Friday, October 12, 2018

Logical errors in 'Gender Identity and the Invisible Pasta God'

Some words about Stephen Measure's satirical short story Gender Identity and the Invisible Pasta God.

Spaghetti in a colander.
Image by "kalhh" on Pixabay

Measure currently sorts his writing into three topics on his website.

  • "Same-sex sexuality," further explained thus: "Sexual identity is an anti-moral weapon, nothing more."
  • "Gender identity," defined as "a religious belief that I don't believe in."
  • "Dehumanization," or, what he fears the people he opposes will do to him.

If these sentences are a little difficult to parse, just use the takeaway that his position is basically anti-LGBT. He maintains that everyone (or nearly everyone) is physically either male or female, that people cannot or should not claim a gender identity based on their subjective feelings rather than their physical sex, and that people should not engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex. He doesn't seem especially interested or curious in LGBT people's beliefs or lives, and his main concern is that he should not be accused of bigotry for holding this position.

Had I known that Gender Identity and the Invisible Pasta God is an anti-transgender rant, I wouldn't have paid three dollars for the eBook. But the author's stance was not obvious from the book description, so I bought and read it, and here we are.

The book is a brief discourse (about 40 pages) against the idea that people should respect each other's gender identity. It begins as a fictional story focusing on a character so juvenile, awkward, and obnoxious that my burning question from the very first page was not "What will happen next in this story?" but rather "Can anything possibly redeem this character, or at least help me relate to him, over the course of this story?" The answer to the latter question turned out to be "no." There wasn't a real story anyway. The main character's existence is a mere plot device because he sits in a chair for the entire book — wearing a colander on his head — and is lectured to, along with an audience full of passive people wearing the same headgear, by two unnamed white men.

If the lecture were good, that would count for something. It is not. It is a straw man. It has enough material for a weak op-ed, and it is painfully stretched across dozens of pages. Its talking points are repeated without gaining force. In a debate, a lecturing character (the one with whom Measure does not sympathize) fatigues and essentially drops out of the argument, so the remaining character, Measure's champion, wins by default.

The anti-transgender proponent is "Goatee man" (a manly man, you see) and the pro-transgender devil's advocate is "Ponytail man" (a hipster fop). Each of their arguments is undeveloped, both on a philosophical level and in the sense that the proponents don't have relevant personal history (after all, the author didn't even bother to name the characters). Goatee man has at least mastered his own rudimentary argument on a high school level. Ponytail man, by contrast, is thoroughly inarticulate. Upon being questioned, he quickly decompensates into cursing, complaining about being tone-policed, babbling nonsense, and — in the (ableist) coup de grâce — drooling on himself.

The debate is over people who assert gender identities different from the genders originally assigned to them based on their physical sex. Ponytail man's premise is that everyone should respect everyone else's asserted gender identity, including by allowing everyone to enter the bathroom (men's or women's) of their choice. Ponytail man insists that he is secular and that his opinion is based on science. He refers to "brain scan" studies that have shown that some transgender people exhibit brain activity more typical of the gender with which they identify and less typical of the gender assigned to them at birth, suggesting that gender has a scientifically demonstrable reality in the mind or perhaps that the brain has a sex, and that mental gender identity can be independent of reproductive anatomy.

Goatee man, for his part, says that he sometimes maintains beliefs based on science "because they can be proven to me" and other times based on religion "because I choose to believe them." Later, he says: "Science is shared through proof. Religion is shared through persuasion." These two descriptions of religion are potentially contradictory. If religion is something one believes by choice and without proof, that seems like belief on a whim — and then how is one ever supposed to persuade anyone else of this belief? If Goatee man maintains that there is a way to persuade others of one's own religious beliefs, then he ought to explain why he is not willing to listen to Ponytail man. Perhaps he would say that he finds Ponytail man an inarticulate and ineffective champion of his own cause. Fine, then, but then the readers of this story deserve to hear from a better representative, and perhaps Goatee man ought to seek one out. It really isn't fair or consistent for Goatee man to say that people can (in principle) be persuaded to adopt someone else's religious belief, but that Goatee man personally will never and indeed no one else should ever adopt Ponytail man's religious beliefs simply because they are religious. It is self-contradictory for Goatee man to take those positions.

We may debate whether "science" and "religion" are the best names for these two categories of truth-claims. A bigger question, though, is why we would limit ourselves to only two options. Having set up this false dichotomy, Goatee man claims to be more expert than Ponytail man at embracing and analyzing both types of truth-claim. He seems interested in championing science as preferable to religion, but other times he claims he does religion better than his interlocutor insofar as he (Goatee man) is at least conscious of when he is doing religion and not science.

Also, Goatee man bases his inquiry more on his consciousness of his own positions and on his own self-assessed coherence, and not at all on empathy or respect for others (neither on his own claim to have it, nor on anyone else's testimony that he has it), which makes his argument rather narcissistic. He's talking about being smart without even trying to be attentive to how his words affect others. And, insofar as there's no peer review process (he hasn't asked anyone for critical feedback), his philosophy touting the importance of science isn't ultimately very scientific, either.

Goatee man points out that we do not use brain scans to determine everyone's subjective gender identity and that even Ponytail man would never use a discordant brain scan to disallow anyone from enjoying the gender identity of their choice. The counterargument should have been that science can show trends and probabilities, and not necessarily unwavering correlations. So if, for example, studies show that Bolivians and Malaysians are on average shorter than Dutch and Canadians, in the real world this does not mean that we must either be willing to inform all tall people that they are Dutch or Canadian and all short people that they are Bolivian or Malaysian and that our only alternative to this blanket assumption would be to discard all height measurements so that we don't know anything about average heights by group. But this world of false alternatives is Goatee man's position. He sees no way to reflect the incontrovertible reality that some Bolivians and Malaysians are tall and some Dutch and Canadians are short. Following his logic, it would be unscientific to say so, because the results of a scientific study must work for everyone and be able to prove or disprove what any given individual is.

Also: Goatee man doesn't explain why he sometimes chooses science and other times religion. Does he flip a coin or follow a whim? Or is there a meta-rule by which he decides what beliefs require scientific reasoning? If he lacks scientific evidence, does he form a religious belief, and if he gains scientific evidence is he obligated to abandon that belief?

Goatee man compares gender identity to doctrines of "resurrection or reincarnation" or to being a "prophet." This is not a good comparison. Gender identity — considered as a personal belief, state of mind, language, or behavior that can be successfully lived out in the real world especially if others support it — is very much unlike a factual claim about something supernatural that cannot exist and cannot even be coherently described. As a secular person, Ponytail man should have responded that bodies can't be raised from the dead, souls can't be put in new bodies, and people can't prophesy the future, but that individuals really can live in more than one gender role over the course of their lives. That's one reason to think it isn't "religious" to acknowledge others' self-asserted gender identity.

Goatee man keeps trying on this point. He says: "The word 'prophet' is a real word with a real meaning — just like the words 'man' and 'woman' are real words with real meanings." But the question is not whether words have definitions. All words — at least the ones used in debates, the ones we encounter in life, the ones we encounter in this book — are real. All words have meanings. It's not useful to compare randomly selected Word A with Word B just because they both have entries in the dictionary. A better question is what kind of words they are and how they are used. And what I see is that the word "prophet" is unlike the words "man" and "woman" in various ways. If their similarities amount to "hey, these are both words!" and no inventory is taken of their dissimilarities, I see no reason to proceed further with this line of inquiry.

When Goatee man says, "Gender identity is either a religious belief or it is a delusion," is he inadvertently drawing a parallel between religious beliefs and delusions? As previously mentioned, "religious belief" isn't well defined in this book. It is taken to mean, vaguely, things we choose to believe for unscientific reasons. Delusions, then, seem to fit the bill. That makes this sentence potentially more of a comparison than a contrast.

Goatee man acknowledges the existence of intersex people, but dismisses them as having "a really crappy birth defect." This, clearly, does not display willingness to learn something about gender from those people.

Ponytail man, in perhaps his most articulate moment, says that gender is a "social construct." This is the right direction in which to take his argument so that he can begin to answer Goatee man's concerns. Unfortunately, he, as an inarticulate character, is unable to take it any further.

Even if we were to grant Goatee man's claims that someone's gender identity is an unprovable assertion (thus a "religious belief") while their physical sex is easily provable (thus a "scientific belief"), that doesn't in itself provide any justification for the social agenda of sorting people in public bathrooms by their physical sex. Why not let them self-sort by their gender identity? Alternatively, why do we bother sorting at all? The presumed importance of the sorting, since it is not argued for at all, is certainly unproven within this text — and, therefore, the presumed importance of the sorting seems to be a religious belief, according to Goatee man's own definitions. This is not minor. This is foundational to the entire purpose of the book. If there is a debate about how people decide who is allowed to use men's and women's bathrooms, and if we are asked to seriously entertain the possibility that people's ideas about their own gender are full of unproven or unprovable nonsense (simply because we haven't been shown a decent explanation of gender identity within this book), it seems we must also consider that our assumed need to strictly gender the bathrooms and to control other people's access to them is itself unproven or unprovable nonsense (as we haven't been shown a decent argument for why it's important to control bathroom access, either). If regulating bathroom access is a "religious belief," can people who don't want to regulate or be regulated go ahead and ignore those who persist in such religion? Can we ask them to keep their religion to themselves?

Goatee man says: "Strip off everyone's clothes in this room, and I'll wager I can identify each and every person's gender." There are two problems here. First, this imagery is violent and it may be an ad baculum fallacy (appeal to force) or perhaps an ad verecundiam (appeal to authority). I have no doubt that, if Goatee man saw me naked, he would quickly issue an opinion (correct or not) about my sex/gender. That he is capable of forming instant judgments in service of whatever argument he wants to make is not a question in my mind. I would prefer, rather, to respond but there is no situation in which it is OK for you to strip me naked and pass judgments on my body; in delivering that response, however, I expect that he would, if I am to be realistic about the situation, somehow interpret my refusal to submit to his judgment as my conceding his point. If it works that way, he is committing some fallacy based on his own presumed authority to make violent threats to win arguments. Second, since Goatee man has acknowledged that intersex people exist, from a scientific perspective he does need to consider the implications of his inability to identify literally "each and every person's gender." If there is even one person whose physical sex is confusing or unapparent to him, he has encountered a problem for his argument. Plus, sometimes the "really crappy birth defect" is not in the person at whom one gazes but resides rather in one's own eyesight. I believe there is a Bible verse about that.

This, too, is a significant point. It's not just that one sentence is phrased in a crass manner. This is a proposal that if we could examine others' naked bodies then we could make an authoritative answer about how we think they should behave, and this wrong-headed idea opens the heart of how and why a social construct does what it does. Reality: It is never appropriate to order strangers stripped naked so that you can determine what gender you think they are or tell them what they should do about their gender. Because of this social agreement, we do not use information about strangers' apparent physical sex to tell them what bathroom they should enter. Instead, we let each person decide for themselves. The person who enters the bathroom is the person who decides, in that moment, where they best fit — men's or women's room. We allow the social construct of gender to perform its function. The social construct operates more gently than a forced visual or tactile inspection of someone's anatomy. The social construct works reliably well; people sort themselves into genders that are, on the whole, reasonable for them, and there are not problems in public bathrooms caused by the gender self-selection. So it is a non-starter for this book to attempt to shut down the idea of gender identity as a social construct and to attempt to dismiss it as non-scientific or anti-scientific. In fact, we can demonstrate how the social construct works. We can also, via thought experiment, see that a more "scientific" approach (if it involves treating people as specimens to be examined and classified) would likely produce social conflict and negative feelings and furthermore that it is not obvious what problem it would be intended to solve or what purpose it would serve.

We might ask if it is a "religious belief" to acknowledge and respect anything anyone says about their identity. Someone might claim to be Christian, left-handed, straight, introverted, to have grown up in a certain cultural background, to prefer apples over pears, and so forth. Normally we wouldn't call such claims "religious"; after all, no appeal to God is made. And while these identities may involve social constructs, the issue I care more about at this moment revolves around simply believing what people say about themselves and trusting that you will all be happier if you respect each other. This objection — that the topic of "religious beliefs" or "social constructs" isn't specific to gender, but is really much broader, and that the author's argument (via the character of Goatee man) seems to break down when it is broadened — is never considered in the book.

Another way of phrasing this: Is the belief that "gender identity is a religious belief" itself a religious belief? This is a meta-question, but it's not purely academic. It is important and needs to be central to considering this book's arguments. Goatee man is using the label "religious" to mean scientifically unproven and/or adhered to for no particular reason; he is using it, it seems, to partially devalue the beliefs he labels "religious," maintaining that religious claims carry little or no weight with someone who simply chooses not to believe in them. So we need to pay attention to whether there is a regress of things we don't have to believe. Goatee man says "gender identity is a religious belief." But why should I believe that? Is he making a scientific claim with those words, or a claim that all rational people are bound to accept? And if his claim about gender identity (that no one else should be socially obligated to acknowledge or respect one's asserted gender identity) is true, then why doesn't it apply to other asserted identities such as the ones I mentioned earlier? Goatee man is using the accusation of "religion" to justify not listening to certain bracketed beliefs of Ponytail man. Goatee man needs to consider the possibility that someone will put brackets around some of his sentences (specifically, the things Goatee man says about Ponytail man), label Goatee man's pronouncements "religious," and then not listen to him. This is a real problem for a book that amounts to a sort of manifesto predicated on waving one's hand and thereby dismissing other people's frameworks and worldviews as nonsense. Someone is going to try waving their hand to dismiss the entire manifesto as nonsense. The manifesto has to be ready for that. It has to have a response. It doesn't. It is a "religious" manifesto, to use its own language against it. And it is weakly religious, to use its own assessment standard against it, as long as it remains unconscious of its own religious nature. That is to say, it would be more robust if it were at least aware that it doesn't have rational support for its position.

If you go back far enough to investigate the foundation of any belief, you find that, at some point, you don't really have and can't get justification. That's because, if you go back far enough, you must question your standards for justification. There's no way to justify the method by which you justify other things. Everyone has to start somewhere. We pick our starting line and move on from there. Regarding sex and gender, one has to observe that some people actually do modify their bodies and/or choose gender roles other than that which their parents or the rest of society has assigned to them. Then a question presents itself: Should these people's choices and self-identity be respected and affirmed or disrespected and denied? Should we allow people to tell us what gender they are, or should we tell them what gender we want them to be? There may not be a way to fully and solidly justify one's approach here, but there are some good reasons to prefer the first approach; they are the same general reasons why acknowledgment and respect are usually better than their alternatives. More specifically in this case, the first approach allows everyone to use a public bathroom without argument or fuss because each person worries about himself/herself/themselves, pees, and ignores the rest of the world, while the second approach involves multiple people trying to manage one person's behavior in contradictory ways with complicated arguments within a very short timeline because the people who are arguing (especially the one who's being argued at) have to pee, and the argument can easily be construed as harassment of, incite assault against, and cause social damage for the gender-variant person who is the most vulnerable person and the only intended target in this situation. That may not be a full justification for choosing the first approach, but it's certainly a decent reason. I'm saying it's unfair to accuse the first approach of being unconsciously "religious" (insofar as it lacks justification) and to praise the second approach as being more "scientific." Both may lack some kind of ultimate justification. Supporters of each may have varying degrees of awareness of that. The author's defense of the second approach, unfortunately, seems unconscious of the second approach's own frailty, limits, and risks. He is not fully owning the underlying agendas and consequences of deliberately disrespecting other people's gender identity. Those agendas and consequences, in my view, have little to do with science.

Goatee man complains that "you decided that with gender — and only with gender — magical words can overrule physical reality itself. What gives you the right to make that declaration? Who do you think you are? God?" There are a couple problems here. First, Ponytail man didn't initially say that gender is the only example of this kind of social construct. That's a straw man trap that Goatee man set for him, a coercive Socratic interrogation to which he succumbed far too quickly and easily. The claim that Goatee man makes here — that allies of transgender people treat gender identity as a social construct like no other social construct — may not be true. Considering gender identity as a unique type of social construct is not, in fact, essential to the concept or behavior of respecting transgender people. Ponytail man outwardly agreed with Goatee man's accusation, basically saying sure, OK, gender is unique among all social constructs, but Ponytail man is a poor advocate for his position. Second, everyone uses labels and constructs, and that doesn't mean we think we are God. Making clear, strong assertions should not result in a charge of hubris. (After all, from a scientific perspective, it's preferable for a hypothesis to be worded clearly so that it can be confirmed or disproven. It actually can be less arrogant to make a firm declaration because in doing so you are leaving yourself vulnerable to being disproven, rather than equivocating and hedging your bets.) Ponytail man makes hardly any coherent declarations and is drooling on himself, and Goatee man still accuses him of hubris. This is unfair as an interpersonal matter between the two fictional characters, and more significantly from the philosophical perspective it does not amount to a persuasive argument in favor of Goatee man's position nor, indeed, a persuasive argument about anything.

It is hopefully apparent by now, but remains important to explicitly point out, that no transgender characters were allowed to speak for themselves in this book. That would violate Goatee man's ethic of goatee-splaining. Of course, if there had been a transgender character representation in the story, it would simply be the author Stephen Measure's idea of a transgender person, so that would hardly amount to real transgender people speaking for themselves. It would, however, be a step toward the acknowledgment that transgender people's voices ought to be considered in philosophical or political arguments about them. If one is uncomfortable writing a transgender character, one probably shouldn't be writing a story that argues how such people should be interpreted and treated in real life, either.

Nor does it take atheists seriously. Setting the Goatee man/Ponytail man debate in a Pastafarian (atheist) gathering hall, and having the fictional atheist leadership in the room behave ridiculously and side with the obviously useless Ponytail man, is just a dig against atheism within the context of the story. This story proves nothing about real atheists' beliefs or reasoning capabilities.

To wrap up: This isn't a serious book. In the positive sense of "unserious," the tone is playful. In the negative sense of "unserious," it's impossible for me to entertain the author's arguments. If this were an essay, it would fail. Dressing it up as a story doesn't save it.

By now, I have surely expended more than three dollars' worth of effort in analyzing these problems, in addition to having spent my literal three dollars. (Someone now is likely imagining that he wants to strip my wallet out of my pants and have a look before he believes me about what I've spent.) I don't know if I've proven, or at least been persuasive about, my points. After all, I'm surprised I had to make these points in the first place; they seem blazingly obvious to me. But, at the very least, I think I've demonstrated that I can respond to an argument without "dehumanizing" the author, so perhaps I shall not wind up on the third topic section of his website. I did indeed point out that one sentence was phrased in a way that might be interpreted as a bit violent, but this was not an attempt to place a blanket label of bad-personness on the author, but simply a call-out of one concrete instance of writing/argumentation. If he wishes to maintain (as he does on his website) that it is fair game for him to criticize others' behaviors of which he disapproves, then he should grant that it is fair game for me to criticize his behavior in writing this book. If he does not even see himself as dehumanizing other people when he tells them what he thinks they really are, then he should have no reason to think that I am dehumanizing him when I tell him what I hear when he tells me what he thinks I really am. I am not even telling him what I think he is. I am telling him how I hear and interpret his words about me. That is not dehumanization of him. That is telling him how to avoid injuring or offending others.

It might, you know, be considered a low blow — but certainly not a dehumanizing blow — to mention that I spotted four instances of the noun "identity" as a typo for the intended verb "identify." It is not enough to rely on automatic spellcheck; writers should hire a transgender human whose eyes can see what their own eyes might not. I tend to identify (not identity) typos when I read. If the writer is going to strip me down and say, hey, I see a Transsexual where I expected to see a Female and it makes me unhappy, then I reserve the right to reply that, yes, I, too, see a 't' where I expected an 'f' and it is similarly disconcerting. If I am supposed to pretend not to notice typos in the very words I paid three dollars to read, then I expect that other people will keep their judgmental eyes out of my pants into which, by the way, they haven't paid me bubkis to look. Anyway, in case I haven't made it clear, it wasn't the recurring typo that irked me about the book. It was everything else.

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