Liberals want to be autonomous - they wish to be "self-determined" in the sense of choosing for themselves who they are and what they do. We don't get to choose our sex for ourselves and therefore masculinity and femininity will often be treated by liberals as a limitation or restriction to be overcome.
Just recently I've read a number of articles in the media, each of which expresses this underlying negative attitude to sex differences.
At one extreme, there was a report of a speech given by a Melbourne bio-ethicist, Dr Robert Sparrow, to the Australian Medical Students Association. According to Dr Sparrow, medical technology should be used to "remove limitations on the opportunities available" to individuals.
What is one major limitation on individuals according to Dr Sparrow? Quite logically for a liberal, he believes that manhood and womanhood are limitations. Therefore, he suggested in his speech that one day medical technology might be used to create a "post sex" world in which there were no males or females but only hermaphrodites. If this proves impossible, he suggests that all people be born female, as females have a more "open" future than males, being able to do things (such as experience pregnancy) that are unavailable to men:
To reach this post-sex world, Dr Sparrow said parents wanting the best for their children should start choosing baby girls through IVF because they live longer and have more opportunities in life.
"There are significant restrictions on the opportunities available to men around gestation, childbirth, and breastfeeding, which will be extremely difficult to overcome via social or technological mechanisms in the foreseeable future. Women also have longer life expectancies than men," he said.
Dr Sparrow said his somewhat "tongue-in-cheek" argument was based on a line of thought about medical ethics that suggests medical technology should be used to serve the welfare of individuals and remove limitations on the opportunities available to them.
"I argue that, if these are our goals, we may do well to move towards a 'post-sex' humanity. Until we have the technology to produce genuine hermaphrodites, the most efficient way to do this is to use sex selection technology to ensure that only girl children are born. Girl babies therefore have a significantly more 'open' future than boy babies," he said.
... When asked if people should act on his suggestion, Dr Sparrow said he didn't expect many people would take up the challenge just yet.
"I don't think we're seriously looking at a world of only girl children just yet, but I do think that when philosophers start talking about using medical technology to achieve things that aren't about health, so increasing people's IQ or life expectancy for example, you have to ask why we shouldn't all be girls," he said.
Then there is the war on the colour pink. I wrote an item some time back about the uproar created in Sweden by a pink ice-cream marketed to girls:
The Swedish Consumers Association however uses an entirely different word: "gender-profiling".
"Girlie, GB's new ice pop, is pink and has make-up inside the stick. It says a lot about what GB thinks about girls and how they should be," said the association in a statement.
Well, the war on pink continues. Lauredhel, an Australian feminist, recently opened up a Target catalogue and was horrified to discover the marketing of pink toys to girls. She complained that it was "pinkly sickening". She went in search of toys for girls in the catalogue that weren't "pinkified" and was glad to discover a castle, but alas inside the castle there were no "siege engines and dragons and such" but instead a "sleeping pink baby".
Meanwhile, The Age saw fit to run a column titled "Girls can't thrive in a puff of pink". The writer, Monica Dux, is alarmed by the sight of young girls dressed as fairies, princesses and ballerinas. She suggests, oddly enough, that mothers who dress girls this way have created a raunch culture among older girls. She writes that those people who are anxious about raunch culture,
seem to be overlooking the pink elephant in the nursery, the one in fairy wings and a tiara.
She believes that there is,
a whiff of hypocrisy surrounding those parents who so readily lament the rise of raunch, while at the same time dressing their daughters in ways that entrench objectifying feminine stereotypes ...
Her solution runs as follows:
So, here's an idea: no matter how keen your daughter may be on her pretty princess outfit, pack it away and bring it out only for occasional play.
There might be a few tears, but you might also short-circuit a development path that leads to a grown woman who, deep down, still sees herself as all sugar and spice.
Then there was the report about two new publishing houses in Sweden (yes, Sweden again) which are operating explicitly on a liberal philosophy in which "individual freedom" is set against "traditional gender roles":
Two new publishing houses for children's books have sparked debate in gender-equal Sweden ...
"Our goal is for all people, regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity or other such things, to have the freedom to create their own identity and be respected for their personal qualities," said Karin Salmson, the co-founder of the new Vilda publishing house.
Vilda and another small publisher, Olika, both opened their doors last year with the express aim of making children's books that promote liberal values and challenge traditional views on gender, race and sexual orientation.
"Many parents feel forced to change he to she or she to he and other details as they read stories for their children, because so many details in children's books are so very traditional," Salmson said.
Vilda has therefore introduced a so-called "hug label", guaranteeing that its books have been "scrutinized from a democracy, equality and diversity perspective" and contain no details "based on prejudice or traditional gender roles that rein in individual freedom".
The publisher for instance makes sure girls are not always dressed in pink and boys in blue, that dad is not necessarily the one rushing off to work while mom stays home whipping up dinner and that same-sex parents are portrayed as a natural part of life.
Olika's co-founder Marie Tomicic also says her publishing house aims to "break down traditional gender roles and offer children broader role models, allowing them to be all they can be."
Together the two small publishers have so far only released about a dozen titles, including a book about a boy who wears pink sandals, and a story about a girl who likes to make farting sounds using her armpits, who just happens to have two dads.
The publishers' philosophies are largely in line with ruling attitudes in the country, which is widely considered a world leader in gender equality and minority rights.
What all of this suggests is that liberal autonomy theory doesn't work on its own terms. It is based on the idea that we should aim to be free to choose for ourselves in any direction. But when liberal thinkers try to apply this idea, it generates its own major limitations.
And so you get a bioethicist who looks forward to a time when the option of being male and female no longer exists; you get others who find it difficult to accept little girls acting like little girls by associating with the colour pink or wearing fairy princess costumes or playing with dolls.
What's worse is that the kind of choices liberalism sets itself against are often the ones most important to individuals. We don't seek our freedom as abstract entities; most men want the freedom to live as men, most women the freedom to live as women.
If a liberal tells me that I embody nothing, it is no use him then proclaiming that he has made me free "to be all that I can be". I was free to be more back when I embodied, as a man, a significant life principle - even if this meant that my identity wasn't entirely open-ended.
One final point. The traditional view of gender contains a principle of self-development. We are asked to find what is most admirable in our masculine or feminine selves and apply it successfully in the world. The liberal view of gender makes an easier, but less productive, demand on us; we are exhorted as men to not act so much like men and as women to act less like women.
Isn't there a reason, therefore, why the traditional view is more likely to develop individual character?