Michael Knowles, a Daily Wire commentator and former host of Ted Cruz’s podcast with more than 900,000 Twitter followers, appeared at CPAC, where he called for the “eradication” of transgenderism. Knowles is articulating a position on trans rights that is rapidly becoming normalized on the right.
Knowles and the Daily Wire are aggressively insisting that his endorsement of eradication was directed entirely at a set of ideas and not at a set of human beings. So it is worth looking carefully at exactly what he said.
“There can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism. It is all or nothing. If transgenderism is true, if men can become women, then it’s true for everybody of all ages,” he said. “If it is false, then for the good of society, and especially for the good of the poor people who have fallen prey to this confusion, transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely — the whole preposterous ideology.”
When commentators reacted with horror, Knowles responded at first with glee:
He then began angrily insisting that he never called for trans people to be eradicated. And it is true that he did not advocate murder. But this hardly makes his comments innocuous.
First of all, to “eradicate” an idea is almost impossible within the context of liberal democracy. By its nature, liberal democracy allows competing ideas to circulate and trusts that better ones will ultimately win out. Communism and Nazism have not been eradicated — indeed, Nazis have become a small but vocal part of the Republican base. Eradicating ideas inherently requires authoritarian measures (which would hardly be surprising or inconsistent for Knowles, who spoke at the National Conservatism Conference).
Second, the right-wing stance on trans rights denies the right of any trans person of any age to express their identity in almost any way. One new bill in Florida proclaims, “It shall be the policy of every public K-12 educational institution that a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.” This policy describes teachers as well as children — which is to say, adults who have transitioned their gender would nevertheless have to be addressed by the pronoun of their birth sex.
Another bill in Florida would give courts the authority to seize children from their parents and put them in foster care if they are even “at risk” of receiving “sex-reassignment prescriptions or procedures.”
There is legitimate medical uncertainty about how quickly to transition children who question their gender identity. The progressive line on this matter has been to insist that anybody who reports on or even acknowledges this uncertainty is transphobic.
In one sense, Knowles’s stance is the mirror image of this position. He wishes to eliminate any middle ground and force a binary choice between rapidly transitioning everybody of all ages and denying basic human rights to any trans person. Political extremists always insist that choices are between absolutes and that any compromise merely aids the opposing extreme. Knowles’s words — “There can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism. It is all or nothing” — put this bluntly.
But the two positions differ in a crucial way. The left-wing maximalist stance at least attempts to deal with the difficult problem by extending the need for empathy and humanity to all. The right-wing maximalist stance would require denying an entire category of people any social recognition whatsoever. It would consign them permanently to the category of sub-citizen.
Knowles may or may not be smart enough to realize that a word like eradicate inherently carries a hint of physical menace. The most generous account of his argument is that he lacks the intelligence to grasp the implications of his own position. The least generous account is that he is making a winking nod to ugly and hateful forces he has no intention of holding back.