Gavrilo Princip in his blow for Serbian independence assassinated not the Archduke but cartoon big dog Marmaduke. I awake covered in sweat with a cheeselike consistency and thickness.
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.
My friend Richard wanted to understand time.
So he said I understand space pretty well. I’ll use that.
So he built seven houses, for the seven days of the week.
Monday Tuesday Wednesday
Thursday Friday Saturday
Sunday. And in each of the houses he did what characterized
That day of the week. Example: In the Sunday house he was always
Worrying that he would have to go to work the next day.
In the Wednesday house he was settling in, to the demands of the work week
Its despairs its consolations and its routines, forgetting both.
Surely this is not time, I said to him, because they are free-standing these houses
What happens in the house of Saturday night
Causes no regret no jubilation in the house of Sunday.
And he said “Okay you’re right.” And he had an ovum and a spermatazoan
In each house gestate a baby, and he set up the Requisite Causal Links
(which you can work out I’m sure, the events that happened in the House of Sunday
would cause weal or ill to the dweller in the House of Monday).
They sentenced him to death and the executioner waited for him in the house of Thursday
For that was the day of his death, written and sealed in the court document.
And they all moved into the house of Saturday
And reside there to this day.
- The original 1977 Star Wars was an escape from grown-up ideas about the guilt of America in Vietnam by casting America as an evil empire, and film makers, creative people, and young people as rebels. It was able to do this without thinking too hard by putting it all in fantasy land where you don’t need to think about what the difference is, other than that the bad guys blow up planets and hide their faces.
- This was justified by pinning it to the Monomyth idea of reactionary anti-semite Joseph Campbell. (Actually it was justified by the fact that it made a lot of money, but Campbell was the justification to give to smart, bookish people.) Fascist ideologues love myth and ancient stories, because you do’t need to think about your own moral culpability or grown-up relationships. In fact they view self-doubt, non-violence, and rational thought as signs of weakness and decadence. Also myths extoll violence. (Fun obscure fact: Campbell was a student of German Indologist Heinrich Zimmer.)
- Star Wars because of its nostalgia has an odd relationship to science fiction. It takes the imagery of science fiction but makes it all look old and beat up. Even though a lot of classic sf is about extolling rationality and thinking hard about the moral choices technology will cause us to make, the ideology of Star Wars looks to the past and irrationality (The Force!). It repurposes science fiction images into a world view that is pro-past and anti-thought. That’s why there are spaceships but how they work doesn’t make sense, and why there are ancient religious leaders running around telling Luke not to use his mind.
- In both original Star Wars and Rogue One the interesting characters are monsters and robots. And I guess spaceships. The franchise made a lot of money selling these as toys, because the characters originally WERE toys. The whole vibe is of a pre-pubescent boy playing with dolls — i.e. action figures. Now this thing blows up! Now that thing blows up! Now these guys are sneaking around this way but then they turn around and sneak this way. This subtext became text in the Lego Movie, where you actually see the kid is just playing with toys cause his Dad is ignoring him. All the sexual relationships are chaste and smirky — like a ten year old boy’s view of sex and adult relatinships.
- In the latest Star Wars — Rogue One — it starts with iconography of the Iraq war, where the USA is the Empire, i.e. the bad guy. Then it becomes the US campaign against Japan in the Pacific where the US are the rebels and the Empire are different bad guys.
- Whole thing is way reactionary because it encourages the ruling class of a military power to view itself as noble children.
- Whole thing eats its tail because now the children who grew up watching the original Star Wars have nostalgia for Star Wars. Like nostalgia squared. That’s why the new one ends on disconcerting image of recently deceased talented screenwriter Carrie Fisher brought back as creepy CG simulacrum as she looked in 1977.
I’m going to a job interview. It’s important. I need this job to take care of my pregnant wife and two year old child. I take a shower and I’m naked. I need to get dressed. I can either put on a suit or a t-shirt. I pick up the tie and suddenly think. “Wait. Maybe if I wear this suit I will seem boring. Maybe I should wear the t-shirt so I seem fun and like somebody who breaks the rules. When I wear the suit I always feel uncomfortable. When I wear the t-shirt I feel relaxed, and fun, like I did when I was a kid. What should I do?” I wonder.
As I stand there naked looking at the clothes I remember a piece of advice I once read. “Trust yourself.” For a second I think, “Aha! Wear the t-shirt. That makes me feel like I really am — relaxed, and young, and fun.” But then an alternative way of looking at it occurs to me.
“I am worried about not getting this job. I am part of a civilization in which wearing a suit means responsibility. Maybe that’s also my “self”. Maybe the worry, and the desire to seem responsible, and the willingness to be uncomfortable to take care of people who rely on me — and my own skin — is my self. Maybe I should trust that.”
My wife comes into the room and says “Put on that suit.”
I think “How can I do what somebody else says? Is that “trusting myself”? It seems like it is obviously trusting somebody else.”
But then another voice within me says “Hang on. Maybe trusting myself includes trusting my decision to care about and trust other people, including my wife, who I trust cares about me, and knows more about suits and t-shirts and the messages people send with clothes than I do.”
“But then what is trusting myself? If trusting myself includes trusting authorities — priests who tell me what God wants from me, clubs that tell me how a man should be, states that tell me when my honor demands dying in foreign wars — then is “trust yourself?” anything other than a meaningless slogan?”
“That’s the issue. The person who will be humiliated if I fail to get this job, or who will be humiliated if I do get this job, or who will feel free if I tell the job to f off, or will feel empowered if I do get this job, after all is me.”
“I’m the one who lives or dies in this interview. So I have to trust myself. If I lack confidence I am trusting my own lack of confidence.”
“Whether I live or die, whether I am brave or cowardly, whether I listen to an idea that occurs to me or one provided by my wife or father or priest or recruiting officer, whether I wear a t-shirt or a suit, I am trusting myself.”
“But who would give advice that everyone follows whether he lives or dies, whatever he does?”
“Somebody who trusted himself!”
-But the lower the monkey goes, the more you see his head.
-Yes, but it is still a monkey head.
-Yes, but that is better than a monkey ass.
-Everywhere I see character traits that I admire — a poetic take on things, a willingness to buck society and take risks, self-assertion — used to support a horrifying cruelty.
-Maybe that should teach you the truth of the old hermetic maxim — corruptio optima pessima. The corruption of the best is the worst.
-Maybe that should teach me the truth of the new hermetic maxim — perfectio pessima optima — the very best thing is to take what is lowest in human nature and perfect it.
-And that’s true too.
Certain prominent political leaders who grab our attention (you know who I mean) sometimes seem crazy and sometimes seem evil. Which is it? To answer that, we need to ask ourselves what’s the difference between crazy and evil.
Some people say “it is more compassionate to call someone ill than to call someone evil”. The diagnosis of illness makes us want to heal while the diagnosis of evil makes us want to condemn and punish. This is false. When people are ill sometimes we quarantine them and allow them to die. When people we care about do evil, sometimes we preach at them and try to get them to mend their ways.
Some people say “people who are evil are free to change” while “people who are sick are compelled by their illness.” This is either false or so philosophical as to be useless. Some people are so evil that they will never change. Some people who are sick will get better by appropriate psychotherapy.
Some people say health is an objective scientific category while good and evil are subjective. This is not true either. When we define mental illness we make judgments of what sort of human life is worthwhile and what sort of human life is not worthwhile. Sometimes we don’t notice because we appeal to a concept of function and disfunction, but these are always explained in reference to an ideal of human flourishing. The man who sits in his room all day counting motes of dust is functioning perfectly well — as a lonely dust mote counter. To call him catatonic or obsessive or paranoid requires some conception of how a good human life differs from his.
An argument that illness and evil are the same is that the opposites are the same. There is no real difference between the extremely good human being and the extremely mentally healthy human being. They are both human ideals that we laud, imitate, and are inspired by.
Calling someone mentally ill and calling somebody evil are both mechanisms of social ostracism. If somebody is crazy, we don’t want to listen to his advice, we don’t want him taking care of our children, and if he’s dangerous we lock him up. Similarly if somebody is evil; we watch ourselves around him, are wary of obeying his counsel, and if he does something bad enough lock him up or kill him. What’s the difference then?
Let’s take a very simple case of social ostracism. Joe, Mary, and Edward are lost in the woods with very little food. Joe says to Mary: “I had a dream last night. My pet dog Bomba appeared to me as a ghost and said if we kill Edward he will lead us to safety.” Edward says to Mary “Let’s wait until Joe is not looking and kill him and eat him, and if we make it to safety we will say he died falling in a ravine.”
Let’s say Mary does not listen to either of her companions, and that evening they are saved. Mary tells the authorities (or her closest friend) Edward is evil. Joe is crazy. Beware of them. What does she mean?
The message from Joe was weird and led her in an unfamiliar way. The message from Edward was entirely normal but something she doesn’t want to give in to. Mary’s method of resisting the call of insanity is different than her method of resisting the lure of evil. How is it different? I’m not sure, but I think it’s different. Or it might be. In certain circumstances.
What if we come across Mary and Joe walking alone and they tell us that they killed Edward because they were following the advice of a dog in a dream. We might say that Joe drove Mary crazy.
What if we come across Mary and Edward walking alone and we learn years later that they killed JOe. We might say that Edward seduced Mary to evil.
Or we might say that Edward and Mary made a tough but necessary choice. Or we may say that Joe’s dog Bomba really saved them.
In that case would it mean we ourselves are crazy? Would it mean we ourselves are evil?
If we are crazy or evil, do we ostracize ourselves?