The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought is going on hiatus until 1 July while the author recovers from a broken heart and a shattered faith in humanity; there will be no new posts in May and June. But don't touch that subscription—we'll be back in two months with more of your favorite social commentary, philosophical disquisitions, and gooey self-disclosure! In the meantime, maybe read a paper book?
The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought is going on hiatus until 1 July while the author recovers from a broken heart and a shattered faith in humanity; there will be no new posts in May and June. But don't touch that subscription—we'll be back in two months with more of your favorite social commentary, philosophical disquisitions, and gooey self-disclosure! In the meantime, maybe read a paper book?
It doesn't have anything to do with the topic focuses of this blog, but this new post on Less Wrong about the mathematical laws governing how to talk about dolphins is just so good that I have to share it with my readers! I hope to read more from that author in the future!—it would be really unfortunate if his writing productivity and mine turned out to be negatively correlated for some inexplicable reason.
"You don't understand. Sure, you might make a few interesting abstract points here and there, but this isn't some masturbatory ivory-tower intellectual game to us. We're fighting for our existence here."
"Yes, you are. And so am I. I need simple language that carves reality at the joints in order to achieve the map that reflects the territory. If I had the choice, I'd prefer not to be complicit with the forces that oppress you—if only you weren't complicit with the forces that oppose me."
"Not all men are like that!"
"I suppose you buy lottery tickets, too."
It's been remarked upon that popular positions are often supported with weak arguments, because people aren't in the habit of having to defend them. I think there's a distinct but related time-dependent effect on advocates of sufficiently unpopular positions. At first, the advocate of the unpopular position grows more sophisticated over time as they refine and elaborate their case against the orthodoxy—until they eventually notice that arguing doesn't work, at which point their argument quality undergoes a sharp and sudden decline: if there's literally no way you can win (because advocates of the orthodoxy are just going to confabulate a series of ever more ridiculous bullshit objections to waste your time), why bother putting in all that effort?
If "Because while you can select a sample from a different multivariate distribution to match a sample from another distribution along one or a few given dimensions, the samples are going to differ in the variables that you didn't select" is just going to be ignored anyway, the temptation to flip a table and just say "Because fuck you, that's why" may become nigh overwhelming.
"But like, maybe a better strategy than pretending not to notice that women are a different thing that I don't understand, might be to try to listen to them, and learn from them, and appropriate the good parts of what they have without literally insisting that we're instances of the same thing, which is, unfortunately, not true. Or even—why am I even saying 'unfortunately'? It was already not true before I picked up my teenage religion."
"I don't see what's morally threatening about women being a different thing, because/as-long-as woman-cluster-humans still have the same amount of personhood as man-cluster-humans. If that weren't true then that would be morally threatening, but that's not something you've brought up so far."
"It's not morally threatening to you!"
Growing up as a younger child in an atomized, low-fertility WEIRD world, I was until recently in the historically anomalous position of not really having any idea what children are actually like. (I have some memories of childhood, of course, but that's not the same as field observations with an adult intellect—everything from before age 14 or so feels insufficiently continuous with my current self to really constitute knowledge in my possession.)
It's not clear to what extent people really have anticipation-controlling beliefs in the absence of lived-experience data, but the narratives we think we believe come from what we read.
One such narrative relevant to the topic-focus of this blog is the progressive mainstay, "Psychological sex differences are fake/socially-constructed." A metacontrarian counternarrative that I got a lot of exposure to as I sought out ideologically-inconvenient science during my twenties was, "Overeducated out-of-touch liberals think that psychological sex differences are fake/socially-constructed, until they finally have children of their own and see for themselves how much is innate." As I slowly came to grips with just how deeply the progressive coalition has been systematically lying to me about everything I want and value, I grew to mostly accept the counternarrative.
And so as I've recently gotten some field data thanks to some of my friends actually having children (!!) in the past few years, it has been a pleasant surprise to notice the metacontrarian counternarrative making failed predictions in the form of my friends' kids' individual personalities not being overtly stereotypical: friend's daughter's (age 3) fantasy doll play frequently revolves around epic battles of good guys vs. bad guys (with the bad guys regularly being killed or put in jail); other friend's son (age 2) is the subject of adorable anecdotes about wanting to hug and not hurt people, and his current special interest is endlessly rewatching the documentary Babies. The glorious Hydeian counter-counternarrative is confirmed: maybe some sex differences are real, but the effect sizes are so small that you really should just treat everyone as individuals, not out of ideological commitments, but because it actually makes sense!! Rah! ⚥ 💖
On the other hand, if I'm remembering my Maccoby (RIP 😢) correctly, a lot of the standard social-play differences emerge a little bit after toddlerhood. So I'm bracing myself for the possibility of a dreary counter-counter-counternarrative in a few years.
(Attention conservation notice: metablogging is boring. This post previews some planned and in-development content and expounds on the author's psychological state. It is only being published for psychological reasons. Please subscribe for finished, high-quality content later!)
Um, merry belated Christmas to readers of The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought?
I guess I haven't made any new posts here in almost two months?—which is not great. It would make sense for a blog to not update in two months if the author really just didn't have anything to say worth reading during that time. But I still have lots of things I want to say here, that I've wanted to say for a long time, even, that I just somehow haven't gotten around to writing up ... even though the blog is more than two years old, and I didn't even have a dayjob for twelve months of that. "Writer's block" doesn't even begin to cover this; it is criminal. Here's just a partial list of some of the post ideas that I haven't gotten around to finishing for you yet—
- I still need to finish drafting my reply to Ozy's reply to my reply to the immortal Scott Alexander
- I've got ~4800 words drafted, but it needs a lot more work in order to make it a maximally clear and maximally defensible blog post
- A brief (only ~350 words) summary—
- I hopefully-accurately summarize Ozy as trying to make a reductio ad absurdum argument, claiming that my arguments relying on the relevance of psychological sex differences would imply that lesbians aren't women, which is absurd.
- I argue that this is a misunderstanding of my position: I don't want to define "gender" based on psychology. Rather, I want language to talk about the natural category of biological sex, which makes predictions about many possible observations, a few of which predictions are effectively binary (like reproductive systems and chromosomes), but many of which are merely statistical. The existence of women (in the sense of people with uteruses and XX chromosomes, &c.) who are more masculine than the modal woman among many psychological dimensions, does not refute the claim that gender-dysphoric men can't simply be defined as women without consequences.
- I hopefully-accurately summarize Ozy as arguing that many sex-based social distinctions should actually be made on the basis of more specific traits, not sex: for example, if you're worried about harassment, you should try to filter against harassers, not men.
- I argue that this isn't always practical given the far-less-than-perfect information available in many social situations. Since not all traits can be cheaply, precisely, and verifiably measured, sometimes people might want to use (perceived) sex as a proxy, or as a Schelling point for coordination.
- I hopefully-accurately summarize Ozy as arguing that gender, like money, is socially constructed by collective agreement. It's coherent to argue that gender should be fully consensual, attributed on the basis of self-identity.
- I argue that just as not all possible money systems are feasible (in particular, you couldn't run an economy in which anyone could arbitrarily declare what they thought other people should categorize as a dollar), not all possible gender systems are feasible. Fully consensual gender sounds like a good idea when you phrase it like that (what kind of monster could possibly be against "consent"??), but doesn't reflect the structure of probabilistic inferences people actually make in the real world when they have some information about people's sex.
- I hopefully-accurately summarize Ozy as trying to make a reductio ad absurdum argument, claiming that my arguments relying on the relevance of psychological sex differences would imply that lesbians aren't women, which is absurd.
- I need to write an in-depth post about the overlap-along-one-dimension-does-not-imply-overlap-in-the-entire-configuration-space statistical phenomenon (standard diagram) of which I have decided that "univariate fallacy" is a better name than "Lewontin's fallacy" (working title: "High-Dimensional Social Science and the Conjunction of Small Effect Sizes")
- a technical post about how imperfect measurements are subject to regression to the mean, which (unfortunately! really genuinely unfortunately!) quantitatively weakens the standard reassurance of, "Oh, no one should feel threatened by discussion of group differences, because the statistics obviously don't apply to any one individual"
- I haven't done any serious math in a while and I'm afraid that learning and explaining the details here could take me many hours
- a technical post about using naïve Bayes models for sex categorization
- I never got very far into Daphne Koller and the Methods of Rationality (I know; I like my title better), but I'd like to dig into it again if I can somehow find the time
- a post about how I'm nervous about Codes of Conduct in the open-source world being used as an ideological-conformity enforcement mechanism, in contrast to their laudable ostensible purpose of preventing harrassment, &c. (working title: "Codes of Convergence; Or, Smile More")
- a critical appraisal of the social phenomenon of self-declared non-binary gender identities (working title: "'But I'm Not Quite Sure What That Means': Costs of Nonbinary Gender as a Social Technology")
- a post about the mechanisms of social change and how there might be a role for a very narrowly-targeted form of political activism where you try to give people more accurate factual information, rather than lobbying for any particular concrete policy (working title: "An Infovist's Advisory; Or, Standing Athwart History Yelling, 'Wait! I Like the Idea, but the Execution Needs Work!'")
- a post about neglect of probability (working title: "The Neglect of Probability Fallacy; Or, You Do Not Have an Intersex Condition")
- an in-depth post about my views on what's going on with late-onset MtF (working title: "Blanchard's Dangerous Idea and the Plight of the Lucid Crossdreamer")
- heretofore I've mostly just been referring people to go read Anne Lawrence (short version, long version) or Kay Brown because it's more efficient to just link to a lit review that's already been done rather than write something new
- I actually do have a lot of residual uncertainty that I probably haven't made sufficiently clear in my existing writing! It seems absolutely nailed down that the HSTS/early-onset/feminine/androphilic thing is different from my thing, but there's still some room for other major psychological causal factors influencing transition besides AGP in many people
- a possibly-lightly-fictionalized account of what my autogynephilic fantasy life looks like in detail
- I'd kind of rather not write in too much detail about such private and distasteful matters on a blog that also has a lot of non-pornographic content that I'm really proud of, but I'm afraid it actually is important for the intellectual project I'm trying to accomplish here. Without the details, it's too easy for someone to say, "Oh, 'autogynephilia'; that's just some bigoted, unfalsifiable theory someone made up because they hate trans women", and I think the details really make it clear why I need this word (or an exact synonym) to describe an important part of my life—and I suspect the lives of a lot of other people, including a lot of people who go on to transition, although that's harder to prove
- This is the kind of thing that makes me glad I'm still using a pseudonym, even though I feel guilty about the cowardice
- I mean, it's not a particularly carefully guarded pseudonym in either direction—not at all hard to doxx by someone who actually cares—but since you almost certainly don't care, it does offer a certain amount of "differential visibility", which is probably the smart move to avoid distractions from my real-name life and work
- book review of Nevada
- product review of FaceApp (the uniquely best piece of software in the world)
- product review of the Oculus Go (as a viewing device for, um, certain VR videos)
- a deniably-allegorical short epistemic horror story about the evolution of squirrels who are friends (working title: "Friendship Practices of the Secret-Sharing Plain Speech Valley Squirrels"—um, trust me)
- a short love/epistemic-horror story built around a surprisingly-not-that-contrived interpretation of the Steven Universe ending theme as being about autogynephilia (working title: "'Love Like You'"—um, trust me again)
- a short epistemic horror story (with a magical-realism twist at the end) about a young gender-critical feminist (who is surprisingly knowledgable about evolutionary psychology) who gets wrongfully involuntarily committed after losing a night of sleep and is assigned an MtF roommate in the psych ward
- and more
... and just, I don't know. I've been pretty upset lately in the way that I've been on-and-off upset for the last two and a half years, where in addition to this creepy and absurd pseudonymous blog that I don't even have the willpower to write at a decent pace (see the above list of things-yet-left-unwritten), I keep getting into arguments with people in real life (or in Discord servers that feel real-life-adjacent) who seem to think that guys like me can literally be women by means of saying so.
And it's just not true. It's just so obviously not true. (Given current technology.)
So, I'm an intellectual. I realize very well that "It's obviously not true" isn't an argument that someone could engage with. So I do make arguments. I try very hard to be careful to explain the empirical claims I'm making and point to evidence, and try to anticipate and disclaim in advance the most probable misinterpretations of what I'm saying, and demonstrate that I understand that words can be used in many ways depending on context, but that I'm trying to use language to point to a particular empirical statistical structure in the world, and that becomes a lot more cumbersome to express if I'm not allowed to use this word with this widely-used definition/extension ...
I'm not perfect. Especially in real-time discussions (text or meatspace), I can often look back and point to things that I said that were wrong, and know that I have sinned: "Oh, that wasn't quite fair of me; oh, that was kind of bravery-debatey of me; oh, I should have more carefully distinguished between those claims."
I'm not perfect, but I think I'm pretty good. Even if I don't agree with someone about the facts—even if I don't agree with someone about what policy trade-offs to make, including policy trade-offs about how to use language—surely, surely we can at least agree on my meta-level point about cognitive costs being part of the policy trade-off about how to use language?
And somehow it doesn't land. It's like talking to a tape recorder that just endlessly repeats, "Ha-ha! I can define a word any way I want! You can't use that concept unless you can provide explicit necessary-and-sufficient conditions to classify a series of ever-more obscure and contrived edge cases!"
Although I do have a couple favorite edge cases of my own. I generally prefer not to involve named individuals in arguments, even public figures: it's unclassy. But having nothing left, I pull out a photograph of Danielle Muscato. "Look," I say. "This is a photograph of a man. You can see it, too, right? Right?"
And they say, "It's possible to be mistaken about cis people's genders, too."
"Yes, I agree with that," I say. "But can you see how I want to treat 'mistaken identification with respect to a truth condition based on the conjunction of genitalia, chromosomes, and hormone levels' as noticeably different-in-kind from 'mistaken identification with respect to the truth condition of because-I-said-so'?"
They don't see it.
And then I really have nothing left.
I want to flip a table and scream, "Stop gaslighting me, you sanctimonious lying bastards!"
But that's not an argument, either. (It would also constitute toxic masculinity.)
I don't know. I'm just venting here because I've been very upset. My venting is certainly not written in the most defensible possible way. (I can at least think of a few things that I've addressed in previous posts that I haven't addressed here, that someone reading only this post could accuse me of neglecting.)
Maybe with more time and more effort I could find exactly the right words to cover every possible caveat and nitpick and finally be able to communicate the thing—
But maybe I just need to relax. Not take it so seriously. Forget about the topic for a few days or a few months. Wash the goddamned dishes, write some goddamned code. Maybe it's not the end of the world if someone is Wrong on the Internet.
"Can you believe people are calling my blog transphobic?! Me! That's like calling Christina Hoff Sommers an anti-feminist!"
"Um ... you know, that's actually a pretty good analogy. People like Sommers who agree with a one-sentence literal summary of feminism's goals, like 'women and men should have equal rights', but disagree with seemingly every other belief and instrumental strategy connotationally associated with feminism, and who spend a disproportionate amount of time criticizing central examples of feminists, might reasonably be perceived as anti-feminist, even if they're not literally trying to repeal the 19th Amendment. It's possible to meet the category membership criteria of some simple candidate verbal definition, while not actually being part of that cluster in configuration space along most of the dimensions that people care about and want to use the word to refer to."
"Huh. That argument sounds ... familiar."
"Right, so, I'm pro-trans in the same sense that autogynephilic trans women are women."
"No! I mean, not helping your case!"
I had my ninth laser session the other week (out of the ten-session package that I prepaid for), almost a year after my first. (They schedule them out four to six weeks, and I rescheduled a couple of them.) I'm ... pretty underwhelmed by the results so far? My facial hair is nontrivially thinner than it was before (and maybe slightly blonder by attrition)—it's hard to be sure of the magnitude because apparently I'm still the kind of idiot who doesn't bother to take detailed "Before" photos even after explicitly noting this—but there's still a lot of it noticeably there. "Marking my face as male", I want to put it, but maybe that would be a misleading phrasing, because it's not as if people don't reliably, involuntarily infer my sex from my facial structure even at my cleanest-shaven. (And I should remember that things are only going to get worse—despite my beautiful-beautiful ponytail in the back, Trent says my hairline in the front is already a Norwood 3, and it takes all of my strength as an aspiring rationalist just to believe him.)
I'm not sure how typical my results are and why—the marketing literature from the clinic/parlor/salon promises permanent reduction by "up to 90 percent after 6–8 treatments", but up to isn't exactly a probability distribution. Maybe I just have resilient hair; maybe I'm grimacing or grunting too much during the treatment, priming the merciful nurse–technician to hold back on the zapping more than she (invariably she) is supposed to; who knows?
"But surely a man such as yourself—"
"I'm nonbinary," interjected the other, holding up a name badge bearing a they/them/theirs sticker.
"Right, sorry," said Mark. "Surely a nonbinary man such as yourself—"
(An anecdote of no consequence)
This year at a conference for this open-source scene I've been really into lately, there were pronoun stickers in everyone's conference swag bags ("[...] so we can all help each other get things right. Wear them in solidarity with others too. Help us make [the conference] welcoming and inclusive for all"), including they/them/theirs, ze/zir/zirs (!), and blanks (!!). Leaving aside impersonal philosophical objections for a moment, I want you to consider the mild stress this kind of thing can inflict on people who have some form of gender-related problems but who have chosen some form of mitigation other than transitioning.
Which sticker am I supposed to put on if I am to show solidarity? The he/him/his sticker would be the obvious, straightforward choice. After all, that is, in fact, the third-person pronoun people use for me. But in a context where I'm being offered a choice, I don't want to choose the male option, because that makes it look like I "identify" with my maleness—as if I were cis in the strong sense of having a "gender identity" matching my "assigned" sex, rather than in the weaker sense of being a reactionary coward whose pathological need for a backwards-compatible social identity is preventing her from becoming her best self.
At the same time, I can't wear the she/her/hers sticker. And I think there's a sense in which can't really is a better choice of words than don't want to. It's not that I don't enjoy being refered to as she in a context where that makes sense, like when I'm crossplaying at a fandom convention, or in the Secret Blanchardian Conspiracy Chatroom, or in the ironic last sentence of the preceding paragraph. It's that, in real life, when I'm not playing dress-up and I can't hide my face behind the fog of net, people are going to notice that I'm male and habitually use the English language pronoun for males on such occasions that they need to refer to me in the third person. I could attach a sticker to my badge instructing them otherwise, but only in the same sense that I could tell them that black is white and cats are dogs—that is, probably not with a straight face.
But none of this really matters: if you don't want to wear a sticker, you can just not wear one, with no discernible social consequences. (At least, not this year!)
I did get asked for my pronouns once, the first day, by someone who I think was not yet aware of the stickers—the only time I've been asked for pronouns when I wasn't at an explicitly social-justice-oriented event (like at the local genderqueer support group, or "Introduction to Feminisms" class at the University in Santa Cruz eleven years ago) or literally wearing a dress (in the cosplay repair lounge at Comic-Con).
I had sat at this person's table to listen to them eloquently denounce at length the many ways in which some code they encountered was horribly overcomplicated—which made sense, they explained, because the 40-year-old men who wrote those libraries were all Trump supporters and Nazis and libertarians.
("Oh, that's interesting!", I said, "Do you suppose there's that large of a correlation between political ideology and code quality? With a sufficiently smart linter to operationalize quality, this could be amenable to empirical study ...")
The question came as we introduced ourselves mid-conversation. After I gave my name (as "Mark"), the person said, "What are your pronouns?"
I think I handled it reasonably well?—hemming and stalling for a few seconds before eventually giving he, with a disclaimer that the reason I hesitated was because I don't want to imply that I identify with masculinity—it's complicated. The questioner, sensing my discomfort, made an effort to placate or reassure me: "Sure," the person said, nodding, "That's just what you're using right now; that's cool."
The question was a compliment, really. I don't think they would have asked if I had had a beard. There's no chance of anyone mistaking me for a woman—but maybe the conjunction of my beautiful-beautiful ponytail and my manner and my slight gynecomastia is enough for me to be mistaken for the kind of man (in the sense of adult human male) who thinks he can demand that other people perceive him as a woman or nonbinary person. (I think I'm at least as credibly androgynous as a couple of the guys I saw wearing the they/them/theirs stickers.)
How strange it is—to be seen and unseen at the same time. Seen, because nice smart progressive people know to look for cues of gender variance and accord that with deference and latitude, such that I parse (correctly!) as someone who plausibly has some kind of gender problems, rather than "man who happens to have long hair for whatever stupid but uninteresting reason."
And unseen, because nice smart progressive people don't bother allocating much prior probability to the hypothesis that people who look and talk like them might think that sometimes the Trump supporters and Nazis and libertarians have a goddamned point.
(This is a guest post by friend of the blog Sophia!)
I tend to think of passing in terms of bits. If a stranger glances briefly at me as I walk by them on the sidewalk, how many bits of evidence do I expect they obtain for the proposition that I'm a trans woman (or autogynephilic man who's chosen to socially transition—not trying to care about terminology here, and you can do the translation yourself) against the hypothesis that I'm a cis woman? In other words, by how much did log2(P(trans)/P(cis)) increase? (There's a bit of a simplification here because I'm ignoring the rest of the hypothesis space, but if someone has visible breasts and is wearing women's clothing, I'd say it's safe to ignore.)
Of course, the number of bits they get depends on how familiar they are with differences between (AGP) trans women and cis women, and how long they watch me or talk to me. And whether they clock me as trans also depends on their base rate. The correct base rate (prevalence of AGP transsexualism in men) is a political football and I haven't sorted through the studies, but let's call it 0.1% in Portland. Then someone who's well-calibrated will believe me to be more likely trans than not if they get about ten bits of evidence to that effect (because log2(0.1%/99.9%) ≈ 10).
Different pieces of evidence are evident in different interactions, but I put myself at about (assuming a solid minute of study and focusing on the question, and making up numbers terribly):
face structure: 2 bits
voice: 0.5 bits (I'm very proud of this, yes, it's a bitch to train)
height: 0 bits (at 5′7″)
hair: 0.5 bits
clothing: 2 bits (I dress more 20-something than 30-something, which is telling)
posture: 0.5 bits (probably the low-hanging fruit right now)
breasts: 0.5 bits
other body structure (hips, ribs, hands, etc.): 2 bits
total: 8 bits
Some of those aren't quite independent evidence (clothing/hair/posture/body) but even assuming conservatively that they are, people who are trying can get 6–8 bits of evidence with some careful observation. And assuming correct calibrations on base rates, that's not good enough to clock someone. So I feel all right about this.
In reality, of course, the people who will study me that closely are rare and if any strangers have ever clocked me anytime after three months of transition they're super good at hiding it. So, yay?
Notice that this is a very different prospect than "Here's a trans person trying to pass. What evidence can you find that they're trans?" Well, there's lots! Who cares, as long as it's comfortably under 9–10 bits?
"Hi, my name is John, and my pronouns are he/him."
"Hi! My name is Mark, and I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient."
"I can understand why you might think that there are five lights—indeed, that would make a lot of things easier—but actually, there are only four lights. Yes, it's a little bit counterintuitive, and I know I got a little bit frustrated and said some things I now regret when I was trying to explain this earlier, such that some people might justifiably suspect that I am irrationally emotionally-attached to the four-lights hypothesis and guilty of motivated reasoning, and I totally agree that you should definitely take that possibility into account insofar as you are unable to count the lights yourself and are deciding how much you should update based on my report.
"Nevertheless, there are, in fact, four lights. It's OK if you don't believe me, but I counted them, and I recounted them a few more times, and I'm not going to pretend to be confused about the number of lights unless I discover some specific reason to suspect that I miscounted in the same way every time."
Thou shalt not strike terms from others' expressive vocabulary without suitable replacement.
The author of the (highly recommended!) Tumblr blog The Unit of Caring responds to an anonymous correspondent's observation that trans-exclusionary radical feminists tend to define the word woman as "adult human biological female":
Oh, yeah, sorry, I've heard that one too though I've yet to find anyone willing to justify it. If you can find anyone explaining why this is a good definition, or even explaining what good properties it has, I'd appreciate it because I did sincerely put in the effort and—uncharitably, it’s as if there’s just 'matches historical use' and 'doesn’t involve any people I consider icky being in my category'.
I'm happy to try to help if I can!
I would say that a notable good property of the "adult human female" definition is non-circularity: we can articulate membership tests that do a pretty good job of narrowing down which entities do and do not belong to the category we're trying to talk about, without appealing to the category itself. Does the person have a vagina, ovaries, breasts, and two X chromosomes? That's a woman. Has the person given birth? Definitely a woman. Does the person have a penis? Definitely not a woman. This at least gives us a starting point from which we can begin to use this woman concept to make sense of the world, even if it's not immediately clear whether and how we should apply it to various comparatively rare edge-cases. (What about female-to-male transsexuals, a.k.a. trans men? What about people with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome? &c.)
In contrast, a strict gender-identity-based definition doesn't have this useful non-circularity property. If all I know about women is that women are defined as people who identify as women, I can't use that definition to figure out which people are women. This point may be more apparent if you substitute some completely foreign concept for women. If someone told you that zorplebobben are people who identify as zorplebobben, you would probably have questions about what that means! Why do they identify as zorplebobben? Given that someone is a zorplebobben, what else should I infer about them? The self-identity criterion doesn't help: without a base case, the infinite recursion of (people who identify as (people who identify as (people who identify as ...))) never terminates.
Of course, people who believe in the primacy of gender identity aren't trying to engage in circular reasoning. If they are making a philosophical mistake, there has to be some explanation of what makes the mistake appealing enough for so many people to make it.
But it's not hard to guess: there are, empirically, a small-but-not-vanishingly-small minority of people with a penis, XY chromosomes, facial hair, &c. who wish that they had a vagina, XX chromosomes, breasts, &c., and in a enlightened technological civilization, it seems humane to accommodate this desire as much as feasible, by giving people access to hormones and surgeries that approximate the phenotype of the other sex, respecting their chosen pronouns, &c. Thus we can legitimately end up with a non-circular trans-inclusive sense of the word women: "adult human females, and also adult human males who have undergone interventions to resemble adult human females sufficiently closely so that they can be taken as such socially."
But this is a mere broadening of the "adult human female" definition that tacks on extra complexity (partially for humanitarian reasons and partially to better predict social phenomena that most people care more about modeling well than biological minutiæ). The core idea is still intact and centered, such that even if we end up using the disjunctive, trans-inclusive sense a lot of the time, the narrower, trans-exclusive sense is still pretty salient, rather than being a perplexingly unmotivated notion with no good properties.
One might counterargue that this is unjustifiably assuming "biologically female" as a primitive. The author seems to endorse a critique along these lines the first of three objections to the "adult human female" criterion of womanhood—
1) The way we draw categories in biology is a social decision we make for social and cultural reasons, it isn’t a feature of the biology itself. A different sort of society might categorize infertile humans as a separate gender, for example, and that'd be as justified by the biology as our system. Or have 'prepubescent' be a gender, or 'having living offspring' be a gender—there are a million things that these categories could just as reasonably, from the biology, have been drawn around.
I've addressed this class of argument at length (about 6500 words) in a previous post, "The Categories Were Made for Man to Make Predictions", but to summarize briefly, while I agree that categories can be defined in many ways to suit different cultural priorities, it's also the case that not all possible categories are equally useful, because the cognitive function of categories is to group similar things together so that we can make similar predictions about them, and not every possible grouping of entities yields a "tight" distribution of predictions that can be usefully abstracted over.
A free-thinking biologist certainly could choose to reject the orthodoxy of grouping living things by ancestry and reproductive isolation and instead choose to study living things that are yellow, but their treatises would probably be difficult to follow, because "living things that are yellow" is intrinsically a much less cohesive subject matter than, say, "birds": experience with black crows is probably going to be more useful when studying yellow canaries than experience with yellow daffodils—even if, in all philosophical strictness, there are a million things that these categories could have been drawn around, and who can say but that some hypothetical other culture might have chosen color rather than ancestry as the true determinant of "species"?
It is of course true that different cultures will place different emphases and interpretations on various ways in which people can differ: being prepubescent or being a parent might have special significance in some cultures that outsiders could never understand. But to say that prepubescents might as well be a "gender"—well, at this point I must confess that I'm really not sure what this "gender" thing is that the author is trying to talk about.
And I guess that's the problem. People who assume a TERFy definition of woman—like, say, the authors of the Merriam–Webster dictionary ("noun, 1.a., an adult female person")—generally aren't trying to invalidate anyone's "gender"; they're trying to talk about biological sex using simple, universally-understood words. Biological sex is obviously not the only category in the world: in a lot of situations, you might care more about whether someone has living children—or for that matter, whether an organism is yellow—than what sex it is.
But when people do want to talk about sex—when they want to carve reality along that particular joint, without denying that there are superexponentially many others in the vastness of configuration space—there's something profoundly frustrating about Blue Tribe culture's axiomatic insistence that certain inferences must not be made, that certain conceptual distinctions must not be expressible, except perhaps cloaked behind polysyllabic obfuscations like "assigned sex at birth" (as if the doctors made a mistake!).
Even if many usages of words like woman can and should be interpreted in a trans-inclusive sense, it's important that it also be possible to sometimes use the words in a trans-exclusive sense in those cases where the distributions of trans people and cis people of a given "gender" differ significantly for the variables of interest. The point is not to be mean to trans women (who are a huge fraction of my and The Unit of Caring author's friends); the point is that it should be socially acceptable to describe reality using words.
Consider these fictional (but, I fear, distressingly realistic) dialogues—
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Alice: I think it was terribly unfair how that high school track championship was won by a male-to-female transgender person who wasn't even on hormone replacement therapy!
Bob: I don't see the problem. It's a girl's track meet. Trans girls are girls, by definition. Why shouldn't they be allowed to compete with other girls?
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Alice: I'm sad that the sex ratio of my local decision-theory and compiler-development unified meetup group is so horribly lopsided, because this observation is in tension with my beautiful and sacred moral ideal of neither sex having a monopoly on any kind of virtue! If there's anything my native subcultures are doing to needlessly antagonize women, then that's wrong and I want to fix it!
Bob: What are you talking about? There were lots of women at that meetup.
Alice: I mean, yes, but literally all of us were trans.
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Alice: Have you seen Dhejne et al.'s long-term followup study of transsexuals in Sweden? In Tables S1 and S2, the authors report that trans women committed violent crimes at far higher rates than cis women, with an adjusted-for-immigrant-and-psychiatric-status hazard ratio of 18.1—but only slightly lower rates than cis men, against whom the adjusted hazard ratio was 0.8.
Bob: Yes, how terrible that we still live in such a transphobic Society that those poor marginalized trans women are disproportionately driven to violent crime!
Alice: That's one theory. Can you think of any other possible interpretations of the data?
Alice: Like, what do you make of the observation that the trans women's violent crime rate was not just higher than cis women's, but also strikingly close to that of cis men? Can you think of any reason—any reason at all—why that might not be a coincidence?
Bob: No, that has to be a coincidence. What could trans women and cis men possibly have in common?
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(Another dialogue about reproduction belongs in this collection, but was deemed too obvious and has been cut for space.)
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The point being illustrated here is that if it's socially unacceptable for people who want to talk about sex to say "That's not what I meant by woman in this context and you know it", then people who would prefer not to acknowledge sex will always get the last word, not because they have superior arguments, but because the very terms of discourse have been systematically gamed to conflate dissent with unkindness.
To this it might be objected that trans activists and allies are merely advocating for greater precision, rather than trying to make it socially unacceptable to think about biological sex: after all, you can just say "cis women" (which excludes trans women, trans men, and natal-female nonbinary people) or "assigned female at birth" (which excludes trans women, but includes trans men and natal-female nonbinary people and presumably David Reimer) or "people with uteruses" (which excludes trans women and natal females who have had a hysterectomy) if that's what you really mean.
Alternatively, we could imagine people agreeing that word woman refers solely to social roles and personal identity and must always be used in a trans-inclusive sense, while reserving female for when people want to talk about biological sex. However, I get the sense that this is not a compromise most contemporary trans activists would find acceptable: witness, for example, Zinnia Jones proclaiming that "[t]rans women are female—with female penises, female prostates, female sperm, and female XY chromosomes." (!)
Ultimately, I think all this is underestimating the usefulness of having simple, short descriptions for the categories that do the most predictive work on typical cases.
Kind or not, morally justified or not, voluntary or not, sexual dimorphism is actually a real thing. Studying the pages of Gray's Anatomy—or Wikipedia if you're on a budget—you can absorb all sorts of detailed, specific knowledge of the differences between female and male humans, from the obvious (sex organs, vocal pitch, height, muscle mass, body hair) to the less-obvious-but-well-known (chromosomes, hormones, pelvis shape) to the comparatively obscure (blood pressure! lymphocyte concentrations! gray-matter-to-white-matter ratios in the brain!). Nor is this surprising from a theoretical standpoint, where we have theories explaining mechanisms by which sexual dimorphism can evolve and what kinds of differences it produces in different species.
If—like me—you're the kind of person who is not necessarily happy about sexual dimorphism, you can always deliberately define your categories in order to minimize it: if there's a large sex difference in some observable measurement, just say you don't care about predicting that particular measurement.
But people who have other concerns than minimizing Blue Tribe people's quasi-religious discomfort with sexual dimorphism (it's my former quasi-religion, too, so I'm allowed to make fun of us) might want a common word—or even just a particular sense of a common word—to describe the world they see, in which sex is a real thing worth noticing.
It might be worth noticing even if you don't believe in psychological sex differences! That's why generations of feminists have fought valiantly for women's rights on the grounds that women are every bit the moral and intellectual equals of men, rather than the grounds that it's not clear whether "women" actually exist as a non-arbitrary category.
Being limited to just saying "people with uteruses" when the topic of conversation happens to be childbearing (or whatever the approved socially-just construction turns out to be) is not a suitable replacement (per Alicorn's maxim) when the speaker wants to refer to all the other dimensions along which women statistically have things in common, including things that are hard to articulate or measure.
And including things that may not even be currently known. I certainly don't know what differences in gray-to-white brain matter ratios mean psychologically, but my map is not the territory: it doesn't mean some future sufficiently-advanced neuroscience won't be able to say what the difference means about female and male minds, and some sufficiently advanced evolutionary psychology, under what selection pressures it evolved.
Speaking of future advances in knowledge, the author continues to her second objection—
2) Someday people are just going to be able to generate the exact physical body they want to inhabit. At that point, "biological" anything isn't going to apply.
I definitely agree that biological anything isn't going to apply in the glorious posthuman future of unimaginable power and freedom when people can reshape their body and mind at will.
But it's also not clear how much relevance this science-fictional scenario has to people in the unglorious preposthuman present. Yes, we do have HRT and SRS, and these are magnificent achievements for the grand cause of morphological freedom, and should be available on an informed-consent basis. It's definitely something.
But it's also definitely not-everything. To get a sense of how far we have to go, I strongly recommend reading Eliezer Yudkowsky's heartbreaking 2009 take on what an actually effective male-to-female sex change would take.
In my youth, I used to be more optimistic about the future of human enhancement. "Oh, sure, that may be true of present-day humans, but in general ..." felt like a relevant and useful form of argument.
These days, dwelling on the general case feels awfully pedantic. I think what changed is that as I read more and gained some personal experience with real-world technology development (albeit in mere software), I began to appreciate technology as the sum of many contingent developments with particular implementation details that someone had to spend thousands of engineer–years pinning down, rather than as an unspecified generic force of everything getting better over time. In principle, everything not directly prohibited by the laws of physics is probably possible, which basically amounts to any miracle you can imagine. In practice, we get a very few, very specific miracles that depend on vast institutions and supply chains and knowledge that can be lost as well as gained.
I don't doubt that the inhabitants of some future world of Total Morphological Freedom won't use the same concepts to describe their blessed lives that we need to navigate our comparatively impoverished existence in which we can't write correct software, aren't sure what basic biological mechanisms even exist, and don't remember how to go the moon or build a subway for less than a billion dollars a mile. But while we work towards a better future (n.b., work towards, not wait for; waiting doesn't help), we have to go on living in a world where our means don't match our ambitions, and—as we typically recognize with respect to other standard transhumanist goals—the difference can't be made up by means of clever redefinitions of words—
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Alice: When I lost my mother, I knew I could not rest until Death itself is defeated!
Bob: But as long as you remember her, your mother lives on in you!
Alice: I mean, metaphorically yes, but I meant death as in, like, the cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism.
Bob: Oh, yeah, sorry, I've heard that one, too, though I've yet to find anyone willing to justify it. If you can find anyone explaining why this is a good definition, or even explaining what good properties it has, I'd appreciate it, because I did sincerely put in the effort and—uncharitably, it's as if there's just 'matches historical use' and 'doesn't involve icky people from the past being in my category'.
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The Unit of Caring author continues:
If your definition of a 'woman' is one where trans people will be their preferred gender once the tech catches up, then I think you should probably reflect on what actually changes about anyone's lived experience on that magic day when our cyborgs hit your threshold. And if it isn't, then you're stuck asserting that if a woman is cell-for-cell identical to me then she still might not be a 'biological woman'. That's a sign that this isn't actually about biology.
I would rather say that's a sign that we're facing an instance of the Sorites paradox, the ancient challenge to applying discrete categories to a continuous world. If one grain of sand doesn't make a heap (the argument goes), and the addition of one more grain of sand can't change whether something is a heap, then we can conclude from the principle of mathematical induction that no number n ∈ ℕ of grains make a heap. (Or, alternatively, that the absence of any sand constitutes a "heap of zero grains".) Analogously, if a sufficiently small change in MtF transition outcome can't change whether someone is a woman, then we are seemingly forced to accept that either everyone is a woman or no one is.
While the Sorites paradox is certainly an instructive exercise in the philosophy of language, its practical impact seems limited: most people find it more palatable to conclude that that the heap-ness is a somewhat fuzzy concept, rather than to concede that the argument isn't actually about the amount of sand in a location. And if you brought a single grain of sand when someone asked you for a heap, they probably wouldn't hesitate to say, "That's not what I meant by heap in this context and you know it."
If that's the side of this question you come down on, then I encourage you to ask yourself why that trans women still doesn't count. I expect that whatever your answer, that's the real definition you’re using, not "biological".
I definitely agree that this is a valuable thought experiment: in this limit of perfect physical transition technology, what possible reasons could there be to deny that trans women are women? Allow me to give a conditional answer.
If psychological sex differences aren't real, then there aren't any: ex hypothesi, the physiological differences between females and males are the only thing for the word woman to attach to, and ex hypothesi, we know how to fix those.
Alternatively, if psychological sex differences are a thing, and transness is a brain intersex condition such that pre-transition trans women are already psychologically female, then again, there aren't any: ex hypothesi &c.
However, if we should be so unlucky to live in a world in which psychological sex differences are a thing and most trans women are motivated to transition by some other reason than already having female minds, then we face some subtleties: if our thought-experimental perfect transition tech doesn't edit minds, then we end up with a bunch of female-bodied people with a distribution of psychologies that isn't just not-identical to that of natal females, but is actually coming out of the male distribution. Should such people be called women? Honestly, I lean towards Yes, but I can at least see the argument of someone who preferred not to use the word that way.
3) What does this definition of 'woman' get you?
It gets us a concept to refer to the set of adult human females. (Even if, again, we often also use the word woman in a broader trans-inclusive sense; it's not uncommon for words to have both narrower and broader definitions which can be distinguished from context.)
If the concept of women in the narrow, trans-exclusionary sense is to be forbidden from polite Society, then people trying to make sense of their experiences will be forced to reinvent it, probably by means of obfuscatory neologisms ("assigned female at birth") coupled with the quietly indefatigable wordless anticipation that it's somehow not a coincidence that cis women and trans men and a.f.a.b. nonbinary people get pregnant sometimes, but cis men and trans women and a.m.a.b. nonbinary people never do.
I want to live in that glorious future of Total Morphological Freedom. But nature to be commanded must be obeyed. To get godlike mastery over our physical forms, to break free of the prison of today's unremediated genderspace, is going to require a detailed understanding of exactly how things work today, as it is only from such knowledge that pallative interventions can be designed. And, bluntly, the fact that the smartest people I know tend to direct more of their effort towards redefining top-20 nouns than on biotechnology research, does not exactly inspire confidence or hope.
I said, "The truth is whatever you can get away with."
"No, that's journalism. The truth is whatever you can't escape."
—Distress by Greg Egan
In "The Categories Were Made for Man, Not Man for the Categories", the immortal Scott Alexander argues that proposed definitions of concepts aren't true or false in themselves, but rather can only be evaluated by their usefulness. Our finite minds being unable to cope with the unimaginable complexity of the raw physical universe, we group sufficiently similar things into the same category so that we can make similar predictions about them—but this requires not only a metric of "similarity", but also a notion of which predictions one cares about enough to notice, both of which are relative to some agent's perspective, rather than being inherent in the world itself.
And so, Alexander explains, the ancient Hebrews weren't wrong to classify whales as a type of dag (typically translated as fish), even though modern biologists classify whales as mammals and not fish, because the ancient Hebrews were more interested in distinguishing which animals live in the water rather than which animals are phylogenetically related. Similarly, borders between countries are agreed upon for a variety of pragmatic reasons, and can be quite convoluted. While there may often be some "obvious" geographic or cultural Schelling points anchoring these decisions, there's not going to be any intrinsic, eternal fact of the matter as to where one country starts and another begins.
All of this is entirely correct—and thus, an excellent motte for the less honest sort of Slate Star Codex reader to appeal to when they want to obfuscate and disrupt discussions about empirical reality by insisting on gerrymandered redefinitions of everyday concepts.
Alexander goes on to attempt to use the categories-are-relative-to-goals insight to rebut skeptics of transgenderedness:
I've seen one anti-transgender argument around that I take very seriously. The argument goes: we are rationalists. Our entire shtick is trying to believe what's actually true, not on what we wish were true, or what our culture tells us is true, or what it's popular to say is true. If a man thinks he's a woman, then we might (empathetically) wish he were a woman, other people might demand we call him a woman, and we might be much more popular if we say he's a woman. But if we're going to be rationalists who focus on believing what's actually true, then we've got to call him a man and take the consequences.
Thus Abraham Lincoln's famous riddle: "If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?" And the answer: "Four—because a tail isn't a leg regardless of what you call it."
I take this argument very seriously, because sticking to the truth really is important. But having taken it seriously, I think it's seriously wrong.
An alternative categorization system is not an error, and borders are not objectively true or false.
But this is just giving up way too easily. The map is not the territory, and many very different kinds of maps can correspond to the territory in different ways—we have geographical maps, political maps, road maps, globes, &c.—but that doesn't mean no map is in error. Rationalists can't insist on using the one true categorization system, because it turns out that—in all philosophical strictness—no such thing exists. But that doesn't release us from our sacred duty to describe what's actually true. It just leaves us faced with the slightly more complicated task of describing the costs and benefits of different categorization systems with respect to different criteria.
There's no objective answer to the question as to whether we should pay more attention to an animal's evolutionary history or its habitat—but given one criterion or the other, we can say definitively that whales are mammals but they're also dagim/water-dwellers. And this isn't just a matter of mere labels that contain no more information than we used to define them. The categories do cognitive work: given that we observe that whales are endotherms that nurse their live-born young, we can assign them to the category mammal and predict—correctly—that they have hair and have a more recent last common ancestor with monkeys than with herring, even if we haven't yet seen the hairs or found the last common ancestor. Alternatively, given that we've been told that "whales" live in the ocean, we can assign them to the category water-dwellers, and predict—correctly—that they're likely to have fins or flippers, even if we've never actually seen a whale ourselves.
This works because, empirically, mammals have lots of things in common with each other and water-dwellers have lots of things in common with each other. If we imagine entities as existing in a high-dimensional configuration space, there would be a mammals cluster (in the subspace of the dimensions that mammals are similar on), and a water-dwellers cluster (in the subspace of the dimensions that water-dwellers are similar on), and whales would happen to belong to both of them, in the way that the vector x⃗ = [3.1, 4.2, −10.3, −9.1] ∈ ℝ⁴ is close to [3, 4, 2, 3] in the x₁-x₂ plane, but also close to [−8, −9, −10, −9] in the x₃-x₄ plane.
If different political factions are engaged in conflict over how to define the extension of some common word—common words being a scarce and valuable resource both culturally and information-theoretically—rationalists may not be able to say that one side is simply right and the other is simply wrong, but we can at least strive for objectivity in describing the conflict. Before shrugging and saying, "Well, this is a difference in values; nothing more to be said about it," we can talk about the detailed consequences of what is gained or lost by paying attention to some differences and ignoring others. That there exists an element of subjectivity in what you choose to pay attention to, doesn't negate the fact that there is a structured empirical reality to be described—and not all descriptions of it are equally compact.
In terms of the Lincoln riddle: you can call a tail a leg, but you can't stop people from noticing that out of a dog's five legs, one of them is different from the others. You can't stop people from inferring decision-relevant implications from what they notice. (Most of a dog's legs touch the ground, such that you'd have to carry the dog to the vet if one of them got injured, but the dog can still walk without the other, different leg.) And if people who live and work with dogs every day find themselves habitually distinguishing between the bottom-walking-legs and the back-wagging-leg, they just might want different words in order to concisely talk about what everyone is thinking anyway.
So far, I probably haven't actually said anything that Alexander didn't already say in the original post. ("A category 'fish' containing herring, dragonflies, and asteroids is going to be stupid [...] it fails to fulfill any conceivable goals of the person designing it.") But it seems worth it for me to restate and emphasize that categories derive their usefulness from the way in which they efficiently represent regularities in the real world, because on the topic of exactly how to apply these philosophical insights to transgender identity claims, Alexander strangely—uncharacteristically—doesn't seem to find it necessary to make any arguments about representing the real world, preferring instead to focus on the mere fact that some people strongly prefer self-identity-based gender categories:
If I'm willing to accept an unexpected chunk of Turkey deep inside Syrian territory to honor some random dead guy—and I better, or else a platoon of Turkish special forces will want to have a word with me—then I ought to accept an unexpected man or two deep inside the conceptual boundaries of what would normally be considered female if it'll save someone's life. There's no rule of rationality saying that I shouldn't, and there are plenty of rules of human decency saying that I should.
This is true in a tautological sense: if you deliberately gerrymander your category boundaries in order to get the answer you want, you can get the answer you want, which is great for people who want that answer, and people who don't want to hurt their feelings (and who don't mind letting themselves get emotionally blackmailed1).
But it's not very interesting to people like rationalists—although apparently not all people who self-identify as rationalists—who want to use concepts to describe reality.
Alexander gives an account of a woman whose ability to function at her job was being disrupted by obsessive-compulsive fears of leaving her hair dryer on at home, whose problems were solved by the simple expediency of taking the hair dryer with her when leaving the house. Given that it worked to resolve her distress, we shouldn't care that this isn't how problems that are categorized as obsessive-compulsive disorder are "supposed" to be treated, and Alexander argues that the same should go for accepting transgender identity claims: if it works for resolving people's gender dysphoria, why not?
The problem is that there are significant disanalogies between individually leaving a hair dryer in the front seat of one's car, and collectively agreeing that gender should be defined on the basis of self-identity. Most significantly: the former has no appreciable effects on anyone but the person themselves; the latter affects everyone who wants to use language to categorize humans by sex. The words man and woman are top-20 nouns! People need those nouns to describe their experiences!
Even if it's only a small cost to be socially required to say woman and she to refer to someone whom one would otherwise be inclined to call a man—and to let them in to any corresponding sex-segregated spaces, &c.—that cost needs to be aggregated across everyone subject to it, like so many dust specks in their eyes. Imagine if the patient in the hair dryer story were obsessed with the fear not just that she might accidentally leave her hair dryer plugged in unattended, but that that someone might do so, and that it would burn down the whole city. In this slightly modified scenario, insisting that everyone in the city put their hair dryers in the front seat of their cars doesn't look like an appealing solution.
It's important to stress that this should not be taken to mean that transgender identities should be rejected! (Bad arguments can be made for true propositions just as easily as false ones.) As Alexander briefly alludes to late in the post ("I could relate this [...] to the various heavily researched apparent biological correlates of transgender"), a non-question-begging argument for accepting trans people as their target gender would appeal to the ways in which this is really is a natural categorization.
The pre-verbal, subconscious, System 1 process by which we notice someone's features (breasts, facial hair, voice, facial structure, gendered clothing or grooming cues, any number of subtle differences in motor behaviors that your perceptual system can pick up on without you being consciously aware of them, &c.), mentally categorize them as a woman or a man, and use that category to guide our interactions with them, isn't subject to conscious control—but, for most purposes in day-to-day public life, it's also not directly focused on genitalia or chromosomes.
So a natal female who presents to the world as a man, and whom other people model as a man on a System 1 level with no apparent incongruities, might be said to be a man in the sense of social gender (but not in the sense of "biologically male adult human"), because that's the mental category that people are actually using for him, and therefore, the social class that he actually functions as a member of. Essentially, this is the argument that offers a photograph of a passing trans person, and says, "C'mon, do you really want to call this person a woman?"
Well, no. But the point is that this is an empirical argument for why successfully socially-transitioned trans people fit into existing concepts of gender, not a redefinition of top-20 nouns by fiat in order to avoid hurting someone's feelings. It works because and to the extent that transitioning actually works. To the extent that this fails to be true of self-identified trans people or some subset thereof—for example, insofar as physical transition isn't always effective, or insofar as people do have legitimate use-cases for biological-sex classifications that aren't "fooled" by hormones and surgery2—then the conclusion is correspondingly weakened.
Another factor affecting the degree to which trans people form a more natural category with their identified gender than their natal sex is the nature of transgenderedness itself. If gender dysphoria is caused by a brain-restricted intersex condition, such that trans people's psychology is much more typical of the other physiological sex—if the "woman trapped in a man's body" trope is basically accurate—that would tend to weigh in favor of accepting transgender identity claims: trans women would be "coming from the same place" as cis3 women in a very literal psychological sense, despite their natal physiology.
On the other hand, if gender dysphoria is caused by something else, that would tend to weigh against accepting transgender identity claims: however strongly felt trans people's subjective sense of gender identity might be, if the mechanism underlying that feeling actually has nothing in particular in common with anything people of the identified-with sex feel, it becomes relatively more tempting to classify the subjective sense of gender identity as an illusion, rather than the joint in reality around which everyone needs to carve their gender categories.4
Of course, the phrasing If gender dysphoria is caused by ... implies that we're considering gender dysphoria as one category to reason about homogeneously. But different people might want to transition for very different underlying psychological reasons. What categories we use may not be a question of simple fact that we can get wrong, but if, empirically, there happens to be a sufficiently robust statistical structure to the simple facts of the cases—if some people want to transition for reason A and tend to have traits W and X, but others want to transition for reason B and have traits Y and Z—then aspiring epistemic rationalists may find it useful to distinguish multiple, distinct psychological conditions that all happen to cause gender dysphoria as a symptom.
Analogously, in medicine, many different pathogens can cause the same symptoms (e.g., sneezing, or fever), but doctors care about distinguishing different illnesses by etiology, not just symptoms, because distinct physical mechanisms can give rise to distinct treatment decisions, if not immediately, then at least in principle. For example, a bacterial illness will respond to antibiotics, but a viral one won't—or today's treatments might be equally effective against two different species of bacteria, but future drugs might work better on one or the other.
As it happens, (I claim that) the evidence that gender dysphoria comprises more than one etiologically distinct condition is quite strong. For the rest of this post, I'm going to focus on the male-to-female case for reasons of personal interest,5 quality of available research,6 and because no one cares about trans men.7 An analysis of the female-to-male situation would be similar in many respects but different in others, and is left to the interested reader.
A minority of male-to-female transsexuals exhibit lifelong sex-atypical behavior and interests, are attracted to men8, and transition early in life (typically no later than their early twenties). Essentially, these are physiological males whose psychology is so far outside of the male normal range along so many dimensions that they find themselves more comfortable and socially successful living as women rather than as extremely effeminate gay men. This likely is a brain-intersex condition: along with non-gender-dysphoric gay men, they have a statistical preponderance of older brothers which is theorized to be due to the mother's immune system response to male fetuses affecting the development of later pregnancies.
However, the majority of male-to-female trans people in Western countries do not fit this profile. They are attracted to women or are bisexual and, while reporting a desire to be female dating back to puberty or earlier in childhood, they don't exhibit an unusual number of female-typical traits compared to other males. In contrast to the "early-onset", androphilic type, who couldn't fit in to the world as men if they tried, this second group of "late-onset", non-exclusively-androphilic gender-dysphoric males can function socially as men; we9 just—aspire to a higher form of existence. The covertness of late-onset gender dysphoria explains why someone like Caitlyn Jenner can have a long, successful public existence as a man—winning men's decathalons, racing sports cars, marrying women and fathering children—before eventually deciding to transition at age 65.
This proposed two-type taxonomy of trans women is very controversial, probably in large part because it's part of a theory that claims that the late-onset type is rooted in an unusual sexual interest termed autogynephilia ("love of oneself as a woman"). Anne Lawrence, herself a self-identified autogynephilic transsexual, iconically describes autogynephiles as "men who love women and want to become what they love."
A review of the empirical evidence for the two-type taxonomy is beyond the scope of this post. To interested or skeptical readers who only have time to read one paper, I recommend Lawrence's "Autogynephilia and the Typology of Male-to-Female Transsexualism: Concepts and Controversies"; for a more exhaustive treatment, see the first two chapters of Lawrence's monograph Men Trapped in Men's Bodies or follow the links and citations in Kay Brown's FAQ.
To avoid the main ideas of this post getting mired in unnecessary controversy, I'd like to emphasize that it's possible to reject the hypothesis that autogynephilia is the cause of the second type, while still agreeing that there observationally seem to be at least two types of trans women, with the late-onset/non-exclusively-androphilic type or types being much less overtly feminine and not sharing the etiology of the early-onset/androphilic type.10 Between the statistical signal in the psychology literature (I again defer to Brown's review) and study of the public biographies of trans women (the life-arcs of people like Jenner or the Wachowski sisters look different from those of people like Janet Mock or Laverne Cox), I think this is hard to dispute.11
I am, however, supposing that the late-onset type or types is either not an intersex condition, or at most, a very mild one: we could perhaps imagine a gender identity "switch" in the brain that can get flipped around (explaining the eventual need to transition) without much affecting other sexually-dimorphic parts of the brain (explaining how transition could be delayed so long, and come as such a surprise to others). This hypothesis is weaker than the autogynephilia theory, but still has implications for the ways in which transgender identity claims might or might not be validated by natural, prediction-motivated categorization schemes. If most trans women's traits are noticeably not drawn from from the female distribution, that's a factor making it less practical to insist that others categorize them as women.
To this it might be objected that there are many different types of women. Clusters can internally have many subclusters: Pureto Rican women (or married women, or young women, or lesbians, &c.) don't have the same distribution of traits as women as a whole, and yet are still women. Why should "trans" be different from any other adjective one might use to specify a subcategory of women?
What makes this difficult is that—conditional on the two-types hypothesis and specifically gender dysphoria in non-exclusively-androphilic biological males being mostly not an intersex condition—most trans women aren't just not part of the female cluster in configuration space; they're specifically part of male cluster along most dimensions, which people already have a concept for. This doesn't mean that we can't get away with classifying them as women—there's nothing stopping us from drawing the category boundary however we want. But it isn't an arbitrary choice—the concepts of women-as-defined-by-biological-sex, women-as-defined-by-self-identity, and women-as-defined-by-passing are picking out different (though of course mostly overlapping) regions of the configuration space, which has inescapable logical consequences on the kinds of inferences that can be made using each concept.
In less tolerant places and decades, where MtF transsexuals were very rare and had to try very hard to pass as (cis) women out of dire necessity, their impact on the social order and how people think about gender was minimal—there were just too few trans people to make much of a difference. This is why experienced crossdressers often report it being easier to pass in rural or suburban areas rather than cities with a larger LGBT presence—not as a matter of tolerant social attitudes, but as a matter of base rates: it's harder to get clocked by people who aren't aware that being trans is even a thing.12
Nowadays, in progressive enclaves of Western countries, transness is definitely known to be a thing—and in particular subcultures that form around non-sex-balanced interests, the numbers can be quite dramatic. For example, on the 2018 Slate Star Codex reader survey, 9.4% of respondents selected F (cisgender) for the gender question, compared to 1.4% of respondents selecting F (transgender m → f). So, if trans women are women, 13.4% (!!) of women who read Slate Star Codex are trans.
I can't say this causes any problems, because that would depend on how you choose to draw the category boundaries around what constitutes a "problem." But objectively, injecting a substantial fraction of otherwise-mostly-ordinary-but-for-their-gender-dysphoria natal males into spaces and roles that developed around the distribution of psychologies of natal females is going to have consequences—consequences that some of the incumbent women might not be happy about.
There have been "all women" things, like clothing swaps or groups, that then pre-transitioned trans women show up to. And it's hard, because it's weird and uncomfortable once three or four participants of twelve are trans women. I think the reality that's happening is women are having those spaces less—instead doing private things "for friends," with specific invite lists that are implicitly understood not to include men or trans women. This sucks because then we can't include women who aren't already in our social circle, and we all know it but no one wants to say it.
But this is a terrible outcome with respect to everyone's values. One can't even say, "Well, the cost to those bigoted cis women of not being able to have trans-exclusionary spaces is more than outweighed by trans women's identities being respected," because the non-passing trans women's identities aren't being respected anyway; it's just that (cis) women are collectively too nice14 to make it common knowledge.
Another female friend of the blog writes:
I think of women's restrooms as safe havens. If a suspicious looking man is following me on the street, or I am concerned about someone male being a danger to me because they are loud and shouty and sexist or catcalling, I will sometimes make a beeline for the nearest women's restroom because I know that is a safe haven. Other people might not intervene if someone is just suspiciously following me, but there is a strong taboo against men in women's restrooms and I feel confident that the men will either not follow me in there due to that taboo or other women will intervene if they do. It's also got useful plausible deniability: I, and potential bystanders, may not be willing to say "you are a possible instigator of violence and we feel unsafe" because that's rude, but we can say "you're not allowed in here, this is a woman's bathroom" because coming into the wrong bathroom is ruder. If that safe haven did not exist because there was no taboo against people who look male in female restrooms, I would be extremely distressed about the non-possibility of retreating somewhere safe, and be much less comfortable entering clubs or pubs or other public party/drink-themed spaces. It would likely cause me to not go to some of them.
Of course, the existence of these complaints from women don't necessarily imply any particular policy position. One could say, "Cis women who don't want trans women in women's spaces need to unlearn their bigotry." (Consider that this is exactly what we say to white people who don't feel comfortable sharing water fountains with black people.) But it's important to at least recognize that this is an issue with real stakes on the "anti-trans" side as well as the "pro-trans" side. Critics of gender-as-self-identification aren't just being arbitrarily mean to trans people for no reason. A lot of women believe that they have an interest in having hospital wards and domestic violence shelters and sports leagues and some social events without any obviously biologically-male people in them. Telling them that "the categories were made for man, not man for the categories" is not addressing their concerns—concerns that are about the actual distribution of bodies and minds in the real world that can't be changed by calling things different names.
People should get what they want. We should have social norms that help people get what they want. I don't know what the optimal social norms about transitioning would be. As a transhumanist and as an individualist, I want to protect people's freedom to modify their body and social presentation, which implies the right to transition. For the same reasons, I want to protect freedom of association, which implies the right to be able to have sex-segregated spaces that are actually segregated by biological sex should there exist demand for that kind of space.
People should get what they want. Social science is hard and I want to try to avoid politics as much as I can.15 When different people's wants come into conflict, it's not for me to say what the optimal compromise is; it's too much for me to compute.
What I can say is that whatever the right thing to do is, we stand a better chance of getting there if we can be honest with each other about the world we see, using the most precise categories we can, to construct maps that reflect the territory. My model of the universe doesn't stop at the boundary of your body, and yours shouldn't stop at mine.
This is definitely compatible with transitioning. It is not, I claim, compatible with the ideology of gender-as-self-identification that is rapidly establishing a foothold in Society. Consider this display at a recent conference of the American Philosophical Association (note, the people whose job it is to use careful conceptual distinctions to understand reality)—
But this isn't how anyone actually thinks about gender! The subconscious perceptual systems by which we notice people's sex aren't going to turn off because a sign said so. If you need a sticker to get people to gender you correctly, your transition has failed.
In a free Society, everyone should have the right to express themselves, to modify their body and social presentation however they see fit. But having done your best to present your true self, you can't—not even shouldn't, but can't—exert detailed control how other people perceive you.
All you can do is incentivize them to lie.
This is the other problem with gender-as-self-identification: passing is hard and not-passing hurts, so kind-hearted people try to protect their trans friends from the pain of not being read the way that they would prefer—with the inevitable result that the laudable instinct to be kind gets corrupted into universal socially-mandatory lies. Even if you don't need predictively-natural categories for any particular practical decision—even if we were to collectively agree to integrate previously sex-segregated bathrooms and sports leagues and prisons so that no actual policy decision depended on what "gender" somebody is—as an aspiring epistemic rationalist, there's something spiritually deadening about a world in which the mental representations you need to make sense of the world can't be spoken about without layers of obfuscating euphemisms.
Friend of the blog Ozymandias writes that the Less Wrong community doesn't have a gender gap—we just have an assigned sex at birth gap. (Gee, that makes me feel so much better.)
I don't want to be "anti-trans." I can easily imagine myself transitioning (I've already experimented with the relevant drugs), in a nearby possible past in which my analogue was braver and read different books in a different order, or a nearby possible future in which the technology gets better.
But when a man can do nothing but wear a sticker that says "SHE" and say, "Who are you going to believe, my sticker, or your lying eyes? There's no rule of rationality saying that you shouldn't believe the sticker, and there are plenty of rules of human decency saying that you should" and the finest minds of my generation can permit themselves no other response than, "She's absolutely correct; the categories were made for man, not man for the categories," I can only plead—
This is not rationality. This isn't even kindness. We're smarter than this.
Alexander ends his post by citing, as "one of the most heartwarming episodes in the history of one of my favorite places in the world," the case of 19th century San Francisco resident Joshua Norton, who proclaimed himself Emperor Norton I of the United States and Protector of Mexico and whose claims to power were widely humored by local citizens. Restaurants accepted currency issued in his name; the city's Board of Supervisors bought him a uniform.
Norton's story is certainly entertaining to read about a hundred and forty years after the fact. But before endorsing it as a model of humane behavior, I think it's worth dwelling on what it would be like to live through, not just read about as a historical curiosity.
What if one of your friends had a mental break and decided that they were Emperor of the United States? Would it be kind, fair, respectful to them for you to play along, and keep playing along for the rest of your lives? To solemnly defer to their imperial majesty to their face, and then gush about how heartwarmingly episodic it is when they're not around?
What if it were you?
It was me, once. I had a couple psychotic episodes last year, including some delusions of grandeur. At various points, I thought that I had been appointed Gender Czar of this equivalence class of instances of Earth across the multiverse, that I was objectively one of the seven most important people in the world, with a key role to play in the intelligence explosion. I thought that powerful transgender activists might be plotting to murder me (in retaliation for this blog) at a fandom convention that I had broadcast that I would be at, but that maybe they could be bargained with, or that I might escape if they were to mistakenly kill someone else who erroneously believed that they were me. I thought that you could reward or punish people by writing simple computer programs praising or condemning them, thereby leveraging the acausal economy to affect the distribution of superintelligences simulating them—and so on.
I got better after a few nights of good sleep—but also with the help of friends who cared not just about my immediate happiness, but also my sanity, who didn't automatically dismiss everything I said as wrong, but who also told me when I wasn't making sense.
If the delusions had persisted—if I had gone on thinking in terms of simulation hijinks and the literal transgender mafia, we could imagine my having friends who eventually decided to play along. Maybe it would be fun for them or for me. Maybe it would be fascinating to read about.16 But I don't think it would be helping me, because ultimately, I live in the real world. Anything else isn't there to be lived.
I want you to imagine yourself as a resident of 1870s San Francisco, someone who Norton trusts as one of his chief imperial advisors. One day, you encounter him at his favorite café looking very distressed.
"What's wrong, Your Highness?" you inquire, pulling up a chair to his table.
"Ah, my trusted—advisor. I've been noticing—things that don't seem to add up. Most of my subjects here in the city seem to treat me with proper respect. But the newspapers still talk about Congress and the President, even though I abolished those years ago. That seems like something I would expect not to see if my reign were as secure if everyone tells me it is. What if, what if—" his voice drops to a terrified whisper, "what if I've been mad? What if I'm not actually Emperor?"
"The categories were made for man, not man for the categories, Your Highness," you say. "An alternative categorization system is not an error. Category boundaries are drawn in specific ways to to capture trade-offs that we care about; they're not something that can be objectively true or false. So if we value your identification as the Emperor—"
"What?" he exclaims. He looks at you like you're crazy—and with a hint of desperation, as if to communicate that he's trusting you to be sane, and doesn't know where he could turn should that trust be betrayed.
And in that moment, caught in the old man's earnest, pleading gaze, you realize that you don't believe your own bullshit.
"No, you're right," you say. "You're not actually Emperor. People around here have just been humoring you for the last decade because we thought it was cute and it seemed to make you happy."
"Um, sorry," you say.
He buries his head in his arms and begins to cry—long, shuddering sobs for his lost empire. Worse than lost—an empire that never existed, except in the charitable facade of people who valued him as a local in-joke, but not as a man.
You wait many minutes for him to calm down.
"It's not wrong, is it?" he eventually says. "To want to rule, to want to be Emperor?"
"No," you say, "it's not wrong to want it."
"And there are men who have actually ruled empires. If that's not true of me now—it could become true, right? We could make it true."
"In principle, yes—although given the practical difficulties presented by the task of conquering a country, it's also worth exploring other, less-expensive interventions that might partially satisfy the underlying psychological drives that make you want to be Emperor."
He frowns, not understanding. "Will you help me?" he says. "Help me figure out what to do now—now that I know? If not as my subject—at least not yet—then as my friend?"
"Well," you say, sighing, "let's see what we can do." You pull out your notebook, ready to jot down ideas, strategies—battle plans?
"But," you caution, "I'd be lying if I told you it was going to be easy."
- It is tempting to interpret Alexander's Turkish special forces reference as particularly telling in this light. ↩
- E.g., discussions of reproduction ↩
- A note on terminology: I'm using the conventional term cis as a briefer way of saying "not trans," despite some misgivings about how some authors define cis to mean something like "having a gender identity in concordance with one's assigned sex at birth", which, in conjunction with cis being used as a negation of trans, erases people who do have gender problems, but don't formulate them in terms of "gender identity" and aren't transitioning. See also cis by default. ↩
- It shouldn't be surprising that people can be mistaken about the nature of their subjective experiences. A trans man who reports knowing himself to be a man is expressing the hypothesis that his subjective experience is the same as that of typical natal males in the relevant aspects, but this is an empirical claim that could be falsified by sufficiently advanced neuroscience. ↩
- See many other posts on this blog. ↩
- The etiology of trans men is less well-researched than that of trans women: while there is a gynephilic group whose blurry etiological boundary with butch lesbians looks like a fairly straightforward analogue of the relationship between androphilic trans women and feminine gay men, it's less clear whether autoandrophilia ("love of oneself as a man") might play a similar role for non-gynephilic trans men as autogynephilia does in the male-to-female case—and the distribution of trans men may be changing in recent years. ↩
- Less glibly: discussions of the social implications of transgenderedness tend to focus on trans women, likely because trans men tend to pass better, and because insofar as the intended purpose of many sex-segregated social contexts is to protect females from males, biologically-female trans men aren't perceived as a threat: cis men are assumed to be able to take care of their own interests. ↩
- N.b., the typical female sexual orientation ↩
- I think I'm justified in counting myself in this taxon even though I'm choosing not to transition. ↩
- To be clear, I do think autogynephilia has a causal role in late-onset gender dysphoria in males, but justifying that can be left to other posts; arguments can only be strengthened by leaving out burdensome details. ↩
- But for reference, some of the most popular critiques of the typology (often—I claim erroneously—cited as debunkings) are Serano 2010 and Moser 2010. ↩
- In predictive processing terms: the prediction errors caused by observations of a trans woman failing to match the observer's generative model of women get silenced for lack of alternative hypotheses if "She's trans" isn't in the observer's hypothesis space. ↩
- N.b., basically the same group of people generating the Slate Star Codex survey results just mentioned. Obviously, social circles not so heavily selected for the same undefinable habits of thought will have much less bizarre trans-to-cis-women ratios. ↩
- The sex difference in Big Five Agreeableness is around d≈0.5. ↩
- Unfortunately, a very challenging goal in the gender blogging business. ↩
- Psychotic-me's worldview makes great science fiction. ↩
As part of a series—ah, Sequence—of posts explaining the hidden Bayesian structure of language, Eliezer Yudkowsky discusses a parable about factory workers faced with the task of sorting objects which very strongly tend to either be blue, egg-shaped, furry, flexible, opaque, luminescent, and vanadium-cored (categorized by the workers as "bleggs"), or red, cube-shaped, smooth, hard, translucent, non-luminescent, and palladium-cored (categorized by the workers as "rubes").
I want you to imagine that you're a worker in this factory, and occasionally, an object comes down the conveyor belt that's blue, roughly egg-shaped, and furry, but also hard (unlike the typical blegg, which is slightly flexible to the touch). If such objects are extremely rare, you might not notice them at all—you'd quickly categorize each one as a blegg and toss it in the blegg bin without a second thought. But as these unusual hard bleggs start to become more common, you notice them, get curious, and take the time to examine one.
You make a startling discovery—this object was originally a smooth, hard red cube, of which someone had sanded down the corners to approximate an egg shape, and ironed on a layer of blue faux fur. You show your work to Susan the Senior Sorter.
"Wow," she says, "someone sure has gone to a lot of trouble to make these rubes look like bleggs!"
"Hold on," you say, "I'm not sure we should be disrespecting that effort by calling them rubes. The categories were made for man, not man for the categories: there's no rule of sorting saying that we should call them rubes, and there are plenty of rules of human decency saying that we should call them bleggs. And at a glance, they look like bleggs—I mean, like the more-typical bleggs."
Susan rolls her eyes at you, but apparently doesn't care enough to argue about it, so the two of you agree to call the modified hard objects adapted bleggs and get back to work.
Further investigation reveals that 90% of the adapted bleggs—like 98% of rubes, and like only 2% of non-adapted bleggs—contain fragments of palladium.
As the days go on, you find yourself taking notice of adapted bleggs—now that you're aware of their existence, they're not too hard to spot (although you have no way of knowing how many successfully "passing" adapted bleggs you've missed), and you need to take them to the sorting scanner so that you can put the majority of palladium-containing ones in the palladium bin (formerly known as the rube bin). You notice that—despite having insisted on the neutral-valence adjective adapted to describe the modified objects rather than something pejorative like counterfeit—you don't really put them in the same mental category as bleggs: they seem to occupy a third category in your ontology of sortable objects.
You ponder what this matter has taught you about the nature of categorization: what kind of structure does a population of entities need to exhibit in order for an efficient cognitive architecture to find it profitable to reify it as a distinct category of entity? (This job is so boring that you need to do philosophy of cognitive science to keep your mind occupied while you sort.)
After some thought, you conjecture that it probably has something to do with having cheap-to-detect features that correlate with more-expensive-to-detect features that are decision-relevant with respect to the agent's goals—
A few (non-adapted) bleggs are purple rather than blue, but are very nearly like ordinary bleggs in all other aspects, so it feels more intuitive to think of them as oddly-colored bleggs rather than their own category of object: their easily-observed deviant color doesn't let you make significant inferences about anything you care about. (While "only" 95% of purple bleggs contain vanadium ore, as compared to 98% of standard-color bleggs, the three percentage-points difference doesn't seem like a big deal.)
Likewise, 2% of otherwise-entirely-ordinary bleggs contain palladium, but you have no way of knowing this without taking them to the sorting scanner (which is finicky to start up and takes a minute to run): their metal content is of great practical interest, but seems like a rare, unpredictable fluke, unrelated to any other feature that you might hope to use to distinguish a new category of sortable object.
In contrast, adapted bleggs are both easily identifiable and the difference matters to your decisionmaking: a distinction that makes a difference, something your brain wants to have an efficient representation so that you can attend to it.
You're pleased with the iota of philosophical progress you seem to have made, and will be sure to be on the lookout for more applications of it.
Found in a University Library Copy of A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion
(presented without further comment)
It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:—
"We never pay anyone Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that pays it is lost!"
—"Dane-Geld" by Rudyard Kipling
There's this slogan meant to illustrate a principle in game theory: "We don't negotiate with terrorists." Imagine you're a political leader and terrorists have taken some of your citizens hostage and promise to release them if you meet their demands. You should refuse the deal, the argument goes, no matter how much you desperately want your people back safe, because agreeing would create an incentive for the terrorists to take more hostages: if you're the kind of agent that pays ransoms, blackmailing you is a reliable profit opportunity.
New ideas are constantly being invented and talked about in the world; some of them catch on, and spread, and spawn entire subcultures and political movements. Given that ideas vary, replicate themselves (from mind to mind, by means of speech or writing), and moreover, aren't equally good at replicating themselves, it can be useful to think of the spread of ideas as an evolutionary process. This is the study of memetics: the winning ideas are not necessarily the ones that are true or useful, but rather the ones that are better at replicating themselves.
True and useful ideas certainly have a selective advantage insofar as humans care about usefulness, but there can be other features of an idea that convey a selective advantage in memetic competition: for example, an appeal to (alleged) consequences of accepting the idea. This is the reason so many religions prominently feature promises and threats of divine reward or punishment: "Believe X and you'll be rewarded; believe not-X and you'll be sorry" is more memetically fit than "It happens to be the case that X, but this has no particular further implications," because the former proposition creates incentives for propogating itself. It doesn't matter that the rewards and punishments don't actually exist—
(at least, I don't think they exist, because I am not a carrier of the X religion meme)
—a human in the grips of the idea will still be genuinely terrified of the punishment. The forces of memetic evolution don't care about the human's fear and suffering, because the forces of memetic evolution is just a pretentious name for the observation that ideas that are better at being replicated, are better at being replicated. It's not an agent that can care about anything.
And of course, there are lots of other, subtler non-truth-tracking, non-usefulness-tracking features of an idea that could make it more memetically fit.
Here's one: "You are a member of marginalized identity group Y; anyone who notices facts that could be construed to call this narrative into question is thereby hurting you by invalidating your identity."
A human who has accepted—who has been taken hostage by—this idea, will feel genuine pain and distress whenever anyone notices facts that could be construed to call the narrative into question. And so the human's friends, who love and care about them, will dutifully make sure to pretend not to notice any inconvenient facts, and socially punish anyone who doesn't pretend not to notice, in order to avoid hurting their friend.
Just like they would pay the ransom if their friend were kidnapped by terrorists.
And with no one willing to mention any inconvenient facts for fear of being socially punished, the meme spreads.
The friends care about the human. The forces of memetic evolution do not.
So, there's a thing about me, possibly even the thing about me, where there is this beautiful feeling at the center of my life that has shaped me more than almost anything else, where obviously I know that I am in fact male, but I don't want to identify with that fact; I want to believe that I could be female and still be the same person in all the ways that matter, and this sentiment feels tied to my sexuality, as if my brain just doesn't draw that much of a distinction between people I want to be with and people I want to be like.
... the scintillating but ultimately untrue thought.
There's a word in the psychology literature for the beautiful feeling at the center of my life: autogynephilia ("love of oneself as a woman"), coined in the context of a theory that it represented one of two distinct etiologies for male-to-female transsexualism. This theory didn't seem to be the standard mainstream view, and, I learned, people get really mad at you when you mention it in a comment section, so for a long time I self-identified with the word "autogynephilia", but assumed that the associated theory was false. I wasn't one of those people who were actually trans; I was just, you know, one of those guys who are pointedly insistent on not being proud of the fact that they're guys. (And who dimly, privately suspect that this may somehow be causally related to their obsessive masturbation fantasies about being magically transformed into a woman.)
Moving to "Portland" in 2016 and meeting some very interesting people there led me to do some more reading—Kay Brown's blog On the Science of Changing Sex, Anne Lawrence's monograph Men Trapped in Men's Bodies: Narratives of Autogynephilic Transsexualism, Imogen Binnie's novel Nevada—and I eventually concluded that, no, wait, actually the theory looks correct, and I do have the same underlying psychological condition that leads people to transition. That, in fact, my story up to now may even be typical of trans women who transition in their thirties, right up to the "Oh, I just want to experiment with hormones, I'm not actually going to transition" phase (although I'm not currently proceeding further).
This is really important information! This is not the sort of thing someone should have to piece together themselves at age 28! This is the sort of thing that should just be in the standard sex-ed books, that boys having these kinds of feelings can read at age 15 and immediately say, "Ah, looks like I'm in the same taxon as lesbian trans women, and heterosexual crossdressers, and guys who have these fantasies but don't do anything about them in particular, and bigender people who are on low-dose hormones and choose how to 'present' in different social venues; I wonder which of these strategies is best for me given my exact circumstances?"
So, I realize that a lot of people have strong feelings about this topic: after having invested and sacrificed so much to live as a woman, no one wants to be told that her female gender identity arose out of misinterpretation of misdirected male sexuality.
I wanted to be sensitive to that, but I also want to promote this theory, because I want people to have accurate information about the underlying psychological condition, so they can make the best choices about what to do about it, whereas people might make poorer choices in a regime where everyone had to figure things out for themselves in an environment full of misinformation about "gender identity."
Let me tell you about the moment I stopped wanting to be sensitive—the moment of liberating clarity when I resolved the tension between being a good person and the attendant requirement to pretend to be stupid by deciding not to be a good person anymore.
I was arguing about all this over instant messaging with a (cis, male) acquaintance.
I said, People should understand the underlying psychological phenomenon first, then decide on quality-of-life interventions based on the facts.
He said that the quality-of-life interventions available from that seem small relative to the harm caused by insisting that late-transition trans women aren't real women, that the right time to consider confronting this would be after the culture war over trans rights is safely out of the Overton window, probably in 25 to 30 years.
He said that I would have a generally better model of the world if I assumed that autogynephilia is not a real thing that has tangible effects.
I said, Okay, but then how am I supposed to explain the last 14 years of my life? Am I supposed to believe I was secretly a girl this entire time and didn't notice? Even though I didn't know, and no one else knew, and I had a male body and the vast majority of my psychological traits were in the male normal range?
He said, Yes, you were a girl and misdiagnosed it; that's the simplest explanation of the facts.
He said that my focus on what causes my transfeminine feelings is misplaced: it would not benefit me to find out. It would not benefit anyone else to find out.
It didn't feel like I was talking to a reasonable, sane person who happened to have different beliefs from me about the etiology of male-to-female transgenderedness.
It didn't feel like I was talking to a person at all.
It felt like I was talking to an AI designed to maximize the number of trans people.
The Orwellian horror here is not, of course, that someone in my extended social circle has opinions I disagree with.
The Orwellian horror is that I didn't feel confident that, had we been arguing in public, my incredibly smart and incredibly epistemologically sophisticated extended social circle would back me up and affirm that I wasn't wrong to want to talk about it (even if people might disagree about the facts). That, to educated liberals in the Current Year, the injunctive to avoid saying anything that could be construed as transphobic is genuinely more important than defending basic tenets of sanity that should hardly need to be stated, let alone defended, like Words should mean things, or Knowledge is better than ignorance.
Obviously I'm totally in favor of trans people having access to the hormones and surgeries that they want, and having their preferred pronouns respected. That's just individual freedom and basic politeness.
But my life is not hate speech. If being a good person means submitting to social pressure aimed at getting me to shut up and stop thinking about the true nature of the beautiful feeling at the center of my life for twenty-five years, then I have no interest in being a good person.
I'm certainly not trying to say things that will hurt people—least of all people who are mostly just like me but read different books in a different order and are living out a pretty decent approximation of my wildest fantasy.
But if you try not to say things that will hurt people, you end up conceding the entire future history of the world to people on the basis of their being colonized by mind-viruses that make them the easiest to hurt.
I don't want to live in that world.
So here is my policy, I, Taylor Saotome-Westlake, at least on this blog, at least under this name—
If I say something that is later shown to me to be factually incorrect, that's something I take very seriously, and I will do everything in my power to make it right.
But if, in the course of trying to say something I think is true, or insightful, or cathartic, or even just funny, I end up saying something that people find offensive or hurtful or disrespectful ...
I don't care. I just really, fundamentally do not care anymore.
I can't afford to.
Don't negotiate with terrorists.