farmer, you’re going to grow up to be a peasant farmer. You’re going to be baptized, married, and buried in the same church. You’re going to live in the same village all your life. The world had a very fixed external authority that gave you your identity.
We now live in a world where all of that has changed. Those external markers of identity are now very much in flux. We’re able to choose where we study, we’re able to choose who we marry, we’re able to choose where we live—all of which can be good things, but they have implications for how we think about ourself. And they encourage us to think about ourselves or to imagine ourselves as being much more what I would describe as plastic than in the past. In other words, we are more capable of deciding who we are these days than we would have been in the Middle Ages.
Second big developments would be the increasing emphasis or authorization of inner feelings as fundamental to our identity. That again, we live in a world now where what we feel is given tremendous authority in who we consider ourselves to be.
And we could use the trans issue as a good example of that, in that if you went to a doctor 50 years ago and said, “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body,” the doctor would say, “Well, we have a problem here. The problem is with your mind. Your feelings are out of sync with your body. We need to bring your feelings into line with your body.”
Think of what the doctor’s doing there. The doctor is assuming the authority of the body over feelings. Today, you would get the opposite response. The doctor would say, “Well, we have a problem, and the problem’s with your body, and we need to bring your body into line with your feelings.” What the doctor is now doing is giving those feelings an authority over the physical nature of your body.
And that shift really is the culmination, I think, of what you’ve seen over the last several hundred years of an increasing emphasis upon the authority of our inner psychology, our inner feelings to determine who we are. That’s the broad story of the self. The self has become a much more plastic thing mainly because of the way society itself has changed, combined with something rooted very deeply in our psychological feelings.
Allen: Really it comes down to this broader seeking of identity and of self and of who I am. And like you say, we’ve turned more to the feeling side, and we put a lot of focus on feelings in our culture and in our society.
Just explain a little bit about how you personally began, specifically around the issue of the transgender and sexual identity and gender identity, to think of this through a lens of a bigger story, a bigger subject. And maybe we actually need to zoom out here and talk a little bit about your own personal thought process of what led you there. And then also, how do we tackle that?
Trueman: Yeah, it’s a very good question, set of questions. I would say, as to the first, how did I get there? On one level, it’s intuitive. It’s intuitively obvious, I would say, that the trans issue can’t be taken in isolation because it’s happened so quickly, and it’s so counterintuitive compared to how people have thought over the decades.
In the book, I use the example of my grandfather and say, if I’d said to my grandfather, “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body,” … he would have burst out laughing. I would have met with incomprehension. He would not have had the conceptual categories to make sense of that.
And yet that’s commonplace now, even among ordinary people who’ve never sat in a gender theory seminar at a university. That statement makes a kind of sense. The fact that it’s happened so quickly and so comprehensively strongly suggested to me that the underlying cause is we’re very powerful, very deep-rooted, and much broader than one might typically think.
That’s what led me on my narrative. And to summarize the narrative of the book in a rather simple way, the narrative runs while the self gets psychologized. We see the rise of the importance of inner feelings for identity in the late 18th on into the 19th century.
Those feelings get profoundly sexualized with the advent of Sigmund Freud, whose thinking about human sexuality, of course, was expressed using the very powerful and persuasive idiom of science. That became something that really grabbed, gripped the elites’ imagination in the early part of the 20th century.
And once one sexualizes psychology and sexualizes identity, inevitably it becomes politicized because that means that sexual morality, laws governing sexual behavior are really laws governing who you’re allowed to be. That was the narrative side of that story.
How we come to address this, how we can push back against this, that’s very difficult. Partly because … the reasons for this are very deep-seated in culture. Partly because a lot of it connects to our imaginations.
It’s not that my neighbors have been argued into thinking that trans ideology makes coherent sense. It’s not that my neighbors have been argued into thinking that gay marriage is the right way for society to go. It’s that our culture shapes our intuitions, shapes our imaginations in a way that leads us to think these things just make an intuitive kind of sense.
I’m not sure about how to push back against these things at this point. One obvious way, I think, is to understand some of the tendencies of the culture around. One of those tendencies is stories are very, very powerful. I’m a big believer in the fact that “Will & Grace,” the soap opera, the sitcom, probably had more impact on popular understandings of homosexuality and gay marriage than any book written has ever done. One thing that I think we need to be aware of is the way society thinks, … the things that society finds influential. And I think narratives and stories are powerful.
And that I think then leads us to think about, well, how can we present stories that are more powerful than those the society itself is offering? And that’s difficult. I think it’s unlikely that we can do that at a national level because the people who think the way I do do not actually control any major cultural, influentially cultural institution in the Western Hemisphere. But we can do it at a local level. I think engaging in our local communities in ways that present better ways to live than those being put on offer by Hollywood, perhaps that’s the place to start.
Allen: I think that’s great insight because really what you’re saying is … there’s real-world consequences for things like gender identity being pushed forward. And we’ve had a number of individuals on this podcast—Selina Soule and Chelsea Mitchell and these female track athletes that are losing opportunities because males who identify as females are competing against them. We see these tangible effects, and we know that there’s a role for litigation to take place in these areas. Alliance Defending Freedom is really stepping up … to the plate in this area.
But there’s a larger cultural debate that really it feels like this issue will be won and lost in the court of public opinion and then capturing hearts and minds and empowering people to think for themselves again, and to not abandon that self-compassion, because we want all people to be loved and respected and to discover that true identity—that’s so, so critical. But at the same time, we have to recognize that there are such real-world consequences for these things.
I would be curious, regarding the legal side of this, there’s something called SOGI laws—sexual orientation, gender identity laws—and I know this is a subject that you discuss. Get into a little bit of the implications of those laws in culture, in society, and where you think we’re we’re headed right now if there’s not a change, there’s not a course correction.
Trueman: Yeah. Again, good question. The issue of SOGI laws I would want to look at from a broader cultural perspective. I think 15, 10, 15 years ago, a lot of conservative people, a lot of conservative Christian people, my sort of constituency, thought that an approach of tolerance would be a way to move forward on these issues.
Bottom line is: I don’t want gay people put in prison. Is it not enough we thought then to tolerate people, to remove any legal penalties that might apply to those who were adopting lifestyles or approaches to sexuality with which we disagreed? I think that that underestimated what’s going on because one of the striking things I think about being a human being is we want other human beings to recognize us.
And when I use the term recognize/recognition, I’m not talking in the commonsense term of, I’m walking down the road, I see Virginia, I wave and say, “Hi, Virginia.” I’m not talking about recognition in that term. I’m talking here about recognition in terms of affirming somebody in the identity that they have.
And what we have in the LGBTQ+ movement is a demand that not only their lifestyle choices, their identities be tolerated and not subject to legal penalties, but that they be fully affirmed and recognized. And that is, I think, the motive that lies behind laws that don’t simply provide protections for individuals who affirm these identities, but enforce a kind of cultural and social affirmation of the group as a whole.
And this is why it’s going to be very, very difficult for conservative people to have a “live and let live” approach to this, because that’s not the game that’s being played. The issue is not this, “Well, we can all just get on and live our lives because nobody’s leg is being broken.” “Nobody’s pocket is being picked,” as Thomas Jefferson would have said. The issue is which groups, which identities does society affirm and consider to be fully legitimate?
For example, on SOGI laws, we are going to find issues relative to public spaces becoming unavoidable. Public bathrooms are going to be subject to these kind of laws. Employment is going to be subject to these kind of laws. It’s going to be very difficult to find a space where these laws do not intrude in some way. Sexual identity is really, through these laws, becoming highly politicized in a way that it’s going to be, I would say, not just hard to avoid, but impossible to avoid for the ordinary man or woman in the street.
Allen: And in what capacity or in what areas across the aisle is there agreement on these issues? Because I think sometimes the narrative that we hear from the media is very, very loud. It’s kind of one-sided. But what do we know about what the majority of Americans actually think about this issue? What does the majority of Americans actually think about a 12-year-old being given puberty blockers, about a biological male in high school being allowed to use the female locker room? What do we know about, statistically, if we have it, what the American people really think?
Trueman: It’s hard to tell. I mean, it’s hard to generalize, because I would guess that if you took a poll in San Francisco, it would be very different in terms of how people carve up than if you took a poll in West Virginia or Western Pennsylvania, where I live.
I’ve always been struck moving to Pittsburgh, moving to the Pittsburgh area, that the Democratic Party commercials at election time focus on hard-hat jobs. I lived in Philadelphia for many years, and there the focus was on abortion, LGBTQ issues. I think it does vary from place to place.
I think on the trans issue, my intuition is, my hope is, that it would still be regarded as way out, particularly to be doing these things to pre-puberty teens and children. I suspect there’s a lot of people who are just pretending it’s not going on. A lot of people thinking, “Well, it’s not going to happen in my backyard.”
But my guess is, on the trans issue—and I think I’d want to make a separation between the trans issue and the lesbian, gay, bisexual issue. On the trans issue, because it involves such traumatic gerrymandering of the bodies, often of children, … I still have enough confidence in the public to think that that would cause significant revulsion. The problem we face, of course, is getting that expressed on any major media outlets or finding a Hollywood director who would do a movie that would press that.
There are plenty of radical feminists out there. I’ve interviewed one on my own podcast, a woman called Natasha Chart who lost her job at a feminist magazine on the trans issue. There are plenty of people across the aisle on this who are united on the trans issue, but you would not know that from watching the news.
Just before I came down for the podcast today, I was flicking through the news feed, and The Guardian had a headline on how families are pushing back against anti-trans sports laws. In other words, laws that I would say are designed to protect women’s sports. You’re not going to see those laws described in the mainstream media as laws protecting women’s sports. You’re going to see them characterized as anti-trans sport laws. And I think that that is typical.
Getting those voices heard, finding a context in which those voices can be heard is currently extremely difficult. I do hope that that will change. And I know The Heritage Foundation has done its bit in trying to give a platform to some of these radical feminists who want to speak out on this, but we need more of that. We need more of that if we’re really going to make an impact.
Allen: I can’t agree with you more there. We’ve been privileged to talk with Natasha Chart a couple of times on The Daily Signal’s “Problematic Women” podcast. And like you say, I mean, there’s many areas of disagreement, but on the women’s sports issue, that’s an area where we can lock arms, and it’s really encouraging to see that happening.
Talk a little bit about where we’re headed, specifically on the transgender issue. What’s next, and what do you predict it will take for there to be a change or a shift in this area?
Trueman: It’s difficult to predict with accuracy. I mean, I’m a historian, and I know that cultures commit suicide and cultures pull back from the brink historically, and you can never tell what they’re going to do until they pull the trigger or they put the pistol down. Who knows what American culture will do?
But I am, I won’t say optimistic, because that has a naïve Pollyanna sound to it, but I am hopeful that the trans issue will collapse under its own weight for a number of reasons. One, I think it is taking on nature, and it’s making demands of the human body and making demands of technology that ultimately the human body will deny and that technology cannot deliver.
Secondly, it’s taking on so many potential political enemies that you have groups where there are very conservative Catholic women standing shoulder to shoulder with radical atheistic feminists, it’s remarkable. And it tells you something about the way that this issue is uniting those that you would never put together.
Thirdly, we don’t know as yet the full impact of hormone therapy and trans surgery. We do know from Sweden, where this has been going on and has been well supported by society for many years, that it does not appear to make a whole lot of difference to long-running psychiatric issues that … a lot of trans people have. I suspect in the long run, it will become clear that, yeah, somebody who is convinced that they’re in the wrong body has an issue, but surgery and hormones are not the way to solve that problem.
And that leads me to think that, again, another trend that’s starting to emerge … the narratives of detransition, those who have been through a sex change and have realized that it doesn’t solve their problem and want back. Those narratives will become more and more frequent and I think more and more powerful.
And of course, I have seen very silly trans advocates talking about how we allow teenagers to make decisions all the time. We allow them to choose colleges, this, that, and the other. So why shouldn’t we allow them to choose gender?
Well, if you choose the wrong college, that’s sad, but it may not ruin your life. If you choose the wrong college, hey, if you find out you chose the wrong college early enough, you can change colleges. If you have your ovaries removed, if you go through hormone treatment, if you go through puberty-blocking treatment, if you have your breasts removed, if you have your penis removed, there is no going back at that point. We typically do not allow children and teenagers to make decisions that once made are completely irreversible.
And I think what we will see in coming years is more and more kids whose parents, put it bluntly, whose parents use them as political chemistry sets will fight back against that. They may well sue their parents. They will sue the doctors. And they will sue the insurance companies. They will sue the adults who should have acted like responsible adults and protected their kids, and rather than doing that, indulge their own political and social and cultural fantasies.
And I think once these groups start getting sued—this is America. Once you start hitting people in the pocketbook, you can expect people to start thinking about the issue in a very, very different way.
I am hopeful long term that the trans issue will collapse under its own weight. I’m sad that it will take a lot of human suffering to get to that point, but I think we will get to that point. And I hope in 50 or 100 years’ time, people will look back on the trans moment in the way that we today look back on lobotomies, as an absolutely crazy idea, and look back on it with incomprehension as to why we were so stupid as to ever think that it would solve the very real problems that a lot of trans people are experiencing and facing in their lives.
Allen: Going off of that last point that you made and bringing it back to the larger subject of the book and this idea of identity and really understanding the self, so much as you so well-described of the challenge that we’re facing revolves around that and I’m interested to hear you say in some ways that it sounds like this issue, it’s going to come down to lawsuits in a way and people realizing that there is a massive cost and unfortunately, maybe some damage will have to be done in that process to get to that point. But I just think that that’s a really fascinating point to make, that in some ways we might see lawsuits be this key thing that turns it around. Do you have anything you wanted to add on that?
Trueman: I do think that’s the case. I mean, again, one of the things you learned from history is that lawyers never lose money. Whatever’s going on there, they’re usually at the center. That’s a slightly facetious comment, but I do think we will see lawsuits that will turn this around, but I don’t think we can rely on that. I think there’s more to this issue.
And again, this would be an entirely separate podcast to do, but I think one of the things we face, one of the reasons why the trans issue is rising among young people is young people want an identity. They want to know who they are. And the traditional ways of doing that, particularly the family, are now in crisis. And one of the ways that I think we need to address this issue is not simply on how do we tear down the false identities that are being presented by the wider culture, but how do we provide real identities that give these kids something solid and secure to hold onto?
And I think that rebuilding the family is one of those. And I think rebuilding local communities is one of those. We all have numerous identities, but the strongest identity we have is always related to the strongest community to which we belong, whether that’s family or church or nation. If that community is strong, it gives us a solid foundation. I think it’s not enough to think about, “Well, if we just sit back and allow the lawsuits to make their way up through the courts, all will be well.” We also have to be building something positive, providing something strong for people to find themselves in.
I would also want to advocate here, let’s positively think about building communities. A lot of single people out there. A lot of single lonely people out there. If you’re a family, invite one of these lonely single people into your family, not simply for a meal, maybe on a Sunday or Saturday, but invite them to a family event. Invite them to Thanksgiving. Invite them to Christmas meal. Invite them to something where normally you’d have your intimate family members. Allow people to belong.
And I think that has to be part of our solution. … [I] could talk about that for a long, long time. And there are all kinds of ways that can be done. And it probably looks different in different places. It looks different in a rural village to what it does in a metropolis. But I think we need to think about how to rebuild real communities that allow people who are searching for an identity somewhere to find an identity and to belong.
Allen: That’s so critical. And that was going to be my final question to you, is, what can we do? And I think that that really hits the nail on the head, that there is something we can all do. And really, that looks like standing with individuals, building those communities, loving people where they’re at and in the middle of their daily lives and their struggles. That’s so, so critical. The book is “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.” You can get a copy on Amazon, wherever books are sold. I encourage you to do so. Dr. Trueman, thank you so much for your time.
Trueman: Thanks for having me on, Virginia.
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