Salvo 05.02.2023 11 minutes

The Battle to Technologize the Body

Medical technology concept.  3D rendering.

The Left’s war on nature is integral to its larger project.

As is usually the case with mass shooters, Audrey Hale’s dead body had barely cooled—lifeless on the floor of a Nashville Christian school after being shot by heroes in the local police department—before the national debate began.

Typically, Americans can agree on what happened in our mass shootings. Our disagreements have centered on how to stop them. Owing to our biased media’s failure to imagine any other cause or solution, the debate usually boils down to a myopic focus on gun laws. But Nashville was different. The revelation that Hale was a biological woman who requested that people refer to her with he/him pronouns (and the later confirmation that she identified as a trans man) offered a twist. Years prior Hale had been a student at the Covenant School where she launched her attack, a detail that suggested her violence might have been a form of revenge.

These details ensured that the meaning of the massacre was contested. In the conflict over “trans rights,” we are witnessing the beginning of a war. I’m not talking about a metaphorical war or another cold war. It is now plain that wherever you stand in the debate over gender identity, literal acts of violence are unfolding across the nation. Sometimes the bullet is the instrument of destruction. Sometimes it’s the blade. Sometimes the bloodshed is self-inflicted. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s even elective. But the bloodshed isn’t allegorical. Both sides insist that lives are at stake, and they aren’t wrong.

The battle over trans identity is the first theater in what will be a much larger conflict over technology, the body, and the human essence. Whoever can secure the high ground in these early skirmishes will possess an enormous advantage in the fight for the future. Exploring the mutually exclusive accounts of the Nashville massacre offers a panorama of this bloody war. Although they agree on some basic facts, each account showcases a well-developed worldview and a network of deeply-held values.

The Left Sees a War Against Sexual Minorities, Personal Autonomy, and Tolerance

One account of Nashville views Audrey Hale as the primary victim in the narrative. This is a prominent view among the radicals on the political Left, the legacy media, the loudest voices in the LGBTQ movement, and our captured institutions. They don’t admit this outright, but some of them come close. They concede that the deaths of six people at Hale’s hands were tragic, but those deaths were something like collateral damage. They didn’t have to die, but proponents of this view think their fates were sealed by the grave injustices and stigma that trans people suffer daily in American life.

In this telling of the story, Hale stands as an avatar for all trans people in America. Until just recently, we are told, they couldn’t even publicly express their “authentic selves” for fear of violence or hate. And now, just as they were feeling safe enough to live their truest lives out in the open, a backlash has begun.

Parents (or domestic terrorists, as the U.S. Attorney General would have it) are arriving at school board meetings, furious at teachers and administrators—many of whom take it upon themselves to teach children the full spectrum of gender identity (often in secret) and celebrate gender non-conformity. Further, conservatives are growing bolder in their refusal to use preferred pronouns that allegedly make trans people feel safe, recognized, and included. On top of all this, many states are advancing legislation that ensures children who are deemed to suffer from gender dysphoria cannot get “life saving” medical interventions such as hormone replacement therapy or “gender affirmation surgery.”

According to the Left, intolerance of transgendered people causes them to feel enormous fear, anger, and loathing—emotions that can only be stifled for so long before they explode in acts of violence directed at the self (by suicide or self-harm) or at others. Unfortunately in the case of Hale, it turned out to be the latter. But because the target was a Christian school (and Christians are purportedly one cause of the psychic turmoil that trans people experience), many commenters imply that the six deaths were an unfortunate (but inevitable) consequence of widespread intolerance. Thus, Hale’s violence wasn’t her own—it was simply a redirection of the violence all trans people suffer as victims of “hate” and “bigotry.”

The Left fights this war to defend and advance the cause of “trans rights” and to normalize gender non-conformity. They also fight to annihilate the stigma and intolerance they see as a root cause of what happened in Nashville. And the Left’s foot soldiers aren’t afraid to admit that more violence may be required to win the war. The Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota, for example, has been photographed smiling in a shirt that reads “Protect Trans Kids,” which includes an image of a knife with an extended blade (other variations show a hand holding such a knife). Similar apparel features images of long guns and rifles and the slogan/threat “Trans Rights…Or Else.”

These culture warriors don’t see themselves as the aggressors—they believe they are merely retaliating against an ongoing campaign of violence against trans people.

The Right Sees a War Against Children, Nature, and Decency

Similarly, we on the Right—traditionalists, religious people, conservatives, and many rural Americans—do not see ourselves as the belligerents. We are engaged in defensive maneuvers. Those alarmed by the speed at which our culture slid down a slippery slope were mocked for thinking that the slope was, in fact, slippery. It took only eight years after the nationwide legalization of gay marriage for public discourse to move from “what happens in the privacy of an adult’s bedroom is none of society’s business” to debating whether “trans kids” should receive irreversible, elective medical interventions before or during puberty.

As gay marriage became less controversial, and the “T” in the LGBT acronym began receiving more emphasis, data shows a veritable explosion of minors who are laying claim to trans identity. Advocates of the LGBT agenda say this is a result of their activism: young people who couldn’t express their true selves only a few years ago now feel safe enough to “tell us who they really are.” But there is good reason for conservatives to suspect that this phenomenon is a result of the way that the public celebration of trans persons creates incentives for adolescents to identify as such.

This is especially true of affluent white adolescents, a group with a disproportionately high incidence of gender dysphoria. In a world where minority identities are celebrated year-round while whiteness, affluence, heterosexuality, Christianity, and biological masculinity are labelled either as passe or downright oppressive, trans identity offers a number of benefits to otherwise “normal” white teens. First, they get to join the diversity celebration in earnest. Rather than simply being a clapping member of the audience, they get to be an object of applause for a change. In addition, trans-ness provides them access to the rewards of victimhood: membership in an “oppressed” group now operates as a kind of cultural currency that can be leveraged to gain certain privileges. And above all, identifying as trans allows white teens to escape their share of the opprobrium that would otherwise be directed at them (in the schools and elite discourse) because of their alleged role in the historical oppression of minorities.

Nevertheless, the fact that so many more teens are identifying as trans wouldn’t be all that important—except for the popular logic of personal authenticity which suggests that one’s gender transformation isn’t complete until surgical and medical interventions are undertaken. Therefore, the people who claim to protect trans kids are the same ones who encourage prepubescent children and adolescents to pursue irreversible forms of violence against their own bodies. Interior sentiment is upheld as the final arbiter of one’s true identity: how you feel on the inside is inviolable. The self, we are told, has a moral obligation to be true to that internal spirit. Sadly, many young people have been convinced that this metaphysical cocoon cannot be fully escaped until the outside—the body—is brought into line with those feelings inside.

The medical interventions used to achieve this alignment leave the body with truly horrifying scars and deformations. Before they are old enough to buy alcohol, young males are choosing to have their penises and testicles amputated so that doctors can begin the construction of an artificial “vagina.” In an attempt to have their chests look like those of their male peers, teenage girls are having double mastectomies before their breasts have even fully developed. Some young women are so eager to align their body with the “male” spirit inside that they will have their vaginas turned inside-out in an effort to approximate a penis. Their bodies bear a permanent testimony to the brutality of this procedure as their forearms are literally stripped of skin to provide raw material for a faux-phallus. And this is to say nothing of the hormone treatments and innumerable other plastic-surgical interventions necessary to maintain the ruse of a completed transition. For many conservatives, the scars from these forms of violence—which are justified through feel-good, therapeutic rhetoric—embody the wreckage of the Left’s war of attrition against nature and the body.

Many in the medical establishment eagerly accommodate minors’ requests for these interventions. But there is growing evidence that these procedures do not improve the happiness of people with gender dysphoria. Children with social and emotional difficulties are uniquely susceptible to the rhetoric of LGBT allies who insist that their hardships are the result of an identity that doesn’t align with the “true self” within, a self that could be fully realized. Happiness awaits! Or so these children are told. It is this deception—and the mutilations that attend it—that has forced so many conservatives into the war over the body. They are defending children so that they don’t become cannon fodder for the Left’s utopian fantasies.

Technology and the Body: A War of Necessity

The fence-sitters of our society—those inclined to refer to the battles like the one over trans identity as “culture war distractions”—will continue whistling past the graveyard and telling the rest of us that everything is fine. Even so, those who grasp the stakes of this fight understand it’s a war that must be fought.

But what are the stakes?

Kevin Kelly, a co-founder of Wired magazine, is one of many thinkers who see our era as a brief prelude to a biological merger of humanity and technology. This doesn’t simply mean that our lives will become increasingly intertwined with technology—it means that our technology will literally be built into our bodies. In his book What Technology Wants, Kelly notes that “technology has domesticated us. As fast as we remake our tools, we remake ourselves.” Until just recently, human beings merely interacted with our technology. Soon, our technology will be inside us—it will become an integral part of our very being. As this merger nears completion, it will change our very understanding of what the human body is. Inevitably, this will fundamentally transform what it means to be human.

Technologists often minimize or challenge the opposition between nature and technology. But since the very beginning of civilization, the greatest technological innovations have been attempts to overcome the limits of nature. Strategic use of fire aimed to overcome the cold and the darkness of the night. The wheel overcame our body’s inability to easily move very heavy objects. The airplane liberated our bodies from the ground and from the speed limitations imposed by other forms of travel. In a sense, the body is synonymous with limitation—to be embodied is to have a finite existence in space and time.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil notes that the rate of technological change is currently accelerating exponentially. As a result, these transhumanists, or post-humanists, anticipate a total and final victory of technology over the limits imposed upon us by nature. Just imagine eyes that can operate like telescopes or microscopes; a brain with quintuple the processing power that you have now. These technological fantasies are sold as a great liberation from the body. And maybe they will be…but they will also liquidate the essence of what it means to be human.

The modern medical establishment is defined by its quest to help people overcome the limits of nature. Anti-aging techniques abound. Don’t like your breasts? Get implants. Going bald? Get a hair transplant. Want to avoid getting pregnant? Just take this pill. In some sense, gender dysphoria’s rise can be understood as an effect of technology—it is one sign of a progressive decoupling of our bodies and our subjective experience of them. In our age of secular, individualist liberalism, biological sex represents one more cruel limitation that nature imposes upon us without our consent. Hormones, “gender reassignment surgeries,” mastectomies, phalloplasties, and tracheal shaves promise to bring nature to heel and restore personal preference to its rightful place as the sole determinant of individual identity.

The war over transgenderism is the opening skirmish in a much larger fight to find out whether nature will continue to play any determining role in who we are—or if technology, as the engine of the individualist project of modernity, will achieve a complete conquest of the human body, inside and out. This war is anything but a distraction. It will give shape to the future and dictate the very terms of our existence. The Left is insisting on the Right’s total surrender: demanding that we accept the technologizing of the body as a liberation from the “tyranny” of nature. Now is a time for some soul-searching: the question is whether we even want such a thing as a “human essence.” If we do—and I hope we do—we will need to fight like hell to preserve it.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

Suggested reading

to the newsletter