Dr. Theordore Dalrymple of AIDS, Piercings, and Transsexualism
- I first thought about this during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when it was demanded of us that we should believe incompatible things simultaneously, for example that it was simply a disease like any other and that it was a disease of unprecedented importance and unique significance; that it could strike anybody but that certain group were martyrs to it; that it must be normalized and yet treated differently. For example, tests for it alone of all the thousands of ills that flesh was heir to had, by legal prescription, to be preceded by pre-test counseling. It was a bit like living under a small version of a communist dictatorship, in which the law of noncontradiction had been abrogated in favor of dialectics, under which all contradictions were compatible, but which contradictions had to be accepted was a matter of the official policy of the moment.
Human beings are funny. I remember a patient who insisted that her AIDS be treated as a disease like any other, but who also made sure we never forgot that she had contracted it voluntarily by deliberately injecting herself with the blood of a friend with AIDS. She was not suicidal, at least not in the sense that she wanted to die there and then, or anytime soon. Rather, she had a Byronic notion of the disease, a romantic conception of it as a badge of superior sensibility, which is to say that those who suffered from it were in some way morally superior to those who did not, and thus were imbued with a moral authority that others did not share. And yet at the same time she demanded to be treated matter-of-factly. By demanding this difficult psychological feat of us, recognition and nonrecognition at the same time (a feat to which, by the way, we proved equal by the exercise of self-control), she was in effect exerting her power over us. It was all very pathetic, a consequence of her thirst for significance in a mass society.
The demand for recognition and nonrecognition at the same time is surely one of the reasons for the outbreak of mass self-mutilation in the Western world in an age of celebrity. A person who treats his face and body like an ironmongery store can hardly desire or expect that you fail to notice it, but at the same time demands that you make no comment about it, draw no conclusions from it, express no aversion toward it, and treat him no differently because of it. You must accept him as he is, however he is, because he has an inalienable right to such acceptance. As a professional burglar once asked me, how could I expect him to give up burgling when he was a burglar and burglary was what he did?
I think the same dynamic (if I may call it such) is at work in the current vogue for transsexualism: “You must recognize me and not recognize me at the same time.” In this way, people can simultaneously enjoy the fruits of being normal and very different. To be merely the same as others is a wound to the ego in an age of celebrity, and yet we are herd animals who do not want to wander too far from the herd. And in an age of powerlessness we want to exert power.
What will be the next attempted reconciliation of our incompatible desires?