The Humpty Dumpty Wonderland of Transgender Language.

As you may have noticed and if you are still following me, I have been struggling to understand the role of scepticism within transgender issues. My first concerns about how a transgender charity were promoting poor science with direct effects on children were met with cries of ‘don’t be a jerk, Andy’, unfriendings and so on. A questionable children’s charity with dodgy science ought to be bread and butter for sceptics. It has not got much better. Maybe I am being a jerk, but I do need to resolve how sceptical scrutiny can be applied to the various claims being lofted around without it becoming a firestorm. I know of no other issue where scepticism appears not to be allowed.

So, as a side note, here is a conversation I had with an author of a piece called ‘The Transgender Pseudo-Skeptics” by Curt Buckley. In this piece, Curt argues that sceptics are worse than the ‘bigots on YouTube’ who scream vile hate at transpeople. This is quite a claim.

The conversation below is what followed in the comments, but I wanted to preserve it because Curt’s responses are typical (with the sole exception that they are polite rather than screaming). I am amazed at the complete refusal to be pinned down on defining the central words around the issue. And my thoughts follow from that…

Andy

Hello. If pseudo-skepticism is a ‘bad thing’ when it comes to transgender issues, what sort of skepticism is permissable? What sort of claims made by the trans lobby are subject to scrutiny?

For example, I struggle understanding how the central dogma that ‘transwomen are women’ can have any validity, in that I cannot think of a coherent, non-circular definition of the word ‘woman’ than means it is true?

Will you allow me to be sceptical about that?

Can anyone offer a definition that will withstand scepticism?

Curt

Andy,

A good point. I would say it goes to motivations. Being skeptical out of a concern to find the truth, to better understand, is a good thing. My point, perhaps not as clear as it could have been, is the pseudo-skeptics are trying to hide their true motivations behind a false veneer of healthy sketicism. That is what I find unacceptable.

As to how to define what a woman is, I leave that to individual women to decide. For my part, if a transgender man tells me he is a man, that is good enough for me.

Andy

How do you know people’s motivations?

But on a more substantive point, as a sceptic I think definitions are vital if we are to think clearly and apply evidence to claims. Your attempt at a definition suffers from two problems:

1. Can you think of any other concept are we unable to define universally but somehow allow individual definitions? How can we understand each other when we speak if we are all using our own definitions? That is pure humpty-dumptyism.

2. Your own attempt is circular. How do we know who a woman is who can make their own definition if you cannot define woman?

This is scepticism. Looking at claims, critically appraising them and rejecting claims that fail critical standards. So far, you have failed.

Would you like to have another go?

Curt

Hmm. As to your last question, not really, but here I am.

I believe a person’s motivations can be clearly, if perhaps imperfectly, inferred from their actions and their words.

Answering question 1, I would cite every religious and political concept in history. I submit that every person has their own take on what being “liberal” means. Does that mean that no one can understand each other until we have a definitive agreement on the word?

Aside: “humpty-dumpstyism” is quite wonderful!

Question 2: I decline to define woman or man. Why would I need to do this? Why is this important or even essential? I fail to see why approaching gender as a infinitely complex spectrum is a problem.

To be sure, defining gender this way is going to (and should) wreak havoc on our societal approaches to gender. Bring it on, I say.

In the end, your reference to the children’s rhyme is apropos: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

Yup.

Andy

First of all, ‘Humpty Dumptyism’ is a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and his critique of semantics and pragmatics.

When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
 ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

There is no shared understanding when words have no codified and contextual meaning. And if humans cannot share understanding, we are in dire straits and heading to dark places. Perhaps we are already there.

In the discussions about transgender issues, there are clear dividing lines. Some women feel that their own ability to organise politically, protect their own class rights, and even just to be able speak coherently about themselves is undermined by transwomen insisting they are women. You may or may not agree. But there are competing needs and rights here, and a negotiation is underway (well it would be if it was not drowned out by shouts of bigotry and transphobia.)

A core issue is an inability to agree on what we mean by common words such as man, woman, male, female, gender, sex and ‘trans’. The above disputes will not be solved when we are dominated by Humpty Dumptyism as it removes the possibility of even having a coherent discussion and even erases groups within that sphere.

The word ‘woman’ has had clear and unambiguous meaning. We mean by it an ‘adult human female’ where a female is that class of people whose biological organisational structure and development is directed towards the production of immobile ova etc. (This definition is not threatened by rare intersex conditions, infertility etc as some try to argue, bizarrely.)

Your reluctance to accept common understanding of words, and adopt pure Humpty Dumptyism, is a political act and is not, and I have to say this, intellectually honest. This is where scepticism plays a real role here — in looking for ambiguities, logical fallacies, unsubstantiated aims and calling for evidence when it is required.

The well-being and happiness of people is at risk here. We all want to maximise the best outcomes for people, to minimise distress and to allow flourishing lives. Scepticism is vital — but is either sadly lacking or screamed at for ‘bigotry’.

This is not going to end well.

Curt

Andy,

Thanks for the clarification on humpty-dumptyism. I will plead guilty to this malady. I believe we can and do change what words mean — expand meanings, perhaps contract meanings, reject prior meanings, embrace new ones.

I reject your definition of what “woman” means. You perhaps reject my definition. We disagree but there doesn’t seem to be any dire confusion here.

We have wandered far away from Dr. Laidlaw’s essay and my scrutiny of it. Looking out the bus window, I see my stop is coming up, so I’ll be getting off now.

Thanks for the chat.

Andy

I told only half the story of Humpty Dumpty. We saw how the Egg announced that words could mean whatever he wanted them to mean. His nouns became arbitrary with no common and shared meaning. But he also had things to say about proper nouns.

Don’t stand chattering to yourself like that,’ Humpty Dumpty said, looking at her for the first time, ‘but tell me your name and your business.’

‘My name is Alice, but — ‘

‘It’s a stupid name enough!’ Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. ‘What does it mean?’

‘Must a name mean something?’ Alice asked doubtfully.

‘Of course it must,’ Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: ‘my name means the shape I am — and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.’

Now Humpty is insisting that Alice’s name must have a meaning and scolds her for a stupid name that does not. His own name means he is a fat egg.

Carroll’s joke is that, of course, Humpty uses nouns and proper nouns in the exact opposite way to the way we use them outside of Wonderland.

I would argue that you are doing exactly that.

You have rejected my definition of the word woman without explanation. My definition was not anything left-field, but would be something close that that used in the lists of nouns and other words we call dictionaries. To reject such a definition out of hand appears bizarre. Instead you claim to have your own definition — but that is not true as you explicitly rejected the need to define the word ‘woman’ “I leave that to individual women to decide”. You have reduced a word that once had meaning to being just a label — just as Humpty Dumpty does with his nouns.

In the transgender world, proper nouns then become imbued with meaning. When Liam calls himself Lily he becomes a herself. The naming is part of an attempt at positioning within a distinct class — that of women. Proper nouns now are no longer labels but classifiers. To ignore the new class is quickly pounced upon as ‘misgendering’. ‘Off with their heads!”.

So, nouns have become labels and proper nouns have become signifiers. We are in Wonderland.

This not, as you claim, an exercise in “chang[ing] what words mean — expand meanings, perhaps contract meanings, reject prior meanings, embrace new ones.” This is an exercise in changing language so that we can avoid meanings and privilege wishes. You have not properly rejected a meaning; nor have you embraced any new definition. Indeed, you are preventing that very process from happening. If ‘woman’ needs a new definition, then we are never going to get there.

As I say, if you want to reduce nouns to mere labels, then this has consequences. In your article, you use words like ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘male’ and ‘female’ regularly. But how can your reader have any confidence of having any shared understand of what you mean when you use those words as you have now explicitly rejected imbuing them with a stable meaning?

How many other words in your article are you not prepared to use in a common, shared way? Does this not render your whole article into something that should be treated as gibberish?

I would actually say it is worse than that in you give no indication to your reader that you do not intend to use words in a way that they will have a shared understanding of. In that way how can we not look at your work as anything other than misleading?

You want to criticise scepticism of transgender issues. But you do so by rendering language impotent. Your critique defeats itself, as does all post-modernist-like nonsense.

This is a shame because, as I think we both agree, there are real consequences here for people’s lives and their ability to live fully and without pain and rejection.

We need better discourse. And we need a commitment to language, precision, shared understandings, scepticism and evidence. Sadly, in the transgender debate, I see little commitment to these basic values of intellectual enquiry from the side that is apparently wishing to be understood.

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