Articles like this one remind us how angry we’re supposed to be at Caitlyn Jenner, the gold-medal winning decathlete formerly known as Bruce. Counting reality stars Kendall and Kylie among her children, Caitlyn has seemingly overnight become the world’s most famous trans woman, even gracing the cover of Vanity Fair.
Liberals think that attacks on Caitlyn Jenner and the transgender community all come from a place of hate or religious superiority. Those things are by-products. I think we miss just how scared conservatives, and especially men, become when faced with a story like Caitlyn Jenner’s. Whatever hate we see comes from genuine fear, but men aren’t taught to be afraid of anything, right? We’re asked to be strong and brave and earn our rewards (respect, money, women) through aggression, dominance, and even violence.
So here we are, facing a man who’s chosen to give those things up to the point of becoming a woman, and what do we feel? We feel terror. We’re afraid of someone who gives up the system that drives our lives. We’re afraid of someone who takes off the mantle of what it is to be a man and puts on a new one. It challenges our very identities, especially if we glance at someone and think they’re attractive before knowing they’re transgender.
Every hard and fast rule on which we’ve been raised about “what it means to be a man” is thrown to the wayside. To us, this is not just a choice Caitlyn Jenner is making for herself. This is a choice she’s making for all of us. It’s a choice that says: the rules that define manhood are not as valuable as we think they are. Yet haven’t we sacrificed time and effort, and pieces of ourselves – even pieces of our own identities – to adhere to those rules? We’ve been trained since birth to be tough, to be manly, to win every fight, and to not show emotional weakness.
When one person leaves that entire system and is celebrated, we panic. We get scared. We feel challenged. Since we’re still struggling for validation within that system, we resent. We react the only way that we’ve been taught to reinforce the validity of our own manhood: aggressively, angrily, even violently.
The problem is not with Caitlyn Jenner. The problem is that men are raised inside a system that rewards us for all the things that she is not, for all the things that she has rejected. That shakes the system and we’ve put everything we have into that system, suffered its brutality and reaped its rewards. When men say that Caitlyn Jenner is an assault on their values, they are not exaggerating. They are, sadly, being very accurate. For men to accept Caitlyn Jenner’s choices, we have to admit that the system those choices fly in the face of is not really how the world works. It’s just something that we were sold very early.
See, manly things hold a social value in this system. If you beat someone up in grade school, you’re celebrated. If you’re good at football in high school, you’re celebrated. If you sleep with beautiful women in college, you’re celebrated. That’s the way that system works and for those at the top, it works very well: you’re celebrated. Even for those who have only achieved a modicum of success in the system, they don’t want to give up the few things they’ve worked so hard to earn. No one wants to stop being celebrated, even a little bit. In fact, if it has cost you major concessions in your own life to earn those successes, then you’re just that much more invested.
To turn around and see Caitlyn Jenner, and be told that how you’ve molded yourself your entire life services a view of manhood that holds no value…if you’re 40, you’ve put 40 years into those values. If you’re 60, you’ve put 60 years into those values. That’s why changes like this wreck these people’s worlds in such a profound way. We think conservatives are acting insane when they seek to dictate the lives and bodies of others. If only the truth were so simple. They’re acting defensively. They’re acting scared. When they fight tooth and nail, it’s not because they hate liberal values, not directly. It’s because they’re defending their own investments in the values they thought were important.
Imagine putting your life savings into a stock, only to see it plummet and become worthless. You’d be terrified at what comes next, and that terror would make you livid with anger at whoever put you in that position. This is exactly what’s happening, but it’s not money being invested, it’s the entirety of who people are. Imagine investing your entire identity into a worldview, only to see the system of values that validates all your sacrifices plummet and become worthless. Hate is not the initial reaction conservative men have to Caitlyn Jenner. Hate is a coping mechanism for their sheer terror. What comes next? They don’t know.
What we’re fighting against as progressives isn’t their hate; it’s their fear and a feeling that they’ve been betrayed. The stock they put all their savings into is worthless; the system they put all their lives into is worthless. What do you think they’ll do in response? Give up that system and start over at 25, at 50, at 70 years old? Or do you think they’ll fight tooth and nail to re-validate that system and keep everything that they’ve struggled to attain in their lives?
That’s what we’re fighting. We’re not fighting hateful people, or even bad people. We’re fighting something much more dangerous and much more difficult: addicts to a broken system. To take the metaphor to its fullest extent, the investments of emotion and belief they’ve made across their entire lives have gone belly-up, and now they want a hand out. They want their system of cultural values to be considered too big to fail.
To them, Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t just represent an assault on their values, she is an assault on how they perceive reality and understand their place in the world. Why do they take her story so personally? Because to them, it is very personal.
It’s important that we understand the shape of this fight isn’t against some amorphous glob of evil. It’s against real people who are genuinely scared. This doesn’t legitimize their feelings, but I don’t think the fight for broad civil rights always needs to be us vs. them. In fact, there’s a reason I use nouns like “us” and “we” to describe both sides of the argument. As socially liberal as I am and as a lot of men are, there are still certain presumptions and seeds of ideas planted from youth in our heads that many of us need to get over, too. This is how we need to understand the conversation. There is an element that’s often missing, of helping people to understand why they shouldn’t be scared or how they fit into social circumstances they never thought they’d be facing.
Is it fair to ask the side that wants social change to become teachers of social values? No. Sometimes, we just want the fight. Sometimes, it feels much easier to just have the fight. Society raised me to always want the fight, so I could be celebrated, so I could be manly, so I could lord it over others. But sometimes, we need to understand that the people fighting us aren’t terrible, they’re just scared. Whether it’s reasonable or not that they’re scared is beside the point. That fright is genuine, and confrontation can make scared people even more steadfast in their convictions. That fright does offer an opportunity to talk and help them get over it.
Obviously, there are arenas where we still have to fight. I’m not saying that’s not part of the answer, too. I just think that sometimes we’re so geared for the confrontation, we forget to try avoiding it first. That’s how we have the same confrontations over and over again, and that’s how we legitimize in the minds of conservatives that it is us vs. them, that societal changes only serve our group or theirs.
Caitlyn Jenner’s biggest contribution to this moment in time is in offering us the opportunity for conversation. The longer we keep it a conversation before it changes into an argument, the less scared we make the other side. Trust me – for all their bravado, conservatives are terrified. I’m not talking about the politicians who make money and gain status because of that fear; I’m talking about average conservative families.
We’ve all been scared before. You don’t get this vocal and panicked at a little fright. You get this panicked when you’re scared out of your wits. That’s where they are, not worried that things are going to change, but rather knowing that they will and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. That’s an element of the conversation we need to start having – not only whether things should change or if they will change, but also how we all fit into a society that’s already experiencing that change. Conservatives don’t want to be a part of that society. We can’t just argue with them why they’re wrong anymore, trying our best to beat them. We need to start letting them know how a more equal society helps everyone, trying our best to incorporate and include them.
It doesn’t sound easy. The fight sounds easier, but at some point, we’ve got to be like Caitlyn. We’ve got to step past what we’ve been taught to value and change the conversations we’ll have going forward.