Recently, I incited a flurry of controversy among my Facebook friends after posting the article, I am a Woman. You are a Trans Woman. And That Distinction Matters. The provocative nature of the topic created conflict, unmasking a tension apparent in all spectrum politics: We aren’t good at seeing nuance. Our habit is to pick a “side” and defend it with unrestrained vigor, assuming the worst about those we disagree with. People aren’t interested in finding common ground, they are too busy carving out territory.
An example of this fruitless exercise can be seen in Steven Crowder’s video “There are Only 2 Genders: Change My Mind.” Steven Crowder is a conservative provocateur and comedian with a YouTube series called Change my Mind where he solicits debate on a number of divisive topics, inviting the public to try and convince him otherwise. This particular video is filmed on a college campus and features three students who grapple with him over gender issues. It’s painful to watch and ‘spoiler alert,’ Crowder remains unconvinced. Here’s the video, if you are a glutton for punishment.
What struck me about these impromptu debates, is how everyone repeats the same tired arguments without finding any purchase even on basic definitions. This is not a strategy for convincing anyone of anything.
In the current climate of political dysfunction, it’s important to define what “winning” really means. How can someone “win” an argument with Steven Crowder? Winning cannot mean repeating the same internalized arguments that led to your favored ideology, nor can it be had by referencing others who agree with you. The goal of this kind of engagement is to convince someone else to grant you humanity. It is only from a place of mutual respect that opposing views are given fair consideration, that someone else can see your side.
How do we get there?
Rapoport’s Rules for engagement explain how to criticize someone constructively. These preliminary prescriptions set the stage for a productive disagreement. Here are the four steps:
- You should attempt to paraphrase your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that they say, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”(steelman arguments)
- You should list any points of agreement first (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Any formal debate begins with definitions. Be clear about exactly where your opponent stands. Offer a “steelman”, the strongest possible version of their argument before embarking. Ask them to do the same for you.
The second step is finding common ground. This is the beginning of the journey, not the end. You cannot proceed without some commonality, even if it is merely a definition. The more you can ascribe to shared beliefs, the easier it will be to convince someone to hear you out and lend some weight to your opinion. Your proposal will seem less radical and the debate can proceed with greater clarity. Step three amounts to a show of respect and a gesture of goodwill; it signals that you value the opinion you are seeking. Finally, having laid the ground for fertile debate, you can state your premise and offer a counter argument.
These steps are necessary to avoid the pitfalls of human nature. These unproductive tendencies live in us all, no matter our place in the political spectrum. Dave Smalley lays out these universals in his talk Eating Our Own. They are as follows: Humans 1. fear what we don’t understand, 2. demonize those we don’t relate to, 3. group think for security and belonging, 4. identify enemies and speak for them — making their words more hateful than their actual views, 5. marginalize smaller groups for control, 6. fight for power, and 7. become the new oppressors. This unfortunate pattern is evidenced by many groups who fight for power, win it, and quickly become as corrupted as those they overthrew. Animal Farm, by George Orwell, is a crash course in this all too common downfall. We can avoid it by correctly framing our goals and mindfully practicing Rapoport’s Rules for engagement when disagreeing with our perceived enemies.
To convince Steven Crowder we would need to agree on a definition of gender and tease out the cultural performance of gender stereotypes from the sexual dimorphism of the human species. The first of Steven’s debate partners, Thomas, tries to do just this. Crowder acknowledges modern gender theory and mentions Judith Butler, but claims that this mode of thinking is relatively new, starting in 1948 with Simone De Beauvoir’s writing The Second Sex. He goes on to say that for all of previous human history, the concept of “gender” and “sex” were interchangeable. Thomas disagrees, but is unable to articulate an answer. Steven forges ahead, using the word “choice” in relation to personal gender identity. “What if I choose to be a bobcat?” he challenges, “Is that defensible?” Thomas looks resigned, but demonstrates his commitment to universal human rights by agreeing to honor Steven’s choice to be a “bobcat.”
His second debate partner, Madison, gets right down to the sex versus gender point again, mentioning both other cultural manifestations and the existence of intersex individuals. Steven counters that scientific evidence for “truly” intersex individuals is statistically insignificant. Madison moves on to historical examples of 3rd genders in other eras and societies, her account is solid. Deflecting implied criticism, Steven shifts gears, stating that slavery and cannibalism are also acceptable in some cultures. He deftly moves the argument from an ontological one, to an ethical one, claiming “harm” where before he did not. At the same time he refuses to give Madison any buy-in on the evidence for 3rd gender roles in history. At this point their exchange becomes combative, with Madison insisting that gender identity is a protected status. Steven flatly disagrees. Madison calls his refusal to use preferred pronouns an “act of violence.” They trade ideological punches, clearly sparring for the virtual crowd now, there is no contrivance to understanding only animosity. “How many genders are there then?” Steven sarcastically pretend-asks. “An infinite amount!” Madison snarls back.
The problem with this debate, pragmatically speaking, is that extreme positions are nearly impossible to prove. It is the mild claims that are easiest to defend. More importantly, we bring people to an understanding of diverse opinion by revelation, not force. Steven’s invitation to discussion, disingenuous though it may be, doesn’t cast a flattering light on his adversaries either. Subsequent episodes on the same question confirm that Steven is presenting political theater to prove a point and liberals take the bait every time.
But what is this really about?
What Crowder takes issue with is the “restructuring of society” based on individual, personal preference. He’s referring to C-16, a law passed by the Canadian legislature in spring of 2017. C-16 was meant to extend legal protections to genderqueer individuals, who are frequently targeted with hate crimes. Clearly inspired by Jordan Peterson’s radical reading of C-16, Crowder wrongly equivocates “protection under the law” with a threat to cisgender social primacy and free speech. This misguided concern is wrapped within his milder argument that ‘without a clear understanding of when and how to use preferred pronouns, it is unfair to expect people to police their language on the fly.’ This is a more reasonable contention, one that the left might entertain when try to map out the place where our Venn diagrams overlap.
On the left, a reasoned case can be made for the extension of human rights to a marginalized group. The struggle for human rights is a story of outsiders seeking privileges and protections afforded to the dominant group; hence the list of protected peoples grows with the passage of time. Race, color, religion or creed, national origin, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation etc. each represents a battle, fought and won by a group that struggled for recognition and acceptance. Now we witness the inclusion of gender queer and intersex individuals to shelter under the protective embrace of civil rights.
Why does it bother Steven Crowder so much?
Crowder’s central problem is with the “restructuring” of a societal norm rooted in biological difference. Further, he sees cisgender identity as a biological imperative and queergender identity as a choice. It is on this basis that he objects to legal protections for a “chosen” identity. This is his prejudice laid bare and the sticking point I want to unpack.
What is the role of biology in gender identity? Is it truly a choice?
There’s no denying the fluid nature of gender as a social construction, in terms laid out by Judith Butler, but that does not mean gender identity is chosen. Rather, it is a confluence of biology and environment, of nature and nurture, that forges human identity. Gender identity is the culmination of realities both physical and cultural that shape the individual’s lived experience (or neuromatrix). For this reason, I contend that being male, female, or genderqueer is more than a performance, more than cosmetic surgery, fashion and makeup, more even than the social constructions we cling to. Socially constructed gender categories may be arbitrary in some measure, but our experience of ourselves is not. Part of being a female or black or transgender, is the brutality of its inescapable nature. We are who we have come to be.
Crowder’s basis for privileging cisgender stereotypes over non-traditional gender identity is a biological one. To productively counter Crowder’s position, we must seize upon science and embrace its explanations. By this means we will vindicate our trans and gender queer citizens. The differences between the male and female phenotypes are arguably the greatest intra-species variations within the human genome. However, the human neuromatrix is at least partly innate, a theory born out in numerous studies of gender differences in chronic pain. Here are two recent examples: Mona H. Mathna and Joy C. MacDermid offer their research in a peer reviewed study titled, Application of the Neuromatrix Pain Theory to Understand Sex and Gender Differences in Chronic Pain (2015). Additionally, the book Sensation and Perception by Hugh Foley and Margaret Maitlin(2015), tracks studies of phantom limb pain in people born without the limb rather than those who lost the limb due to accident or trauma. The perception of a limb that was never there, reinforces the idea that the neuromatrix is something inherent to the subjective sense of our bodies. Researchers Ramachandran and McGeoch (2007) predict that the phantom limb experience of still “having a penis” will be different for transgendered women after sexual reassignment surgery than for cisgendered men who underwent amputation due to cancer. If the person’s neuromatrix is inconsistent or misaligned with their biological body then feeling “trapped in the body of the other gender” is a subjective experience rooted in a biological fact. Foley and Maitlin point out that “female-to-male transsexuals report having experienced a phantom penis prior to surgery.” (emphasis is theirs)
The biological component of sexual identity in the brain has robust substantiation, even if it has yet to be completely explicated by science. For starters, a great many genetic variations have been identified; by some estimates 1 in 100 births have a measurable degree of gender ambiguity. These variations, as well as neuromatrix pain theory, bear out the claim that there is something uniquely subjective about being born intersex, having body dysmorphia, experiencing oneself as gender queer, or gender non-binary (GNB). Whether or not the biological basis for all gender fluidity can be accounted for with our current technology is less important than acknowledging the factual existence of these individuals and their struggles. These quantifiable differences support the case for civil rights by Crowder’s own standards.
It can only be facts: numerous, hard to contest, scientific facts, that convince Crowder and those like him of the biological basis for gender fluidity. He wants us to acknowledge that most human are compelled by the common phenotypical manifestations of sex: the binary male/female types. This is true and furthermore, trying to refute something so obvious is futile. Where he and his supporters are wrong is in their refusal to see that sexual identities lie on a spectrum. Human sexuality is not black and white. There are many who manifest in the gray areas. In fact, gray areas are arguably necessary in the dynamics of human evolution.
Crowder and his cohorts cannot ignore hard science, logic and reason without being intellectually dishonest. Factually, transgender and intersex people exist. Stripped of conjecture, the real argument becomes one about human rights. The question is: do those with non-traditional gender identities deserve respect and equal rights? I think they do.
Crowder says he does not. His main argument about ‘statistical irrelevance’ can be challenged. Is there a measure of critical mass that makes a group worthy of protections under the law? If there is a magic number that flips the human rights switch ON, Crowder should state it. How many people are we talking about, really?
Taking all non-traditional sexual identities into account, the full spectrum of LGBTQ+ individuals amounts to 4–10% of the general population, depending on survey parameters. Though they may be small in number, their unique experience is scientifically verifiable, prevalent throughout history and persistent across culture. Lower incidence groups, with less scientific backing, have won legal protections. The inclusion of gender non-binary individuals under the umbrella of universal human rights is not actually a radical position. The problem is that many on the left try to make it one.
Some of Crowder’s failed opponents needlessly plant flags in extreme and hard to defend territory, when more moderate positions can get them what they want. Attempting to annihilate the scientific basis for sex differences is pure folly. It is the method by which our species reproduce and the central dogma to the entire field of genetics. Further, there is no need to do such a thing. We only argue for the existence of the gray area, not against the binary reality of mammalian reproduction. Acknowledging a gray zone cannot mean the destruction of black and white, precisely because gray is the result of exactly those spectrum polarities. Those who experience their human lives as cisgender men and women will continue to be the majority, at least for the foreseeable future. Those who are gender non-binary will find their vindication for mainstream acceptance through truth and grace, by a revelation of their own humanity — not by denying the humanity of others.
True inclusion includes everyone, even the dominant group. The center does not hold by rejecting the weights of its balance. The displacement of one oppressor by another ‘would-be oppressor’ is Dave Smalley’s seventh warning about human nature. Becoming the monsters we fight can never be the solution.
(Thanks to Pamela Daley for proofreading)