The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories


“Silliest internet atheist argument” is a hotly contested title, but I have a special place in my heart for the people who occasionally try to prove Biblical fallibility by pointing out whales are not a type of fish.

(this is going to end up being a metaphor for something, so bear with me)

The argument goes like this. Jonah got swallowed by a whale. But the Bible says Jonah got swallowed by a big fish. So the Bible seems to think whales are just big fish. Therefore the Bible is fallible. Therefore, the Bible was not written by God.

The first problem here is that “whale” is just our own modern interpretation of the Bible. For all we know, Jonah was swallowed by a really really really big herring.

The second problem is that if the ancient Hebrews want to call whales a kind of fish, let them call whales a kind of fish.

I’m not making the weak and boring claim that since they’d never discovered genetics they don’t know better. I am making the much stronger claim that, even if the ancient Hebrews had taken enough of a break from murdering Philistines and building tabernacles to sequence the genomes of all known species of aquatic animals, there’s nothing whatsoever wrong, false, or incorrect with them calling a whale a fish.

Now, there’s something wrong with saying “whales are phylogenetically just as closely related to bass, herring, and salmon as these three are related to each other.” What’s wrong with the statement is that it’s false. But saying “whales are a kind of fish” isn’t.

Suppose you travel back in time to ancient Israel and try to explain to King Solomon that whales are a kind of mammal and not a kind of fish.

Your translator isn’t very good, so you pause to explain “fish” and “mammal” to Solomon. You tell him that fish is “the sort of thing herring, bass, and salmon are” and mammal is “the sort of thing cows, sheep, and pigs are”. Solomon tells you that your word “fish” is Hebrew dag and your word “mammal” is Hebrew behemah.

So you try again and say that a whale is a behemah, not a dag. Solomon laughs at you and says you’re an idiot.

You explain that you’re not an idiot, that in fact all kinds of animals have things called genes, and the genes of a whale are much closer to those of the other behemah than those of the dag.

Solomon says he’s never heard of these gene things before, and that maybe genetics is involved in your weird foreign words “fish” and “mammal”, but dag are just finned creatures that swim in the sea, and behemah are just legged creatures that walk on the Earth.

You try to explain that no, Solomon is wrong, dag are actually defined not by their swimming-in-sea-with-fins-ness, but by their genes.

Solomon says you didn’t even know the word dag ten minutes ago, and now suddenly you think you know what it means better than he does, who has been using it his entire life? Who died and made you an expert on Biblical Hebrew?

You try to explain that whales actually have tiny little hairs, too small to even see, just as cows and sheep and pigs have hair.

Solomon says oh God, you are so annoying, who the hell cares whether whales have tiny little hairs or not. In fact, the only thing Solomon cares about is whether responsibilities for his kingdom’s production of blubber and whale oil should go under his Ministry of Dag or Ministry of Behemah. The Ministry of Dag is based on the coast and has a lot of people who work on ships. The Ministry of Behemah has a strong presence inland and lots of of people who hunt on horseback. So please (he continues) keep going about how whales have little tiny hairs.

It’s easy to see that Solomon has a point, and that if he wants to define behemah as four-legged-land-dwellers that’s his right, and no better or worse than your definition of “creatures in a certain part of the phylogenetic tree”. Indeed, it might even be that if you spent ten years teaching Solomon all about the theory of genetics and evolution (which would be hilarious – think how annoyed the creationists would get) he might still say “That’s very interesting, and I can see why we need a word to describe creatures closely related along the phylogenetic tree, but make up your own word, because behemah already means ‘four-legged-land-dweller’.”

Now imagine that instead of talking to King Solomon, you’re talking to that guy from Duck Dynasty with the really crazy beard (I realize that may describe more than one person), who stands in for all uneducated rednecks in the same way King Solomon stands in for all Biblical Hebrews.

“Ah course a whale is a feesh, ya moron” he says in his heavy Southern accent.

“No it isn’t,” you say. “A fish is a creature phylogenetically related to various other fish, and with certain defining anatomical features. It says so right here in this biology textbook.”

“Well,” Crazy Beard Guy tells you, “Ah reckon that might be what a fish is, but a feesh is some’in that swims in the orshun.”

With a sinking feeling in your stomach, you spend ten years turning Crazy Beard Guy into a world expert on phylogenetics and evolutionary theory. Although the Duck Dynasty show becomes much more interesting, you fail to budge him a bit on the meaning of “feesh”.

It’s easy to see here that “fish” and “feesh” can be different just as “fish” and “dag” can be different.

You can point out how many important professors of icthyology in fancy suits use your definition, and how only a couple of people with really weird facial hair use his. But now you’re making a status argument, not a factual argument. Your argument is “conform to the way all the cool people use the word ‘fish'”, not “a whale is really and truly not a fish”.

There are facts of the matter on each individual point – whether a whale has fins, whether a whale lives in the ocean, whether a whale has tiny hairs, et cetera. But there is no fact of the matter on whether a whale is a fish. The argument is entirely semantic.

So this is the second reason why this particular objection to the Bible is silly. If God wants to call a whale a big fish, stop telling God what to do.

(also, bats)


When terms are not defined directly by God, we need our own methods of dividing them into categories.

Less Wrong classic How An Algorithm Feels From The Inside starts with a discussion of whether or not Pluto is a planet. Planets tend to share many characteristics in common. For example, they are large, round, have normal shaped orbits lined up with the plane of the ecliptic, have cleared out a certain area of space, and are at least kind of close to the Sun as opposed to way out in the Oort Cloud.

One could imagine a brain that thought about these characteristics like Network 1 here:

One could imagine this model telling you everything you need to know. If an object is larger, it’s more likely to be round and in cis-Neptunian space. If an object has failed to clear its orbit of debris, it’s more likely to have a skewed orbit relative to the plane of the ecliptic. We could give each of these connections a weight and say things like large objects have a 32% chance of being in cis-Neptunian space and small objects an 86% chance. Or whatever.

But Network 1 has some big problems. For one thing, if you inscribe it in blood, you might accidentally summon the Devil. But for another, it’s computationally very complicated. Each attribute affects each other attribute which affects it in turn and so on in an infinite cycle, so that its behavior tends to be chaotic and unpredictable.

What people actually seem to do is more like Network 2: sweep all common correlations into one big category in the middle, thus dividing possibility-space into large round normal-orbit solitary inner objects, and small irregular skewed-orbit crowded outer objects. It calls the first category “planets” and the second category “planetoids”.

You can then sweep minor irregularities under the rug. Neptune is pretty far from the sun, but since it’s large, round, normal-orbit, and solitary, we know which way the evidence is leaning.

When an object satisfies about half the criteria for planet and half the criteria for planetoid, then it’s awkward. Pluto is the classic example. It’s relatively large, round, skewed orbit, solitary…ish? and outer-ish. What do you do?

The practical answer is you convene some very expensive meeting of prestigious astronomers and come to some official decision which everyone agrees to follow so they’re all on the same page.

But the ideal answer is you say “Huh, the assumption encoded in the word ‘planet’ that the five red criteria always went together and the five blue criteria always went together doesn’t hold. Whatever.”

Then you divide the solar system into three types of objects: planets, planetoids, and dammit-our-categorization-scheme-wasn’t-as-good-as-we-thought.

The situation with whales and fish is properly understood in the same context. Fish and mammals differ on a lot of axes. Fish generally live in the water, breathe through gills, have tails and fins, possess a certain hydrodynamic shape, lay eggs, and are in a certain part of the phylogenetic tree. Mammals generally live on land, breathe through lungs, have legs, give live birth, and are in another part of the phylogenetic tree. Most fish conform to all of the fish desiderata, and most mammals conform to all of the mammal desiderata, so there’s no question of how to categorize them. Occasionally you get something weird (a platypus, a lungfish, or a whale) and it’s a judgment call which you have to decide by fiat. In our case, that fiat is “use genetics and ignore all other characteristics” but some other language, culture, or scientific community might make a different fiat, and then the borders between their categories would look a little bit different.


Since I shifted to a borders metaphor, let’s follow that and see where it goes.

Imagine that Israel and Palestine agree to a two-state solution with the final boundary to be drawn by the United Nations. You’re the head of the United Nations committee involved, so you get out a map and a pencil. Both sides swear to follow whatever you determine.

Your job is not to draw “the correct border”. There is no one correct border between Israel and Palestine. There are a couple of very strong candidates (for example, the pre-1967 line of control), but both countries have suggested deviations from that (most people think an actual solution would involve Palestine giving up some territory that has since been thoroughly settled by Israel in exchange for some territory within Israel proper, or perhaps for a continuous “land bridge” between the West Bank and Gaza). Even if you wanted to use the pre-1967 line as a starting point, there would still be a lot of work to do deciding what land swaps should and shouldn’t be made.

Instead you’d be making a series of trade-offs. Giving all of Jerusalem to the Israelis would make them very happy but anger Palestine. Creating a contiguous corridor between Gaza and the West Bank makes some sense, but then you’d be cutting off Eilat from the rest of Israel. Giving all of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank back to Palestine would satisfy a certain conception of property rights, but also leave a lot of Jews homeless.

There are also much stupider decisions you could make. You could give Tel Aviv to Palestine. You could make the Palestinian state a perfect circle five miles in radius centered on Rishon LeZion. You could just split the territory in half with a straight line, and give Israel the north and Palestine the south. All of these things would be really dumb.

But, crucially, they would not be false. They would not be factually incorrect. They would just be failing to achieve pretty much any of the goals that we would expect a person solving land disputes in the Middle East to have. You can think of alternative arrangements in which these wouldn’t be dumb. For example, if you’re a despot, and you want to make it very clear to both the Israelis and Palestinians that their opinions don’t matter and they should stop bothering you with annoying requests for arbitration, maybe splitting the country in half north-south is the way to go.

And real borders are, in fact, very weird.

The border between Turkey and Syria follows a mostly straight-ish line near-ish the 36th parallel, except that about twenty miles south of the border Turkey controls a couple of square meters in the middle of a Syrian village. This is the tomb of the ancestor of the Ottoman Turks, and Turkey’s border agreement with Syria stipulates that it will remain part of Turkey forever. And the Turks take this very seriously; they maintain a platoon of special forces there and have recently been threatening war against Syria if their “territory” gets “invaded” in the current conflict.

Pictured: Turkey (inside fence), Syria (outside)

The border between Bangladesh and India is complicated at the best of times, but it becomes absolutely ridiculous in a place called Cooch-Behar, which I guess is as good a name as any for a place full of ridiculous things. In at least one spot there is an ‘island’ of Indian territory within a larger island of Bangladeshi territory within a larger island of Indian territory within Bangladesh. According to

So why’d the border get drawn like that? It can all be traced back to power struggles between local kings hundreds of years ago, who would try to claim pockets of land inside each other’s territories as a way to leverage political power. When Bangladesh became independent from India in 1947 (as East Pakistan until 1971), all those separate pockets of land were divvied up. Hence the polka-dotted mess.

Namibia is a very weird-looking country with a very thin three-hundred-mile-long panhandle (eg about twice as long as Oklahoma’s). Apparently during the Scramble For Africa, the Germans who colonized Namibia really wanted access to the Zambezi River so they could reach the Indian Ocean and trade their colonial resources. They kept pestering the British who colonized Botswana until the Brits finally agreed to give up a tiny but very long strip of territory ending at the riverbank. This turned out to be not so useful, as just after Namibia’s Zambezi access sits Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world – meaning that any Germans who tried to traverse the Zambezi to reach the Indian Ocean would last a matter of minutes before suddenly encountering a four hundred foot drop and falling to pretty much certain death. The moral of the story is not to pester the British Empire too much, especially if they’ve explored Africa and you haven’t.

But the other moral of the story is that borders are weird. Although we think of borders as nice straight lines that separate people of different cultures, they can form giant panhandles, distant islands, and enclaves-within-enclaves-within-enclaves. They can depart from their usual course to pay honor to national founders, to preserve records of ancient conquests, or to connect to trade routes.

Hume’s ethics restrict “bad” to an instrumental criticism – you can condemn something as a bad way to achieve a certain goal, but not as morally bad independent of what the goal is. In the same way, borders can be bad at fulfilling your goals in drawing them, but not bad in an absolute sense or factually incorrect. Namibia’s border is bad from the perspective of Germans who want access to the Indian Ocean. But it’s excellent from the perspective of Englishmen who want to watch Germans plummet into the Lower Zambezi and get eaten by hippos.

Breaking out of the metaphor, the same is true of conceptual boundaries. You may draw the boundaries of the category “fish” any way you want. A category “fish” containing herring, dragonflies, and asteroids is going to be stupid, but only in the same sense that a Palestinian state centered around Tel Aviv would be stupid – it fails to fulfill any conceivable goals of the person designing it. Categories “fish” that do or don’t include whales may be appropriate for different people’s purposes, the same way Palestinians might argue about whether the borders of their state should be optimized for military defensibility or for religious/cultural significance.

Statements like “the Zambezi River is full of angry hippos” are brute facts. Statements like “the Zambezi River is the territory of Namibia” are negotiable.

In the same way, statements like “whales have little hairs” are brute facts. Statements like “whales are not a kind of fish” are negotiable.

So it’s important to keep these two sorts of statements separate, and remember that in no case can an agreed-upon set of borders or a category boundary be factually incorrect.


There is an anti-transgender argument 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.”

(if John Wilkes Booth had to suffer through that riddle, then I don’t blame him)

I take this argument 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.

Just as we can come up with criteria for a definition of “planet”, we can come up with a definition of “man”. Absolutely typical men have Y chromosomes, have male genitalia, appreciate manly things like sports and lumberjackery, are romantically attracted to women, personally identify as male, wear male clothing like blue jeans, sing baritone in the opera, et cetera.

Some people satisfy some criteria of manhood and not others, in much the same way that Pluto satisfies only some criteria of planethood and whales satisfy only some criteria of mammalhood. For example, gay men might date other men and behave in effeminate ways. People with congenital androgen insensitivity syndrome might have female bodies, female external genitalia, and have been raised female their entire life, but when you look into their cells they have Y chromosomes.

Biologists defined by fiat that in cases of ambiguous animal grouping like whales, phylogenetics will be the tiebreaker. This was useful to resolve ambiguity, and it’s worth sticking to as a Schelling point so everyone’s using their words the same way, but it’s kind of arbitrary and mostly based on biologists caring a lot about phylogenetics. If we let King Solomon make the decision, he might decide by fiat that whether animals lived in land or water would be the tiebreaker, since he’s most interested in whether the animal is hunted on horseback or by boat.

Likewise, astronomers decided by fiat that something would be a planet if and only if meets the three criteria of orbiting, round, and orbit-clearing. But here we have a pretty neat window into how these kinds of decisions take place – you can read the history of the International Astronomical Union meeting where they settled on the definition and learn about all the alternative proposals that were floated and rejected and which particular politics resulted in the present criteria being selected among all the different possibilities. Here it is obvious that the decision was by fiat.

Without the input of any prestigious astronomers at all, most people seem to assume that the ultimate tiebreaker in man vs. woman questions is presence of a Y chromosome. I’m not sure this is a very principled decision, because I expect most people would classify congenital androgen insensitivity patients (XY people whose bodies are insensitive to the hormone that makes them look male, and so end up looking 100% female their entire lives and often not even knowing they have the condition) as women.

The project of the transgender movement is to propose a switch from using chromosomes as a tiebreaker to using self-identification as a tiebreaker.

(This isn’t actually the whole story – some of the more sophisticated people want to split “sex” and “gender”, so that people who want to talk about what chromosomes they’ve got have a categorization system to do that with, and a few people even want to split “chromosomal sex” and “anatomical sex” and “gender” and goodness knows what else – and I support all of these as very important examples of the virtue of precision – but to a first approximation, they want to define gender as self-identification)

This is not something that can be “true” or “false”. It’s a boundary-redrawing project. It can make for some boundaries that look a little bit weird – like a small percent of men being able to get pregnant – but as far as weird boundaries go that’s probably not as bad as having a tiny exclave of Turkish territory in the middle of a Syrian village.

You draw category boundaries in specific ways to capture tradeoffs you care about. If you care about the sanctity of the tomb of your country’s founder, sometimes it’s worth having a slightly weird-looking boundary in order to protect and honor it. And if you care about…

I’m writing this post today because I just finished accepting a transgender man to the mental hospital. He alternates between trying to kill himself and trying to cut off various parts of his body because he’s so distressed that he is biologically female. We’ve connected him with some endocrinologists who can hopefully get him started on male hormones, after which maybe he’ll stop doing that and hopefully be able to lead a normal life.

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.


I’ve made this argument before and gotten a reply something like this:

“Transgender is a psychiatric disorder. When people have psychiatric disorders, certainly it’s right to sympathize and feel sorry for them and want to help them. But the way we try to help them is by treating their disorder, not by indulging them in their delusion.”

I think these people expect me to argue that transgender “isn’t really a psychiatric disorder” or something. But “psychiatric disorder” is just another category boundary dispute, and one that I’ve already written enough about elsewhere. At this point, I don’t care enough to say much more than “If it’s a psychiatric disorder, then attempts to help transgender people get covered by health insurance, and most of the transgender people I know seem to want that, so sure, gender dysphoria is a psychiatric disorder.”

And then I think of the Hair Dryer Incident.

The Hair Dryer Incident was probably the biggest dispute I’ve seen in the mental hospital where I work. Most of the time all the psychiatrists get along and have pretty much the same opinion about important things, but people were at each other’s throats about the Hair Dryer Incident.

Basically, this one obsessive compulsive woman would drive to work every morning and worry she had left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house. So she’d drive back home to check that the hair dryer was off, then drive back to work, then worry that maybe she hadn’t really checked well enough, then drive back, and so on ten or twenty times a day.

It’s a pretty typical case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it was really interfering with her life. She worked some high-powered job – I think a lawyer – and she was constantly late to everything because of this driving back and forth, to the point where her career was in a downspin and she thought she would have to quit and go on disability. She wasn’t able to go out with friends, she wasn’t even able to go to restaurants because she would keep fretting she left the hair dryer on at home and have to rush back. She’d seen countless psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors, she’d done all sorts of therapy, she’d taken every medication in the book, and none of them had helped.

So she came to my hospital and was seen by a colleague of mine, who told her “Hey, have you thought about just bringing the hair dryer with you?”

And it worked.

She would be driving to work in the morning, and she’d start worrying she’d left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house, and so she’d look at the seat next to her, and there would be the hair dryer, right there. And she only had the one hair dryer, which was now accounted for. So she would let out a sigh of relief and keep driving to work.

And approximately half the psychiatrists at my hospital thought this was absolutely scandalous, and This Is Not How One Treats Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and what if it got out to the broader psychiatric community that instead of giving all of these high-tech medications and sophisticated therapies we were just telling people to put their hair dryers on the front seat of their car?

But I think the guy deserved a medal. Here’s someone who was totally untreatable by the normal methods, with a debilitating condition, and a drop-dead simple intervention that nobody else had thought of gave her her life back. If one day I open up my own psychiatric practice, I am half-seriously considering using a picture of a hair dryer as the logo, just to let everyone know where I stand on this issue.

Miyamoto Musashi is quoted as saying:

The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.

Likewise, the primary thing in psychiatry is to help the patient, whatever the means. Someone can concern-troll that the hair dryer technique leaves something to be desired in that it might have prevented the patient from seeking a more thorough cure that would prevent her from having to bring the hair dryer with her. But compared to the alternative of “nothing else works” it seems clearly superior.

And that’s the position from which I think a psychiatrist should approach gender dysphoria, too.

Imagine if we could give depressed people a much higher quality of life merely by giving them cheap natural hormones. I don’t think there’s a psychiatrist in the world who wouldn’t celebrate that as one of the biggest mental health advances in a generation. Imagine if we could ameliorate schizophrenia with one safe simple surgery, just snip snip you’re not schizophrenic anymore. Pretty sure that would win all of the Nobel prizes. Imagine that we could make a serious dent in bipolar disorder just by calling people different pronouns. I’m pretty sure the entire mental health field would join together in bludgeoning anybody who refused to do that. We would bludgeon them over the head with big books about the side effects of lithium.

Really, are you sure you want your opposition to accepting transgender people to be “I think it’s a mental disorder”?


Some people can’t leave well enough alone, and continue to push the mental disorder angle. For example:

There are a lot of things I could say here.

I could point out that trans-Napoleonism seem to be mysteriously less common than transgender.

I could relate this mysterious difference to the various heavily researched apparent biological correlates of transgender, including unusual variants of the androgen receptor, birth-sex-discordant sizes of various brain regions, birth-sex-discordant responses to various pheromones, high rates of something seemingly like body integrity identity disorder, and of course our old friend altered digit ratios. If our hypothetical trans-Napoleon came out of the womb wearing a French military uniform and clutching a list of 19th century Grand Armee positions in his cute little baby hands, I think I’d take him more seriously.

I could argue that questions about gender are questions about category boundaries, whereas questions about Napoleon – absent some kind of philosophical legwork that I would very much like to read – are questions of fact.

I could point out that if the extent of somebody’s trans-Napoleonness was wanting to wear a bicorne hat, and he was going to be suicidal his entire life if he couldn’t but pretty happy if I could, let him wear the damn hat.

I could just link people to other sites’ pretty good objections to the same argument.

But I think what I actually want to say is that there was once a time somebody tried pretty much exactly this, silly hat and all. Society shrugged and played along, he led a rich and fulfilling life, his grateful Imperial subjects came to love him, and it’s one of the most heartwarming episodes in the history of one of my favorite places in the world.

Sometimes when you make a little effort to be nice to people, even people you might think are weird, really good things happen.

[EDIT: I’ve been told some people are misinterpreting this post as “you can define words any way you want, don’t worry about it”. While nothing is stopping you from defining a word any way you want, you should definitely worry about it. I had hoped that the Israel/Palestine example above made it clear that you have to deal with the consequences of your definitions, which can include confusion, muddling communication, and leaving openings for deceptive rhetorical strategies. In most cases plausible definitions will be limited to a few possibilities suggested by the territory, with worsening penalties as you deviate from these further.]

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727 Responses to The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories

  1. T says:

    “… even if the ancient Hebrews had taken enough of a break from _murdering_ Philistines …” ??

    Is this a reference to the writings in the Bible, or to the usual media bias against Israel? The Philistines were the enemies of the Hebrews. The Hebrews were _fighting_ the Philistines, and vice versa.

    The article discusses the meanings and translations of words in the Bible, but seems to mix between the Biblical Philistines and the modern Palestinians. The latter call themselves Arabs, and we know where Arabia is. Not in “Palestine”.

    This comment is by no means meant to detract from the value of the arguments in this article. It is unrelated to the actual discussion. However, please note that the Hebrew word for mammal is: YONEK. A BEHEMAH is a beast. As in: beast of burden.

    • Adina says:

      “The usual media bias against Israel”? How can that happen, Israel basically *invented* the biased media? In the Bible it’s Israel that gives *labels* to everything, which we read in the dictionary.
      But here’s a funny suggestion for you: “Arab” or Ara comes from Ireland, just like Hibiru (Hebrew). This is a brotherly conflict which goes beyond nations. And just because it’s a legit war and all, doesn’t make it any less of a murder. If people only understood that, on a very basic level.

  2. Pingback: Are you transphobic? Am I? | Purely a figment of your imagination

  3. The hairdryer intervention was very much in the vein of Milton Erickson.

  4. David says:

    Hey there, this is the first time I’ve read your writing, and I want to congratulate you on your clarity thought and of expression. It was a delight to read.

  5. Moebius Street says:

    Late to the party, but…

    My concerns here are that those of us expected to help make the transgendered person comfortable with their identity don’t have any way of knowing what the right treatment is. We refer to someone as “he”, to be chastised because that’s not how the referrant sees herself. But there’s no a priori means for us to know that, so we’re doomed to get ourselves into trouble and be labeled as insensitive.

    The other concern is its effect on how we communicate about past experience. Consider Bradley/Chelsea Manning. At the time that events relating to this person were first unfolding, the male pronoun and the appellation “Bradley” were used universally. At some later time, we were told this was no longer correct, and we must switch to she/Chelsea. But we’ve still got all that history out there with the masculine references, and when we research, cite, and discuss that history, it’s at least confusing. And I’ve seen a big brouhaha erupt because of someone discussing the data leak event insensitively using the name “Bradley”. But unless you (a) know that the name/gender changed, and (b) do the mental gymnastics necessary to translate all the historical references, you’re again doomed to transgress.

  6. 27chaos says:

    I’ve just realized that although I have a disgust reaction to the idea of seeing that a woman I know has/had a penis, my disgust reaction to the idea of seeing a man I know has/had a vagina is less. (No attraction though, still grosses me out a bit.)

    Anyone else have the same sort of reactions? If inconsistency similar to this is common, we might be able to ask gay people who have disgust reactions whether they’re disgusted only by the idea of finding out that someone they’re interested in has the atypical sex parts, or if they’re disgusted only by the idea that someone of the opposite gender has the atypical sex parts, or if they’re disgusted only by the idea that women have the atypical sex parts. This would be pretty good evidence whether or not the disgust reaction is related to sexual interest in other people, provided that there aren’t any confounders due to gay demographics. It also seems like information that would be helpful for investigating socialization theories.

    I suspect it has to do with sexual interest. Arguing against this is the fact that my disgust reaction applies even to unattractive women, but I think that’s just because categories are fuzzy in weird ways.

    • Adina says:

      People are beautiful, I only find some of their minds disgusting in very specific ways. If they try to aggressively dominate, rape, steal, pretend for their own glorification, etc. I have those reactions to these things. Otherwise, I find disgust to be only a negative programming through mind altering, like being forced to watch a hive of swarming cockroaches may later trigger disgust in seeing one.

  7. metagameface says:

    Rereading this again, and wondering if there was supposed to be an image immediately after this part?
    > One could imagine a brain that thought about these characteristics like this:

    I remember dismissing it the first time as “oh, he must just be referring to the blegg/rube one lower down and I’m supposed to imagine a version that’s about planets”, but saying that out loud, it sounds really weird.

    Anyway, thank you for writing an article on trans acceptance that I can show people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a social justice blog.

  8. Harald K says:

    Question to Scott: Did you ever read Popper’s “The open society and its enemies”? Because the arguments you make about categories sound a lot like Popper’s explanation of nominalism, as opposed to essentialism (one of the many things Popper explains eloquently in that book, which really doesn’t have much with the open society and its enemies to do).

  9. John says:

    Typo: “extent philosophical problems” -> “extant”.

  10. Lizardbreath says:

    So, I wrote the following.

    I feel a “duty” to post it, to just get this POV out there.

    This is not what I got the rape and death threats from SJWs over. But I sure have seen SJWs issue rape and death threats over disagreeing with them on this one, too. So I don’t have a huge amount of emotional energy for discussing this. I may or may not respond to any replies.

    It doesn’t help that my hands are pretty well typed out. The more physically painful typing replies gets, the less I’ll do.

    Bottom line, I’m really not up for a flame war, either emotionally or physically.

    But this is my view and…sorry to be all old and stuff, but good citizenship demands that I place my opinion into the marketplace of ideas. 😉


    “Without the input of any prestigious astronomers at all, most people seem to assume that the ultimate tiebreaker in man vs. woman questions is presence of a Y chromosome.”

    IOW, that’s a Schelling point, including the typical Schelling-point feature, claimed by Schelling to be important, of “naturally arising.”

    “An alternative categorization system is not an error, and borders are not objectively true or false.”

    Cool, you just reinvented postmodernism! 🙂

    So what you’re saying is, it’s perfectly fine for someone to argue for a categorization system that suits them. Good! I will:

    Categorizing sex or gender by any form of behavior hurts me. Pretty severely. Like, “There’s no place for me in society” severely.

    I need to be able to happily go about my life, being myself, not worrying about externally imposed, behaviorally-defined gender roles.

    There are a lot of physical females like me. Enough that, in the ’70s, they made up a whole movement. Many physical males in the same situation joined them back then, back when Warren Farrell too (among others) was accepted as a feminist.

    “Let’s all stop worrying about gender roles,” said they. “If you’re male, you’re masculine; if you’re female, you’re feminine: end of story.”

    My parents set off raising me with that attitude. I knew from infancy about different genitalia, and was taught from infancy that that was *all* that made the difference. And it was just what I needed. I was healthy and happy and free.

    You know. Like this.

    I think by this point it’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this. 😉

    Us “cis by defaults” who are easily hurt by externally imposed gender roles are pretty common. If we weren’t, ’70s feminism wouldn’t have adopted and pushed hard for our position. I’ll conservatively estimate us at about 30% of each sex (but I suspect it’s really more like 50%). (But see the end of this post.)

    Transgender OTOH is very rare.

    Greatest good for the greatest number. Chuck gender and make it all about physical sex. (And yeah, that makes those with CAIS women.)

    Release me and the many, many, many others like me from our pain.

    Don’t worsen it by further reifying gender roles.

    And yeah. The way the human mind works, “I identify as other than my physical sex due to my feelings” does further reify the roles. Because it pushes away from the natural Schelling point of, “It’s your bod and only your bod, there’s nothing at all involved that remotely touches anything that could conceivably have to do with a social role.”

    As soon as feelings come into it, they could be from the externally-imposed social role. And such external pressure is so, so easy to give in to and be hurt by.

    (And with the MTF I used to know? It really did seem like the feelings were from outside. My acquaintance had been raised by a severely abusive father and their mom would always address the two of them as “the boys,” and they obviously wanted nothing to do with the abuser so they didn’t *want* to be one of “the boys”–and they were raised with no knowledge of physical sex differences, so had no reason to think they couldn’t just pick another role if it fit better. And that’s what they did. Or so they said.

    But then again, we didn’t exactly create a study of a whole group of born-males, all raised by severely abusive fathers with whom the family especially strongly identified them and who were also raised in ignorance of physical sex…)

    (And then there’s my MTF in-law. *They* had autogynephilia. In-depth discussions convinced me that these feelings had developed slowly over time as a result of external gender role pressures. If there’d been no gender roles, there’d have been no problem–my in-law wouldn’t have suffered and nor would their wife and children.)

    /traditional feminist

    But I mean it.

    I’m old. This argument is old. It’s the old POV. It’s not the new POV that millennials appear to have invented without ever having seriously considered this old one. (Millennials appear to have only ever started reading about this old POV after already having invented their new one, and having adopted some inaccurate assumptions about the old one.) Keep that in mind.

    Also, since I saw this in a comment, Scott, initially it wasn’t “trans people separating sex and gender.” It was those ’70s feminists. (Ozy, surely *you* *do* know this? From your studies?)

    If I were ten years younger, I’m sure I’d identify as “genderqueer.” (And “demisexual,” for that matter. Most females are. And a lot of geeky males are too: I’m glad. But so many people are that I’m disturbed that we now need a term for what used to be assumed to be normal. Because it *is* normal, if we define “normal” as “typical of the majority.”)

    The thing is, I’m very glad I’m not ten years younger. I’m glad for how I was raised. I’m glad my discomfort with the feminine gender role and the sometimes quite strong pressure to fulfill it, never attached itself to my physical body.

    I know that, for me, it could have. Ultimately it didn’t, so I can happily keep my body as is, and I’m glad for that–and I attribute that to the time and culture in which I was raised.

    I don’t think the decline of that culture is a good thing.

    I don’t think the disappearance of the POV that yeah, gender role discomfort totally can attach itself to your body when you didn’t start out with body dysphoria, is a good thing.

    Ozy! You’re supposed to be “one of those gender studies people”! Yet in the comments you act like you’ve never even heard of that idea.

    Am I telling you you’re definitely “delusional about your discomfort with your breasts”? Of course not.

    Do I think it would be good for everyone including you if you’d ever before heard the idea that maybe you *developed* negative feelings toward your breasts as a *result of* our culture’s insistence that “breasts = woman = woman’s role”? Yeah, I really do. Those people who look at you and can’t separate your breasts from a gender role they then impose on you…(IMO) our culture did that to them. Do you think there’s not even the faintest possibility that it did it to you too? That maybe you too learned to be unable to separate your breasts from the gender role, and your feelings about the gender role from your feelings about your breasts?

    Look, I’m not you, so I’m obviously not saying that’s definitely what’s going on with you! I’m just concerned that you’re really acting like no one’s ever even brought up the possibility before. Because I do think it is possible, and I think someone should’ve.

    That POV, and the group who hold that POV, have been hounded out of the discourse by SJWs labeling them as “anti-trans therefore hating transpeople therefore evil.” It’s a loss.

    OK, back to the initial point. Maybe we cis-by-default-and-also-hurt-by-the-roles were wrong about how many others are like us. Maybe we’re actually really rare (or at least, maybe those of us who are really hurt by the roles are). That would change things. But I would still want understanding. And I’d also want us to have a societal escape hatch if possible.

    I’m typed out, so I’ll have to stop there. But actually, I wrote-but-did-not-post something more from that POV a while back in response to this post on nydwracu’s blog. Maybe I’ll dig it up and post it now.

    • Protagoras says:

      Trans people often seem disturbingly gender essentialist to me (Ozy seems like an odd case, in that zie doesn’t turn zir not wanting to be female into wanting to be male; zie seems to be like you in just resisting such categorization completely, and so doesn’t seem disturbing at all to me, just puzzling in zir choice of allies). In other words, I’m sympathetic to the view you describe here; thanks for posting it.

      • llamathatducks says:

        Hmm, I’ve seen a lot of posts by trans people affirming the rights of trans people to be as gender-nonconforming as cis people can be without having their gender questioned. Trans people very much do often reject gendered expectations if they can afford to disregard them without people misgendering them. In other words, they often see gender identity as a totally separate thing from gender roles, and may adopt the gender identity “woman” while being very traditionally-feminist in rejecting women’s traditional social roles. But they’re in a double bind there, because (as we see elsewhere in this thread), if a trans woman is seen as not very feminine, people are puzzled by her and are likely to reject her identity. Given how important gender identity is for a lot of trans people, grudgingly living by gender norms may be a necessary tradeoff.

    • Audrey says:

      It cannot be that people do not know of the old seventies definition of gender. It is still in contemporary use by WHO and used to deal with many of the major issues societies face – barriers to girls attending school for example. Its primary use is not about anyone’s sense of identity.

    • David says:

      I appreciate your perspective and I relate to what you describe. I am somewhat ‘cis by default’ and find the notion of gender roles oppressive. I wish to protect others from them as well.

      I imagine that keeping an open mind, expressing ones self, being heard and listening to others are tools that will help us be free from the torment that sometimes come with gender.

      I want to think that even rigidly cisgendered people have a place, if they can be kind and respectful and open minded. As the years and generations go on, I hope this can lead to society that is fitter, happier and more productive on a whole.

    • Adina says:

      This is your point of view and we need a whole diversity of them. I loved your culture (Lemuria-derived from what I can see)… I’m younger but I was inspired and still connect with people from this culture. Though I think it declined for a reason. Things were great, but they were not so great for everyone (for example, the Persians of my culture – they were great, but then they became wealthy by enslaving animals and creating a pattern of thought that “darkness is abhorrent”, and all that – imbalance – until a disease hit all the stocks, and that was it with the glory). This is usually why a culture declines. I’ve been trying to find out what happened in that era of the traditional feminists, too.

  11. Paul Torek says:

    Categories should cut nature at the joints. The trick is, at-the-joint-ness is not given by nature without a thinker. The perceptual abilities and practical needs of the thinker/agent interact with the properties of its environment to determine which categories are actually useful.

    In other words, I agree with Scott. I just like this way of putting it.

  12. Steve Sailer says:

    What’s funny about this posting is that “transgender” is a highly dubious category of disparate people, far less “carving nature at the joints” than “male” or “female.” The category is being promoted heavily at present to maximize political power, which is okay, and to shut off scientific inquiry, which, to me, is not okay.

    For example, a large fraction of the most publicized individuals among the “transgendered” — Wachowski, Rothblatt, McCloskey, Conway, Morris, Col. Pritzker, the Navy SEAL, the Australian general, Dr. V. — stand out clearly from the others. These guys are more or less a bunch of Heinlein characters come to life: smart, masculine, generally right wing or libertarian in some fashion, interested in science, technology, or the military. Because we don’t have a category name for them, it’s hard to notice them. I’ve only noticed the Heinleinian aspect this year.

    The poor quality category name “transgender” is clearly misleading people, as is apparent from this post and the comments, which almost all take at face value the “I always felt like a girl on the inside” talking point. McCloskey has recently given that up and admitted that that’s false, and good for McCloskey to come clean about that.

    Scott’s argument is essentially that the transgendered really are crazy, but not only we should give them drugs and surgery they want, which is fine, but also treat them like the Emperor Norton and accede to all their whims because they are harmless loons.

    But this particular group is highly functional — e.g., Lana Wachowski still gets to make big budget movies, even though they are pretty bad compared to Larry Wachowski’s “Matrix.” These days they are automatically accorded valuable Victim status. They can be extremely dangerous to scientists who are interested in the truth about them. Their insistence on everybody playing along with them promotes throughout society anti-science attitudes.

    They are more like the paranoid, some of whom can function very well (e.g., Stalin), especially if they drive people around them crazy.

  13. Steve Sailer says:

    A more sophisticated way to approach the question of categories is _not_ to start listing all the sets that aren’t hard and fast because they are actually fuzzy. That’s easy and practically everybody with a 3-digit IQ these days knows that you are supposed to think that only dumb people think categories are true.

    The more sophisticated thing is to think about what kinds of categories in the real world have to be true. Math, sure. But there are others. Here’s the big one: your biological ancestral family tree. The fathers and mothers on it may have been different individuals than you might believe, but you can know this for sure: the fathers were male and the mothers were female.

    Once you realize that, a lot of things make more sense. But very few people these days grasp that basic reality.

    • Adina says:

      And the point is? So were the parents of Cicadas, but 85% of insects are gay and pollinate plants for a living, which is why maybe they’re the symbol of metamorphosis and ohhhhhh…. see? Only 15% of insects make eggs together; and we’d be dead without insects in two months. Also the very male Adam was documented as gay, and is the father of (the new, improved) humanity according to the Bible. So I totally agree, now a lot of things make a lot more sense, even if they were different individuals than we thought! Precisely. The reason why humanity was new and improved, was not because Adam was a male, it was because he had the needed type of brain, to which equilibrium (balance/Paraz) came naturally. So he was a better father than whichever “manly man” was common at the time (just don’t say Cave Man… because Cave Men were actually the true intellectuals… so once more learned categories go bust).

  14. Malenkiy Scot says:

    >Really, are you sure you want your opposition to accepting transgender people to be “I think it’s a mental disorder”?

    Have you read The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger (of Religion and Other Curiosities blog fame and Thomas Luckmann? The book is full of very useful insights many of which are related to things you write about (not just in this post).

    At least two ideas of theirs (by no means original – their work to a large extent is integration of other sources) apply here. The first idea is that there is “hard reality” – the reality of everyday life. Anybody who argues against that reality may be safely ignored as silly. Thus don’t waste your time on such arguments (e.g. “trans-Napoleonism”).

    The second idea is deeper: we all try to make sense out of the world around us. That world to a large extent includes the surrounding social constructions (institutions). Those institutions must be legitimated: at the very least they should not appear arbitrary. Societies (tribes, nations) and societal groups (Puritans, Democrats, Republicans, etc.) usually congeal around a certain set of legitimations – “beliefs” for short. Any deviant – someone who disagrees with or does not fit into the legitimation framework – must either undergo “therapy” to bring him back into the fold or “nihilated” – ignored, shunned, physically eliminated, treated less than human, pronounced intrinsically “evil”, etc. That’s where “mental disorded” argument comes in: if my set of beliefs for one reason or another cannot safely integrate trans-gendered people, arguably the psychologically easiest way to proceed is to declare them “mental” and in need of “therapy”.

    You may now ponder how from such a perspective the seemingly parve question of borders suddenly becomes morally charged.

    • Step Granddaughter says:

      “I am with the Legitimation Squad. Respect my authority. Respect my authority.” LOL 😀 😀 😀

  15. metagameface says:

    >This is now unexpectedly a geography blog again.

    No, Scott. Jumping between wildly different topics while exploring some central point is pretty much your entire writing style. You aren’t allowed to call it unexpected when you do that.

  16. Peter Hovde says:

    I note that the hippos might not be angry, merely (justifiably) hyper-defensive, and also that hippos are not carnivorous. Otherwise, excellent.

  17. Midnight Rambler says:

    Interesting point, though I think there’s an important point you’re glossing over. (Someone else has probably already brought this up, but I can’t be bothered to read through 500+ comments right now.)

    In the same way, statements like “whales have little hairs” are brute facts. Statements like “whales are not a kind of fish” are negotiable.

    This is not obvious. Why should the first statement be a non-negotiable fact, and the second a statement about arbitrary boundaries? You could apply the same reasoning about boundaries to the second statement: I’m sure there are some conceivable definitions of “whale”, “hair” and “little” (or even “have” – if you interpret it to mean having a printed title deed or something) for which whales do not have little hairs.

    This implies there must be some demarcation line, separating questions of pure fact from questions of boundaries and categories. In other words, a boundary of boundaries.

    If you push this slider all the way towards the “arbitrary boundaries” end, you get postmodernism: there are no objective, undisputable facts; there are only conventions drawn up by humans. A falling tree made a sound if everyone around it agrees that they heard a sound.

    I’ve always been very hostile towards this idea, mostly because I’ve read a lot of Orwell: if you accept the idea that “reality” is just human convention anyway, it’s a small step to manipulating those conventions to suit your own interests. (Granted, people who don’t think this way also lie and frame and spin all the time, but the postmodern approach effectively removes the notion that it’s wrong to do this.)

    The weird thing is, if you push the slider all the way to the other end – if you say that any and all categories are objective and undisputable – you run into the same problem. From this point of view, if you meet people who happen to use different categories, such as that redneck or King Solomon, they must be delusional or lying. If the IAU holds a big congress and declares Pluto isn’t a planet anymore, then something real and observable about Pluto would have to change – after all, the definition of the word “planet” is carved in granite. Which means we’re right back to an Orwellian world where some shadowy council decides what “truth” is.

    So if you can’t say that “everything is arbitrary” or “everything is objective”, there must be some kind of demarcation line between objective facts and arbitrary categories. I think everyone draws this line a little differently; personally, I usually lean towards the objective end. Especially when the boundaries refer to tangible, physical properties (such as genes, or little hairs) I’m often more inclined to say they are objective and not arbitrary.

    The point where this becomes clearest is the word “parent”. My stance here seems to be an instant berserk button for just about everyone I talk to about it; I’ve had good friends, people who previously considered me a decent and reasonable person, screaming “heartless fascist bastard” at me after finding out how I thought about the definition of parenthood.

    My position is as simple as it is inflexible: your parents are those who produced the gametes from which you grew. I’m not saying I use this criterion as a “tiebreaker”; I’m saying that, for me, there are no ties because this is the only input. Legal, cultural or social conventions carry no weight whatsoever. Neither do your feelings, or those of anyone around you. Anyone who teaches a child to call them “mommy” or “daddy” when the child isn’t biologically theirs is a despicable liar, trying to get the child to renounce their true parentage.

    For me, this is simply an application of a broader principle: human convention must never be allowed to override tangible, observable facts. As Scott phrases it in the post itself:

    Our entire shtick is trying to believe what’s actually true, not what we wish were true, or what our culture tells us is true, or what it’s popular to say is true.

    Scott goes on to say that he thinks this is wrong, because “an alternate categorisation system is not an error, and borders are not objectively true or false.” To which I would respond: well, when is something an “alternate categorisation system” and when is it “objectively true or false”? Like I said above, different people draw different lines between the two. For me, the words “parent” and “child” have objective and unambiguous definitions; for most people, they have nebulous definitions-by-convention, with many different criteria playing a part.

    • Illuminati Initiate says:

      I noticed that you went from arguing over definitions of “parent” to arguing about politics/ideology/morality when you accuse adoptive parents of ” trying to get the child to renounce their true parentage”. I’m sorry if I’m misreading you, but that sounds alot like moral condemnation. Is the definition your true objection?

      • Midnight Rambler says:

        Of course, this isn’t entirely about semantics, otherwise I wouldn’t get so worked up over it. I think I can make this clearest by splitting it up in two questions: 1) why do I think it’s wrong, and 2) why does it bother me so much.

        The answer to 1) is pretty straightforward. I think children have a right to know the truth about their parentage. More abstractly: I think lying is wrong, and because I see the parent-child connection as an objective and unambiguous fact, I think the concepts of “truth” and “lies” apply to it.

        The answer to 2) has to do with my personal history. (You could probably guess this; whenever someone uses really strong terms about a seemingly abstract issue, chances are it’s personal for them somehow.)

        When I was three years old, my parents split up. By that point, they had lived together as an unmarried couple quite happily for about ten years – a fact which still strongly informs my views on marriage.

        Anyway, my parents both loved me very much, and they didn’t dislike each other too much to work together as adults, so they set up a co-parenting arrangement. First it was week-for-week, later on the schedules got more complicated; but the bottom line was that I spent approximately half of my “home” time at my mother’s house and half at my father’s.

        Both of my parents quickly found new spouses (neither of these new couples married, either, and both are still together 18 years later). It was always made clear to me who my real parents were and who my step-parents; none of the people involved even wanted me to call my stepfather “dad” or my stepmother “mom”. I made a point of making it clear to the outside world, too. I insisted on proper terminology: stepfather, stepmother, and – later – halfbrothers.

        I knew that there were children whose situations weren’t as rosy. Children who only saw their father every other weekend, or who were taught to call their stepmother “mommy”. I’d even heard of extreme cases where a mother’s new husband was legally made the father of her child, with the child’s surname being changed to reflect this!

        I always felt sorry for these children, and deeply angry on their behalf. They were being denied the truth about something essential. They were being denied what was theirs by birthright: frequent and loving contact with their true parents – just because some stupid adults had written some weird laws. How grateful I was – and still am – to my parents that I was not one of those children! Later, when the Fathers 4 Justice movement rolled along, I greatly sympathised with them.

        From the point where I developed some kind of political awareness, I always felt that my “only biological parentage can be real” stance was inherently progressive. After all, much of family law – especially the idea that legal parentage is transferable, or that any children born to a man’s widow within nine months after his death are automatically considered his – is built on deeply conservative assumptions (marriage is important; only men do paid work; after a divorce the children always stay with the mother).

        However, the recent push for easier adoption for gay couples has forced me to rethink how “progressive” my stance really is. It definitely sounds conservative to say to a gay or lesbian couple that they’re never allowed to raise a child, just because – with the current state of technology – they can’t biologically conceive one. And the whole mystique about “birthright”, “true heritage”, “flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood”, etc. which I’ve built up around my position over the years seems downright medieval at times.

        So far, I’m sticking to my guns, though. That’s not to say I condemn adoption in all circumstances – that would be impossible for practical reasons, although my 11-year-old self definitely tried. I support adoption on the following conditions:

        * The parents are dead, or otherwise unable to care for the child (abusive / addicted / insane / in prison / all of the above).
        * If the parents are still alive, every effort is made to maintain contact between them and the child – no matter how difficult.
        * The guardians are chosen as close to the parents as possible. Ideally, this means aunts or uncles of the child; close friends of the parents are a good second option. If no acceptable guardians can be found with any connection to the parents, at least select people from the same area. International adoption is a big no.
        * The guardians never let the child call them “mom” or “dad”; as soon as the child is old enough to understand (and this means sooner rather than later) they explain the situation.

        As for adoption which is initiated by the adopting couple because they want a child but can’t conceive one themselves – I can only see that as stealing someone else’s child for your own selfish desires, a bit like that dramatic scene in March of the Penguins where a female penguin tries to steal her neighbour’s egg.

        • Anonymous says:

          What about examples that are not children, so there can be no deceit, such as addressing in-laws as mother and father?

          Children given the name of their stepfather is not “extreme” but common. Three of the past seven presidents used their stepfather’s name, at least temporarily. In two cases, the father was dead, while in the third, he abandoned the family.

          “Stealing” seems like a strange choice of word, when the birth parent is offering up the child. The heart of your position is that adoption is bad for children. Maybe that’s true, and maybe that’s a reason not to let the infertile adopt, but I think it’s severely distorting your view of the world, causing you to try to paint it as bad from all angles. (“Policy debates should not appear one-sided.”)

        • Steve Sailer says:

          It’s like race and ethnicity. The way the Census groups Americans, race is more or less biological and ethnicity (e.g., Hispanic/Latino) is more or less cultural.

          Technically, a racial group is a partly inbred extended family, while an ethnic group is one that shares similarities that are usually passed down among biological relatives but don’t have to be.

        • Tracy W says:

          Has it occurred to you that other children might have different feelings about these matters?

        • Step Granddaughter says:

          “The guardians are chosen as close to the parents as possible. Ideally, this means aunts or uncles of the child”
          EWWWW – you might get some convoluted incest issues there! Read the sagas…
          I see how personal this is for you, and I agree that lying is wrong. I have a step-grandmother, and I just wished everyone had talked openly about it for a lot of reasons. But what a child needs most is parents who WANT that child and are willing to raise him/her to recognize love. My parents wanted me in different degrees. They are my biological parents, but what good is that by itself, when they continuously and invariably fought every night and every day? Also one of my parents line has a strong history of mental disorder, which is why I also became worried I might develop a mental disorder. There is no evidence for that, however, it’s just by living in the environment that I became worried about it. Learned behaviour, as opposed to genes, is much more potent. So is “truth vs lies” really so clear-cut?
          Culturally speaking I was raised by various gay couples, both fictional and real, to recognize love. This has helped me a lot. What I have to my biological parents is the usual child-parent attachment which is about material safety. Not that it’s wrong to have that, but people seem to envy me especially because of a story they make up in their own heads, about genetic family being better than anything and being necessarily the most connected. Nonsense. In the old days, adoption was a lot more widespread, with children being sent over to other couples to learn about life. Nobody denied their biological origins but oftentimes the bonds were deeper with the adoptive family.
          I do wonder about one thing though, for which I’m glad you brought up your gene theory. What about the mythical tribe of people who were children of the gay guys, biologically? Is it a lie or a truth, genetically speaking? I am very curious what people think about this. I reserve comments for now.

  18. Jaskologist says:

    Since we’re also assuming here that sex reassignment surgery helps, this article by one of the big shots as Johns Hopkins seems relevant. He claims they found that it doesn’t:

    We at Johns Hopkins University—which in the 1960s was the first American medical center to venture into “sex-reassignment surgery”—launched a study in the 1970s comparing the outcomes of transgendered people who had the surgery with the outcomes of those who did not. Most of the surgically treated patients described themselves as “satisfied” by the results, but their subsequent psycho-social adjustments were no better than those who didn’t have the surgery. And so at Hopkins we stopped doing sex-reassignment surgery, since producing a “satisfied” but still troubled patient seemed an inadequate reason for surgically amputating normal organs.

    It now appears that our long-ago decision was a wise one. A 2011 study at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden produced the most illuminating results yet regarding the transgendered, evidence that should give advocates pause. The long-term study—up to 30 years—followed 324 people who had sex-reassignment surgery. The study revealed that beginning about 10 years after having the surgery, the transgendered began to experience increasing mental difficulties. Most shockingly, their suicide mortality rose almost 20-fold above the comparable nontransgender population.

    Of source, social science being social science, I assume there are other studies saying the opposite, and the second stat he quotes seems suspicious to me; isn’t the relevant comparison non-reassigned trans people?

  19. BeoShaffer says:

    The last several paragraphs made me think of Arakawa Under the Bridge, which is about a guy who gets roped into being the boyfriend of girl who claims to be from Venus and his attempts at integrating into a society of people who have tacitly agreed to go along with each others delusions. It’s one of the funniest anime I’ve seen and (usually) pretty sympathetic to the live and let live attitudes of the society under the bridge, unfortunately it wasn’t steaming anywhere the last time I checked.

  20. 27chaos says:

    By the way, I initially felt CERTAIN that you were going to end up talking about race and whether or not it can be said to exist. My Facebook’s had a bunch of nonsense popping up on it from the Colbert Report the last few days.

    • Jaskologist says:

      He already did. I kind of feel like he went in the opposite direction there, though.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        “What if we compare race to its closest analog, culture?”

        Nah, the closest analog to “race” is “extended family.” A racial group is just an extended family that is somewhat inbred.

        In fact, if you want to know the one kind of categorization that is hard edged in our world, it’s family trees. Your biological ancestors are who they are, male and female. For example, if your father Donald later decided that everybody should call him Deirdre, that doesn’t change your family tree.

        • Adina says:

          People become inbred because the natural “desire for the mirror” which may in some cases be same sex partnership (the Narcissus factor) gets replaced with a lower, watered-down version of a mirror – as in someone who resembles you, looks like you, etc.

  21. Anonymous says:

    I think many comments have successfully addressed some of the theoretical issues, but I think this post also has a very practical side. I will try to address this in a reasonably charitable way, but acknowledging the pressures that I think constrain you.

    I think the practical side of your argument boils down to, “Sure, something might be a mental disorder, but so long as we can mitigate the harms, then who cares?” Of course, I don’t think you can make this argument directly, lest you be crucified by those with social power over you. Theoretically, it’s socially unacceptable to state, “X is a mental disorder and Y is not,” (because it has norms) so the easiest solution is to claim, “First, you can’t make such claims. Second, it doesn’t matter anyway.”

    I’m very sympathetic to the practical nature of, “But it doesn’t matter.” It doesn’t matter if one guy wears a Napoleon hat or one lady takes a blow drier to work. It doesn’t practically matter if we call alcoholism or nicotine an addiction, so long as we can mitigate the harms. Hell, even if these things are harmful to the individual, we have a good chunk of tolerance if we can mitigate societal harm.

    Nevertheless, most people are aware of scaling concerns. If one dude smokes to feed what may or may not be called a nicotine addiction, who cares? Whatever. But if that person convinces millions of other people that they should also value smoking, and they begin demanding public accommodation, society is allowed to say, “Uh, we’re going to go ahead and adopt a different norm. We might even call your behavior an addiction. We might even go to such an extreme that we’ll claim that it may be ‘bad’.”

    “But Anon, smoking directly harms others through second-hand smoke!” Ok, what about chewing tobacco? Can society adopt a norm that chewing tobacco doesn’t seem to be the best thing for society as a whole? Sure, if a handful of people do it, whatever. Who cares? But if millions adopt it, causing additional public health costs and demanding spitting receptacles across all fashions of public accommodations, can’t we say no? Can’t we adopt that as a societal norm, even if it has some marginalizing effects on chewers?

    If millions of people start getting together and saying, “You can’t value not identifying as Napoleon! What’s more is that we demand a separate galleon in public accommodations. Finally, don’t even think about calling us something ghettoizing like ‘disordered’.” Uh, no, dude. You were cute and a little sad before. We couldn’t fix the root of your mental disorder, so we mitigated it as best we could. But I think it’d be best for everyone if society had a pretty strong non-Napoleon-identifying norm unless you’re actually the bloke. There may be people who jump into Napoleonism because it seems totally acceptable! This makes it harder to help those who are truly suffering and can quickly begin to needlessly stress society through multiple vectors. Hair driers likewise seem easy to accommodate, but I imagine you would still call hair-drier-based OCD a mental disorder. Society can still value not having hair-drier OCD while trying to accommodate it for the few, genuine cases.

    My favorite example of a norm that is related to a power structure is academia. Naive queer theorists will error out when facing this example. The educational system is clearly a system which confers measurable power to those who have access to it. Society, in general, values academics and intellectualism in measurable ways. Sure, people can get along in life without partaking in it. I imagine you could even point to true anti-intellectuals who could carve out a life for themselves. Some would go so far as to find mental disorders, using fancy words like cognitive dissonance and Dunning-Kruger effect! Over time, it’s even conceivable that entire groups of people will genuinely be unable to take part in the norm (…I think you’re worried about this in your reasoning about basic income and such).

    What is the conclusion of the last paragraph? Society can have norms. We can value education, not chewing tobacco, and identifying in a way that best matches physical reality (whether that is not-being-Napoleon or sexual identification). We can accommodate true edge cases in small scales without blowing up all norms or claiming that there’s no way to identify mental disorders.

    • ozymandias says:

      It does occur to me that “identifying in the way that best matches physical reality” implies at least a subset of trans women are women, even by your own definition, in the sense that women with CAIS are women.

      And like… What if trans people as a group agree that our sex is our current physical sex (we mostly do, with the caveat that hormones actually do cause important physical changes and “a trans woman is a biological male!” is eliding some important physical realities). We come up with the term “gender identity” for the thing where you want a different physical sex and/or to be gendered by people in a different way. We even get everyone on board with “transness is a mental disorder” (something I support 100%, btw)!

      …why exactly would that mean that I shouldn’t be called “they”? What important thing is being destroyed here?

      I mean, gosh, if it’s that every person I interact with won’t know what my genitals are, (a) ew, why would you care if you’re not my doctor or my sexual partner, creepy, (b) I will be happy to wear a T-shirt that says I HAVE A VAGINA, with perhaps a full-color picture to reassure everyone. Problem solved.

      • Anonymous says:

        CAIS… hormones… eliding some important physical realities

        Sure. There are actual physical edge cases. Those aren’t terribly problematic. We might even call some of them physical disorders and think that they don’t meet the norm. Scandalous, right?

        …why exactly would that mean that I shouldn’t be called “they”?

        I really have no idea what you’re going for here, and I’m not sure what part of my argument implied whatever it is that you’re gunning after. You may have to spell it out for me, because let’s be honest, I’m not very smart. I don’t even play a doctor on tv.

        I mean, gosh, if it’s that every person I interact with won’t know what my genitals are…

        You’re thinking on the individual scale. Queer theory is about society, structures, and norms. So long as you’re on your own with your hair drier, bicorne hat, and vagina shirt, nobody cares too much. Everyone in the community knows that you’re that person, but nobody takes seriously the idea that it’s particularly desirous from a societal standpoint. No one is going to start believing or acting like they’re compelled to bring a hair drier with them everywhere (if you doubt that this strange copycat behavior occurs, look at an example of a condition we agree is ‘bad’ – Celiac). No one who genuinely suffers from OCD is going to refuse all possible treatment because they think the entire category ‘mental disorders’ is impossible to define. No one is going to start making complicated theories about how all norms need to be disrupted or that it’s literally impossible to categorize anything. You have the scale and nature of the problem I’m addressing wrong.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          Right. Individuals usually get the treatment they want. That’s not what the current World War T is about. Instead it’s about our culture throwing out highly useful mental models because they offend a tiny minority. It’s about making us stupider as a whole to make a few people feel triumphant.

      • Anonymous says:

        I think I decided I want another go at this. Not because I think what I said was wrong, but because I think there’s a useful example to be had. And of course, if I’m going to pick a fun example, it might as well be my favorite one – academia!

        Have you ever spoken to a proud, self-proclaimed anti-intellectual? I have (and more importantly, my queer theory prof has; that was fun to hear her talk about). Anyway, imagine that Scott wrote a nice post about a harmless deluded person who wandered around a small community claiming to be a professor of metaphysics. This person even seems to experience great distress if he’s not able to walk around carrying a small chalkboard and wearing a tweed jacket. Everyone agrees that the solution is to just let him carry the damn board and wear the stupid jacket. (…but I imagine they would not agree that he’s actually a professor of metaphysics, seeing as how he’s babbling about his divining rod…)

        Later, you begin your conversation with a proud, self-proclaimed anti-intellectual. You explain the societal benefits of academia, how this is a norm that is good even though it may occasionally do some harm to some people, and how we don’t have to throw away all of the categories just because we don’t yet have a perfect set of demarcation criteria for determining whether someone is “an academic”. There are edge cases, Jerry! Edge cases!

        Your interlocutor responds with something along the lines of, I mean, gosh, if it’s that every person I interact with won’t know how much book learnin’ I have in my head (a) ew, why would you care if you’re not trying to learn something from me, creepy, (b) I will be happy to wear a T-shirt that says I DIDN’T GO TO COLLEGE, with perhaps an appropriate illustration to reassure everyone.

        What can you respond with besides, “Uh… I think you missed my point.”

  22. Shenpen says:

    By the way, the article does not say a lot to bi-or thrilingual people. As long as you map words 1:1 from between your first and second language, you don’t really speak either one of them. The goal is to get to understand the N : N relationships – that two words in two languages overlap but each will include meanings the other doesn’t.

  23. Andrew says:

    Overwhelmingly agree.

    Comparison from internal medicine – we always are willing to go after manifestations that we have solutions for when we don’t have root cause interventions or when the root cause is a distant temporal thing that is no longer actionable. So we always recommend diet and exercise but we also do CABG for CAD in diabetics. And we never prescribe changes to the food system and built environment because that’s too hard.

    Except wait, this is where I get uncomfortable. I agree we short term should do CABG and hormonal/surgical interventions for transgender people requesting it. But do we then latch on to the fact that we have treatments for distal manifestations, and subsequently ignore root cause issues? Why aren’t doctors more engaged on the food system and built environment? Isn’t there a beneficence rationale for physician political advocacy?

    To take another dysmorphia that I am more uncomfortable with, what about breast (and calf and buttock) augmentation. I am more reluctant to indulge the perverse cultural norms (anti-aging, etc.) and financial incentives for beautification surgeries that are at play. I’d much rather fight the upstream causes than say there is medical benefit to self-esteem if your calves look more defined. Yes, it’s a borders issue, but we probably need some principles for borders on the distal manifestations/upstream causes spectrum.

    1) Just because you can treat distal manifestations doesn’t mean you should ignore treatment availability biases that make you ignore preventive needs.
    2) There might be times when indulging distal manifestations is too problematic and further entrenches pathologic root causes…

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t think accommodating people/”treating symptoms” versus treating upstream causes funge off against each other. Or if they do, I’m very wary of the idea that people should be left to suffer because helping them would make people pay less attention to the problem of treating upstream causes.

      I am pretty sure a lot of transpeople are against the idea of “treating upstream causes” – that is, if there were some intervention which could prevent people from becoming transgender, they would strongly object to that intervention being performed. I disagree with that, but maybe one of them will show up to say their piece.

      • Lambert says:

        How do you define ‘object’?
        -Not choose out of preference
        -Advocate its prohibition
        -Oppose pressure to take it

        THe concept of changing identity is an interesting one. If a way to become bi were to exist, reversibly and without side effects, I (a straight male) would at least try it.

        • Adina says:

          There is a way. It’s called falling in love. It’s been known to happen… but I refer to the falling, as opposed to the “lifted up in love” which is true love, as pertaining to your true identity.

          “Inanna threw her husband into the underworld (turned him gay) when he took on another lover than her”

      • Keratin says:

        This is one of the thing’s that’s always slightly confused me about transpeople. Most other identity politics stuff is focused on sentiments “we have a specific identity and you are not supposed to feel sorry for us being the way we are”, but trans people by definition want to be someone else.

      • tiny nerd says:

        Lo, I have shown up to say my piece.
        (Bear in mind that this may well be just my opinion but a lot of trans people at least seem to agree. There’s something of a taboo on discussing this so it’s hard to tell.)

        The objection I take to “treating the cause” isn’t one that stands up within the thought experiment “what if we had a perfect prophylactic for gender dysphoria”. Children shouldn’t have to keep going through terrible stuff if we can stop it.

        The objection arises because we can’t stop it. In the real, non-thought-experiment world, no cure for transness exists. Furthermore, in the real world, a huge number of trans people have been seriously harmed (and had treatment denied to them) through attempts to apply ineffective “cures”. A common argument against giving trans people access to hormones and surgery (and really it’s one of the only ones that slips past the radar in public discourse) is that we should treat the symptoms psychiatrically instead.

        Within the hypothetical world of “what if we had a perfect cure”, there’s no problem, sure, go for it. However, people will absolutely take this hypothetical and run with it, arrive at “prevent trans people from seeking medical treatments that work because it’s just treating symptoms”, and begin doing a touchdown celebration dance. I saw at least a couple uses of that line of reasoning elsewhere in the comments. The argument “the upstream causes of transness should be treated” has been branded as extremely badwrong by all the people who use it that way, and “the upstream causes of transness should be treated in the hypothetical world where we have a perfect prophylactic” sounds enough like that argument that I feel obligated to object even though it is technically a true statement. Outside of the rationalist community people don’t often bring up hypothetical situations just for the sake of it, they do it to push an agenda. Questions about hypotheticals that look like they’re in favor of one side of an argument get read by most people as code for “Do you support my side?”, so people are answering that question rather than the literal one.

        • Adina says:

          Because…… there *is no* “upstream cause” for transness. LGBT were documented for millennia upon millennia, if there was a “cause” then surely things would have changed upstream since then. But they didn’t, and will not change, because it has a spiritual nature which is neither an illness nor a choice as we accept these concepts in a limited linear fashion. It is outside of time and rationalisms. In fact, extreme rationalism is considered more of an illness than transness, because extreme rationalism seeks to pin everything down and have a treatable cause for everything, and most of the time extreme rationalists have deep issues themselves which are hidden underneath their rationalizations, like deep-seated guilt and low self-esteem, etc.

    • Tracy W says:

      And we never prescribe changes to the food system and built environment because that’s too hard.

      Yes. If you think medicine is hard, try changing the food system or the built environment. Think of what a failure prohibiting alcohol was. Or the urban planning movement that gave us those lovely tower blocks with lots of shared communal space.

      And, what do doctors know about the food system, or the built environment? Farmers do their own degrees in their own areas of specialisation and spend years learning their job, and learning how to get the most productivity out of their bit of farm. Food scientists: another area of academic speciality. Farm equipment design: another area of speciality. Irrigation projects: another area of speciality.
      And running through all that, human tastes and preferences.

  24. Joshua Fox says:

    Scott, there are lots of inaccuracies here in your discussion of the Israel conflict in our little corner of the world here in Israel. I’m not going to detail them, to avoid Blue-Green internet conflict.

    Instead, I have a constructive suggestion.

    Whenever you or anyone else needs a canonical example of a dispute over land, reference the Cambodia/Thai border dispute. There is an awful lot you don’t know about that, but there’s an awful lot you don’t know about the current most common land-dispute example, despite or because of the firehose of discussion on the subject. You get to be cool and contrarian, you offend fewer people (even if you count the Cambodians and Thai reading SSC, few people outside those countries care), and no one will notice your factual errors.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      So I can learn without starting a fight on here – can you email me inaccuracies at scott at shireroth dot org?

      • Katie says:

        Hey, that’s not fair! I wanna know what you got wrong too. It all looked good from here.

      • Anatoly says:

        Rishon LeZion is only 3 miles away from the sea, so the suggested solution doesn’t work well (or at least doesn’t stay on land).

        Also, I live there and I am triggered resent the hell out how dare you nah it’s OK.

  25. Princess_Stargirl says:

    I am a little confused about how a “pro-trans” person should treat those who are not “pro-trans.” I personally use the “hypocritical” standard of being pretty tolerant of (what I perceive as) anti-trans bigotry is there are no transgender people around (with sufficient probability). While I pretty strongly “call out” anti-trans statements if I think trans people will hear. My view is this is not hypocritical. There is a difference between abstractly knowing generalized people have “anti-trans” views or misgender people and actually hearing it yourself. For example one of my best friends is trans and finds it difficult not to burst into tears if she is misgendered (she is rather emotional, have to give her alot of hugs <3).

    After alot of thought I have concluded my natural disgust reaction is almost non-existent relative to most people. At least when bugs/worms aren't involved. So I wonder how hard it is for some people to accept transgendered individuals as their real sex. I always wonder if asking someone to treat transwomen as women is like asking me to let a bug walk on my arm. I could maybe do it if I was 100% convinced I had to, but it would be really hard. And it would seem pretty mean for people to get mad at me for failing to do this even if they had to dissuade me from expressing my preferences in certain company.

    Of course the alternative is I am just rationalizing. And the real reason I only "strongly" defend trans people when trans people are present is that I want to minimize conflict while still seeming pro trans.

    *I am sufficiently pro trans I think that its weird (And a little insulting) to call being transgender a psychological problem. Since the problems (if they exist) are with physical traits of the transgender-ed person or (if they are happy with body) how other people treat them.

    **I actually think its unfortunate many people (male and female) are uncomfortable platonically cuddling with men. And that people should try to get over this feeling. Just as they should try to get over being unwilling to cuddle with transwomen. But if one cannot my response is "fucking dukkha, so be it I guess." The world is not an ideal place :(.

    • Shenpen says:

      Not trying to be an ass, 200% honest question: one of the most difficult aspect of these social-justice views to me is to what extent are people responsible for feeling hurt vs. the other people responsible for making them hurt?

      I mean I fully agree that if it is not very difficult to avoid other people feeling hurt, it is nice to do so, and an utilitarian should rather pay 2 seconds attention to not misgender than to make someone cry, still:

      1) Should people be allowed to put 100% onus for their feelings on others? Is it valid to say “you made me cry”, giving up agency and responsibility over ones feelings? Note: I used to practice a lot of Buddhist meditation and precisely their point is to learn that you can choose how you react a situation, that no one can make you feel bad unless you choose to feel bad.

      During those years I invested into learning how the world should not be covered with leather just to protect my feet, rather I should put on shoes. So allow me to say this but I am kind of annoyed by people who make others responsible for them being too sensitive to bear what the other person habitually does.

      I mean… if lack of control over ones emotion is understood as a mental illness then I guess everybody has to accept it the same way a guy in a wheelchair won’t just step out of the way please.

      But I think some amount of emotional self-responsibility should be expected from people who are considered sane.

      I don’t think a society where everybody guilt-trips everybody like “you are responsible for me feeling hurt!” would work very well.

      My recommendation would be this: let’s have formal, clear, explicit social norms, social etiquette, like in the past, except more inclusive now! And if someone violates them, they are the guilty one, but if they are conforming to those social norms, and the other person still feels hurt, then it is their problem, they are being too sensitive, and they need to learn to deal with it.

      For example not-misgendering can be made into a formal etiquette norm, we are doing it with cis people anyway (“chairwoman”), all that is needed is to create a formal introduction etiquette for it and other formal rules “wearing a mauve armband means ask me about my pronoun”.

      My point: we wouldn’t have to be that empathic then – and more important we would not have to feel guilty for not being that empathic. If a feminist/LGBT/transgender/racially sensitive/etc. system of social norms is codified into an etiquette (obviously not law) then it simply becomes a matter of formal politeness to uphold them which does NOT require a lot of empathy.

      As a survivalist-conservative on the Inglehart scale my thinking about social issues is “and would such people be useful in the trenches?” and this is why I would rather not validate and incentivize over-sensitivity. Of course actually mentally ill people need to be accomodated but if a teenage boy or girl is just soft and whiny because being spoilt – I want them to (WO)MAN UP and grow a bit of a thicker skin, simply to increase both their individual and the collective survival chance. And this would be a way to do this.

      Solving the issue through a new formal etiquette would be useful because empathy would be used during making it, but not necessarily during simply behaving according to it. Thus, over-sensitive people would not constantly get this message “the world really cares about your feelings” but rather they would get the message “the rules were rewritten to accomodate your feelings, if you have any other problems, well, (WO)MAN UP and deal with it!” So there would be more hardening going, so to speak.

      Because the spoilt teen would always want to rewrite rules in his/her favor. So if we just write rules in favor of those who have actual problems, we accomodate them, but not those who are just soft.

  26. Gilbert says:

    This breaks down if the original category is important.

    For example, all these arguments could also legitimize occasionally calling homeopathy or intelligent design a science, but you wouldn’t go there, because that would leave you with no word for what science now means. And you’d have good reason to suspect that in addition to lots of people honestly discomforted by science-jingoism, there are also lots of people who actually want to leave you without a word for what now is called science.

    And sex is even more important than science.

    • Jaskologist says:

      This says what I’ve been trying to get at a lot better than I was able to.

    • call_me_aka says:

      This reminds me of the time reddit couldn’t come up with a single pro-life person. No one here seems to be able to imagine any reason why normalizing transition might be damaging.

      • Matthew says:

        On the other hand, you’d also be hard-pressed to find people arguing that abolishing slavery might be damaging.

        The fact that policy debates in general shouldn’t appear one-sided doesn’t imply that all positions are equally easy to defend.

        • Jaskologist says:

          There needs to be some kind of Godwin’s Law equivalent for declaring every argument equivalent to that about slavery.

          Besides, I *would* expect any rationalist worth his salt to be able to argue that abolishing slavery was damaging.

          • Matthew says:

            I’m not speaking of playing Devil’s Advocate. Just because you can rationalize plausible arguments for a position doesn’t mean people should actually be equally likely to take that position sincerely.

            I didn’t call them equivalent. I also didn’t call them not equivalent. The point is that just because a viewpoint is not represented does not automatically mean the alternative is being unfairly privileged.

      • Troy says:

        It was anti-gay marriage, not pro-life.

      • Anatoly says:

        I think normalizing transition might be damaging. However, it seems offtopic for this post, which isn’t really about transition. Scott argues that we should accept gender self-identification even when there’s no transition to speak of.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      The problem with calling homeopathy a science is that most people’s thoughts are sloppy and they use category boundaries as a proxy for important things like “is supported by evidence” and “works well”.

      If we called homeopathy a science, we would be strongly implying that homeopathy was supported by evidence and worked well. If everybody was so smart that they had an exhaustive knowledge of the evidence for and against homeopathy in their heads at all times and didn’t have to use category boundaries as a proxy, I wouldn’t care what we called it.

      The analogy seems to imply that if we call eg transmen “men”, then people are going to misunderstand important facts about them.

      If transgender people did things to spread falsehoods about themselves – for example, a transwoman dated a man who wanted to have babies on the pretense that she could do this – then of course this is wrong. On the other hand, most of the transpeople I know are not exactly secret, and other than this one situation it’s tough for me to think of what important falsehoods about facts/implications calling transpeople their identified-gender spreads which are of the same worry as the falsehoods about facts/implications that homeopathy spreads.

      • Gilbert says:

        The problem wouldn’t be limited to people thinking homeopathy was supported by evidence, it’s that people would then generalize the idea that the kind of evidence offered for homeopathy is good and go on applying that standard elsewhere. So I wouldn’t be that worried about the unprincipled exception per se, rather about unprincipled exceptions corroding the principles.

        Sexual dimorphism is one of the defining characteristics of humanity, sort of like discounting anecdata is one of medical science.

  27. maxikov says:

    Your point is very good and solid, but there couple of things about diagnosing GID, and all the physicologial correlates of it, which I hope you could clarify.

    First, what is the purpose of diagnosing GID? As far as I understand, the position transgender rights advocates, and particularly the proponents of non-binary gender theory is that whatever the person indetify themselves as, they actually are. With this definion, administering any evaluations beyond simply asking what gender they identify with seem to have no purpose, except for one: try to predict whether they would be more happy in their current body, or the body of the opposite sex. Since HRT and especially SRS are by and lagre irrevocable, it makes perfect sense to run some tests before prescribing them. I’ve been sort of in touch with Russian transgender community, and a lot of them undergo self-treatment: it’s way easier to semi-legally obtain spironolactone, cyproterone acetate, and oestrogel without a precription in Russia than to access qualified medical attention for GID. And some people end up bailing out halfway through, realizing that’s not what they wanted. From this perspective, it’d be better to try to predict how likely this is to happen. So, does the idea “predict if the person will be happier after transitioning” fit in the framework of how medical professionals address GID? Or do they use some alternative definition of gender, that doesn’t boil down to the person’s identity, but can be revealed by certain tests?

    Second, there seems to be a lot of evidence, some of which you linked, that GID is correlated with various features of one’s body. Yet, from what I’ve seen, state of the art evaluations are purely behaviorist. Is it actually true? If so, why don’t we use this additional physiological evidence to figure out whether the transition is adviced?

  28. Anonymous says:

    This argument doesn’t fly.
    Ask people how they categorize sex and 98% of the time you will get: chromosomes, primary sex characteristics, secondary sex characteristics, “gender roles” (how you dress, etc..) in this order.
    What happens in your mind is nowhere in this list because it isn’t real to anyone except the owner of the brain.

    Sexual reassignment surgery can help construct a better lie but it’ll always be a lie, it won’t make you into a woman just like cutting all four legs off a dog will make it into a new species of snake.

    This definition of maleness and femaleness will never change because it’s not taught, it’s learned in the infancy by observing the world, it may even be innate, it would explain why some people feel so strongly about their body disphoria.

    I will lie to help people with intractable mental disorders but it doesn’t change the truth.

    • anodognosic says:

      >chromosomes, primary sex characteristics, secondary sex characteristics, “gender roles” (how you dress, etc..) in this order.

      That’s funny, because if you’re talking about the definition of gender as learned from observing the world from infancy, this list is exactly (or almost exactly) backwards. Gender performing (dress, grooming, social dynamics) and secondary sexual characteristics are the most readily observed and consistently reinforced characteristics of gender in a society where most people wear clothes and we don’t actually get to see their genitals. In terms of sheer number of impressions, these are going to vastly outweigh genitalia in their association with gender–we assume genitals from presentation, not the other way around. Finally, they might see a picture of sex chromosomes in school some time in their teens, and then, if they’re scientifically-minded, associate it to the mental tag of gender in their minds henceforth.

      Which is to say that, by your very argument, the strongly intuitive notion of gender, constructed from infancy, revolves primarily around presentation and secondary sex characteristics. At best, I’m willing to grant that there might be a conflict between those and genitalia, but in those cases, instead of defaulting to the genital criterion, wouldn’t the rationally virtuous thing to do be to create separate categories–exactly what has broadly been done with “sex” and gender”?

      • Anonymous says:

        The order doesn’t matter, what matters is that what the other person feels is not in the list.
        And yes, you can create as many categories as you want, but only of them matters.

        • anodognosic says:

          What the person feels may not be on the (*your*) list, but there are two elements on that list that are eminently mutable, which I argued are the ones that are actually most intuitively salient in people’s conception of “man” and “woman”, or at least on par with genitalia, and with chromosomes being an abstract, technical and unintuitive criterion.

          >only one of them matters.

          Well, when you put it *that* way

      • Tracy W says:

        Gender performing (dress, grooming, social dynamics) and secondary sexual characteristics are the most readily observed and consistently reinforced characteristics of gender in a society where most people wear clothes and we don’t actually get to see their genitals.

        On the other hand, when doctors started assigning kids born with intersex genitals to one category or the other, and telling parents to rear them as that gender, and giving hormone treatments, those kids still often grew up feeling themselves to be of a different gender.

    • Princess_Stargirl says:

      I strongly disagree with this empirically but I think this is a rather virtuous position to take:

      “I will lie to help people with intractable mental disorders but it doesn’t change the truth.”

      • John Schilling says:

        If everybody consistently tells the same lie, it becomes the truth because we’ve just redefined the language accordingly. I agree that this is locally virtuous, but it has the global disadvantage of making it difficult to express other, sometimes important, truths.

        Solving both problems would be extremely virtuous, but I am skeptical of the long-term viability of the obvious linguistic solution for the same reason I am skeptical of the take-the-hairdryer-to-work solution: I suspect the “mentally ill” in question will eventually find a substitute fixation.

        For the local short-term case, yes, tell the helpful lie while privately bookmarking the truth.

    • Lambert says:

      The whole point of this post is that ‘The truth’ is not what taxonomy is about, and that behaving that it is just leads to confusion and wastage of time.

      • Adina says:

        Indeed, taxonomy and categorization of peoples into “races” and “mixed races” etc. was only about using animals and other people as slaves. It was a practical guide as to what or who lives where, what they’re “good for”, and what they “will yield” if you grow them. But if you were to seek “the truth” about them, you might find they’re related to you even, and might have a value which is totally unrelated to how much money they make you – a value consciousness-wise. I find the trans debate to be directly linked with this, with the old culture of slavery and its present slow demise… So I didn’t like the analogy with King Solomon arguing to KEEP his “fish”, because it totally misses the point: if his argument is merely informed by his own “modern day taxonomy” which uses animals as slaves (for blubber and whale oil), then clearly the trans idea WILL be a threat to King Solomon and he will want to know where to put “trans” in his slave culture. So the metaphor is broken? But I guess we all still learn….

  29. Anonymous says:

    This is basically late Wittgenstein 🙂

    • Simon says:

      I instantly thought of this as basically Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language-game too, surprised that Scott didn’t mention him anywhere. If he independently arrived at such a similar theory, that’s pretty damn uncanny.

      • anodognosic says:

        It’s not that uncanny. This stuff is in the water we drink and the air we breathe, culturally speaking. It’s a fairly clear extrapolation from the Sequences. That Scott has re-distilled might be impressive, but it’s hardly spooky.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Really? This is what Wittgenstein was going on about? I thought he was just saying gnomic things and dreaming up weird metaphors.

      Okay, Late Wittgenstein, queer theory, and the LW Sequences are the same thing. Is there anything else which is the thing?

      • Simon says:

        I’m pretty sure Nietzsche belongs somewhere in the equation too.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        Really? This is what Wittgenstein was going on about? I thought he was just saying gnomic things and dreaming up weird metaphors.

        That’s early Wittgenstein, the one who wrote the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. At some point in his life he did a one-eighty in his philosophy of language and wrote the Philosophical Investigations, which is closer to the nominalist position advanced in The Sequences (and, by extension, this post). I actually wrote a paper about this during my final term at university.

      • Anonymous says:

        Well, they aren’t the same thing, but they do overlap.

    • Paul Torek says:

      I don’t see it. Neither one is exactly Aristotle, and maybe Aristotle is closer to “common sense” to the tiny extent that common sense has any view at all about categorization. But beyond that … ?

  30. Kaminiwa says:


    I get Miyamoto’s Nameless Virtue now, in a way I have never grasped before o.o

    Thank you!

  31. Emily H. says:

    It’s relevant, to me, that we don’t really interact with other people’s chromosomes in any way. People can go their whole lives without knowing whether they have a chromosomal abnormality and different sex chromosmes than they assumed. And in most of daily life, we don’t really interact with other people’s genitals either. There’s sex; there’s medical care; there’s communal baths/showers/steam rooms. Even when I’m in a public restroom, as long as there are individual stalls, I really don’t have to care what genitals the person next to me has.

    What we interact with, for the most part, are people’s gender presentations. If I warn someone they’ve got the wrong bathroom key (and I do this occasionally, because people don’t look, though I probably shouldn’t), it’s based on some combination of clothing, body size/shape, hairstyle, and other things that happen at a conscious or subconscious level.

    I suspect that a lot of anxiety around trans people isn’t about the relatively rare edge cases of what if you accidentally date someone who turns out to have a penis, what if a woman accidentally sees a penis in a communal shower, but more about anxiety that happens when a person gives off mixed or ambiguous gender-expression cues. It is relatively easy to treat trans people with the correct pronouns and so on if they’re performing their gender in a way that doesn’t give off mixed cues; it’s relatively difficult if they go on with all the gender-expression stuff associated with their assigned-at-birth sex, but declare “I’m trans, you have to use different pronouns for me now.” (This seems like a strawman to me, but I think for non-binary people we have so few established ways of performing a non-binary gender that sometimes it’s gonna come down to this. Especially for assigned-female-at-birth people, who tend to have a lot of leeway when it comes to dressing androgynously.)

    (I should note that “gender-expression stuff” captures both physical things and non-physical things: tone/pitch of voice, body language, fashion, diction, but also stubble, body shape, face shape, etc.)

    And it is relatively difficult for a lot of people to deal with people who have mixed gender-expression cues, and I think it’s because we’re taught that there’s a “real” physical sex that has primacy, and when dealing with ambiguous people you’re supposed to pay attention to the “real” physical sex. I think that’s a learned thing and I think we can unlearn it. I think that’s the arbitrary boundary where we can set a different boundary if it makes sense to do so. (I think it does make sense to do so.)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Your point is excellent, but there’s one important caveat.

      A lof of heterosexual people, especially men and including myself, have as a strong non-negotiable intrinsic instinctual preference that we really really don’t want to do sexual things with people of the same sex (where “sexual things” is defined inclusively like cuddling and kissing). Whatever internal gear controls this in me (and most other straight people I have talked to) is very convinced of a chromosomal/anatomical view of sex, to the point where I would be pretty okay dating a transman (even if he passed as masculine) but pretty uncomfortable dating a transwoman (even if she passed as feminine). Also, I want to have kids, which means it would help if my partner had a uterus.

      If you’re a modern person who’s not too interested in gender roles for their own sake, pretty much the only thing interesting about the gender/sex of the person you’re interacting with is whether or not they’re a potential romantic partner. In a social environment this is really important information.

      That means that most of the mental energy I spend caring about anybody’s gender is related to a criterion connected to their chromosomes/genitalia.

      In fact, one reason I think that transgender might be more accepted in less liberal countries like Iran is that it has a drop-dead obvious meaning there (moving from the extremely strong and specific male gender role to the extremely strong and specific female gender role or vice versa) whereas here it has to be about either weird philosophical issues of identity or else who dates whom.

      • maxikov says:

        As a cis (perhaps by default – I don’t seem to have strong propensities for identities) male, who cross-dresses full time, I can definitely tell that people are very much concerned with gender roles when it comes to appearance. Pretty much the only non-gender-role-related action which I could take to signal female identity would be using fake breasts – and I don’t do that. Everything else – skirts and dresses, make-up, high heels, etc. – is based only on our culture (immensely wide-spread one though), and probably wouldn’t be recognized as feminine by the members of isolated indigenous tribes. But people who don’t know me assume I identify as female (I don’t think that given my appearance anyone could assume I’m assigned female at birth) all the time – which I don’t really care about and play along unless explicitly asked (more evidence in favor of cis-by-default identity). Although it gets a bit awkward when people freak out in men’s restrooms – which one would think could be very solid evidence of my identity. Oh, and I live in Bay Area, which is already one of the most accepting places in the world for this stuff. My friends from Moscow have been getting into drama over transparent nail polish.

        Long story short, modern people clearly care about gender roles a lot. Otherwise, people wouldn’t call me “miss”.

        • lmm says:

          Or modern people care about not getting shouted at. I’ve had people explicitly give this rationale when they called me the “wrong” (not that I care) pronoun: if you call all the people who look like men but are wearing dresses “miss”, you will get shouted at a lot less than if you call all the people who look like men but are wearing dresses “mr”.

          • 27chaos says:

            It occurs to me that Scott is generally opposed to people or movements who use shouting at others as a tactic to promote change, eg Duck Dynasty cancellation. Is his stance the same on this issue? He goes through this entire post without really mentioning it, which seems like a possibly important omission.

            SCOTT COME HERE.

          • maxikov says:

            Why, sure. I’m willing to be even more optimistic than that, and assume that a lot of people are paying conscious effort to stick to identity-based gender classification rather than some realist (as in ontological realism) classification, since they believe that the former is morally superior. From this perspective, without the direct verbal access to the identity, when different clues conflict, it’s very considerate to give priority to easily changeable clues, since they may (or may not) be used for signaling purposes, whereas hardly changeable physiological clues are far less likely to be used for conscious signaling (although they still generally correlate immensely strongly with the person’s identity, since cis people outnumber trans people by orders of magnitude). So I actually find this attitude very considerate and polite, even if it doesn’t exactly work in my personal case (but hey, maybe eventually they’re convince me to start identifying as female).

            But at the end of day, gender and gender-specific fashion choices matter a lot. My mental model of a Bayesianist would say “people learned from data that wearing a dress is a test for female identity with very low false positive ration, although rather high false negative ratio”, which is the Bayesian for “it matters a lot”, and the model of an outraged social justice proponent would say “by misgendering, people impose their gender stereotypes about fashion onto everyone, and men in particular. Are women who wear pants transsexual? Were women who first wore pants transsexual? No? Then what’s wrong with you?”. Fortunately, I don’t really listen to the second voice, but it kinda has a point too.

            Also, one of my female friends once said that it’s very important for women to figure out whether someone identifies as male of female to select what protocol of social interaction to use. The same action between women would signal friendliness, whereas between a man and a woman they will usually signal flirt. And again, it’s no one’s personal fault the the culture of expressing romantic interest is very heavily Guesser culture. Directly asking out of blue “do you like me?” or saying “I like you” is probably one of the least acceptable non-aggressive social moves (at least outside of outlier communities, like maybe kink community). It doesn’t matter that many people don’t seem to like it. There are constantly treads on askreddit, where women complain about having to send clues and wait, since otherwise men freak out, while men complain about having to guess from clues rather than having directly articulated intentions. But even few unsuccessful attempts to interact as Asker are probably enough to discourage the person from doing that, and become Guesser for the rest of their life.

            Bayesianist model says: “in iterated prisoner’s dilemma, when they cost of cooperating with a defecting party far outweighs the benefit of mutually cooperating, and actors generalize the history of interactions, even a small number of defecting agents is enough to soon make everyone defect, even if they don’t want it”. Feminist model says: “this is how patriarchy sexualizes friendly behavior of women, and makes them feel like no more than sex objects, that everyone hits on; and that’s the root of rape culture, that boils down to justifying sexual actions with clues instead of words”. Grey tribesman model says something about “friendzoning”, but it’s way too painful to model precisely enough to give a more elaborate answer – perhaps because of its being a very strong criticism of the Grey tribe, and my being reasonably close to the tribe.

          • lmm says:

            > “people learned from data that wearing a dress is a test for female identity with very low false positive ration, although rather high false negative ratio”, which is the Bayesian for “it matters a lot”

            False in the particular environment I’m mostly thinking of here (animé convention)

            > Are women who wear pants transsexual? Were women who first wore pants transsexual?

            They’re more masculine, in a real (that is, predictive) sense of being closer to the male cluster in terms of attitudes, hobbies and so on.

          • maxikov says:

            >False in the particular environment I’m mostly thinking of here (animé convention)

            Yes, I though about them. From my experience, the odds of people assuming crossplay over being transsexual are substantially higher at anime conventions than elsewhere. Although MtF crossplay isn’t even remotely as prevalent as FtM, even, say, 1 in 100~500 chances are high enough for people to significantly discount the dress heuristic. And I find that the anime community in Moscow is more inclined to discount it than the one in Bay Area, perhaps because of higher prevalence of gender realism in the former. (Although I estimate that half of female members of Russian anime communities clearly and unambiguously identify as female in daily life, use women’s restrooms, etc., but prefer female pronouns online and within the community, as well as use masculine grammatical gender – I haven’t observed this kind of gender dynamic elsewhere, and it’s probably hard to replicate without grammatic gender)

            But at the same time, the odds of meeting someone who identifies as male but wears unambiguously female clothes (especially as a part of daily life rather than some parties and performances) elsewhere are, well… I would optimistically say 1 in 100’000 in Bay Area and lower elsewhere.

            >They’re more masculine, in a real (that is, predictive) sense of being closer to the male cluster in terms of attitudes, hobbies and so on.

            In terms of gender signaling – sure, but the point is that it’s entirely culturally dependent (although some evolutionary psychologists may disagree). But if we assume that gender identity is innate then the desire to engage in signaling opposite gender cannot define the identity (although they can correlate). And it seemed to me that at least certain branches of feminism insist very hardly that gender stereotypes should not exist, and basing the judgment about someone’s identity on their proximity to gender-specific clusters of activities is not just imprecise, but morally wrong.

          • lmm says:

            > But at the same time, the odds of meeting someone who identifies as male but wears unambiguously female clothes (especially as a part of daily life rather than some parties and performances) elsewhere are, well… I would optimistically say 1 in 100’000 in Bay Area and lower elsewhere.

            I don’t think the odds are that low – I have seen it happen.

            > it seemed to me that at least certain branches of feminism insist very hardly that gender stereotypes should not exist, and basing the judgment about someone’s identity on their proximity to gender-specific clusters of activities is not just imprecise, but morally wrong.

            Sure, I’m assuming this to be false.

          • maxikov says:

            >I don’t think the odds are that low – I have seen it happen.

            Aside from myself, I have one second-hand account of a guy who does that. Every other local male crossdresser that I’ve met or talked to online (probably around 20) does that privately or for special occasions (anime conventions, EGL meet-ups, kink-related events, etc.) but cannot even think of crossdressing at work or school. Also, if the estimate 1 in 30’000 for GID is correct then 1 crossdresser per 3 transsexuals is actually quite a lot. Although the estimate may be too low generally or for Bay Area specifically.

            > Sure, I’m assuming this to be false.

            But they don’t, and that’s my point: if I believed that, I would probably say something along these lines.

      • Matthew says:

        Whatever internal gear controls this in me (and most other straight people I have talked to) is very convinced of a chromosomal/anatomical view of sex, to the point where I would be pretty okay dating a transman (even if he passed as masculine) but pretty uncomfortable dating a transwoman (even if she passed as feminine).

        Interesting. I think my brain’s take on this is a bit different, in that I wouldn’t be okay having sex with either MtF (regardless of surgery or not) or FtM (assuming surgery). Apparently my brain holds a masculine-McCarthyist view — “Do you now, or have you ever, had a penis?”

        I have no instinctive revulsion to chromosomally XY but anatomically female since birth. On the other hand, I had a stronger “have children with my partner that are our genetic mix” impulse than most men, so I would be somewhat disappointed in the way that I would be disappointed by any condition that implied infertility.

      • Anon256 says:

        This surprises me. How do you even know if someone you’re cuddling/kissing has a penis? I do experience some subjective difference between cuddling women and cuddling men, but it seems to depend mostly on hormones and presentation, since their anatomical status is often obscure (and their chromosomal status always is).

    • Shenpen says:

      I was wondering that if I was not homophobic at all, in the sense that seeing bisexuality pretty much as a standard orientation for others and myself and then hetero-and homosexuality merely as narrower tastes (as if I was not-homophobic, I would probably be non-homophobic in this kind of “Oberyn Martell way”), then the transgender people would be a whole lot easier to interact with. The basic issue is “Am I allowed to be attracted to you without becoming gay?”

      If I was like that, I would see every woman and man as potential attraction targets and as such ambiguous signals would be a non-issue, as no hookup could possibly change my sexual non-identity then.

      I figure that view could be very liberating – but I guess I am too conservative for that as it would mean the wholehearted acceptance of non-reproductive, sterile, pleasure-only sexuality.

      I like to keep this illusion that most people when they hook up they are just practicing, rehearsing for the real deal (conception, parenthood, entering the evolution game).

      Yes I know this happens about as often as sabre duels these days, but some illusions are comforting.

    • Andrew says:

      Maybe you’ve never interacted with anyone’s chromosomes before, but your parents did.

  32. FeepingCreature says:

    [edit] Removed – already addressed in post. Should have finished reading before commenting.

  33. John Schilling says:

    Solomon here.

    I’ve got two perfectly good words. “Zakur”, which means roughly “people that have penises”, and “Neqebah”, which means “people that have vaginas”. My people and I have been using these words with these definitions for centuries now, and find them very useful. For example, I have a penis, and I seem to want to put it inside every vagina in the land. Kind of a useful distinction for me. So do go on about how some people with big floppy penises want to wear dresses and go by “Miss”.

    And sure, now that you’ve spent ten years teaching me all about human psychology and sociology, all sorts of things like gender dysphoria and body dysmorphic disorder, sure, that’s all very interesting and I can see why we need a couple of words that describe people along lines of gender self-identity. But make up your own words, because “Zakur” and “Neqebah” already mean “person with penis/vagina”.

    • Kaminiwa says:

      You know I prefer female pronouns. You know I wear a dress, and present as female. You can probably tell I’m transsexual. You do *not* know if I’ve had sex reassignment surgery (and thus have a vagina), or if I still have my penis.

      Why would you attempt to classify the world based on information you do not actually have?

      • AlphaCeph says:

        “Why would you attempt to classify the world based on information you do not actually have?”

        You would if the unknown fact was the important one. For example, we classify people as honest or dishonest, whether they have a criminal record, how intelligent they are etc. All these things are not immediately observable.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      One possible transperson’s response to Solomon might be “Allow me to be treated exactly like my identified gender in every way other than the word, and you can have your word.

      But since there are various different cases in which the way people act hinges on what word they call something, if you kept your words you’d probably keep your behavior too. So if you’re interested in treating me the way I want to be treated, you’d let me have the words we’re likely to use most often, and come up with other less-commonly-used words for the other thing.

      …is the motte of my argument.

      The bailey is that I do think there are some transgender people who really care as a terminal goal about the words that people call them. This is a pretty uniquely weird case in all of philosophy, right up there with things like “Is it rational to solve problems rationally if you hate rationality and it causes you physical pain to use it?” Once you have terminal preferences over categories or thinking patterns all bets are off, but my inclination is that since other people presumably don’t have these preferences we can safely cede this one to trans people.

      • John Schilling says:

        I think the bailey may be more defensible than the motte in this case.

        As you note below, most people care A LOT about what sort of genitalia their sexual partners have. So no matter how much you may want to e.g. validate your pre-op transwomanishness by having the very masculine King Solomon flirt with you, you’re probably not going to survive the unpleasantness when he discovers your penis. With John Schilling, it’s going to be hard feelings rather than decapitation, but that’s still wrong.

        Were I a (medical, non-psychiatric) doctor and you my patient, I’m probably going to need to know whether you have a penis or a vagina, and I’m probably going to want to know if you have a Y-chromosome, but I don’t much care if you wear a dress or call yourself “Ms.”

        If you’re trying to gain access to a safe space for the vaginally endowed, e.g. the locker room at a “women’s” gym, the current occupants are probably going to want to know if you have a working penis, and wearing a dress over your penis may not be adequately reassuring to their legitimate concerns.

        And if I’m the judge in charge of deciding where you serve your prison sentence for rape, wearing a dress over your working penis isn’t going to make me feel comfortable sending you to a women’s prison.

        In general, treating people the way they want to be treated is not a reasonable expectation. See e.g. the occasional transNapoleon, and consider how many transNapoleons there would be if society’s default shifted from “laugh and then medicate” to “treat them the way they want”.

        However, if someone’s terminal goal is to be referred to with a certain set of words and no more, that’s usually a reasonable thing to accommodate. Provided it doesn’t obscure or confuse the terminology everyone else uses when they are trying to make what is often a real and important distinction.

        • llamathatducks says:

          Were I a (medical, non-psychiatric) doctor and you my patient, I’m probably going to need to know whether you have a penis or a vagina, and I’m probably going to want to know if you have a Y-chromosome, but I don’t much care if you wear a dress or call yourself “Ms.”

          You seem to imply that the only things you’d need to know are things related to the person’s birth-assigned sex and nothing related to the person’s transness. I don’t think that’s true.
          – You’d need to know if they had had or were engaged in hormone therapy. As people have already mentioned on this thread, hormones can seriously change a lot of things about a person.
          – You’d need to know if they’d had any trans-related surgery.
          – You’d need to know if they were seeking hormone therapy or surgery, so you could counsel them on it and point them to the right people.
          – You should probably know their gender identity so that you can engage with them in a way that doesn’t unduly stress them out.
          – You should know if there are any psychological or societal factors related to their transness that may affect their health or medical self-care. e.g. if they have dysphoria about their breasts, they may not be paying attention to notice if there’s a lump there, so you may need to be extra-vigilant about it. If they have experienced a lot of discrimination and are depressed, this might have all sorts of effects on their self-care and lifestyle in very medically relevant ways.

          So it’s not true that only birth-assigned sex is relevant for drawing medical/biological conclusions.

          • John Schilling says:

            If I know whether they have a penis and I know whether they have a Y chromosome, I think I can make a pretty good guess as to whether they’ve had any sort of gender-reassignment surgery. And “what medications are you taking” is a pretty standard MD question regardless of gender identity.

            More generally, the existence of fuzzy boundaries is not an effective attack on categorization. In 99% of cases, “has penis”, “has testosterone”, “has Y chromosome”, and “identifies as male” are all going to point in the same direction. The rare cases where the fuzzy boundary is significant, we can ask the relevant questions.

        • ozymandias says:

          HRT stops penises from “working”– once you’re on estrogen, you can’t get erect or ejaculate. So, in fact, your argument suggests the vast majority of trans women should go to women’s prison and women’s bathrooms.

          And it seems to me that if one is so driven to avoid flirting with people with penises, it is their job to ask people whether they have penises, not the people with penises’ job to begin the conversation “Hello, I’m Mary, and I have a penis.”

          • John Schilling says:

            I am skeptical of the claim that the “vast majority” of trans women are engaged in HRT. What statistics I could find in a quick google suggest that the frequency of HRT among the Y-chromosomal population is ~10 per 100,000 but that the frequency of self-identification as a trans woman is ~300 per 100,000.

            I’m not actually happy about the sources on those numbers, and would appreciate anything better if you have it.

    • Deiseach says:

      And the counter-argument to that, which I have seen, is that “person with a penis” or “person with a vagina” still does not match up to, or tell you if, the person is a man or a woman. There are men with vaginas, there are women with penises. Because (a) there are surgically-constructed penises and vaginas; if a former “person with a penis” has had that altered and is now “person with a vagina”, by your own linguistic rules they are now legitimately nequebah and no longer zakur and (b) if you’re going to insist that a women = person with a womb, then what of nequebah who has had a hysterectomy? Is she now zakur? If woman = person who has periods, what of nequebah after menopause, or before puberty?

      • 27chaos says:

        Suppose zakur and nequebah are instead words used to refer to people whose genitals are typically considered attractive/compatible by people of the opposite sex. That seems to resurrect the argument just fine, and IMO this is the standard our culture actually uses.

      • John Schilling says:

        I strongly suspect that if e.g. you have a surgically-constructed vagina and represent yourself as female, most of the problems we are talking about go away. There may be problems with your lover and your MD if they find out later rather than sooner that you used to have a penis and still do have a Y chromosome, but most other people aren’t going to care that much – if only because the issue isn’t likely to come up. Likewise w/re functionality of the womb.

        The bulk of the real problems, and the hardest ones to solve, come when neqebah-with-a-penis insist on being called and treated as “women” or zakur-with-a-vagina on being called and treated as “man”. And there are about two orders of magnitude more of these than there are actual post-op transsexuals.

    • Deiseach says:

      Eurovision 2014 winner Conchita Wurst: nequebah? zakur? Gay male? Drag queen? Transvestite? Non-binary? Preferred pronouns seem to be “she” and “her” for Conchita, who is a stage persona, but “he” as a gay man (in ‘real life’).

      Eurovision 1998 winner, Dana International from Israel (yes, we let Israel and Turkey enter a European song contest), on the other hand, does identify as a transwoman.

  34. AlphaCeph says:

    “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”

    I would argue that this is a bad analysis because it is a benefits-only analysis. There are also actually costs associated with calling women men and men women (and calling intersex individuals men or women).

    Because there are costs to many people of innacurate gender information, the words “man” and “woman” will become devalued if they are redefined in this way. This will lead to people having to invent new words for “actual biological woman” and “actual biological man”.

    I like the idea of separation of “sex” and “gender” because it at least anticipates that people want to know whether someone is an actual man, or a woman who has decided to self define as a man.

    Still, there will be arguments like which pronouns to use, which bathroom to use, etc. Pronouns are particularly problematic because there’s no way we’ll start using four types, so there will be an inevitable battle between people who want accurate info (does this person have a dick and a Y-chromosome?) and people who want to self identify (does this person feel that they ought to be male?). At least if one acknowledges beforehand that “he” is biologically female, then “he” can be used without misinforming anybody.

    Just as a side note, I would love to be a woman for a year, if medical technology allowed one to completely and reversibly transform.

    • 27chaos says:

      Why? Boobs are cumbersome. Periods are awful. Being physically weaker is unpleasant. Maybe there are advantages to not having testosterone going through you all the time? Or are you in it purely for the novelty? I’m genuinely wondering here so I hope no one gets mad; I’ve never seriously entertained the idea before, but it seems to me like men have bodies that are very likely more pleasant to inhabit, although women perhaps have more pleasant brains.

      Is it the social experience you’re after? That could definitely be interesting, but I feel like you wouldn’t get an authentic one if you only did it for a year after having been raised as a man. All your friends would know you as a man, so you’d have to move I guess? Doesn’t seem worth it.

      • AlphaCeph says:

        I would do it because there are a lot of questions about gender that I feel I could only be really sure of if I was actually a woman. For example, gender discrimination – real or exaggerated? Dating as a woman – easier or harder than dating as a man? What do women really talk about amongst themselves, and does it really differ compared to men? Are women secretly horrible to each other all the time? Yes you could just ask, but I feel these are questions where the only way to get a trustworthy answer would be first-hand.

        I think being a woman for a year would be one of the greatest learning experiences a man could have.

        • Deiseach says:

          Never been on a date in my life, but going from what I hear other women talking about:
          Dating as a woman – easier, if you only want guys who want to bang you
          Dating as a woman – harder, if you’re interested in something long-term

          • AlphaCeph says:

            Yes, this would be the broad picture, but I’d be interested in the details. Now that I think about it being a bi woman would be a fascinating learning experience in terms of relationships with men vs with women.

          • 27chaos says:

            I don’t see why it would be harder to find long term relationships as a woman than as a man. Why do you have that impression?

            It seems to me like it would be easier to do so as sex is an important part of long term relationships and women are (at least culturally) more in control of the decision whether or not to have sex than men are so they can translate that into power within the overall relationship.

          • Protagoras says:

            Those looking for long term relationships have to find a way to distinguish those looking for the same thing from those just looking for a quick hookup, or they will end up wasting time and effort on the quick hookup types. It seems pretty likely that men encounter fewer quick hookup women than conversely, and so that issue at least is easier for the men seeking long term relationships with women than vice versa.

          • Katie says:

            It’s a lot more stressful because (a) you have more competitors and (b) men can get away with signaling an interest in long-term relationships without being seen as clingy. It’s just more special when a boy does it.

          • 27chaos says:

            Protagoras, what you say makes sense to me, thank you.

            Katie, apologies, I don’t understand point A. There is more competition for women searching for long term partners… more competition compared to what? I don’t know what you mean. I agree it’s easier for women to get laid than for them to find long term relationship partners, but what I’m curious about is whether it’s easier for women to find long term relationship partners than for men to do so.

          • Katie says:

            My ex, a very sweet boy who really really wants to meet the love of his life and have babies with her, is a scarce good. A girl who wants to meet the love of her life and have babies with him is somewhere between average and repulsively stereotypical, and girls like her are a dime a dozen. So competition is fiercer for long-term-minded men than long-term-minded women.

          • Protagoras says:

            Skeptical of that claim, Katie. Lots of men, I feel pretty confident saying most, want long term relationships. OTOH, it is likely that the men who are looking for hookups hit on a lot more women than men looking for long term relationships, so perhaps women overestimate the true frequency of hookup men because they are over-represented among the men who hit on them.

          • AlphaCeph says:


            My experience is that if you are a man looking for a relationship, things are not as easy as they would seem: women are very picky and often you will get a string of “he was so nice but there just wasn’t that spark!” responses. Still, I suspect that Katie is correct overall and that it is probably easier for a man to get a relationship.

          • Katie says:

            It’s possible that this is an age group thing. I’m 24.

        • Princess_Stargirl says:

          ” For example, gender discrimination – real or exaggerated? Dating as a woman – easier or harder than dating as a man? What do women really talk about amongst themselves, and does it really differ compared to men? Are women secretly horrible to each other all the time?”

          You wouldn’t get any answers to your questions anyway. By your standard the number of reliable samples goes from n=0 to n=1. This is barely an improvement given how diverse women’s experiences are. The only real ways to answer those questions is to get aggregate alot of data. For any reasonable questions tons of women will feel strongly the answer is yes and tons no. The only things you would get good info on are things that are experienced similarly by most women and there are few such things.

          So I don’t think being female is much of an advantage is understanding the oppression women face in general. Its possible useful tho if you care if a specific, fairly small company or community is sexist (but even this is sketchy).

          In my opinion the only realistic model where being a a women is helpful in understanding women’s oppression is one where women are only honest with other women (or much more honest). So being a women means you can get much more data.

          • AlphaCeph says:

            I think that the accumulation of life experiences in different places and contexts counts for more than “1” sample. As long as you are a fairly typical woman.

            Looking at some similar issues but from the point of view of men, I would definitely say that one decade full of real, non-cherry picked, first-hand experiences as a man counts for a lot more than some survey of men which suffers from cherry picking, biases, lies, etc.

            I think the reson for this is that realistic information about social interactions is heavily censored in our society, and those who tell the truth are ostracized and punished.

          • Princess_Stargirl says:

            How would you know if you are a typical women? You would need if your experience is represenitive or not. There is really no way to do this that doesn’t amount to gettting aggregate data on how women feel. So things that mighr dramatically affect how a woman processes an even include her:

            -Disgust reaction
            -Orientation oward authority
            -Social group and occupation
            -Geographic location
            -Parent’s attidues

            I feel the same way about questions of what its like “being a man in X situation.” Personal experiences count for nothing unless you are claiming “at least some men feel Y way.” On every important question reasonable men give different answers. Why would you possibly think your experience is the representiive one?

          • AlphaCeph says:

            “Personal experiences count for nothing unless you are claiming “at least some men feel Y way.”

            That would be a useful way to reason if the set “men” was just an arbitrary collection of minds chosen randomly from mind space. However…

          • ozymandias says:

            Fifty percent of the population can include a whole lot of variance, even if “man” isn’t randomly selected. I mean, gosh, notice that actually existing women have honest good-faith opinions ranging from “our society is incredibly sexist against men” to “our society is sexist against women” to “lesbian separatism NOW” to “society is insufficiently sexist; women failing to obey their husbands makes Baby Jesus cry.” Why would your own n = 1 settle the issue when their n = 1s haven’t?

          • AlphaCeph says:

            “Why would your own n = 1 settle the issue when their n = 1s haven’t?”

            I wouldn’t expect to “settle” the issue of sexism because a lot of the disagreement is axiological rather than factual.

            However, I would like to plug the facts into my own axiology, and I feel there are a lot of facts which I don’t have.

            Also, I feel that I’m somewhat more rational than the average person (this is not a high bar to clear) so I might be able to make better sense of the facts.

          • Katie says:

            The opposition here seems a little bizarre to me. I think it’s fair to say that gender is very strongly binary in this world and so men and women would have somewhat discrete experiences in it. I’ve seen this in my close relationships with men who are otherwise very similar to me, and I think it holds true more generally.

      • AlphaCeph says:

        BTW Yes periods wouldn’t be something to look forward to. I feel science isn’t devoting enough effort to finding a way to eliminate periods for all women (who choose to). The gain in utility from “curing” periods with no side effects would clearly be huge.

        • ozymandias says:

          There’s been a known cure for years: just get Depo-Provera or take the pill without breaks. The reason people don’t is that they’re afraid that it might have long-term negative health effects (none of which have been proven) and some vague sense that periods are Necessary because Woman.

          • AlphaCeph says:

            I thought that the DP pill had actual negative side effects that were proven?

            If this is the case, then a lot of utility could be gained by spending some money to once and for all establish that the side effects are bogus, and then simply informing women that they are missing out on a free lunch.

            Are women really having periods unnecessarily, simply because of the menstruation version of the deathist trance?

            EDIT: if this is true it might make a fascinating SSC post. “The menstruationist trance”, “the tale of the bloody dragon tyrant”, etc etc.

          • ozymandias says:

            Depo’s side effects are basically the standard birth control side effects. (Depo is a shot, not a pill.)

            “It” here is taking the pill or Depo continuously without having periods. The subject has not really been studied enough to know whether there are long-term effects or not. And, yeah, it’s primarily the menstrual version of the deathist trance.

            (This annoys me because I can’t take birth control *or* testosterone and have to suffer through periods and the related gender dysphoria, and cis women TOTALLY COULD SKIP THEIR PERIODS and don’t for no readily apparent reason.)

          • AlphaCeph says:

            I think the average woman probably hasn’t even considered this as an option. And it’s not as if anyone goes around suggesting it. Also, doctors have a perverse incentive: if even the minutest thing goes wrong, they’re in deep shit. However all of the negatives of 3.5 billion painful, messy, inconvenient periods per month are not counted against them. Another example where a true cost-benefit analysis is sadly lacking.

          • Hainish says:

            Ozy, the Mirena IUD eliminates periods in a large proportion of its users. (Not guaranteed, AIAK, but could definitely work.)

          • ozymandias says:

            Hainish: Mirena uses female gender hormones. The last time I went on the pill, I wound up constantly sex dysphoric because Wrong Hormones. It was very unpleasant.

          • Hainish says:

            Yes, but it uses a progesterone analog (rather than an estrogen analog), and AIUI the hormone largely stays in the uterus rather than coursing through the bloodstream. My doctor explained it as getting halfway to menopause. (I’d been on the pill before, which made me feel like crying/vomiting, but I haven’t experienced anything similar on the IUD.)

          • Elissa says:

            Mirena didn’t feel weird at all to me at any point (unlike OCPs), and having no period is awesome, but I did have spotting near-constantly for the first 2-3 months, which apparently isn’t rare. You might consider what that would be like.

            (But yeah seriously more people should get one of these, they’re super effective and the side effects are almost all upside, we should just do it by default at menarche)

          • Hainish says:

            we should just do it by default at menarche

            If we’re going to do that, why not just go the whole nine yards?

          • Elissa says:

            @Hainish: Well, obviously that’s much more drastic (Mirena doesn’t suppress estrogen or even reliably prevent ovulation) and the side effects are not all upside (estrogen is good for bone and cardiovascular health). I’d be willing to listen to an argument in favor of preventing puberty, I guess, but this is kind of a non sequitur.

          • Anonymous says:

            There’s actually reason to believe that it has long-term health benefits, that periods cause uterine and even breast cancer.

            I think that there is a big difference between Depo vs taking the pill without breaks. My understanding is that the pill has large doses and puts the period completely under chemical control. If you’re going to do that, you might as well exercise the control, but FDA won’t let you. Whereas Depo has an erratic effect on menstruation. It’s not like it puts you on a three month cycle. You have periods in the middle of the three month course. But the longer you take it, the fewer. And Implanon also reduces periods, but even less.

            Alpha re malpractice: yes, a doctor is not going to prescribe a double oral prescription to let the patient control her periods, but for Depo, it’s just a side effect of normal use, no risk to the doctor.

          • Hainish says:

            @Anonymous, doctors are increasingly willing to give women the option (in large part because women began requesting it).

          • Anonymous says:

            Wow! that’s not doctors, that’s the FDA.

        • Katie says:

          The hormonal IUD (Mirena in the US) is known to make periods lighter and even stop them entirely in I think 20ish percent of users. Mine stopped within a couple of months of insertion, which was many years ago now. I hated it at first, because femininity and fertility are tied in my mind and I care about both, and my periods were never bad to begin with. But then I got used to it, and I suspect that if I had to deal with the mess again I would hate it more than I initially did.

          Interestingly, though I really love my female body, I wouldn’t mind switching it out for a male one, particularly if the process is reversible and/or I don’t lose the ability to have children.

          • AlphaCeph says:

            I’ll swap with you for a year. All we need is the ability to do brain transplants!

            Interesting comment about Mirena. Do you suppoert the idea that there is a “Menstrualist trance” afflicting society?

          • Hainish says:

            @AlphaCeph: I’m not sure what a “menstrualist trance” is, but there’s this.

          • Katie says:

            Hainish might be right–it could just be the squick factor of eliminating something “natural”.

            In my case it was more that I had poeticized it a bit. Here’s this messy, unpleasant thing that keeps happening, way more often than you’d think (I know that sounds weird, but every time my period rolled around I thought, “Already?!”), but it’s also regular, and it’s dramatic, and also extremely feminine and primitive in a way. Primitive as in a brute physical fact about my sex when it didn’t seem to matter in my everyday life. (It kind of blows my mind that I retained that belief until my late teens, but I actually thought it didn’t matter that I was a girl and did not “feel” like one. This makes it really difficult for me to empathize with trans folks.) But yeah, it almost felt sexy. I suspect that Ozy hates theirs for similar reasons.

            Anyway, it probably really helped that I never had any pain, mood swings, etc. with my periods. The only thing I disliked was the mess, and again that’s a very visual and dramatic thing.

            But I highly doubt that this is evidence of a “menstrualist trance” or anything else about society.

          • AlphaCeph says:


            I’ll have to ask some girls I know whether their period makes them feel sexy!

          • Katie says:

            Ha! Emphasis on “almost”. It was more of a dirty (heh) little secret kind of thing.

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m reminded of the “bike thief experiment”.

        A white male pretends to be a bike thief and people pretty much ignore him.
        A black male pretends to be a bike thief and people get very angry, a crowd gathers, etc.
        A white female pretends to be a bike thief and people offer to help.

        Of course there’s also the “ten hours of walking in new york” experiment, so certainly the female social experience isn’t all positive. There’s also the risk of discrimination at work, etc.

        But yes, I think the female social experience is very different from the male social experience, and I suspect in many ways it’s more pleasant.

    • Kaminiwa says:

      Why would you care about whether I have a penis or a vagina? Unless you’re interested in dating me or illegally taking naked pictures of me, this seems like it will never come up. More importantly, it is something you will *never learn*.

      I’m even more baffled about caring about chromosomes. I vaguely assume I’m XY because most people-born-men are, but I never checked. I certainly wouldn’t expect you to check.

      In what way do you benefit from drawing boundaries based on information you don’t have access to?

      • Matthew says:

        I’m even more baffled about caring about chromosomes. I vaguely assume I’m XY because most people-born-men are, but I never checked. I certainly wouldn’t expect you to check.

        This seems like one thing where, the FDA’s meddling notwithstanding, society is going to rapidly move from the equilibrium where almost nobody knows this about themselves to the equilibrium where almost everyone knows this about themselves, for reasons that have nothing to do with gender issues specifically.

        Whether it should matter is a different question. But I think everyone is going to know this about themselves within the next decade or two.

      • AlphaCeph says:

        knowing who you want to date is actually important! Also, if a self-defined “woman” is actually just a man in drag, then other women may have issues with “her” using their communal bathroom. Not to mention the huge differences in brain structure which impact on how that person is likely to think.

        • ozymandias says:

          Differences in brain structure such as… those caused by trans women taking estrogen?

          Seriously. If you’re a discomfort-to-cis-people minimizer, you should base which bathroom trans people use on hormonal sex.

          • AlphaCeph says:

            I am not an expert but it seems likely that a lot of brain structure is determined as the foetus develops, and it seems a priori unlikely that a hormone could “rewire” an adult brain. However, I am not an expert.

            Also, making life as easy as possible for cis people is not necessarily the right thing to do. However, whatever view you take on that tradeoff, cis people will probably want to know what they’re actually dealing with, so they will invent words or phrases to convey that information. If you redefine “man” to simply be a meaningless lable that anyone can apply to themselves, then people will invent a new way of saying “man”.

  35. anon says:

    wrt the hair dryer.
    crowley in “Magick in theory and practice.” has the following which would seem to cover similar ground. course crowley was using it as an example of magick…

    There is the story of the American in the train who saw another American carrying a basket of unusual shape. His curiosity mastered him, and he leant across and said: “Say, stranger, what you got in that bag?” The other, lantern-jawed and taciturn, replied: “mongoose”. The first man was rather baffled, as he had never heard of a mongoose. After a pause he pursued, at the risk of a rebuff: “But say, what is a Mongoose?” “Mongoose eats snakes”, replied the other. This was another poser, but he pursued: “What in hell do you want a Mongoose for?” “Well, you see”, said the second man (in a confidential whisper) “my brother sees snakes”. The first man was more puzzled than ever; but after a long think, he continued rather pathetically: “But say, them ain’t real snakes”. “Sure”, said the man with the basket, “but this Mongoose ain’t real either”.

  36. Anonymous says:

    With the original blegg/rube example, the resolution was to conclude that “blegg” and “rube” are not always good categories, so sometimes we need to ignore the category and instead look at individual properties of the things being classified.

    I guess I was sort of hoping you would reach a similar resolution for the case of transgender people.

    I think what I am saying is that the blegg/rube example does not seem to support the conclusion you reached.

    • Anonymous says:

      — I mean, 99% of the time I would prefer not to notice gendered pronouns, because they enable a lot of unconscious sexism and bias, and it’s difficult to police my thoughts to make sure I’m not acting on that.

      However there is one set of circumstances in which I use gendered pronouns, and that is when I am wondering if someone’s genitalia are compatible with my own.

      I agree that, if someone’s mental health is at risk, their need to be addressed with an appropriate pronoun should take precedence over my own desire to not make embarrassing mistakes involving mistargeted flirtation.

      But I feel like, if gendered pronouns are going to enable all this sexism and discrimination and they’re not even going to let me know if it’s acceptable to flirt with someone, it makes me even more strongly want to just not have them at all.

      • Anon256 says:

        Uh, I don’t see how whether someone is trans has very much to do with whether it’s “acceptable” to flirt with them. Their sexual orientation is much more relevant, and that was never something you could determine from pronouns. And isn’t probing acceptability and compatibility (which after all depend on all sorts of things other than gender) what flirting is /for/?

        It sounds like you’re actually concerned not about whether flirting is “acceptable” but whether you’ll accidentally flirt with someone who turns out not to have the type of genitals required for your preferred sexual activities. Maybe this is a dealbreaker for you, but there are all sorts of other unseen dealbreakers that can apply to flirting (depending on participants might include incompatible kinks, infertility, other medical issues, questions relating to sexual morality and history, non-genital aspects of how you look naked, etc) which are more likely to arise in practise. People get along okay without these being broadcast in every single conversation, and indeed even if it were convenient to broadcast them it would often be preferable not to for privacy reasons.

        And yeah, not having gendered pronouns at all would be nice.

  37. 27chaos says:

    Ozy’s description of queer theory undersells how freaking insane it is. It’s the worst field of postmodernism except for maybe the people looking at ancient myths from other cultures. The insanity isn’t something you can just remove from queer theory in a straightforward way, it’s essential to the whole enterprise.

    So, I have a problem. Where does this stop? A lot of queer theorists argue for the total and complete destruction of thinking in clusters at all. As you acknowledge, this is computationally impossible for human beings. But I don’t see any Schelling points between that outcome and the current situation. This seems like an important problem. (I think this is what underlies a fair amount of most people’s anxiety about transgender people.)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Exit rights

      Also, dare I ask what the people who study myths from other cultures do?

      • 27chaos says:

        This guy is who I had in mind while writing the comment:
        Go through the archives, earliest to today.

        A quick Google search yields this as another example: It’s at least more factually rooted, and its language is more straightforward, but the actual philosophizing is just as bad. It uses history to hide the lack of actual argumentation, just like the first link’s author uses fiction to encourage the reader to imagine his arguments are true.

        Biblical scholars would also qualify, I guess. XD

        Exit rights only works as a solution with people who are willing to be reasonable and okay with having one word/concept for their self-identification and another for how they’re identified by others. But I don’t think that most people are going to be that reasonable. Identity claims are something people take personally, for obvious reasons. John Schilling’s comment down below kind of reflects what I’m talking about. Transgender people could have just invented a new word, but chose not to because they wanted to take over the old one. They had good reasons for that, but…

        Misgendering someone is already offensive, and often misidentfying someone’s race is too. I’m worried that the amount by which people are offended by being misidentified and the frequency with which that happens will increase if these concepts gain more traction. It seems like it’s just going to keep building momentum upon its past successes.

        • Anonymous says:

          are nick and reza still on good terms?

        • Matthew says:

          I just checked out the beginning of that blog and…
          ugh, how could you possibly read all of it? Substantive views aside, it looks like every other sentence is a run-on.

          • 27chaos says:

            Protip: if you skim through nonsense pomo, you extract about the same amount of meaning from it as you do if you read through it three or four times painstakingly.

            But I haven’t read all of it, or even most of it. Just some.

          • Anonymous says:

            Saying that there is no more value in reading it carefully and repeatedly is basically what you claimed originally, but I thought that the point of giving an example was so that we could judge for ourselves.

  38. 27chaos says:

    I was wishing that Norton had declared a successor, and then I did some browsing on Wikipedia and discovered this!

    That’s amazing. Especially things like this:

    “Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Sarria became determined to join the military, despite being, at just under five feet tall,[14] too short to meet the Army’s height requirement. He seduced a major who was attached to the San Francisco recruiting station on the condition that the major approve Sarria’s enlistment.”

  39. drethelin says:

    “A psychiatrist, dealing with a man who fears he is being followed by a large and terrible monster, will endeavor to convince him that monsters don’t exist. Granny Weatherwax would simply give him a chair to stand on and a very heavy stick.” (Maskerade, 325)

  40. caryatis says:

    At least this is better than the argument I commonly hear, which goes,
    1) We should be nice to transgender people
    2) Being nice involves agreeing with someone’s ideas and never criticizing their choices
    3) Therefore, we must accept the transgender theory of gender and fund free sex-change surgery for all.

    I think that the fact that a category is socially constructed and has a gray area around the border doesn’t mean that there is no way to make a definite statement about what belongs in the category. Take race: a category that’s clearly socially constructed, and there’s a good argument for letting people who are mixed race define their own “identities”. But if a person who is not mixed race, whose ancestry, genes, appearance, culture, and whatever else clearly mark them as a member of one race, declares himself to be part of the other race, we would call him a liar or delusional. (Especially, as stillnotking says, if he seems to be doing it for the benefits of membership in the other race). Same thing with gender: people who are born intersex, or with androgen insensitivity, are in the gray area. But most of us are either black or white.

    • 27chaos says:

      Eh. I don’t see the problem with people identifying with whichever race they want to, as long as they don’t insist that other people automatically be aware of that or that other people not acknowledge facts about them like genetics.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think you’re talking about two different things here:

      1. What is the socially agreed-upon, Schelling point definition of race?
      2. Given that definition, what race is Bob?

      Saying that Bob (who is white) should not be able to randomly identify as black in a way that confuses everyone else appeals to (2), and so far so good.

      Saying that race should be based on identification rather than biology is appeals to (1), and is a harder question.

      My answer is pretty much “exit rights”. If everyone decides to base race on identification, and you want to talk about biology, you can make your own category “biorace” which you specifically define as being about biology. Then you can say “Given that everyone wants race to mean self-identified race, you’re racially black, but you’re bioracially white”.

      This is kind of the point with trans people separating sex and gender.

      Given that most people talking about race are interested in biorace, probably your term would catch on and everyone who wants to talk about self-identified race can sit in their own little corner and be confused.

      So the main issue seems to be who gets to keep the already-established words we have like “gender” and “race” and who has to come up with their own words (I feel like if trans women were to call themselves ‘female-identifying’ instead of ‘female’, even their worst enemies wouldn’t have a problem with that.)

      Right now giving one side “sex” and the other side “gender” seems like a fair compromise, but even it it weren’t, trans people seem much more obsessed with having the gender word than anyone else, so I’m willing to give it to them on the salmon principle

      • 27chaos says:

        The Salmon Principle assumes that people’s reactions to words are immutable. But that’s not so, emotional reactions are socially and culturally determined. If pandering to the salmon crowd increases the number of people who get hurt by hearing the word and increases the amount by which the word hurts them, it is no longer straightforward whether or not we should say the word.

        The worst choice we could make would be to increase the degree to which people are sensitive to hearing the word without decreasing the probability that they’ll hear the word. Yet this seems like the option that most people have chosen to endorse when it comes to misgendering.

      • caryatis says:

        “I feel like if trans women were to call themselves ‘female-identifying’ instead of ‘female’, even their worst enemies wouldn’t have a problem with that.”

        I guess I agree there. “Gender” and “sex” already have meanings, but if trans people came up with a third term to describe whatever their belief about their own gender is (“gender identity”?) then I wouldn’t feel entitled to object to that. But I wouldn’t want to give up the traditional concept of gender, i.e., a set of roles one is socialized into, in the sense of learning to be female—an experience someone raised male can never have.

        • ozymandias says:

          I think that oversimplifies the situation?

          Like… I was raised female. There are some important senses in which I was socialized female (most notably, I had an ordinary geeky/tomboy-girl childhood until puberty). And there are also some important senses in which I wasn’t. Even before I came out to myself, my brain was like “but I’m not a girl, these girl things do not apply to me”; I internalized a fair amount of the ‘male’ socialization about things like body image, sex, and showing physical pain. People treated me as a girl, but I felt like it was wrong that they did. And in my discussions with other trans people I’ve found that a lot of people have similar experiences of childhood socialization.

          I wouldn’t say I had a male socialization, of course. I would say, if anything, I had a trans socialization. Or maybe female with an asterisk.

          • 27chaos says:

            I agree it oversimplifies the situation, but we’re talking about compression algorithms. The important question is whether or not it oversimplifies the situation in a way that hurts people.

    • Matthew says:

      I gotta say, I’m fairly annoyed by the “fund free surgery for all” talking point.

      Think about the actual proportion of trans people in the population. Surgery for all of them would basically be a rounding error in the budget of an advanced industrial state. I can see why people who object to any sort of social insurance at all would object to this (and there is obviously a lot of overlap between those people and trans-deniers), but if you’re already open to the idea of public funding of health-care, this is a really stupid argument.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        I think that argument proves too much. For example, I don’t think we should fund free breast augmentation surgery for women who want it, even if we know only a small percent of women would take the government up on the offer. But that would also be a rounding error in the health budget.

        At some point you need a justification for doing things, even if those things are rounding errors. But I do think the seriousness of transgender people’s experience and the severity of their problems provides that justification.

      • caryatis says:

        “If you’re already open to the idea of public funding of health-care, this is a really stupid argument.”

        Not so. There’s no conflict between supporting publicly-funded health care and opposing publicly-funded cosmetic surgery. I think that’s a common position.

        • Richard Gadsden says:

          Lots of people don’t have a problem with some cosmetic surgery, though – breast reconstructions after masectomies, skin grafts for burn victims, things like that.

          I think the argument relating to transition surgery is which of these two categories it is closer to.

      • Tracy W says:

        Everything is rounding errors in the budget of an advanced industrial state.

        But add up all the rounding errors and suddenly you’re spending a massive amount of money.

        Consequently we need people in government who worry about the rounding errors.

  41. JohnMcG says:

    Note: This is confronting what I think are weaknesses in Scott’s argument, not to be an airtight case against all accommodations for trans people.

    I think Scott’s model works so long as the claim is not rivalrous.

    We can each have our own definition of “fish.” Neither is necessarily “right” in some cosmic sense. But only one can be taught in school (groan..). And if we’re going to converse with each other, we can’t keep using our own definitions of fish. There has to be a winner or loser. In this case, the stakes aren’t high.

    In Palestine/Israel, the stakes are higher. One state must own each piece of land. There may not be a cosmically “right” answer, but the answer still has real consequences.

    In reading the vignette of the OCD woman, I came up with the same accommodation, which I credit more to the clarity with which Scott was able to present the problem than to my own clinical prowess.

    But this solution does not require anything profound from anyone. It would be quite another thing for the clinician to gather this woman’s friends, family, and co-workers, and tell them that they needed to regard this woman’s concerns about the hair dryer with the same urgency she did, no matter how many times she did it and it turned out fine.

    I think the “ask” for transgender acceptance is more analagous to the second solution than the first.

    I suspect some people have some low-level anxiety about sharing a restroom or locker room, or competing athletically with someone who not anatomically of the same gender. In most cases, this would not approach the intensity of the distress Scott describes the trans person he treated as having, but it’s possible to imagine some quorum of cis people whose feelings about this would rise above mere anxiety.

    So who wins? Well, if recent history is a guide, the more traditionalist minded crowd’s concerns will be pathologized as bigotry and dismissed, and the non-traditionalist camp would win.

    And maybe that’s OK. The traditionalist crowd has won all of these disputes until the day before yesterday; now it’s payback time.

    But it does have consequences — that these people will be regarded, both by others and themselves, as bigots. Maybe it’s worth it if it keeps people from hurting themselves, but I don’t think it’s as non-consequential as Scott makes it out to be.

    • Alyssa Vance says:

      In general, we don’t let people’s anxiety override other people’s ability to live normal lives. I’m sure many white Southerners, subject to centuries of propaganda about how all blacks were stupid and violent, felt genuine distress when courts ordered desegregation… but few nowadays would sympathize with them. Heck, in almost every US state, it’s perfectly legal to walk around with a gun in your pants, which I’d expect to cause quite a lot of anxiety given that a gun could instantly end your life.

      • 27chaos says:

        How are transpeople prevented from living normal lives if we refer to them as transpeople? You seem to be exaggerating the impacts of using the label.

      • JohnMcG says:


        Well, if recent history is a guide, the more traditionalist minded crowd’s concerns will be pathologized as bigotry and dismissed, and the non-traditionalist camp would win.


        ’m sure many white Southerners, subject to centuries of propaganda about how all blacks were stupid and violent, felt genuine distress when courts ordered desegregation… but few nowadays would sympathize with them.

        My point is that Scott seems to be proposing that accommodating groups is cost-free for all involved. It’s just arbitrary definitions.

        Would that this were so. In some cases there will be real losers. And part of this loss will included being branded (fairly or unfairly) as bigots.

    • Kaminiwa says:

      “I suspect some people have some low-level anxiety about sharing a restroom or locker room, or competing athletically with someone who not anatomically of the same gender.”

      Counterpoint: How would you even *learn* that fact about me? I can be pretty obviously transsexual at times, but how would you know whether I’m pre-surgery (penis) or post-surgery (vagina)?

      And, honestly, would you prefer to have a very visibly male person in the women’s bathroom… because they’re actually pre-surgery female-to-male? Or would you prefer the person in a dress who reads out as female, despite being a pre-surgery male-to-female?

      My experience is that people do not have magic penis detectors, and they instead use “looks like a guy” as their actual heuristic, and would get a LOT more upset with the female-to-male transsexual.

      • JohnMcG says:

        First, note that I never said I felt uncomfortable, just that I suspect that some do.

        Nevertheless, you based your post around how I would know someone was using a restroom without the usual equipment, and what my preference would be.

        In essence, that the only type of people who would speak up for those uncomfortable are the type of people who walk around locker rooms investigating people’s crotches. So, either I must drop my advocacy, or defend perversisty

        To answer the question, perhaps not at restrooms, but usual use of, say, a fitness club locker room does involve some knowledge of what’s between the other people’s use of each other’s legs. Perhaps trans people make an effort to be more discreet, but I think one of the goals of trans acceptance would be dropping any expectation that they do so.

    • Erik says:

      So who wins? Well, if recent history is a guide, the more traditionalist minded crowd’s concerns will be pathologized as bigotry and dismissed, and the non-traditionalist camp would win.

      And maybe that’s OK. The traditionalist crowd has won all of these disputes until the day before yesterday; now it’s payback time.

      This sounds like retrofitting to me. How is the “traditionalist crowd” meaningfully different from “whoever won disputes until the day before yesterday” ? If the traditionalist crowd had been losing until then and started winning, I think they’d hardly be called “traditionalists”.

    • Tracy W says:

      I suspect some people have some low-level anxiety about sharing a restroom or locker room, or competing athletically with someone who not anatomically of the same gender.

      From what I hear, top athletes tend to barely sleep because of stress the night before a big event, regardless of the gender of the people they are competing with. It’s just one of the things they have to work out how to live with. For the rest of us, we’ll probably be competing against someone much much better than us regardless of gender composition.

      As for sharing a restroom or a locker room, I think this is only envisaged where there are separate cubicles for those who do feel nervous about this? Plus it’s not like most locker rooms or restrooms have any way of stopping men from entering, if they’re willing to break the social norms.

  42. Pingback: Harm mitigation vs. cure | Aceso Under Glass

  43. Walter says:

    Gwah! Whale metaphors again. SSC at its finest.

  44. Shmi Nux says:

    Seems like the hair dryer story is apocryphal. I was told the story ages ago by a Soviet emigre who said he heard it as a joke on one of the only two TV channels available at the time, 1960s or 70s. There were no portable hair dryers in Soviet Russia back then, so it was about a regular iron.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Hmmmm. Although I never met the patient involved, I know the doctor involved pretty well, and he was pretty careful to specify that it was him with his patient, and not a friend of a friend.

      He could’ve been making it up, though. Or maybe it’s just something that happens from time to time.

      • Shmi Nux says:

        I think your last guess is right and it is probably one of those things which come up over and over. Speaking of which, I’ve mentioned before on LW that technological solutions are easier than behavioral (or biological), hence auto-shut-off appliances for cases like this. Another standard suggestion is to snap a picture of the unplugged hair dryer before leaving, with a time stamp on it, instead of taking the whole appliance with you. God bless smartphones.

  45. Princess_Stargirl says:

    Do transgender people and activists commonly WANT being trans classed as a mental disorder? This seems really weird to me.

    I don’t see being trans as a mental disorder at all. It is a physical disorder. The extent of the problem lies with how much certain physical traits (genitalia, facial structure, etc) are currently distorted (as defined by the transgendered person). If the transgendered person is happy with their body but not how society treats them the problem lies with society.

    I don’t see how either source of issues is mental.

    • veronica d says:

      The ideal situation would be for transsexuality to become a medical diagnosis with a medical solution. Right now it is a psychiatric diagnosis with a medical solution. Which is awkward.

  46. Jstone says:

    So, absent some undue burden or cost, we should indulge in/be respectful of pretty much anything anyone does, or claims, because it’s more humane and keeping with our ideals about tolerance than it would be to ostracize or ridicule them. That’s what I take from this post, and it seems the issue of transgender, while applicable, is incidental to that core argument.

    I think it’s pretty clear that the challenges transgender people present to “normal” people has less to do with the specific phenomenon of transgender and more to do with a subset of radical transgender activists attacking commonly held epistemological preconceptions and assumptions, wanting to replace them with a new social framework that seems fundamentally incoherent, while using moral blackmail and intimidation tactics to strong-arm the debate. I wonder why there’s so much controversy!

    We’re in an interesting situation where real radicals are still controlling the intellectual discourse on a civil rights issue, instead of being relegated to the fringes once they raise awareness of an issue, as per usual.

    The dominant argument for gay rights turned turned out not to be radical at all, it was a classically liberal argument for letting gay people “into the club” of equal rights and respect under the law and in the culture. It was asking the power structure for ideological consistency, just as ethnic minorities and woman had previously. Before it became the progressive cause du jour, Gay Marriage was viewed with harsh skepticism by the gay radical Left, who saw it as a strange fetish of a small cadre of probably self-loathing conservative gays, appropriating “The Master’s Tools” to achieve a bubble of privilege through assimilation, while leaving their queer, non-conforming brethren out in the cold and letting society off the hook for systemic injustice.

    I think we’re still in a struggle over who is setting the terms of “reasonable” debate on queer issues. One activist’s notion of societal accommodation might be restroom reform and employee non-discrimination. Another’s might be an overhaul of the English language, cultural decorum and what constitutes hate speech. But because identity politics, far-ranging views are all bundled together under the Progressive moniker, which is then used as a proxy for morality. Huh!

    If I could give one piece of practical advice to activists of any stripe, it would be that people don’t respond well to threats, including threats to their self-image. It makes them defensive and self-centered. Not exactly a receptive audience. Unless you’re trying to provoke a backlash, threats rarely contribute to anything positive.

    • Trans Lass says:

      cisgendered, not “normal”. If your personal sense of normalcy hinges on othering trans people you should probably see a shrink.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Comment warning – we don’t use “go see a shrink” as an insult here.

      • Jstone says:

        That’s why “normal” is in quotes. Language cop. And why pick on me, when there are a lot more controversial things being argued here that undermine transgender prescriptivism?

  47. stillnotking says:

    The obvious problem here is that we don’t let people get away with complete freedom of self-identification, even in contexts that are a lot more similar to transsexuality than the Napoleon nonsense. For instance, Donald Stirling says he is not a racist; I don’t know about you, but my response to that is “Pull the other one, bub.” A 30-year-old guy who sleeps with a 15-year-old girl may insist he’s not a child molester, and in some sense he might even be right (ephebophilia and pedophilia being vastly different things), but American society is still going to treat him as one.

    I’d say the still-crucial distinction is that we don’t let people take advantage by freely self-identifying as something they don’t appear to be. In fact, most of the argument over trans rights seems to be whether or not trans people are taking advantage (e.g. some radfems think it’s a conspiracy to infiltrate the ladies’ room). Most of us probably believe that trans people are not scam artists, that no one would spontaneously decide to be trans without a good (if personal) reason, and so our moral intuitions pull in the direction of letting them call themselves whatever gender they want.

    • Kaminiwa says:

      I’d also point out that by and large, transsexuals are expected to “act the part”: It would be a shoddy psychiatrist who wrote me a letter of transition when I was still dressing, acting, and speaking male.

      By and large, I use the women’s bathroom because people would be *very confused* to see a woman in the man’s room, and I am indeed read out as a woman.

      If someone looks like a racist, acts like a racist, and talks like a racist… sure, treat them like a racist. If someone looks like a woman, acts like a woman, and talks like a woman… isn’t it the *same* logic, to treat them like a woman?

      • Matthew says:

        If someone looks like a racist, acts like a racist, and talks like a racist… sure, treat them like a racist. If someone looks like a woman, acts like a woman, and talks like a woman… isn’t it the *same* logic, to treat them like a woman?

        This seems to be begging the question. “Woman” is ambiguous here between the gender role and the biological sex; “racist” is (considered by most people) to be a set of mutable attitudes, possibly analogous to gender role but not analogous to biological sex.

      • lmm says:

        Sure. The case I’m bothered about is when someone looks like a man, acts like a man, and talks like a man, but tells you they self-identify as a woman. How do you treat them?

        • veronica d says:

          Well, I mean, I can ask the question I sorta asked before: there’s this dude who sorta seems to have a bug up his ass about trans folks, and sure, we all misgender folks from time to time and sometimes we meet a trans person who we don’t much like — but this dude has a big honking problem with it. Like, he can’t let shit go. Anyway, how should we treat this dude?

          The answer to my question is, we should treat him with basic courtesy, professional courtesy if we know him in a business context, normal day to day courtesy if not. Otherwise we should probably kinda avoid him cuz he seems like a dick.

          The answer to your question is, treat her with the same basic courtesy that you would treat any woman. You do not have to like her, but you will face social repercussions if you act like a dick.

          • lmm says:

            As I said before, I’ll take a fair enough on that position. But in that case trans shouldn’t be a specially protected group, e.g. it ought to be legal to discriminate in employment on the basis of trans-or-not (just as it’s perfectly legal to discriminate in employment on the basis of transophobic-or-not.)

          • vV_Vv says:

            You do not have to like her, but you will face social repercussions if you act like a dick.

            That’s an appeal to popularity and consequences, but it doesn’t answer the question.

            Why failing to acknowledge as a woman somebody who claims to be a woman without having any observable woman-like properties is considered “acting like a dick” while failing to acknowledge the Napoleon guy is not?

        • Steve Sailer says:

          The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has banned ex-men for the last 40 years because lesbian feminists get tired of being hit upon by men in dresses. Here’s a big New Yorker article on feminists who can’t stand M to F trans:

  48. James says:

    Scott, a reading recommendation, if I may: Borges’ (shortish) essay, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” similarly describes, fascinatingly, how our definitions, our way of parcelling up the world, are – if not arbitary – all basically contingent, and done so with regard to specific tasks. Here’s a famous and amusing paragraph describing a flagrantly arbitrary parcelling system:

    “These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”

    Great, but far from the only good bit of the essay. The rest is here:

    The idea also recalls, to me, the American pragmatists. It’s my understanding that this was a big part of their schtick. Certainly, Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is very good on progress as basically being “boundary-redrawing-projects” of the kind you describe the transgender movement as pursuing.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      The reality is that the categories for living things that Linnaeus came up with long before Darwin’s theory of natural selection proved remarkably useful and still are in this genetic era. Why? One reason is that Linnaeus paid careful attention to genitalia: who could mate with whom.

  49. Jake says:

    Napoleon lived in the Tuileries, not Versailles. I am extremely offended.

  50. hawkice says:

    I loved the hair dryer story, felt it was pretty awesome. On reflection I appear to be inconsistent on this, and was wondering if the SSC-o-sphere could help me.

    If someone came in with extreme opium withdrawal, giving them an opium poppy and teaching them to take care of and harvest it would, indeed solve that problem (at least in so far as the hair dryer one does — I am surely not the only one to worry that they would select another obsessive target or need further opium poppies in the future, but the general principle is similar).

    If someone came in with those symptoms and demanded an opium poppy, you would surely not follow that request. Demanding drugs is qualitatively different. Maybe the treatment involves you giving drugs, maybe not.

    If someone came in and said they were feeling extreme distress because they were demanding opium poppies from coworkers and friends and were not only failing to get opium poppies, but facing discrimination… this person has my entire heart’s worth of sympathies, but I’m not sure giving them an opium poppy is the solution.

    So if someone is experiencing extreme distress because they were demanding to be called different pronouns… yes, if I were in their coworkers’ place I would use the custom pronouns. What a small price to pay! I mean, I don’t even have opium poppies, but I could figure out the pronoun thing no problem. But I’m not sure we jump immediately to following the demands — we certainly don’t in the opium case.

    Perhaps I am wrong about the opium thing. But I suspect this method of reasoning proves too much (notably, that doctors should should encourage coworkers of opium addicts to support that addiction, which is silly).

    • ozymandias says:

      Actually there’s some evidence in favor of treating heroin abuse with prescription heroin.

      • hawkice says:

        Your comment is quite possibly the best I’ve seen in some time. Mind officially blown.

        That being said, I could construct a similar analogy for gambling addicts begging their coworkers for money. Since people do regularly get money (or else how would they become addicted to gambling), giving people more money fails to have what appears to be the benefit of prescription heroin: an externally provided Schelling point for regulated indulgence. So a similar argument wouldn’t necessarily apply.

        Basically my point is Scott was making an assertion that relied, critically, on details fairly specific to LGBT issues (facts that aren’t true of gambling addiction) without pointing out what they be. Hence the proving too much — it’s not that the conclusion is wrong, it just seems to rely on omitted nuance.

        • hawkice says:

          It now occurs to me I should probably mention to an actual doctor that sitting people down in a room and giving them tokens and having them gamble (without the financial cost) would likely be a pretty good treatment for that reason.

          But yeah, the social elements of LGBT issues (as well as the institutional support issues) aren’t reflected in gambling addiction. Best to construct an argument for social and institutional support for LGBT issues that doesn’t prove the same for gambling.

          • Nornagest says:

            I doubt that’d work. My understanding of gambling addiction is that it doesn’t work on the ritual of sitting down and playing whatever game you prefer; it works on the psychology of risk. If you’re not playing for keeps, that goes away.

            Actually, it might be worse than that. Back in college I played poker to supplement my income: not professionally, since that would have taken more time than I wanted to spend, but with similar goals. Playing poker to win is not very fun: the technical (as opposed to psychological) side of it is all about passing on plays with negative expected value. As it turns out, those are often the plays that are the most fun: there’s something to be said for the looks on other players’ faces when you reveal two aces, but it’s nothing to turning a deuce and seven into a full house.

      • Anonymous says:

        Note that Ozy’s link really is about prescribing heroin, not methadone.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      As Ozy said, except that methadone and buprenorphine are slight chemical variations on opium/heroin/morphine which are much safer and we tend to use one of those instead.

      The main tradeoffs here are:

      1. How possible is it to quit opium entirely?

      2. How much damage does opium use do?

      If opium use was completely safe (other than the inconvenience/cost of getting the drug) and it was near-impossible to ever quit, it seems correct to help the person get free opium.

      If opium use is very dangerous, and quitting just requires a little bit of an effort, then it seems correct to urge them to quit.

      Since in reality it’s somewhere in between, I tend to encourage my less-addicted patients to quit, and to transition my more-addicted patients to methadone or buprenorphine and then maybe spend a few years of their lives getting to the point where they can make a better quitting effort if they want to.

      Transgender seems much closer to the first situation, where it’s pretty harmless to accommodate and very difficult to make go away.

      • Princess_Stargirl says:

        If opium was completely harmless why would we even encourage people to quit? If anything shouldn’t we encourage people to try harmless substances with upsides?

        (I don’t consider a substence harmless if its addictive and taking it prevents you from doing many activities. Though I think addictive substences can be, on net, positive. But they aren’t harmless).

    • Princess_Stargirl says:

      I consider people have a strong desire to use illegal drugs to be very oppressed. If someone wants opium and cannot buy it anywhere they are being severely persecuted by our society. So they certainly have a right to complain.

      Though of course no one should have to give them opium. But they should definitely be able to buy it.

      • lmm says:

        Is this predicated on the assumption that their opium use doesn’t cause negative externalities for society? (e.g. treating them for overdoses, the chance that addiction will push them to a life of crime, …)

        If there were a substance that didn’t have any externalities but was a strictly negative experience, some kind of “pure suffering pills”, do you think the government shouldn’t be allowed to ban their sale? Assuming a ban would be effective (i.e. it would reduce suffering and have no side effects), surely such a ban is ethically obligatory.

        • Jaskologist says:

          If we invented an agonizer that would cause me pain but not have any physical side effects, I would get one. I might well use it for practical things like negatively reinforcing habits I want to get rid of, but honestly I’d be more interested in simply practicing and building up a tolerance to pain. Either seems like self-improvement to me.

          But then, I’d also gladly use a scifi body-switching machine to temporarily experience life as a woman/different man/different species. The curiosity would be too much not to.

          • Matthew says:

            But then, I’d also gladly use a scifi body-switching machine to temporarily experience life as a woman/different man/different species. The curiosity would be too much not to.

            Everybody says this likes it’s no big deal, and then everything inevitably ends up going to the dogs..

            (Posting mainly for the word play and because it’s a good book, not to take a position on body transfer.)

          • lmm says:

            I deliberately said suffering rather than pain; there are certainly positive uses for pain and (possible TMI warning) in fact I already own several devices that have the sole purpose of causing pain in myself (though my reasons are perhaps less… admirable than yours).

            Maybe I should’ve said “disutility” but that seems excessively technical and possibly begging the question.

  51. noahluck says:

    I vote you change the mention of the Sequences in your post to a link. That is all.

  52. Daniel Keys says:

    On a side-note, if you believe that the British monarchy earns more than its keep through tourism money, you should consider taking some random US citizen (a random one with “royal ancestry”, which may be the same category) and declaring that person Emperor of the US.

    I’m willing to do my part and assume the throne of Norton if someone else puts his palace in order. (Assuming this to be a hotel, I’ll let other people stay there if they behave.)

  53. Meredith L. Patterson says:

    Nobody’s going to see this, but I can’t let a post that mentions wacky national borders go by without a mention of Baarle-Hertog, a Belgian town consisting of 22 exclaves surrounded by the Dutch town of Baarle-Nassau. (There are also seven enclaves of Baarle-Nassau enclosed in various parcels of Baarle-Hertog, like nesting dolls.)

    And that’s after they simplified the border in 1995.

    Especially after the Schengen agreement, the borders matter in terms of property taxes and income taxes, but functionally for nothing else — they don’t “matter” to anyone on a deeply personal level the way the Syrian border does to Turks.

  54. Patrick says:

    I get what you’re trying to say. But I’m pretty sure that the transgendered community’s goals aren’t just that you accept them as their declared gender out of a willingness to cater to their feelings.

    Their goal is to get you to accept that their declared gender is an objective fact about them. Which means that if you open your argument by noting that boundaries are fundamentally subjective concepts, you’re denying the validity of their entire project.

    • Creutzer says:

      If you’re right about this, then they are confused about how words and concepts work and no argument in the world can save them.

    • Kaminiwa says:

      By and large, the actual transgendered people I’ve met are largely concerned with “being able to use the bathroom without being harassed” and “not being fired from work.”

      There are plenty of *activists* who are more about what you speak to, but I would personally think of them as a radical fringe.

      Although, then again, I notice I’m confused as to what you mean by “objective fact” – I’ve never heard anyone argue that trans-women should be treated as though they had periods and could get pregnant and have kids. Even the radical activists seem to understand that there’s a biological difference, and most of them seem totally fine with straight guys not being interested in cock (as long as we accept that there are *also* straight guys who totally enjoy transwomen with penises)

      • Patrick says:

        And the actual gay people you meet are probably more concerned with being able to marry, not getting fired, not getting harassed, etc, rather than being accepted as married when they go back home for Thanksgiving Dinner. But that doesn’t mean the latter isn’t 1) a goal, 2) a meaningful goal of the movement, and 3) a logical conclusion of the arguments deployed when attempting to obtain marriage rights, employment rights, etc. And please note I’m saying this as a supporter of all of the above- I’m just not one who lies to himself about my actual aims.

        The clear, often very explicitly stated end-goal of transgendered activism is to create a society in which a transgendered man or woman is not just treated but also thought of as a man or woman in the same sense as a non-transgendered man or woman. Their goal is to avoid transgendered persons being treated or thought of as, say, “woman-with-an-asterisk-denoting-transgendered-status” in all places except those literally biologically impossible. See for reference memes like “some women have penises,” and the contexts in which they are deployed.

        Look, you want a fast demonstration of the difference? Go to a forum in which transgendered rights are advocated, and post that you completely agree that we should treat transgendered people as the gender with which they identify in virtually all contexts, but that you think transgendered persons have an ethical obligation to disclose their transgendered status on dating websites, since “whether someone is a woman or a transwoman” is a valid concern their prospective partners might have and it isn’t fair to leave that issue opaque until clothes come off. Pay specific attention to the arguments deployed in response.

        • bouilhet says:

          Their goal is to avoid transgendered persons being treated or thought of as, say, “woman-with-an-asterisk-denoting-transgendered-status” in all places except those literally biologically impossible.

          Along these lines, where the goal of a particular transgendered person (say male-to-female) is simply to enter the gender category “female,” and leave behind (without a trace?) the gender category “male,” couldn’t we also say that the goal here is really to avoid the “transgendered” category altogether? Certainly this would not apply to all trans people, but it seems inherently problematic for those to whom it does apply (in the sense that the person’s desire to belong to a particular category becomes the chief determining factor as to whether or not they belong to it).

  55. blacktrance says:

    The project of the transgender movement is to propose a switch from using chromosomes as a tiebreaker to using self-identification as a tiebreaker.

    But what if it’s not a tiebreaker? What if a person’s properties lean heavily (but not exclusively) towards a particular category? For example, let’s suppose that some of the properties of being an archetypal male include having male genitalia, XY chromosomes, having a body that looks male, a relatively deep voice, self-identifying as male, and being attracted to women. When someone has 5 of those features but is attracted to men instead of women, we say that they’re a gay man – so, still male. But when someone has 5 of those features but doesn’t self-identify as male, the argument is that they’re not male.

    One argument is that there are more properties that cause someone to be classified as male than the ones I’ve listed, and that amab trans people don’t share as many categories with archetypal men as gay men do. This is true, but just like there are non-archetypal men, there are also non-archetypal trans people, e.g. not all trans people want sex change surgery, some trans people may not want to take hormones, etc. So someone whom we are told is female and trans can be a non-archetypal trans person in a way that their properties are such that they’re not far from being an archetypal male. And yet we’re told that they’re female, despite them being very far from the female archetype. This seems dubious.

    Another argument is that gender is what you feel like on the inside, and that’s all there is to it. If you feel female, you’re female, if you feel male, you’re male, etc. That’s fine if that’s how you want to use the word “gender”, but that’s not how most people use that word. Someone may be inside_gender!female but common_usage_gender!male, and I don’t think this compromise would be satisfactory to people who argue that a trans person is really a member of their chosen gender. Also, this would classify cis by default people as agender, which would be strange.

    A third argument is that calling trans people by their chosen gender makes them feel more comfortable, and just like the case of the hair dryer, if it’s what works, then it’s what we should do. I think it’s a good argument – there’s no need to make people sad and uncomfortable when the cost of doing otherwise is low. But that’s an argument for referring to trans people by their chosen gender, not that they actually are their chosen gender. In terms of anticipated experiences, believing that someone is male can be more accurate than believing that someone is female even when they identify as female. When it’s a tiebreaker, as in Pluto, calling it a planet or a planetoid would give you roughly equally erroneous anticipated experiences, but not all non-archetypal things are close to being a tie.

    • Joe says:

      It sort of seems like Scott and transgender people are denying the principle of Identity and I don’t think they can still claim to be rational thinkers if they are doing that. For instance Abe Lincoln told the riddle because it illustrates a part of logical reality, a leg can not be a tail. Even if you use the same word for both. The objective reality is that what we call a tail is different than what we call a leg. To deny this is just plane ridiculous. Thats why rational animals have different words for things. We have to categorize things, according to reality, the best we can. When it comes to artifacts like States and borders then yes there is no right or wrong answer. To make the claim that all distinctions are arbitrary and not right or wrong is some kind of weird ontological nihilism.

      • Creutzer says:

        Would you explain what role you think a logic of any sort plays here?

        And the Lincoln riddle just makes wrong assumptions about how conditional sentences work in natural language (alternatively, about how assumptions are processed in the human mind).

    • blacktrance says:

      Addendum: I don’t think that people should feel any obligation to be archetypal members of their gender. It’s perfectly fine to not conform as much as you want. Also, there are some people who, while checking most of the boxes for one gender, may check some relevant boxes for some other gender (or no gender at all), some of which may be related to how they present themselves and want to be treated.

    • Kaminiwa says:

      I just wanted to say that, as a male-to-female transsexual, I actually consider this a really good question, and I don’t have a satisfactory answer to it.

      I go ahead and call people by their preferred pronouns even if they haven’t done anything to transition, but that’s because (a) my other friends would ostracize me if I didn’t and (b) I’ve had so many transsexual and genderqueer friends that it’s fairly easy for me to adjust to arbitrary pronouns.

      That said, it’s important to remember that edge cases are RARE. There’s tons of trans-women out there who have learned a female voice, and read out as female unless you know what to look for. You obviously can’t check their genitalia or chromosomes legally. So, given the information you do have, it’s pretty obvious that they’re not an edge case, they’re female.

  56. no one special says:

    I, for one, welcome our geography-obsessed overlords.

    I give you this gift, as a token of my esteem:

    Also, from now on, I shall refer to Pluto as a Solar System Body Not Otherwise Specified, a category it shares with Russell’s teapot.

  57. Tony says:

    The term “trans-neptunian object” has never before seemed so meaningful…

  58. von Kalifornen says:

    Here’s another one for your book. Excellent.

  59. Eli says:

    In particular, 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.

    It’s indeed a question of what you mean by sex: biological sex or gender?

    If you mean chromosomes, genes, hormones, physiology… then you were simply born with a certain sex, possibly an abnormal one, possibly one you despise, but that’s that. It’s a fact.

    But this captures almost nothing of what we mean by “male” or “female”. That’s all the social stuff: gender. And that’s all so thoroughly socially-constructed, so thoroughly a performance in the first place, that there can be no possible rational grounding for gender essentialism. Depending on how you define the social constructs of gender, everyone has every gender and no gender all the time. End of story. Simple fact.

    In real life, most cultures have social conventions on these matters, and most people can do well-enough at signaling membership in the social gender that matches our biological sex. MOST PEOPLE.

    • lmm says:

      > But this captures almost nothing of what we mean by “male” or “female”. That’s all the social stuff: gender. And that’s all so thoroughly socially-constructed, so thoroughly a performance in the first place, that there can be no possible rational grounding for gender essentialism. Depending on how you define the social constructs of gender, everyone has every gender and no gender all the time. End of story. Simple fact.

      How about this then: more things are more strongly correlated with your biological sex (or, hell, even just what gender other people perceive you as) than with what gender you self-identify as. So biological sex is more useful for making accurate predictions – and, therefore, something we should care more about as rationalists; if we’re forced to use words to mean only one or the other, it’s more useful to use them to mean biological sex.

      • 27chaos says:

        This assumes predictions are the only important thing that words can be used for. But words can also have social messages.

        There’s not any word-cap in real life. So just refer to someone as a trans-man or trans-woman to clarify any ambiguity, if you’re so concerned about allowing good predictions, and then use their desired pronoun after that.

        • lmm says:

          I’m happy with that. Is everyone? I get the feeling that as a good liberal you’re not supposed to point it out at all.

          • Kaminiwa says:

            In an area where this would put me at risk of violence, I’d have to argue that my life is a hell of a lot more important than the precision of your communication.

            Outside of that disclaimer… it depends on the person and the context. If it’s genuinely relevant that I’m trans, I have *no* objections to people mentioning it.

            If you insist on doing it EVERY time you mention my gender, I’d find it tiresome. But I would also find it tiresome if you insisted on including my age, or that I’m a reader of Slate Star Codex, or that I’m an atheist.

            TL;DR: It only really seems justifiable if you’re treating it on par with any other information. I would assume you usually are fine saying someone is a “woman” not a “white 25 year old atheist woman”, so why would you feel the need to indicate that they’re a “trans woman”?

          • 27chaos says:

            Age and race can pretty easily determined by glancing at someone. In cases where this isn’t so, I personally would make the specification of someone’s age or race.

            Your argument ignores that some forms of information are more important than others, also. It seems like most people have a strong preference to know whether or not someone is transsexual. I don’t see the harm in indulging this preference in most circumstances. I think cases where introducing someone as a transperson will cause them to be attacked are rare. In such cases, I agree with you that they should not be introduced that way. The rest of the time, introducing them as a transperson is justified, although emphasizing it constantly is unnecessary and bad, I agree.

            If you have it in your head that when other people call you a transman or transwoman they’re saying that your problems aren’t real or don’t matter, I think that is more a problem about the way you’re processing their words than the way they’re choosing to speak.

          • lmm says:

            @Kaminiwa I don’t know what you’re like. But I’ve met some transwomen who are very atypical for women, to the point that describing them as women feels misleading (whether it’s “true” is kind of beside the point – compare e.g. saying “there’s a basket of fruit over there” and it’s a basket of tomatoes). For such a person it would seem to be always relevant (or at least, always at least as relevant as mentioning their gender at all).

            (Theoretically this is not strictly a trans thing – I can imagine a cis woman so unlike the feminine-people cluster that I would feel obliged to mention this whenever I described her as female to someone else – but in practice any such outliers I’ve met have been trans).

            ((I suspect my true position is more to do with dating – that if a friend conspicuously mentions “x is female” then I tend to hear that as a hint that I should consider dating x (and that’s the most obvious reason for me to be mentioning someone’s gender to someone else), but that’s probably even messier to get into))

          • llamathatducks says:


            I think cases where introducing someone as a transperson will cause them to be attacked are rare.

            I’m not at all convinced that this is true. Based on some quick googling it seems like it’s not really known how likely trans people are to be attacked or murdered, but at least some sources conclude that trans people are murdered at a much higher rate than cis people. Whenever you’re with people who aren’t known to be pro-trans, there may be risk in outing trans people. And given the high cost of making a mistake in this area, it’s really better to err on the side of caution.

            Plus, physical violence isn’t really the only fear. In some contexts outing someone can open them up to employment discrimination, housing discrimination, poor service, whatever. For this reason it should be up to the person to out themselves if they want to.

            If you have it in your head that when other people call you a transman or transwoman they’re saying that your problems aren’t real or don’t matter, I think that is more a problem about the way you’re processing their words than the way they’re choosing to speak.

            Personally, I don’t think that always calling someone a trans man rather than just a man means you think his problems aren’t real or don’t matter. But it does indicate that you seem think of him as belonging to a category separate from most men. If you don’t want to refer to him as a man, it is likely because you don’t think “man” is quite accurate. At least this is a perfectly reasonable way to interpret your behavior. And this can be hurtful to lots of people.

            It seems like most people have a strong preference to know whether or not someone is transsexual. I don’t see the harm in indulging this preference in most circumstances.

            I think this is overridden by the preference of most people to not have intimate things about their life revealed to others without their consent. Especially with the context of societal discrimination. But either way, saying someone is trans is basically providing intimate information about their bodies.

      • Kaminiwa says:

        “How about this then: more things are more strongly correlated with your biological sex (or, hell, even just what gender other people perceive you as) than with what gender you self-identify as.”

        Speaking entirely to *biological sex*, and not gender perception:

        Um… like what? If you want to know my IQ or how strong I am, there are WAY better indicators then my gender. If you want to know how I socialize, how I view myself, which bathrooms I’ll use, which pronouns I’ll prefer, or what sort of clothes to buy me as a gift… all of those correlate with my gender, not my biological sex.

        I also suspect you’re seriously under-estimating how much being on hormones changes the body – by and large I list myself as female on medical forms because it will lead them to *more accurate* conclusions.

        Like, muscle mass, fat retention, dietary cravings, emotional swings… my experiences line up pretty intensely as “male until transition, all sorts of chaos for a couple years, then leaning distinctly towards female.”

        I mean… I have boobs. My biological sex definitely didn’t predict that.

        (I will concede that “gender presentation” is probably a pretty useful metric, but partly that’s because people who have had heavy changes from hormones usually have a female presentation)

        • vV_Vv says:

          Like, muscle mass, fat retention

          I’ve read that there is a controversy regarding male-to-female transgender athletes competing in women sports.
          The claim is that, despite transition, trans-women tend to be much stronger and faster than cis-women, which some people consider as an unfair advantage.

    • Tracy W says:

      That’s all the social stuff: gender. And that’s all so thoroughly socially-constructed, so thoroughly a performance in the first place, that there can be no possible rational grounding for gender essentialism.

      No. This is wrong. I don’t suddenly become any less of a woman when I’m wearing overalls and steel-capped boots and have my hair cut short and am swearing like a Billingsgate porter. I’m female independently of what I happen to be doing at any point in time.

  60. Levi Aul says:

    Sometimes when you make a little effort to be nice to people, even people you might think are weird, really good things happen.

    There’s a whole potential post in that sentence. Something about the split between people who want to condemn human Other-optimizers (e.g. pedophiles, zoophiles, trans-Napoleons) and people who want to build safe, sandboxed paperclip-rich worlds for them to indulge themselves within. (And the further split in the second category between people who want to provide such a thing as a “release valve” so that the Other-optimizer will pretend to have regular values and participate in society most of the time; and the people who genuinely want to give the Other-optimizers their own little Archipelago island to live their lives in.)

    • Creutzer says:

      I’m not understanding your use of the word “other-optimizer”. The meaning in my mental lexicon for that is “somebody who thinks he knows what’s best of other people”, which doesn’t seem to make sense here.

  61. Anonymous says:

    1) I imagine true believers in the categories would claim that we discover/realize them… and sometimes, we get it wrong until we have analyze additional data through self-reflection. I find this view tempting over various forms of nominalism.

    2) I think the idea of self-identification as a tiebreaker is a bit of a motte. The bailey here would be the claim that self-identification is the only identification. Otherwise, we have to dive into the muck of what it means for there to be a tie. Can self-identification, itself, cause the tie that it then proceeds to break? Basically, when Erica Cartman identifies as a woman, is there any conceivable way to say, “Hold up. You match the category by well over 98%. We can’t call this a tie.” Or are we destined to be Kyle, responding, “I know how this ends. Just let him have it.

    • 27chaos says:

      To bolster this, I imagine there are people who’ve thought they are transgender and then later changed their minds.

      It also seems possible that there could be people who identify as trans who will never become happy no matter how many changes are made to their body. If that exists, that’s something that really should be considered a psychiatric disorder, not just a category error.

    • Kaminiwa says:

      Regarding #2: I would argue that quite a lot of actual, living transsexuals fall in to the motte, not the bailey. I get referred to as “ma’am”. People are confused if I use the men’s room, and no one has ever complained or commented about me being in the women’s room.

      I do think your arguments against the bailey are interesting and valid, and I don’t have any answers to offer there – I wonder about that myself.

      If you’re asking “what policies should we enact”, I am totally fine with you insisting on just providing the motte; we can argue the bailey next. But society has not reached the point of even accepting the motte, and that harms quite a lot of people.

      • Anonymous says:

        Unfortunately, I think presenting is one part solution, one part new problem. I think that in many cases, it can be quite successful as a practical matter. When it’s not, it summons equally (if not more) serious practical problems. And, of course, it doesn’t address root problems in a way that enables other facets of life to be easily fulfilled.

        What I mean by that is the genuine concern the trans community has about building their own sexual relationships. Queer theorists agree that having sexual relationships is valued (conveniently forgetting that this is a norm, since then they would feel compelled to disrupt it), and it’s less good if people have difficulty partaking in it. Furthermore, relying heavily on things like presenting may add to the difficulty. Potential partners may feel deceived or just plain creeped out. Again, I agree that this is a legitimate concern, but I don’t think the path of, “DESTROY THE CATEGORIES! DESTROY THE NORMS!” is either a useful or an intellectually sound way of going about fixing the problem.

  62. Richard Gadsden says:

    Also, he’s moving into the wrong palace. Napoleon lived in the Tuileries, and they’ve knocked it down and turned it into a garden.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’m not sure of the details, but I think what you’re saying amounts to the claim that he lived at the office. Most people self-identify as living somewhere else, even if they often sleep at the office.

      • Anonymous says:

        Or to put it another way: home is where the wife is.

      • Richard Gadsden says:

        Commuting – working in one place and living in another – is not an accurate model for palaces. They are both a residence and a workplace.

        The Palais des Tuileries was the royal palace in Paris until Louis XIV moved out to Versailles. Louis XVI moved back there in 1789. It was the palace (ie both residence and workplace) of the kings and emperors of France from then until the ending of the last Empire in 1871, including the entire time that Napoleon was Emperor.

        The Tuileries were gutted by fire in 1871 during a revolution, and subsequently demolished.

        Napoleon never had any connection to Versailles, so going there and trying to move in is clearly a sign that he’s not actually Napoleon, but Louis XIV.

  63. Creutzer says:

    A relevant linguistic/philosophical paper that I find very much worth reading for its clarity.

  64. lmm says:

    I think Rationalist!Norton would have wanted people to make more effort to convince him of the truth.

    The benefits of making everyone treat people as the gender they identify as are focused and therefore very available; the costs are more widely distributed and harder to see. I found myself feeling very stressed when hanging out with a group that included a trans person – someone who identified as female but acted masculinely to the extent that I found it impossible not to think “him”. But I knew that the group would be very unhappy with me if I got it wrong (I had seen it happen to someone else). Eventually I stopped doing that social activity as it was too nervewracking.

    And if you’re willing to admit that differences between men and women are real, is the self-identification border a useful one? Or is it the kind that you grudgingly acknowledge when there are angry soldiers around but would prefer to use a more practical one?

    • Kaminiwa says:

      “And if you’re willing to admit that differences between men and women are real, is the self-identification border a useful one?”

      I think it depends on which differences you’re focusing on, and whether the person has had hormone therapy. I talked about this a bit more in other comments, but hormones really do change a lot about a person – they affect how you gain muscle and lose fat, they affect your mood, etc.

      Equally, there’s a lot of variation within “male” and “female” to begin with, to the point that a given female can easily be stronger than a guy. You can have a gay guy and a lesbian woman, and clearly the woman is more “male” along the “attracted to women” axis.

      When we’re talking about an individual, it seems like biological sex is rarely going to be a useful heuristic.

      • lmm says:

        Any one-dimensional binary categorization is going to be horribly inaccurate for many individuals – but we have the words and concepts because it’s still a lot better than nothing.

        This is kind of a tautology but I’ve met people for whom their self-identified gender was different from their “common sense physical appearance gender” (I don’t really mean chromosomal sex or genitalia shape – I don’t have direct access to either – just the instinctive “that looks like a guy/girl”), and in these cases the latter yielded much more accurate predictions (of things like what drinks they liked, what their hobbies were and so on). So it feels like it would have been more useful (and, like, ultimately resulted in that social gathering being more fun for both of us) if, when giving me a 1-bit summary as part of telling me who was coming to the event, the host had told me this person’s “common sense physical appearance gender” rather than their self-identified gender.

        The obvious counterargument is that knowing what pronoun someone wants to be called will increase their happiness by more than having a more accurate guess at what their hobbies and interests are. But in that case, why identify people as one gender or another at all? (You’re allowed to bite the bullet on this one, but my sense is that most people would justify labeling the gender clusters because the clusters are real. But that logic can’t justify favouring a less predictive labeling over a more predictive one)

  65. I think this SMBC is the most succinct explanation I’ve seen of how categories get formed.

  66. Markus Ramikin says:

    Loved the hair-dryer story and it made me laugh, in no small part because I could tell immediately where it was going: that someone would suggest the bloody obvious thing, and then someone would take issue with that because “that’s not how you do medicine” or some variation. Gotta love the world we live in.

    I just find it incredibly hard to believe that the patient herself didn’t think of this!

  67. Tarrou says:

    A question on the transgender parable.

    How much of what is being demanded by trangendered people is directly linked to what is medically possible, and how much does medical technology impact our moral compass on these things?

    One could hardly be denigrated for refusing to give male hormones to a female a hundred years back, when we didn’t have them. Should we categorize the reluctance to do so now with say, refusal to give CPR, which was similarly historically absent, or a reluctance to give someone a free cell phone. By and large, I’m all for treating people as whatever they want to be treated as. I’m a bit more suspicious and reluctant to promote them having their genitals removed. It seems to me that there’s a sliding scale of cost versus benefit here that one can make utilitarian use of to make moral judgments, but this still doesn’t answer the base question.

    When a new technology makes something possible, why is there instantly a new paraphilia or mental issue that makes use of it? We seem to be inventing new types of mental illnesses in tandem with our new technologies.

    • Kacey Now says:

      Various kinds of transgender and third gender identities have been around long before medical availability of hormones. Lewis & Clark’s journals are filled with mentions of “men in squaws clothing”, India has hijras, Thailand kathoeys, etc. The west doesn’t have strong historical third or trans gender traditions — castrati and eunuchs come closest — but this seems to be something of an outlier compared to other cultures.

      • Tarrou says:

        Of course, but it begs the question, if these mental states have been common for centuries, why the sudden need for surgical reassignment? As I said, I’m perfectly happy if people want to self-identify as whatever they like. When they start wanting to amputate body parts, how do you draw the line between that and people with amputation fetishes and the like?

        • Kacey Now says:

          Well, castration has always been an option, frequently exercised, for those in male to female or male to other categories. Presumably at least some of the people who did this simply saw it as the best option at the time. The necessary artificial hormones and plastic surgery techniques to do much more than this have only been around so long. Lili Elbe died of surgery complications in 1931, Christine Jorgensen in 1952 had the first successful genital reconstruction. Given previous failures included Nazi experiments during the war, the technique was essentially impossible before this time.

          Testosterone in quantities large enough to make a difference wasn’t available until the 1930s, estrogen becoming available in the same decade. Anti-androgens weren’t available until the 1960s. All these different kinds of hormones can have side effects and discoveries since then have broadened the possible range of treatments.

          So in general, something like modern transsexual treatment wasn’t available until the 1950s, but it was basicallythe 1970s before antiandrogens allowed MtF individuals to try running on estrogen only before having any surgeries. So today, most people are actually living as their gender for quite some time before having any surgery whatsoever.

          So your question, “why the sudden need for surgical reassignment?” is quite odd: first, how could anyone do it before it was medically available? Second, once the very first procedures are done, how many times must it be done, and taught from surgeon to surgeon, until it is seen as being low risk and accessible? It definitely seems that people were making use of these techniques from the time they became available, even pushing the limits beforehand.

          Finally, modern transgender medical intervention is far more about hormone therapy than “amputating body parts.” There is a popular opinion for some reason that transsexuality is all about being a dude for a long time, going into a clinic one day to “get it chopped off” and then voila, all of a sudden being a woman. This is not remotely how the process works. First the individual will often spend some time presenting as their gender in public, second they will adjust their hormones to the target gender for quite some time. Most people pass as their target gender and have for some time before getting any genital reconstruction.

          So, your amputee analogy is only on par if someone who desires to be an amputee must convincingly live and present themselves as amputees for some decent period of time before actually getting amputation, and generally seem happy and successful for that time, as determined by a psychiatric professional.

          • veronica d says:

            For the record, there were successful genital reconstructions before Jorgensen. She is simply the first American trans woman who came out to the media. There had been a number in Europe. There were also some American women, but we don‘t know who they were because they stayed under the radar. (Which is what most trans people at the time tried to do.)

            (We know they existed because the doctor’s talked about them.)

            In her book How Sex Changed [1], Joanne Meyerowitz documents the early responses as gender reassignment therapies reached their early stages, even before any human trials. Rumors began to circulate through some of the “sexual science” pulps. Articles hinted at the possibility of sex change. Almost immediately letters began to arrive asking to know more. Was this possible? How? Where can I go? The tone of the letters were desperate.

            It is clear that there was a huge desire for sex change that predates the availability of treatment. Why did we not hear about this?

            I think because these people lived lives of quiet hopelessness.

            Of course, crossdressing existed. It was illegal in many places. (It remained technically illegal until the Stonewall era.) Arrests happened.

            But not every trans person crossdresses. Those who did would often keep it secret, a few dresses in a dingy trunk in the attic, taken out only when one’s spouse leaves the house.

            These dresses were of course quietly discarded after the person’s death. They became whispers in the family.

            And those who did not crossdress? I assume most drank themselves to death. What else could they do?

            I hope some of you will read Meyerowitz’s book. She includes many of those letters. It will give you insight.


    • von Kalifornen says:

      some comments:
      1. As Kacey says, there is a history of trans and trans-ish people accepted by society. There have also been rare reports of trans people in the West in the old days. For example, story about a Victorian guy who turned out to be a trans man. (Was humiliated by his wife finding and ripping off a sort of primitive leather packer he wore. Extremely prudish social norms apparently prevented there from being enough sex to blow his cover for a while. )

      2. The modern perception of transsexuality developed in the last 20 years, but there’s clearly been *something* around for a while.

      3. It often helps to bind breasts/create fake ones, inhabit social gender role, and be referred to by the correct pronouns, even if no tech is available.

    • Matthew says:

      This seems like an odd approach in general. Before the germ theory of disease, we had all sorts of alternative explanations for things that are now considered to be infectious in origin. The fact that people did not necessarily refer to these conditions as diseases before we discovered microbes does not alter the fact that they were, in fact, diseases.

    • Kaminiwa says:

      “I’m a bit more suspicious and reluctant to promote them having their genitals removed.”

      Given that they are both the ones paying for it (at least in the US), and the ones who suffer the consequences… and the usual* lack of “buyer’s regret”… why would you care what they do in their personal life?

      (* I do realize occasionally people regret surgery, but they also regret joining the military, or getting $200K in student loan debt only to find themselves working at McDonalds, and we still let people ruin their lives like THAT)

      • Tarrou says:

        The consequences of a surgery are rather more permanent than the rest of your examples. You tough out a four-year hitch or you pay on a loan for a long time.

        But I do take your point, counterpoint being that I’m not arguing for illegality, only that this is a massive grey area around what we consider to be “mental illness”. In my head, if you can’t have a normal life without permanently altering your body, the problem’s got to be in the head. But that could be the crazy talking!

        • ozymandias says:

          It depends: for instance, I’m planning on having my breasts removed and that is extremely reversible, all I have to do is get a boob job.

          • Katie says:

            Ozy, can I ask how you feel about the prospect of pregnancy and/or breastfeeding? From what you’ve said, it sounds like you’d absolutely hate it, but then I think you’ve mentioned in some places that you’d like to have children (and certainly Scott has said that that’s a salient issue for him). You don’t have to answer if that’s too personal, but that’s basically the sticking point for me.

          • ozymandias says:

            I would get pregnant once to see if I can handle it. If not, there are options such as adoption and surrogacy. Top surgery will preserve my ability to breastfeed and I suspect I would be able to do so without dysphoria.

          • Matthew says:

            Men occasionally sympathy “lactate,” so it doesn’t seem like this should induce especially strong gender-related feelings.

          • vV_Vv says:


            Top surgery will preserve my ability to breastfeed

            So when you talk about removing your breasts you don’t mean that you actually want a mastectomy, but just a breast reduction?

            If I understand correctly, even breast reduction can negatively affect lactation:

          • ozymandias says:

            No, I’m getting keyhole top surgery. Keyhole doesn’t involve moving the nipple the way that breast reduction does, which means it should preserve ability to breastfeed (in theory, as far as I and the surgeons I’ve talked to can tell; in practice as far as I can tell I am the first person for whom the issue has come up). Keyhole requires very small breasts to work, which is why it is not used for cis women.

            …Guys, I’ve been trans for years, the information you find on Google is not going to be new information to me.

          • vV_Vv says:

            Thanks for the clarification.

          • RCF says:

            My understanding is that breast augmentation results in breasts that aren’t the same as natural breasts and are not entirely permanent.

  68. Vaniver says:

    I agree with this article and believe it is the entirely correct approach to resolving these sorts of issues, but I want to argue with one idea contained in it.

    The project of the transgender movement is to propose a switch from using chromosomes as a tiebreaker to using self-identification as a tiebreaker.

    I think there are serious problems with the idea of “tie” and serious problems with “self-identification,” because of Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good”).

    First, I very much like that you used ‘tiebreaker’ here, because most of the commentary on trans issues I see doesn’t take the gradualism seriously (or just uses the gradualism as a smokescreen- “because it’s not discrete and certain, it’s not measurable!”). One mouth says ‘If someone says they’re a woman, they’re a woman and how dare you say otherwise’; another mouth says ‘How dare you pretend to be trans, that trivializes the real suffering of other people.’ One might suspect that those opposing forces magically reach the perfect balance and only the people who ‘should’ identify as trans do; much more realistically, we get people with gender dysphoria staying quiet to avoid accusations of faking it, and we also get people identifying as trans for reasons besides gender dysphoria, like the ability to sic SJWs on your enemies or benefit from affirmative action.

    (I’m hoping that Steve Sailer manages to post something true, necessary, and kind on the subject; his take on Michael Bailey and the prominent transfolk who have been opposed to his work on political grounds seems worth paying attention to.)

    That is, suppose we acknowledge that there is a cluster of ‘male’ and a cluster of ‘female’ and observe that there are people pretty solidly in the ‘male’ cluster who self-identify as female and there are other people who are mostly in the ‘female’ cluster and self-identify as female but aren’t biologically female. The tiebreaker might say “I’ll treat an effeminate man as either a man or woman based on their request says, but I won’t treat a masculine man who identifies as a woman as a woman.” But it’s not at all clear that this is the best solution- yes, society might be able to deal with a effeminate or pretty man switching over to being a woman more than they can deal with a masculine or blocky man switching over to being a woman, but it’s not clear to me what the relationship between gender dysphoria and masculinity/femininity is. (I haven’t looked at the data; others who have, feel free to share.) If it’s the case that the distance between the outside and inside is proportional to the dysphoria, then what is hardest for society to reconcile is the most valuable for the person to have reconciled!

    I’m also aware that there are people who hate that there are clusters of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, but I don’t think that will or should go away any time soon. Even if it does, so long as any sort of clusters exist there will be differences between what clusters people appear to be in and what clusters they want to appear to be in, and if those clusters are to be used for any decisions then it doesn’t make sense to allow people to pick which clusters they’re in. What happens when a convicted felon self-identifies as innocent?

    • g says:

      How sure are you that there really are non-negligible numbers of people identifying as trans in order to be able to sic SJWs on their enemies or benefit from affirmative action? It looks to me as if being trans is considerably worse than being cis in terms of level of social approval, societal support, etc., so that seems like a really obviously counterproductive strategy.

      • Vaniver says:

        How sure are you that there really are non-negligible numbers of people identifying as trans in order to be able to sic SJWs on their enemies or benefit from affirmative action?

        Not very. Those were both chosen to give a Slytherin vibe- a more realistic/petty version is “to feel special or interesting / get attention.”

        Things were different when I was applying to undergrad, but if I were applying today and I thought Stanford would accept me if I checked the ‘female’ box and wouldn’t accept me if I checked the ‘male’ box, then I can imagine Hypothetical Intellectually Dishonest Me identifying as female and checking the female box, and then arguing that gender is just socially constructed and we get to choose what it is for ourselves so I could keep my goatee and disinterest in fashion.

        And when you’re in a situation where Hypothetical Intellectually Dishonest You has a radically better outcome than Hypothetical Intellectual Honest You, that’s trouble!

        It looks to me as if being trans is considerably worse than being cis in terms of level of social approval, societal support, etc., so that seems like a really obviously counterproductive strategy.

        I think this depends a lot on where/when you are. Like, it is super bad to be disowned by your parents because of your trans status / orientation (my first boyfriend was disowned for being gay, and I saw the fallout from some of the opportunities it shut him out of / the bitter relationships and lack of support), but it seems to be working out okay for Martine Rothblatt.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          At UCLA’s MBA school in 1981, I was on a four-person team with a man named Martin Rothblatt, who is now said to be the highest paid “female” CEO in America (although Rothblatt now appears to be losing interest in transsexualism in favor of living forever by downloading his/her brain to a computer).

          When I knew him, he had zero feminine traits. None. He was obsessed with space exploration (he went on to found one of the satellite radio networks). He was extremely ambitious, egomaniacal, and derisive toward anyone he considered his inferior (which appeared to be everybody except some space scientists, his girlfriend, and his children). Our two mutual teammates, a white man and a Mexican woman, despised Rothblatt because he was so obnoxious toward them. I could see how incredibly smart he was, but he was indeed hard to put up with.

          The category of “transgender” awkwardly lumps together a whole lot of people who don’t have all that much in common.

          A lot of the highest achievers within that broad category appear to have a particular flavor that I haven’t seen spelled out elsewhere — typically highly masculine men, often with high intelligence, scientific or technical interests, and aggressive personalities, who one day announce to their wives and children that they always felt like a girl on the inside.

          It’s almost like they are trying to live out a bad Late Heinlein novel. Libertarianism and transhumanism are common ideologies among them. Perhaps they feel like Promethean rebels against the limitations of the human condition?

          About a decade ago, two of these individuals, Dr. Conway and Dr. McCloskey, went on the warpath against a couple of scientists who were studying the phenomenon. I’ve watched a lot of witch hunts of scientists, but Conway and McCloskey, due to their ultra-high IQs and just how personally they objected to scientific inquiry when it came to their claimed identities, were in a class by themselves. Here’s a good 2007 New York Times article on their jihad against the scientists.

          It’s hard to imagine the NYT daring to publish this article these days.

          In defense of Rothblatt, I haven’t noticed him attacking scientists like Conway and McCloskey did. Who knows? Perhaps taking female hormones has made him a nicer guy.

          • veronica d says:

            The group you are describing are Vitale’s “Group 3” transsexual [1]. They are fairly well-documented and well-understood. What you describe is true. They often present in a highly masculine manner. They are often quite intelligent. In fact they are often neuroatypical in a number of ways.

            However, saying “It’s almost like they are trying to live out a bad Late Heinlein novel” is deeply ignorant of these people’s lives. In fact, they have usually been quite aware of their gender issues from their teens. What you see is the result of a life of hiding.

            Regarding the Bailey affair, the fact that some such women aggressively attack their critics is a natural result of people like you who attack them from a position of malice and ignorance. I wish all people had boundless kindness, infinite patience, but not everyone does. And you personally are the problem. You do not get to say “aw shucks” when they come at you.


      • Steve Sailer says:

        World War T is largely an intellectual war on the very useful concept of sex. I’m not particularly interested in controlling what individuals do with their own bodies, but I don’t want to give them a veto over everybody else’s minds. I’ve seen enough of high IQ ex-men like McCloskey and Conway going to war against science that I don’t trust them enough to agree to put them above skepticism as the current zeitgeist demands.

        I started out much more sympathetic because the first high profile M to F transsexual writer was James/Jan Morris, the wonderful Welsh travel writer. After reading about a half dozen of his/her books over the years, about 20 years ago I read Morris’s memoir “Conundrum.” It starts off with the usual about how he always felt like a girl on the inside. By the end of the book, however, to my surprise, I didn’t believe him/her anymore. The story seemed phony.

        That doesn’t mean that there aren’t individuals who really do conform to some of the talking points. For example, I’ve known since he was two years old a young man who now likes to participate in drag shows. He was always like that: he only wanted girls’ toys for Christmas.

        But it’s important that we be allowed to point out that the world is a lot more complex than the latest orthodoxy insists.

  69. Nestor says:

    If it’s possible to convince the Ayatollah Khomeini that gender disphoria is a thing then it should be possible to convince anyone.

  70. Error says:

    Against my better judgement I’m going to make a comment on gender….

    If I’m understanding transgenderism right, it amounts to an extraordinarily unpleasant dissonance between one’s physical sex and one’s psychological perception of their sex. The suffering is inherently caused by the dissonance, not by social opprobium alone; in this sense it differs from, say, homosexuality, which isn’t unpleasant when it’s not stigmatized (I ask for principle of charity in case I’m horribly wrong about any of this. No personal experience).

    Seems to me that problem can be solved two ways: either alter one’s physical characteristics to match their psychological identification, or alter their psychological identification to match their physical characteristics. That is, surgery or psych drugs. Some people prefer option A, some people prefer option B. Some third parties object to one or the other, or both. Neither works perfectly. (does B work at all?)

    I think many of the objections to physical and social reassignment boil down to it being imperfect, and imposing an unpleasant uncanny-valley effect for many others. And I think many of the objections to medicating psychological identification come from the idea that your brain is more “you” than your body. I’m open to correction on either of these from people who actually hold those objections.

    I’m interested in hearing from people opposed to gender reassignment: If physical reassignment surgery worked perfectly — that is, you couldn’t distinguish a transgender person from a born-whatever person without, say, a chromosome check or some other lab testing — would you still oppose it? What if we had Magic Technology that altered the chromosomes as well? What if the tech was so effective that a male-to-female person could bear children?

    And I’m interested in hearing from people opposed to medication or other self-modification to not feel like the ‘other’ gender: If someone who ‘felt transgender’ could take a one-time pill that perfectly realigned their psychological identification with their physical sex, would you still oppose it?

    And, to both: What if both worked perfectly? Does it makes a difference if either or both are reversible? What if one is possible-but-risky and the other safe?

    (full disclosure: my intended purpose with this comment is to uncover True Rejections, which are somewhat hard to tease out from under all the politics here)

    • lmm says:

      Effective surgery is fine. What I don’t like is having to constantly remember to use a different word for someone than the one that obviously applies to them, on pain of social ostracism if I slip up more than one or twice.

      I can understand and sympathise with people being more willing to change their body than their mind.

      • Kacey Now says:

        Be careful that’s there’s a bias at play here: the people that you meet who are most obviously transgender are those who aren’t able to fit well into expected physical or social roles, whereas those who do fit well into those roles you might not have categorized as transgender (and are rather unlikely to identify themselves as such). In other words, there’s a danger of representing the category of transgender people with an exemplar that is not necessarily a good representative of this category, because it has a significant, invisible component.

        Edit: on second look, I’m not sure this is a direct reply to your comment. Maybe I was thinking of your other comment on mental issues?

        • lmm says:

          Maybe. I once met someone whom I misheard as being trans, and thought that they were surprisingly well-adjusted, and I’ve also met someone I thought was a stoner/depressive/etc. and only later discovered they were trans, so I’m reasonably confident that it’s not pure bias.

    • veronica d says:

      Option B does not work.

      • ozymandias says:

        Even if it worked I’d rather not take it. (I’d also choose to stay borderline, if a magic No Borderline pill were an option.)

        • veronica d says:

          [Content warning]

          I would refuse to take it. If they forced me, I would kill myself. I am this person.

          • Creutzer says:

            If they forced me, I would kill myself. I am this person.

            Depends. Maybe the pill just kills you by replacing you with a different person who, in turn, is fine with their state.

          • Illuminati Initiate says:

            This is basically how I feel when people talk about “curing” autism/Asperger’s.

          • Jaskologist says:

            The Buddha would say you’re getting all worked up over nothing; this person is an illusion which is constantly changing anyway.

          • Error says:

            This is basically how I feel when people talk about “curing” autism/Asperger’s.

            This is an interesting comparison to me. I have something that looks very much like asperger’s, and also something else that looks very much like tourette’s, and I would take a magic pill for the latter in a hearbeat but be rather resistant to one for the former.

          • Luke Somers says:

            Unpack the word ‘cure’ – would you like, with no other changes, to have a higher threshold for superstimulus, or to have an easier time identifying other peoples’ emotions?

            I’d go for that and I’m neurotypical.

          • 27chaos says:

            It feels incredibly melodramatic that you’re making this statement here, where conveniently there is no one who will actually confront you with such a choice.

            I’d rather be castrated, have my intelligence removed and personality majorly changed, and lose a couple limbs than die. Because at least my memories would live on, and additionally I’d prefer than someone else get to replace me than that no one get to, because life is good.

            So maybe it’s just that our perspectives are too far apart for my imagination. But I’m genuinely having a hard time believing you’re so attached to your self-identity that you’d really rather have it destroyed than have it rather marginally changed.

          • ilzolende says:

            Luke, I’m not sure that Error, the medical community, and I have the same unpacking of “cure” as you do.

            Like most people, I would appreciate improved emotion reading with no side effects. That would not immediately change my personality, although it would probably change over time in response to that improvement.

            However, many things included in the “autism” category by both myself and actual medical definitions are things that I would not like to lose. My conversational patterns and patterns of developing interest in things are within the medical autism category, and I don’t want to lose those traits. Additionally, some behaviors that I currently find enjoyable are autism symptoms, and I don’t want to stop enjoying those.

            Jaskologist, even if there is not full continuity, there is a vast difference between incremental changes based on responses to environmental stimuli, and the complete replacement of basic personality traits without intermediate steps.

        • von Kalifornen says:

          [CW for Ozy]

          What about an Improved Borderline pill? I remember a post on your old blog about your experience of being borderline — what about something that doesn’t rewrite everything into normalcy, but which does, say, tone down the negative aspects or make it easier to control them by discipline?

        • Error says:

          Fair enough. Would you oppose, support, or be indifferent to its general availability to and use by people who aren’t you, and why?

          I could maybe have been clearer in my initial post; it’s entirely consistent to support the availability and use of perfect surgery or perfect medication, without wanting to make use of either oneself. I’m mostly assuming that the latter indicates a personal preference and the former is something like a moral question, and it’s the nature of objections to the former that I’m trying to clarify.

          • veronica d says:

            There are people now who promise to change the minds of trans folks. In fact, there is a long history of this discourse, which again and again is weaponized against trans people. This happens at least two ways. First, trans children are forced into abusive aversion therapy. Second, the myth of a “cure” is used to justify the denial of care.

            The world where 1) a “cure your trans brain” pill exists and 2) it would not be used as a weapon against trans people looks so fundamentally different from the real world that I cannot really speculate.

          • Matthew says:

            What about a pill that was reliably shown to prevent trans issues in utero, but not do anything for already-existing trans people?

        • Matthew says:

          Out of curiosity, what do you consider to be the upside of Borderline?

          • ozymandias says:

            Most relevantly for this conversation, because I would prefer that permanent changes to me so significant that I qualify as a different person not happen. (This is my true rejection.)

            I also appreciate the more intense happy/good feelings, strong motivation to change unhappy states of affairs rather than doing the quiet desperation thing, and the process of idealizing people.

    • Kacey Now says:

      Option B doesn’t currently exist — and if it did, it seems like a potentially dangerous option. There’s a difference between taking pills to remove psychological disturbances that prevent people from pursuing desires, and taking pills to simply remove those desires. I think one can draw a strong analogy between option B and wireheading, so someone’s position on option B might reflect their position on wireheading. Of course, there probably are a lot of people that would do this if it were available, and would have nothing to complain about afterward, but to me it sounds more like a form of suicide, so count me out.

      • von Kalifornen says:

        I can sort of imagine how the question ‘Imagine you woke up as a woman’ or “Would you be the opposite sex for a day for curiosity’s sake” might end in ‘Ok only 23 hours until no more confusing gender dysphoria’.

        But then I can imagine first morphing my body, and then applying some kind of magic psychiatry to my mind so I also have a female gender. And then reversing it all. This doesn’t give me ‘death of the self’ or wireheading feelings.

        However, it does give me unpleasant-if-forced-on-me feelings and I’d be worried about how much I could unlearn and then relearn.

        • Kacey Now says:

          This might sound stupid, but I’m having a lot of trouble performing that thought experiment where I become cisgender — like gender is too close to the center of my identity to give up that way. On the other hand, I definitely would give up, say, seasonal depression with no qualms whatsoever, and I have trouble understanding those above who would hold on to personality disorders.

          The ten-year old me, yes, would probably have taken option B if it were available. I have a lot of trouble identifying the person who comes out of that with myself — a kind of brother, perhaps. OTOH it’s rather easier for me to see 10-year old option A me as myself, even though that person’s life trajectory would probably be as different from mine as B’s.

          So, I dunno. It could just be that for some people gender is more central to their identity than for others.

    • caryatis says:

      My opposition to sex-change surgery would be almost eliminated if it was harmless (i.e. no harm to fertility or sexual function. I don’t care much about whether the surgery would make people look weird.) In that case, it would be analogous to plastic surgery, something that I think should be legal although not subsidized. It would be even better if the surgery was perfectly reversible, although that seems infeasible.

      I would quibble with your theory of causation. You say the “dissonance” between sex and perception of sex leads to suffering, but the question should be: what leads to this dissonance? My understanding is that the transgender advocates think this is something people are born with; others have suggested it’s the result of childhood experiences.

      • 27chaos says:

        What if it’s both childhood experiences and a biological predisposition? (Like most other things.)

        I don’t really see the significance of its origins in deciding how we should deal with it. Whether environmental or not is unimportant, what really matters is whether it’s changeable or not (and whether we ought to). Those seem like questions that don’t depend on disentangling social from genetic influences.

        • caryatis says:

          I agree. We might think the cause has something to do with whether it’s changeable, but changeability is the core issue.

    • ShardPhoenix says:

      I’d be in favour of either of those two things.

      For current imperfect technologies, I’d naively encourage the latter (changing the feelings rather than the body, perhaps by using hormones aligned with the physiological sex), but I don’t know how well this works in practice or how much it is even tried.

    • Celes says:

      I think you pose an interesting question. I have kind of a weird position in that, while I 100% support the right of a person to seek sex change surgery, I would 100% never provide it to someone if I were a doctor (on the basis that it is damaging the person’s body, and while it might make them happier, it’s not something I would consider ethical any more than I might amputate someone’s healthy limb if that were the cause of mental anguish for them). If we had Magic Surgery like you describe, however (reversible or not, although if it’s that good it would probably be reversible as a consequence) I would be OK with that. The problem with the limits of our technology now is that we aren’t really able to turn a man into a woman or vice-versa – we are taking someone from “man” or “woman” to “superficially looks like the opposite sex but doesn’t function properly”. But if you have Magic Surgery which could give someone a fully functional male or female body, that’s a whole different ball game. At that point, you’re taking one functional body and replacing it with another one, and the objection that you are damaging the person’s body evaporates (after all, being male or female isn’t intrinsically good or bad). In either case (real world or magic world), I 100% support a person’s right to seek this surgery. It’s their body, and none of society’s business to tell them what they can do with it. But only in the case of the magic world would I, the hypothetical doctor, be willing to provide such surgery.

      Your second question is even more interesting, though. Let’s assume that the mental remedy is perfect, just as the surgery is, and furthermore that it is not ever forced upon people or motivated by prejudice towards people with the condition. That is, this is something that would only be available to someone if they voluntarily sought it out, and not ever forced upon them or even pressure put upon them. In such a case, I would no longer support the availability of the surgery. The reason for that is, that while it is certainly effective, at the end of the day I think one must always treat the disease and not the symptom when possible (and in this case, it is possible). While mentally identifying as the gender you weren’t born as may be a part of someone’s identity, it is still a mental disorder (i.e. the brain is not functioning like it’s supposed to), and must be treated accordingly. If someone feels it important to not undergo the psychiatric treatment because it’s an important part of their personality, that’s understandable, but then that’s the end of society’s responsibility to them. If I go into the doctor’s office with a nail sticking out of my arm that was there since birth, and say “no don’t pull it out, it’s important to me”, the doctor doesn’t owe it to me to provide me painkillers to dull the pain I experience due to refusing the actual treatment. I have chosen to allow the affliction to persist which is my right, but society now owes me no accommodation because it is now a conscious choice to be that way, not “I can’t help having been born this way” (which is the current situation with transgender individuals, who don’t have a choice about being stuck with the feeling of their body’s wrongness).

  71. Quite Likely says:

    That was really great.

  72. Head Stomp says:

    So brave.

    But seriously, I worry about the nature of bravery debates in regard to the trans community. Where is the time and place to push the mental disorder angle? It isn’t allowed in the safe spaces where it is most needed.

  73. Protagoras says:

    The distinctions are not sharp, but humans do tend to distinguish more fundamental from more superficial characteristics of things. “Fundamental” and “superficial” are themselves categories subject to many of your points, but, for example, fundamental traits tend to be causal factors producing superficial traits, and not vice versa. Humans are more inclined to divide up our categories based on more fundamental traits, though admittedly we don’t always do that. However, while it is not sufficient to establish that nobody could possibly use “fish” in the way you attribute to Solomon (they certainly could), dividing up the categories so that whales are not fish (because they are genetically much closer to other mammals) is not just standard practice these days, but more in line with the way humans usually categorize the world.

    The same argument could be made for chromosomes and sex, although I think there are more confounding factors in that area, so that it is less strange to make another choice in how to draw the categories (and, of course, a choice being somewhat strange wouldn’t automatically make it wrong in any event).

  74. Zorgon says:

    Yet again the part of my brain that understood the “algorithms from the inside” article is sat next to the part of my brain that contains my knowledge of formal methods in programming and the two of them are looking at each other excitedly and making noises and once again I DON’T FUCKING KNOW WHY.

    Gah. This is hugely frustrating. I’m gonna go stare at formal methods papers for a while and see if it either resolves or shuts up.

    • Error says:

      I’d be interested in hearing what comes of it, if it does resolve. Mostly I’m wondering if someone else is nosing in the same direction as my first comment further upthread (lossy compression).

    • Chris says:

      There are definitely parallels between proving properties of programs and discussing mind-architecture! Maybe you’re on your way to a general theory of Exactly Which Things Minds Are Natively Good At ^_^

      Don’t forget type theory! (Analogously, every time I notice a dispute involves “category errors”, the corresponding theory-of-programming-languages part of my brain starts doing the loudly-squeeing thing. I’m also yet to tell whether there’s a meaningful connection here.)

      • veronica d says:

        To me it is about Model Theory, which is to say, we have some formal system, which is a language with syntax, inference rules, etc. We have formal operations, which are rules for term rewriting — or however your system works. (Personally I like lambda reductions, cuz they make me smile.) (Give me confluence or give me death!) Then we have some mapping between that and something else.

        Usually the something else is some other formal system, say the standard model of first-order arithmetic, and isn’t it remarkable that these mappings seem to work!

        But there are others models for first order arithmetic. Likewise, there are other formal systems that can describe that model — although we run into underspecification versus overspecification, etc., etc.

        Then we shift to natural language, where we encounter people who think we must all agree and divide things up just one way, or that whatever meaning they give to some term is the only meaning anyone could ever give in any circumstance. How small-minded such people seem.

    • Zorgon says:

      It never resolved. I blame Obama.

  75. Illuminati Initiate says:

    When Scott started talking about splitting Israel north/south I thought he was going to make a King Solomon joke.

    (By the way that would not be an effective way to tell who is the mother. Its not like the false mother couldn’t just pretend to give the baby away to protect it like the real mother does, she still gets the benefit of people not knowing she accidentally killed her’s then tried to take the other.)

    • Kiya says:

      (I haven’t actually read the part of the Bible with Solomon, so I’m just going off my vague memories of Sunday School)

      If both claimants had time to think through the consequences of all possible strategies, sure, they would both act like the real mother. Solomon’s goal is to distinguish them by their immediate responses to outlandish proposals they haven’t prepared for. It’s harder to maintain a pretense fluidly and consistently than to just say what you think.

      • RCF says:

        But the problem is that the proposal is so outlandish that even someone who wasn’t the mother should be horrified by it. It’s not so much a “who’s the real mother” test so much as a “who’s someone who is not only a sociopath but horribly bad at pretending to not be a sociopath” test.

    • Evan Þ. says:

      I always read that as Solomon not necessarily identifying the real mother, but identifying who’d be a better mother for the baby.

  76. Throwaway says:

    I really l like this post, but unfortunately I think it might just be because Scott gives more ground than most of the transgender movement is willing to give. Scott’s analogies seem only to be able to argue for the sorts of small, personal accommodations that most people agree with: if someone has a condition that fails to respond to treatment and it seems to get better by having their friends call them “she” or “ey” instead of “he”, then it would be nice of their friends to do that. And if they aren’t hurting anyone and want to wear a dress as they walk down the street, well it weirds me out but I’m not going to stop them.

    However, I think the contentious points advanced by the transgender movement would require much, much more from bystanders. Various people at various times have argued for (1) unisex bathrooms (or individual-identity sexed bathrooms), (2) for the average person to change their language usage (“ey”) to remove useful gender information even in discussion not about a transgendered person, (3) to deny that someone who experiences a “mild” feeling of being transgendered should maybe suppress if they can do so healthily, (4) for public financing of expensive operations, (5) for me to not speak to my children frankly that being transgendered is correlated with various mental health issues and that they should use caution around such people, and so on.

    And Scott’s hair dryer analogy clearly works against those claims of the transgender movement. Yes, it would be nice if the other partners at the law practice ignored the fact that the patient keeps a hair dryer under her desk, but they shouldn’t be required to be silent when multiple clients leave the firm after being weirded out by the hair dryer hanging from the ceiling so she can always see it. Yes it would be nice if her friends avoided bringing up the subject of hair dryer-related fires around her, but they shouldn’t be expected to adopt a general policy of not ever talking about combustion-related topics. Yes it would be nice if her friend helped her modify the hair dryer so it was easier to fit under her passenger seat, but car manufacturers shouldn’t be required by law to install TV monitors so that the patient can watch the hair-dryer remotely.

    • ozymandias says:

      I think requiring trans people to use the restrooms of their assigned sex would be likely to distress cis people far more than either gender-neutral restrooms or allowing trans people to use the restrooms of the gender they’re presenting as. Most cis women do not want to share the bathroom with someone who has a beard, large muscles, and a deep voice. Testosterone gives people, including people with XX chromosomes, beards, large muscles, and deep voices.

      Scott does in fact argue for surgery: see the bit about curing schizophrenia with one simple safe surgery.

      Do you also inform your children about using caution around women, mixed-race and white people, and those age 18-29, given their higher rates of mental health issues? For that matter, do you warn your children not to hang around Lesswrongers? I have been analyzing the survey data, and we’re probably about twice as mentally ill as the general population.

      • lmm says:

        I figure my children can look up public studies themselves, but Iwould want to share any correlations that a) were very evident in my my direct experience and b) I wouldn’t trust our culture to be honest about if they were true in general.

        The correlations I’ve seen between being trans and being depressive, druggie, unemployable and generally odd are… not subtle. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky. But I don’t have faith that these kind of results would be reported even if they turned out to hold generally.

        Also, I don’t want to share a bathroom with someone who has a beard, large muscles, and a deep voice either, but society apparently expects me too deal.

        • ozymandias says:

          Transness is a mental illness. Mental illnesses tend to travel in packs.

          In addition, being trans means you have to put up with transphobia (family rejection, harassment, employment and housing and medical discrimination, assault)– studies have found that the trans suicide rate, which is a reasonable proxy for mental health issues in general, is highly correlated with things like “have you been assaulted?” and “did someone fire you for being trans?” And IDK I find it sort of repulsive to be like “avoid these people, they are fucked up because people keep being jerks to them”, but I guess the reason trans people are fucked up doesn’t actually affect whether it is individually rational to avoid us.

          • Jaskologist says:

            With Scott’s previous post fresh in mind, I must doubt said studies, or at least the conclusions. I’d wager that any group’s suicide rate correlates pretty strongly with previous assault or being fired.

        • g says:

          There’s certainly a correlation between being trans and depression. It’s not hard to see a few reasons for that. Otherwise, the trans people I’ve known and otherwise encountered closely enough for my opinion to be worth anything have been exceptionally employable on account of being exceptionally smart. Of course their employability may be reduced by some employers being jerks.

      • Throwaway says:

        > Do you also inform your children about using caution around women, mixed-race and white people, and those age 18-29, given their higher rates of mental health issues? For that matter, do you warn your children not to hang around Lesswrongers? I have been analyzing the survey data, and we’re probably about twice as mentally ill as the general population.

        Taking into accouny the proportional rates of mental illness and violence , and for Imm’s point about many groups already being sensibly marked as dangerous by society (i.e. young men), the answer is “you betcha”. If you think I am misjudging the relative rates, then you’re a lot more likely to change my behavior by convincing me with data than by trying to shame me.

        As you admit to Imm, the question of causality is really not that pertinent. I want to be nice to people, but I’m not going to sacrifice (appropriately discreet) honesty to do so. I don’t feel bad when I warn others to stay away from schizophrenic homeless people even if those people are blameless.

        > Most cis women do not want to share the bathroom with someone who has a beard, large muscles, and a deep voice.

        Nor do they want to share the restroom with a person with a penis wearing a dress. Frankly, as a man, I’m fine with all the weirdos using the men’s room to spare the ladies both cases. We can just label the rooms “normal women” and “other”.

        • Hainish says:

          Nor do they want to share the restroom with a person with a penis wearing a dress.


          • Anonymous says:

            Care to explain why? It’s not very productive to post like this with no accompanying explanation or clarification

        • MugaSofer says:

          >Nor do they want to share the restroom with a person with a penis wearing a dress.

          How … would they tell, exactly?

        • Nornagest says:

          The whole restroom issue just sounds ridiculously petty to me. Back in college, my dorm bathrooms were shared by an entire floor of ~40 mixed-gender students, and after a certain amount of awkwardness during the first week, no one cared.

          There was a certain degree of self-selection, granted — about one in ten floors were women-only, and I’d expect them to be populated disproportionately by people who can’t stand the idea of a penis having been in the shower they’re using. But that still proves something about the base rates we’re dealing with.

          If it doesn’t cause problems for horny college students, it’s not going to cause problems for anyone else.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Anybody here have stats/more info on the claim that mixed race people have higher rates of mental illness? I’ve seen it floated around these parts a couple times, and as a practicing miscegenator, this seems important to be aware of.

        • ozymandias says:

          I just googled “demographics of mental illness.”

          • Jaskologist says:

            I remember the first time I landed at Storm Front. I was searching for something garden-relating. Took me a little while to realize what had happened, too, because the thread was relevant to whatever I was looking for.

            I’m less surprised to see them featuring so prominently in this search. But what disturbs me is that they may really be the only ones who will tell me the truth of the matter. It’s always a bad idea to give your enemies a monopoly on the truth.

        • Troy says:

          I would ask this question at either JayMan or Razib’s blog. It’s likely that they or some of their commentators would be familiar with this data, and would be rather more pleasant to discuss it with than people at StormFront.

  77. DavidS says:

    Surely the point on Napoleon isn’t that legitimacy or otherwise of this sort of identity is based on biological correlates, but rather
    a) presumed correlation of unusual identity claims with [other] mental illness
    b) the reasonableness of the associated expectations on others (‘get to rule France’ vs. ‘treat as a woman’)

    The first might be linked to the biological correlates point, but it might not. We would treat someone who thought they were the reincarnation of Napoleon differently based on if they thought this entitled them to Imperial rule. Just like with religion, where being ‘extreme’ is not really about wacky beliefs but about how those rub up against other people.

    • alexp says:

      Wouldn’t humoring someone who thinks he’s Napoleon mean that he gets locked up in St. Helena, rather than live in Versailles and rule Europe?

      • Anonymous says:

        Nah, Helena was a life sentence, so it has finished and he’s free to go. But, yes, not back to Versailles.

  78. stonecoldballer says:

    I belong to a community of extremely blue tribers, and in this world I’ve definitely heard arguments along the lines of “If you’re a straight man, that means you are attracted to women, and if you’re not attracted to transwomen than that means that you’re manifesting your transphobia, which is a moral failing you have an obligation to correct.” (I think a lot of trans people realize this is extremely unfair, but also probably have that desire to be seen as attractive in their declared gender identity role).

    You can see this argument implied here: “There’s one thing about this change that’s particularly exciting, aside from the chance to finally identify as yourself, and to seek out people who share your orientation: It’s going to make it much easier to identify transphobic and intolerant users so you can block or filter them out. The “unacceptable answers” section of the questions already allows users to do this to some extent (regrettably, the “required” option is no longer available, thus forcing users to manually click over and sort if they want to avoid, for example, fat-phobic anti-feminist dillweeds).”

    I think that there are a lot of people (I’m a slightly nuanced example honestly) that internally beleive A) Discrimination is wrong B) That discrimination is wrong in many cases for sexual preference (I have a lot of straight male friends that don’t want to date fat women. They’ve shared this information quietly and with a conveyance of guilt or embarassment at this fact. I know this isn’t a representative sample.) and C) They really have no interest in sexual relations with someone with male genitalia.

    One of the easiest resolutions available (though very unpopular to be public about it) is to rely on gender definition: “I’m straight, I’m attracted to women, I may need to indulge trans women due to respect for a mental disorder or social pressure, but let’s not kid ourselves that they really are women.” Here that attachment to definition is doing real work in justifying behavior the holder wants internally justified.

    • DavidS says:

      I think the interaction between discrimination and sexual preference is complicated. Not wanting to date fat women should be embarassing if you claim that your dating criteria are based on intellectual rather than physical qualities for example, or if you don’t date them because you’re worried about the social judgement of others (when you claim not to take said judgement seriously). There are consistency issues, basically.

      Plus discrimination could be just an aesthetic-type preference but could also be a symptom of your broader underlying feelings against fat people / people of certain races or whatever. If someone doesn’t find people who look chinese attractive, that’s one thing. If they date someone but stop finding them attractive when they discover they’re Jewish? That’s weird.

      The trans case is complex here too, as I think plenty of people would not want to date a trans person even if the surgery etc. was perfect, and could be in the situation of being attracted to someone until they found out they were trans. Which does feel more like discrimination than ‘I like genitals of X-type’.

    • veronica d says:

      But wait, if a man says, “I don’t like fat girls. I am not attracted to them.” do we then conclude that he is not straight? Or that fat women are not really women? That seems silly. Why is it different for trans-women-with-penises? If he is not attracted to them, this simply implies that there is a class of women he is not attracted to. Being straight does not imply “attracted to all women,” so disliking trans women does not contradict straightness.

      Also, it is worth noting that the cluster of men attracted to trans women are seldom attracted to cis men, but quite often attracted to women-in-general. In other words, men liking trans women seems to be a hetero cluster not a gay cluster.

    • ozymandias says:

      …I am confused here.

      Like, I don’t think being attracted to people of a particular gender implies being attracted to literally every member of that particular gender. You can be attracted to women, and not attracted to brunette women, and not claim that brunette women are somehow not women. Why would that be different for women with penises? If nothing else, that line of reasoning seems very unfair to straight men who are interested in trans women, of which there are many.

      In context, the paragraph you quoted is about being able to filter out people who don’t share your gender or sexual orientation. I think that’s obviously not about attraction; presumably, if someone were not attracted to you, they would not return your message, problem solved. It’s about a person’s gender and sexual orientation being Bayesian evidence that someone is okay with your gender and sexual orientation.

      • lmm says:

        Married people really do seem less gendered in my internal representation. Like, I don’t really put them in the same category, and I treat them in something closer to an average of how I treat men and how I treat women. I might point out the (apparent) sex of someone with an ambiguous name when mentioning them to a friend – but not if they’re married.

        I think a similar thing happens with races I’m not attracted to. If I thought of women of such races as women, pretty soon I’d notice that it was odd that I wasn’t attracted to any of them and I’d feel like a horrible racist and be sad. So they go in a different internal bucket, though of course I still use female pronouns and stuff.

        Which doesn’t explain why I don’t just do the same for trans folk. Maybe because many of them really are very much the kind of people I would expect to be attracted to, whereas race is quite correlated with my social groups, hobbies and all that? That kind of contradicts what I just said though.

        Hmm. I am evidently confused.

      • stonecoldballer says:

        So this first paragraph hopefully will also address veronica d’s comment. I was more trying to argue that the declaration that “transwomen were not really women” had some value in providing people with internal justification. Of course being attracted to a gender does not mean being attracted to every member of that gender, but when we identify categorical exclusions within that gender, we internally condemn ourselves.

        I tried to use fat women as an example because it’s the one that I’ve seen the most evidence for the existence of this discomfort. I.e. Over drinks I had a conversation with a friend who had been on a blind date with a woman I knew. He specifically asked me if he was a bad person for not being interested (he had yet to declare why he wasn’t interested). I point blank asked him if it was because she was bigger and he says “no” while nodding his head vigorously up and down to communicate yes. He had identified a preference, and clearly felt that preference indited him. He had no way of saying “she wasn’t really a woman” because the point wasn’t even plausible (although I have heard justifications such as “well I’m really into hiking/climbing/whatever and I really want someone who can do those things with me.” These justifications are weak at best.).

        The problem I’m attempting and so far failing to describe it the inability to hold a middle ground. Acknowledging that transwomen are women doesn’t obligate me to date them, but it does indite me as having a moral failing for being categorically disinterested. Unlike with fat women, I have some wiggle room to declare that transwomen aren’t really women and avoid having to either A) entertain the possibility of sexual relationships with them or B) acknoweldge the moral failing of my sexual preferences or behavior.

        This most obviously applies to sex but I think goes beyond it. And I think that to a certain extent some objection to “Transwomen are women but I’m not interested in dating them” is fair. Transwomen (if I am interpreting correctly) want to be fully acknowledged as members of the “women” group. If I create a bunch of “women” secondary characteristics, and include “women I’m interested in dating” as such a characteristic, and categorically exclude them, I’m by definition not fully acknowledging their womanhood. I really am otherizing them. That some straight men don’t do this is probably helpful but maybe incomplete.

        I’m a little uncomfortable even making this point because I think anti-trans arguments often jump to “People are going to make me date trans people” type hyperbole but I think some of the reason for that is that some people’s internal logic goes “If I acknowledge trans women as women, that means I have a moral obligation not to exclude them from my dating pool, and I don’t want to do that.” I really hope I explained myself better this time.

        As for the se smith article, I recognized the full context, but the language therein makes it clear. Declaring a lack of interest in dating trans people is “transphobic” which is a sin just like being a “fatphobic anti-feminist dillweed.” I think that this moralistic framework is entirely unhelpful, because transwomen (or fat women or whatever) would benefit from knowing if I’m uninterested in dating them, and I may choose not to reveal that preference if it means broadcasting that I’m a terrible person.

        • ozymandias says:

          I get this as a positive description of what happens, but on a normative level… why would one be obligated to include people in one’s dating pool? There are lots of people I categorically exclude from my dating pool. The problem here is that people have a silly belief about whether they are morally obligated to consider dating people.

          And I’m pretty sure that OKC has trans-related questions that aren’t “are you interested in dating a trans person?” that one can give transphobic answers to.

          • lmm says:

            Excluding a category from your dating pool is, in a very literal sense, discrimination. And probably also prejudice, and all these things we are told are evil. It feels like it belongs in the same category as crossing the street to avoid members of that group. Or at least, as not having any black/gay friends, which we all know makes you evil.

          • ozymandias says:

            No, it isn’t. Again, look at my brunette example: if you crossed the street to avoid brunettes, everyone would agree you were being ridiculous. Similarly, if you refused to be friends with any brunettes, that would be ridiculous. On the other hand, refusing to date brunettes is an uncontroversial preference. Physical attraction is relevant in a dating context but usually not in a walking-past-on-the-street or friendship context.

          • stonecoldballer says:

            I’m inclined to agree with you, as applying moral obligations to who we date causes all sorts of problems.

            On the other hand, It’s easy to have sympathy for people who have hard dating lives at least somewhat exacerbated by categorical exclusion. Black women and Asian men are good examples where they are societally seen as unattractive for reasons it’s difficult to argue aren’t racist. If racism causes Black women to be perceived as less attractive than other women, and I (a straight white dude) find myself categorically unattracted to Black women, then that more or less means I’m racist. And being a racist is a clear moral failing.

            I find it hard to argue with the above paragraph (except that I actually do find many black women attractive), but I also don’t have any solution for the person in that situation. “Hi, I actually don’t think you’re attractive, but I recognize my failure to find you attractive is a moral failing and I’d like to attempt to correct that by dating you.” might be the worst pickup line in human history.

            For sure you can put ugly answers of all sorts in your profile, but the technology being added to OKC was not flavored language, but instead broadening genedered ID and preference settings.

          • Creutzer says:

            Okay, wait. I’ve seen other hints at that before, but… Are most people attracted to such a majority of the opposite gender that someone not being in their potential dating pool is an issue, as opposed to the default? Or where does this notion that not being attracted to somebody requires a justification come from? I would never intuitively even phrase the question in terms of exclusion from a dating pool, but in terms of inclusion!

          • lmm says:

            @Ozy I’ll bite your bullet; refusing to date brunettes feels intuitively ridiculous to me. (Not evil, but brunettes aren’t a discriminated/protected category the way black/trans/disabled/etc. people are).

            @Creutzer: broadly yes. A majority of women? No. A majority of women in my age range and social context who are “objectively beautiful” (i.e. those whom my friends would find attractive)? Yes. If I wasn’t attracted enough to someone the majority of my friends thought was attractive to consider them as a possible date (in the sense of being in the pool prior to speaking to them – 30 seconds’ conversation screens out most of them), I’d consider that peculiar and worth looking for an explanation for.

          • Richard Gadsden says:

            I’m bisexual and very definitely not pansexual – I’m attracted to highly masculine and highly feminine people and not to androgynous people.

            It seems to me that categorical exclusions on any basis are essentially similar, and that categorical exclusions on the basis of sex are generally regarded as acceptable, so why should categorical exclusions on any other basis be any different?

            Only the most extreme pansexual activists demand that everyone should find everyone else attractive. I know at least one person who claims to be sexually attracted to all humans, but even zie doesn’t insist we all should be.

          • lmm says:

            @Richard it’s socially acceptable to treat people differently by gender in a variety of ways. It’s acceptable to draw distinctions between your male and female friendships that would not, I think, be acceptable if you made the same distinctions by race or sexuality. It’s acceptable to exclude certain groups – the stupid, the shallow, the ugly, rednecks – from your dating pool, but I’d argue those are the same groups it’s acceptable to not have friends in.

          • veronica d says:

            @Richard — Certain kinds of exclusion do seem to emerge from not-so-nice social reasons. Race is such, as it seems reasonable to suppose that our racial prejudices subconsciously affect our attractions. Thus if we favor social justice we should critique attraction, including our own attractions.

            Is monsexuality the same? In some abstract sense, perhaps. But at the same time our gendered dating preferences seem to function differently than other preferences.

            Maybe. I dunno. These things are complicated and we should let them be complicated.

            But here is the big point. One can say this: You should examine your attractions, look at how they correspond with social prejudice, and perhaps engage in some internal mind-hacks to try to broaden your attractions. (If you are willing. If you can.) Also, you should be willing to consider how your attractions are part of problematic structures. Likewise, whatever your attractions are, you should consider that how you talk about this matters, regardless of who you are willing to sleep with. It is one thing to, as a matter of fact, never be attracted to a fat person. That is different from making a big point of how unattractive fat people are. You probably do not need to say, “I don’t date fat people. They do not attract me.” Fat people hear this shit enough. No reason to add to that. Instead, you can simply not ask fat people out on dates. If one asks you out, you can politely decline.

            I believe what I just wrote is true, and it is utterly different from saying, “If you don’t date fat people you’re a shitlord.”

            Complaining about the latter when faced with the former is dishonest.

            So it goes for trans folks.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            I’m rather confused about this issue at the moment. On one hand, I agree that you don’t have any moral obligation to include someone in your dating pool. Your preferences are your preferences and you aren’t under a moral obligation to change them for anybody (well, I guess maybe you would if a UAI threatened to kill everyone else on Earth if you didn’t take a pill that made you like a food you’d previously hated, but under normal circumstances you have no such obligation).

            But on the other hand, I also have this feeling that being attracted to people for psychological characteristics is somehow nobler and more authentic than being attracted to people for their physical characteristics. And when I was younger I actually thought I had a moral obligation to recondition myself to find more body types of women physically attractive than I currently did. And I was moderately successful in doing that. I had no similar inclination or intuition for personality types.

            Currently I find pretty much anyone who is biologically female at least somewhat physically attractive, unless they have some sort of severely disfiguring medical condition (and sometimes not even then) and find postsurgical transwomen physically attractive.

            The types of personalities I find “mentally attractive” is considerably narrower. I feel pretty much no obligation or desire to expand it, although there are a few behavioral characteristics that I mentally categorize as “shallow and unimportant” that I do feel like I have some duty to overlook (mostly things like small mannerisms).

            At this moment I am not sure if I should keep my preferences the way they are, or attempt to find a larger group of people physically attractive. And I am not sure if I am doing this because I feel like I have a moral obligation to be physically attracted to more types of people, or because I have a personal preference to not be “shallow.” I sometimes wonder if I would take a pill to make myself bisexual if it became available, not because I want to be attracted to men, but because I feel like it would be shallow not to be.

            I am also wondering if I am wrong in lumping sex and gender in with “purely physical characteristics that it might be shallow to care about.” When I think about this subject I tend to lump gender in with weight and breast-size as an ornamental thing that shallow people care about. But after seeing how important it is to a lot of transgender people, I wonder if I’m thinking that mistakenly because I’m probably cis-by-default.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Or where does this notion that not being attracted to somebody requires a justification come from?

            It is pretty common to shame men for finding fat women unattractive. Preferring “your own kind” racially is also frowned upon, at least officially.

          • ozymandias says:

            lmm: Wait, you think it’s okay to refuse to be friends with ugly people?

          • lmm says:

            In practice yes – you won’t get called out for it like with blacks or gays. Openly stating it maybe less so, but that applies equally to not dating them.

          • veronica d says:

            [warning: moderate snark mode]

            @lmm — Fine, but doesn’t kinda suggest that it is okay to not be friends with you? Which, look, I see lots of people complaining about having to remember pronouns or otherwise being socially policed into respecting trans folks and their gender. They act like this is a huge burden on them. Again and again they say this. I think you said it.

            Which, perhaps it is a huge burden. I mean, I feel you. It must suck to have a messed up brain that makes you transphobic, when around you others have these cool brains that make them totes transpositive.

            Which is awesome cuz we get to socially ostracize you and you cannot complain cuz you feel totes okay ostracizing others.

            I mean, no one should have to justify stuff or anything. We should not have to work to accept you. We should just say, hey, it feels good to ostracize this person. Let’s do it more! Then we’ll go dancing with our hot trans friends.

            I wonder if I can get tons of people to agree with me?


            Anyway, I like to think we can all be a bit more thoughtful about our friendships and attractions.

          • Creutzer says:

            Yes, it’s okay not to be friends with arbitrary people, and it’s also okay for arbitrary people not to be friends with me. In fact, I can’t conceive of how this could be otherwise, because being someone’s friend out of obligation seems, on the face of it, to be a conceptual possibility.

            Although I’m not sure if the fact that most people here are American and the American usage of the word “friend” is weird makes a difference in this discussion…

            And I don’t think not being friends with someone is the same as ostracising them.

            I also don’t know how I could be thoughtful about attraction and friendship. I can be thoughtful about how I treat other people – I can’t be thoughtful about whether I like them on a gut level, which, unfortunately, does seem to be a prerequisite for being someone’s friend.

          • veronica d says:

            @Creutzer — My point is this: there are people on this thread who seem to resent having to use the correct pronouns for trans people. They resent any attempt to make spaces nicer for trans folk. They refuse to consider self mind-hacks to make themselves better around trans people, which is to say, they are unwilling to spend any effort. In fact, they make it quite clear they they are okay and it is trans folks who have the problem.

            They are allowed to feel this way. But we are allowed to feel as we feel.

            Getting pronouns right can be difficult. There is a cognitive load. But my point is this: there is also a cognitive load for putting up with selfish jerks. A group of kind hearted people, who are willing to pay the pronoun-load, might be unwilling to pay the jerk-load. A group willing to try mind-hacks might choose not to associate with someone who has entirely refused.

            This is politics.

          • Creutzer says:

            I agree with that point, but… unless I missed something, pronoun usage was never at issue in this particular discussion thread, was it?

          • veronica d says:

            @Creutzer — Not in this subtread, but I am tying in stuff that was said in other subthreads by some of the same people posting in this subthread.

          • Anonymous says:


            In order to better frame your comment, when you mean “keeping up with pronouns”, you mean calling people by the default pronoun of their self declared gender, or whatever pronoun they find more fitting (or do you think this distinction is irrelevant)?

          • lmm says:

            @veronica d If you’re accepting the moral equivalence then yeah, I am absolutely fine with that. Something like “some people are upset by trans people, some people are upset by people who are upset by trans people, neither of these groups is better or worse than the other, choose whichever one you’re happier in”?

          • Matthew says:

            If you are willing. If you can.

            Anecdotally, no. This does not work for everyone.

          • MugaSofer says:

            >I also don’t know how I could be thoughtful about attraction and friendship.

            Personally, I’ve found that often attractions I don’t like, or which seem to have negative utility, are often a result of inaccurate aliefs or beliefs and go away when I examine them closely enough. To pick an example relevant to Veronica’s wider point, I’ve gone from grossed out at the thought of interacting with someone sexually to quite attracted to them, simply depending on what gender I alieved them to be. It wasn’t actually hard to change that alief (“well, what if they were a woman?”) once I actually knew what was the problem.

            I don’t think I’ve ever done it, but I imagine the same thing could apply to friendship as well. The horns effect could be tainting your view of unattractive people; you might be basing your opinions of people on unflattering stereotypes; or you might be failing to apply the principle of charity to their political views and/or falling prey to the typical mind fallacy (“oh, they’re just selfish…”).

            All these things are fixable! And you might find the real person is more appealing than your image of them. (Or not. Hey, you can’t win ’em all. But I think most people are quite sympathetic, in reality.)

        • Steve Johnson says:

          stonecoldballer –

          Women are overwhelmed with dating offers.

          “Transwomen” are not.

          Some men belong to social circles that require them to say “transwomen are women” and some men really believe it in some sense. Next to none of those men then want to date those people.

          This is near certain statistical proof that these men are lying when they say “transwomen are women”.

          Everyone knows this hence the discomfort. Any one particular guy – sure maybe he’s not into that one guy even if he’s willing to call that guy a woman. All the guys aren’t into you – then no one actually believes you are woman.

          This is the focus of the anger. An intuitive grasp of this is also why some guys talk about being forced to date transgenders. We have to make sure they feel accepted, right? If so, someone has to do it. This same expectation doesn’t apply to women who call themselves men. There’s no implicit rebuke of your “identity” in being rejected by all women (there is the explicit rebuke of being rejected by all women which can happen to men).

          • Matthew says:

            Women are overwhelmed with dating offers.

            “Transwomen” are not.

            Even if true, this seems to prove too much. Fat women are apparently not women. Even more interestingly, single women apparently become ever less woman-y with age.

          • Steve Johnson says:

            Fat women and older women have no reason to doubt that they are women.

            On the other hand they doubt their own attractiveness and stress and obsess about it often, loudly, and publicly in clickbait articles.

          • llamathatducks says:

            This is a hilariously wrong claim. (Since you use “trans women are not overwhelmed with dating offers” as evidence that “trans women don’t count as women”, you must mean “all cis women are overwhelmed with dating offers”, else you’d be forced to exclude some cis women from the category of “woman”.)

          • veronica d says:

            There are men who like fat girls. There also are men who like trans women. There are men who like trans women a lot!

            These men also like other kinds of people. Usually those other people are cis women. Which is to say, the men who like trans women largely like women-in-general. They seldom are bi or gay identified, meaning they do not like, in addition to trans women, cis men. (Of course, some bi men like trans women, which is no surprise.)

            The point of this is, men who like trans women seem to be naturally part of a heterosexual cluster. This should not be a surprise, given how attraction responds to smell and touch, that “chemistry” stuff — and trans women entirely smell and feel like cis women. Whatever pheromones do, transwomen do it the same as cis women. However you respond to soft skin, you will find it on a trans woman just the same.

            Hormone therapy works. It’s amazing.

            If who-is-attracted-to-you determines your gender, trans women are definitely women.


            @Steve — When you said, “Fat women and older women have no reason to doubt that they are women,” you revealed that this was not your true rejection.

            Your argument is bad and you should feel bad.

          • Daniela Díaz says:

            “Women are overwhelmed with dating offers.

            “Transwomen” are not”

            You are very wrong.

      • Vaniver says:

        In context, the paragraph you quoted is about being able to filter out people who don’t share your gender or sexual orientation. I think that’s obviously not about attraction; presumably, if someone were not attracted to you, they would not return your message, problem solved. It’s about a person’s gender and sexual orientation being Bayesian evidence that someone is okay with your gender and sexual orientation.

        That’s not how I read it, and not how I’ve seen this sort of filtering used. When I use okCupid, I can ask it to only show me gay men, rather than just men who are interested in men, because perhaps I’m not interested in dating bisexuals. (The most visible and defensible use of this, perhaps, is in women dating men and not wanting the higher risk of AIDS that accompanies bisexual men, even if bisexual men are just as likely to return their messages as heterosexual men.)

        • ozymandias says:

          Yes, I’m working off the fact that it’s by SE Smith and on xoJane and therefore the acceptable explanation for preferring people of one’s own gender and sexual orientation is Bayesian evidence about whether they’ll oppress you.

          –I mean, SE Smith has almost certainly argued elsewhere that cis people are morally obligated to have trans people in their dating pool. Ou is simply not arguing it in this article. I’m a pedant.

  79. Anatoly says:

    Thinking about your argument some more, I realized why it makes me uneasy. Your argument doesn’t distinguish between two very different positions (to my mind), one of which is mine and the other is quite mean and distasteful to me.

    Let me posit a Polite Rationalist Transgender Denialist and a Mean Rationalist Transgender Denialist. These aren’t optimal because what’s being denied is not so much the phenomenon of transgenderism, but rather its explication in terms of “non-X brain trapped in a X body”. But if that caveat is charitably kept in mind, they will do.

    The MRTD is the one you describe in your post: “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.”

    The PRTD says something different: “I don’t believe that this is a man. The concept of a flipped gender-identity bit in the brain seems unlikely and has no strong evidence behind it. I believe this is a woman that likely feels something intense that we call gender dysphoria. We don’t understand well the source and nature of this feeling and to what degree it is innate. Out of deference to this person’s very strong desires, and charitably taking the view that these desires are beyond their control, I’m willing to call them a man, use the desired pronouns, support their right for SRS. That does not mean that I do or should move the conceptual boundary of “man” in my mind.”

    (the fact that the PRTD position came out much longer is probably a giveaway that that is essentially my view).

    Now the strange thing about your post is that in the first half of it, you argue against PRTD, that is, you try to convince the PRTD that they really ought to redraw the conceptual boundary of “man”, and not just be nice. I’ll continue to think about these arguments, but they don’t seem very convincing to me, and I think you haven’t steelmanned the PRTD view enough (hence my previous comment about otherkin).

    But then towards the end of your post you change gears and argue against MRTD, with the hair dryer and the Emperor Norton I examples. It’s as if there’s a sort of moderate motte-and-bailey going on here, although I certainly don’t claim it’s intentional. After all, the psychiatrist who suggested the solution didn’t at the same time convince themselves that the woman’s OCD was actually not OCD at all. The people who humoured Emperor Norton didn’t actually think that he was the emperor and they ought to obey his commands. They were just nice to him. These moving examples attack the mean guy, but they do nothing for the bailey, the PRTD.

    • Leo says:

      Interacting with people who use your name and pronouns to be polite, but do not really see you as the gender you see yourself as and keep using the wrong scripts on you is still painful. (Resulting in a hell of a mindfuck when that wrong role is advantageous, but tainted by the gender assocations.) This should save the “don’t be mean” arguments in this particular case.

      • Anatoly says:

        I’m not entirely certain what you mean by “using the wrong scripts” here (I mean, I can think of a few things, but I don’t know how central they are to what you had in mind). But insofar as doing so is painful to the self-identified transgender person, not doing that falls under the same sort of politeness as using the requested name and pronouns.

        • Leo says:

          If you’re perceiving the person you discussed above as a man on a gut level, and treating him like you treat other men (in terms of, say, personal space, eye contact, body language, conversation topics, how you include other people in the conversation, what reactions you expect of him), the boundary of “man” in your brain has moved. If you’re emulating that behaviour seamlessly without alieving he’s a man, that’s a really cool feat.

          • Lambert says:

            The distinction between “be of the opinion that they are a man’ and ‘place them in a little, intuitive ,semi-concious category of ‘men’ as opposed to ‘women’ ” is an important one.
            The former I do based on identification as a man, the latter seems, given my (few) interactions with trans people, more complex. (dependant on whether they have transitioned in certain ways, gender conformity etc.)

  80. Audrey says:

    I once had to go to a training session on working with people with personality disorders. At the beginning of the session, we had to get into groups and write down some of the ways we would expect people with personality disorders to behave. Unfortunately I had to go first in my group (of complete strangers), and I had no idea what a personality disorder was. The conversation went something like this:

    Me: What is a personality disorder?
    Person A: We don’t have to say that. Just say how you expect them to behave.
    Me: I don’t know what personality disorder means.
    Person B: We haven’t been asked to give some academic definition. Stop trying to define it.
    Me (makes up random characteristic): Are they shy?

    It gets written down along with behaviours offered up by other members of the group. I didn’t want an exact definition. I didn’t want a binary. I just wanted a general idea.

    A few years ago I didn’t know what a hispanic person was. I suppose in the US, the exact definition of a hispanic person is a person who self defines as hispanic. And somebody who wanted to be aggressive about it could just keep irritably saying that to me every time I asked. But it isn’t very helpful, is it? It is much more helpful for someone to inform me that a hispanic person in the US is somebody with a strong cultural or ancestral connection to Spain, Portugal or the former colonies of those nations.

    ‘The project of the transgender movement is to propose a switch from using chromosomes as a tiebreaker to using self-identification as a tiebreaker.’

    Which is one of the main reasons it is running into difficulties. A woman is a person who self defines as a woman doesn’t explain what the category woman means. It isn’t a boundary redrawing project in the way that fish = certain genes or fish= thing swimming in water is. It is equivalent to fish = organism called a fish.

    In which case everyone carries on with their previous general idea of what fish or woman or man means, and people hopefully courteously include trans people, but they remain an add on to the core understanding of sex and gender. And I think the transgender movement wants a bit more than that.

    • Toggle says:

      This is a very good point.

      Self-identification isn’t about a specific criterion, it’s about which person has the ability to determine what the tie-breaker is. A person of any stripe will have qualities that motivate them to identify as ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘nonbinary’, or something else. Those qualities may or may not be well-understood by the person in question, but at some point the self-identifying word coming out of their mouth is going to be determined by the state of the universe inside their skin.

      One person might identify as a woman because they really enjoy wearing slinky dresses, and another might identify as a man because they have a strong sense of body dysphoria related to their breasts. But the argument here is not that slinky dresses are a necessary condition of womanhood or that men must feel uncomfortable if they possess breasts. The claim is that a person should not have any criterion whatsoever for the gender of anyone other than themselves.

      In that sense, the ‘borders’ metaphor isn’t the best. Within that metaphor, self-identification is closer to some kind of right-of-exit anarchism. Borders operate by consensus, even when they’re scrambled in to weird shapes. Self-identification does not.

  81. Roman says:

    As I understood it, there isn’t really a clear way to delineate fish from other species phylogenetically, except with the word chordate. Salmon, killer whales and humans are all chordates.

  82. Salem says:

    Some thoughts:

    * There seems to be an analogy here to Body Integrity Identity Disorder, and related conditions. There are plenty of people, including doctors, who strongly object to the amputation of healthy limbs to cure this disease. I think that a lot of the objections you’re dealing with are coming from the same fundamental place.
    * More generally, I don’t think anyone denies that we should do “what works.” But works for who? As a psychiatrist, you are paid to help people suffering from mental problems. Fine, but that is not my relation to most people around me. I encounter people as clerks, as co-workers, as police, as friends, as enemies, etc. I am not, as a general rule, interested in solving their problems – I am interested in solving mine. How does this re-classification help me?
    * One of Napoleon’s points is that “all he wants” is absurd special privileges. I don’t think transgender people put a huge burden on the rest of us, but it is a real one, and yet it is normally couched in terms of hostile demands. I don’t think that helps.
    * I think we should all be respectful of transgender people, but it’s not because they “really are” what they’re claiming to be, or that such a claim matters. It’s because the kind of small accommodations that are normally necessary are no big deal. But when accommodations are a big deal, then I’m much less willing to go along with it.

    • veronica d says:

      Why is Fallon Fox a “big deal”?

      • Salem says:

        It’s not a reasonable accommodation to allow biological males to compete in a sporting arena reserved for biological females.

        • veronica d says:

          Fallon Fox has lost fights to cis women.

          The preponderance of medical evidence suggest she has no unfair advantage. This is controversial to the extent that a few doctors have made a career out of being “the person you pay to write articles saying otherwise.”

          The IOC accepts trans athletes based on the science. They require 2 years HRT and genital surgery. When other sports allow trans athletes, they typically adopt similar standards.

          Fallon Fox has had genital surgery. Her testosterone levels will be on par with a cis woman. They have been for years.

          Hormone therapy works.

          Fallon Fox has to weigh in like every other fighting athlete. Her T levels determine her ability to build and retain muscle. Likewise, it determines her natural level of body fat. However, even if she gets some small boost, she still has to cut weight. If her bones are more dense, she pays for that on the scale.

          Some cis women will, according to the genetic lottery, be better than Fallon Fox in many of these categories.

          Fallon Fox is very unlikely to dominate her division the way that Anderson Silva dominated his, when he was at his peek. Even if she has some natural genetic advantage, it is not unheard of in the sport.

          Trans women are rare. To be a trans athlete, you must not only be trans, which is rare, you must have amazing genes, which is also rare, and you must have the stamina to work very, which is rarest of all.

          • Matthew says:

            I think all of that is correct. But for least-convenient-possible-world discussion, it would probably make more sense to talk, not about a MtF who wants to compete in MMA, but about a MtF who wants to compete as an Olympic sprinter. The difference being that no amount of hormones is going to change the fact that men’s hips are angled more narrowly than women’s hips, and this does make a difference for maximum running speed.

          • veronica d says:

            @Matthew — Trans women can compete in the Olympics right now. Have any won that event yet?

            Even if a male skeletal structure gives an advantage, does that advantage completely eclipse the natural variation found among women? Empirically the answer seems to be no. There is already a huge genetic component to be a serious competitor. Only a small number of people are really gifted enough to compete at that level. Thus for a trans women to do so, she must in a sense win the “genetic lottery” twice [1], once to be trans and once again to have “gifted athlete genes.” This seems less probable than being a super-gifted cis woman.

            [1] I don’t actually think trans stuff is genetic. However, it is similarly rare and unchosen.

            One thing to keep in mind, competitive athletes are typically fairly young. Hormone therapy works much better in young people compared with older people — including skeletal changes!

            Yes, if you transition in your 20’s can get womanly hips. I know women who experienced this. It is rather unsettling, tbh. I know another woman whose feet shrank three sizes.

            Hormones fucking work! You have no idea.

          • Richard Gadsden says:

            @veronica d In the specific case of the Olympics, there is another problem; there were a number of second-tier male athletes that were forcibly transitioned by East Germany in order to enter them into the women’s events. From memory, I believe one of them won a gold medal in the discus, but I could be wrong.

            In order to prevent involuntary genital operations on athletes, the Olympics introduced sex tests for female competitors. These were specifically intended to catch transwomen and prevent them competing.

            Obviously, the right solution is to allow people who have transitioned voluntarily and not those who have been forced to transition, but – especially in a context where there are lots of competitors entered from authoritarian regimes and governments entirely prepared to lie about the degree of voluntariness involved in the transition and prepared to threaten both the athlete and their family – that seems like a dangerously unenforceable rule.

            The end of the Soviet Union and its satellites has made this concern less pressing, and rights for transwomen more pressing, so the Olympics have changed their rules.

            But, if China or some other authoritarian state started hacking genitals off male athletes to enter them in women’s events, then I suspect that they would be forced to change back.

          • veronica d says:

            @Richard — Well, the IOC has already decided to allow trans athletes, so they presumably no longer consider the “forced transition” thing to be a problem. Or perhaps they trust their own ability to police the situation. I don’t know. I was not in the room when the decision was made, nor can I account for every terrible country worldwide. I am talking about athletes here in the west.

            You people are wrong on the facts about trans athletes. So the question is, do you let the facts change your mind? Or do you keep shifting goalposts and exploring the broad space of off-topic arguments?

            What is your true rejection:

          • Anonymous says:

            Veronica, could you be specific about what Richard was wrong about? Everything that your comment implies he did not know he in fact explicitly stated.

        • RCF says:

          Perhaps we should reach a consensus about why it is unfair for cismen to compete in women’s events, before we try to figure out whether it’s unfair to allow transwomen to compete in women’s events. If we can’t explicitly articulate what values women’s events serve, then it’s going to be rather difficult to decide whether transwomen harm those values.

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        I’m guessing that Salem is referring to the concern that Fox’s body having been male in the past gives her an unfair advantage over women who were born with female bodies.

        I think the way to resolve this problem is to look at the overall goals of MMA-fighting and ask whether allowing Fox to participate would subvert them. The way I see it, the primary purposes of MMA are to entertain the viewers and allow athletes to participate in competitions where they have a reasonable chance of victory.

        My cursory reading of Fox’s Wikipedia page seems to indicate that that her once having had a male body does not give her such a significant advantage that all the fights with her would be boring to watch. It seems to me that most female MMA fighters would still have a decent chance of beating her.

        Now, let’s imagine an example where that might not be true. Imagine in the future body-modification technology has advanced to such an extent that otherkin can implant their brains into animal bodies. An otherkin who has placed herself in a grizzly bear body wants to be an MMA fighter. In this case I would say that allowing her to compete would subvert the purpose of MMA fighting and should not be allowed (although I guess a couple exhibition matches might be pretty funny to watch).

        • Anonymous says:

          In that case, they would be impeded by the lack of a bear division in MMA tournaments.

          • Kacey Now says:

            Agreed. I’m completely uninterested in MMA as it exists currently but will definitely tune in once they have a trans-species division.

        • Anonymous says:

          You might change your mind when you see how a fight between a transbear and a transcoypu plays out.

          EDIT: Clicking is hard, I’ll trust you to figure out where this was supposed to go.

        • 27chaos says:

          “Not impossible to beat her” seems like the wrong standard to use in determining whether her competing is fair. You sound a bit like people denying that racism or poverty holds people back in today’s world. Our judgement should be based on degrees of advantage and marginal probabilities of winning. If she gets any kind of noticeable advantage, it seems wrong. Imagine a future where all the fighters be transwomen, and the ciswomen are all competed out. To me this seems like an obviously not intended outcome.

          OTOH, there are natural variations among women in things that help them compete. To some extent, this has probably already happened. We don’t have any disabled women competing in this, yet I don’t have a problem with that nor do I consider the advantage that abled women have here artificial. This suggests it’s only status quo bias. But with the right hypotheticals, it feels like almost any standards I would apply would seem like the product of status quo bias. So I’m not sure how to resolve the tension between these intuitions.

          Perhaps the standard we should be using is “whatever the audience wants to see is what they get”. Since I suspect almost all of the the audience consists of 1. men with typical sexual preferences and 2. ciswomen who want a role model who shows them their bodies have the potential to be strong or someone who gives them the vicarious experience of having a strong body, this argues that Fox should not be allowed to compete.

          But then this seems to lead to tyranny of the majority type situations. But maybe that’s okay when it’s just TV?

        • Andrew says:

          The fights aren’t just supposed to be entertaining. There is an explicit interest in making the sport fair, as a sport. To keep the matches, the rankings, the whole process legitimate. There’s a whole set of values behind that, which if you compromise on them, will destroy the currency of the titles that attract top talent.

          (Trying to create a real sport is not the same thing as trying to create a competitive reality TV show.)

          • 27chaos says:

            I don’t see how allowing transwomen to compete is unfair to the competitors. Just like how we don’t say that it’s unfair to disabled women who want to have fights that abled women are allowed to compete in them.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Depends on what the goal of women’s sports is. We do, after have, have the Special Olympics and the Paralympics, where we don’t let abled people compete.

            I figure the goal of women’s sports was to allow women to compete at a professional level, which simply wouldn’t be possible if they were competing against men*. Maybe this is to give little girls role models or just because we want to give athletic women a chance; I don’t know, I don’t care about any sports.

            If the rules for entry into the women’s leagues become “the person says she’s a woman,” then I could see it pretty quickly turning into a league for men who couldn’t quite make the men’s league but are still a lot better than 99% of women. I doubt that fulfills the goal of a women’s league.

            *How true this is depends on the sport, of course.

          • veronica d says:

            @Jaskologist — No one here is suggesting that all self-identified trans women be allowed to compete in sports. The current rules require two years of HRT, full-time gender presentation, and genital surgery.

            In fact, most trans women do not qualify as most trans women never get genital surgery. Those who do often do so later in life when they have more resources. For these women it is likely too late for serious sports.

            (Personally I would remove the surgery requirements, at least for amateur competition, as the real differences are the hormones. A doctor’s note indicating that the competitor is on hormones and that their levels are within rage for cis women should be adequate.)

            (Since hormone management seems to be a central part of the pro-athletics game, surgery to removes the gonads should be adequate. Many more trans women get orchiectomies compared to full genital reconstruction.)

            (Regarding pre-puberty, just let them compete, provided they show a persistent cross-gender identification.)

            (Regarding high school, being on the HRT path should be adequate. These people are either blocking puberty or literally going through their correct-gender puberty. There are zero concerns here.)

          • Jaskologist says:

            I think Scott is suggesting exactly that. “The project of the transgender movement is to propose a switch from using chromosomes as a tiebreaker to using self-identification as a tiebreaker.”

            Nothing there about surgery or hormone treatment. I’m pretty sure under your definition ozy could not claim to be a real trans. The reasoning in the OP cuts very much against your attempts to exclude those people from women’s sports. It sounds like you just want a third definition for “woman” which fits neither the current usage nor Scott’s (and presumable many trans’) proposed one.

          • ozymandias says:

            It seems perfectly reasonable to me that I am a woman for the purposes of sport and a nonbinary for purposes of which pronoun you should call me.

          • veronica d says:

            @Jaskologist — It is true that Scott was using a self-identification model. However, he did not mention athletics. Instead, @Salem did. Specifically, @Salem mentioned Fallon Fox, an actual transgender athlete who has been the topic of controversy.

            Obviously the question “is this person a woman” and “should this person be allowed to compete as a woman” are related. However, right now trans people are fighting for inclusion, and a requirements for HRT before you compete seems a reasonable social compromise. The fact is, the vast majority of trans women are on HRT. It is a rare set who chose not to take hormones (usually for medical reasons, which means those women are unlikely to be competitive athletes anyhow). “Two years HRT” includes most trans women.

            The requirements for surgery are more burdensome. To me it seems plausible that those could be relaxed. Maybe someday. In any event, we should work to broaden access to genital surgery anyway. (A few states now require insurers to cover SRS. More will follow.)

            The question of athletics is separate from pronouns, gender markers on ID, bathroom access, EOC status, etc. I argue that trans women are women and should receive maximal accommodations matching cis women, with limits only when required and entirely justified.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Frankly, it reeks of unprincipled exception to say “this person is a woman” but then turn around and say, “oh, but not in the case of sports.” Sports aren’t special; male/female leagues are probably one of the least important gender issues out there.

            If you think everybody should treat folks who say they’re women as women, then treat them as women. If you think we should bow to someone’s self-identification as women because that’s nicer and won’t distress them, don’t flinch and come up with extraneous criteria to avoid following the same logic with otherkin because you happen to find them especially weird.

          • veronica d says:

            @Jaskologist — I don’t disagree. However, in this case the politics seem to require compromise. And honestly, most, most, most trans women take hormones anyhow, and most would get genital surgery if they could afford it, so politically the better fight is for access to surgery. That will help far more women right now than challenging the current IOC standards for trans athletes.

            (The trans women who do not take hormones typically don’t because of medical reasons. The proper response to such women is to love them boundlessly.)

            And while I support self identity as the critical decider for trans status, I do think it reasonable to require persistent gender identity, which is to say, the oft heard criticism such that “all you have to do is say you are a woman” misses many details of what actually happens. For example, I think it reasonable that schools and athletic organizations request a doctor’s note.

            I also think that doctor’s note should be fairly easy to get, even for poor people. But that is a different conversation.

            The lives of trans people are complex. The concerns regarding trans people seldom come from a place of knowledge. People who are critical of trans folks usually have arrived at that opinion before learning very much. When they learn more, they usually ignore things that support trans folks and only listen to other critics. This process obviously leads to falsehood and injustice.

            I would expect the SCC crowd to do better. In practice they do not.

  83. F1E8E55F says:

    Next thing she starts worrying about how her oven might be on and could start a fire. The hack was elegant and hopefully sufficient.

    But it’s really a bet to assume that what underlying condition which caused her to worry about that hair drier, as well as the acquired habit of worrying about how her house will likely catch fire, won’t at some point be transposed to some other focus.

    At which point it’s all really a question of whether a few weeks/months/years spent not looking for a treatment to that underlying condition really made a difference in one way or the other (and how that same time spent not worrying and at last having a life made her feel better and maybe recover a bit). I guess that’s the cost/benefit analysis relevant here.

    (I live with someone like that. Heck, after years of it, and even after debunking it for years, and never really ever having been worried about such things, and knowing how vanishingly unlikely there could be any issue, even I get nervous/get similar fears from time to time now – while my partner has gotten better at ignoring it – go figure)

  84. J. Quinton says:

    A while ago I met a white guy who said he self-identified as black. He wore dreds, spoke in a mildly Rastafarian accent, etc. My gut intuitive reaction to him was mild offense with a dash of humor and gave him a bit of a “you’re a weirdo” look. I don’t identify as Rastafarian, and don’t have any real strong identity with being black. So I imagine that if I *did* strongly identify with being black/Rastafarian, my degree of identification would multiply my feelings of offense and/or “you’re a weirdo”; possibly boiling over towards violence and/or thinking that he was mentally ill. I also didn’t talk to him for any extended period of time. So I don’t know if he got offended if people called him white instead of his preferred race.

    I don’t really have any extended experience interacting with trans* people, but I figure it’s not really my problem; people can self-identify as whatever gender they want because gender is a social construct. But then I met this guy, and while race is also a social construct, this guy claiming to be black just feels wrong. Is it wrong to feel that this guy is doing something wrong by identifying as black? Is this feeling of wrongness on my part exactly how anti-trans* people feel about trans* people?

    I think I’d rather go back to play Dragon Age: Inquisition.

    • primality says:

      To me, the weirdness of his claim comes from the CATEGORY ERROR it produces. At least to me, “black” is a factual claim about skin colour and other cosmetic characteristics, while “Rastafarian” is an identity thing that he is completely free to claim.

      • lmm says:

        Female feels as factual as black to me.

      • Ken Arromdee says:

        Isn’t that begging the question? If gender isn’t a factual claim about genitals and chromosomes, why should I assume that “black” is a factual claim about skin color?

    • Princess_Stargirl says:

      I personally think we should accept people who are trans-ethnic. I think (assuming he is not making a joke or something) it would be morally praiseworthy for you to try to honestly accept him as black. But if you can’t you can’t. All of us could be more praiseworthy.

  85. Elissa says:

    Sorry, I can’t read this because I’m too grumpy to deal with what you think Southerners sound like

  86. Anatoly says:

    I think there’s a stronger argument against yours than “trans-Napoleon”, and I expected you to tackle it as I was reading through the post. What about the otherkin? The trans-Napoleon tends to be trotted out as a hypothetical; the otherkin are real, they are here, there are many of them, and (according to them) they experience strong species dysphoria.

    What is it about your argument that the boundaries of “man” should be redrawn does not apply to otherkin, if anything? Should we accept – not just out of courtesy, but with a sincere redrawing of our conceptual boundaries – that a bat-kin is an actual bat and not an actual human?

    • veronica d says:

      Transgender identities are neurologically plausible, which is to say we do not understand who gender works in the brain, but we know something is going on, so it is not a stretch to guess that trans people experience what they say they do.

      We all develop from similar embryos, and it is only minor wiggles-or-waggles of a few proteins that determines what sex organs you get, and those in turn determine what hormone levels you will get, and those (it seems) largely influence how your brain develops. And there are all kinds of bits and pieces in this process that can zig instead of zag. Much can happen. It’s complicated.

      Elves on the other hand are not real, so there is no meaningful way a person’s brain could someone develop “elf structures.” Likewise for vampires.

      Wolves are on a rather different part of the evolutionary tree, and there is little reason to suspect that primate brains have some hidden propensity to develop wolf-specific structure. Likewise for cats. Likewise for ponies.

      • Ken Arromdee says:

        Scott’s argument is that categories are flexible and that specific physical traits need not control what we put into categories. Having a human brain structure is just as much a physical trait as having particular genitals or chromosomes. It would be strange indeed to say that physical traits are irrelevant to how we classify transsexuals, but that suddenly physical traits are controlling when deciding how we classify otherkin.

        So I don’t think your response is one that Scott could consistently make.

        • veronica d says:

          Which, perhaps we should make allowances for otherkin. But that is not what is being argued. What is being argued is this: “the claims of otherkin are the same as the claims of trans people, so the two sets of claims must stand or fall together.”

          What I am arguing is that the claims of trans people are not the same as the claims of otherkin, as the claims of trans people have a plausible neurological explanation whereas the claims of the otherkin do not. They do not stand together.

          • Ken Arromdee says:

            The two classes of claims are the same *in relevant ways*; Scott thinks that whether there is a neurological explanation is irrelevant.

          • veronica d says:

            I’m not sure if that is precisely what Scott thinks.

            Look at it this way, let’s say the central node in the neural diagram above is “woman” [1]. Trans women have some but not all of the surrounding nodes. They also have a certain political and social status. Whether we fire the central node “woman” depends on a cluster of factors, which we model as weights on the graph. Those weights can change. This is a social/political process.

            Thus you are not speaking truth when you say that the central node should not fire unless all surrounding nodes fire. There is not one correct set of weights.

            Which is indeed the same for the otherkin. We could make the same changes for otherkin that we do for trans people. That is a possible political outcome.

            But should we?

            I don’t know, but I insist there are differences in the situations to make these separate questions. For trans folks, they do indeed have many of the surrounding nodes. This matters. To accommodate trans people, we need to change only a few weights. (Particularly for binary-identified trans people. Non-binary people are a greater challenge.)

            For otherkin things are different. Someone who claims to be a cat shares literally none of the surrounding neurons with real cats, except for those shared by pretty much all mammals. Thus the claims of otherkin are very different. What they request is a radically odd region in concept-space.

            Thinking out loud: in some ways the requests of non-binary people seem more radical than the requests of otherkin. However, I think this is an illusion, according to the fact that I do not think we can fully conceptualize what it would mean to erase the species barrier. Non-binary genders are closer, so we can feel them.

            Also note, I’ve never actually met an otherkin who thinks this way. Most who I know kinda engage playfully with their otherkin status, which is quite different from trans folks.

            Which does not mean that you cannot find that person on Tumblr, but this really feels more like a fake argument to challenge trans folks than something real.

            [1] Make the obvious generalizations for trans men. Make the more complex generalizations for non-binary people.

          • Ken Arromdee says:

            veronica: The cluster of weights argument is a plausible argument, but I don’t think Scott is saying that. Scott says that category boundaries can be chosen, and phrases it in fairly absolute terms. I don’t think it would be reasonable to read that as “category boundaries can be chosen, but only within certain limits”.

            Scott: “in no case can an agreed-upon set of borders or a category boundary be factually incorrect.”

            “there is no fact of the matter on whether a whale is a fish. The argument is entirely semantic.”

            You are proposing that facts do contribute, and Scott seems to think they don’t.

          • veronica d says:

            Well, I won’t argue about what Scott really meant. He is here. He can comment.

            That said, the LW sequence makes this stuff clear. While the mapping between concept-space and thing-space can be changed, the choices are not without consequences, nor is the social process to achieve change “free”. But what should be understand is people form categories for motivated reasons. The refusal to change categories is also motivated.

            Trans people are changing language. Cis people (many, but not all) are cooperating. The reason they do this seems to be largely humanitarian. People have come to accept the psychological reality of gender identity. They are willing to view transition as the (imperfect) outward expression of a real inner self.

            Which to my view is a pretty wonderful thing.

            But of course, this process is political, with all that implies. Tribes form. Decent people say horrible things. Moloch laughs.

          • Izaak Weiss says:

            See, but now you two are just arguing about whether to draw the categorical boundary between people who identify as transgender and people who identify as otherkin. It’s not exactly a factual argument, is it?

          • Creutzer says:

            The argument is about factual questions that are relevant to deciding whether it makes sense to have a category that comprises both of them.

        • DrBeat says:

          This is why I think this is a bad argument. If the line we draw is based on “what you identify as”, you get to make choices that dictate how everyone else is obligated to treat you on penalty of shaming/shunning/psychologists beating you with wiffle bats. That’s an incredibly bad idea; it’s saying “We have made a society where all members are obligated to put up with infinite amounts of bullshit and humor each other’s every inane whim, on penalty of being a Horrible Horrible Person who society should annihilate.”

          Definitions may or may not be real things. But other people’s bullshit certainly is, and accepting this worldview would leave its adherents no defense against it.

          I don’t give a fuck what you ‘identify as’ — those words have no value to me. What you “identify as” impossible to independently verify as real, and there is no way to (on this criteria alone) separate people with actual, real conditions from people who are lying or self-delusional because they just loved all the attention and specialness and victimhood “identifying as” something afforded them. I am not obligated to give you attention, I am not obligated to treat you special, and I am not obligated to worship your victimhood, just because you want people to give you those things. And any claim to the contrary is so dissonant with the concept of independent thought that it can be dismissed on its face.

          The reason why people should accept transgender as being a real thing is factual, based in neurology, and the biological process of gender differentiation in the womb. It is NOT “what will it hurt to just be a little nice to people?”, it is “Let other people completely and unilaterally dictate how you are allowed to react to, respond to, and think about them, and then blast you with shame for stepping out of line.”

          In fact, I’d go so far as to say that any time you have an argument that concludes with “The only cost of this is that you’re just a little nicer to people”, you have drastically fucked up somewhere along the line.

          • DrBeat says:

            Gah, I dropped a line in the second to last paragraph, I wish I could edit these

          • peterdjones says:

            Do you care to any extent what peoplecall you?

          • Tracy W says:

            How is being one gender rather than another meaning you get treated specially? In general, close on 50% of people are male and 50% female, so it’s not like switching gender will move you into some unusual category.

            If anyone does want lots of attention and specialness, it would be much easier to stay the same gender and join a group normally dominated by the other gender.

      • ozymandias says:

        I have no problem with saying otherkin identify as cats or wolves or whatever.

        • Ken Arromdee says:

          But would you say they *are* cats or whatever?

          • ozymandias says:

            …Depends on what you are using the word “cat” to mean? If you are using the word “cat” to mean “furry creature with a tail”, then of course not; if you are using the word “cat” to mean “being with a deep internal sense that they are a cat”, sure.

          • Ken Arromdee says:

            Would you say that they are cats in the same sense that you would say that a transgender person with male genitalia and chromosomes is female?

          • ozymandias says:

            A transgender woman with a penis and XY chromosomes is female in the sense of her self-identification, her social role, and (perhaps) her hormones, and male in the sense of her genitals and her chromosomes. Similarly, I am nonbinary in self-identification, nonbinary/female in social role, and female in sex (as far as I know).

          • Kiya says:

            The definition “being with a deep internal sense that they are a cat” is interesting because the furry creatures with tails we ordinarily think of as cats probably don’t qualify.

          • Ken Arromdee says:

            ozy: I don’t think that answers the question. That answer doesn’t mention otherkin at all! I wanted to know if you use the same principles with respect to “cat” and otherkin as you do with respect to “male” or “female” and the transgendered.

          • ozymandias says:

            Okay, then. “Is Ozy a girl?” is a bad question. Ozy is a girl in the sense that they have a vagina and a uterus and an estrogen-dominant system; there is no controversy about this, except perhaps in some corners of neoreaction. Ozy is not a girl in the sense that being called a girl makes them very sad, and in the sense that they have managed to persuade a lot of people to stop seeing and treating them as a girl. Many trans people have tried to get the term “sex” to refer to the first meaning of “girl and the term “gender” to refer to the second meaning of “girl” to prevent exactly this sort of confusion.

            Similarly, “is Ozy’s otherkin tumblr mutual a cat?” is a bad question. Ozy’s otherkin tumblr mutual does not possess most of the traits one would normally associate with cats, such as fur and a tail; again, this is uncontroversial. Ozy’s otherkin tumblr mutual is a cat in the sense that being called a cat makes them happy and that quite a lot of people are like “ah, yes, so-and-so is a cat”; unfortunately, they cannot be treated as a cat in the same way that Ozy can be treated as not-a-girl, as the role of “cat” was not designed for sapient beings and the role of “not girl” was.

          • Audrey says:

            A lot of confusion would be cleared up if we didn’t refer to both gender roles and gender identity as gender. I think it would aid communication to return to calling gender roles sex roles.

          • Anonymous says:

            I find that appeals to plausibility in this case fall a little flat, being that the reason this is even an issue is that a sizable group of people think the concept of trans is, in itself, implausible. So it works, but only for people who already agree with you.

            I think we can agree that this is unsatisfying, as the people who already agree are the ones who least need to be convinced.

          • Creutzer says:

            The non-biological meaning of “cat” is a bizarre disjunctive category because even non-biologically, there isn’t much that a biological human can have in common with a cat even on non-biological dimensions.

            Human minds don’t really do categories that are extremely non-convex in the relevant dimensions in thing-space. The gender meaning of “girl” and the whale-including meaning of “fish” are possible with relative ease because you exclude certain dimensions (physical characteristics, and genetic relatedness, respectively) from consideration, and on the remaining dimensions, these categories are nicely convex (i.e. not bizarrely disjunctive).

          • Daniel Speyer says:

            The definition “being with a deep internal sense that they are a cat” is interesting because the furry creatures with tails we ordinarily think of as cats probably don’t qualify.

            And what fraction of people we ordinarily think of as “men” and “women” have a deep internal sense of being that?

          • Richard Gadsden says:

            “And what fraction of people we ordinarily think of as “men” and “women” have a deep internal sense of being that?”

            That gets referred to as “cis-by-default”. There are definitely some women who are cis-by-default and have found that being a woman sucks (as compared to being a man) and get deeply annoyed at transpeople because they think they’re trying to duck out of solving the problem that men and women are treated as different.

            That’s the most generous interpretation I can put on the phenomenon known as the TERF.

          • veronica d says:

            @Creutzer — +1. Thanks for adding convexity to the conversation. That adds much. Also, the idea of connectivity should be considered.

            Now, I don’t draw bright lines. Surely it is possible to have non-convex regions in concept-space. Even non-connectivity will at some point prove useful. But these things have costs. They introduce cognitive load.

          • a person says:

            if you are using the word “cat” to mean “being with a deep internal sense that they are a cat”, sure.

            I really disagree with this. I am ~90% sure that otherkin are just making it up for attention.

          • Ken Arromdee says:

            “The non-biological meaning of “cat” is a bizarre disjunctive category”

            Well, you can say that. You can say that classifying transsexuals as their mental gender is a more convex category than classifying otherkin as cats, and therefore is more justified. But I don’t think Scott consistently can. Scott’s argument just says that the classification is arbitrary and not based on facts. His argument lacks nuance; there’s no allowance for “is more or less arbitrary” or “both can be based on facts to different degrees”–they are or they aren’t.

          • 27chaos says:

            I don’t believe it’s true that this person really has a “deep internal sense that they are a cat”. If they do have that sense, it is because they don’t know what it actually means to be a cat and are just confusing their imagination or the cultural ideal of catness for the reality of catness.

            Other than the word spelled “c-a-t”, what signs are there that they are truly a cat? Actual cats are kind of terrible, if you look at them objectively. They don’t even have thumbs.

            Does this person ever glue fur to their arms? Do they crawl around on all fours whenever in private? If not, then this suggests their problems are of a fundamentally different kind than the problems transgender people have.

          • Jaskologist says:

            There are plenty who say that trans women don’t really have a “deep internal sense” of what it’s like to be a woman, and end up looking like caricatures instead. Trying to dismiss otherkin because you find them ridiculous sounds like the epitome of the unprincipled exception.

          • 27chaos says:

            The absurdity heuristic is a heuristic for a reason.

            Nonetheless, I’m not relying on it in my argument. I’m saying that none of the behavior of other-kin actually matches what you’d expect it to if they actually were suffering from a body problem like transpersons do. They are only superficially similar, is my view.

          • RCF says:

            @veronica d

            Are convexity and connectivity just being used metaphorically, or are there well defined meaning?

          • veronica d says:

            @RCF — I am using this with their well-defined meanings [1] [2]. However, I am abstracting how we think about “concept space” and “thing space,” assuming that we already have a mapping between base reality (whatever that might be, like quarks or strings or whatever) and some numeric representation, which I guess we should imagine as the activation pattern in a neural network (our brains!). Once we have that we have the notion that each “object” is a point in concept space and that each conceptual category is a region in that space. Regions can be connected or disconnected. They can be convex or not.

            I think this is sufficiently close to how brains work to make it a useful tool to talk about categorization. I’m pretty sure the basic idea comes from LW.



          • Lizardbreath says:

            @Richard Gadsden:

            So like, this:

            “There are definitely some women who are cis-by-default and have found that being a woman sucks (as compared to being a man) and get deeply annoyed at transpeople because they think they’re trying to duck out of solving the problem that men and women are treated as different.”

            I like, and so I’m strongly tempted to just laugh and thank you and elide any remaining inaccuracy. Because it’s short, snappy and funny, and it is close to accurate.

            But to *be* short and snappy and funny it does have to sacrifice accuracy. Of course.

            Writings do exist explaining the actual position. Those writings state a position that:

            * Yes, transpeople are “trying to duck out of solving the problem that men and women are treated as different.”

            * But we’re not “annoyed” at them for it. We deeply sympathize. As individuals, we’d like to duck out of solving that problem too.

            * Transpeople’s continued gender-role-taking is not a problem because of “trying to duck out of” dealing with men and women being treated differently. It’s a problem because it’s *contributing to* men and women being treated differently. Yes, there *is* also a minor element of, “They could be helping us, but they’re hurting us instead”; that’s very much like the standard lament of the liberal, “But these poor whites are ‘supposed to be’ on *our* side!” But that’s really only a minor incidental side emotion, easily dismissed. Every transperson who vanishes into a standard gender role is a loss of one anti-gender fighter, yes; but *every person trans or not who begins performing a standard gender role is also a gain of one gender role enforcer*, and that’s the real problem.

            So then I get to this:

            “That’s the most generous interpretation I can put on the phenomenon known as the TERF.”

            and I’m like…now that’s a problem.

            That’s a *sign* of a serious problem. That a short, snappy, funny summary of some of but *not* all of *what they actually say they believe*…is *the* *most* generous interpretation you can think of?

            Steelman fail. 😉

            But it’s more than just that. Because people understood where we were coming from and, even if they disagreed, they didn’t demonize us…

            And then they did.

            From my perspective as a generation Xer and former Ms. boards reader, that change was pretty sudden.

            And pretty extreme. To go from “Yeah, I get that gender roles hurt you, but they don’t hurt me so oh well,” to “Die cis scum!” and pontifications about the need for “generous interpretation”…

            And really, on the internet, in my experience, that happened practically overnight. (:cough:millennials:cough:)

            And the new people…couldn’t even seem to grasp the initial, and main, point that *gender roles are hurting us*.

            Really, the whole, “Hey friends, how ’bout not continuing to reify those roles that hurt us, ya know?” was really only ever supposed to be a side point.

            :shrug: Oh well.

        • von Kalifornen says:

          I really don’t want to have a line of reasoning end in Therefore Otherkin Are Invalid — the realistic option would be to give them a walled garden, which honestly social media sucks at — it optimizes for being able to find walled gardens at the cost of roving bandits finding the walled gardens.

          OTOH identifying as something nonsapient… is kind of a problem.

          • Ken Arromdee says:

            If you are using the same boundary-drawing argument, “identifying as something nonsapient” is a nonissue because you can put “nonsapient” outside the boundary just like you can with trans-relevant traits. Transwomen are women even if they have a penis; otherkin really are cats even if they are sapient.

          • Creutzer says:

            No, it is an issue, because something non-sapient cannot identify as anything. Transwomen have in common with cis-women that they identify as women, and you just exclude from consideration some properties that they do not have in common. That doesn’t work in the other case: you cannot have self-identification as a cat in common with cats, because cats don’t self-identify as cats.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Non-sentient animals absolutely have self-identification. You can even screw it up (or, from the perspective of domestication, turn it in a more useful direction). See imprinting.

      • Anatoly says:

        >Transgender identities are neurologically plausible, which is to say we do not understand who gender works in the brain, but we know something is going on, so it is not a stretch to guess that trans people experience what they say they do.

        I think this argument works better in reverse. We know something is going on, true: the subjective experience of gender dysphoria, as told us by trans people. Now, it so happens that the subjective experience of species dysphoria, as told us by otherkin, seems remarkably similar to gender dysphoria: you tend to see the same descriptions of being uncomfortable with “wrong” body organs, anguish at being unable to do the “right” things and so on.

        Now “neurologically plausible” is a big vague to me, because if I believe that gender dysphoria is real (and I do), there must be something happening in the brain that corresponds to it; I just don’t think that that something is a “gender setting” that was “flipped” due to some reason. So let me talk about a “gender setting” instead. If we agree that there’s no plausible explanation of otherkin self-described species dysphoria as a “species setting” in the brain having been “flipped”, then the similarity of the self-described symptoms suggests that the same may be true for gender dysphoria.

        • Hainish says:

          But, we know that there appears to be a “gender setting” (for many people, if not everyone).

          • Head Stomp says:

            I imagine most people raised as cats would end up identifying as human.

          • Kacey Now says:

            @Head Stomp
            My understanding was most feral children never totally integrate into human society. People are both hardware and software, genes and memes.

            @Anatoly & others
            I imagine that feral children have imprinted their identity on animals in a way that informs their identity at a far more fundamental level than otherkin experience. If gender also has a socially transferred component, it’s possible that transgender people imprinting strongly on the opposite gender at a young age is a partial explanation.

            My suspicion is most otherkin are not as strongly imprinted on animal identities since there’s limited ways this could be transferred to them, both genetically and socially, but perhaps early children’s television programming could, to a lesser extent, impart a limited anthropomorphized animal identity.

          • Rash92 says:

            The point isn’t that there are no gender settings, there are. The question is whether trans people actually have it flipped or not.
            As head stomp says, if you tried to raise a human as a cat, they would still revert to feeling human. We can agree that other kin don’t ACTUALLY have a species setting flipped in their brain, but they seemingly have similar symptoms to trans people.

            The question is whether transness is caused by a flipped gender setting, or some mechanism that is more similar to what causes otherkinness.

            It is plausible that the answer is yes, there is a difference, because the gender setting seems like it should be more easily flippable than the species setting. But there is still ‘mechanism unrelated to flipping a setting, similar to mechanism that causes otherkinness have’ to consider.

            Luckily this is answerable by actually looking at the brain, and it seems it is linked to setting flipping.

            Overall I don’t think I agree with having the definition just be ‘eat gender you self identify as’, and the reason for the comparison is that otherkinness self identify as cats etc.

            If there actually are significant physical neurological differences, then include those physical neurological differences in your definition of male and female, if you need to refer to them as a binary at all. Preferably, we can accept that they’re not clear cut categories, and say that trans people don’t fit because they share some characteristics with both genders.

      • Jaskologist says:

        I’m not sure what “neurologically plausible” is supposed to mean here. Isn’t every belief or feeling neurologically plausible? A brain is doing it somehow or other. I am quite sure there are some people out there who genuinely feel like they’re elves/vampires/cats/mice because there is somebody out there with just about any brain thing you can come up with.

        I just don’t see the relevance of how many brain switches had to be flipped to get there. Even if we had a brain unswitcher, it wouldn’t tell us whether we should actually use it or not. You’re talking is in an ought discussion.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      I think we can resolve your objections by the word with what it stands for.

      What exactly do transgender people want us to do, when they want us to think of them as a different gender? They want us to not treat them cruelly when they do things that are not stereotypical of their assigned gender. They want us to refer to them by the pronoun of the gender they want to be identified as. They want us to allow them to engage in social situations that are typically reserved for the gender they want to be identified as. Sometimes they want support in modifying their body so it more closely resembles the gender they identify as. All these things generally seem reasonable to me.

      If you chance “redefine your gender categories” into a list of actual concrete things to do it becomes a lot clearer.

      What do otherkin want? I’m not really sure. I don’t think they want us to assign them the same social roles as the animal they identify as. I assume they want us to not treat them cruelly, which seems reasonable to me. If we discovered some safe way to implant human brains into animal bodies I wouldn’t object to an otherkin doing that. Heck, if the process is reversible I’d probably do it once or twice for curiosity’s sake.

      I can’t extract as many concrete requests from otherkins as I can from transgender people, but what I can seems reasonable. If an otherkin transplanted their brain into an animal body would you consider them a human or an animal?

      • ozymandias says:

        In my experience they mostly want people to accept that some of their experiences can, in fact, reasonably be described as “I am a cat.” And this actually seems like a correct factual claim to me (which is not to say that that’s the only framework one could put on those experiences– I used to know a ghost otherkin who basically had the same experiences I have when dissociated, it’s just that I called the experiences “dissociation” and he called it “being a ghost”).

        • Creutzer says:

          That’s a weird desire for them to have. For one thing, I don’t even know what on earth it’s supposed to mean that “an internal experiences can be reasonably described as ‘I am a cat'”. So I’m not sure I’m in any position to believe or disbelieve that.

          • Steve Johnson says:

            “So I’m not sure I’m in any position to believe or disbelieve that.”

            Which is exactly the point.

            The more absurd the thing you’ve believed the more validation the person inflicting this on you has gained.

            In 1984 they torture Winston Smith to say and even believe that 2+2=5 because that’s obviously false and both of them know it. Some people get off on torturing other people and are too weak to actually do it so they use weakness to torture people. “But I’ll feel really bad about it if you don’t go along!” Backed up with (when they’ve gotten more social power) “I’ll isolate you and harm you socially if you don’t go along!”

            I’m sure you can figure out the next steps. Best to avoid people like that all together but if you have to interact with someone like that don’t give in the first step.

          • llamathatducks says:

            [replying to Steve Johnson]

            I’m not sure if you’re currently talking just about otherkin or about transness also, but:

            Generally, the penalty for not recognizing someone’s gender is that you don’t get to hang out with that person. Which seems to be perfectly okay with you. It would only be analogous to the torture situation you describe if you didn’t have freedom to leave.

            But also, cf. the OP: calling a trans woman a woman is false only if “woman” is an immutable category which can never be redefined. But currently lots of people are in the process of redefining it. If you use “woman” to include trans women, you won’t be hopelessly confusing or outright deceiving everyone the way you would be if you used “2” to mean “2.5”.

          • ozymandias says:

            Well, dissociation is a real thing, and “ghost” is a very reasonable framework to put on it (in fact, I usually describe dissociation as “feeling fictional”). So I tend to assume that other otherkin have some other kind of brainweirdness going on and just happen to have chosen very odd frameworks for it.

          • Anatoly says:


            I think it’s somewhat disingenuous of you to say that the penalty is “you don’t get to hang out with that person”. Try writing an article about Bradley Manning that refers to them as a man, for instance. Lots and lots of well-meaning people (generally blue tribe people, but not exclusively) will absolutely *despise* you. They will not think that you just exercised a personal choice that simply means Manning won’t want to hang out with you. Nor will they think that you were mean and impolite. No, you will have done something very very evil, something way more evil than, say, calling Manning a traitor and demanding their execution.

            If you do it in private company rather than in a public article, you may still very well get shunned and ostracized depending on your social circles.

            Now, I’m not saying this is unequivocally wrong, Stalinist or whatever. Social norms, exist, change and it many cases I’m totally fine with them, so it would be hypocritical of me to claim that it is apriori illegitimate to shun and ostracize people for “misgendering” Manning. I’m just saying, let’s be realistic about what’s going on here: not simply a matter of private politeness and getting to hang out with people. No, it’s an ascendant social norm that brooks no disagreement. The norm aims to make it as unacceptable for you to refuse to honor a person’s declaration of preferred gender/pronouns (regardless of degree of transition, passing, etc.) as to call them a fucking kike.

          • llamathatducks says:


            Ok, I have to think about this more.

            I’ll make this correction to my original statement: if you persist in using the wrong pronouns for a trans person, the penalty is that you don’t get to hang out with that person, most other trans people, and those cis people who feel strongly about accommodating trans people. This is still a far cry from “torture”.

            It’s slightly analogous to how hazing, as practiced by e.g. fraternities, is probably repugnant to lots of people. It’s probably even similar to a lot of state torture techniques. But I’m not nearly as outraged by hazing as I am by state-sanctioned torture, because all we have to do to avoid hazing is not join fraternities, whereas state-sanctioned torture is not possible to escape if someone decided you must be tortured. If not being able to be part of pro-trans social circles is more distressing to you than not being able to join fraternities, that just says something about your priorities, not the relative power of those people.

            Personally, I think it makes perfect sense to avoid people who deliberately refuse to accept trans people’s gender. As this post makes clear, this refusal is cruel. It privileges a somewhat arbitrary* category over actual people’s psychological well-being.

            *I don’t necessarily mean that there’s no coherent definition of “man” that excludes trans men, although there are certainly edge cases besides transgender people. I just mean that (again, as this post explains) the decision to cling to this definition is kind of arbitrary.

            It is true that once enough people share the same preferences/standards of behavior, it becomes a norm in some areas, and possibly eventually a norm in most of society. I think I have to think more about how to combine this with my strong feeling that it is ridiculous to say that trans people’s pronouns are enforced so strongly that this enforcement amounts to torture.

    • tagormickn says:

      Different proposals for redrawing category boundaries have different practical effects, similar to different proposals for redrawing country borders.

      I think the argument here is that we should make boundary changes if the practical effects of doing so are good, and in particular do so in the gender case if you did not already have the one they are proposing.

      Agreeing with this argument does not commit you to agree to any other boundary change in future or on any other topics, unless you consider those boundary changes to have good practical effects.

      • llamathatducks says:

        This. The claim that boundaries can be redrawn doesn’t mean that they must be redrawn in every somewhat analogous case.

  87. JME says:

    Sometimes I feel like people selectively use taxonomic distinctions for snobbery more than clear categorization. Although I might be strawmanning.

    “Of course birds are dinosaurs! Any clade of dinosaurs that excludes birds is paraphyletic and dumb! Whales definitely aren’t fish though, they’re mammals. Orangutans are monkeys? Are you stupid? They’re apes!”

  88. alexp says:

    I haven’t finished reading the article yet but just wanted to leave this comment first:

    You clearly haven’t met any real rednecks in your life, have you?

    • CAE_Jones says:

      Oddly enough, “fish” is one of the words that I would be least likely to transcribe oddly if writing in dialects. (I don’t really like “ah” for “I”, but I can’t come up with anything better, unless it’s a very confused Hangul or IPA symbol, so I let that standard alone.)
      But there’s a point to be made, so Scott’s hypothetical Duck Dynasty Bearded Redneck can say it “feesh” if he wants.

    • The Anonymouse says:

      Cut Scott a little slack; he doesn’t know any Republicans, either. 😉

      • Matthew says:

        I think that’s backwards. It seemed from his orginal tribes post that he does know Republicans; the problem was that they weren’t particularly Red Republicans, at least outwardly.

    • George says:

      Yeah, that whole section kinda rubbed me the wrong way. I wasn’t necessarily offended by it, but it was a pretty bad caricature — one that set off all sorts of “member of the outgroup trying to impersonate ingroup” bells.

      Having an accent that everyone automatically codes as uneducated and stupid kinda sucks, and so does seeing it reinforced in text.

  89. Error says:

    Hail Emperor Norton I!

    Coming from an IT background, it seems to me that categories in the sense you mean are a sort of lossy compression. Instead of compressing data for transport between one computer and another, we’re compressing ideas for transport between one mind and another. It works fairly well on data that fits the compression algorithm — stuff that meets all or most of the expected criteria for the category packs easily and unpacks accurately — and badly on data that doesn’t. Tell someone the criteria expected of a planet or planetoid, and tell them which you consider Pluto to be. Assuming they don’t know anything about Pluto through other sources, their unpacked model of Pluto is going to be inaccurate no matter which you choose.

    On the other hand, specifying all attributes of a concept when trying to transport it to someone else’s mind — i.e. speaking to them — is terribly inefficient. The whole business looks to me like another cognitive shortcut, frequently used inappropriately, because it is so frequently appropriate that we forget to switch it off.

  90. Troy says:

    Scott, you seem to suggest that there’s some kind of distinction between the meanings of different kinds of words which I don’t see. For example, you write that

    In the same way, statements like “whales have little hairs” are brute facts. Statements like “whales are not a kind of fish” are negotiable.

    I don’t see the disanalogy. “Whales” and “fish” are English words which have certain meanings, ones which could presumably change were people to start using them differently. But the same goes for “have,” “little,” “hairs,” etc. (With “hair,” one could easily run the same kind of argument you’ve been running, about, e.g., whether fur counts as hair.)

    You might bite the bullet and make any statements negotiable. But this leads to such philosophical horrors as denying the analytic/synthetic distinction, the Humpty Dumpty theory of meaning, and “truth is whatever my peers will let me get away with.” Let’s not go that route.

    In the particular cases you mention, although I’m not familiar with ancient Hebrew, I think that even many ancient taxological classifications tried to do some kind of “joint-carving” in nature. This was certainly Aristotle’s ambition in his biology. In fact, Aristotle distinguished fish from whales precisely because he observed that the latter bore live young.

    The meanings of words can, of course, change; and whether we should change them will often be a largely practical question. (Although changing word-meanings is also hard to do intentionally.) But terms like “mammal” might well pick out a natural kind in nature whether or not we’re aware of the nature of that kind.

    In our case, that fiat is “use genetics and ignore all other characteristics” but some other language, culture, or scientific community might make a different fiat, and then the borders between their categories would look a little bit different.

    I think it’s actually a little more complicated than this (unfortunately). If I remember correctly, birds are phylogenetically reptiles — that is, there’s no way of classifying different organisms according to most recent common ancestor so that we get all the animals we call reptiles in one group without getting birds in there as well. But in ordinary English speech “reptile” arguably does not refer to birds.

    (This might be a genuine case of ambiguity; I think it’s got a better claim to it than your “feesh” example, at least.)

    • Illuminati Initiate says:

      Words are (usually*) representations of either real things, like what we call “hair” and “whales”, or thought-to-be-real things like what we call “unicorns” or “gods”. This does not imply what you say it does, because while people might use words differently, this does not change the things they refer to. It might cause communication issues, but we can still have have philosophy without truth meaning whatever you want it to. Does the existence of Spanish invalidate all English philosophical statements? Of course not, Spanish is just a different commonly agreed upon way of representing concepts. Just think of Humpty Dumpty as if he was speaking Italian or Chinese or something: you might need a translator, but the stuff he refers to still makes sense. If I use “unicorn” to mean what you mean when you say “bar of soap”, and you use “unicorn” to mean the common usage, and when Bob says “unicorn” he means what we call “mermaid”, then I would be correct to say unicorns exist, and you would and Bob would both be incorrect to say that unicorns exist. The map is not the territory.

      *There are some words and phrases that genuinely appear to not refer to anything real or imaginary but which people use anyways for reasons I cannot understand: “free will” in the philosophical sense being an obvious one, “objective morality” is another one.

      • Troy says:

        Illuminati: If I follow what you’re saying correctly, then I agree that it’s in principle possible for us to use “unicorn” to mean those three different things. But I don’t think that we either have complete control over the meanings of our words, or that we’re always correct about what our words mean. Consider philosophers’ interminable debates about the meaning of the word ‘knows.’ Most of them are wrong about the meaning of the word, including out of their own mouths; they can’t just make this common, ordinary English verb that they use all the time in non-technical contexts mean what their theory says it means.

        Similarly, someone might be mistaken about what they mean by ‘mammal,’ ‘whale,’ etc. It’s not just our explicit intentions or beliefs that count; facts about how we acquired the word, how we use it, how we would apply it in various hypothetical scenarios, etc. all matter too.

      • Illuminati Initiate says:

        Oh, I forgot to mention that words can also refer to known-to-be-fictional things as well like “Harry Potter” or “Death Star”

    • Anonymous says:

      I had a similar issue with this piece.

      Scott writes as though it is a property of certain words or certain kinds of things (and, no offense, but completely disregarding Use/Mention throughout the piece didn’t help the clarity here) that debates concerning them are verbal. So ‘gender’, ‘boundary’, and ‘fish’ are on the verbal side, ‘hair’, ‘testosterone’, and ‘river’ on the other.

      This clearly will not do. You can have perfectly substantive debates using any of the words in the first category. Someone can deny that Namibia’s border stretches to the Zambezi not as an expression of radical pro-British Empire politics, but instead due to misremembering a map. On a road trip you can be incorrect about what state you are in. These matters are as factual as any about hairs.

      You have to specify a specific disagreement between specific parties to determine whether a dispute is verbal; question types or sets of seemingly contradictory sentences cannot represent a verbal dispute on their own.

      On this and other points, I think your piece would have benefited from using Chalmers’s “Verbal Disputes” as your jumping off point rather than the sequence article ( He’s a lot clearer on these points. He’s also clearer on the question of why we stop at treating particular nodes as the factual ones rather than running another layer of how-an-algorithm-feels at the level, a question Eliezer is completely silent on.

      • Grifty says:

        Can you clarify your comment about the use/mention distinction? I can’t quite figure out why its absence is a problem.

        • Anonymous says:

          Scott writes a lot of things like, “But there is no fact of the matter on whether a whale is a fish” in the post. But when he says this, what meaning is he using for ‘fish’, our meaning or Solomon’s?

          In neither case is there not a fact of the matter concerning what the relevant sentence expresses. If he’s using our meaning then ‘fish’ doesn’t apply to whales and if he is using Solomon’s it does. You have to go metalinguistic to give a perspicuous description of what’s going on.

          If that was all that was wrong I’d admit to being somewhat pedantic. But I think this issue is related to the main one I highlighted above. Statements of ‘Whales are fish’ are not inherently non-factual or part of verbal disputes. It depends on the specifics of the dispute and the intentions of the disputants.

    • Tropylium says:

      Not only are birds phylogenetically reptiles — whales are “phylogenetically fishes” (although so are birds and frogs and humans), at least as long as we wanted to maintain animals such as sharks or lungfish inside the “fish” clade as well.

      Of course, the lesson to take from this is that phylogenetics can be weird and doesn’t map well to typology; that “fish” is not a phylogenetically useful concept — and which is probably why we see no one championing for e.g. renaming starfish into “starurchins”.

      (Though this raises the question: where did the meme “whales aren’t fishes” come from, then? I guess it still has the value of communicating that their morphological similarities to regular actinopterygian fishes in particular — e.g. fins, leglessness, furlessness — are convergent evolution, but that seems like an awfully fine-grained point.)

      • Anonymous says:

        Linnaeus cared about phylogeny, and that’s the key turning point. But Aristotle observed that whales have hair, lungs, and uteruses and declared them not fish (though probably not mammals, either).

        • Hainish says:

          Wait, I thought Linnaeus didn’t care about phylogeny.

          • Anonymous says:

            Technically, phylogeny means descent, which is not what Linnaeus was about. But he believed in a tree, which is what I meant, and close enough for most purposes. His categories were single branches according to his tree. If you told him about common descent, he would have endorsed phylogeny and would have been happy to have an explanation of his tree, but it wouldn’t have changed his categories much. Maybe it would have suggested that the tree should be binary, but maybe not. That he has lots of paraphyletic categories is an error not a difference of goals. Natural selection explains why he systematically made that error.

            I’m not sure any of this, including my original comment, is really relevant to Tropylium’s question. People were always saying that there were discrete categories and that whales either were or were not fish. I brought up Linnaeus because it seems to me that before one could have argued that there was a continuum and maybe whales were halfway between, but I don’t think anyone actually did. Whereas, Linnaeus argued that life had a tree structure, which ruled out such claims.

            It’s certainly true that the meme that whales are not fish originates with Linnaeus’s categories and not Aristotle’s, but the real question is why it wasn’t quashed by the Darwinian push for phylogeny. It may be just that the shift took a century and hasn’t percolated into popular science.

      • Hainish says:

        no one championing for e.g. renaming starfish into “starurchins”.

        Actually, people are calling them sea stars nowadays, to avoid the confusion.

        • Anonymous says:

          I am told that there is a convention that compound words are false and phrases are true. So “star fish” would imply that it is a fish, while “starfish” implies only that it is not a fish. (An exception is allowed if the adjective is “false.”)

          • Hainish says:

            You’re probably right, but most people who think starfish are fish are probably not going to know that. (Here’s a good link to the sea star/starfish controversy.)

          • Jaskologist says:

            Sailfish, billfish, swordfish, bluebird, horseshoe.

            On the other hand, “horseshoe crab.”

          • Anonymous says:

            Sure, there are lots of common names that fail to fit the convention. But the point of the convention is for scientists to put pressure on the common names that is less severe than starfish → sea star.

          • RCF says:

            It seems to me that the general convention is that the second word describes its actual category, while the first word is allowed to be metaphorical; hence no one complains about a star fish not being a ball of incandescent plasma.

    • Lambert says:

      I fully support cladistic classification, if only because it means that my grandmother has, in her kitchen, a small dinosaur called Joey.

      (also, IIRC, fish does not correspond to a clade, and the common ancestor of two fish may be before the common ancestor of a fish and me.)

      • Richard Gadsden says:

        Ray-finned fish are a monophyletic clade and comprise the overwhelming majority of fish. The remaining fish are the lobe-finned fish, the group that does include tetrapods (land animals) but also coelacanths and lungfish, plus all the non-bony fish. Exactly which aquatic non-bony chordates you count as “fish” is a bit of an arbitrary question.

        It would be perfectly sensible to restrict fish to the ray-finned fish, regarding coelacanths and lungfish as something else (NOS in the psychological categorisation system) and then the non-bony aquatic chordates as yet something else – ie “sharks are not fish”.

        It makes more cladistic sense.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think there’s a distinction between “whales don’t have hairs” (because that is not how the world is) versus “whales don’t have hairs” (because I define ‘whales’ and ‘hair’ differently from you).

      The second is pretty easily solved, at least in principle, with a game of rationalist taboo. The first goes all the way down.

      I realize that some philosophers make a much bigger deal of this distinction or of the difficulty of this distinction, which is why I think something like positivism is useful. In the first type of disagreement, we will eventually expect different empirical evidence/sense-data. In the second, we won’t.

      • Troy says:

        Yes, there is a distinction. As Anonymous above helpfully points out, the second example is confusing use and mention. The reason that whales don’t have hairs is not because we define ‘whale’ and ‘hair’ in a certain way; our definitions have no impact on the world (well, on that part of the world). However, the reason that the sentence ‘whales don’t have hairs’ is true is partly due to our definitions; i.e., it is partly due to the meanings of ‘whale’ and ‘hair’ in English.

        I think we disagree about the nature and significance of disputes over word meaning on several points. First, if we disagree over whether the English sentence ‘whales don’t have hairs’ is true because we disagree about what the English words ‘whale’ and ‘hair mean, this is an empirical, factual disagreement, inasmuch as there’s a fact of the matter about what English terms mean (hence why non-native speakers, and even native speakers, can be mistaken about what a word means).

        Second, the way in which word meaning is fixed is a lot more complicated than just the cluster of concepts typical speakers associate with a word (e.g., “fish” and “breathe through gills, have tails and fins, possess a certain hydrodynamic shape, lay eggs, and are in a certain part of the phylogenetic tree”). Mid to late 20th century philosophy of language really took off when people realized that this crude descriptivism was untenable.

        A simple example: suppose that most common English speakers associate with Columbus “first European to discover America” and “proved the Earth was round.” Both of these descriptions are false of Columbus, but that doesn’t mean that these speakers actually refer to (say) Leif Erickson when they say “Columbus was the first European to sail to the Americas.” (This sentence, after all, would be false, rather than true, out of their mouths.)

        It’s a matter of much dispute what does fix word meanings, but examples like this show pretty conclusively that it’s not just a majority of concepts associated with the word or anything like that. For my part I’m sympathetic to a more sophisticated descriptivism that privileges certain descriptions; but whether that’s right or not, the important point is that not all descriptions count or count equally, and so the question of what, say, ‘fish’ means (or what it could mean) cannot be settled just by looking at what concepts are associated with it.

        Third, and a corollary of the above: we are very fallible guides to what our words mean. This applies both to ordinary English terms and to allegedly technical or idiosyncratic usages of words. It is possible for us to use words to mean something different than they mean in our public language, but it is not as easy as many people seem to suggest. This is why I think the rationalist tool of “taboo”-ing words is (often) problematic. Normative concepts, for instance, are deeply ingrained in the way we think and talk about the world; and I do not think it is practically possible to taboo ‘ought’ or say, “By ‘ought’ I just mean… [insert obvious empirically verifiable thing here]” without contradicting oneself in one’s language elsewhere.

        I think all of this has implications for the more politically sensitive topics discussed in the post, but I’ll leave it to others to draw them.

      • Troy says:

        Because I can’t help myself, and because I hadn’t seen the logical positivist post before:

        Hume’s Fork (or, at least, the way in which it is deployed in the Enquiry) confused at least four different distinctions: the analytic/synthetic distinction, the a priori/a posteriori distinction, the certainty/uncertainty distinction, and the necessary/contingent distinction.

        Which of these distinctions come apart in reality, and when, is a matter of philosophical dispute, but they are all at least conceptually distinct, and should be kept distinct in philosophical discussions.

  91. gattsuru says:

    Interestingly, one of the biggest transgender-support organizations in the world directly descends from Emperor Norton (though not like that!). Because it’s either a small enough world for everything to be connected, a big enough world for even insufficiently surreal results to brute-force together, or both.

    On the other hand, if you can come up with three examples where the Rationalist identity as Committing To What’s Actually True isn’t actually the right thing, I wonder if that’s where it ends. It seems like nearly every sort of human interaction has these sort of underlying false categories, and even “human interaction” may not be a true separate magisteria.

    Of course, I’ve argued in favor of believing untrue things elsewhere, for less obvious cause.

    Caveat : it’s really hard to find good evidence for or against the effectiveness of gender reassignment as suicide prevention. Anti-reassignment folk universally point to studies comparing reassigned transfolk to the general population (!) while I can’t find much serious scientific debate on the current standard of care at all. The LessWrong!rationalist thing would involve offloading assessment to the relevant experts, but that’s another place where I think the rationalist movement requires further thought.

    • Anonymous says:

      There’s a difference between “named after” and “descended from.” There’s a century interregnum between Emperor Norton and the Widow Norton.

    • Fezziwig says:

      > On the other hand, if you can come up with three examples where the Rationalist identity as Committing To What’s Actually True isn’t actually the right thing, I wonder if that’s where it ends.

      That’s not what I took from this post. Committing To What’s Actually True is equivalent to Committing To The Territory, but Pluto’s planet-ness is pure Map. In fact, all words have that quality! Definitions can’t be true or false, only useful or not useful.

      Well, put that way it sounds trivial. But even if it’s easy to understand, it’s hard to live by.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Approaching definitions from a useful/non-useful standpoint, the post above would seem to be arguing that the use for the male/female definition is “makes a person feel good.” But that’s a highly non-rationalist criteria, and not the use most people have for male/female.

        What’s the principled difference between calling a man a woman because ze wants it that way and saying that God exists because it is distressing to think that He doesn’t? Sure, maybe you’ll have to redefine “God” as “beauty and order in the universe,” but how could you be opposed to that if it makes people happy?

        • Luke Somers says:

          If everyone used the word that way… go ahead?

        • Ariel Ben-Yehuda says:

          “X is a woman” is primarily a predicate of X, so we can sanely have it be “If you ask X they claim that they are a woman”, but “God exists” doesn’t have such a free X, so we can’t really have it as “The person you’re talking to says that God exists” (how did that person get into the picture?).

  92. Shenpen says:

    @Ian Osmond

    >Because they think that Nature/God is aware of categories.

    They must be, theism is not possible otherwise. Their god isn’t just a force like Chi or the Tao or the Force, but an intelligent personal being. Intelligent means thinking in categories – no other way. Beings who think in categories probably create a categorized world. For example people who created the Skyrim world made it so that something is either a giant or not a giant.

    Creationists are right that evolution is in a way an argument against theism. Because if there are no clear categories in nature, it is just a “blob” why do we need a personal god to make, cannot either a materialistic process or e.g. some impersonal Jedi-style Force kick it into being?

    • Kiya says:

      “Intelligence means thinking in categories – no other way”?

      We mere mortals, though we tend to like categories, can comprehend things like whales or Pluto or ostriches that are outliers from the category centers we normally use. Sufficiently advanced intelligence means thinking in categories and in any other way that is helpful for achieving your goals. (I am not clear on the goals of the god that is what he is. But I see no reason why they can’t have included creating a universe that includes outliers from categories that appear natural to those experiencing that universe from a human perspective.)

      If there are actual creationists (you do not sound like one) who object to evolution on the grounds that an intelligent god who has opinions about humanity would not have made a changing world without clearly delineated objects, I think they are missing an opportunity to marvel at their god’s range of expression.

      Ian Osmond’s true-naming magic system angle is interesting though. In my plot-focused readthrough of Genesis I didn’t parse Adam’s naming all the things as cosmically significant — I took it as God saying “okay, you should get yourself a language, let’s start with some nouns” — but all the transmutation in Exodus (staffs/snakes, water/blood/frogs) makes more sense in a system where to know something’s true name is to have power over it than one where you have to actually build a snake out of molecules. (Maybe a universe-creator can build a snake out of molecules on behalf of his prophets, but I’m dubious about an Egyptian court wizard. And seriously, if building a snake out of molecules on the fly is no problem, but you can’t handle gnats, I do not understand your magic system at all.)

      • Jaskologist says:

        Categories are basically mental shortcuts. It’s not clear to me that an omniscient being would have any need for them at all, since they wouldn’t provide any extra information.

        • Anonymous says:

          I think they’re more clever than that. If we take the route of Scott, saying, “Some of these abstract categories are imprecise shorthand for a list of properties,” then there are two problems. First, it leaves room for the existence of true, correct categories. Second, and far more devastating, it requires that we have a category – properties.

      • Shenpen says:

        Of course I am not, I mean it entirely the opposite way. The primary reason I am atheist is that I don’t really trust reason and logic that much either, the world is not inherently logical at best accidentally at certain points. And the world lacking categories demonstrates it well.

        Logic itself requires categories, because “all sheep are white therefore no sheep can be black” requires the category of sheep. How could you have logic without categories?

        Beause the world does not have categories, it is not inherently logical, and a not inherently logical world does not require a personal creator – at “best”, some kind of impersonal god, Jedi-Force, Chi.

        • Matthew says:

          Logic itself requires categories, because “all sheep are white therefore no sheep can be black” requires the category of sheep. How could you have logic without categories?

          I’m not a logician, but this does not match my amateur understanding of ordinary propositional symbolic logic. If I says that No A’s are B’s and All C’s are B’s, I can conclude that No A’s are C’s without having any referents for A, B, or C.

          • Shenpen says:

            No, it is about the application of logic to phenomena. To apply logic to the phenomenal world you need to assign phenomena to categories and apply them to A, B, C.

            That is precisely the point about the world – obviously, the phenomenal world – not being logical. Phenomena don’t automatically refer themselves to symbols/categories.

            There are triangles in the abstract sense and there are vaguely-triangual-if-you-look-squinting-at-them objects in the phenomenal world. The Pythagoras Theorem works in an abstract world, and works only within limits in the real/phenomenal one.

            (That is how I stopped being an “Austrian Economist” – it is supremely logical, it just does not map to the world that well.)

        • Kiya says:

          Do you think an inherently logical world would require a personal creator?

          Also, does your assessment of the universe’s inherent logicalness care about subatomic physics, or are you only concerned with phenomena that humans interact with directly? Go deep enough, and things divide into categories quite well. (All electrons have charge -1, therefore no electrons have charge +1. Indeed, two electrons are indistinguishable for purposes of the universe’s own accounting of number of ways it can be configured at a given energy, which matters to observable thermodynamic stuff. I am not a physicist but I took some classes in college.)

          This is, um, a weird brand of devil’s advocate I have found myself playing.

          • Shenpen says:

            I think it would make it probable. If an ape whose brain evolved to tell apart the 4F and then everything else doesn’t matter finds the whole of the universe logical, it looks very custom-made from them. Not necessarily biblical god, Matrix-like simulation can also play.

            Thanfully, quantum physics is weird enough to it not be the case… it is reassuringly not made for human brains.

          • William Tarbush says:

            What about positrons?

  93. Frog Doe says:

    I personally formulate this a little differently, more in terms of politeness than anything else. But I can think of one obvious objection (at least, obvious to me).

    One of the central assumptions of liberalism, I think, is proposing a local solution (“indulge people” from a conservative perspective, “be nice” from a liberal perspective) is a global solution, and I’m not sure it’s that easy. You get into questions of addiction, and other related things.

    Steelmaning the “LGBT as mental disease” paradigm, one would note the mental illness correlates with LGBT in a useful way.

    I’d be interested to hear responses!

    • Jaskologist says:

      The project of the transgender movement is to propose a switch from using chromosomes as a tiebreaker to using self-identification as a tiebreaker.

      This is the real sticking point to me. The project is not to “propose” a switch, which sounds nice and passive. It is to enforce a switch. It is not “hey, call me ‘she,’ please” it is “you may not have male and female bathrooms, and if you question this we will hit your churches with subpeonas for all of their sermons so we can comb through them for thought-crime.”

      To go back to the King Solomon example, it would be like, after you had all that discussion about dag, you forced him to put his whale hunting under the Ministry of Behemah anyway. Because we said so.

      • ozymandias says:


        The subpoena was about whether an anti-lgbt group had failed to collect enough signatures to pass a referendum, not about thoughtcrime. Also, the law in question doesn’t ban male or female restrooms; it says that trans women can use women’s restrooms and trans men can use men’s restrooms: that is, that Buck Angel should use the men’s restroom and Janet Mock should use the women’s restroom.

        • Jaskologist says:

          The original subpeona cast a very, very broad net, though they later, after much opposition, removed the request for sermons. You may believe they weren’t going to comb through that for any extraneous and unrelated information they could use to attack their opponents, but the churches in question have good reasons not to share that faith.

          Saying that trans women can use women’s restrooms, and that “trans woman” is defined as “they say they’re a trans woman” is the same as banning male and female restrooms. Now the (to use a feminist term) “creepers” can hang out in the ladies room. You can’t stop them, as long as they claim to be ladies. Assume good faith in debates, but assume bad actors in public policy.

          • veronica d says:

            What did the law actually say?

            The laws I am familiar with require “persistent gender identity.” That is a technical term that requires the interventions of a therapist.

            We might dream of a world where saying “I am gender X” is enough to be trans, but we do not live in that world. The laws we have are for the world we have.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        “Is X a good idea?” and “Having decided X is a good idea, should it be legally enforced?” seem like two very different questions.

        Right now I’m arguing for the first and not touching the second.

        The second doesn’t seem to me to bear on the first, except insofar as you’re so annoyed at people trying to force you to do things that you want to punish them by not doing anything they want at all even if you would otherwise.

        • Jaskologist says:

          You specifically referenced “the transgender movement.” Whatever you may want to argue for, that is what the movement is actually doing.

        • Jaskologist says:

          To elaborate, I feel like I’m being motte-and-baileyed here. I feel that a little bit with your explanation of what feminism the transgender movement is all about, but a whole lot with transgenderism itself.

          (I’m going to use “women” in this example for simplicity. You can substitute “men” without changing anything here.)

          The motte is whole array of ways in which we treat [women]. These exist because of various biological/psychological facts about the way women are.

          Some people look at that motte and want in on it. So they try to redefine “women” not as a biological fact, but as a feeling. Then they want everybody else to give them the benefits of being a woman, but the basis for those benefits is now gone.

          … and as I look back on that, it’s probably not a motte/bailey after all. It’s more like betting me that 10 is a prime number, declaring that “prime number” now means “number with multiple positive divisors,” and then getting upset that I don’t pay up, or use 10 in my encryption algorithm. The underlying concept is a real thing, and taking the word is an attempt to hijack the concept. But no matter how much you declare whales to be mammals rather than fish, we’re not going to chase after them with hunting dogs.

          • peterdjones says:

            Well, no, it’s not the case that everything about bring a [woman] is rooted in biology and psychology. Some of it is cultural.

          • Hainish says:

            The motte is whole array of ways in which we treat [women]. . . . Some people look at that motte and want in on it.

            This is the view from the outside.

          • Tracy W says:

            . Then they want everybody else to give them the benefits of being a woman, but the basis for those benefits is now gone.

            How does that work? What is the basis for the benefits that was there before but is now gone, if we treat trans women as women? Cervical smear tests? How many people regard that as a benefit? Trans women don’t get pregnant, but then many cis women don’t either, either because they can’t or choose not to.

            I suppose there is an issue for women’s categories in many sports, I could see the women’s medal winners in the Olympics being dominated by people with a basically male physicality. But those benefits apply to very few women anyway. (I don’t have any good answers for that one.)

            It’s more like betting me that 10 is a prime number, declaring that “prime number” now means “number with multiple positive divisors,” and then getting upset that I don’t pay up, or use 10 in my encryption algorithm.

            But in this example you’ve made a bet, and then are trying to redefine the terms to suit your side. This sort of thing is why courts have rules about how if there’s ambiguity in the contract then it’s interpreted to the favour of the one who didn’t write the contract.

            This is quite different from someone asking you to call them a woman and use “she”, without requesting any money from you.

          • Jaskologist says:

            What is the basis for the benefits that was there before but is now gone, if we treat trans women as women?

            I can’t list the “benefits;” they would be entirely subjective to the trans person in question. You could essentially define them as “whatever the person thinks they are missing out on by not being considered a [woman].”

            Like I said, you substitute “men” for “women” at any point in the above.

          • Tracy W says:

            If you can’t list the benefits and they’re subjective how do you know the basis for them is gone?

        • Steve Sailer says:

          You’re missing the point of World War T. People have been free to have their genitalia amputated for quite a few years. World War T is about controlling how everybody else thinks and speaks of them.

          • veronica d says:

            I find it sad that you talk in such crass terms about transgender people. For example, to refer to genital surgery as “amputation” misses so much that is important. Yes, it is true that portions of the existing genitals are removed. However, much is instead reshaped. In fact, it is the reconstructive aspects of the surgery that are primary. That is where the skill is involved. In some ways it is miraculous.

            You have shown a similar pattern of contempt in many of your statements here, from which I conclude that you hold malice toward transgender people. This is unfortunate. I hope you find a way to grow as a person.

  94. Ken Arromdee says:

    Often the atheists who argue against religion are arguing against people who believe that the King James version of the Bible is literal truth as written according to ordinary English usage.

    Arguing against such people by pointing out that a whale isn’t really a fish is completely correct.

    In the case of the hair dryer obsession, I’ll point out that whether it makes sense to cure an obsession with a hair dryer by keeping the hair dryer around depends on your model of the illness. If you believe that this is an obsession only with one specific hair dryer, and that the obsession vanishes when deprived of a hair dryer to obsess about, then solving it by not leaving the dryer at home makes sense. If you believe that obsession is a process that latches onto an arbitrary object, but is not tied to that particular object, then not leaving the dryer at home doesn’t solve the problem because since you haven’t cured the underlying obsession, the obsession could just latch onto something else. Now, I don’t know the patient’s medical record, so I wouldn’t be able to say which of these models is correct, but the second model isn’t obviously incorrect, and the people who followed it weren’t being irrational in insisting that not leaving the dryer at home was a good solution.

    For your Napoleon example, you’re being dishonest here: you’re making arguments while denying you’re making them. This is a cheat because if they are questioned, you can claim that you’re not really making them, but you still get the benefits of making them. If you actually made the arguments you claim to not be making, I would then point out that “Napoleon” can be thought of as a category just like being a particular gender and that saying “the guy in the 1800s in France, and this patient, are both ‘Napoleon'” can be thought of as a boundary dispute.

    • Anonymous says:

      Then replace Solomon with King James.

      • Ken Arromdee says:

        No good. Scott is talking about actual atheists who say this, and these actual atheists are not addressing King James (or to Solomon).

        • Anonymous says:

          If you want to complain that there is no such thing as “ordinary English usage” spanning both time periods, this is a really lousy example to focus on.

          • Ken Arromdee says:

            The people the atheist is addressing aren’t redefining a category. They are not defining “fish” such that whales count as fish; rather, they assert (or at least their beliefs imply) that whales count as fish using the preexisting non-James definition.

            Redefining “fish” to include whales isn’t incorrect. But asserting that the existing definition of fish includes whales is incorrect.

          • Anonymous says: