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Why Can’t Dolezal Be a Jenner?

By: Louis Groarke - Jun 18, 2015, 9:00 am
If Dolezal is somehow in the wrong when she continues to identify as black, why isn’t Jenner somehow in the wrong when he continues to identify as a woman? (@CBCNews)
If Dolezal is somehow in the wrong when she continues to identify as black, why isn’t Jenner somehow in the wrong when he continues to identify as a woman? (@CBCNews)

EspañolSometimes one has the impression that a large part of US media is devoted to soap opera — celebrity sightings and tabloid gossip — as if to distract ordinary readers from important issues with serious political, social, economic, and even environmental implications.

This last week, the soap opera was Rachel Dolezal, who has become infamous as the former head of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Dolezal rose to prominence in the world of black activism as a spokesman of her race, until the embarrassing discovery by investigative journalists that she was not a black woman at all.

Pictures of the youthful Dolezal featured a pale-complexioned, straight-haired, blond, freckled maiden that might have been taken anywhere in white Northern Europe. It turns out that she had been born into a “white” family from white parents without any Afro-American lineage at all.

Interestingly, in a later interview, she did not apologize. Rather, she explained that despite her family background, she had identified with being black since she was a small child, and had chosen to live her life accordingly.

Before that, of course, Bruce Jenner, a former Olympic gold medal winner in male events, declared that he did not feel right as a man and was transitioning to become a woman named Caitlyn. He too would, from now on, live his life accordingly.

The media’s reaction to the Dolezal affair was accusatory, outraged, indignant. The media’s reaction to the Jenner affair was pleased, congratulatory, celebratory. As several commentators have pointed out, whether one approves or disapproves of Dolezal or Jenner, isn’t this all a bit absurd?

I am a philosophy professor. Teaching philosophy to undergraduates, one tries to impress on students the importance of logic. Logic is important because it is a way to (at least partially) escape our merely subjective, self-interested, unexamined beliefs and preferences. Granted, logic is not enough all by itself to produce a proper worldview or belief system, but it provides an essential measure of consistency that we can helpfully aim at, whatever our epistemological shortcomings.

Logic means consistency, and consistency means, at the very least, this: treating similar cases similarly. But this hardly seems to be a popular practice, certainly not in the present case. We can put all this succinctly.

In the Jenner case: X believes that he/she has been trapped inside his/her biology. X identifies with a different biology. X acts on that belief. Media response: yeah! applause! how courageous!

In the Dolezal case: X believes that she has been trapped inside her biology. X identifies with a different biology. X acts on that belief. Media response: boo! bad! how deceptive!

But how is event two so different from event one? One can try to formulate several explanations. Perhaps events one and two are different because Jenner was sincere and Dolezal wasn’t? Except that this does not seem to be the case.

From what I have read, Dolezal seemed sincere, and genuinely identified with the black cause. Even if we believe she was misguided, it appears her convictions about racial injustice led her to switch identities.

On the other hand, some transgendered people have seriously questioned whether Jenner was truly sincere. They have been understandably upset, because Jenner seemed more intent on basking in the celebrity limelight and self-promotion than with any serious involvement with the doubtless important medical and psychological issues having to do with transsexual identity.

Perhaps — and this is to touch on delicate issues — the difference between events one and two has to do with the difference between sexuality and race. Perhaps one transition has to do with sexuality, which is a matter of personal choice, whereas the other has to do with race, which is not a matter of personal choice?

But this is hardly good enough. The critical mind asks: why should we believe that we get to personally choose our gender but not our race? In fact, the switch from male to female gender is biologically a much more drastic change than the switch from race to race. The going academic consensus is that race is a largely artificial concept (with overlapping boundaries). Biologically, to fully switch from a male to a female body may not be (hormonally) possible.

In any case, clothing oneself in a woman’s body requires, at the very least, some serious alterations that Jenner, in fact, seems to be avoiding. At this point, at least, it is reported that he will not undergo a full operation.

Perhaps then the difference in the media reaction to events one and two comes down to the fact — as some feminists might insist — that Jenner “was” a white man, and therefore privileged, whereas Dolezal is [or was] a black woman? So the establishment media predictably championed the white “male” and condemned the “black” female.

But, surely, that can’t have been the case, for many feminists and progressive journalists were for the white (formerly) male Jenner and against the (self-identifying) black female Dolezal. The conservatives — when they weren’t afraid to speak out — were mostly negative about both cases.

Perhaps then, to try one last time, we could argue that the difference between event one and event two is that Dolezal was deceptive and Jenner wasn’t. Although there is some truth to this, couldn’t Dolezal just respond that she was afraid to “come out of the closet”? Couldn’t she point to the social backlash and insist that the negative media reaction proves that her greatest fears were correct?

Even if one believes that Dolezal was deceptive, that is all in the past now. We all know — and she now knows that we all know — that she was born white. Yet, she continues to insist that she has the right to identify as a black woman. If then Dolezal is somehow in the wrong when she continues to identify as black without deceiving the public, why isn’t Jenner somehow in the wrong when he continues to identify as a woman?

If one person has the right to override his or her biology (because of apparently deep, sincere beliefs), why doesn’t the other person have the right to override his or her biology (because of apparently deep, sincere beliefs)? Why is it politically correct to approve of one-half of this equation and politically incorrect to approve of the other half of this equation?

The point here is not to come down on one side or another, to be for Dolezal or against Jenner, or vice versa. I am not trying to solve all the complex social, moral and legal issues that arise out of these events, but to examine the basic logic at work.

It doesn’t matter what attitude one personally adopts with respect to one or the other event: bemused puzzlement, cynicism, congratulatory approbation, anger, moral indignation. Someone needs to explain how one event is so different from the other.

Louis Groarke Louis Groarke

Louis Groarke is a professor of philosophy at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. He is the author of several books, including, Moral Reasoning: Rediscovering the Ethical Tradition and The Good Rebel: Understanding Freedom and Morality. Contact him via his personal website.