Transgender authenicity as a case study of Theory destroying sense
We Homo sapiens are a much more dimorphic species than people may realise. Men are, on average, only 7% taller than women, and 13% heavier. Women’s bodies have a higher minimum level of fat content than men’s do. So women are generally smaller and have proportionately less muscle.
But women only have on average 66% of the lower body strength, and 52% of the upper body strength, of men. The difference in muscle mass does not account on its own for this striking disparity in strength. Male spines are more rigid than female spines. That makes male spines much better anchors for physical effort. So, it is the combination of more muscle tissue plus a more rigid frame to lever off that makes men so distinctly stronger, on average, than women.
It is also why there are barriers for who can play women’s sports. Men’s sports do not need those barriers. If women attempt to play in men’s sports at an elite or professional level they will lose and probably get hurt.
The point of the restrictions on who can play in women’s sports is to keep male-pattern spines out of women’s sports, because those with male-pattern spines will win and those with female-pattern spines will, if it is a contact sport, be much more likely to get hurt.
There is no such thing as sex-change surgery. No surgical procedures give functioning testes to transmen or functioning ovaries to transwomen. There is gender reassignment surgery, which changes the outward physical characteristics to that of the other sex. But the surgery does not provide functioning gonads and certainly does not give transwomen female-pattern spines. Nor does any amount of hormone treatment significantly change the rigidity of the spine, though increased oestrogen will tend to effect the operations of muscles in ways that reduce strength.
At this point, it should be obvious that, generally, it is unwise for transmen to play serious men’s contact sports, for their own safety. and that usually (outliers occur) they will not be competitive at professional or elite levels in men’s sport. Less so for a sport such as Muay Thai, which emphasises speed and flexibility. Their general lack of competitiveness (plus the open-ended nature of male sport) is why transmale athletes have not generated much of an issue.
It should also be obvious that is unreasonable for transwomen to play in women’s sport. Even after the full operation and hormone treatment, they still have male-pattern spines. The striking success of transwoman athletes in women’s competitions is not an accident and is, of course, what drives the controversy.
The controversies over South African runner Caster Semenya, even though that is more about intersex than trans specifically, touch on the same issues.
But that is not the approved prestige opinion. (A prestige opinion is an opinion, the public affirmation of which makes one a member of the morally worthy while denial of the same makes one a member of the morally unworthy. Prestige opinions become part of a social dominance strategy if those with contradictory opinions are therefore deemed to be subject to legitimate stigmatisation and attendant sanctions.)
In fact, suggesting there are enduring biological differences between women and transwomen, and that these matter, is deemed to be so morally outrageous that it is transphobic.
There are no contrary biological facts when it comes to the rights of the marginalised.
So, how do we get to such self-righteous, dissent-blocking, reality-denial?
Ideas having consequences
Blame Martin Heidegger.
No, seriously. The claims above can be straightforwardly expressed in Heideggerian language as that the Dasein of a transwoman encompasses all that there is in, and to, being a woman.
What is Dasein you may ask? Literally, it is being-there, though it is usually understood as being-in-the-world. Heidegger introduces the concept in the Introduction to his magnum opus Being and Time thus:
This entity which each of us is himself and which includes inquiring as one of the possibilities of its Being, we shall denote by the term “Dasein”.
Hope that is clear. Heidegger makes the centrality of Dasein to, well, everything, very clear. In the first chapter of Being and Time he tells us that:
The existential analytic of Dasein comes before any psychology or anthropology, and certainly before any biology.
When Philosophy first began, philosophers’ status-task (or symbolic boundary task) was to assert themselves against priests, the bearers of revelation and purveyors of other-worldly knowledge. Philosophers presented themselves as providing much surer paths to the knowledge of reality than anything priests could come up with. Indeed, they often made very large claims about the transformational nature of the knowledge they could impart.
Since Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein, the status-task (or symbolic boundary task) of philosophers has to been to assert themselves against scientists. Either in explaining why science is so successful, working out the limitations of science, working out the implications of science, some combination of the preceding, or in finding a more profound path of understanding than science can offer.
Heidegger is clearly in the last category. As are all those who have drunk of his well. Which includes Sartre, Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard: the existentialists, postmodernists, post-structuralists and other purveyors of French theory.
Outside France, it also includes Richard Rorty, the postmodern Pragmatist, and Alexander Dugin, he of the fourth political theory. But we can leave them, and their particular complications, aside.
Heidegger also makes a great deal about the concept of authenticity and inauthenticity, noting that (also in Chapter One):
And because Dasein is in each case essentially its own possibility, it can, in its very Being, ‘choose’ itself and win itself. But only in so far as it is essentially something which can be authentic — that is, something of its own — can it have lost itself and not yet won itself. As modes of Being, authenticity and inauthenticity (these expressions have been chosen terminologically in a strict sense) are both grounded in the fact that any Dasein whatsoever is characterised by mineness.
Clear? If you are wondering where Derrida and co., and those derivative in various ways of them, derived their annoying prolix unclarity of language, that is another legacy of Heidegger.
So, if you intellectually front-and-centre Being and authenticity, and claim that your form of inquiry is much more basic in its delving into the nature of reality than biology, then it is not very many steps at all to transwomen being fully, and indubitably, women. That being a woman is the authentic expression of their Being.
Heidegger treats truth as uncovering. He divides logos into discourse (Rede: a fundamental existential phenomenon, the main purpose of which is to ensure a basic understanding of the world) and language (Sprache: a way in which discourse communicates or articulates itself). If discourse is collapsed into language, then it loses its ability to uncover, to reliably find or express the truth. (A useful discussion of Heidegger’s approach to language, from which I took the above two definitions, is here.)
Heidegger argues that you uncover what you focus on, thereby obscuring what you are not focusing on. (A very useful 8-minute summary of Heidegger’s thought is here.) This is what makes perspectival knowledge so important; moving one’s perspective through the world, you build up a picture of the world allowing you to act in the world, but that is not Heidegger’s point. Heidegger extends the uncovering-means-covering point to language: language that reveals one aspect of existence obscures another. This clearly opens up sceptical possibilities about language in general. Especially as Heidegger argues that things change in their nature for us depending on our point of view, our position of focus. As is so often the case with influential thinkers, it is not Heidegger’s complete philosophy, but those adaptations from it that then resonate with people, and so are replicated, that come to matter in the world.
Heidegger rejected the entire ontological tradition of Western philosophy in general, and Enlightenment philosophy in particular. This is what helps make him so important, even foundational, for so much Post-Enlightenment thought. It is also why members of the Enlightenment Left, such as Noam Chomsky, Terry Eagleton and Adolphe Reed, are so unsympathetic to French Theory and the ideas adapted therefrom.
As an aside, a great deal of Indian, Buddhist and Taoist philosophy does consider the nature of being. Given that Zen philosophy is a mixture of Buddhist and Taoist thought, it is perhaps not surprising that Heidegger was reported as saying that the Zen essayist D. T. Suzuki was expressing what Heidegger was trying to say. See this enlightening (so to speak) discussion of the interaction between Zen thought and Heidegger’s. In short, like the Enlightenment philosophy he was rejecting, Heidegger does not engage seriously with any wisdom tradition, apart from the value of authenticity; Zen practice very much does.
There are some intermediate steps for derivations of what Heidegger published in 1927 popping up in biology-denying identity-affirmation nine decades later. I have gone through some of these steps before, but we will do a quick revisit for those not familiar. Various ideas have been adapted from French theorists into the constellation of ideas that are feeding into current prestige opinions. These French thinkers were themselves responding to Heidegger, in the context of the failure of political Marxism. Key adaptations are:
- From Jean Baudrillard: we are trapped in our social bubble, the map is the territory, and you might not be able to get out of our social bubble.
- From Jacques Derrida: words are only defined in terms of other words.
- From Paul-Michel Foucault: arguments are about jockeying for power, which is the fundamental constituent dynamic of society.
The question is not whether the above are accurate and nuanced adoptions of the thought of these French thinkers, but rather that these adapted takeaways from these thinkers have emerged in the constellation of ideas that feed into the increasingly dominant prestige opinions.
Knowing, not so much
To understand the implications of these ideas, it helps to understand that there are four modes of knowledge: propositional, procedural, perspectival and participatory — knowledge that, knowledge how, knowledge of and knowledge in. They each have their own marker of reality: truth, power, presence and something like attunement or perhaps coherence. (Psychologist John Vervaeke discusses these ideas in considerably more detail in various online lectures and discussions.)
If propositions are deemed to be entirely self-referential, they only refer to other propositions, then truth is thereby eliminated as a marker of reality. That makes power the dominant marker of reality. So speech becomes acts of power and expression of power struggles. Thus, stigmatising and sanctioning people over their speech becomes a righteous act when done in the service of the correct form of social validation.
Human society becomes a structure of power. Experience and participation become self-validating, as they cannot be interrogated by truth. Which makes power, acting in the world, the only social validation of perspective and experience. In the evolved constellation of ideas currently pushing out prestige opinions, that validation comes from the experience and perspective of oppression.
So, enquiry into Being is more fundamental than biology, biology does not provide us with reality markers and people can act in the world to achieve their authentic Being, grounded in their perspective and experience. For instance, as being “truly a woman”. Moreover, being of a marginalised group, trans perspective and experience has validation that no one who is less marginalised, less validated by oppression, can match.
See how easy it is? How easy to get to identification as being authentically-a-woman trumping any amount of mere biology. Biology, moreover, that if cited against their claims is thereby used in service of oppression by denying transwomen their authentic experience of themselves. The whole thing makes perfect sense.
Well, not really. It is a serviceable simulacra of making sense, but it doesn’t actually. Propositions are not entirely self-referential, propositional knowledge is knowledge, truth is a marker of reality and biology does tell us about reality and it is outrageous for people with male-pattern spines to compete in women’s sports.
The notion of social validation of perspective and experience via the lens of oppression has so many problems it is hard to know where to start.
The first problem is this: except when the comparison is with all men, women always lose once this validation-by-oppression calculus is in play. They lose because women are half the population, so any other group (apart from all men) will always be more marginal. So, if it is Muslims versus women, women lose. If it is trans versus women, women lose.
The second problem is that a moment’s thought shows that this validation-by-oppression can easily be reversed. As, in Heidegger’s own politics, it notoriously was. One just claims that authenticity comes from acting more effectively in the world, so the more effectively one acts, the more authentic and validated one is. And who acts more effectively in the world than a master-race? Or indeed, a master-belief-system.
The politics that flow from validation-by-marginalisation are not anti-Nazi politics or anti-Fascist politics, but reverse-Nazi politics and reverse-Fascist politics. Politics with the same obsessions (race, identity, gender, etc) but with reverse polarities. Instead of the problems of the world or society coming out of blackness or Jewishness, they come from whiteness.
It helps to understand the difference between reversal and opposites to remind ourselves that love and hate are just the reverse of each other. The genuine opposite of both is indifference. If you hate your ex, you are not over them. It is only when you can reach indifference, or some similar state of minimal emotion, that you are truly over them.
Thus, keeping with the social centrality of race talk but turning the threat from blackness to whiteness is classic reversing of the polarities while keeping the same obsessions.
Hence Antifa are not anti-Fascists, they are reverse fascists — using paramilitary violence to push racially obsessed politics, but racially obsessed politics with a reversed polarity (whiteness down rather than whiteness up).
The opposite of Nazism (or Fascism) is in not having the same obsessions while just reversing the moral and political polarities. The opposite of Nazism or Fascism is abandoning those obsessions altogether. Such as abandoning race talk.
The third problem comes directly from having a decapitated epistemology, a decapitated understanding of knowledge. Making propositional knowledge impotent by making propositions entirely self-referential, taking out truth as a marker of reality, also hugely increases the possibilities for self-deception. Restricting the capacity to interrogate one’s own experience and perspective, except in terms of whatever type of social-validation-through-the-perspective-of-power one accedes to, impoverishes one’s self-awareness. Worse, it makes it much easier to bullshit yourself through the manipulation of salience, particularly moral salience.
This is excellent for a social dominance strategy based on prestige opinions. It is truly awful for genuine understanding of yourself, the world and others.
As we look around, we can see huge amounts of self-deception. Such as all those folk thinking they are being morally brave and “subversive” in taking stances that are absolutely conventional in their social milieu. The entertainment industry has become rife with it, leading to lots of very annoyed fans as their treasured heroes and franchises are reworked according to the same narrow, increasingly predictable, range of cookie-cutter identity-politics based on the same narrow range of prestige opinions. The combination of smug condescension and relentless conventionality involved in these oh-so-conventional reworkings are exercises in pervasive self-deception. (Or, worse, very self-aware status-play manipulations.)
Returning to the trans demand that folk with male-pattern spines continue to make a mockery of women’s sport in the cause of expressing their authentic Being, this systematic denial of the facts of the case is clearly not a way to run an advanced technological society.
Ironically, this trans politics of self-validated-authenticity is only possible in an advanced technological society. Plenty of societies have had trans identities. It is clearly a human thing. But in no previous society was it seen as other than a trans identity, a thing in itself.
Until the rise of mass prosperity societies form the 1820s onwards (with the development of steamships and railways), the overwhelming majority of people lived subsistence lives. Who could, or could not, get pregnant was a key, even foundational, social fact. Trans people were not members of the other sex, they had an identity across normal gender boundaries. An identity that was, indeed, trans. The notion that a transwoman was a woman made no sense, because they could not give birth.
It is only with the cushion of mass prosperity, separating actions from consequences, that the notion that transwomen are authentically women in every sense that counts can even pretend to make sense.
But it is a self-deceiving pretence of sense in the service of strategies of social dominance based on prestige opinions. It only gets anywhere because people either buy into the social dominance strategy or are too afraid of the stigmatisation costs to stand up to it. Trashing women’s sports is only a small part of the costs of this noxious combination.
A great writer has an answer to this social dilemma. Let an evolutionary biologist read to you words of genuine perception and understanding. Because what we get when we trash truth is not some higher understanding, but the multiplication of lies acquiescing in bullshit.
Note: as I regard all my essays on Medium as works in progress, they are subject to updating.