A person with long purple hair wears the pink and blue transgender flag in the style of a cape.

Liberalism’s Identity Irresolution

The premise of state neutrality has given rise to identitarian conflict that cannot be resolved by appeals to the fundamental rules of the social order.

By Timothy Gutmann|May 31, 2024

In the United States today, the culture wars are said to divide secular liberals from religious conservatives, so it is perhaps surprising to see that the cause of trans rights draws extensive opposition from both camps. In recent years, many progressives have joined conservatives to argue that people who see sex and gender as matters of self-identification are dangerously confused about basic social and political facts.

Nevertheless, the idea that individuals may determine fundamental questions of identity and belonging is not a new one. Since the European Enlightenment, thinkers in the liberal political tradition have argued that a peaceful and tolerant social order rests on the premise that private persons, and not governments, are the final arbiters in matters of ultimate concern. But a closer look shows that it is this very premise of state neutrality that has given rise to identitarian conflict that cannot be resolved by appeals to the fundamental rules of the social order.

In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia invested in local leaders the power to identify the religion of their own domains and the rights of individuals to practice theirs privately. Effectively, the Holy Roman Empire relinquished the power to determine who was correct in religious terms.

In the next century, John Locke (1632–1704) put forth an argument for secularism that would become canonical in liberal thought. In “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” he says: “it is utterly necessary that we draw a precise boundary-line between the affairs of civil government and the affairs of religion. If we don’t, there will be no end to the controversies arising between those who have (or at least pretend to have) a concern for men’s souls and those who have (or at least pretend to have) a care for the commonwealth.” Commonwealth politics, for him, ought to be governed by empirical understandings of tangible benefits and harms for individuals and society.

He thought religion was another matter, where people could not really know if their theological beliefs were true or the soteriological consequences of holding those beliefs. Of these, he says “speculative propositions terminate simply in the understanding,” and in matters of religion “everyone is orthodox to himself,” so it is best that the commonwealth leave “to each man the care of his own eternal happiness.”

In the letter, Locke speaks only of religious affiliation, and his tolerance was not absolute, yet his separation of religious identification from state policy has echoed in liberal theory and the legal traditions that draw from it. Today, the US Census takes no note of religion, and leaves categories such as race, gender, and sexuality to respondents’ own understanding.

Nevertheless, Locke was incorrect in supposing that state neutrality could prevent conflict over identity. Recently, many feminists have argued that trans women have sabotaged the historical project of gender equality by interjecting radical doubts about the definition of a woman, which “women’s rights” logically presupposes.

Such an accusation may reflect formal conceptions of logic, but it does not describe history. Those who fought for women’s voting rights or reproductive freedom did not need exclusive definitions of what it means to be a woman any more than advocates for Black civil rights have required universal assent on what it means to be Black. Their causes have broken down identitarian barriers and invalidated exclusionary categories.

Consider the historical case of Loving v. Virginia, in which the US Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage. The central issue in the case was whether Mildred Loving could legally claim to be Rappahannock, an indigenous identity that would have exempted her from anti-miscegenation laws. Rather than adjudicate her identity, the high court effectively invalidated race as a concern in the area of legal marriage, as it did for sex in Obergefell v. Hodges.

As these cases illustrate, however, state neutrality has not guaranteed civic freedoms. It has rather been a silence that exclusive categories of identity have filled, and in this sense activists in the causes of equality and liberation often had to overcome the state neutrality biased in favor of exclusion.

Today, liberal opponents of trans rights will argue that not all categories are the same. Some, like gender roles, appear to shift so much that they may have no necessary and permanent basis, while others, like sex, are absolute distinctions knowable to objective science. This is the argument made by Jesse Singal, a widely-respected liberal trans-skeptic. Singal, and many others, argue that in using pronouns other than those assigned at birth, trans people confuse the indisputable truths of biology that are required for rational people to communicate with each other. Of himself, Singal writes “I’m a ‘he’ not because I ‘identify’ as male — all these years later I still don’t understand what that means — but because I am physically, biologically male."

Scientists use language just like everyone else, but the questions of who is allowed in what space and who can be fired for what reason are always political questions.  Appeals to so-called scientific language do not necessarily resolve these questions.

Moreover, though Singal is adamant that the conflict between opponents and supporters of trans rights is between objective truth and subjective delusion, he admits that he cannot know others as certainly as he knows himself. He admits that he does not directly see biological facts in social life, but would have to relate to a hypothetical masculine trans man as a man because “I was making a strong guess about his physical anatomy.” Singal is assigning gender to Locke’s “speculative opinion” category, which allows individuals their own orthodoxies. Here the limits of Lockean certainty extend even when science is said to be the basis of that certainty.

I have argued that liberal political thought does not provide objective resolutions to the controversies of self-identification that are characteristic of the history of liberal societies. I present no sweeping solution to these controversies, nor a hope that the culture wars will be resolved by consensus. I do, however, hope that we can respond to the anxieties of the present moment conscious of the social and political difference between knowing oneself and knowing others. We can also hope our tradition, like others, helps us relate to other people not by looking to judge their truths but by listening to what they have to say.

Featured image: Karollyne Videira Hubert/Unsplash

Headshot of Timothy Gutmann

Timothy Gutmann

Timothy Gutmann (PhD '19) is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Southern Mississippi, and his work focuses on the ambiguities of inclusion. His book project, Demands of Progress: Universal Education and Islamic and Confucian, Thought looks at how public education changed older ideas of knowledge and learning. His next project is on the self-critical turn in museum curation.