Dylan Mulvaney and the Real Clash of Civilizations

Published October 19, 2023

First Things

The moral aporias of contemporary progressive politics are becoming more obvious on a regular basis. This week, the U.K.’s Attitude magazine named transgender TikToker Dylan Mulvaney its “Woman of the Year” and featured him on its cover. As is increasingly the case with such awards, the choice of the recipient has little to do with merit or service to the wider community and everything to do with “sticking it to the Man.” Or, in this case, sticking it to the Woman. The award and the cover speak eloquently about the ideology of transgenderism. To give it to a man is to erase real women everywhere, to deny any significance to their bodies or distinctive bodily experiences, and also to deny the historical struggle of women for basic social recognition. 

Of course, a radical feminism predicated on overcoming the physiological differences between men and women was always going to focus on reproduction, the most stubborn of the differences. And once society comes to see reproduction as a bug and not a feature of womanhood, the possibility of offering a stable answer to the question “What is a woman?” starts to disappear in a fog of culturally subjective behaviors. And so now radical feminism has found itself in a dilemma of its own making: downgrade reproduction to liberate women and you end up erasing women altogether. Or at least you end up allowing men to usurp your history and, as you complain men always do, use their privileged position to maintain their power. 

Yet the patronizing and destructive nature of transgender ideology with regard to women does not end with their erasure. The Attitude magazine cover is fascinating. Mulvaney’s look is an off-the-shoulder number, and the styling is reminiscent of the Vanity Fair cover that displayed the transformation of Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn, airbrushed and scantily clad, looking seductively into the camera. Both images perpetuate a male stereotype of what a woman should be. 

Giving Mulvaney this award and posing him like that is an odd way to honor women. It is even odder that so few feminists seem to see, or perhaps have the courage, to call this kind of thing by its proper name: misogyny. Yet incoherence is the order of the day in progressive thinking these days. In just the last week, many on the left have rejoiced in the forces of religious violence and intolerance as they have struck against Israel. As I noted at World, no Marxist worthy of the name should support Hamas—what is arguably feudalism with affinities to real Nazism. It goes without saying that Hamas is not a huge donor to the Human Rights Campaign. Yet the same left that finds the slaughter of Israeli partygoers to be a cause for celebration would no doubt regard my refusal to use Mulvaney’s chosen pronouns as a crime akin to murder. If J. K. Rowling has blood on her hands, so do all of us who keep pointing to the nudity of the emperor, despite his own self-identification as fully clothed. 

What lies behind the moral incoherence of a feminism that affirms misogyny? Or a Western progressivism that screams about those who refuse to indulge preferred pronouns but treats victims of real terrorism as nameless concepts and not as people? This is what comes of having no agreement upon what it means to be human. With no grounding in a notion of a commonly-shared, embodied human nature, we increasingly identify people by their tribes, their ideas, or their beliefs. This has turned people into abstractions, and the moral status of an abstraction depends simply upon whether we agree or disagree with what it represents. Or, perhaps more accurately, whether we find that it suits our tastes or turns our stomachs. And when those tastes are the typical progressive ones, such as a dislike of the status quo and a belief that life is a zero-sum power game, contradictory moral positions tend to proliferate. 

The clash of civilizations that is consequently emerging is not the one that was predicted by Samuel Huntington. I was always skeptical of his thesis because, while it worked as a grand scheme trading in ideas, it seemed to me that real life at street level is always more complicated.  Those who hold opposing views and belong to different communities, religious and otherwise, can find ways to live alongside each other in the world of local, embodied human interaction.  Indeed, they often have no choice but to do so, as the alternative is too costly. But now I am not so sanguine. What is different today is that so much of our engagement with others takes place in disembodied, virtual ways. That is the kind of world where the things that normally regulated human behavior—embodied interaction limited and shaped by physical realities—simply do not apply. The clash of civilizations does not have geographically defined battle lines and is not moderated by real physical interaction. That means it is both unreal, paradoxical, and dangerously unhinged. 

This virtual world is therefore not incidental to the creation of the likes of Dylan Mulvaney and to the emergence of a feminism that thinks misogyny is good for women. It has turned terrorism by the homophobic men of Hamas into a spectator sport that Ivy League students can applaud in those free moments between purging the transphobes from their own sororities. It has helped to realize a world of moral incoherence and dubious stability. The clash of civilizations is a clash of anthropologies, virtual versus real. The last weeks have exposed that rather obviously and indicate that the big question of our day is not “What is a woman?” but rather “What, if anything, is a human being?”

Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.

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