My name is Damon Linker, and I identify as Napoleon.
Sure, I'm a little tall (5'10") to pass as the famously diminutive Corsican general, but why should that be a problem? What are you, a heightist?
I mean, I feel short. I feel like I'm a native French speaker (even though I can't actually speak French). And I feel like I conquered Europe for the glory of France.
What do you mean that's not good enough? Who are you to say?
Oh, so you're going to use Hegel on me. Yeah, I know his arguments about intersubjectivity and how demonstrating that I'm Napoleon depends on whether other people recognize me as Napoleon. If they call me Monsieur Bonaparte, then I'm home. But if they don't, perhaps on the grounds that the real Napoleon is long dead and so can't be deep into his second career as a columnist for The Week in the 21st-century United States, then I'm a fool, and quite possibly mentally ill.
Kind of like Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, who convinced everyone around her for years that she was African-American. Now it's been revealed that she's white. Overnight Dolezal has gone from living in a context that recognized her as black to one that recognizes her as white. At first that made her a con artist. But then she appeared on the Today show and doubled down, declaring, "I identify as black." Now she's apparently crazy. Just like me with my unusually literal Napoleon complex.
That's the way it works with Hegel. It doesn't matter how intensely Dolezal identifies as black. If the rest of us refuse to accept that identification, she's out of luck. She might feel black, but she is white, and her refusal to accept it is at best a form of self-deception and at worst an outright (and perhaps even clinical) delusion.
But wait a minute, I'm a little confused. Didn't we just live through a cultural event that cut in the opposite direction? Bruce Jenner was not, in fact, a woman. Yet he said that he felt like a woman. So he underwent a surgical and hormonal transformation, turning himself physically into Caitlyn, thereby bringing his self-image and reality into closer alignment.
This is something we're supposed to respect and applaud. We're certainly not supposed to dismiss it as a form of mental illness. And in Hegelian terms, this makes a kind of sense. Thanks to the efforts of advocates for the transgendered, our intersubjective context has come to accept that on matters of gender the individual gets to define what is true. So if I have facial hair, a deep voice, and a penis, I'm a man — unless I feel like I'm not a man, in which case I could be any number of other genders, and you should recognize the validity of whichever gender I settle on (for now). And if I choose to use medical technology to transform myself physically into a woman, then I most certainly am a woman. I'm the one who gets to decide.
See now, this makes sense to me. It comports, after all, with other forms of elective medical intervention. If I'm overweight but feel like I'm a thin person, I can get liposuction to bring my self-image and reality into alignment. If I'm 70 years old but feel like I'm 50, I can get a facelift and accomplish the same thing. The same for breast implants, butt lifts, and Botox injections.
But then why can't I make the comparatively much less drastic change — no scalpels and sutures! no hormone shots! not even a spray-on tan and a curling iron! — of becoming Napoleon by fiat?
Because, apparently, thinking I'm Napoleon when I'm Damon Linker is categorically different than thinking I'm a woman when I have a penis. (Which is fine.) Thinking I'm Napoleon when I'm Damon Linker is, instead, like thinking I'm black when I'm white. (Which is delusional.)
I confess that this distinction would make more sense to me if the people attacking Dolezal appealed to something like nature. "A person is white or black by nature," they might say, "and so claiming to be black when one is naturally white, or vice versa, is deranged." But in addition to reading Hegel, I learned in graduate school that race, like gender, is a social construct. Meaning that race, like gender, is whatever we make it out to be and not something grounded in anything innately permanent or fixed.
Which means that Jenner is free to become a woman simply because we say so and for no other reason.
And Dolezal is not free to become black simply because we say so and for no other reason.
And I can't be Napoleon simply because you say so and for no other reason.
I'm sorry, but I think that's cruel.