Monday, June 8, 2015

More Feminists against Transgendering

Old school feminist Elinor Burkett is not at all happy with the fooferaw surrounding Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner:
Do women and men have different brains?

Back when Lawrence H. Summers was president of Harvard and suggested that they did, the reaction was swift and merciless. Pundits branded him sexist. Faculty members deemed him a troglodyte. Alumni withheld donations.

But when Bruce Jenner said much the same thing in an April interview with Diane Sawyer, he was lionized for his bravery, even for his progressivism.

“My brain is much more female than it is male,” he told her, explaining how he knew that he was transgender.

This was the prelude to a new photo spread and interview in Vanity Fair that offered us a glimpse into Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup. Ms. Jenner was greeted with even more thunderous applause. ESPN announced it would give Ms. Jenner an award for courage. President Obama also praised her. Not to be outdone, Chelsea Manning hopped on Ms. Jenner’s gender train on Twitter, gushing, “I am so much more aware of my emotions; much more sensitive emotionally (and physically).”

A part of me winced.

I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.

That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries. But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.
After two centuries of arguing that men's and women's brains are really not so different, feminists like Burkett are very suspicious of this "I was born with a female brain" stuff. Burkett believes that our brains are shaped much less by some inborn gendered paradigm and much more by experience, and she is very reluctant to award the label of "woman" to someone who has lived a life of male privilege.

My sister, a professor at a women's college, has also expressed concern about the way transgender issues are muddying the feminist program, turning attention back to who has what body parts and away from the insistence that your gender is not your destiny.

Scanning the anthropological literature, you can see that many societies have recognized people who do not identify with the bodies they were born in. In some places (certain Siberian and American Indian tribes) people of mixed-up gender are according a special spiritual status. So there is nothing new about the idea of trans identities. But the current explosion of interest makes me nervous. We live in a world where anything can become a fad, including things that seem psychologically fundamental. Consider "recovered memories" of child sexual abuse, or multiple personality disorder. Those things may exist, just as people with transgender identities may exist, but for a brief period they both raced through the population, claiming thousands of victims. Right now to be transgender is in some circles the coolest thing, and who knows how many people will embrace it at least partly for that reason, and then come to regret it? I do not subscribe to a binary male/female notion of the brain, any more than I subscribe to a binary gay/straight notion of the brain. So far as I can see, all psychological traits exist on a continuum. I make no claim to know the shape of the curve, but it strikes me as perfectly possible that people in the middle far outnumber those who truly could never be happy with the bodies they were born in. Does anyone know what would be the right advice to give such people? I doubt it. Shouldn't this make us careful?

I am not interested in telling Caitlyn Jenner or anyone else how to live, but I refuse to get heavily invested in this debate, because I think we are already paying quite enough attention to it.


G. Verloren said...

"I am not interested in telling Caitlyn Jenner or anyone else how to live, but I refuse to get heavily invested in this debate, because I think we are already paying quite enough attention to it."

I'm of much the same mind.

As a person who has never felt any sort of disconnect between my identity and my body - except in the sense that I view the body as being largely irrelevant to who we are as people - I believe I have nothing useful to contribute. I also don't think it's much my business.

On a conceptual level I can recognize the discomfort others may feel regarding this issue, but I can't understand it personally. It doesn't make sense to me that someone could have such a profound need to reshape their body one way or another. I imagine this is chiefly because of the irrelevance I attribute to my own body as regards who I am, but still, it is beyond my proper comprehension.

It certainly doesn't seem like it has much rational basis - indeed these issues are often framed in terms of "feeling" or "just knowing" intuitively. But like other seemingly irrational behaviors - religious devotion, absolutist political thinking, the consumption of lutefisk, et cetera - as long as there is no demonstrable harm being done, what do I care what people choose to do or believe?

Of course, there's a bit of a gray area in determining if "demonstrable harm" is actually being done. I'm not a fan of "cosmetic" surgery, and the more drastic it is, the more concerned I become. It seems to be to betray the medical ethos of primum non nocere - it sacrifices biological health to accomodate purely psychological problems, rather than treating those issues; it abandons rationality in favor of satisfying emotion.

But obviously opinions differ on the subject. One might even turn my own position against me - if I view the body as irrelevant to a person's identity, shouldn't that make any changes to the body likewise irrelevant?

And yet I can't help but compare the desire to undergo massive surgery to appear more in line with one gender stereotype or the other to things like Body Integrity Identity Disorder, wherin an individual feels that they would be happier living as an amputee, and often actively seek to remove one or more limbs. What is the logical difference between these two psychological desires? Most people would consider a desire to cut your own leg off to be unhealthy, and indicative of other deeper mental problems. So why, then, is wanting to reshape your physical sex not equally concerning?

I've attempted to discuss this exact point with others previously, but apparently the comparison is seen as outrageous and offensive to some - which saddens, me because I have no desire to outrage or offend anyone regarding such topics, I just want to understand things rationally.

Overall, it's just yet another thing that, to me, seems irrational and possibly harmful to the people who embrace it, but that I can't really do or say anything genuinely productive about, so I try to simply not to be concerned by it. I don't always succeed, but I do at least try - and what concern I do feel, I also try to keep to myself.

Anonymous said...

My disturbance came when I read the FDA is going to allow the sexual enhancement drug directed at women.
These sex issues serve to undermine and minimize the real pertinent issues facing the working public. They are issue scapegoats.
Is Congress requiring insurers to cover all classifications described by the US weather bureau? No, they cover vague 'flood' conditions but the policy then fails to cover flood damage as there was a sub clause defining a separate element.
It seems to me as I age, that 20 years is the time frame that any actions by our private enterprises are allowed to run for profit regardless of the harm incurred. Only after the 20 year of profit taking does any action to limit the already substantial harm occur. It is intentional.
Even after the supposed corrections are proposed and discussed in Congress, and even passed in a weak form (often claimed to be the best one can expect), what happens is that the focus is removed and the legislation is sidetracked. Remember the hue and cry that produced to make the tax increases passed for education be applicable in a high percentage to the students and not for teachers?
Guess What? In Minnesota the legislation was derailed in the legislative bodies and has not been heard of again. We older folks understand this. Sadly.
One might even suspect that without a 20 year replacement of us that capitalism would soon fall by the roadside.