Now that the UK’s Daily Mail has revealed that fake black person Rachel Dolezal was once in a sex tape allegedly taken against her will, we can hope that global coverage of the increasingly bizarre Dolezal freak show has reached its Zenith. And yet, something about this story compels us collectively to continue to examine it from every angle, to poke at its scars, and to comment endlessly on its meaning.
On the surface, l’affaire Dolezal seems barely worth mention in the oddity section of actual news coverage. That a person who was unfortunately born pastier than I am was able to apply sufficiently expert makeup to become NAACP chapter president in eastern Washington State is weird, certainly, but not the sort of thing that one can imagine Edward R. Murrow distracting himself from smearing Joseph McCarthy to chew somberly on. It was not so long ago at all that Hollywood that the basic elements of this story served as the plot of an (intentionally offensive) Hollywood comedy of some note.
But now, in today’s social environment, the Rachel Dolezal story is a very big deal, indeed. Certainly, at least some of it is due to the humor value, as the #AskRachel hashtag on twitter aptly demonstrated, but underneath the humor a very real conflict lurks.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the way you view the Rachel Dolezal story is a leading indicator of the way you view the modern world.
To a certain extent our political and philosophical have always centered around a discussion of the meanings of certain words – but these words by and large constituted abstract concepts – what is “fair”? What is “right”? What is “justice”? – along with arguments over how to best achieve these ends, once we hashed out what they meant.
Nowadays, however, even the essential qualities of physical objects are up for debate – debate of a sort that often indicates where you fall on a philosophical and political spectrum. It used to be that when people were having an argument over whether a given object was a table or a chair, they were merely determining who got to go on living with the rest of society and who needed to be forcibly medicated for their own good. Today an equivalent discussion would instead serve to illustrate that disagreeing with the mentally ill about the content of their delusions will get you socially ostracized faster than anything.
Or, in other words, as a society we have lost our damn minds.
There’s little to argue with in this excellent Sean Davis piece about the disparate way in which Rachel Dolezal and Bruce Jenner have been treated by the media and leading celebrity lights. Once we’ve accepted that even inherent characteristics – is this person a woman? is this chair red or blue? is this a burrito or ice cream? – are the subjects of debate between reasonable people (or, worse, are entirely constructs of either the subject of discussion or society at large), then why can’t someone who looks like the daughter of some unholy union between Jim Gaffigan and Dakota Fanning declare herself to be black without us all making fun of her on twitter?
It is difficult for me to discuss the public implications of this debate because I don’t want to come off as someone who’s making fun of transgender people. I have zero doubt in my mind that they face very serious issues and lead seriously unhappy lives for the most part. They are (or at least should be) objects of compassion and proper psychiatric care. Rachel Dolezal, too, clearly has mental instabilities that are not well understood by ordinary people – although given her history and past stories, one wonders whether they might not be of the sociopathic variety.
The fault lies with society, which mistakenly believes that they are doing transgender (or transracial, if that is to become a thing) people a favor by indulging their fantasies. A decent amount of research has concluded that gender reassignment surgery is wholly ineffective in preventing depression, mental illness, and suicide in the transgender population. No self-respecting mental health professional would try to treat a person who believed he was a monkey by recommending radical surgery and ongoing hormone treatment to make that person look like a monkey, and if for some reason that became a faddish treatment, it would certainly be discontinued if it was determined that it generated no benefits for the subject at all. Yet in spite of longstanding understanding about the inefficacy of gender reassignment surgery, it actually has advanced in the public consciousness as a thing to be lauded for having the courage to undergo.
We aren’t doing the people under these delusions any favors, but we are doing ourselves as a society quite a bit of harm. For better or worse, we have decided as a society that different characteristics will and should result in different treatment in a number of important ways. Some of these ways are, in the main, beneficial, while others are harmful. However, we can’t even have meaningful discussions about these things because we can’t agree on what basic words mean anymore, and the mere fact that we insist that they have an objective meaning is enough to label us intolerant and worthy of instantaneous corporate boycott and social leprosy.
A Republic cannot survive in evolving times when its citizenry rejects the very concept of reality, and yet that is the very road we are heading down. And the end result of this will inevitably be a public policy that is unintelligible, nonsensical, and widely and cynically gamed by everyone for their own personal benefit.
The Rachel Dolezal story is, in many respects, silly. An object of proper derision. But in other ways it is a frightening illustration of what our society might become if we refuse to step back from this precipice on which we find ourselves today.