Dignity and respect are good ideas that as a general rule are the proper way to treat people, but like anything else, they can be abused. In the current cultural/political conflict they are being used as instruments of tyranny. Until this generation, most Americans would have regarded the Constitution and the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution to be the unassailable rule for the public life of persons of all creeds (or none), but today, the Constitution and its guarantees are overridden in the name avoiding offense to personal life.
As noted in this writer’s previous article, the second half of the twentieth century saw the U.S. Supreme Court change the meaning of constitutional freedoms from a set of discrete rights to a vision of the good life based on the idea of personal choice. The originally enumerated freedoms themselves, and the system of constitutional government, with such limitations as federal rather than unitary government, separation of powers between branches of government, and limitations on the power of government, all bespeak of the importance of as much individual freedom as possible in a clearly ordered society. But by making freedom from offense to personal choices key to understanding the good life, as the court clearly did in its decisions on sexual issues during this period of time, constitutional freedoms and even the very idea of personal liberty have been undone.
Crucial to the subversion of constitutional freedoms has been the use (or abuse) of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle. It proposes that people may not be coerced because their choices in personal life are thought to be wrong, but only if they are “harming” others. This might seem a “live and let live” philosophy, in which we can all pursue our own idea of the good life. But if merely giving offense to personal choices counts as “harm,” then people are required to affirm the goodness of all other lives. The state is then mandating a vision of the good life for everyone, in violation of the original harm principle that people may not be coerced because their choices in personal life are wrong.
This inconsistent principle of allowing any vision of a good personal life, but mandating that everyone accept them all as good, is what the partisans of the sexual revolution use to require universal acceptance of their preferred sexual standard (consent as the criterion of acceptable sexual activity). As natural law advocate Sherif Girgis has so cogently argued, if people are understood to be properly defined by themselves, they are done injustice if anyone disagrees. Refusing to treat people as they claim to be is then a gross injustice, a severe personal attack, since that is what they in fact are. Such injustice is therefore “dignitarian harm.”
The Supreme Court’s radical sexual decisions, starting in the 1960s, confined the area in which people can claim that their heart’s desire is proper to the area of sex. Justice William O. Douglas indicated this in writing the crucial Griswold decision (1965). He made his sensibility regarding freedom for martial contraception constitutional law, but as far as making his sensibility law in non-sexual areas of life was concerned, he said he would “decline that invitation.” This still, however, gives legally sanctioned irrationality large play, since sexual decisions affect much of life. It deeply affects marriage and the family, crucial areas to the life of so many people. And since the court soon considered pregnancy “intimate” enough to be governed by the rule of personal choice in the Roe vs. Wade decision (1973), it affected the lives of unborn children as well.
Contrary to the claim of nonjudgmentalism, the sanctity of personal choice and the harm to dignity of contradicting it really do pass a public judgment on people’s personal lives. They affect how people live in a wide range of occupations. Not only bakers, florists, photographers, marriage officials, counseling professions (and perhaps soon) medical personnel (with respect to abortion), but really everyone who interacts with the public is at legal risk for not facilitating the sexual choices of others. Even more alarmingly, private associations and families are pressured to embrace the same standard of sexual self-determination.
But it is not really possible to limit self-determination to sexual matters. If everything must conform to free sexual choices, then as Justice Anthony Kennedy held in the Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision (1992), the individual defines all of reality. Transgenderism, in which people declare what sex they belong to independently of their bodies, is the inescapable result. Male and female become meaningless words, a pointless term applied to oneself. Unless, or course, it is held to require action by someone else. It then becomes a weapon to get what one wants. And since male and female could mean anything, and the individual is defining reality, it becomes impossible to say what is sexual and what is not. Nor is it possible to say what is truly “intimate and personal” or “central to personal dignity and autonomy,” which were Justice Kennedy’s criteria for suspending public judgment. One might claim to be of any race, or any age. The right to self-determination has completely destroyed ordered life.
This cannot stand. Personal behavior must necessarily be subject to criticism and adverse judgment. Guaranteeing each person’s right to the life he or she thinks is proper is completely unworkable, and also unconstitutional, since it overrides all the limitations the law imposes on people’s dealings with one another. In the course of the LGBT revolution, the First Amendment particularly has been under attack. Freedom of religion, certainly, but also freedom of speech and association. The general idea of personal freedom, which served as the basis for the Supreme Court’s revolutionary sexual decisions, is undermined if it can be set aside for hurt feelings. “Dignitarian harm” is an idea that simply cannot work consistently, although it can be made to work inconsistently by activists and government officials for whoever is currently understood to be a victim by the prevailing ideology.
How can people resist what is really insanity? There are painful consequences for resistance. To begin with, we should resist by speaking the truth rather than acquiescing in terminology used by revolutionary ideology, and speaking the truth even when there are legal or social penalties. Speaking the truth is not “violence.” Moral autonomy may recognize no higher authority, but of course there is a larger reality than ourselves that we must accommodate to. “Transgender man” or “transgender woman” are words that should never be used. There are no such things. The only shared meaning is based on physical reality, so “woman identifying as a man” and “man identifying as a woman” (if a bit wordy) should be used instead. We should speak of sex, not “gender” (unless we really mean grammatical gender). Pronouns should refer to a person’s real sex, not their (falsely) claimed sex. We should never speak of “gay rights” or “LGBT rights,” as the people who identify in those categories have the same rights as everyone else. We should speak of homosexuality and transgenderism instead. If an organization’s rules against homosexuality or specifying that people have their natural sex is challenged as “discrimination against LGBT people,” we should deny that they are being discriminated against – only homosexual behavior and transgender claims are prohibited. And likewise with those providing goods and services to the public, selling or renting property, or hiring or firing personnel. They are not “discriminating against LGBT people,” but declining complicity in homosexual behavior and treating people according to their true sex.
Don’t religious believers claim legal protection for their commitments? They certainly do, but it is a claim supported by Constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion, and the First Amendment’s no establishment provision to make such a guarantee meaningful. And even here, no one is being required to take action to support a religion in which they do not believe. The words of the Constitution should give religious freedom broad protection. But religious freedom is also a very reasonable provision, since religion pertains to our commitments to an ultimate reality. Is conscience an affront to dignity? Dignity should not require action against conscience.