Point Man

Chinese legend tells of a eunuch named Zhao Gao, a chancellor to the Second Emperor. The power-hungry Zhao Gao wanted to arrange a coup, but was worried that the other members of the imperial court wouldn't cooperate with his designs.

One day, Zhao Gao announced a horse was being given to the young Emperor as a gift—and presented a deer. The Emperor expressed confusion: "Perhaps the chancellor is mistaken, calling a deer a horse?" The other members of the imperial court were questioned. Some, reporting what they saw before them, said it was a deer. Others, fearing Zhao Gao, said it was a horse, or remained silent.

Later, Zhao Gao arranged for the execution of the courtiers who said it was a deer, or were silent.

It was all a test: the courtiers who agreed with Zhao Gao, even though what he said was absurd—precisely because it was absurd—proved their loyalty to him, whereas the ones who spoke the plain truth revealed themselves as untrustworthy for his purposes: to agree with a true claim would be compatible with either loyalty or mere honesty, but to agree with absurdity leaves no ambiguity about one's motives. From this story comes the Chinese four-character idiom point deer make horse, to deliberately misrepresent.

I used to wonder: what was it like to be one of the courtiers who survived the test? Did they consciously think, "Well, I don't know why Zhao Gao is calling this deer a horse, but he seems serious, so I'd better play along, too"—or did they trust Zhao Gao's words more than their own eyes, and manage to really believe themselves that it was a horse?

These days, I have a different question.

What was it like to be the deer? To be used like that, as a prop in someone else's political power game, without having any idea what's going on?

During a recent discussion of gender and pronoun conventions, I received a fascinating reply that I thought was very telling about an aspect of the Zeitgeist that usually remains covert. My interlocutor said (edited and paraphrased):

I can imagine a sane society using he and she to refer to this-person-looks-male and this-person-looks-female. But in the society that exists today, "what pronouns does this person use for trans person" on-average conveys very relevant information about the speaker and their attitudes to trans people. (I mean this in a this-is-just-how-the-statistics-work rather than an accusatory way; I think in your particular case we have lots of other data.)

I agree that there's going to be some confusion if you talk about someone as a "she" and the person who turns up is obviously a.m.a.b. But I think the confusion that results from calling them "she" is a lot more consequential. Progressive communication norms absolutely reflect a concern for information efficiency! It takes a lot less time to say "she" than it does to say "he, but I also think trans people are great."

(Bolding mine.)

I see. So the new norms are optimized to convey information about the speaker rather than what is being spoken about.

Almost like ... a loyalty test?

And the less intuitive it is, the better it works as a loyalty test: referring to an obviously male person as he merely reflects conventional usage and reveals no information about one's motives, whereas referring to an obvious male as she—or using singular they for a named individual whose sex is apparent—extracts a cognitive cost, however slight—a cost allies are more willing to pay than non-allies.

I'm not suggesting a conspiracy, of course; just the design signature of cultural evolution.

Here's my theory. As a very rare biological anomaly, there have always been an extreme right tail of very masculine lesbians who fit into Society better as men and very feminine gay men who fit into Society better as women, and twentieth-century doctors developed medical interventions to aid them in this transformation. This worked pretty well.

Separately, there are, and perhaps always have been, paraphilic men who wished they were women—autogynephiles—and the extreme right tail of them also sought out interventions from the twentieth-century doctors. Tragically, this didn't usually work as well, but it was rare enough for autogynephiles to actually attempt it (as opposed to privately fantasizing or playing dress-up) that it didn't have much impact on the social order.

The legal changes required for the twentieth-century doctors' innovation was sponsored by the political coalition of individually non-hegemonic identity groups, whose organizing principle had always been to fight on behalf of the marginalized—those who, without the coalition's sponsorship, would have been (even more) victimized by the hegemonic social order.

But when the source of a coalition's power rests on the loyalty of the victims it protects, and of their allies, then those seeking to win more power for the coalition have an incentive to both create more victims, and distinguish loyal from fair-weather allies.

Aggressively marketing "being trans" as an atomic identity that everyone needs to celebrate on pain of being responsible for someone's suicide, serves both functions: a lot of young men with autogynephilia or internalized misandry, and quirky but impressionable teenage girls, get recruited to the victimhood coalition (who might have otherwise gotten married and joined the power base of the hegemonic social order), and everyone who cares about having a public concept of biological sex gets "outed" as an insufficiently-loyal ally (who can't free-ride off the coalition's successes without contributing). It works even better if any group that doesn't have the necessary quota of trans people is marked for political attack on the grounds of being insufficiently inclusive.

Again, no individual mastermind is required for the collective outcome to play out this way. Being proud of a political group identity and seeking to promote its strength and power is normal. Being suspicious of those who refuse to pay the cost of signaling loyalty to the group is normal. Wanting to change sex is—not "normal" exactly, but a reasonably common and harmless fantasy (the scintillating but ultimately untrue thought) that a lot of people have without being in the homosexual extreme-right-tail-of-sex-atypical-behavior taxon that sex reassignment was invented for. (A 1994 study found that among college students, 5.6% of males and 13.2% of females had fantasized about being the opposite sex.)

As a transhumanist, I believe that fantasies deserve to be fulfilled—but actually fulfilled, fulfilled for real, not humored by everyone forcing everyone else to pretend in order to maintain the equilibrium in some idiot political game.

I'm glad that sex reassignment exists for those who need it, or just want it. (I would want it if the technology were better.) But this new culture in which any attempt to talk about sex in the common language gets adversarially reinterpreted as a claim about this mysterious "gender" thing that has no particular truth conditions other than the individual's say-so, isn't helping transsexuals who have successfully transitioned and moved on with their lives. Relative to more honest alternatives that could be invented or rediscovered, I very much doubt this culture is helping those who enthusiastically advocate for and participate in it—if they only knew in detail what they're selling and being sold. Selfishly, I resent the forced updates to my native language, which I still need to make sense of the world I see.

And, and—that poor deer!

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