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Welcoming to a Movement

One of the things I've been thinking about recently is the difference between causes and the (often many, overlapping) movements that aim to meet them. Longtime readers will probably recall my sometimes-troublesome-and-usually-distant relations with many organised communist or broader groups. I still do consider myself a socialist, more specifically a communist, but a non-Marxian communist. That said, I am not part of any particular existing movement (except in the metaphorical sense that there's a giant, almost formless movement; you'll sometimes find me talking that way, but it really is meant as metaphor there), sometimes because I disagree with some ends of movements I've found, more often because I disagree with some means, and most often because I disagree with the theory and discourse those groups use.

I'm an atheist too, but I'm not presently attending any secular groups because I haven't found any with enough people I'd actually like to hang out with. At times in the past I've felt a bit alienated by being a heterodox thinkier (although moving from being a libertarian atheist to a secular-socialist atheist made it much easier to get along with secular humanists).

And then there's feminism, where a lot of existing groups have irritated me to no end, but there have also been groups which included a feminist element where I felt I fit pretty well. Still, at times I've felt pretty alienated (particularly because I expect my thoughts on "trans" are liable to put people off; I'm not ashamed of my stances, and am not actually hostile to trans people, but I don't validate/recognise such transformation, even though nowadays I'll use whichever-between he-she someone wants. I'm comfortable and willing to defend my stance, but mainly as a reasonable one).

Being-a-philosopher is another thing I believe in. Like the rest of the above, I think everyone should be somewhat philosophically engaged, and trying to maintain the traditions and standards I think characterise philosophical discourse. Unlike the above, I am unaware of a philosophic-living movement, because philosophy is generally considered a calling. I would rather it be considered more than that.

With any of these things, recognising that the causes and the movements are different things, I wonder how I might suggest someone go down the path of committing. I do believe that causes are more intellectually-precious than movements, but movements tend to move the world considerably more. I lean towards philosophy, because I believe that movements tend to rot because of bad leadership, groupthink, and similar; it's very hard to keep a movement sane and effective, and a few bad eggs can lead people to (mistakenly) blame a philosophy for the unrelated failures of its leaders. Also, movements are often narrower than causes, and it's hard to maintain the broadness of thought when one also needs to get things done; one sheds members or forces them to conform when discussion gets too difficult. My solitary tendencies might not be great at effecting change in the world though, and even if one were to choose a cause over its movements, there's still two very different approaches:

  • Find a great writer on the topic, consider their writings authoritative, and use their theory to help provide depth to your notion of the cause (when I was younger, on the topic of feminism I did this with Gloria Steinem, and despite disagreeing with her strongly on pornography, I still find myself mostly aligned with her on other topics in feminism (particularly transexuality); Trotsky filled the same role for me in socialism, but I've since broken entirely with him and the Marxian tradition)
  • Speculate on the cause independently and either build your own theory or come to an understanding of what elements of the cause are most important and work from there. I went back and did this with socialism when I found myself beyond the marxian pale, and with atheism I did this first on my own (inspired by a month in preparing for Methodist Confirmation when I realised and expressed that I could not say that I believed in the Christian deity) and only later came to understand and articulate why.
I am generally very skeptical of movements and artefacts of causes. I would like people in general to recognise them as necessary, but never confuse them with the important causes themselves nor forget that whatever framings they use for events are not the only ones worth considering. Having only one lens to analyse an event or issue is a very dangerous thing (even if, as is the case with looking at the power relations between social classes, having the lens itself is a great thing). Most importantly, I want people to have commitments to many causes, ideally ones that conflict a bit, so they're used to nuance and reasonable disagreement. Not every point is worth shouting over, but it might be worth at least trying to convince people around one of the most important parts of one's causes. Likewise, we all have to come to a reasonable balance of fidelity to our values and living reasonably decent lives with a variety of people surrounding us. Fighting everything all of the time will make us neurotic and insufferable, but being sufficiently afraid of conflict would make us moral cowards (even if we might be reasonably popular for never judging anyone or anything around us).

I remain uncertain then, were I to want to nudge people to explore one of those I've described above, or the other causes to which I have commitments (like environmentalism), or causes in general, how I might introduce them to the causes and movements in the best way; I know some might say "explain everything", but I'm sure:

  • I would not be with them for the rest of their life
  • Sometimes this nudging would not be something they'd directly see so much as a casual (but planned) book recommendation or arranging for them to meet someone
  • The framing I put on things is not the only worthwhile framing, and there are other worthwhile perspectives they should at least consider.
In the end, I would like to see people be knowledgable, independent, non-dogmatic, and thoughtful in their positions and understandings of things.

And .. as a good contrarian, I think it's important to mess with movements every now and then in order to help them shake off groupthought and remind people that the cause is a better thing to be loyal to than any expression of the cause.


your position on transgenderdom has always intrigued me, but i'm afraid to identify with it for fear of being on the wrong end of all the transgender pride that's out there (which is certainly not ill-placed).

another one of my friends brought up a similar discussion which seemed to be wholly compatible with your position.

it seems to me the question is, "is body dysphoria a consequence of the social gender construct, or is it something more intrinsic?", and the claim is that in a society without gender normativity, transgenderdom would not exist. i don't think this claim is falsifiable.

still, what do you mean when you say you don't "validate" transitioning? if you ignore the gender-shaped boxes, it still seems to me like a justifiable embracing of the more blegg-like traits instead of rube-like ones (to borrow terminology from the linked post). surely your objection can't just be against people changing their bodies in permanent ways?

(edit: a typo)

Edited at 2011-10-14 03:06 pm (UTC)
Was hoping not to get into this again, but...

I think the framing people put around sex and gender determines how they think about these issues. As I've said before, I think of sex in terms of genetics (and to a certain extent, effective gene expression during development); this normally produces bodies with one of two general forms (for people with unusual genetics or developmental quirks, they might be outside of this).

Some people recognise gender as being an entirely separate category from this, attributing it primarily to body-morphology and further shaping gender-role and gender-identity. I don't have this concept at all, and internally I consider it just an alias for one's sex.

And then there are gender identity and gender roles, two forms of mostly-chosen, mostly-cultural sets of norms, traits, etc. This can include sexual preference (or maybe that's a third category of this type). I recognise them, but I want to keep them pretty fluid; I don't like people being bullied into them, and I would rather deconstruct them enough that there are not bundles of traits available (masculine, feminine, butch, etc) and people really have to pick their traits a la carte.

What I mean regarding transitioning is that one's sex cannot be changed. One can change one's body, but it will never actually be like if one were of the opposite sex; every diploid cell in the body is XX or XY. One can change one's gender role, gender identity, and maybe sometimes and to a certain degree one's sexual preference (I am not sure about this, and being sexually bi gives me a weird perspective). The surgical alteration of one's body is not necessary to change gender-role or gender-identity or sexual preference. One can already embrace the norms of the other gender if one likes (and I do validate that, although I would prefer the divide on those topics be eliminated entirely than simply crossed).

I find being trans kind of weird because I see people conflating (at least by my framework; probably not theirs) gender-identity/gender-norms and the physical form of their body, and having surgery to change what's generally a fine body that could work fine under their preferred gender-identity/gender-norm into something that's a pretend something else. Some of the acquired traits are real, particularly because with hormone treatments one can bridge, on some topics, the divide between XX and XY bodies. Others are not; one won't reverse brain development, one won't change one's skeletal structure, one won't gain suitable haploid cells and a functioning reproductive system (maybe bioengineering for XY people would make this possible in the future, but for XX people they will never have a genuine Y gamete because it's data is not present).

If people just want to change their gender-identity radically, I am happy to validate them (maybe this is blegg-to-rube or vice versa? I'm not fond of those terms). If they want to forget standard gender-identity entirely and destroy those norms, I find common cause with them as this is what I do and advocate. For those who want to do surgery, I'll sigh, think of it as a weird way to deal with sex/gender issues, and just offer them my hand in solidarity against hatred and bigotry. I won't say it's a good choice, but they're human, they probably don't need my approval, they've made their choice, and like the rest of us they have the task of living a decent life ahead of them.

I'm not against changing one's body, but the motivation for trans-surgeries seems to me to be misguided. Using the trend among South Korean women to have plastic surgery to look more western is reasonable for comparison, both in terms for why I think it's weird and not-a-great-choice, and in terms of how even given that, we should still treat them with dignity like we do everyone else.
Was hoping not to get into this again, but...

would you prefer if i kept my dissenting points to myself, or should i go ahead and post them?
Oh no, it's fine, I just am a bit worn out on this topic at the moment.
when you say "never actually be like", that sounds like missing the point a little bit. i see transitioning as not about pretending to be a body with a different set of chromosomes, but about making the body a better match for the set of gender stereotypes the person wants to hold on to.

i'm tempted to compare it to dressing up for a fancy event: one can think formally in their head, and act formally in speech and gesture, and maybe even not get looked at funny for being dressed wrong - but to put on a suit up front can put both one and one's audience in the right mindset/expectation. i think there can be "faking it" failures either way (to dress up or to not); the suit shouldn't be eschewed for that, though.

i dislike the plastic surgery comparison, since it seems to be more about trying to conform to a bogus external expectation from society (which is to betray one's self), whereas transitioning is about trying to conform to internal expectation (to be true to oneself).
The link between the stereotypes and the external shape of the body is the problem. It's based on a normativity that's the real problem.

I think the plastic surgery comparison is spot-on; whatever one is genetically, that is part of one. No surgery in the world will rewrite the information in every bit of one's cells. I have never met a "trans" person who did not have this conflation of gender norms and body expectations; at least when it's come up, it's been people who really internalised gender norms. I think this is definitional though; otherwise why bother with the surgery? I guess in theory there might be "trans" people who don't have this conflation, and who either don't see the need for surgery+hormones to change their gender identity (fine by me), and there might also be "trans" people who get the surgery+hormones but retain a male identity if-XY and female identify if XX (also pretty weird then!).

So yeah, it is their body, they can do what they like with it, and they deserve human dignity and respect. I still question that decision; I think it's strange and generally part of an unhealthy line of reasoning, exactly analogous to the westernising Korean women (who might also have internalised "being western" in the same way).
The link between the stereotypes and the external shape of the body is the problem. It's based on a normativity that's the real problem.

sure, 100% with you there. (or at least, i accept this as an explanation for the "feeling intrinsically (fe)male" card that always comes up.)

what i'm trying to say is: does it make it any more palatable to frame transitioning as a coping mechanism for this normativity? (assuming, say, some implicit resignation that the normativity itself won't go away within the person's lifetime.)

there might also be "trans" people who get the surgery+hormones but retain a male identity if-XY and female identify if XX

you say this as though the only acceptable notion of gender is the hardware-defined one - which is fine, but... it's just a different definition than what trans people use. as much as you contest (and i agree) that the stereotyped/normative definition ought not exist in the first place, i think it's unfair to deny the its use to describe phenomena that really do exist (even if the person not think about it in this way).

i guess i accept that there is no inherent difference in the plastic surgery comparison. still, i doubt (with no evidence) that the westernisation is as "healthy" - in terms of total happiness increase - as gender transitioning. most of my trans friends are some of the happiest people i know.
1) I am meaning this as completely non-normative; these are my perspectives, but unlike many other opinions, I don't really care what frameworks or conclusions others reach and if they conceptualise sex/gender/etc differently in a way that makes being trans make sense, more power to them. As a philosopher, I will not form my concepts in ways that aim to validate or make comfortable other people. I will defend my framework as reasonable, but not obligatory/strong-should or even maybe-should (meaning I am most likely to just get into arguments with pushy people)
2) I moved my answer to the question of "which pronouns do I use?" away from genetic-gender and towards gender-identity a bit over a year ago in recognition that genetic gender is not entirely binary (and because I came to know someone who was neither XX nor XY, which drove home the inadequacy of my framework; it was not out of compassion or a desire for their comfort so much as seeing the framework not have an answer). I now call humans by whatever pronouns they like (but for pets and other animals, I will probably go by genetic gender and simply project "he" or "she" onto any nonsentient that has odd genetics, just like I would project a name. Funny how we tend to do that). I still won't go with any of the screwball extra sets of pronouns though (hsir and the like).