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The Anti-Normative Society

The campaign against sexual “normativity” is a revolt against reality—and must be resisted.
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The most potent line of attack from radical Queer Theory is the discipline’s assault on so-called sexual “normativity.” This is the basic pattern throughout the academic literature and the various subfields that have been inspired by the general thrust of this ideology.

First, you have Queer Theory itself, which provides a ruthless criticism of what it calls the “cis-normative” society, the “heteronormative” society, and the male-female gender binary that underpins it. Then you have a number of derivative subfields, such as fat studies, which provide a ruthless criticism of healthy human proportions, and disability studies, which provides a criticism of well-adjusted, psychologically integrated people. The general idea is that these are norms, promoted by society and reinforced by the economic system of capitalism, that appear to be oriented toward health, reproduction, and psychological integration, but, in fact, are used as a mechanism of oppression against non-normative groups—for example, people who don’t fit into the gender binary or the heterosexual social ideal.

If we break it down further, we see that Queer Theory makes an implicit two-part argument. On the surface, you have a relativistic argument, which says that normative ideals are arbitrary social constructs, and, contrary to the traditional view, society can prioritize either the normative or non-normative at will. In other words, there is no inevitable human hierarchy. On the contrary, these structures are all reproduced through oppressive systems and should be ruthlessly interrogated and deconstructed because, ultimately, none of them have a monopoly on human value.

The second part of the argument, which is hidden and implicit, is an absolutist argument, because, in fact, the queer theorists are not saying that everything is relative and that, therefore, there should be no hierarchy or set of values above any other set of values. Under the surface, they have a desire to achieve the hegemony of the non-normative, to displace the old society with what might be called a “queer-normative society,” a “fat-normative society,” a “mental-illness-normative society.”

And so, the two-part operation of this argument is, in a sense, relativism against the enemy and absolutism on behalf of the friend. And the goal isn’t tolerance or pluralism, which you often hear deployed as a surface-level rhetorical argument. The goal is to achieve an inversion and the hegemony of a non-normative ideal, which you see valorized in the academic literature on all these different axes—gender, sexuality, body type, or psychological health.

This is no longer merely theoretical; it is actually happening in our society. You see a huge explosion in the adoption of non-normative identities, especially among young people. In advertisements, for example, you see a composition of sexual identities that is not representative of the general population’s normal distribution curve. In shopping malls, you see stores that are featuring obese models, which is an attempt to normalize what their marketing copy presents as “equality of all shapes and sizes.” And even in Victoria’s Secret advertisements, they’ve replaced the Victoria’s Secret Angels—the old ideal of feminine beauty—with biological men, or “trans women,” serving as the new feminine ideal.

On the psychological side, we see a lot of young people on social media platforms now identifying themselves not just by gender pronouns, including neo-pronouns like “they/them” and “ze/zim/zir,” but also proactively identifying themselves with mental illness diagnoses—ADHD, bipolar, borderline, PTSD. People are using these not as a psychological challenge to be overcome or to be treated, but as a marker of a non-normative identity that is then valorized and elevated as superior to a plain-vanilla normative identity representing normal psychological integration.

This is a significant change. We see a cultural process that is flipping the concept of normativity on its head. And it is not only activists and intellectuals, but corporations that are wielding this cultural power in order to slowly re-engineer society as a whole. And so the key thing to understand here is that these are not identities that you would think of as traditional racial or sexual or religious identities; these are political identities. And, in fact, the bait-and-switch from Queer Theory is precisely this: they are taking what are, on the surface, gender identities or sexual identities, and they’re transforming them into a political identity that has a valence that in some cases is related to, but in many other cases is not related to, the spoken sexual identity.

The goal here is not to create a “non-normative society”—meaning a relativistic society in which no one system has any more value than another—but to create an “anti-normative society.” And this is a key distinction because they’re reducing the idea of normativity to a plastic conception of power. They are taking an almost Marxist categorization of oppressor and oppressed along the axis of gender and sexuality, which must be inverted in order to achieve liberation. And I think what’s driving a lot of this—and you can see this in the literature, you can see this in the activism, you can see this in the hysterical street protests, which often culminate in physical violence—is that they want to abolish the normative society, to tear down the normative society.

And in this “anti-normative society,” you see also a hidden ideal type. You can see it in culture, you can see it in art, you can see it in music, and you can see it throughout the visual universe of this movement. We might categorize this new ideal as a “gender-neutral, non-binary, obese, mentally disturbed, ‘they/them’ pronoun user, operating as a radically autonomous individual that is totally disconnected from any of the traditional bonds, relationships, and constraints.” In a way, this is a person who, in the ideal type typology, transcends the limitations of the hetero-patriarchal structure, transcends the limitations of the gender binary, and transcends the expectation that is imposed by society for psychological integration and psychological health.

As a social matter, this new ideal is not able to serve as a functioning substitute; the queer theorists cannot posit a replacement for a society governed on their principles. Rather, the new ideal functions almost entirely on the process of negation: dissolving, attacking, dismantling, and deconstructing. Those are the verbs and the loaded meaning behind all of their intellectual work. And then you can think of the human work that you see as a social movement as a left-wing Nietzchean inversion—a total transgression of the given norms of society, and a way for the left-wing gender activists to get beyond the gender binary, to get beyond the hetero-patriarchal society, and to achieve an almost purely negative form of liberation.

That’s ultimately the only remaining value embedded in the ideology: the idea of totally shattering the structures that would inhibit the individual and tether the individual to a series of expectations, and getting beyond them into an almost amorphous and undefinable unknown. I think of it as almost like the CHAZ, or Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, that left-wing activists established in Seattle during the George Floyd riots, which was an area of complete liberation, where there were no rules and none of the conventions had to be honored. And even though this kind of social structure is inevitably short-lived and has a very short half-life before it disintegrates, that is the ideal towards which this movement is pointing.

What are the problems with this? On the surface, I think everyone has a visceral and intuitive sense that something is going awry. But the ultimate problem is that a society based on an anti-normative ideal will eventually fail. It’s something that is fundamentally unstable. It has a self-devouring standard. For example, if your ideal type is non-binary, you end up not having any kind of reproductive function—you must have both men and women in order to reproduce the species. And so, if you’ve transcended those categories into a “non-binary normative society,” this is a self-devouring society, it’s a self-extinguishing society, because it negates the basic property of human nature—from the Latin word natura, meaning “birth.” And so, a non-binary normative society cannot achieve that standard because it’s explicitly against that standard.

The question, then, is why has Queer Theory succeeded? I think, in part, because it’s successfully deployed a stigma against the articulated defense of the normative society. It’s considered taboo to provide an explicit intellectual defense of heterosexuality, biological sex, the gender binary, the two-parent family, and psychological integration. Consequently, you see very little intellectual output defending those systems and hierarchies; people have simply tacitly accepted them. And, if we want to be fair to the gender theorists, they’ve been successful in bringing those systems up to the surface, undermining those certainties, providing a critique that creates doubt and then a taboo against their defense, which again, had previously been accepted as an unstated fact.

So, where do we find ourselves today? I think we’re in the midst of a really significant moral fight. We’re fighting about the basic building blocks of society, the basic nature of reality. And you have, in one camp, the normative defense, and in another camp, the anti-normative attack. And the question is, will one prevail or will there be some kind of accommodation? If you look around at what’s happening in society now, you have short-term momentum on behalf of the anti-normative forces. But, ultimately, I think that their campaign will fail. It could cause a lot of damage in the short run, but ultimately, I think that reality and human nature will always reassert themselves. And if you take the standard distribution curve and you say that we’re skewing it in one direction or another, over time, there will be a reversion to the mean. There will be a return to what is a universal human standard.

This doesn’t mean that you can simply give up or leave society up to fate. To a large extent, social construction matters: it’s how we live, it’s how we speak, it’s how we operate in the real world. And, in my view, the best outcome would be to create a generally normative society with space and respect for people who don’t automatically fit into those categories, while recognizing that, for example, the sex binary is fundamental, unchanging, and universal. The ultimate goal is to create a society that respects the basic laws of human nature, that provides equal dignity for people who don’t automatically fit categories of masculinity and femininity, but orienting a society that is going to establish a hierarchy of values that leads towards a notion of the transcendent, towards the true, the good, and the beautiful.

And to the extent that the campaign of Queer Theory and its anti-normative ideal is antithetical to that, it’s important for people to resist it. It’s important for people to challenge it openly. And it’s important that we don’t dismiss these simple questions as silly, arbitrary, or sophistic. No: we have to debate all of these questions. And if we can engage in the debate, take these questions seriously, and provide better answers, I think we can get to a point where our social nature and our cultural nature are consonant with the nature of the underlying reality. That’s ultimately where we want to be. We want to have a society that respects the fundamental nature of reality, human sexuality, and human reproduction, but also provides a space and provides equal dignity for people who don’t automatically fit into those ideal types.

This will not be easy. It will require us to dig deep. It will require us to fight. But I believe that, ultimately, we will win.

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This video is sponsored by Manhattan Institute.

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Christopher F. Rufo