Thursday, April 13, 2017

Transgender Europeans: Activated by Political-Correctness or Human Rights?

The European Court of Human Rights issued a ruling on April 6, 2017 “in favor of three transgender people in France who had been barred from changing the names and genders on their birth certificates because they had not been sterilized.”[1] I submit that the use of the term sterilization is misleading. Such a framing gives the erroneous impression that human rights are at issue. In other words, it is possible for a human-rights activism to go too far.

A gay march in Paris. Are transgender people necessarily gay? If not, maybe the gay pride flag has gone too far in representing gender issues too. (Source: NYT)
Julia Ehrt, of the group Transgender Europe, claimed that the court’s decision “ends the dark chapter of state-induced sterilization in Europe.”[2] The European states had not been requiring transgender people to be sterilized, as for instance the Nazis had required mentally retarded people. Rather, the names and genders on birth certificates could not legally be changed unless the gender had been changed—meaning that a man could not be legally recognized as a woman unless he no longer has the male genitalia. The fact that a man who is no longer a man would no longer be able to produce sperm does mean that he would be sterile, but to characterize this as a requirement by the state that he be sterilized is misleading at best because being sterile is simply a consequence of him no longer being male. In fact, were it possible to transplant female reproductive organs and genitals in him, she would no longer be sterile and yet she could be listed as female on her birth certificate! Clearly, sterilization was not the intent of the laws. Rather, the point is that a man can feel like a woman and relate to women psychologically, but as long as he has male genitals, he is a man.
The problem, societally, I submit, is that cultures excessively limit what is considered to be masculine (and feminine) characteristics, mannerisms, and styles. Even so, to “break out” of these artificial strictures is to relegate them rather than no longer be a man (or woman). If a person with male genitals naturally talks a certain way or whose face or body looks a certain way (naturally), that way is masculine, by definition, rather than being of the other gender. For people who feel they are of the other gender, actually losing their original gender means losing (or replacing) the genitals of that gender, rather than merely relating to the other gender or even thinking that one is of that gender. Put another way, the “facts on the ground” have not changed unless the original genitals are gone or replaced (i.e., not necessarily sterile).
To refuse to change the gender on a government document simply because a person relates to or feels like the other gender can thus not reasonably be said to violate the person’s human rights. The claim that it does capitulates to a self-defined subjectivity that all too often demands its own legitimacy—that it be accepted by people of opposing views—in modern society. In other words, the European Court of Human Rights may have unwittingly succumbed to a social-reality enforced by the passive (and active) aggression of the political correctness movement. The danger is that any aggrieved sensitivity will be deemed a basis of human rights. If someone doesn’t like a word or expression, for instance, the person will need only declare (presumptuously) that it is inappropriate and saying the word will be judged to violate the person’s human rights. For example, at a talk on a university campus about modern social mores, I asked whether polyamory isn’t just a nice name for playing the field, sexually. A student interrupted the presenter’s answer to demand that the question not be answered because the expression “playing the field” is inappropriate and thus unacceptable. Fortunately, the presenter answered my question, though in line with political correctness—for the presenter himself was in an open relationship. To the extent that the “requirements” of political correctness do not rest on a firm foundation, but, rather, merely on subjective preferences, the violation of them can hardly be said to be a violation of human rights. Hence, the advent and perpetuation of the political correctness movement may ironically weaken the human-rights movement precisely in diluting it.


[1] Liam Stack, “European Court Strikes Down Required Sterilization for Transgender People,” The New York Times, April 12, 2017.
[2] Ibid.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

International Response to a Chemical Attack in Syria: Beyond the U.N.

In the wake of the chemical-weapons attack in Syria on March 4, 2017, Russia blocked a condemnation and investigation into the source by vetoing the U.N. Security Council resolution. Meanwhile, the American administration’s view of the Syrian government was shifting. President Trump told reporters, “my attitude toward Syria and Assad . . . has changed very much.”[1] Cleverly, the American president would not disclose whether the United States would respond against the Syrian government. The question of whether an empire like the U.S. or an international organization like the U.N. should respond hinged on the question of whether the latter was institutionally hamstrung on account of the power of national sovereignty in the organization. In short, if the U.N. was impotent, then the moral imperative could shift to the major powers in the world, such as China, Russia, the E.U., and the U.S.

 U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley presenting evidence of the chemical attack in Syria.
(Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Trump said the images of children dying from the chemical attack “crosses many lines.”[2] It had not been the first time that such an attack had occurred during the tenure of the Assad regime. Trump noted that to draw a line in the sand and sit by as it is crossed as if with impunity would be weak. It could be added that such a self-imposed impotence is immoral, given the likelihood of future suffering in Syria if the status quo were to continue.

Naturally, the world looked to the U.N. to condemn the attack and confirm that the Assad regime had been behind the attack. For an ally of Assad, namely Russia, to block even an investigation suggests that the veto-power itself on the Security Council is problematic. In fact, it could be argued that the power relegates the U.N. and opens up a power-void into which governments critical of the chemical attack could legitimately fill. “Time and time again Russia uses the same false narrative to deflect attention from their allies in Damascus. How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., said.[3] The moral imperative was clear. “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”[4] The U.N.’s failure to reform itself such that its Security Council can act essentially relegates the institution, such that global powers may find themselves morally obliged to step in and essentially do the U.N.’s job in enforcing its rules on a recalcitrant member—Syria being a member of the U.N.

In the early 1990s, the United States effectively led a “coalition of the willing” to undo the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The legitimacy of this reaction on behalf of international law was in part due to the failure of the U.N. to act even to enforce its own rules. It is telling that the proposed resolution on the Syrian chemical attack “expresses its determination that those responsible must be held accountable” but provides “no concrete measures to do so.”[5] Sadly, even if the resolution would have passed, its impact would likely have been nugatory. Why then go through the motions if not just for the PR? Is that what international law is to be—an avenue for good PR? It is not surprising that members have flaunted U.N. rules, clearly being aware in advance of the impunity that would result from violating them. The U.N.’s approach to its own rules and resolutions detracts from a culture internationally in which international law is regarded as law rather than something like a preference or window-dressing.

Given the dangers from countries having nuclear weapons, and the danger facing the species itself from climate change, it can be argued that even coming to depend on coalitions of the willing would be insufficient. In other words, given the gravity of the modern problems facing our species, some compromise on national sovereignty makes sense. That even such a compromise may be too difficult suggests in turn that our species may not be up to handling the most serious threats to our very survival. The real blockage may be in the human mind—specifically, the stubborn refusal to admit even the possibility of being wrong and thus needed to change. This would explain why the U.N. has perpetuated its own impotence.

[1] Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker, “Trump’s View of Syria and Assad Altered After ‘Unacceptable’ Chemical Attack,” The New York Times, April 5, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Somini Sengupta and Rick Gladstone, “Nikki Haley Says U.S. May ‘Take Our Own Action’ on Syrian Chemical Attack,” The New York Times,  April 5, 2017.