Stop voting based on identity

Kylie Cheung (@kyliecheung on Twtter) put it well: “To be clear, Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign relied on “identity politics”—specifically, the rage and insecurities of white men. In fact, he relied on “identity politics” substantially more than Clinton’s campaign, which offered in-depth economic proposals for affordable and accessible health care, housing, and job growth that would benefit wide swaths of the population. The reason we call Trump’s utilization of identity politics a “unifying message,” while addressing existential human rights issues like criminal justice reform, mass incarceration, immigration rights, and reproductive rights is considered “identity politics” is simple: White men remain regarded and respected as the default, standard identity in the United States—often, even by progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders.”

Another way to be clear: While it’s really common to see people criticize people who vote for a candidate for being Black, a woman, or whatever other minority a candidate might be, just for being that identity:


1. It’s not that common. Usually there’s a more substantial reason to suspect another white man won’t have everyone else’s interests at heart, at least not when there are white men’s interests at stake. But I’ve said this a lot. Cheung makes the point that goes very ignored but is infuriating upon realization:


2. Everyone who “Isn’t ready to vote for a woman” is voting for a man just because he’s a man. Everyone who “isn’t comfortable yet” voting for someone who isn’t white is just voting for the white person.


So here’s a thought. While anytime a person who isn’t a white man runs, her/their voter base is assumed to just be voting based on identity, let’s make the more reasonable assumption, and lets make it out loud. A _lot_ of Americans need to learn to start voting on policy instead of just voting for someone because he’s white and a man.

A view of transmeds, tucutes, gender critics, queer leftists, cultish practices, and it not being that hard to just respect people

Between my spending a lot of time in queer spaces, the shitshow in professional philosophy, and, at this point, just popular discourse, I decided to try to understand the positions different groups who concern themselves with transness. Primarily I’m looking for the positions held and the arguments and evidence for those positions. Seconardily I’m looking for the practical concerns and sociological features of the groups, as these do help understanding. I want to be clear upfront, though, that I’m seriously committed to the well-being of all of the people I’m about to discuss. I’m taking seriously that there are reasonable and caring people with all of these positions, so until I see why a reasonable and caring person would hold a position, I assume I just don’t understand it yet.

My background context is many years in conservative Indiana, but more recently in more liberal SoCal. I’ve been rather leftist for awhile, although I rarely fit neatly with any corner of it. The current social environments I’m in with regard to this stuff range from run-of-the-mill California liberalism with a general policy of tolerance to more radical queers, most of whom have almost no straight friends. The former doesn’t get very involved. The latter I’ve noticed has shifted a lot of my positions over time. I used to think transsexualism is identical with or at least applies to the set set of people as gender identity disorder (DSM-IV), gender dysphoria (DSM-V), or gender incongruence (ICD-11). It’s a medical condition (whether under mental health (DSM, ICD-10) or sexual health (ICD-11))  that can be treated, and life then proceeds mostly as normal. If you listen to or read what trans people have had to say, the desire to blend in as cis was expected and nearly ubiquitous. Some men who clearly had a crossdressing fetish, or people with a fetish for transsexuals on occasion, would show up, and they’d be identified as a danger and shunned. Not to say that having a fetish is a bad thing; if crossdressing is what gets you off, there’s really no harm in that. Though I can imagine why a community of people seeking to blend in and get medical treatment wouldn’t want a bunch of sexual exhibitionists in their ranks. The people trying to get treatment and blend in aren’t going to be able to very vocal, what with blending in. They also have been pretty consistently accused of being fetishists rather than people with a medical condition. The loudest group claiming the trans label actually being fetishists is fuel for that fire.

It’s not just in certain corners this change has happened, either. At my Christian liberal arts college in Indiana that had a panel that compared gay people to pedophiles, not to even dive into the sexuality and marriage class, the demographic forms often enough had gender (identity) options on them. Usually the options were something like man, women, and trans. This consistently confused me since those aren’t even exclusive. Unless the population of non-binary trans people has exploded, most trans people are either men or women. (If it’s not clear: It’d be similarly stupid to have the options be man, woman, or cis.) They could have asked for gender and cis/trans status seperately, or offer the six combinations in one question (CF, CN, CM, TF, TN, TM). (The data collected is the same either way.)

Looking around, lately, though, it’s been making more sense. Especially in accepting spaces, there’s a lot of people who seem more into being trans than they are concerned about being whatever gender they are. People are definitely embracing it, to the point where “girldick” has become a generally understood word in some circles. They take being transgender to be a serious component of their identity, and purely an identity matter, rather than a medical matter. I read some sci-fi stories in an anthology of sci-fi by trans authors; often enough the message is just that being trans is somehow superior to being cis. In one story, when offered a wish by a magical being, the putative trans woman in the story wishes to have two penises. At which point I’m not sure why the hell all that fighting to have medical transitioning considered medically necessary happened.

Of course, if someone wants to dress up like a woman and use she/her pronouns while also enjoying having a penis, that’s fine. Also there’s already language for that. That’s a gender non-conforming (GNC) person without gender identity disorder/dysphoria/incongruence (cis). Which is great! I’m happy that person doesn’t have a rare, significantly distressing medical condition. So happy in fact that I don’t at all see why some people are saying being trans is somehow superior to being cis. So, okay, there’s a view I need to understand better.

But wait, why not just take this seemingly more-accepting view? Historically, it looks like the pro-acceptance groups are generally on the right side more often than not. Well, this is where those practical concerns have to come into play. After all, what I’ve suggested so far is essentially saying that some people who claim to be trans are actually cis. This is essentially where I started my research. I knew the group called truscum or transmedicalists (hereon out, “transmeds”, which I use without any intentional value claims) were considered bad; the same people defending trans people from the gender critical crowd on Twitter were also anti-truscum. So I went to the transmed and truscum subreddits to see why they think what they think.

The short of it is that transmeds think you need dysphoria to be trans. The direct opposition to this I’m not finding another word for besides “tucute”. (As in “too cute to be cis”, which is either a weirdly value-loaded label on par with the a(nti)theists who call themselves “brights” or else a pejorative. I don’t see another, though, besides occasionally “anti-truscum”. This strikes me more as a feature of the tucute position catching enough popularity that only its alternatives need names.) Tucutes say that the transmed position is just transphobia. The argument for transmedicalism basically goes that we have clear evidence for the existence of gender in the brain, and for gender dysphoria, and for effective treatments thereof. It’s a medical condition; saying otherwise is dangerous for the same reason saying you don’t need mood swings to be bipolar is dangerous: it makes people take medicine that’s dangerous for them. Because you know that horrible awful feeling that drives trans people to suffer puberty round two, painful and expensive surgery, and enhanced social oppression to heal it? You can make a cis person feel that with hormones (and surgery). Also, it rather makes it harder for people dealing with those horrible feelings to deal with them when there’s people using up all the resources and taking up all the space because they think being trans is a fun choice. The charge is more or less that tucutes are confused, sad, or bored cis people putting on a trans identity, which hurts everyone involved.

There’s a lot of content on these websites, so I’ll just give some highlights; this post is in no way close to comprehensive.

One of the highest voted posts on /r/truscum is the story of someone who thought he was trans, and turned out not to be, but not without pulling a friend in first. Much as “protect confused cis people” might not be a popular talking point in some circles, it’s a rather severe mistake to undergo irreversible medical treatments that will leave someone with gender dysphoria. I take it that all parties involved here want to lessen suffering, and particularly lessen (or at least not increase) gender dysphoria. (There are some people on the far right who want rid of all trans and GNC people. I’m not taking them seriously. Their desire to hurt other people needs treatment, not a political platform.) It follows that everyone has a pretty good reason to not go causing gender dysphoria by altering a cis person’s sex.  The comments in the linked reddit thread do point out that the original poster’s (OP) friend may or may not be trans, and he’s probably overestimating his influence. Which, hey, that’s a strong point and worth keeping in mind since the consequences of these stories can quickly start making things look worse than they are.

A later subthread points to the existence of the detrans subreddit (and the community of people who have detransitioned in general). While some people, just as OP, realize they personally made a mistake, others insist that in fact the entire notion of being trans must have been the mistake! Of course, this is the truscum simplification, so we’ll have to investigate /r/detrans to see if they have anything better to say for themselves. Also interestingly, though, Correctrix points out;

I have never heard of a single case of a trans woman feeling a phantom pain like that (although surely some can be found), and here’s a detrans-obsessed person who’s apparently heard of loads of it happening after SRS. I had actually semi-dismissed the idea that it was significant that we don’t get phantom pain because male genitalia weren’t supposed to be there in the first place, so it would be like missing a wart or tumour, whereas men subjected to penectomy etc due to cancer do suffer from terrible phantom pain sometimes. I thought instead that it was more plausible that our lack of this symptom is due to the fact that most of the tissue is repurposed in SRS, rather than amputated. But if MtFtM detransitioners routinely have phantom penis or testicle pain… that’s actually pretty strong evidence that they are neurologically different from genuine transsexual women. Research should be done on that.

I agree that research should be done on this. Whether or not someone will experience phantom pain is something we can make measureable hypotheses about. And, with the benefit of having done this research before writing about it, I can say it’ll play into the stuff that hinges on what is descriptively the case.

Back to the central arguments, though. Transmeds assert in addition to hurting confused cis people, tucutes are hurting trans people as well. For instance, this user thought they might be trans, saw the tucute community (or, mainstream trans community, depending on where you look), and mistakenly thought that they must not be, since their experience is very different from the tucutes’. Rather than being excited to be trans, this person just experienced unfun dysphoria. And the dysphoria was needlessly prolonged. Or, more bluntly, in this thread, triadne says:

I’m not saying that a woman who doesn’t have ‘the op’ is not a woman, and I think I was quite clear about that anyway. I was saying that maybe we should have a category for people who have been clinically recognised as a female, to have their(our) own category so as not to be confused with people who just feel a bit feminine. Sort of in the same way, you have people medically diagnosed with OCD, then you have people who say they are OCD because they like to put their books in alphabetical order. In this example, I think society at large knows the difference, but when it comes to trans women, society doesn’t know the difference and hence we have the arguments over bathroom access etc. I have gone to a shit ton of effort, gone through extensive medical treatment and legal dealings in order to gain the right to be recognised as a woman. I don’t think a man should be able to simply say “I’m a woman” and be legally recognised as such, just because he wants to gain access to the ladies toilets. and just in case you might think that is unllikely, I recommend doing a search for a person named Jessica Yaniv. I’m not making any conclusions about that person but it should illustrate just why these are areas for concern.

[…]

Also, I’m pretty sure if you waved a magic wand and restored one of those guys’ penis, I would wager they’d be pretty happy about it. if you waved a magic wand and gave any trans woman a proper functioning perfect vagina, I would wager she’d be happy. I mean on the proviso you could turn it back on request, I would say most would choose not to. those that choose to have a penis again… They are like Trans-women with a capital T, rather than trans-Women with a capital W…

It’s a meaner way of putting it, but it makes the concern clear: the people seeking medical treatment and who want to blend in with mainstream society like having a few barriers. And the last sentence encapsulates the ends of the transmed/tucute dispute; for the category of trans women in particular, transmed trans women are concerned with being women, whereas tucutes are often enough more concerned with their trans identity. Which, again, does strike me as odd, since it’s a medical condition, and generally we don’t inflate those into identities.

We generally don’t, at least. Sometimes they can be formed, though. For instance, while deafness in itself is just not having the ability to hear, the Deaf community has a lot of worthwhile things going for it, and there’s a whole culture around it. Some Deaf parents object to congenitally deaf children received cochlear implants (CI). But why shouldn’t hearing people go voluntarily destroy our hearing? Well, for one, usually the justification for not getting a CI is that being a full member of the Deaf community is preferable to being marginalized in the hearing community. But that doesn’t mean that it’s reasonable to prefer Deafness over hearing when good-enough hearing is an option. Usually in the cases where it’s not, it’s because an adult Deaf person is already involved in the culture and has something to lose. The cases where someone does want to induce a medical problem are often enough bodily integrity dysphoria or Munchausen’s. Or, in milder cases, attention-seeking, desire for a sick or victim roles, or identity confusion. Though this line of causes can also ramp up to identity confusion in borderline personality disorder, especially given “some individuals escape this state [of identity confusion] by choosing a “negative identity” (i.e., a role that is inappropriate or unusual given the individual’s attributes, such as race or socioeconomic status) that often constitutes a role or group identification negatively viewed by the broader culture.”

(Also in the above thread: “Seems like an odd step though, banning all transwomen from using the women’s room when women who are actually on the sex offender registry can still legally use public restrooms.” This will become relevant when we get to the more anti-trans positions.)

Ph0tohead gives another take on the situation:

It’s crazy to me how so many people (especially online, edgy/artsy AFAB people) get the idea one day that they could be trans, in the context of the trans movement gaining mainstream attention, and right then and there it becomes their core identity, absolutely no hesitation, lack of or questionable dysphoria, no doubts, pushed to the forefront of how they present themselves to the world.

I’ve had dysphoria since I can remember (4 years old?), and I don’t even fit the stereotypical trans narrative. I’m transmasc, exclusively attracted to men, and non binary. Even with debilitating lifelong dysphoria, it took me literal YEARS of back-and-forth, questioning, doubt-ridden overconsideration to determine that I was trans.

I don’t understand how the FUCK people can insist without hesitation, after less than a month of questioning, with the assertion that you don’t need dysphoria, that they’re trans. It’s fucking ridiculous.

It’s just extremely unfortunate that this line of thought is then swept up by transphobes to rile against trans people, and young trans people. No trans person should be forced to wait to live as who they truly are, but some people really need to step away from the idea that Anyone Can Be Trans If They Identify~. Just stop.

Being GNC doesn’t necessarily equal being trans!!

I include the whole comment because he made his position rather clear. The position is that having gender dysphoria is being trans, and not conforming to gender norms is being GNC. You can be one, the other, both, or neither. It’s strange how a rare condition suddenly spiked, and in a form rarely seen before, right when it became a public center of attention. Moreover, this isn’t just harmless fun; gender non-conforming people are non-conforming. Conflating the two pushes out gender conforming trans people and puts the political baggage of GNCs on trans people. If your goal is to blend in, yeah, you don’t want the anti-blending in crowd calling you one of them, nor do you want them calling themselves what you are. Mebf109 expresses further confusion:

I had no idea that some people believe that nondysphoric people should transition. Why would they want to? My contemporaries always viewed it as a last resort. Why would anyone want to complicate their lives beyond all fucking belief?

And a desire to return to before the explosion of trans attention:

One great advantage us girls had was that was that transsexual was something that most people never thought about. It was quiet easy to pass. Some people wouldn’t believe me when I told them I was born male.

Okay, next post. The other common motto of the transmeds appears to be “being trans is not fun”. Some trans people are about as unhappy with people playing trans for fun as some people with DID are with people playing DID for fun. (Linked blog is someone playing telling other people who are playing to be more respectful of the people who aren’t playing.)

Are there more complaints? Absolutely. So far these problems have been either global or restricted to wealthy countries.

“Oh shit, there are HRT shortages in my country all the fucking time and often many forms of HRT are unavailable… the parties poised to win our elections constantly talk about curbing what they call gender ideology… Well, at least these pro-lgbt publications with tons of followers worldwide will report on it, maybe there will be a reaction?”

Pro-Lgbt publication: “Victoria’s secret has a trans model now! Btw she transitioned at 8, clearly discrimination is no more :)”

The user posted no sources, though in my experience, this isn’t far off. At this point, the argument from transmeds is looking to me a lot like Martha Nussbaum’s decimation of Judith Butler. For those unfamiliar, in “The Professor of Parody,” Nussbaum critiques Butler’s theoretical work that entirely ignores the plight of women around the world so she can indulge in her desires to submit while living a ridiculously privileged life. The parallel here is transmeds being concerned with material problems for people who are suffering having a problem with tucutes shifting focus to people who are already pretty well-off but want to try being called different pronouns. (I don’t agree with Nussbaum’s politics, by the way. She supports Buttigieg and Kloubuchar. Butler supported Harris. Clearly Butler is doing something better than Nussbaum.)

The next two options lead in opposite directions. Let’s start with the friendlier one. In the truscum subreddit, you can find this highly upvoted:

For those unfamiliar with the meme format, this image is making fun of a tucute (depicted by the cartoons on the left) by saying they reject their being cis to, well, you can see the image. If you can’t, the charge is that they shoehorn themselves into the LGBT community to make trans people look like a joke while lying to medical professionals so you can steal resources from people who need them until your realize you fucked up and decided to detransition.

hAll of these points have already been made, but this gets us into one of the most represented problems tucutes ave with transmeds: The depictions of tucutes are themselves transphobic. Crystal_potato points out:

I feel like the makeup, the pink hair, and the earring are actually counter to the message of the image.

Men, trans men included, can do all of those things because, as the image says, you don’t need to conform to traditional gender roles. This is a cartoon person, so I’m not going to bother analyzing their trans-ness or not, just y’know. Don’t become the monster you hate.

To which another user replied:

You’re right. The only thing actually wrong with this image is the cleavage, but OP chose to go all in on a harmful stereotype of trans men in order to make their point. Sometimes the derision for tucutes on this sub is indistinguishable from actual transphobia. This sub is supposed to be about mocking people for stupid ideas, not for their appearance.

Looking at the truscum subreddit, it looks pretty level-headed. They want nothing more than for people to get medicine they need, for people to not get unnecessary medicine, for trans people to be respected/able, and for fetishists to be kept away from the vulnerable. So I look up the #anti truscum tag on tumblr.

There are some definite problems. The caricatures of tucutes are criticized frequently. Even if some transmeds are willing to denounce the caricatures, plenty are being made. Admittedly, though, that’s a social problem with the transmed community rather than anything wrong with the position. It is concerning, however, how while the truscum on reddit are mostly critical of cis men with fetishes, the truscum on tumblr are mostly critical of putative cis women who want to be trendy. I saw a direct comparison with the straight women in the 00s who pretended to be bi for the attention. To be fair, though also I remember being bi ten years ago, and there were a fair number of women who were bi up until it involved being sexually or romantically involved with women. Of course, I rarely said anything, except in private to get a laugh out of some of the more ridiculous statements, like, “I’m bi for my art”. In that case, though, they weren’t doing much damage. Relations between bisexual women and lesbians got a bit worse, but nothing on the magnitude of the complaints transmeds are making. Still, there’s plenty of room for transphobia and misogyny to appear, and if they’re clearly around, then we should critically consider whether any arguments rely on them. Thus far, I haven’t noticed any such reliance, and retrodding each argument now to look, only to find nothing, would be rather pointless. Let’s turn to what the tucutes are saying. 

Here is a #anti truscum post urging (trans) readers to choose their trans siblings over cis acceptance. That is, the truscum who want to blend in should reject blending in and instead embrace tucutes. This of course doesn’t address any of the other points, though it also doesn’t try to. It’s a pretty big demand, though, to insist someone give up on fitting in with society. They accuse transmeds of gatekeeping, which is a rather fitting term, and welcometonightgayle lists these consequences:

  • Trans community is no longer a safe and accepting place where you know you won’t be misgendered
  • Ace people have gone back in the closet
  • Ace and aro people don’t feel safe and valued anymore
  • Everyone is fucking fighting, misgendering each other, calling each other slurs, nitpicking each other’s identities

The first and fourth pertain to transmeds directly. (There is a lot of overlap between transmeds and people who say heteroromantic and aromatic asexuals aren’t in the same category as LGBT. The argument more or less goes that the community isn’t just for anyone with any sexual deviation from the norm; it’s for gender and sexual minorities (besides cis straight women in general, who have feminism) to come together to deal with our problems coming from living in a straight dominated society. Sure, asexuality doesn’t get much explicit media representation, and it can be confusing being an ace teen in a sexual world. They’re not being killed over it. Homoromantic and biromantic asexuals suffer homophobia and biphobia, not “aphobia”.)

The first, that “the trans community is a safe and accepting place where you know you won’t be misgendered” is threatened by transmeds. For instance:

image

Let’s take the transmed position for granted for a minute; in this paragraph I’ll just assume gender dysphoria is a necessary condition to be trans. Nothing about pronoun use actually follows. Now, if a trans person were particularly discontent over fetishists or attention-seeking GNCs, I could see their motivation (irrational as it is) to lash out by calling those people by their “biological pronouns”. (Nevermind the problems with the term “biological” here.) No actual reasons, though, so it says little about the position itself, except that it could lead to this sort of motivation. In which case the tucute position isn’t that transmeds are catching something factually incorrect, but rather that certain beliefs lead to certain bad behavior. Or, since “belief” might imply some sort of necessary relation with truth, even certain conceptualizations, useful as they may be for the reasons transmeds point out, can also be harmful for these reasons.

On the other hand….

Someone being rude is bad and all, but we’re going to need some much worse consequences to handle the transmeds’ consequences.

Okay, back to taking no position for granted. If we consider instead the possibility where the transmeds are wrong, that doesn’t change the consequences much. The reason you respect someone’s preferences with regard to what to call them is because it’s the nice thing to do and comes without negative consequences. If an openly cis person asked me to refer to them by some set of pronouns other than the ones according to their gender, I’d oblige. I also oblige when women get married and ask to be called by a different last name than before. I don’t really like that women take their husbands’ names, but it’s really not my place to dictate which nominatives someone can and cannot be referred to by.

This brings us to the other point: “Everyone is fucking fighting, misgendering each other, calling each other slurs, nitpicking each other’s identities.” That plenty of people are fighting and misgender each other is clear. I’m not sure how inclusive “everyone” is intended to be, here, but the searches thus far make it pretty clear that plenty of people are doing these things. Neither side is committed to this as a result of their defining positions, though, and neither needs to accept them as necessary consequences. They may be the actual consequences of gatekeeping, though at the same time they could be consequences of resisting the gatekeeping, or just miscommunication all around. I think, as will become yet clearer, this third option is the case: This debate is missing important details, and this miscommunication is leading to hopeless spirals.

Let’s return to the consequences of gatekeeping post. Here’s what allegedly has not happened:

  • Made LGBTphobes accept us
  • Made the LGBT community better in any way
  • Helped trans people transition any faster

Well, these are certainly three of the main goals transmeds express. If in fact the gatekeeping isn’t working, then there’s not much reason to keep it around. Though it’s not obvious which side is factually correct on these matters. Moreover, it’s not entirely clear what these mean. In the first point, is the term “LGBTphobes” referring only to current LGBTphobes, or past ones? If only current, then of course gatekeeping hasn’t made them more accepting–the group was picked out as the unaccepting ones. On the other hand, if we’re talking about the people who have become less LGBTphobic, then what has done the work to change them? Putting on a more majority-friendly media image has a pretty successful track record of making the majority more friendly. The response to this is that these moves leave people behind. And this highlights that we also need to be clear about who “us” refers to and what constitutes acceptance. Are there more cis people who accept that people with gender dysphoria who undergo transition are the gender that they say they are? That seems to be the case. Are medical institutions more accepting of the treatments needed? That’s certainly been happening, and it rather requires the medical reasons for treatment to be present. (On the other hand, insisting that gender dysphoria is internalized transphobia would give someone another reason to not accept the need for treatment.) Are there more cis people who accept that we shouldn’t kill trans people? Again, probably, given a palatable image turns trans people from the scary unknown into the familiar. Are more people accepting of GNCity? It’d be harder to connect that to gatekeeping, though it’s also hardly a goal. Does gatekeeping cause more people to be accepting of the autobiographical identity claims made by non-dysphoria trans-identifying people? No, it does not, though it also explicitly tries not to.

The second point is too vague to respond to directly (see any of the reasons in favor of transmedicalism; if any turn out to work, the LGBT community has been made better in some way). However the third point is contentious. As we’ve already seen, some people see the tucute community, think that’s the essence of being trans, and then don’t get the treatment they need. Perhaps these people’s interests are outweighed by other people getting faster access to treatment, but the universal claim at least is plainly false. Moreover, one side seems to be rather fine with slowing treatment, suggesting coping mechanisms for a condition that has been recognized as not something that can be fixed except by physical alteration of the body.

Also, as long as we’re talking about the rest of the LGBT community, Butch_Nihilism points out that the expansion of the term “lesbian” isn’t working out for lesbians. In the past, it was clearly the term women who are only sexually/romantically interested in women could use to say as much. Men, enbies, and bisexual women using the term muddies the distinction. With this linguistic norm, it becomes reasonable for men to hit on lesbians, since some lesbians are into men. Men are bad enough at not pushing themselves on lesbians as it is. And then more disturbingly, everything on this page. For those not wanting to sort through a gallery of abuse, this is a rather tame example:

Here “cisbians” means “cis lesbians”. I don’t find the claim about genitalia not mattering believeable. I’m bisexual, and I have seen genitals that I would not want to touch. Touching someone’s genitals is a pretty important part of a sexual relationship for a lot of people. I imagine for monosexuals, genitals are an even bigger deal. And it doesn’t require a binary conception of sex, anyhow. If we step away from the conceptualizations of genitalia that we have, the sexual preferences can still exist. If you look around for shock images, for instance, you’ll probably encounter some photographs of genitals that you’d perhaps rather not even look at. (It’s unfortunate for the people they’re attached to, yes.) If you poke around a porn site, you’ll probably find different genitals more or less appealing for any number of reasons. These reasons probably don’t have a super strong correlation with the attractiveness of the rest of the person’s body, nor any personality features of the person. If the length of a penis or size of one’s labia can make a difference, then it’s rather likely that the presence or absence of either can make a difference. One could argue that this is only a preference in sexual behavior and not attraction per se, though this relies on abstracting away from the differences between trans and cis people, and ignores context. Sure, there are definitely senses in which the two are indistinguishable, so anyone who can be attracted to one can be attracted to the other. If we’re talking about just finding someone

I’m not saying that refusing to date trans people is never the result of transphobia, though, either. Brynn Tannehill makes a pretty clear argument: There are no features common to every trans person besides trans status, so a blanket repulsion from all trans people can only be based on that socially constructed status, and as such reflects a deeper transphobia. I assume Tannehill is using the more inclusive tucute definition of “trans” given otherwise there’s also the gender dysphoria feature to share, or at least a shared experience of gender dysphoria, even if some can completely fix it with treatment. It strikes me as rather odd to not date someone for that reason, but ableism is a thing, and I have seen bisexuals refuse to date any trans people just to avoid the emotional problems that come with dysphoria. Nobody is entitled to date anyone, but that doesn’t mean one’s preferences can’t be rooted in prejudices. Sure, it’s morally permissible to put whatever restrictions on your dating that you want. But if you want to exclude some group of people, and you live in a society where prejudice against that group is deeply ingrained, then there’s a really good chance that preference is rooted in prejudice.

Or:

Never mind all the work that went into carving out spaces for gays and lesbians. There’s nothing transphobic loaded into the terms, so the only problem would be in having any terms for attraction to the same sex or gender. I don’t see a way to go about this without just erasing that preference, and that’s just bringing back widespread homophobia. Based on how poorly this goes for bisexuals, I’m guessing we don’t need to erase homosexuality. But in fact that does seem like the goal here, especially if you read through more of the gallery and see continued complaints not about transphobia per se, but rather the existence of monosexuality and its frequent exclusion of trans people from dating pools. It’s unfortunate for people monosexuals are rarely into, since monosexuals make up a big majority, but something being unfortunate for some people doesn’t entail bigotry against those people is afoot.

This post, too, seems to rather miss what a lot of people want in sex:

The blogger, Another Angry Woman, misses that for a lot of people, genitals are an important part of sex not just to avoid but to have. To be fair, so do the complaints. If the problem were really merely the presence of an undesired penis or vulva, someone with no genitals at all would be, mutatis mutandis, a viable sexual partner. And for many people, myself included, such a person is. But a lot of people want the genitals. I rarely hear straight women talking about avoiding vulvas; I hear about desiring to do things with penises quite a bit. The feeling of exclusion is understandable. For bisexuals and asexuals, I can see monosexuality making no sense; in fact I still don’t really understand it. The idea of an entire gender or sex just being out of the domain of possibly attractive people looks impossible from my POV. It’s easier as a result to ignore the role of monosexuality in decision making and reason. If someone else who doesn’t really get monosexuality is also feeling romantically or sexually excluded, then it could look like transphobia is the only explanation.

If we follow this discussion of the cotton ceiling to the end, we find my comparisons here rather fit:

There are many reasons one might have trouble attracting a sexual partner. The resulting trouble can be plenty upsetting, regardless of the reasons. But as is very clear with incels, a group defined by their sexual exclusion and misogyny, some people being upset doesn’t make them right. (In case it’s at all unclear: I’m not calling trans people incels. A small subset of trans people are, like incels, having remarkable difficulty finding a sexual partner and are upset at others over this perceived injustice.)

That rather covers the point about genitals: for plenty of people, they just matter. It doesn’t require reducing an entire person to one body part for someone to find having a certain shape to be a necessary condition of partner suitability. In fact, only focusing on genitals would leave, say, straight men acting on attractions to trans men, which would be rather transphobic while still carrying the straight label around. This then wraps up some of the problems for the LGBT community with what seems to be just denying the relevance of the physical. So then it seems the gatekeeping served some purposes.

The response, then, if we follow this through to action looks like affirming the okayness of being (GNC) cis. At first glance this can look kinda strange. Usually we don’t re-enforce the attention-seeking behavior of majorities. The recently trending #itsokaytobewhite was the spectacular display of racist whites hellbent on demonstrating otherwise that one would expect. (Or just ineptly trying to fight back against their obsolescence that the right-wing media has told them is a serious threat to their well-being and survival. Lots of people are wrongly afraid for their lives.) Why is it different for cis people? The most apparent reason to me is that unlike in other cases where wanting to be something you’re not stops at some correctable social nonsense, generally of a rather tame kind, in this case people can convince themselves that they need hormones or surgeries that they really shouldn’t have. And cis people can appear trans when desired, often enough, so the risks of having people not in the group coming in or taking over are more possible. A closer analogy, then, is with resources that are need-based on the basis of wealth or income. Or, people with disabilities not wanting resources used by people without those disabilities. Which can include using the public recognition being given to a medical condition to draw attention to a form of non-conformity, especially when so many of the people with the problem have been struggling for normalization for so long.

Yet, it’s still the case that tucutes can recognize that some people have gender dysphoria and need medical treatment for it. There are other reasons, like trauma, that can be a pretty good reason to transition, at least socially, and having a cooperative social environment can be really helpful in those cases. While the brain science is what it is, all it establishes is that some cases of gender dysphoria correlate with a brain-primary/secondary sex mismatch. Unless we’re abandoning the closure of physics, everything to do with gender has to be physically embodied somehow. Scott Alexander makes the case for treating this physically:

Imagine if we could give depressed people a much higher quality of life merely by giving them cheap natural hormones. I don’t think there’s a psychiatrist in the world who wouldn’t celebrate that as one of the biggest mental health advances in a generation. Imagine if we could ameliorate schizophrenia with one safe simple surgery, just snip snip you’re not schizophrenic anymore. Pretty sure that would win all of the Nobel prizes. Imagine that we could make a serious dent in bipolar disorder just by calling people different pronouns. I’m pretty sure the entire mental health field would join together in bludgeoning anybody who refused to do that. We would bludgeon them over the head with big books about the side effects of lithium.

At this point, the case for treating it medically is pretty good, at least in cases where it works. We see those in cases with gender dysphoria, and in some without, and either way, I’m generally inclined to forgo constructed categories like gender for the sake of better mental health, and to forgo an aesthetic feature like sex for its sake, too. If fixity of gender is hurting people, and fluidity isn’t hurting anyone, then we may as well open up the categories. Moreover, as Alice Dreger argues, gender dysphoria needn’t be considered a disorder of its own. It can be the cause of things like depression and anxiety. It can play a mediating role between trauma and dysfunction. It can in fact be the case that the same action can be the solution to multiple different problems. Caffeine helps with tension headaches and also tiredness. Gender transition helps with congenital brain-primary/secondary sex mismatch as well as certain symptoms of post-traumatic stress. (The fact that many DID and OSDD systems include alters of multiple genders suggests pretty strongly that in some cases, something non-static in the brain is doing some important work in a person’s gendered thoughts and feelings.) The folks in /r/transsexual have a simple enough solution: Use “transsexual” to refer specifically to people with gender dysphoria, and “transgender” can be the bigger umbrella term. (Although some just avoid “transgender” altogether, seeing themselves as just part of a fundamentally different thing.) I recall this image floating around LGBT corners of the web ten years or so ago:

See the source image

Conceptually, it works. Though it leaves us ambiguous with regard to the referent of the term “trans” since it could be either. While inclusivity sounds nice at first, this definition of “transgender” is so broad as to include almost everyone. If everyone who isn’t a cissexual (i.e. not transsexual) gender-conforming non-intersexed man or woman is trans, then for a lot of definitions of gender-conformity, a lot of people are trans. And there’s a lot of room for these groups to have natural disagreement since they have rather different goals. Some people are being called trans because they do not want to conform with gender norms. Others are being called trans because they have gender dysphoria, though they very much want to conform. Some are involved in a certain kind of performance art, and some iterations of the umbrella just explicitly let in cross-dressing people:

See the source image

Which, hey, that finally brings us to the fetishists. Which, again, I’m not saying having a fetish is wrong. There are some problems with fetishizing people, but I’m not here to explain that, and many of the fetishists are into themselves anyhow. So what’s the problem?

It means that all four people in that picture are infantilizing womanhood, fetishizing lesbians, AND (and this is the very best part!) wishing for both sets of genitalia because that is a VERY normal trans experience which was not at ALL brought on by at least a decade of likely futa porn consumption.

Thinking about a few people I know, I could see the pictured thread being a joke, though that points us back to problems with people not dealing with a disadvantage taking over the social movement for the people dealing with that disadvantage. Moreover, the people who are so gung-ho about labelling themselves trans can stir up problems for the first group. Suggesting violence towards women using penises is a very bad look. Presumably, a group that’s actually safe for women needs to not include misogynist men. Because in a world with a desperate need for better education for women, and education about women, jumping in the way of feminism is pretty awful. Complaining about any representation of female bodies sounds a lot more like something someone socialized into a privileged role upset something isn’t about them would do. And in fact, some actively want space for their male socialization in women’s spaces. Or, uh, just tell women to make room in feminism. And then assert that cis privilege somehow totally outbalances sexism.

Which, yeah, is looking to be a problem. I imagine you can browse through the galleries of terfisaslur.com if you want by now. And that website also has plenty of examples of the gender critical crowd missing really basic points. From the main page not seeing the similarity of vague cheers for violence against a perceived oppressor class to, well, other vague cheers for violence against a perceived oppressor class. (And dissimilar to those that Twitter lets get taken over by the bigoted group…) To sometimes clearly taking their conclusion for granted. For instance, they include a complaint from a trans woman that would like to have periods as evidence of erasing female biology, but I imagine plenty of the cis women who never have a period have some troubles with that fact. For all of the reasons I mentioned already why misgendering plenty of people hurts them for various reasons, deliberately avoiding trans-inclusive language seems rather plain mean. Assuming here the gender critical position has its share of reasonable and caring people, as it certainly seems to based on the people I’ve talked with, ignorance of trans talking points seems like the easiest answer. But the talking points are really easy to come by. What’s really the motivation? Well, looking at /r/cisprivilegeisalie, it looks like another case of some people in a marginalized group (and their allies) worrying that some people from the group doing the marginalizing are coming in and making things worse. The second top post gets the point across:

These are atrocities at a massive scale committed against women and girls. Almost all cis. It in fact takes quite a bit of privilege to have access to enough medical resources to transition. It takes a society that’s doing well enough with women’s rights to make the social oppression as a result of transition from male to female not worse than what it’s fixing, and female to anything possible. As resources for gender/sexual minorities are increasingly distributed to certain trans causes, it’s often to people who are already fairly secure, away from some of the world’s most vulnerable.

However, this doesn’t actually cut along cis/trans lines at all. Again, if we’re acknowledging the realities that make gender transition worthwhile for a small population, then we’re also acknowledging that plenty of the people referred to as girls aren’t cis, regardless of what definition we use. Sex traffickers don’t run DNA tests. The people performing FGM rather rigidly impose a particularly awful sex-based social practice on female infants, thereby gendering them.

So let’s say we can get to the points that seem pretty generally agreeable. There’s some people experiencing gender dysphoria, and they have a pretty solid reason to change their sex. Almost everyone doesn’t. Yet, gender, by which I mean all of the social stuff following from sex, is a pretty complicated thing we’ve constructed. While it’s probably the case that a lot of it needs dismantling, until then, some people are going to have much happier lives just switching their gendered position and all that comes with it. There’s good reasons to be careful with permanent body changes, though that’s true of body changes humans aren’t responsible for, too. That most people are monosexual makes the social relevance of sex unlikely to go away, so the best we can really do is make the gender concepts as good or at least as not as bad as we can.

A lot of the gender critical concerns seem to rely on conflating everything under the broad transgender umbrella. Some feminists worry that men will slip into women’s sports. If we’re just letting anyone self-identify as anything, then yeah, women’s leagues could be dominated by a man who’s skilled enough to go beat top female athletes, but who also would rather do that than go compete somewhere he’ll be taken seriously. If we’re not, then the variation of whatever variables are important in the given sport tend to stay within the same range after sufficient transition anyway. At which point we may as well just test for whatever we specifically want to control for. Others have some concerns about women’s bathrooms being open to trans women. Usually (and I’m linking less now since this is more familiar stuff to me, so I’m not finding new sources for all of it) the concerns are similarly dependent on a proposed pure rule of self-identification. Which, really, if you want to dismantle the social constructs sprouting from sex, then that’s your only option. If you want sex segregation, which there are some reasons for though it’s debateable which side to come down on, then you’re going to be constructing genders. Doubly so if you then proceed to ignore someone’s current sex in favor of whatever a doctor declared them at birth. Some of the concerns in the link remain, though, and really there’s quite a few problems highlighted in the thread:

Initially, women’s bathrooms in the college were dedicated safe spaces that provided feminine hygiene products, and regular information leaflets on forced marriage, FGM and domestic violence. It is worth bearing in mind that this is a college with a high refugee and otherwise marginalised and vulnerable student population. As a result of introducing gender neutral bathrooms, none of these materials are being made available to women in need.

This is pretty bad. Also there’s really no good reason to not make those materials available. It’d be real great if they were even available outside of bathrooms.

This part is harder:

Several women from various backgrounds, but particularly recent Muslim refugees, were uncomfortable with the current set up. [. . .] As a result of a tiny minority of the student population, now the most vulnerable students are being made to feel uncomfortable. There are of course women who will no longer go to this college if they are forced to share these spaces with men (How can you adjust your hijab/niqab if there are going to be men present?). I totally understand that not everyone will agree with the hijab/niqab but it is worth bearing in mind that these are recently arrived vulnerable women that should be included in society in as many ways as possible.

This is a rather pressing matter. Sure, people who are in an oppressive religion should get rid of or fix their religion. Unfortunately, it’s really not that easy, psychologically or with the social-material setup we have. Plenty of people can’t leave because family will shun or kill them. Plenty of others have just been thoroughly convinced of misogynist and heterosexist ideals. Nonetheless, there are some pretty vulnerable people in those religions, and we need to make sure they actually have the option of being included in society. In many cases, this is pretty easy since whether someone is trans is invisible, so they can just go to the bathroom and nobody cares because nobody knows. In enough other cases, it’s not. Especially since some people are claiming trans as their identity, so they’re very visible. At the same time, letting some people’s religion dictate the freedoms of others is rarely a good move. Plenty of schools handle trans students’ bathroom needs by segregating them into single stalls or the nurse’s office. Presumably instead of keeping needless segregation around, the people who have trouble being in a bathroom with any others can self-segregate. But this solution would also fit in with another GC argument:

As men, they weren’t brought up to compromise or consider others, and because they buy into the ‘life on easy mode’ idea of womanhood they believe that declaring yourself as such means you will be coddled and catered to at every turn. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t exactly reflect my experience. But at the same time, they’re so rare and special and delicate that they believe themselves to be the ultimate victim. No starving orphan, no trafficked child, no oppressed minority could possibly relate to their suffering.

Though an interestingly similar idea shows up on /r/truscum:

To me, “man” and “woman” are terms you earn through experience, or at least that’s how cis people use them. It only seems right to differentiate the terms.

Both groups here are taking the social training involved in gender and finding out it plays out. Given that women are socialized to be one way, and men a different way, it’s reasonable to expect some behavioral differences between people socialized as either. This suggests another criterion to consider when categorizing people: which gender they’ve been socialized as. This leaves some people in a middle zone, but maybe that’s concepts accurately tracking reality. Someone who grew up socialized as a girl for thirteen years, then over the next two socially transitions to being a boy, and then lives for seventeen more years probably has more in common with other thirty year old men than women. Someone who grew up socialized female for twenty nine years might still have some deep resocializing to do. Regardless, though, transmeds and gender critics have more common ground here than they might expect. Both have a rather clear sex essentialism, though they disagree on whether the brain is a sexed organ. The gender critics and tucutes also say that the transmed science has been debunked, though it looks rather contentious still. (Though, really, given I’ve seen both sides fuck up the science on DID, I’ll hold off from trusting the world wide web on this one.) Given we’re not just checking the brains of newborns and then checking back in a few decades, that’ll be rather hard to get much clearer on, unless there’s some creative neuroscience method I’m missing here. On the other hand, there’s still the other cases, including some trauma-related. Given we already know trauma can cause these sorts of problems, and that trauma can have some pretty huge effects on the brain, it’s very well possible that the girls /r/cisprivilegeisalie is focused on protecting will grow up to have problems that could be relieved by unchaining them from womanhood.

Here’s a thread again talking about how transmeds mostly just want to pass. They mostly can dodge the laws gender critics want passed right now (like bathroom segregation bills) since they blend in. Which rather brings up another point:53bn18ilos131.png

There’s a lot of political entanglement in queer spaces:

I’m just SO tired of the constant politicial discussions. Silencing me for being XY intersex, having Dissociative identity disorder, and being ftm. Expecting me to either be a nonbinary transman or super masculine. Expecting me to bend over backwards so I don’t offend people for literally talking about passing. I feel like I can’t even safely convey my sexual abuse without someone from GC saying I’m lying or transitioning as a fetish. I made a most on ftm saying I was happy with my height do to my genetics and I get banned!!

I hate the mindset. Anime, left wing politics, hating cops…. I literally just want to transition and live my life normally for fucks sake. Stop making my whole existence a political thing or making the whole community look like a joke. I don’t spend every waking minute of my life drooling over how im a uwu cute transboi who’s gonna be a “manly man”. I’m just a man whose life is already difficult do to DID. I didn’t want any of this.

In addition, there’s also some generally ridiculously awful behavior that seems to be allowed:

And other fun with child abuse. Up until somewhere around here I just took all references to the “transcult” to be from people clearly on one extreme. But then I took a serious look at all the stuff I’d been reading on cults.

So, I think to myself, how much of this does the queer left circles that I’ve been around lately exhibit? On the behavior control side, there’s a lot of obedience driven by the emotional control. Behavior is modified, often rather unabashedly using punishments and rewards. The cotton ceiling discussion covered controlling sexual behavior. Too many queer people have almost no straight friends. Importantly, certain political behavior is expected and demanded. As seen by the astounding number of hashtags condemning or violently threatening entire groups actively trying to be caring and reasonable, there’s some serious good/evil thinking. The fact that I called gender critics “gender critics” instead of TERFs has me wondering if I’m about to be carved out of part of the community. The identity changes are pretty obvious, what with trans people tending to change their identities, though the explosion in people ditching their birth names and identities so soon after encountering this group is a little concerning. Moreover this point is a good time to remember that while any one or couple of these can have perfectly good explanations, the red flags piling up is a pretty clear sign of mind control. Thought-stopping techniques to allow only positive thoughts and to avoid engaging with resistance is common. Usually it’s justified by marginalized people not needing to explain themselves, and certain topics being bad for those people. But really, avoiding the topics just lets others control the popular understanding. The political right is spending its energy on charisma to bring people in. Minorities and the left don’t really have the material strength to enforce many demands, so pushing away everyone in majorities is a rather strategically silly plan. On the other hand, it’s a pretty effective way to keep people under control. Make the outside world threatening and the in-group the only place perceived as safe from persecution.

The informational control side is also fulfilled, largely falling into controlling information going in and going out. Unapproved sources of information are generally condemned entirely, rather than read. I’ve heard plenty of encouragement to just block anyone I disagree with rather than engaging with their ideas. Sure, there’s plenty of reason for people in minorities to be concerned about public image and wanting to keep public speech from getting too dangerous. One of the main transmed points was all about the effect of public image. On the other hand, there’s less reason to control private speech. Yet even among only other LGBT people, or only friends, or only some intersection of the two, many questions and doubts seem rather unaccepted.

Finally to enforce and keep it all together is emotional control. This is where the control became extra obvious to me. People with some emotional or attentional needs find the group. The group builds fear of outsiders, is really quick to suggest cutting off friends and family, and embraces shunning as a tactic. The features are all there (and there’s plenty I didn’t think of), but why?

Men wanting more power for men might have a reason to contribute:

[A] company will declare that they will give 50% funding to men, and 50% to women. Seems fair right? Never mind that men have had most of it for all of time, we’ll just half it this year. So then the TRAs complain, even though they are entitled to gain the funding under their self-declared gender so it shouldn’t make a difference anyway. So now 5% of the funding goes to non-binary/trans people. Which is ten times the population rate. Of course this comes from the women’s fund, so now it is back to majority male. And God forbid you mention it.

And have the means:

Because men dominate technology, media, social media forums and society – and therefore men who want to re-define feminism and women are given unearned credibility to advance their views.

Like, it’s really concerning that queer left circles are just ignoring straight cis women:

Which, you know, is still most women. If the goal was to weaken feminism by drawing away GNC cis women (a term that doesn’t actually make sense with the broad definition of “transgender”, admittedly, but also “cissexual” seems unnecessary), sapping resources for women into other gender/sexual minorities, and waste feminism’s time with newly emboldened fetishists openly objectifying, infantilizing, stealing from, and actually then going out and physically harming women

Others suspect there’s some bad medicine involved. There’s a financial motive there, at least. (And without diving into the medical literature, I don’t want to say much. But I have to save that for when I have another round of time for this.) Still others trace that line of “women have life on easy mode” thinking and conclude that some men who fail at their perceived role as men try being women, since they’re misogynists who think being a woman must just be easier, and so they could do it better. There’s also more innocent fuel for the fire, like confused straight cis people who misunderstand sexual attraction for gender dysphoria. There’s more extreme outliers:

Reiko#3333 was on /r9k/ and put out a discord link for his trap group. When people joined, they were asked to put out a picture of their face while wearing female clothes. When Reiko and his guys had how they looked, they used the picture to dox that person. They would then blackmail the victim by forcing them to take transgender hormone therapy, and if they didn’t, then their trap pictures would be sent to their family. And the victims would be forced to do more and more, all for the sadistic pleasure of Reiko. He also forced the “traps” to somewhat act as servants to him, and he has expressed wishes of forcing them into submission

I’m sure a lot of the controlling aspects of the community did arise just by the people in the community acting on concerns for their own safety. I’m also sure that’s the case with a lot of cults. But there are also people who want control and will do unsavory things with it. One very good way to do that is to convince a bunch of vulnerable people that there’s a safe in-group and a super dangerous out-group. Then make sure the in-group has measures to shut down any incoming information. If I think from the perspective of not someone looking out for LGBT people but rather someone who doesn’t care at all about them but would like to take advantage of a vulnerable population, then I see I’d create approximately the conditions that have actually been created. If I’m in a position where I set the approved positions, I can have my own controlled bubble. If I convince them their lives are threatened by anyone who disagrees, then I can cut them off from outside support and make them dependent. If I tell them our mission is vital to their survival, then I can get them to give me their labor and money. If I want to turn them into a large, visible group of left-wing anti-feminists, I can do that, too…

Okay, so understanding people with different, even scary, opinions is important.

(I decided to think of things people think and do that I just don’t understand and then listen to them until I do. It’s been one of the more beneficial exercises.)

Like I said, this post isn’t comprehensive. There’s a lot I haven’t covered, and maybe I will in the future. To summarize, though:

  • A lot of the science and medicine is just still being figured out. It is clear that plenty of people benefit from gender transition, though, whether it’s purely socially, or includes any number of physical alterations. What roles the brain shape, trauma, and socialization play is hard to figure out, but it will help sort out the theoretical problems and enable more precise practical courses of action.
  • There are clearly several groups of people fighting over the word “trans”. Of them, one seems to actually be attached to the trans identity, and another often enough would like to have their trans status erased. There’s also probably some malingerers, as there are with most things. But we don’t let people pretending to have cancer bother what we think of people with cancer.
  • There is a concerning amount of controlling behavior in certain parts of the left. We need to do better at getting opposing viewpoints. Especially when those views are from feminists trying to protect the world’s most vulnerable women. (And, yeah, it’s ridiculous how often misgendering is compared with actual violence. Either people see the ridiculousness and are turned off by it, or they buy into it and redirect resources from bigger problems to smaller problems.)
  • Also, there’s a difference between being LGBT and being a leftist.
  • But also, having these positions at the higher level doesn’t at all entail disrespecting individuals. It’s possible to at once think the best general theory we have so far, say, involves a clear distinction between people with and without gender dysphoria, while also thinking that in any individual case, a person is the authority on their own life. Someone telling me that they’re genderfluid or use whatever pronouns isn’t an invitation to have an opinion on their life. Treating people with respect involves letting them define their own lives. Caring about people requires taking their self-definition, their goals and values, etc. seriously. For instance, I take it as more fundamental than any of this theorizing that the people telling me they’re happier when treated as nonbinary or have a fluid relation with gender know their own lives better than I do. If my theoretical understanding can’t explain what’s going on, that’s a flaw in my understanding. If my understanding does explain what’s going on but in a way that looks like someone’s actions might be undermining their own goals, then if I also have the appropriate relationship with them (friend-friend, writer-reader, etc.) I should probably explain my understanding so they can assess the threat.

It’s a complex topic; the people saying otherwise clearly haven’t looked into it very much. There’s plenty more places to look, but please, if you think I’m missing something important, direct me to it. Unfortunately there is no nice conclusion with a course of action. Right now informational bubbles are so tight that most of the people on each side don’t even know who they’re fighting against. If I had the institutional authority to have to come down one way or another on these questions, then I would. But I don’t, so I have the freedom to not pretend I know yet, because the choices I have to make are pretty obvious. Respecting what people say they are is an obvious choice. Standing against actions that uncontroversially hurt people is an obvious choice.

From where I am, it looks like there’s a lot of shared ground on the most important points being missed because of miscommunication and refusal to communicate.

“Should X Be Legal?” Doesn’t Sound Bloody Enough

“Should X be legal?” misses a lot of the options in any discussion, and it hides the brutality of some of the options.
For instance, “Should pot be legal?” sounds like the sort of questions with sane answers on both sides. Maybe it doesn’t, but it seems like it could. “Should we send armed agents of the state to violently remove people from their homes to put them in cages for years if the people possess leaves that make you feel funny when smoked?” has an obvious answer. But “Should we fine people for circumventing the tax structure by acquiring goods from untaxed sources?” goes right back to the realm of reasonable questions. Between these cases, we see that adding this precision lets us see whether there’s even a sane debate to be had.

On the Two Parts of Empirical Knowledge

There’s two parts to looking at the world. The looking and the world. Most fields of inquiry fix their way of looking and go out in search of the world. Philosophy (at least some of it) instead turns to the way we’re looking at it.
Take for example the role of acetylcholine in the brain. If you ask “Why is that ACh there?” the organic chemist will answer with some sort of mechanical explanation. There’s some mechanism that created an ACh molecule and put it where it is. On the other hand, if you asked a molecular biologist, she would give some sort of purposive explanation. There’s ACh doing the stuff it does being the beings with the ACh doing what it does were able to reproduce. Here we see two scientists answering the same question with two different but compatible answers. Both look to the world, gather their evidence, and draw conclusions about the world. And both keep their ways of looking at the world more or less fixed throughout.
This isn’t meant as an insult to the scientists! Fixing a method of investigation is just how we get a science going. Until we have a concrete system of generating questions (or problems) and an established method of answering (or solving) them, we just don’t have a science. Once we do, though, we apparently get quite a bit of use out of it. The tricky part is figuring out which systems of generating questions and which methods of answering them are the good ones. This is where I see philosophy fitting in.
I take my work on consciousness in particular to be serving this role to neuroscience and psychology, for example. The two fields have very effective ways of investigating nervous systems and mental/behavioral structures. I think that they don’t yet have a great way of investigating subjective conscious experience itself yet (which isn’t a super unpopular view). Don’t get me wrong: I don’t deny the current best empirical data people have collected. My point is not that we have no information from our current perspective, but rather that with a fundamental reconfiguration of our understanding of what consciousness is, and with this reconfiguration a new vocabulary, calculus, etc., we can see it much more clearly.
It takes all kinds. Some people are excellent at taking the blueprints and paving the roads. Some people are great at taking the beaten paths and continuing to build. And some of us see some value in taking yet-undiscovered approaches to the same material. Thus there is in fact not a conflict here but rather two parts of the same larger enterprise.

Freedom of speech does not end at the First Amendment

Someone said or did something controversial. Then, private companies decided not to let the person use their platforms anymore. (Or they deleted a few posts or whatever.) Not too long after, the person (or their followers) make an appeal to freedom of speech. Something like “[Company] is violating [person]’s free speech!” with “and that’s bad” implicit at the end. In response, people who don’t like what was said come around with the revelation that the First Amendment to the US Constitution only applies to the US government. Private companies (and other countries) have the legal right to silence people or disallow them from using their platform.

Yes, that is true. The First Amendment, for example, does not say anything about the legal status of me deleting your comments on my blog, for example. Or WordPress deleting my blog posts on their website. Yet, in either case, freedom of speech is being violated. This is possible because free speech (or “speech that is neither restricted nor silenced”) is something we can understanding independently of the First Amendment. That the First Amendment makes reference to freedom of speech should make this rather apparent.

There are of course several positions one could hold regarding free speech:

  1. Free speech is good without exception: This is often the value touted by people trying to defend the right to say anything, anytime, anywhere. An equivalent phrasing is “All restrictions on speech are bad.” If we want to be less extreme, there are two ways to make exceptions:
  2. Everyone’s having access to free speech is good without exception: This makes room for private entities and such to restrict speech so long as the option to speak freely exists somewhere. Often this value is working in the background when people who are silenced or restricted are told they can go speak freely in their own space, or in a publicly owned space.
  3. Free speech is good with some content exception: That is, it’s bad to restrict speech based on location, time, speaker, etc., but there are some things that ought not be said, and silencing speech of that kind is fine or even good. Of course, with this value we get the further question of what speech is bad enough to restrict.

Unfortunately often, people talk past each other because they don’t agree on this initial question. Or, someone will disingenuously take up one of these for the sake of not having to defend her side in a later question.

I take it most people, at least in the US, have a position that is a combination of 2 and 3. But, if you endorse position 3, then you have to make material distinctions. You cannot just say “Well, everyone has the right (in the sense of “should be allowed”—not necessarily legal right) to say anything,” but rather “In general, everyone has the right to say anything, and this instance is not exception because….” But if the instance is particularly appalling, then what comes after “because” can be rather unpleasant. For instance, to defend someone spouting white supremacist nonsense, you have to defend that nonsense in particular against the reasons why it ought to be silenced. That’s usually going to look like you think the nonsense is not egregious and harmful falsehoods. So, appealing to position 1 instead is very tempting.

One caveat worth noting is that a good does not have to be completely overriding. For example, someone might actually hold position 1  but also believe that the good of free speech can be easily overcome. Maybe it is good to let anyone say anything, but keeping the peace is a greater good, so when the two clash, keeping the peace wins. Thus, positions 2 and 3 are not just position 1 plus recognizing sometimes there are greater goods. Rather, someone who holds position 2 actually does not think it’s particularly good to have setting-unrestricted speech. And someone who holds position 3 thinks that there are some things that are not at all good to allow people to say. (Again, the allowing can be done by a government or someone else. And if allowing it is bad, one might believe that everyone has a duty to silence it.)

I, for instance, hold position 3. In general, people being able to speak without restriction is good. But, there are some things that are bad enough that they aren’t worth allowing their expression. Perhaps it’s not the role of the state to make the restrictions, but the speech should somehow be disallowed. Yet, I also think there are some goods that can outweigh unrestricted speech. Sometimes privacy, for example, demands some speech restrictions. I shouldn’t be allowed to barge into your personal space to speak, and I shouldn’t be allowed to reveal all of your personal information to the world.

The other caveat worth mentioning is that these three positions are not exhaustive. The most obvious omissions are positions that don’t hold freedom of speech as a value at all. To address these positions requires stepping further back to investigate whether freedom of speech, in general, is good. But, in the original context I described, both sides agree that freedom of speech has some positive value.

We can pose a series of questions, then, to isolate disagreement and allow for more fruitful conversation:

  1. Is freedom of speech, at least in general, good? (If yes, go to 2)
  2. Are there exceptions to its goodness that include the situation at hand? (If no, go to 3)
  3. Is there some other good that outweighs the goodness of freedom of speech in te situation at hand?

 

Another attempt to bring out the two most critical points in the abortion debate

A month or two ago Ireland made a stride towards legal abortion, and the US made a stride in the opposite direction. Abortion is always on the political table though. I imagine a perfect pregnancy-prevention mechanism would cool the flames quite a bit, but even then, people can change their minds, and the question will emerge of whether that should be allowed. But as usual, this most recent flare-up of abortion debates involved a lot of people talking past each other other. I think, though, there is ultimately one argument for the prohibition of abortion that is good if it works. There are plenty of reasons one might want to prohibit abortion, such as controlling women, liking the appearance of pregnancy, and any other number of bad reasons, but they’re all pretty bad. So, here’s the one possibly good argument:

  1. Killing people ought to be illegal.
  2. Unborn humans are people.
  3. So, killing unborn humans ought to be illegal.

This seems to be the most intuitive and defensible argument for making abortion illegal. A lot of people seem to endorse it, sometimes implicitly. There’s a need in the popular discourse, though, to be more explicit about the two premises in play, because oftentimes people will defend 2 against an attack on 1, or vice-versa.

Getting a little more clear on the premises

Neither premise is super clear, as is the cost of making them short. The first, the killing people ought to be illegal, has plenty of exceptions. Asking why killing people ought to be illegal seems a little strange. Being wrong to kill seems like it might just be a feature of being a person rather than some other kind of thing. So wrong, in fact, that any code of law that doesn’t forbid killing people seems fundamentally broken. So, to spare us a lengthy dive into a theory of moral personhood, I will assume that there’s an agreement that in general people’s lives should be protected by law.

The generality rather than universality of the statement is important, though. There are exceptional cases in which we defend the legal killing of persons. Self-defense is the most obvious. If someone is threatening your life, you’re allowed to kill the person threatening your life. There are perhaps other crimes that might make killing someone defensible. If someone is threatening the lives of others, if someone is severely assaulting you, and so on. War and law enforcement create further situations. Sometimes there is no choice but to kill some set of people, and the choice is merely which set. Accidents that aren’t the result of negligence also usually land on the legal side. My point here is just that we ought to have many legal exceptions for killing people. This is of course an opening that someone defending the legality of abortion against this argument can and often does use.

In the phrasing of the second premise I use “people” in a possibly technical way. While we might have been able to dodge questions of moral personhood for the first premise, they are the heart of the second premise. By “person” (and derivatively, “people”), I just mean a being with moral personhood. That still sounds a bit circular, but getting a technical definition down is a whole subsubfield of philosophy on its own. Examples can give us a good enough idea, though! Normal adult humans are the archetype of people. If a theory of personhood excludes them, it’s probably defective. Inanimate objects are not people. You can violate the autonomy of a rock all you want, and nothing wrong is being done. Then there are edge cases. Is C-3PO from Star Wars a person? Maybe. Are higher apes, or maybe dolphins people? Again, maybe. Within the realm of humanity, we can ask the same of fetuses and maybe infants, too. Once we pin down what gives adult humans their moral worth as people, we can turn to the unborn and ask if they are people.

Arguments pointing to the human DNA and beating heart of the unborn are usually along these lines. They are implicitly placing the bar for personhood at humanity. Nobody defending abortion thinks that the unborn humans are not living beings, and nobody denies that they are human beings. They very obviously are. What one might deny is whether they are persons. Often someone backing this sort of argument against abortion takes for free that all humans are morally relevant persons and then goes in to prove the much easier point that unborn humans are human. But this is just the root of much misunderstanding.

The common arguments against each premise and setting up the right questions

With the first premise, that killing people ought to be illegal, usually the premise is not denied outright so much as the line pushed. Almost nobody thinks every case of killing a person ought to be illegal, so the argument here is on where to draw the line. So, let us take up the case of whether the line ought to be before or after abortion. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that personhood begins at conception. Given this, can someone kill a person inside them?

A well-treaded argument asks us to consider waking up in the hospital attached to a famous violinist. He brings a lot of happiness to the world with his playing, but is sick in such a way that he requires using your body for life support for awhile. Let’s say he’ll be hindering you for about nine months. If you pull the plug, he dies. The defender of abortion here draws on the intuition that you ought to have the legal right to pull the plug anyway.

The argument can be strengthened or weakened. Someone not yet convinced might think that the state should totally use someone as life support if they aren’t doing much with their lives but the person in need of support is. This person might also think mandatory blood donations are a good idea. In that case, we can reduce the status of the violinist until he contributes as much to society as the unborn do: nothing.

On the other hand, someone arguing against abortion might not be satisfied yet. Usually the first next objection is that the aborter usually has something to do with the creation of the unborn person, so while normally you have a right to not let someone use you as life support, you do if you willingly engaged in an act with the potential to create that situation. (We might note that this makes the argument against the legality of abortion no longer work against cases of rape.) So let’s alter the example to fit this. How far we want to push it is another question. Perhaps the right analog is someone who you accidentally hit with your car. You weren’t trying to, but a danger of getting behind the wheel is hitting someone. If they require the surrender of your bodily autonomy, ought the law demand it? (Ideally, this case uses you as life support for nine months. If you don’t have enough imagination, maybe ask what the law should demand if they need blood. Or a kidney.) Alternatively, perhaps the right analog is someone who you aimed your car at and hit. You knew the likely consequences of your actions. But the fun of smashing someone with your car seemed worth it. Are you bound to use your body to aid the person you hit?

I’m not sure yet where to move from there, but those seem to be the two questions at hand, in addition to the question of which one pregnancy is more like. For the argument presented for the prohibition of abortion to work, whichever one abortion turns out to be like has to also be answered that, yes, the government should step in and force you to surrender your bodily autonomy. You cannot pull the plug on/deny an organ donation to someone you hit with your car.

Onto the second premise, then. Are unborn humans people? If they’re not, then the door is open to killing them. They might still have some rights. Dogs aren’t people, but you can’t torture them. Nonetheless, their being people is pretty significant to this argument.

Now, we don’t need perfectly refined necessary and sufficient conditions of personhood to answer this question. All we need is something sufficient that unborn humans have or something necessary that they do not. So, someone making the argument against abortion will try to put forward a condition that anything that fulfills the conditions is a person. And someone defending abortion will put forward a condition that is required to qualify as a person.

On the arguing against the legality of abortion side, being alive tends to come up far more than it should. Lots of things are alive. The fly I just swatted was alive, but it was not a person. Next up is human. From here we see all sorts of conditions thrown around, like a beating heart or looking like a human in ultrasounds, or just being alive while having human DNA. Being alive while having human DNA isn’t enough since removed limbs are not people. Okay, so being alive, having human DNA, and either being able to survive independently or on a path of development toward independent survival. That seems to be the stable position, but then the question emerges: Why is that the line for moral personhood? What about having human DNA and either being biologically independent or on the path to such makes someone morally relevant as a person? This is what the person arguing against abortion needs to be more clear about.

Cue the defender of legal abortion. There are some conditions thrown out that turn out to be rather silly. “It’s just a clump of cells” is common, but it doesn’t work. As noted in the previous paragraph, the clump of cells is special in that it can develop. Given the right resources, it will develop into a human. Now if you want to push for the absurdity of allowing speculation into the future with some resources just assumed, you might argue that an egg or sperm will develop into a person given the right resources. But clearly eggs and sperm are not people, so that line cannot work. There’s room to go back and forth on this, but I think looking for a biological answer to personhood is a mistake.

Remember when giving examples of possible persons, beings like C-3PO came up. When we ask why someone is morally relevant as a person, the features that really matter are not a certain biology, but certain capacities or abilities. The ability to enter into interpersonal relationships, intelligence, language or concept use, moral understanding. These are all possible criteria. Unborn humans seem to fail all of them. Of course, each of these also has some dangers. If an adult human is incapable of being in an interpersonal relationship, is she not a person? Is sufficiently low intelligence grounds for denying personhood? Is someone completely amoral not a person? Perhaps. Is any of these things are the things that really matter to personhood and some humans fail to meet the condition(s), then maybe some exceptional humans are not persons.

The other side to this is the developmental disjunct. Maybe an unborn human is unable to enter a relationship, well below whatever an intelligence criterion might be, and amoral. But, the likelihood of developing into such a being is high, given adequate resources. And we can assume some level of resources because if you starve anyone, they will degrade and likely lose these conditions. There might be something question-begging about saying only the present individual counts, unless some further reason is given. One might look to people who are comatose or asleep. They fail the conditions, except maybe being in relationships. Yet going to sleep doesn’t make you not a person. But the defender of abortion can appeal to someone sleeping having a personal history. Though maybe going into a permanent coma does deprive one of personhood. Or dying. Are dead people still people? If they are, then being alive isn’t even a requirement. It doesn’t seem entirely absurd, though, to say that dead people are people. In which case maybe the personal history requirement is just the crucial requirement for personhood that captures all the cases we would otherwise want but excludes the unborn.

The problem here is just that now we’re stuck asking what a personal history is. My working hypothesis for a condition for personhood is something like personal history, and I take the lines to be drawn not by strict logical requirements, but rather by a general understanding of what a story of someone’s life looks like. Now, maybe “I know it when I see it” isn’t all that helpful in figuring out whether unborn humans are people. It may just leave us right where we started. But, as I said, just finding a necessary condition for personhood is enough, even if it’s not the most restrictive true necessary condition. That is, maybe the real bar is higher, but if we find a bar that’s not too high but the unborn still cannot meet, then the case against the second premise is made. So maybe a condition like this: someone is a person only if she is able to engage in interpersonal relationships or can use language or can use concepts or is intelligent or has moral understanding. Surely that’s too low a bar for personhood, but it doesn’t seem too high in any important regard, and unborn humans don’t clear it.

To summarize:

  • The best argument to make abortion illegal has two premises, each of which must be argued separately.
  • The first question  is whether, even if unborn humans are people, abortion is one of the exceptions in which we think killing people ought to be legal. The argument against the legality of abortion demands that abortion is not justifiable.
  • The second question  is whether unborn humans are people. While a complete definition of personhood is not needed, the argument against the legality of abortion demands that unborn humans do fall within the boundaries of personhood.

Dragging people down instead of trying to make things better

Perhaps I’ve blogged about this before. The tendency has existed long before social media, but social media makes it even easier to broadcast one’s ressentiment. Today this one popped up in my newsfeed, edited because Facebook and Twitter will use it as the image for this post:

Epipen Ressentiment

See what I did there? The original post suggests that because children’s parents are being charged nefarious costs, drug users should also be charged nefarious costs. That’s, of course, either idiotic (in most cases) or evil (if you’re selling epipens). By crossing out the second sentence, I changed the message. That people are being gouged of their limited resources because they or their children need epinephrine to not die is screwed up.

One might object that they think children are blameless and that drug users deserve worse. Even thinking that, to try to drag the conditions of drug users down instead of to raise the conditions of children up is at best an expression of bitter ressentiment.

And this is, of course, just one form. This shoddy rhetoric also comes up with the minimum wage. Some people will say that, for example, nurses only make $13 an hour, so clearly people working cash registers should make less than $13 an hour. Thinking and speaking that way only drags everyone down. If you want to hold onto that nurses should make more than cashiers, then instead reason that since everyone working should make at least, say, $15 an hour, nurses should make at least $20 an hour. And instead of saying we should make drug users pay up or die, instead say nobody should be forced into such a bad situation.