The ‘deadnaming’ ban and an ancient superstition
The most ancient things have a sneaky way of surviving. Saint Brigid may or may not have been a real person, but her legend is substantially coincidental with that of the Celtic goddess with whom she shares a name, iconography, and memorial day — a pagan festival marking the first of spring, which adds an interesting connotation of fertility to her Scottish name, Saint Bride. Brigid probably was an adaptation, too, with some linguists suggesting her name was derived from an epithet of a Hindu dawn goddess with similar characteristics. Before that, she may simply have been the sun. Perhaps Brigid will be something else someday. Perhaps she already is.
Christianity was hardly history’s first Levantine wine cult, an observation that sometimes makes my fellow Christians antsy for reasons that never have been entirely clear to me. Cult is the first word in culture, and cultures have histories: Pilgrimages were being made to the Kaaba in Mecca long before the rise of Islam. Wine was being consumed sacramentally long before that fateful meal in Jerusalem.
And names were believed to have magical properties long before Anno Domini 2018.
Twitter, in its recent decision to prohibit “deadnaming” — referring to trans people by their former names, e.g., calling Bradley Manning “Bradley Manning” — is participating in a long magical tradition, whether Jack Dorsey and his merry men (the asterisk here is understood) are conscious of that fact or not.
Technology changes, sometimes at a bewildering pace. Old Adam stays the same — like Ted Hughes’s roosting hawk, he likes things just the way they are: “Nothing has changed since I began. My eye has permitted no change. I am going to keep things like this.” Today, we laugh at the notion that droughts are the cereal gods’ retribution against impious kings, and also believe very strongly that if the American economy doesn’t do well then it must be because the president is a bad man. We have only gone from hocus pocus to hocus focus group. It won’t do to underestimate the power of unbridled fanaticism: Small, committed bands of true believers can and often do move peoples and nations and even empires, as that cross-surmounting Caligula’s obelisk in St. Peter’s Square attests. Social and political ideologies, at sufficient scale, behave in much the same way as religions. Even Communism had its holy texts and saints, all those dirty little campus crusaders waving their Little Red Books in people’s faces, their evangelical fervor unmistakable. Political beliefs are in many cases less about politics and more about belief.
The old belief that names confer a special power crops up in the religions, legends, and folklore of cultures around the world, from ancient Greece to the Ozarks, from Judaism to the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin to Turandot. Secret names known only to close family members and kept hidden from strangers have been a feature of social life among West Africans and Native Americans, among others. That the ancient belief in the magical power of names has made its way to Silicon Valley, which is full of highly logical men and women of science who also are sometimes vegan reiki practitioners, is no great surprise.
Nor is the authoritarianism attached to it.
Writing in the New York Times, Parker Malloy offers the pristinely Orwellian argument that the prohibition of speech is a necessary condition for free speech: “Things like deadnaming, or purposely referring to a trans person by their former name, and misgendering — calling someone by a pronoun they don’t use — are used to express disagreement with the legitimacy of trans lives and identities.” I am not quite sure those sentences mean what Malloy means (reject the legitimacy, I think), and things get worse from there. Deadnaming and misgendering, Malloy writes, are a way to force the trans advocate into “a debate over my own existence. I know many trans people who feel the same. If this isn’t harassment, I don’t know what is. Aside from the harm it does to trans people, it also impedes the free flow of ideas and debate, in the same way that conservatives often accuse student protesters of shutting down speech on college campuses.”
If we could for a moment tighten up and focus on the question of what words actually mean, this is a group of common English words put into an order that doesn’t add up to anything sensible: Nobody is denying that Parker Malloy exists. Nobody, to my knowledge, is denying that trans people exist. We are once again ill served by an excess of metaphor and a refusal to look at the thing itself.
(Set aside the other obvious little bit of intellectually dishonest rhetorical base-stealing: Black-masked hoodlums aren’t shutting down conservative speech on college campuses with unwanted pronouns — they are using violence.)
The actual debate is elsewhere. It is, in short: If a biologically male person identifies very strongly with the female sex, endeavors to live life as a woman, etc., in what sense, exactly, is that person a woman? (Feel free to reverse the sexes, though the radical feminists don’t get nearly as excited about the other kind of trans person.) If you were to take a tissue sample from that person and send it to a laboratory for analysis, the results would indicate a male. If archaeologists were to discover the bones of a similar trans person who died in a cave 5,000 years ago, they would identify that skeleton as female. Etc. There are some people — some of them social conservatives, many of them radical feminists — who believe that matters: socially, politically, and medically. It matters even to people who wish to be kind, to treat people with tolerance and respect, and to allow them to organize their own lives in the way they think best.
But tolerance is an idea in ill favor among our illiberal liberals. True believers will endure no nonconformity.
In ancient magic there existed a belief in the “true name,” a signifier that is by its nature uniquely affixed to the person or thing signified. The contemporary insistence that the use of a new name and new pronouns creates a new reality is simply the old magic in new packaging — as is the belief that the use of other names and pronouns constitutes a kind of violence. People are free to believe this if they like. No one should be obliged to believe it, or to pretend that they believe it.
The unspoken proposition is that the trans person is a member of the opposite sex in a metaphysical sense; what we used to call sex-change operations and now are expected to call “gender-confirmation therapies” is an attempt to make the physical reality conform to some extent with the metaphysical intuition, to bend the objective to the subjective. This necessarily creates a sense of identity that is, as Malloy indicates, fragile.
Hence the fanaticism.
Twitter and much of the rest of the social-media and technological universe is being used (willingly, even eagerly) as a disciplinary institution, as are many corporations, institutions of higher learning, etc. High-profile executives and companies that are fearful of being perceived as uncool as easy to bully — that’s a weird 21st-century innovation: metaphysical bullying — and are in many cases the internal pressure of committed fanatics within the firm is at least as powerful as exterior social-media pressure campaigns.
People with dissenting views have three choices: cowering, keeping silent, or facing excommunication. Knuckle under, keep your opinions to yourself, or be kicked off Twitter — or, more serious, lose your job, be expelled from college, etc. No government action required. The situation is a bit like that of the Inquisition-era Catholic Church, which had little or no formal secular political power — and didn’t need any. It had the power of excommunication. Twitter’s speech-policing isn’t an issue to which the First Amendment is relevant, but official censorship is not the only means of strangling speech and discourse. It is not even the most important one.
We have been here before. Using the employer as a disciplinary institution is a tactic as old as salaried work. In the middle of the 20th century, back when the expert opinion of the now apparently infallible American Medical Association was resolutely behind what is today almost universally ridiculed as “gay-conversion therapy” (a position the AMA did not entirely abandon until the 1990s), it was not the threat of being locked up on sodomy charges (terrible though that was) that was most effective at keeping homosexuals in the closet and out of the political discourse. It was the threat of losing their jobs, their government security clearances, their film careers, their professorships, their book contracts, etc. There wasn’t any law against agitating for gay rights in the 1950s — such a statute would have been practically beside the point.
The moral aggression of trans advocates such as Parker Malloy is, by their own account, rooted in a fragile sense of identity. It is, it should go without saying, also an example of the deathlessness of Herbert Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance,” the proposition that political ideas uncongenial to the progressive prospect must be prohibited as a matter of social justice: “I’d like to henceforth be known as Chelsea rather than Bradley, and to be socially accepted as a woman,” is a sentiment that demands universal tolerance; “I’m not so sure about that,” is a crime against humanity. That is not a sentiment that deserves to be taken seriously. It is not, I suspect, one that is taken seriously: But people can be terrorized into accepting it as a matter of social self-defense.
This is only secondarily a political question. At its roots this is an issue of superstition, an irrational — antirational — belief that words and things as intrinsically linked in a mystical way, and that the right incantation at the right time can create — or undo — reality itself. It is necessary to understand that the dynamic here is not that of a political disagreement. Trying to respond to this fanaticism as though one were moderating the terms of a political debate is to miss the point. This isn’t the authoritarianism of a Stalin or a Pinochet, but the authoritarianism of a Calvin or a Luther, laundered through the oddball sexual obsessions of our time.
And why the authoritarianism?
It takes a very tall and sturdy wall to protect a house of cards.