For those who aren’t connected with the philosophical, social justice or anti social justice worlds let me start with a bit of background. A few weeks ago the feminist philosopher Rachel Tuvel wrote an article (pdf) suggesting that we should be sympathetic to hypothetical claims of transracialism (i.e. people like Rachel Dolezal who claim to feel like they are a member of a different race than society classifies them as) for the same reasons we are sympathetic to transgender individuals. In particular, Tuvel suggested that it might be appropriate to prioritize internal feelings when making group classifications.
Now I don’t find Tuvel’s paper particularly convincing as an argument for it’s stated thesis. However, I do find it much more compelling as a conditional argument: if our support for transgender individuals is justified then we should adopt the same attitude toward hypothetical claims of transracial identity. In other words, you can’t both condemn the man on the street for failing to support the right of transgender individuals to be gendered as they request while simultaneously insisting that the straightforward appeals (people should be able to choose their own identity) must be thrown overboard and replaced with abstruse philosophical theories of gender and race in order to even consider a prima facia case for transracialism. Either the man on the street can correctly claim that none of the arguments/evidence in the cultural zeitgeist justify claims of transgender rights or those same arguments create at least a prima facia case for transracial rights.
There was an immediate, cacophonous backlash against Tuvel’s paper and over 500 philosophers signed an open letter demanding Hypatia (the journal the paper was published in) issue a retraction. Note that retractions are reserved almost exclusively for cases of research misconduct (even studies later discovered to have erroneous conclusions usually aren’t retracted) and journals have resisted retracting papers even when those papers (misleadingly) appear to be defending child abuse and congress is applying pressure. Now the reasons given in the open letter (impolite use of other gendered name, failure to consult trans or minority individuals about their experiences, lack of literature engagement) were pretty clearly pre-textual. Papers commonly don’t cite literature the author doesn’t believe will be helpful and the fact that no one could point to existing literature that countered Tuvel’s arguments is further evidence it was a smokescreen. This becomes even more apparent if you peruse some of the pieces written in protest.
Had Tuvel’s article been written in support of an orthodox position about transgender issues, e.g., our experience with racial identity shows how important it is to respect trans identity, no one would have done anything more than make polite suggestions. However, as it was, Tuvel’s article outlined a potential political reducto of trans rights advocacy (if you accept transgender next thing you know you’ll have to accept transracial people as well) and defended an idea that many minorities find offensive.
Rather than bang on about how awful it is that philosophers are putting ideological purity above intellectual principles I’ll let this excellent response do it for me and instead try to get to the bottom of the moral case for accepting (and accommodating) transgender and transracial identification as both a practical and theoretical matter. Ultimately, I do present what I believe to be straightforward considerations that distinguish the transracial and transgender cases but as they are ultimately mere consequentialist balancings of harms and benefits they do nothing to reduce the force of Tuvel’s reasoning against those who take transgender accommodation to be an obvious moral imperative whose justification doesn’t require marshaling (or even gesturing at) empirical evidence of costs and benefits.
Reactions Outside The Community
While the philosophical community was busy having a fit because someone (in good faith without animosity) dared to publish an article that didn’t genuflect in front of less privileged groups in precisely the correct way the reaction from the rest of the blogosphere was considerably different. Both esr and poppsych.org wrote pieces pointing out that categories belong to the society that makes them not the individual who is categorized and that people had no right to demand to be placed in a different category.
There is a great deal of truth in this. No matter how much you feel like a great baseball player we don’t let that internal feeling dictate how often you get sent out on the field. We do use both race and gender categories, to some extent, for this kind of practical assortment. As few individuals are bi we use the gender category to sort people into potential dates and potential rivals. We use race as a proxy for past (or potential future) discrimination and cultural background.
While the unwashed masses are more likely to simply insist “No a man is someone with a penis/Y chromosome” they are expressing a similar sentiment. Despite attempts by parts of the social justice community (not effective transgender advocates) to insist this is merely transphobia I think that (while transphobia surely plays some role for some segment of the public) this sentiment is best understood as a (poorly expressed) unwillingness to modify social categories merely because someone would prefer a different categorization. This is a perfectly reasonable reaction to have when someone requests you place them in a different category based on factors you don’t take to be relevant to membership in that category, e.g., pointing out you have a great batting average is relevant to being placed in the good baseball player category while `feeling like a winner’ is not.
Thus, if you are advocating for transgender acceptance you owe the public an argument why the fact that transgender individuals desire to be classified differently justifies doing so when such desires usually don’t. Unfortunately, this controversy seems to suggest that any an attempt to formulate such an argument (rather than taking it for granted or offering pure emotional appeals) runs a serious risk of being met with open hostility from other transgender advocates. But, for whatever the reason, the choice to abandon friendly persuasion and adopt the presumption that disagreement is proof of transphobia (if not literally nazihood) does a deep disservice to trans individuals by turning potential supporters into enemies.
Social Categories And Moral Duties
While it may be generally true that wishing to be classified differently, e.g., as a good baseball player, isn’t usually something that obligates us to change those categories it sometimes does. For instance, consider gay marriage. Despite it’s legal and religious trappings marriage is ultimately a societal category (society recognizes a certain class of people as being in a kind of approved sexual partnership). Even if we had adopted civil unions that gave homosexual couples all the legal rights of married individuals the discomfort caused by categorizing committed gay couples as merely having a civil union rather than a marriage created an obligation to change our conception of marriage to include single sex couples.
Note that, that the moral obligation with respect to gay marriage was to stop making prominent use of (both culturally and legally) a relationship category that excluded gays. The choice to recognize gay marriages as ‘marriages’ was merely the easiest way to achieve this but it would have been morally acceptable to instead promote civil unions into the preeminent legal and social standard for committed relationship, i.e., we would ask both straight and gay couples if they were civil unioned, laws would be drafted in reference to civil union status etc… Conversely, we would not have meet our moral obligation if we had accepted homosexual marriages as marriages only to demote marriage to second class status while reserving the highest social regard only for `hetero marriage.’ Critically, while cases like gay marriage appear to be about changing the definition of words they are really about changing which concepts we give cultural and legal preeminence to.
Similarly, transgender advocates want us to give concepts that recognize voluntary identification/presentation the prominent social and legal role we currently give to male/female (whether or not we let the same word play that role). Whatever you think male/female mean you have to acknowledge that dividing people up by claimed (leaving aside non-binary) gender identity is a coherent way to categorize people and that we could use some term that refers to this categorization in the situations we now use male/female.
Categories and Moral Balancing
Ultimately, whether or not we have a moral obligation to change which categories we give legal/social importance is a matter of balancing harms and benefits. For instance, switching to a gay inclusive category of committed relationships imposed very little cost. All of the practical purposes we use the category of marriage for (distinguishing serious/non-serious romantic relationships, assigning legal rights/duties etc..) are equally well handled by a gay inclusive relationship category. Thus, there is little cost to promoting a gay inclusive notion of marriage into egal/social prominence. Conversely, eliminating the substantial practical burdens and emotional harms imposed by a hetero-only notion of marriage provides a great benefit to homosexuals as well as their friends/relatives. The minimal cost and large benefit are more than enough to overcome the presumption in favor of existing practice.
In contrast, consider the proposal to give the category ‘good baseball player or self-identifies as a good baseball player’ the social role previously filled by the category ‘good baseball player.’ That would mean that merely identifying as a good baseball player would warrant being taken off the bench, draw praise from teammates and even (at the college or professional level) generate income. This would be a huge cost as it would totally gut the practical value of the category good baseball player. True, there is some unhappiness associated with being thought of as a bad baseball player but I think it’s fair to say that the benefits of having such a category outweigh the costs. Indeed, it is likely sociologically impossible to adopt such a proposal as people would inevitably resume using the category of actually being proficient at baseball under a different name and failing to enter that category would instill the same disappointment and frustration that exclusion from the category of good baseball players creates today.
This kind of analysis neatly explains why we shouldn’t recognize transracial/transethnic individuals at a legal level. While it is possible there are unrecognized individuals experiencing emotional suffering because they can’t legally change races there is no evidence such individuals exist at all (excepting, perhaps, Rachel Dolezal). Moreover, the harms involved in replacing the current notion of race with one that allowed self-identification would be significant as we use race/ethnicity as a proxy for a variety of obstacles individuals face on account of their skin color/culture. For instance transracial self-identification would allow people to obscure attempts to identify discriminatory treatment (hey guys we need a bunch of you to identify as black so we don’t get sued) or self-servingly take advantage of programs designed to offset/remedy these obstacles without having faced (or at least being statistically more likely to have faced) the obstacles themselves. The situation is slightly more complicated when we consider the social role of racial identification but ultimately the analysis is the same.
So what happens when we apply this kind of analysis to the demands of transgender advocates? I find the descriptions of gender dysphoria by transgendered individuals credible evidence of substantial suffering as a result of being classified as the ‘wrong’ gender (more pedantically as a result of society choosing to use a categorization they dislike in everyday social and legal interactions). Now what about the cost of changing our gender categories? This depends greatly on the scope of the change being made. If all we seek to do is ensure that in workplaces, universities and other places of public accommodation that people can use the restroom, pronoun and gender classification they (attempt to) present as then the cost is extremely minimal. Coed restrooms may take some getting used to but present no dangers or substantial harms so I see no reason not to let people use restrooms of their choice. Correct honorifics are purely a matter of convention and the downsides of coming out trans outweigh any likely benefit from affirmative action style programs (and if it proves to be a problem they can be closed to trans individuals). Thus, I think the cost benefit analysis is pretty lopsided in favor of treating transgender individuals with the social pleasantries and restroom access they request. Indeed, I would argue that the cost is so low that simple good manners demands such treatment.
Of course, if you have a more expansive notion of what it means to accommodate transgender individuals which goes beyond mere terminology and politeness to require genuinely treating trans men/women indistinguishably from cis men/women the analysis changes. For instance, if you think lesbians are morally obliged to tear down the cotton ceiling by regarding all women (even including transgender women with cocks) as potential sexual partners the cost is substantial. Our sex drives don’t give a fuck about what facts are morally appropriate to consider in evaluating dates (race, wealth, obesity, and conformity with gender stereotypes are all huge determents of sexual interest) and trying to berate them into different behavior is a recipe for pain. Even the more modest demand that trans-women be welcome in (and supported by) all feminist organizations is dangerous. While trans-women may face more hardships than cis-women on average they don’t face the same hardships. For instance, a project examining hypothetical reluctance to introduce young girls to STEM fields and/or trying to offset this with later interventions should make distinctions on assigned gender as a youth.
Tuvel, Transgender Activism and Non-Binary Identification
The analysis above is pretty obvious. When do you change the categories you regard as important: when the cost of doing so is less than the benefit reaped. This naturally begs the question why didn’t Tuvel (or any of her visible critics) avail themselves of it. I’m sure there are multiple reasons and I can only speculate here but my guess is that the practical, empirically oriented structure raises concerns that the feminist/trans philosophy orthodoxy would rather not confront.
For one, this structure puts the phenomenological particulars of the transgender experience front and center. The reason we should change our practices to accommodate transgender individuals (while resisting attempts by fuckers like me to insist on being called ‘God Emperor’) is that the former group experiences serious emotional distress and is making good faith requests while I’m just out for a lark. However, much of the social justice world has been very reluctant to try to characterize what constitutes a representative transgender experience lest they deny someone’s unique experience. Worse, this kind of analysis may not be quite so kind to non-binary identification not to mention treating transgender identity as fundamentally no different in kind from the desire to amputate a healthy limb (not a bad thing just a recognition that both are brute preferences for unusual things).
This is particular unfortunate because both from a practical and theoretical standpoint any attempt to advance transgender rights hinges on the nature of the transgender experience. The only reason for treating the requests of transgender individuals as legitimate and reasonable while denying trollish requests from people like me to be addressed as God Emperor (or the nutty transspecies individuals) stems from our divergent experiences and resulting motivations. To ensure the support of the kind social justice critical intellectuals I linked above there needs to be a cogent intellectual defense of what makes the requests of transgender advocates reasonable in contrast to most requests to change behavior/language based on personal preference. While I find the utilitarian considerations here compelling most people need some kind of difference in kind and that must be rooted in the particular nature of transgender experience. Providing such an analysis is normally the role of philosophy but this controversy suggests it is unable to maintain even the fig leaf of dispassionate intellectual inquiry on this subject.
As a practical matter the transgender community also needs to provide an emotional narrative that average citizens can understand. Homosexual marriage won because everyday people understood the message: homosexuals have the same kind of feelings I do about sex and love only triggered by same gender individuals. If transgender individuals want to get their requests for social change accepted they need to tell a story about what it’s like to be transgender that makes the average citizen think: If I was in that situation I’d also want people to treat me like the gender I identified with.. That means backing away from the position that the individual uniqueness of transgender individuals prevents the identification of common experiences and conveying those experiences to the general public. Of course, this may require leaving some unusual allies behind just like the homosexuals had to leave the committed polyamorous triads behind to ensure the Obergefell decision but that’s how real progress happens.