Pacifists of Thought

The people at my old high school were what you’d call “pacifists of thought” — they would never try to convince you of anything cause they thought it was akin to a violation of your mind’s integrity.  Nor would they try to tempt or tease you into inquiring what they thought, because to them this was a kind of fraud or lure, like the web of a spider or lantern of an angler-fish.  I have to say one time I embarrassed one of them because everything he said was mysterious — you couldn’t figure out why he said it or what he meant by it — and I said “oho!  you are deliberately adopting an air of mystery!  Like the ancient philosophaster Empedocles who went about in metal slippers and a purple robe and tried to seem deep by self-murdering into a volcano as if to suggest he vanished leaving no mortal remains; oho my friend your obliquity oppresses, your ambiguity stuns the mind, your lack of pretention to having anything to say is pretention to having nothing to say.”  As I mention I shamed this man and he said “Fine, what do you want?” And I said “Tell me” and he told me.


Laura Chapter Two: The Two Lauras

Imagine our surprise when we opened the canopic jar in the valley of the queens to discover Laura’s mummified viscera.  The sarcophagus swung open and we found ourselves face to face with our mummified friend.  “But Laura” we said “We were given to understand that you had elected not to be mummified, and that the close emotional bond you forged with the Pharaoh achieved its acme with friendship, and you did not mummify yourself with your lover so as to take a time journey from ancient Egypt to the modern world.”

“That was true and so is this.” said our mummified friend.  “When I went to ancient Egypt the priests of Thoth instructed me in the doctrine of the multiple souls, namely the soul, the ka, and the ba.  My ka returned in the time machine.  My ba remained behind to animate this mummy.”

That’s only two we said using our counting skill as best we could, but you said THREE souls.  What happened to the third?

NEXT WEEK: The search for the Third Laura.


When Laura Traveled Back in Time

When Laura traveled back in time and spoke to the Pharaoh

(Ra-Ho-Tep XXIII of the Eighteenth Dynasty)

she found him to be witty, urbane, and self-deprecating.

She learned a whole different way of looking at Ra the Sun God

and came to realize that the Pharaoh was doing a Great Job,

at manifesting the nourishing rays of the sun in human form,

and officiating at the ceremonies that mark the rise and fall of the flow of the Nile.

“Look” Laura said on her return “I would not want my organs put in a canopic jar, my brain removed through my nose, my body dried with naphta and my skin wrapped in sheets, in short, I would not want to be mummified and en-pyramided so as to live forever in the afterlife by the shores of a Transcendent Nile, but…

“Neither would the Pharaoh the Glorious Orb of the Sun in human form hope to live his life dedicating it to the slight improvement of the living standards of the united states and the bearing of children who would go to college and be gainfully employed.”

They were not lovers physically, but the Pharaoh and Laura saw eye to eye.

In fact, Laura wrote a profile of the Pharaoh for her local paper and this was not a bad idea.

Since the Pharaoh could only be depicted in profile.



Rebecca Tuvel and the Argument About Transgenderism

The recent case of the philosopher Rebecca Tuvel’s article “In Defense of Transracialism” (first published by the journal Hypatia and then retracted) points out a case in which two philosophical positions each have an element of truth on their side, and this leads to a political debate.  Each side is aware of its truth, but perhaps, on some level aware of the plausibility of the argument for the other side.   This combination of being convinced that one is right, and also worried that those who disagree with one have a compelling argument, leads to the desire to use non-rational means to end the debate.  In Tuvel’s case these non-rational means included online pressuring of her journal and personal attacks on Tuvel as a cis woman who lacked standing to express her views.

The Tuvel controversy appears as an argument between two areas of a broadly “pro” trans rights position.   Tuvel argued that transracialism is a correct philosophical position because it is logically on all fours with transgenderism.  If it’s true that someone may be born biologically male and yet be justified in identifying as female, it follows that one may be born biologically white and yet be justified in identifying as black.  Tuvel’s critics argue that as a white cis woman she shouldn’t be talking this way and that even expressing the view that transracialism is logically equivalent to transgenderism does harm to the transgender community, yoking as it does a politically dubious cause — the claims of transracial people — to a politically worthwhile cause — the rights of transgender people.

It’s not my intention to weigh in on Tuvel’s argument (although I think the attempt to silence and her journal’s decision to retract the article are both unjust and counterproductive.)


Rather I want to engage with the position that lies in the background, namely the position that gender is shaped by biology, and is not purely cultural.    One could call this the traditionalist position.   Tuvel does not espouse this position at all, but part of the animus of her opponents comes I believe from their desire to protect themselves against a traditionalist attack.  Tuvel finds herself in the position of the liberal who stakes out a position between leftists and rightists.  The leftists view her as they would a pane of glass, and see a right-wing position lurking behind her.

Each side — the “gender is purely performance” side and the “gender is shaped by biology” side — have strong arguments.

For the argument that gender is purely performance or purely cultural the following facts provide support:

  • Gender performance is learned
  • Gender performance varies from culture to culture and historical epoch to historical epoch
  • Biological sex is the interaction of several traits: chromosomal and phenotypical
  • Biological sex forms a spectrum — there are intrasexuals.
  • An individual can have a biological sex but find fulfillment identifying as a different gender
  • The construct of gender is politically motivated and gives power to some groups at the expense of others.  The desire to root this politics in biology is therefore politically reactionary and serves the cause of those who protect an entrenched, unjust status quo by appeals to its being natural and therefore immune to change.

The argument that gender is to some extent shaped by and rooted in biology is supported by the following:

  • Every society and epoch marks the difference between those who are able at some point in their lifespan to get pregnant (females) and those who are able at some point in their lifespan to get others pregnant (males)
  • Although there is a spectrum between biological males and biological females the distribution is bimodal — there are more individuals clumping on the male side and female sides of the spectrum than in the middle
  • Biological sex makes certain cultural performances easier for those whose gender “matches” their biological sex.  For example: biological males can grow facial hair more easily and in more profusion than biological females.  Although having a beard is a performance available to both sexes — biological women can wear a beard or take hormone treatments to grow one — it is statistically easier for the average male to grow a beard than for the average female.

I believe, as I said above, that both sides here have an element of truth on their side.  The relationship between sex and gender is analogous to the relationship between height and basketball skill.

The following facts are true about this relationship:

  • Height is a measurable, biological reality.
  • Being tall, all things being equal, makes it easier to be good at basketball.  Being short, all things being equal, makes it harder.
  • There are tall people who are terrible at basketball and short people who are great at basketball.
  • We as a society do not need to play basketball if we don’t want to. If basketball promotes an unjust or just foolish political order we can stop and participate in sports that do not depend so much on height differences.  We are also free to change the game of basketball so it focusses on height differences less, or not at all.
  • There are powerful emotional, economic and political forces that shape our current society’s commitment to basketball.  For example: the NBA makes a lot of money, a lot of people grew up playing basketball and like it.

I believe these statements, mutatis mutandis, are all true of the relationship between biology and gender.   Our current gender relationships fetishize the biological differences that actually exist.  We can, and should, change them.  There are biological males who would be happier as gender females, and vice versa, and we should let them.  Nevertheless biological sex is real, and statistically it is easier to perform female for the biologically female and male for the biologically male.

If I’m right the fact that each side has a strong argument explains some of the vociferousness of the debate.  Each side has a justifiable fear of losing because of its emotional and ethical and economic commitment to a particular political course of action.