Bradley Manning has said he wants to change his name to Chelsea Manning. Fine. That’s his business. But he also says that from now on he wants to be referred to as a woman and by female pronouns only: she, her, etc. Sorry, but no. You don’t become a woman simply by saying, ‘I am a woman’. Such an attempted flight from objective reality, in this case from the objective reality of being male, is bizarre. Manning’s name is his business alone, but his sex is not so personal, or so malleable. As is the case for all of us, it is governed by basic scientific and social facts. It is the height of narcissistic arrogance to expect society to refer to you as a woman simply because you say you are one. If I said, ‘I am black, so from now please refer to me as Afro-British’, people would mock me. Why? Because I’m not black. And likewise, Mr Manning is not a woman.
‘I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female’, said Mr Manning in a statement issued today. He asked that ‘starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun’. The Guardian has already complied with this reality-denying request, constantly saying ‘she’ in its piece on Mr Manning’s phantom sex change. To its credit, the BBC has not complied, showing that it still has at least one foot in the real, tangible, sentient world by quite rightly referring to Mr Manning as ‘he’. It would be weirdly relativistic for the media now to refer to Mr Manning as ‘she’. Journalists are supposed to find facts, to report on the world as it exists, not communicate one man’s version of reality as outlined in a statement issued from jail.
Mr Manning’s request is of a piece with our therapeutic times, in which we’re constantly told that how we feel about ourselves is more important that what we actually are or what we really do. So you often see happy-clappy, Oprah-style TV presenters telling objectively ugly people ‘You are beautiful’ - before sometimes adding that sting in the tail: ‘on the inside…’ Young people are taught to worship their self-esteem, to focus on making themselves feel good rather than on achieving something significant in the outside world. We are told that we all have fluid, playful identities, which we can mould and remould however we choose. This is all meant to be quite radical, but in truth it is deeply conservative - it encourages people to ignore reality, to forge a myopic obsession with the self, with one’s own navel and image and tag, rather than engaging with the broader world and its inhabitants. There’s nothing rebellious in pissing about with one’s identity and descriptor – it merely speaks to a profound and narcissistic retreat from the physical, social world in favour of, as Christopher Lasch described it, an ‘intense preoccupation with the self’.
Of course, some men undergo sex-change surgery, which some people might view as odd but we can at least accept that after such surgery the former man is now a kind of woman. But simply to declare ‘I am a woman’ when you are in fact a man is surreal. Mr Manning, no man (or woman) is an island; you exist in a world where we have names for things, where language exists for the purpose of expressing ideas about material reality, which means that just as surely as up is up, and down is down, so you are a man.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.