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symbolism and societyI haven’t seen any pictures, but I’ve been told that when my grandpa was a baby, he used to wear a fluffy dress. Now, my grandpa wasn’t a sissy; he actually turned out to be a very muscular, very virile, very rugged machinist, and he happened to get a woman pregnant before he was even married to her (this woman became my grandma). But the reason that I mention his wearing a dress as a boy, is because nobody was ever concerned during those days that making him wear a little dress was going to in any way make him effeminate or give him gender confusion. Today, making a baby boy wear a dress would either arouse a healthy amount of laughter or a deep sense of concern; yesterday, that is how we dressed a good portion, if not all, of our soon-to-be warriors, machinists, preachers, and neighborhood grocers.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should in any way begin buying our little boys pink bows and tutus, but it is of particular interest that things such as fluffy dresses may be thought of as acceptable clothing for a boy one year, and the next be a laughing matter, and that in certain parts of the world, a man may wear what very closely amounts to a night-gown during the day and in public, and never have his manhood called into question. At the very least, we can conclude that much of what may be considered manly or gender appropriate is malleable—not that manliness and effeminacy are matters entirely of subjectivity, or that they are entirely meaningless, but that there are different ways of expressing them symbolically, and that each are valid so long as they remain within the bounds of justice (unlike those barbarians who prove their manhood by killing innocents). In other words, I wouldn’t dare call my great-grandfather —whom I’ve heard was a very mean, tough man—a sissy, for dressing grandpa like a baby girl; nor would I suggest that making a young boy wear a dress back then would have an effect on whether he later thought he was a woman. Depending upon the time and the location, wearing a “dress” can mean something entirely different. Being a coward or a sissy are always the same.

This isn’t the only aspect in which human traditions and meanings vary wildly while maintaining legitimacy. If we consider language, we oftentimes have different words for the same ideas, and across multiple languages, we find that the same sounds sometimes mean different things. Yet simply because the sound of an idea differs, doesn’t mean the idea doesn’t exist, or is in some way perverted; people simply have different ways of expressing things which are commonly known to humanity. And it is only sensible to say that certain ideas may be communicated by other methods as well. George Washington—and even Puritans such as John Owens and Richard Baxter—wore long hair as a matter of style; Nazirites wore theirs long as a matter of religious devotion; in the Apostle Paul’s day, men wore long hair to be effeminate. Some men shave their heads as a sign of mourning; others wear it to show that they hate foreigners, or that they are sober.

There is a great difference, of course, between admitting different symbolic expressions of different valid ideas, and denying that expressions are valid altogether. And this is worth saying because there are certain men in America today who aren’t content with understanding what men mean by certain things, which would be a healthy and sensible thing to do. Instead, these men  would much rather get rid of ideas like gender and class altogether, which is immoral and insensible. There is a great difference between giving a baby boy a dress and telling him that he can choose to be a woman, just like there is a great difference between giving a little boy a military uniform and telling him he’s Napoleon, or pretending that no such thing as thuggish clothing and mannerisms exist, or that because people live in the same house and have sex with one another, that they are family. And if we are judicious enough to ponder exactly how we give certain meanings to certain things, and yet know that these meanings exist because we have willed their existence, then that is one thing. But to say that men today may wear wedding gowns with one another, and that it means nothing offensive because that meaning is imaginary, isn’t to deny differing forms of communication, but to deny two serious and divine principles: that different things should be expected of men and women, and that no man should bend over for another man. In other words, we give meaning to gestures and sounds; once we know what those things mean, we have a duty to respond appropriately with either disgust, indifference, or with praise.

Wisdom requires that we question our judgments before we pass them entirely: occasionally we encounter men who feign status by adorning themselves with symbols for manliness and virtue and wealth and success, and these men are known as poseurs; and other times we encounter men who symbolize something accidentally, and are mistaken for something they aren’t. The former kind of man is a danger to society, because he willingly claims something which he has no business claiming (think of all the times we’ve seen tattoos on sissies), and the latter man deserves an excuse. And when too many have claimed something which isn’t theirs, or accidentally stumbled into something they didn’t mean, it’s only fair to question the legitimacy and use of the symbol. But this is only because of abuse or lack of communicability, not because symbols shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Today there exists a kind of man who believes so strongly in individuality, that he forgets methods of expression must be common, and they must be respected: there is no speech without consensus, and there is no society without speech. This kind of man likes to pretend that other people are judgmental and backward simply because he expresses himself poorly, and then demands that everyone conform themselves to whatever he feels like doing, as though by doing so, he were acting in favor of liberty, and not presenting his neighbors with an entirely new master. This kind of man believes himself above the herd, but he’s actually beneath good sense; and when I hear men challenging our methods of expression, I must constantly remind myself that there are two different kind of men who do so: the ones who are challenging others to maintain good communication or change the means of communicating valid principles, and the ones who challenge good principles because they hate them. To be in the former category is to be human, and sometimes even to be a great man; to be in the latter category is to be a barbarian.

To express association with a lifestyle or a virtue can change, but virtue is always the same. The methods of expressing effeminacy may be different one year from the next—but we must always disapprove of men being sissies. The ways Christians dress and sing may always change—but their expression of humility, reverence, and Godliness must always remain the same. We may not always agree that baby boys should wear fluffy dresses—but we should always agree that boys are boys and girls are girls, and that they must act differently in respect of themselves, their partners, society, and God. We may express these virtues differently; and to phrase it in the most ironic way possible, we must express them all the same.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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