Lady Gaga’s crazy anthem to biological determinism

The pop megastar’s pro-gay hit ‘Born This Way’ confirms that even this manic queen of reinvention buys into modern notions of fate.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Science & Tech

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I am a huge fan of Lady Gaga. But I was very disappointed by the release of what has been described as the ‘new gay anthem’ – her new single, ‘Born This Way’. Because it would appear that, sadly, Lady Gaga, that manic queen of reinvention, has fallen prey to the fatalistic doctrine of biological determinism.

Earlier this month Gaga boasted to Vogue: ‘I am the excuse to explore your identity.’ But now, it seems, there are no excuses and the exploration is over. For her new single informs us that ‘God makes no mistakes’; we are simply ‘born this way’. In other words, your identity is not so much a matter of individual choice but a result of your genetic make-up. Gaga’s disturbing avowal of biological determinism resonates with the fatalistic zeitgeist, which increasingly looks upon human identity and behaviour as being genetically driven.

Lady Gaga personifies the growing tendency towards the fossilisation of identity. It is not surprising that her self-consciously outrageous cultivation of the unexpected has led to the very traditionalist declaration that sexuality is natural. Since the 1960s, identity politics has fluctuated between the individualistic celebration of choice and self-reinvention and a rather conformist quest for legitimacy. By the end of the 1970s, the politics of identity had lost its liberal impulse and instead insisted that it should be respected and recognised in its own terms. It was at this point that identity started to be presented as a fact of life, an unchangeable thing, something that one is born with rather than being a matter of choice. Increasingly, the refrain ‘I was born this way’ became a demand for recognition and for the celebration of one’s identity.

The fossilisation of identity has been most dramatic in relation to the former gay liberation movement. In the early 1970s, the gay movement insisted that there was nothing natural about sexuality. It argued that sexual preference was in many ways a matter of choice and desire and was thus not a product of biological programming. That was then. Since the 1990s, there has been a growing tendency to present homosexuality, not as a choice influenced by sexual desire, but as the inexorable consequence of a so-called ‘gay gene’.

Researchers have been busy discovering genes that prove that homosexuals are born rather than made. In September 1991, Newsweek ran a front-cover picture of a baby with the question ‘Is this child gay?’. By then, the idea that homosexuals are ‘born this way’ had become an integral part of the gay identity. According to gay-gene theory, your sexuality is natural and immutable. There are still a few gay activists who are prepared to argue against this dogma, including Peter Tatchell. But it is increasingly considered bad manners to question the doctrine that sexual orientation is immutable.

The main reason why this naturalisation of sexual desire has been embraced by both the gay movement and the establishment is because they believe that it will encourage tolerance and respect for sexual minorities. The ‘scientific discovery’ that homosexuality is natural is seen as a way of countering critics who claim that it is abnormal or unnatural. Unfortunately, this doctrine of immutability ends up diminishing the idea of free will and the capacity for moral independence. This is not surprising, since the active and experimental aspects of self-determination are antithetical to today’s politics of identity.

Lady Gaga’s fatalistic anthem speaks to everyone preoccupied with their identities. No matter whether ‘you’re black, white, beige, chola descent’, she sings, ‘rejoice and love yourself’. What she really means is: ‘accept your immutable identity’. This all-inclusive appeal to the fossilisation of identity enjoys formidable cultural affirmation in Western society today. These days, virtually every form of human behaviour is seen as the outcome of genetic programming. Brain research and evolutionary psychology are mobilised to prove that even people’s beliefs and opinions are really expressions of their genetic dispositions. Apparently, political debate is a waste of time since ‘political positions are substantially determined by biology and can be stubbornly resistant to reason’. So claims John Alford, an American political scientist, who also noted that ‘trying to persuade someone not to be liberal is like trying to persuade someone not to have brown eyes’. It seems our political views are built into our brains.

As biological determinism becomes mainstream, and even trendy, one discovery follows the next. So scientists at the University of California and Harvard have published research that claims to have discovered a ‘liberal gene’, which predisposes people to new ideas and alternative lifestyles. From this perspective, liberalism, tolerance and a disposition to new ways of thinking are not things that are acquired through the exercise of individual judgment – they are simply the products of a ‘transmitter’ in the brain called DRD4. Indeed, moral reasoning itself is depicted as a mere function of the nerve endings of the brain. So the philosopher Paul Thagard has offered an explanation of the meaning of life that draws on research from neuroscience rather than on moral and culturally informed beliefs.

The idea that we are ‘born this way’ dominates popular culture, too. It is not simply our sexual desires that are pre-programmed. Serial killers are not so much evil people as they are damaged children who just cannot control their destructive urges. The TV series Dexter features an almost lovable mass murderer, who simply cannot refrain from killing people (nasty people, in his case). You see, he was born that way. Don Draper, the main protagonist of Mad Men, was also born this way: his brutal childhood dooms him to a life of inner turmoil and anxiety. So when Gaga sings ‘in the religion of the insecure / I must be myself’, the ‘myself’ is not so much an accomplishment of self-determination but is simply a biological accident. There is more than a hint that what she really has in mind is not so much a desire to affirm the self, as a kind of deference to fate.

Thankfully, the experience of human endeavour tells us that who we are need not be determined by a biological accident. Yes, our genes influence our behaviour. But they do not determine who we are. We are not slaves to our biology; we possess a formidable capacity to make our own world, and on a good day even to choose who we want to be. That would be a far better message for a Lady Gaga anthem.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in June 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here. An edited version of this article was published in the Australian on 19 February 2011

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Topics Science & Tech


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