For a while, I’ve had the idea of writing short posts presenting right wing and conservative ideas as charitably as possible. There’s a tendency on both sides of the culture wars to oversimplify and straw man (person?) the opposition. I fall prey to this just as much as the next person but in an effort to practice what I preach, here is the first is what I will try to make a regular feature of my blog. My first attempt is here. In this post, I’m going to enter the mine-field debate over sex, gender, and transgender identity.
In these pieces, my aim isn’t really to argue for a particular view. I’m mainly going to try to give an overview of some of the issues and trade-offs associated with various popular positions. The hope is that I’ll accomplish what I aim for in my classroom: To get people to at least feel the intuitive pull of competing positions and understand why someone might adopt them. That said, where I think a position is particularly strong or weak, I’ll suggest this.
Sex, Gender, and Transgender Debates
In good philosophical fashion, let’s begin by defining our terms. There is disagreement over the terms and we’ll look at that later, but we need something to begin with. Here are how sex and gender are often defined.
Sex: A biological category defined by some combination of chromosomes, hormones, and genitalia. Edit: In an earlier draft I wrote that there are five sexes for humans, especially since it’s not clear how to classify hermaphrodites. I’d read this several years ago in some now-forgotten articles. I’ve since learned from commenters that this is a contested claim. The two-sexes view holds that we can always identify the female because “she makes large gametes.” For a fun twitter feed on this topic, go here. For an overview of the biological possibilities for sex determination in humans, go here. For scientific support for the two sex view, go here.
Gender: The behavioral norms typically associated with a particular sex. Norms, in this case, are often understood to be both descriptive and prescriptive. That is to say, they can describe how members of a sex do act or how they ought to act. It’s important to keep the descriptive and prescriptive elements separate since most people often equivocate between the two. The most common genders are man and woman or, as adjectives, masculine or feminine.
Famously, gender is often referred to as the social meaning of sex. That is to say, when we think “female” or “male,” gender represents the social roles and behaviors associated with the respective sexes.
As far as I can tell, the standard conservative position is that sex=gender. This view is usually referred to as gender essentialism. By this I mean that biology and behavioral norms do not come apart. Sort of. On the descriptive account, being female means that you will behave in certain ways and perhaps be disposed to particular gendered preferences. That is, your biology determines your gendered behavior and dispositions.
The normative account of gender usually follows: If you don’t exhibit the appropriate biologically determined behaviors then you are deviating from how you should behave. This is what people mean when they say things like, “he’s not a real man” or “act like a lady.” These are admonitions to act according the norms appropriate to your biological sex.
Critics of gender essentialism point to a potential problem. If gendered behavior is determined by biological sex then how is it possible that some people don’t behave according to the biological sex? The reply usually has to do with the effects of decadent liberal culture corrupting the youth. In other words, culture is corrupting “natural” behaviors. A problem with the reply is that it concedes the very point that their opponents often make: gender is socially constructed and the “natural” gendered behaviors don’t occur in a cultural vacuum either. They occur in a cultural environment that models and reinforces particular gender norms….
This leads us to the other end of the spectrum where people argue that sex and gender can come apart. (The fact that it’s possible to say “be a man” or “act like a lady” seems to tacitly support this in the descriptive sense…) We only believe that gender and sex are inextricably linked because biologically female humans are socialized to internalize the corresponding cultural gender norms just as biologically male humans are socialized to internalize their corresponding gender norms. If males and females were socialized differently, they would act differently than the gender norms typically encouraged and modeled in our society.
So, to repeat, here are the two extreme ends of the continuum: Those who say that sex determines gender and those that say that gender is entirely the product of socialization–not biology. Those who argue that sex determines gender often move from the descriptive claim to the normative; i.e., that one ought to align one’s behavior with the gender norms associated with one’s biological sex. Failing to do this is, to varying degrees, morally bad.
As you might guess, there’s also everything in between: People argue that, in a population, some traits and dispositions are statistically correlated with one sex rather than another. Basically, some of our behaviors and dispositions are biologically determined by our sex while others are indeed the product of socialization. It’s important to add that just like for every other species, most traits fall on a continuum: No one has all traits in the same amounts and so, at the population level, we should expect to find all traits in both male and female humans and in different degrees.
Defending the conservative position: Across all species we observe statistical behavioral differences between males and females of that species. We also know that there is a biological foundation to many behavioral dispositions. It would be weird if humans were the only species in all of creation for which sex and biology didn’t play any role in statistical distributions of behaviors.
Here comes the tricky part: Humans are unique in that culture plays a huge role in determining behavior. This is why we observe different behaviors across cultures and time. So, while it’s entirely reasonable to hold that many behaviors are grounded in biology, many behaviors are also a product of socialization in a particular culture. How do we distinguish behaviors that are biologically grounded from those that are socially grounded when behaviors occur in an environment where both determinants exist?
For some, the solution is to abolish all gender norms and to “let the pieces fall where they may.” That is, if we tear down gender norms, people–as unique individuals–will follow a path that conforms to their intrinsic dispositions. In this way, people who might have been pushed into roles that clash with their inner disposition are free to pursue a life congruent with their unique combination of drives and dispositions. Also, those who fit well in traditional gender roles still have that available to them with the important difference that they are genuinely choosing it.
For others, gender norms offer a safe road map for harmonious family and community living. Destroying these norms provides people with no road map and eviscerates the institutions upon which family and society have historically been built.
The gender abolitionist assumes that humans can handle all that freedom and new harmonious forms of social organization can emerge (Read: The Inquisitor from Dostoyevski’s The Brother Karamazov for a great take on this). The gender conservative believes that society can’t flourish without certain gender roles. They also assume previous forms of social organization grounded in gender norms were indeed harmonious or at least more harmonious than any other possible form of social organization.
There’s a lot more to say here but I’m trying to make this just an overview and get to the issue of transgender identity.
Ok, if I end up in a re-education camp for this, please contact my mom. She’s a professor in the Department of Education at UBC so she may be able to pull some strings.
We can think of transgender identity as involving two distinct but related issues: One ontological and one ethical.
The Ontological Issue
Ontology is a fancy way of talking about the philosophy of “being.” In this area of philosophy we try to figure out what makes a thing what it is rather than something else. The ontological question regarding transgender identity asks “what is essential to gender?” In fancy philosophy talk we might ask, what are the necessary and sufficient properties that a human must have such that they are one gender rather than another?
Here are the two simplified ends of the continuum. On one end, some people say that gender is fundamentally determined by how one conceives of oneself. This position is often straw personed(?) as someone merely self-declaring to be one gender rather than another. If I feel like a cat then I am a cat. Most proponents of self-declaring view hold that the self-declaring is a consequence of, amongst other things, a deep psychological self-conception as well as dispositions and behaviors that align with the gender not typically associated with their biological sex.
On the other end of the continuum gender essentialists argue that because gender is biologically tied to sex, one cannot change their gender without changing one’s chromosomes. Gender has nothing to do with self-identity and everything to do with biological sex.
There are A LOT of positions in between.
Interestingly, the trans movement has created a division between some feminists. The historically dominant feminist view holds that gender is the product of socialization (often called gender critical feminism). If we accept this then self-identity in the absence of socialization cannot on its own confer gender status. This puts traditional feminism at odds with newer strains of trans-inclusive feminism. A male who is socialized as a man, on this view, cannot be a woman even if they undergo gender reassignment surgery because they have not been socialized as a woman.
Notice that this view (you can’t change genders) holds the same conclusion as conservatives but for different reasons. For essentialists you can’t change genders because you can’t change your chromosomes. For gender critical feminists you can’t change genders because you can’t change how you were socialized in the past.
Notice also that, on the gender critical view, a trans person could over time potentially become their chosen gender if others treat them that way; i.e, they undergo gendered socialization. One’s position here depends on how much socialization is required and at what stages in one’s life it occurs.
Most gender critical feminists also disagree with the idea implicit in transgenderism that there are these two neat boxes called “gender” that we can put ourselves or others in. “Gender is a construct, we’re trying to deconstruct it, and now you’re trying to preserve it just like the conservatives!”
Here’s another interesting twist in the debate. Some trans-inclusive views can sort of align with gender essentialists. Our psychology is grounded in our brain biology. We know that in a population, traits are distributed along a bell-curve–regardless of biological sex. This means that some humans with male chromosomes will have a “female” psychology. Gender identity becomes tricky here. What’s more important to what we most fundamentally are? Our chromosomes or our psychology? Both are grounded in biology.
On the one hand, you are you because of the psychology particular to you. For example, if you are a shy person it doesn’t make sense for someone to call you an outgoing person. You both feel and behave like a shy person. Here, biology points in two directions: The (biologically grounded) brain structures underlying a person’s psychology might be what our society associates with femininity while their XY chromosomes point in the other direction. If we weigh psychology and underlying brain structures more heavily, then gender is determined this way. The other position weighs chromosomes more heavily in determining gender identity.
Both replies assume that one or the other is more fundamental to gender identity. Notice that both positions also sort of agree that there is something essential about gender: masculinity and femininity are identifiable clusters of properties grounded in biology. The disagreement is over which is fundamental.
The deep psychological view of gender presents its critics with the following challenge. How do we explain the fact that despite socialization and despite chromosomal sex some people deeply and sincerely identify as the gender not typically associated with their sex? If gender is primarily the product of socialization, then how do we explain gender dysphoria in those who were never socialized for that gender? If gender is primarily chromosomal, how do we explain the existence of a psychology (grounded in brain structures) that can resist a life-time of conditioning in the other gender direction? On the essentialist view, chromosomes, by definition, code for brain structures that underlie the psychology of typical gender identity for that sex. But there exist people for whom this doesn’t appear to be true.
The central task for trans-inclusive feminists, with respect to the ontological question, is to show a disanalogy between race and gender. Almost no one thinks that self-identity can determine one’s race. So, trans-inclusive feminists need to argue that gender and race differ in some important respect where gender can be determined by self-identity but race can’t.
These arguments exist but disagreement over their soundness still abounds–even in the neo-Marxist post-modernist universities (i.e., all of them, according to Jordan Peterson). Regardless of one’s position on the issue, I think it’s unfair to vilify conservatives and people on the right over the ontological issue when there isn’t even consensus on the liberal left.
The Ethical Issue
That said, the left generally agrees on the ethical question: Should I refer to someone according to their preferred gender pronoun? Regardless of whether someone actually believes a trans person is really the gender they believe themselves to be, most people on the left hold that basic norms of dignity and mutual respect imply we call people by their preferred pronoun.
A loose analogue might be someone who self-identifies as a Christian but acts contrary to Jesus’s teachings and has never read the Bible. If they want me to identify them a Christian, norms of basic dignity and mutual respect suggest that I do so if that’s their preference. I gain nothing by insisting that they are not TRUE Christians. Of course, being a Christian isn’t a biological category but it’s the norms of dignity and mutual respect that ought govern behavior towards one another regardless of what my ontology tells me. That said, if I want to write a respectful philosophical paper on the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a Christian, I should be able to do this without Harris-Mint.
Finally, the norms of dignity and mutual respect hold people should not be discriminated against based on their self-identity–even if we disagree with how they self-identify. This is the benefit and responsibility of living in a free society. We cannot escape interacting with people with whom we disagree but we can choose to treat them the way we would want to be treated. As an itinerant Jew from Israel once said:
All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you:
do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself
One final point regards individual liberty. Americans luuuuuuuuvz them some freedom talk. Consider what a genuine commitment to freedom entails. Respecting individual freedom to do only the things one likes and agrees with is no commitment to freedom. It’s thinly disguised prejudice. A genuine commitment to individual liberty and its real test implies imparting dignity and mutual respect to those who make choices and live in ways we strongly disagree with.
USA! USA! USA!
Pew! Pew! Pew! Pew!
There is no way to cover this entire debate in a single blog post. This topic is massive. The intent here is simply to give people an overview of some of the major positions and what they entail. If you have something you’d like to add, feel free to write me something in the comments.