I wrote yesterday how human dignity is being redefined and how individual autonomy is what is regarded as the most sacred thing. One way this is playing out in the broader culture is in the way people choose to define themselves. Most believe that self-definition should be completely free of all restrictions. So, we have Bruce Jenner who now chooses to identify as a woman and Rachel Dolezal, who while born to a Caucasian family has chosen to identify as African American.
Traditionally, one would say that these choices are not one's to make. People have certain attributes and sex or race describe biology and heritage. They are not malleable. Yet, today others claim that to restrict someone from being able to choose one's own identity diminishes his or her personhood. It is the choice that matters more.
In his masterpiece Orthodoxy, Chesterton took on the claim that limiting choices somehow diminishes an individual. He noted that it is the limitations that shape one's identity, not the absolute freedom. He explains that "every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses." 1 He goes on to explain that even religious moral laws limit choices and while those who extol choice above all else (people whom he labels as "will –worshipper" ) sound nonsensical when examining the defining effect of limiting oneself in choice:
For instance, Mr. John Davidson tells us to have nothing to do with "Thou shalt not"; but it is surely obvious that "Thou shalt not" is only one of the necessary corollaries of "I will." "I will go to the Lord Mayor's Show, and thou shalt not stop me." Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists, and care for no laws or limits. But it is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.I think Chesterton is right here. Being human means there are certain limitations to our nature. It is the best of man not to choose to opt out of that thing that makes one uncomfortable but to find a path to live with the discomfort. We don't applaud the paraplegic who gets my with a personal servant attending twenty four hours a day. We applaud those who embrace a vibrant life and who have overcome the struggles in which their unfortunate circumstance has placed them. Thus I don't see Jenner or Dolezal as ones to be lauded. By trying to lose their limitations, they don't add to the human condition, they detract from it.
The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes.
Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called "The Loves of the Triangles"; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the THING he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless.2