I think of myself as tall, dark, and handsome. I’m both fun and funny. I’m warm, sensitive, caring, generous, and incredibly intelligent. In short, I’m God’s gift to women. But apparently this judgment is not widely shared. 

But surely there’s a fact of the matter. Either I’m right or ‘they’ are. And what that means is that, though, as Descartes pointed out, I couldn’t be mistaken about my simply being, I could be mistaken about what properties are and are not attached to my being. 

Now then, who’s in a better position to know what those properties might be? In some cases – like what I’m thinking right now – I am. But in others – am I generous or a piker? – you’d be better advised to consult those who know me. 

There’s a fact-of-the-matter about how tall I am. That is, my height is not a social construct. But my generosity, or lack thereof, is a social construct, insofar as what counts as generosity is a matter of social expectations. If this be doubted, suppose I claim to be the king. I’m guessing no one would regard and treat me as such. But suppose everyone did regard and treat me as their king. Then, dammit, I would be their king, because there’s nothing more to being their king than my subjects regarding and treating me as such. 

Suppose you claim to be a woman, or black, or disabled, or what have you. With respect to these properties – as distinct from what you’re thinking right now – is there something you know that we don’t? No there is not. Why not? Because being a king or a woman or black or disabled are all social constructs. Who’s doing the constructing? We are. We’ve decided what will count as being our king or a woman or black or disabled. 

Could we be wrong about whether you are what you claim to be? We could if we’d laid out what counts as being, say, a woman, you’ve met those conditions, but we’ve failed to see that you have. But we couldn’t be wrong in laying out those conditions in the first place. Why not? Because what we mean by something being a this or a that just is for it to have satisfied those conditions we’ve laid out.

And how did we go about laying out those conditions? Some people think that the world, not unlike a turkey, comes already jointed, and in naming things all we do is carve the world at its preexisting joints. So wings and drumsticks, blacks and whites, men and women, have all been pre-sorted for us. Call this, if you will, realism about natural kinds.

It’s important to see that this view is false. 

There are an infinite number of ways the world can be carved up into constituent components. One candidate component is this turkey, another is this turkey wing, and yet another is this pen and the third hair in from my left nostril. We have a name for the turkey and for the turkey wing, but we don’t have a name for this pen and the third hair in from my left nostril. Why? Because we have a use for turkeys and turkey wings, but we don’t have a use for these pens and the third hairs in from left nostrils. So of the infinite number of ways the world can be carved up, we carve it up in those and only those ways we find useful to us.

I’m guessing that before that moment in the Garden of Eden when – I blame it all on Eve – we ceased to be immortal, we had no reason to draw a distinction between men and women. After that we did. There were probably equally compelling reasons we decided people could be divided into different skin colours. Some of the distinctions we’ve drawn have outlived their usefulness. Martin Luther King suggested skin colour might be one of them. And maybe some day, in the kindergarten Christian conception of the Hereafter, where we’re told our immortality will be returned to us, the man/woman distinction will no longer be of any use either. But in the here and now those uses are legion. Here’s just a representative sampling:

In the here and now we fight wars. Most of our wars have been multigenerational, which requires that we replenish our ranks, to which end we need to protect our wombs. Going to the wall is a collective action problem. You go! No, you go! So allowing self-identification would spell disaster. So if someone is to be allowed back from the wall she has to demonstrably have a womb. And that demonstrable having of a womb we call being a woman.

In the here and now these people we call women like to do their ablutions without feeling sexualised, at least until after they’ve done their ablutions. Women are less likely to feel sexualised by the gaze of other women, but they’ll almost invariably feel sexualised by the gaze of men, including men who claim to be women. So allowing one to be a woman just in case she says she is would rob women of this ablutionary privacy.

In the here and now people like to compete athletically, but only if they can be competitive. A featherweight boxer can’t compete against a heavyweight. In most sports neither can most women compete against most men. So allowing someone to compete as a woman just in case she says she is would deprive women of meaningful participation in competitive sports. 

We could talk about segregated prisons next, but I trust the point has been made. We could, of course, alter any or all of these practices. We could cease to prioritise wombs and let the chips fall where they may. We could spend the money to make all ablutionary functions private. We could do away with sex-exclusive sports and prisons. And so on. No doubt we’ll do so in the kindergarten Christian’s Hereafter. But not in the here and now. In the here and now we need the distinction between men and women, and that means, as unwoke as it may be, we need to deny the right of self-identification.

Can what’s just been said of gender likewise be said of race? Unless we want to abandon any and all affirmative action programs, it can and it must. Likewise with disability. But not likewise with royalty. I still think I should be allowed to be king just on my say-so. After all, why would I lie about something like that?!

You can call the alternative to self-identification anything you like – e.g. judicial discretion – but fudging the obvious aside, what it comes down to is sex and/or race classification boards, and in the case of race this smacks far too akin to Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa. Some American jurisdictions have tried to circumvent this result, at least with respect to sex, by saying you are what it says on your birth certificate. This, of course, will suffer the death of a thousand court-imposed qualifications. So the bottom line is there is no way to cover the floor without there being a bulge in the rug somewhere. Human beings are square pegs. When you try to pound them into a round hole, some corners get sheered off. Telling a trans woman she’s just an unfortunate spandrel may be small consolation. But the alternative, it seems to me, is worse for all of us.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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