I learn a lot about a concept by trying to explain it. I’m mentoring several transsexual girls (or people who might be transsexual girls). One of them asked me today how to know whether to self-categorize as a transsexual girl or as a gender-fluid person.
It’s a good question to ask. It tells me that if she is indeed a transsexual girl then when she does decide to walk across that particular line in the sand, i.e., to come out brazenly then it’ll be an informed decision, and the courage that her certainty brings will greatly empower her on what is likely to be a difficult journey.
I am not ready to offer an answer yet. But the answer deserves a lot of foundation-building. For that, at least, I’m ready.
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The answer has to based on reality, which we learn about by observation. But a basic pair of concepts need clarifying.
Humans have many social conventions that we mostly correlate with what we observe. For example, we observe someone as female so we treat her as such. We observe someone as sick so we treat her as such. We observe someone as injured so we treat her as such. We observe someone as old so we treat her as such.
Some of these adjectives are typically approached as absolutes (e.g., “female”) and some as a continuum (“sick” or “injured” or “old”). For example, we rarely ask “how female is she?” but we do ask “how sick is she?” or “how injured is she?” or “how old is she?”
That difference, between an absolute and a continuum, is at the heart of the issue. Saying you’re a “transsexual girl so you’re a girl, end of story” makes it pretty darn absolute. So does “you have penis so you’re a man, end of story.”
Saying “maybe you’re genderfluid” is an absolute category too but it involves classifying the person gender as not absolutely being in one of two categories.
So to be able to make any sense of this, we need to be pretty darn clear on what an absolute is, and what a continuum is, and when to use one and when to use the other. So that’s how I’d begin answering the question.
Perhaps it’ll help to begin a little further back in time.
Two prehistoric people watching lightning strike a tree might be perplexed, especially if it’s their first such sighting. The logically-minded person might say: “I have no idea what that was” and then might or might not resolve to try to find out. The non-logically-minded person might say “It was the lightning god” and then that person might or might not run with the implications of that, e.g., appeasing the presumed lightning god by doing something or other.
The latter approach is more satisfying ostensibly because at least now the question of “what was that?” has been solved, so there’s at least some certainty now. There’s psychological satisfaction, a sense of peace and being in control, that comes with feeling certain.
However, “feeling certain” and “being certain” are not the same.
There are several problems with the “lightning god” approach. One is that it considers the matter closed and needing no more explanation when in fact the opposite is the case. Also, it actually explains nothing. It tells us nothing about the lightning god or how he made the lightning or why, nor what lightning is. And, it opens the door to all sorts of arbitrary notions piled on top of the original one.
Religions have a long and unhappy track record of humans doing presumed-to-be-required irrational things to appease their presumed deities, and this sort of event can be the spark that ignites the sort of fire that ends up with innocent people are burned at the stake because someone in charge feels certain that’ll appease their presumed deity.
When the issue is presented to others, then the proponent of the lightning-god hypothesis has no proof. So if the others dissent they might get killed or threatened or ridiculed or otherwise manipulated. If the doctrine of faith is accepted in that social circle, that helps the delusional process along because it admonishes people to suppress their dissent, on principle.
And so even though the disastrous effects of this mindset have left a wake of carnage that spans continents and millennia, humans continue to take this approach. Why? My guess is: we value feeling certain. And if we can’t have that, we improvise. As to certainty, “fake it till you make it” might describe that approach, though ironically faking it makes us unlikely to try to make it because we think we have solved the problem already. In other words, “feeling certain” is a poor substitute for “being certain.”
Absolutes are a huge help in attaining certainty. If you have to voice an opinion as to whether or not someone is alive or dead, or the hut is or isn’t on fire, that’s the sort of thing most humans can handle. On the other hand, evaluating someone’s health or how fire-retardant a hut is … that’s far more tricky.
And so it’s probably no surprise that humans are drawn to absolutes. Ancient guides on ethics went along with this, with right-or-wrong edicts that left little wiggle room. To this day, complex issues such as male homosexuality are a cognitive non-problem to those who embrace that sort of ethic. It’s written in Leviticus that men screwing men is an abomination, so to that mindset that’s all there is to the issue. To someone with a different mindset, there’s a lot more to the subject.
The temptation of certainty and the simplification of absolutes make it very tempting to choose an absolute even if the issue is not that simple. unfortunately, a black-or-white approach doesn’t describe everything. Many things are more accurately described as a continuum.
Then again, some things ARE black or white. Based on a particular definition of “alive” someone is alive or not. Based on a particular definition of “on fire” the hut is on fire or not. And based on a particular standard of ethics someone is either being ethical or not.
The notion of universal grayness tries to obfuscate this point, and is informally described as: “there are no blacks or whites, only grays.” If phrased more precisely, it would say: “there are no absolutes.” Although many professional philosophers seem to be unclear on that point, it’s nevertheless a pretty silly statement — for many reasons. For example, that statement itself is an absolute, and any attempt to make wiggle room fails similarly, e.g., saying “well, then, except for this statement” then that one exception is again an absolute, and so on.
The doctrine of universal fuzziness postures as an attempt at fairness, open-mindedness and a warning against false absolutes. Part-way it has merit. Indeed, some things are on a continuum and some things are absolute, and yes, treating a continuum as if it involved only absolutes is a bad idea.
However, treating absolutes as if they were a continuum is also a bad idea.
Ironically, logical philosophers are a rarity throughout history. But a logical philosopher could help us understand that reality tends to be a continuum. If our definitions are precise, then we can make absolute statements as to something fitting inside or outside that definition.
For example, if someone is stone cold and has been so for days, the yep, by most definitions of “dead” then they’re dead. And if the hut is ablaze then yep, by most definitions of “on fire” it’s on fire.
But if someone is still breathing but brain-dead, or vice versa, is she dead? Well, it depends on your definition of “dead.” If the hut is smoldering but not aflame, is it on fire? Well, it depends on your definition of “on fire.”
That’s not so say we can just go come up with silly definitions. Our definitions define concepts, and concepts are our way to understand the world. If they’re logically assembled and based on facts, they’ll match reality and enable understanding thereof.
For example, an understanding of lightning might enable one person to tell another, in an open field: “lie down.” A non-understanding of lightning might inspire one person to tell another, in an open field: “climb to the top of the highest tree, and wave your arms to appease the lightning god.” Sooner or later, the clash between mistaken thinking and reality is proven in terms of consequences, e.g., death.
And so with all of this as a basis, when a transsexual girl appears on the scene, is she really a girl or really a man? And when someone might be a transsexual girl or might be gender-fluid, then how does that person decide?
I haven’t even answered the question. I’ve just built the basis I need, so as to answer that question. But at least, now I do have a basis. More on this later.