Q: You say America is having a “Pontius Pilate moment.” What do you mean by that?
A: The most sinister line in the Bible is when Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” The fact that he doesn’t wait around for Jesus’s answer tells us that he doesn’t mean it as a question. Pilate is rolling his eyes at the suggestion that truth matters in some transcendent way. What matters, from Pilate’s standpoint, is power. If you’ve got it, here and now, you get to decide what’s true.
Q: How does that relate to what’s happening in America in 2022?
A: Because we’re in the midst of an intellectual, moral, and cultural struggle over the nature of truth. I know that sounds a bit egg-headed; it’s not as though viewers are tuning in to Fox or CNN or MSNBC to hear debates on epistemology. But they are tuning in to hear debates on Woke politics—on Critical Race Theory, the Me-Too movement, and transgender-recognition. The unifying element of Woke politics is a particular way of understanding the nature of truth.
Q: All right, I’ll bite. What’s the nature of truth?
A: The traditional definition, going back to the ancient Greeks, is that truth is a correspondence between what you believe and a reality that exists independently of what you believe. If your belief matches up with reality, then your belief is true. Woke advocates reject that version of truth however. Their view of truth is much closer to Pilate’s. They view truth as a function of power. If you’re powerful enough, you grow your own truth.
Q: Well, power does give you a better chance to convince other people you’re right about what’s true….
A: You can convince other people of anything. But you can’t make what’s untrue true—at least not if truth is a correspondence with reality. Even if every person on earth believed that the sun revolved around the earth, that wouldn’t make it true. Likewise, to take a notorious example from CRT, even if every school kid in the US came to believe that the colonies declared independence from England in order to preserve slavery, that wouldn’t make it true. The truth is that the preservation of slavery wasn’t a primary, secondary, or even tertiary cause of the Revolutionary War…unless you subscribe to the idea that truth is a function of power. If you do, then you can change what’s true. You can retroactively make the preservation of slavery the primary cause of the Revolutionary War. That’s the aim of the 1619 Project. Its director admits that her goal isn’t to revise history to make it more accurate; it’s to substitute one narrative for another. To make that happen, you need power. Like the power of the New York Times. Or the Pulitzer Committee. Or a dozen or so state departments of education.
Q: All right, but there’s more to CRT than just that one factoid.
A: There’s also racial essentialism, the idea that black people are are wired differently that non-black people, that they’re less exact in their thinking—and therefore that the requirement for exactitude in something like math is implicitly racist.
Q: How can math be racist?
A: Because it demands linear thinking and ends with only one correct answer. For critical race theorists, that normalizes the way white minds work. The National Museum of African American Heritage and Culture at the Smithsonian made this point explicitly a few years ago. “Objective, rational, linear thinking” is a hallmark of white supremacist culture.
Q: All right, that sounds racist.
A: It is racist. But it’s useful because it serves as a ready-made explanation of how oppression works. You don’t need Jim Crow when you’ve got standardized tests preventing black people from achieving their educational goals.
Q: How is any of that defensible?
A: It’s not objectively defensible. It’s only defensible in a subjective, impressionistic way. Advocates of CRT know it’s true because they feel it’s true. It’s their truth, and if they’re passionate enough about it, maybe they can bring the rest of us around. Then it will become everyone’s truth. To subject black people’s truth to the demands of evidence and logic—i.e., linear thinking—is to expect historically oppressed people to operate within the cognitive system of their oppressors. That’s yet another form of oppression.
Q: But black people have been oppressed.
A: Of course they have. Only a fool would deny that black people in the US were horrifically oppressed for centuries, or that vestiges of that oppression are still being felt today. Or that women’s potentials were systematically stymied well into the last century. Or that traditional notions of masculinity and femininity thwarted the pursuit of happiness for generation after generation of people who preferred not to conform to those notions. Woke movements begin with objective truths. But then they go off the deep end, at least philosophically.
Q: How does Me-Too go off the deep end?
A: The same way: by its attachment to subjectivity. You can start with the “believe women” rhetoric. The gist of it is that women, because they’re women, speak truly more often than men do. Feminist intellectuals regularly argue that the demand for objectivity in the classroom, boardroom, and courtroom is a method used by straight white men to silence women…because women’s truths are often intuitive. They know things subjectively rather than objectively. So, for example, even though there’s not a shred of objective evidence that Christine Blasey Ford has ever met Brett Kavanaugh, let alone been sexually assaulted by him, feminists know he’s guilty. How? They intuit it. They feel it. That’s their way of knowing. Verifiable evidence, burden of proof…those are male fixations.
Q: That sounds like more essentialism.
A: Yes, it’s another form of essentialism. It also runs counter to the original impulse behind feminism—the proposition that women’s intellectual, moral, and socioeconomic prospects should not be circumscribed by their physiological differences from men. Underneath those surface differences, men and women were the same. The same hopes. The same potentials. Most of all, the same rational operating system.
Q: I think I see where this is going. Now you’re going to say that transgendered people are also drawn to the idea of subjective truth, right?
A: Yes, that’s the connection. Transgender activists argue that you are whatever you feel you are, whatever you identify as. If I sincerely identify as a woman, then I am a woman—despite the anatomical evidence to the contrary staring up at me when I look down.
Q: But isn’t gender dysphoria—the mismatch of sexual classification and gender identity—rooted in biology? Doesn’t that make it objectively real?
A: Recent studies have indeed suggested that gender dysphoria may have a genetic component. If the research pans out, that would prove a measurable correlation between a transgendered person’s genetic profile and his distress at his sexual classification. But it still wouldn’t prove that his sexual classification is wrong. A comparison with schizophrenia is instructive. Schizophrenia also seems to have a genetic marker. But that doesn’t mean that the voices a schizophrenic hears inside his head exist outside his head. Delusions are a real thing. But the content of delusions is, by definition, unreal.
Q: Let me get this straight. You’re saying that someone like Rachel Levine, the current Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services of the United States, who has achieved far more in life than you have, is delusional?
A: Rachel Levine, from the evidence I’ve seen, is intelligent, well-intentioned, and altogether qualified for his public office. But if he sincerely believes he’s a woman, then he’s definitionally delusional. Dr. Levine is sexually classifiable as a man. He feels like a woman. He identifies as a woman. He expresses that identity in ways that are traditionally female. That’s nobody’s business but his. But he isn’t a woman. The meaning of “is” is distinct from the meaning of “feels”… or “identifies”… or “expresses.”
Q: But Dr. Levine is a trained physician….
A: Yes, and I’m not. I take your point. Nor am I a psychologist, nor even a performance artist. But the debate isn’t about medicine, psychology, or bullshit. It’s about language and logic: a man is an adult male human being; a woman is an adult female human being. That’s what the words mean. So, too, “male” and female” have clear definitions. They’re sexual classifications. They’re not mysterious or conjectural. Among mammals, there are two and only two sexual classifications, and even when anatomy is not decisive—which is exceedingly rare—a DNA profile will reveal a person’s sexual classification with 100 percent accuracy. The term “transgender,” from the standpoint of empirical measurement, is meaningless. Sexual classifications are real. Your rejection of those classifications has no effect on whether you are classifiable, and how you are classified. You can ingest hormones until you turn blue. You can dice and slice your anatomy until it’s unrecognizable. But your DNA will still reveal your true sexual classification.
Q: Telling people that they’re wrong about their heartfelt beliefs won’t win you many friends.
A: No, I’m likely to lose friends because of this book.
Q: Then why write it?
A: Because the truth matters.
Q: Don’t people’s feelings matter too?
A: Yes, of course they do. You should value people’s feelings. You should also value the truth. Most of us value both. But sooner or later, inevitably, the two will clash. People’s feelings will clash with the truth. That is the moment you’ll have to declare your primary allegiance. Will it be to people’s feelings? Or will it be to truth?