Among all the rotten tricks with which advancing years torment us, perhaps none are worse than the games a deteriorating mind plays with memory. I’m not talking here about dementia in its various ghastly form. I’m referring only to the inevitable decline that comes with not dying when evolution expected us to. Bits start to wear out. Things start to go wrong. The defects start to pile up until that moment when the truth can no longer be denied or the reality disregarded. You’re getting old.
I’m not disposed to fret about this decline overmuch. In fact, I’m mildly fascinated by the process of deterioration. I’m enjoying observing it – while I still can. I don’t fight it. But neither do I give in to it. The former would be futile, the latter fatal. I don’t obsess about it, peering in the mirror every morning and logging every new wrinkle. I guess the best way to put it is that I take an active interest in my own aging. I’m aware that I’m watching myself die. I’m untroubled by this. Death is the organism’s ultimate adaptation to its environment. One cannot be in awe of the wondrous mechanics of the manufactory of life and fail to appreciate one’s own mortality as an essential component of the evolutionary process. But it’s hard to be dispassionate about the disintegration of memory. It can be quite scary.
It’s not mere forgetfulness. We all forget things. Even in the prime of life names can occasionally elude us and the whereabouts of our phone or keys be an irritating puzzle. If you’re at the point where you’re disturbingly unable to recognise people you know then wait until you get to the stage where you think you recognise complete strangers. Failing to recognise an old friend you haven’t seen in a while can be put down to a momentary lapse. Failing to recognise somebody you were speaking to yesterday is more perturbing. Walking along a busy street thinking you recognise unlikely numbers of faces is extremely stressful.
The greatest cruelty, however, is that even as you lose faculties essential to normal social interaction recall of the most regrettable parts of your life only seems to become more acute. As good memories fade the bad ones become more vivid. You can’t remember the stuff you want and need to remember. You can’t help but remember the stuff you’d rather forget. It’s a bastard!
Of all the human emotions none is more debilitating and corrosive than regret. Things done that should not have been done and things left undone that should have been done. These things tend to stay with us and even start to loom larger as we get older. The persistence and intrusiveness of the unpleasant memories combines with growing awareness of how powerless we are to change any of it and regret comes like the waves that pound rocks to sand. Sometimes and for some the regret can be unbearable. I suspect it would become a crushing burden for even the most blameless among us were they to live long enough.
The lesson, then, is not to do stuff that you’ll later regret. It may not be possible to avoid regret altogether. But we could avoid the worst of it if only we knew when we’re young what we realise when we get old. That’s not something I would wish on the young. It would paralyse them. They’d be afraid to do anything. And then they’d regret the things they didn’t do. They’d come to regret squandering the recklessness of youth. The recklessness that allows exploration and experiment. Exploration begets discovery. Experiment begets knowledge. The recklessness of the young is essential even at the cost of regret.
As a society, however, we can’t afford such recklessness. We need it to exist. But the role of society is to moderate that vital recklessness. We have developed a mass of formal and informal systems for this purpose. Ideally, these systems prevent us doing things that we would regret as a society, rather than as individuals. As individuals our regrets are personal. They are mostly the product of our own choices. Our choices as a society affect even those who would have chosen differently. They impact future generations. It would seem obvious therefore, that we should be massively cautious of making significant changes that cannot be reversed. We should think long and hard and well before doing anything that cannot be undone. We should be extremely reluctant to destroy anything which cannot be rebuilt. Discarding that which is irreplaceable can never be done lightly.
Think of privatisation such as is commonly associated with the Thatcher era. What strikes me most about much of it is that things were done that couldn’t be undone; thing were destroyed that couldn’t be remade, all without due consideration. Even if much of it was inevitable – if, for example, the coal pits had to close – there are few who with the benefit of hindsight wouldn’t regret the manner in which it was done. Which implies that with foresight it would not have been done in that way. Arguably, there is much that wouldn’t have been done at all had ideology not trumped cautious consideration of potential consequences.
Think of our public health service and the British government’s determination to sacrifice it for reasons which cannot possibly justify the destruction of something which cannot be replaced or replicated. It would be impossible to create such a public health service in today’s world. The ethos is long gone. So one would think there had to be some overwhelming imperative driving this destruction. But even if it is something of an oversimplification it is nonetheless essentially true to say that the British political elite is prepared to obliterate this irreplaceable social resource merely to put a sticking plaster on another act of destruction that was committed for no good reason – Brexit.
Think of sex. Not the act, but the category of human being. The most fundamental category. It divides our entire species into two distinct and distinctive parts. As well as being a biological necessity, it is by its very nature the single most significant personal and social identifier. It is the starting point for both the identity we build for ourselves and the identity applied to us by society. It can be problematic just because it is so important. Actually, it’s not sex per se which is problematic. Sex could hardly be more straightforward. There are two sexes. There is male and female. We all start off the same then we reach the point in our pre-natal development when the big divide happens. It is genetically determined. Sex is a fact of life.
The problems arise when the simple matter of sex shades into the endless complexities of identity and gender (At least in most(?) of the ways this term is used.). Then it can get seriously problematic. For some people, it can be painfully problematic. Others make it problematic by seeking to give to every conceivable micro-identity the same categorical status as sex. Effectively eradicating sex as a category. Nothing less than doing away with the social concept of sex while necessarily leaving the biological concept intact. Identity politics is about social engineering. Biology is beyond its reach.
This mismatch between the biological and the social inevitably creates a serious conflict. The social engineering involved seeks to resolve the personal individual conflicts arising from a mismatch between personal micro-identity and the social category of sex by moving that conflict from the individual to society as a whole. The would-be social engineers decree that the social category of sex being inimical to the proliferation of micro-identities, that social category must be eradicated with its status as a social identifier being inherited by any and every micro-identity and subdivision thereof.
Why? It’s not as if these micro-identities are some novel phenomenon. They have been there as part of our humanity for as long as there has been humanity. Possibly as long as there has been the social category of sex that is a product of our biology. What has changed? I would suggest that what has changed is that the would-be social engineers have acquired political power. Identity politics has always existed. That this has now come to encompass micro-identities is hardly surprising. If identity politics is useful in the struggle for power that is regulated by our politics then it stands to reason that the same will apply to micro-identities. If identity politics is already being fully catered to or exploited (depending on perspective) then it’s only natural that some will resort to the politics of micro-identity.
The politics of micro-identity is expedient. It allows a symbiosis between some narrow factional interest and effective political power such as elevates that factional interest beyond what could be achieved through the normal democratic process.
The societal implications of effectively eradicating the social concept of sex cannot be other than huge. If there has been any thought given to those implications I see little evidence of it. It certainly isn’t to be found in the ongoing ‘debate’ between the wannabe social engineers and those who take a considerably less relaxed view of such ill-considered tinkering with the basic building blocks of society. Ill-considered and wrong-headed. Because the problem lies not in the social category of sex but in social attitudes to those categories and by extension all possible sub-categories.
The hard work of changing social attitudes to sex has been done and is being done. Progress has been made in rectifying the social imbalance between men and women. An imbalance which I duly note has historically been to the considerable disadvantage of women. This progress was not made by seeking to blur or do away with the social categories of sex. The idea was never that we all become a single social category disregarding all biological factors. Women would remain women and men would remain men while the causes of the imbalance between the two were addressed. This seems to me to be a sensible approach, even if it is more laborious than some would wish. The important point is that the gains in equality made in this way are thoroughly embedded in society. To put it simply, no sane, sober, sensible person would want to turn back the clock on women’s rights. Would this be the case if an attempt had been made to abolish the whole idea of male and female as identifiers? I rather doubt it.
The wannabe social engineers are not building to last. They are trying to force a massive reconfiguration of social categories and identifiers using the effective political power they have co-opted (and been co-opted by) – combined with a great deal of very crude bullying – rather than undertake the hard slog of changing social attitudes to firmly establish better acceptance of the micro-identities for which they demand parity with sex. This is bound to generate a backlash, and the conflict referred to earlier. Conflict that will only be aggravated by any attempt to implement a corrective which is perceived as rolling back rights. Even those who believe those rights should not have been granted in the first place are likely to object to them being removed.
I don’t have any tattoos. That’s because in all my seventy years I have never been certain enough of anything to have it permanently inked on my body. I very slightly and very rarely regret not having a tattoo. That’s got to be better than having a tattoo that you regret. I fear the reforms being sought in the area of gender recognition are the equivalent of giving society a very regrettable tattoo.
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