I want to visit this topic briefly because, while the subject never seems to leave the news, the fundamentals of the subject come up rarely. In keeping with the confusion that reigns regarding many subjects, transgenderism ultimately is not a question of science. Rather, the question lies in philosophy.1 I would sum up the question this way: What is the really real which defines a person’s identity? More specifically, in a mismatch between the body and the mind, is the body or the mind in error?
For this reason, the scientific facts of transgenderism only make sense in the light of choosing an answer to the above philosophical question. The possession of a penis or a vagina only proves definitive if you have answered the above question with “The physical aspects of our body define our identity.” Conversely, the fact that transgender people often possess a brain structure somewhere in between men and women definitively rules in this case only if you have first answered “The mental defines our identity.”
In other observations, the debate over transgenderism has seemingly brought gender essentialism back to circles from which it was long ago banished, because you cannot be something unless that something has fixed traits. One clever professor and journalist caught onto this trend during Caitlyn Jenner’s transition:
Now, what is my opinion? I identify the real with the physical body. The topic of transgenderism is, so far as I can tell, the only subject where we identify the real with the mind. When a person experiences a phantom limb, we all identify the really real with the fact that they lack a limb, not with their mind which believes the body still has that limb. On the flip side, when people profess a desire to amputate a healthy limb based on their mental image of themselves as an amputee, we do not amputate the limb because, once more, we identify the body as real and the mind as in error. We also show an abhorrence to amputating a healthy limb based on desires. I believe, in all cases except transgenderism, we unanimously identify the real with the body for good reason. Namely, a common human experience is the individual (and sometimes even the collective) mind in error compared what is real.2 Making the individual mind into the sole arbiter of the real cannot help but lead to conclusions both absurd and damaging.
As a final thought, I do not want to leave this subject without acknowledging that an immense amount of human suffering is bound up in this topic. We’re not just discussing abstract theories of the really real. We’re discussing people’s lives. I try to be sensitive to that fact. I doubt my opinion will change on this subject, but I am always open to people sharing their experiences because, even if no one changes their opinion, I find it helpful to know what people are experiencing.
10 thoughts on “Transgenderism”
I’m not sure you’re correctly identifying which mental attributes are distinctive of transgender people. The analogy with phantom limbs seems strained. In the case of phantom limb syndrome, a person has the mistaken mental impression “I’m not missing an arm” (for example). In the case of a biological male who sees themselves as a trans woman, the person doesn’t have the impression “I don’t have a penis/Y chromosome/whatever.” In some cases they might not even want to get rid of the penis. Rather, there is some other sort of mismatch between the body and mind. They see themselves as having “female” mental traits in some other sense.
Why does the structure of the brain count as mental rather than physical?
Do you take it to be the case that gender and sex are the same concept?
“The topic of transgenderism is, so far as I can tell, the only subject where we identify the real with the mind”
I can think of plenty of things that seem to be very “real” that exist in the mind. Is “love” a physically existing entity in the world? Can you physically grab love out of the air or mine it out of the ground? Or is it a mental state or permeating mood that exists? What about nausea? Religious experiences?
“We also show an abhorrence to amputating a healthy limb based on desires.”
I don’t think “healthy” adequately describes the situation for a transgender person. There are no conditions in which a person has an arm or a leg that causes them great mental stress and suffering unless it is physically damaged. A pre-operation male-to-female transgender person has an appendage that might be “healthy” in terms of its biological functionality, but causes them tremendous suffering because they know it is wrong for them and it isn’t supposed to be there. In that case, the limb itself may be healthy, but it makes the rest of the body which it is attached to not healthy (think a tapeworm or a parasite.)
Let me give an example. Let’s imagine someone put some rare flesh eating bug inside your arm. This bug can live under your skin, inside your body, and also cannot be seen by x-rays. The bug doesn’t eat your muscle at a rate in which your body can’t function, but the pain is almost unbearable. Once the bug has started to eat your arm from the inside out, you are in excruciating pain, yet on the outside your arm continues to look perfectly fine and you can seemingly still use it properly. You cry to your family and friends that you desperately need medical help to stop the pain, but everyone thinks you’re delusional since your arm works just fine. The doctors cannot seem to notice it and think that there is something else wrong and avoid your arm entirely, all the while you go week after week suffering.
Did your arms perfect functionality prevent the pain from existing? Would it not have been logical to do something, perhaps remove it if it continued on like that for the rest of your life? The science behind transgenderism isn’t entirely clear, but what is clear is that transgender people really do feel as though their brain is wrong from their body. This is further supported by the fact that the vast majority of people after transition are much happier and healthier. Given that this condition is entirely outside of their control, just like the indecision we all had to be born a certain race or gender, it seems this is a case of unnecessary suffering, and as such we should try to help those seeking help just in the same way a person with a virus needs medical help.
Often our ancient conceptual understandings of the world do not match up well with our new findings and discoveries. But, when we discover new things, such as in science, we look to change our previous concepts to better understand the world as it seems to exist, not the other way around.
That’s actually not the case. There are conditions in which a person has a completely healthy arm, leg, eye, etc. and it causes them great mental stress and suffering unless it is physically damaged. The term for this is “transabled”. I wrote about it about a year ago: https://difficultrun.nathanielgivens.com/2015/06/18/transabled-is-a-thing-can-we-have-realism-back-now/
In one of the specific cases I mentioned there, a psychologist poured bleach in a young woman’s eyes repeatedly until she was rendered permanently blind. So, not only are there conditions where healthy body parts cause great suffering but, using very similar logic, there are also specialists who will cripple people (blind them, amputate limbs, etc.) in order to alleviate their distress.
So your thought experiment is actually not a hypothetical. I’m curious to know what you think, having learned that. Was the psychologist right to pour bleach in his patients eye to blind her, in order to bring her self-image (as a blind person) into a correspondence with her body’s actual state (perfectly functioning eyes)?
“So your thought experiment is actually not a hypothetical. I’m curious to know what you think, having learned that. Was the psychologist right to pour bleach in his patients eye to blind her, in order to bring her self-image (as a blind person) into a correspondence with her body’s actual state (perfectly functioning eyes)?”
I’m not sure about the conditions in which they were poured, so I cannot comment on that, and I will also put legality aside since this is an ethical discussion. That said, even if it seems weird, I don’t see a problem with it. Many people with sense handicaps, such as blindness and deafness, don’t actually see themselves as handicapped or disabled. The world, given that it is predominately made and run by able-seeing and hearing people, might be inconvenient in some ways for those without those functions, but they still are quite happy in their circumstances. From that point, they may identify as a deaf person or blind person, as many do, and choose not to have those surgeries that restore those functions. In fact, many deaf people after having corrective hearing surgeries prefer to keep their hearing implants out as they find the loudness of the world to be too much. Even if this is a case of them just being more comfortable with what they’re used to, that doesn’t change the fact that they still prefer the “disabled” option. The bleach pouring is just one woman, and even if her case makes no sense to me, if it brought her great joy in the end, I am prima facie fine with it given that her choice doesn’t cause society or myself a lot of harm.
Also I apologize for not knowing how to do the proper formatting for quotations.
One important difference is that turning someone from a healthy person into a disabled person is by definition harmful (I know disability-rights people who deny this, but they are clearly wrong IMO). It’s better to have two arms than one. Turning someone from male to female or vice versa isn’t necessarily harmful. It isn’t intrinsically better to be male than female (or vice versa).
If someone is born with hair but feels that because of their self-image they’d be happier being bald, we don’t object when they shave their head. Prior to the invention of the razor that sort of “transition” would have been impossible, so in that sense it’s unnatural.
So it’s interesting already to have a fairly fundamental bifurcation in how you two (Atreus and Brandon) approach the issue.
Brandon, you seem to be going for full-on relativism, which is basically exactly what social conservatives like myself tend to fear. The concept of “consent” is assuming almost sacred dimensions in our secular society in ways that I fear are not only unreasonable but dangerous.
The deficits of being blind or deaf or paraplegic are not ultimately manufactured by an able-bodied society. They are intrinsic. There are some complicated cultural issues that are worth taking seriously–especially when it comes to the Deaf community–but we can side step those for a moment by focusing on blindness and paraplegia, which do not have vibrant cultural identities associated with them.
If we privilege autonomy, self-definition, and consent to such a degree that we no longer regard the inability to walk, or to see, etc. as challenges to be overcome but simply other ways of being, then ultimately we sap society’s empathic response to those challenges (because we no longer see them as challenges.) Recasting the issue in terms of oppression (able-bodied people exercising able-privilege) is more satisfying in some senses, but ultimately does not provide any serious argument for why society should allocate resources to helping people.
It’s a bad, bad idea and the worst case scenario is legalizing suicide under the mantra of autonomy. “It’s their life, they can do what they want.” At that point, I believe that ideology and philosophy have eclipsed humanity.
In short: if you think transgenderism is akin to transablism, I would submit that (insofar as the analogy holds), I oppose our cavalier treatment of both.
Now, Atreus, you on the other hand are taking a totally different approach and trying to separate transablism from transgenderism. I think this makes a lot more sense, although I disagree with your particular argument. Here’s the flaw that I see. You write:
The problem I have with this is that hormone therapy and surgery fall far short of “turning someone from male to female or vice versa.” If we had a magic wand that could actually completely, totally, and fully change a person’s sex (to match their preferred gender) that would be one thing. But we don’t. The modifications move in that direction, but are far from complete, and so the analogy does not hold.
This is also a good time to bring up another point. In some offline conversations about this issue, it’s become clear to me that there are two kind of distinct ways of looking at this issue. First, there are people who are genuinely born intersex (for a variety of reasons). Conservatives don’t usually acknowledge this in their conversations. I believe the reason for that is simply that the various hormone therapies and surgical interventions are, in the case of intersexuality, essentially uncontroversial for conservatives. In those cases, there is no clearly discernible fact of biological sex, and so–when biological sex is indeterminate or ambiguous or complex–naturally gender must also be complicated.
Liberals, on the other hand, tend to have precisely these cases in mind first and foremost, not least because they contribute to the general attitude of social liberals that gender is always fluid, constructed, performative, etc.
I’m just noting that as something to keep an eye on, because if we don’t, then we can talk past each other.
—-“Brandon, you seem to be going for full-on relativism, which is basically exactly what social conservatives like myself tend to fear. The concept of “consent” is assuming almost sacred dimensions in our secular society in ways that I fear are not only unreasonable but dangerous.
The deficits of being blind or deaf or paraplegic are not ultimately manufactured by an able-bodied society. They are intrinsic. There are some complicated cultural issues that are worth taking seriously–especially when it comes to the Deaf community–but we can side step those for a moment by focusing on blindness and paraplegia, which do not have vibrant cultural identities associated with them.”
I’m not sure I have properly represented myself. My argument was not one of relativism—I’m not a moral relativist, but I wasn’t trying to bring my opinion here (though I will apologize for my original comment since that may have been more heated than it needed to be.) It also isn’t, at least to me, about liberal or conservative views.
—-“If we privilege autonomy, self-definition, and consent to such a degree that we no longer regard the inability to walk, or to see, etc. as challenges to be overcome but simply other ways of being, then ultimately we sap society’s empathic response to those challenges (because we no longer see them as challenges.) Recasting the issue in terms of oppression (able-bodied people exercising able-privilege) is more satisfying in some senses, but ultimately does not provide any serious argument for why society should allocate resources to helping people.”
What does “societal challenges” have to do with the question of whether a person can alter there body, if such “societal challenges” even exist? Furthermore, what if this challenge is not properly recognizing the suffering of transgender people and other people who are generally marginalized?
I also was not trying to cast the argument in terms of things like oppression and able-bodiedness. I’ll admit I didn’t know about transableism, which is certainly interesting, but neither strike me as dangerous, especially given that they are such small parts of humanity at large. I also strongly disagree with the idea of oppression not being relevant, even though that was not the avenue I was taking: insofar as we’re talking about ethics—which I gauge to be the intended message behind writing an article against transgender in the first place, even though Bryan was trying to make a metaphysical claim about identity and realness—we ought to be very concerned with things like oppression, since that is a tremendously important ethical issue, and, at least to me, isn’t about being more gratifying to use in discussion.
—–“It’s a bad, bad idea and the worst case scenario is legalizing suicide under the mantra of autonomy. “It’s their life, they can do what they want.” At that point, I believe that ideology and philosophy have eclipsed humanity.”
I’m honestly not sure legalizing suicide would have any impact on suicides. It certainly hasn’t up to this point. I’ll be honest when I say its slightly confusing in the first place that suicide is “illegal” in that it is weird to charge a dead person with legal things. This strikes me as much more of a cultural issue, in that we should ask ourselves what kind of world and society we are situated in where people feel like leaving it voluntarily, not whether we should have some legal binding that has no real effect on people once they’re dead.
The issue of resources also doesn’t seem particularly important with this issue. Transgender and transable people represent such a small section of society that use up almost no resources. I would bet that the combined costs of transgender and transable research and treatment, from the beginning of its development and through the next ten years, would still not be even 5% of the costs of obesity, which actually does seem like a very serious health problem. That same figure also wouldn’t add up to even .1% of the Iraq war, and yet we have obviously had the wealth, time, and energy in this country to do that. (Please note I’m not trying to bring the debate to war or other things, but rather simply using its cost as a figure to compare resources available.)
But if we’re going back to the original point, I’m just skeptical about Bryan’s original statements regarding “the real” as being related to the body. The first issue is of the physical body: is this all physical things? Or just that a certain gender identity must be regarded with the body? In this case, does that mean that all modes of identity are related to the physical body? If that is the case, we might also be pressed to say things like that religion isn’t real, since “Christian” and “Hindu” do not seem to be things associated with physical bodies, but the mental states and identities associated with those people. This also seems very true for things like “love”, unless one could argue that love is nothing more than dopamine, seratonin, and other chemical reactions (which is a reasonable view to hold, but my guess is that this view would run counter to many of the views Bryan is committed to.)
I accidentally auto-corrected to “there” in my societal paragraph. It should be “their.”
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