Unless you’re some kind of natural law theorist – in which case there’s no talking to you – let it be granted that all rights are contingent on the material conditions recommending them to us. And at that, they’re negotiated. So, for example, in Canada in 2019 women do indeed have the right to control their own reproductivity. But we can imagine circumstances – because they’ve actually arisen – in which either over- or under-population would make granting that right unaffordable. Imagine that a plague has rendered all but six women in the world infertile. Would we still recognize a woman’s right to control her own reproductivity? I suspect not.
Now then, suppose that, not unlike the final scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, one of those six women decides she’s a man. Are we likely to say, “Right, off you go then.”? I suspect not. We can say, if we like, that all this shows is that men too can get pregnant. But a perfectly serviceable alternative is to say, as we’ve been saying for thousands of years, that he’s not a man, she’s a woman, because, well, she’s about to get pregnant.
Suppose the enemy is at the gates, we need every man to ‘man’ the ramparts, but we don’t need the women. In fact, not unlike in an Orthodox synagogue, they’d just undermine the conditions of camaraderie required on those ramparts. Suppose one of these conscripts decides she’s a woman. Are we likely to say, “Right, off you go then.”? Again, I suspect not. We can say, if we like, that all this shows is that women too can be forced to ‘man up’. But a perfectly serviceable alternative is to say, as we’ve been saying for thousands of years, that she’s not a woman, he’s a man, because, well, he’s about to be sent to the ramparts.
Suppose that, as did the ancient Israelites, we decide we need a king, but God is silent on who that should be. I think it should be me. In fact I’ve long since thought of myself as the rightful monarch-in-waiting, King Paul the Bald. But no one else thinks so. Instead, in their obvious ignorance, they crown King Harold the Hirsuite. Why? Because what it is to be a king is not to so self-identity. It’s for others to so identity him.
We all have a fantasy life. Pity the poor sod who doesn’t. And so yes, in the privacy of my mind, this bald, fat, nigh-septuagenarian philosophy professor has imagined himself young Napoleon at the Battle of Jena. But that does not entitle him to the hand of the princess of his choice.
What we can conclude from this, I submit, is that your identity is indeed socially constructed, but you, alas, are just one contributor to that construction, and at that in no way privileged. You can ask to be designated a woman, or made king, but at the end of the day it’s up to the rest of us to say yeah or nay. You’re right that there’s no mind-independent fact-of-the matter about whether you’re a man or a woman, king or peasant, clergy or layperson. But the minds on which it depends are ours.
And the criteria on which we make those judgments is the function we want you to perform. If we need you to gestate you’re a woman. If we need you on the wall you’re a man. And so on.
I understand that this must be terribly disappointing for you. But you can always retreat into that aforementioned private fantasy world, where others will let you be whatever you want to be. Here in the real world, unfortunately, we won’t.
This is not to say we couldn’t decide to privilege your druthers. And in a world in which we need neither your womb nor your presence on the wall, we might very well do just that. And if we say no, as often we will, you have to be gracious.
What does such graciousness amount to? Well, for one thing, if, because we think of you as a man notwithstanding you think of yourself as a woman, we might insist that you go to the ramparts, or that you use the men’s washroom. Each of us gets a say, but none of us gets a final say. Save in the privacy of his mind where King Paul the Bald has fended off all pretenders, we negotiate our entitlements. You want to use the women’s washroom? Fine. But what are you offering them in return?