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Jun 17 2012

Blogathon: 20th Hour

I’m kinda maybe possibly sorta running out of ideas of things to write about.

Or at least things I can write about with a highly limited time-frame and a brain that is rapidly losing its ability to function.

What is it with superpowers and the colour green, anyway? Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Green Hornet, Green Goblin, Jade, The Hulk, She-Hulk, The Riddler, Beast Boy, Martian Manhunter, The Scorpion, The Lizard, etc.

Like, I know is green is like, a totally sweet colour and all, but this is a little weird.

It’s sort of like the weird tendency for mutants to be blue.

Anyway…

There’s one interesting connection between the whole trans thing and the skeptic thing that I don’t think I ever quite took a chance to talk about, and that’s how being trans can teach a lot about intellectual humility.

An hour or something (I have no idea anymore) ago I followed a pingback to a webboard called rationalskepticism. There, out of curiosity, I clicked through to the sociology page, where I saw a thread titled “Five year old boy wants to become a girl!”

I suppose from the way it was framed, and the overall attitude evident in how the board was structured, I already knew what I was likely to find there. But still, it was depressing. The OP was a link back to some horrible fear-mongering Telegraph article (that consistently gendered the trans girl in question as male), and seemed completely geared around trying to provoke outrage rather than any actual compassionate attempts at understanding the situation. For instance, it included an obviously “SHOCKING” reference to how the kid had allegedly indicated the desire to perform a self-penectomy.

Albeit with less formal, polite language.

The couple people who’d commented in the thread at “rationalskepticism” took the bait and ran with it. The OP suggested “Isn’t this just ‘dress-up’ with the parents, like, horribly overreacting?” (yeah, because I’m sure it’s the parents promoting the idea of transition, and the child who needs convincing…right.)

Another commenter said “If this kid is trying to cut his penis off, he obviously has much deeper issues than ‘gender identity disorder’ [yes, commenter put it in scare quotes]. What he needs is extensive therapy, not a sex change”

-sigh-

I get so immensely disappointed, so terribly frequently, by what a huge percentage of self-professed skeptics turn out to be nothing but stubborn, arrogant, close-minded, loudly opinionated assholes who can’t be bothered to put the bare minimum effort into actually learning about the subjects on which they wish to profess their “rational” opinions.

Being trans, you end up seeing on a painfully consistent basis the degree to which people can be so incredibly over-confident, so stubbornly opinionated, so convinced of the rightness of their perspective, and yet so ridiculously ignorant… so unwilling to bother learning about what they assume themselves to already know everything pertinent about… so capable of believing that the tiny scraps of information they happen to have accidentally absorbed from the culture as a whole represent an even remotely capable understanding of an issue.

We’re constantly exposed to how much a person can think they understand something without even understanding how incredibly little they understand.

I think there’s a valuable lesson in there that goes well beyond trans issues.

If other people can be so opinionated and over-confident in their interpretations of trans issues at the same time as having absolutely no idea what they’re talking about, surely this is how people can act about all kinds of things.

What subjects do we think we understand when we don’t even know enough to realize our ignorance? How many of the opinions we so confidently express are actually completely misguided?

There’s also the issue of the media, of course.

Every single time I read a mainstream news story about something pertaining to transgenderism, they make AT LEAST one glaring inaccuracy, or glaringly misleading remark, or glaringly offensive misrepresentation. Every time. Really.

So if jouranlists are that sloppy about trans issues… and trans issues just happens to be one of the subjects we know enough about to spot the inaccuracies…

Why the hell are we willing to trust them on anything else?

As if transgenderism is the ONLY subject on which journalists are that lazy and ignorant?

There’s a lot to learn from this about approaching things critically. About remembering how flawed human perspectives can be, and remembering to maintain a constant doubt and hesitation. Not only in doubting what we hear from media and others, but also doubting ourselves, and our own confidence in our perspectives.

Transgenderism isn’t something that humans are exceptionally silly about. It just happens to be one of the few things I know enough about to actually notice when people are being silly about it.

It makes sense to assume people are just as poorly informed, but just as eager to confidently express opinions, about pretty much everything else too.

Be careful, yeah?

Remember my motto:

“Skepticism. It helps.”

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Miri

    Green is colour, that in certain shades, especially when depicted as a glow, has a sort of mysterious, magical feel to it. And blue (really blue blue, like the kind Yves Klein used) is such an unnatural skin colour is sort of screams (the popular conception of) mutant…

    As for the rest, it seems that humans are exceptionally silly about everything that is not seen as “normal” (and probably even about that too)… It’s pretty much to the point that there is nothing at all exceptional about it, and rampant silliness is simply a very common feature of human thinking… Unless, of course, it’s actively worked against…

  2. 2
    Dana Hunter

    Heh. One thing this movement has taught me is that being skeptical about a few easy things (Bigfoot, UFOs, gods) doesn’t automatically make you an expert skeptic in everything else.

    One thing I’ve learned from studying geology all by me lonesome is that the news media is teh suck at most things.

    One thing I’ve learned from reading your blog: I had a lot of growing up to do, and a lot of mental trash to take out.

    So: Thank you!

    Couple of possible topics that might/might not be easy (like anything will be easy at this stage of sleep deprivation): 1. For writers who are cis but have a trans character, what can they do not to fuck up spectacularly? 2. You’ve been to Seattle a few times, so: what’s your favorite thing about it? (Yes, I’m partial, damn it. I love this city!) 3. Sunrise: are you for or against it right now?

    Not long now. You can do this thing!

    1. 2.1
      Miri

      For writers who are cis but have a trans character, what can they do not to fuck up spectacularly?

      I’ll second this, but amend it to writers in general (although, maybe not while your brain is so mushy). This is something I expend a lot of mental energy thinking about. Just because I am trans doesn’t mean I’m immune to fucking up, or that I want fall into the same sorts of traps that writers (of any form of media) tend to do when writing about trans characters. The thing that always springs to mind is “why does this character need to be trans? What does this add to the story?” Like, I certainly wouldn’t be writing trans characters for the sort of sensational reasons that they most commonly appear in fiction… but it’s hard to see why, in a story that’s not explicitly about transness or transition, why any character would need to be explicitly trans. But on the other hand, it’s hard to see why not… I suppose I see being trans as something quite unremarkable, to the point that including a trans character in a story that’s not open them being trans seems to have no real reason for it other than “just because”, the same as explicitly pointing out any characters minority status when it has little or no bearing on the story…

      Ugh… see what I mean about mental energy…

      1. Aleph

        I’d say that in general, as a writer, you’re almost required to make the effort to research the topics you write about. If it’s something that you can make any attempt at all to learn about, you should – if you’re cis and writing a trans person, talk to some. Learn about how they feel, what it’s like. If you’re writing about a WW1 warfront, talk to veterans (well, that may not be possible anymore, but read accounts of it), visit old battlegrounds, try and understand what it was like.

        Some things you obviously can’t research – writing about what it’s like to live in an aerostat on Venus, how it feels to look out of the hull window and see fifty kilometres of atmosphere stretching out below you as you float above a hellish inferno… there’s no real way other than your imagination to paint that picture for you. But if you can’t be bothered to get as much information on the stuff you /can/ research as possible, then I’m of the opinion that it makes you a terrible writer who simply doesn’t respect the material you’re writing about. Which is a terrible thing to do – if /you/ don’t respect your subject matter, how the hell do you expect anyone else to?

        … hmm. I need to stop going on longwinded rants about writing whenever I talk about it. This is starting to become a thing.

      2. Robert B.

        I’ve been worrying about the same thing. I’m working on a story that I think would really benefit from a trans character – one of the main roles in the plot is for someone who goes to very great lengths to break out of an identity and a life that’s being imposed on her, looking for something less oppressive and more real. And (going by Natalie and a trans friend of mine) that seems like such a trans story, and I’d love to write it that way if I can. The whole story has these really strong themes of identity – it just fits.

        But for a cis person to write about being trans just seems so risky. I’m kinda scared of it. I’ve seen people trying to write about little-known, little-respected minorities they’re not in, and it always goes so horribly wrong.

        Can it be done? Has anyone ever seen a cis author spend a lot of time with a trans character without screwing it up?

  3. 3
    Dean Marold

    “Not only in doubting what we hear from media and others, but also doubting ourselves, and our own confidence in our perspectives.”

    I’ve known some people who thought of themselves as skeptics, but that held clearly unsupported positions on various issues. They are good at turning that skepticism outward, and considering that other people might be wrong, but they never apply it equally to themselves. Having used their mighty, superior reasoning to find someone else wrong, they then conclude that whatever opinion they themselves have on the subject must be right. (note how there is no step involving researching the subject)

    As a skeptic I have no reason to think my own perspective is any less wrong than anyone elses.

  4. 4
    Lucy

    “Skepticism. It helps.”

    Do you have any evidence for that? ;-)

    Oh, and it’s been said before, but I’m also of the opinion that news reporting is pretty consistently bad – whenever it covers things I know/understand in depth, it pretty much always makes glaring errors that just doing a little web-searching or talking to someone in that field would have put right. I don’t have much confidence in the rest of it, for that reason.

  5. 5
    Karellen

    As if transgenderism is the ONLY subject on which journalists are that lazy and ignorant?

    Not in the slightest. It seems to apply completely across the board. It certainly applies to any almost type of science (although medicine seems to be worse than most), or anything to do with computers. I read just the other day that some score particularly badly on the weather.

    Heck, you’d expect journalists of all people to be vigilant and knowledgable when it comes to their stock-in-trade, language, but they’re notoriously bad at spelling and grammar!

    1. 5.1
      Jake Hamby

      Yep. My personal hot button is when people take it upon themselves to decide that ADHD is an invention of Big Pharma to get kids “hooked” on Ritalin (which has been off-patent for decades, so I’m not sure what the motive would be, other than corporations are all evil?). I just read a different blog on this site referring to a take-down of Malcolm Gladwell, who may very well be a shill for Big Tobacco, etc., lumping his defense of Joe Camel in with his defense of science-based best practice for ADHD treatment together as part of the same motivation to defend corporate evil. I didn’t have the energy to respond with a rebuttal. Didn’t think it would make a difference.

      Even though the circumstances are different, I get a great deal of encouragement reading Natalie and others fighting the good fight for science and reason on the issues that they understand with the intimacy that only comes from being forced to live with something that others can safely dismiss, or pontificate on with the sort of Dunning-Kruger incompetence that comes from pure ignorance. It encourages me to try to speak out about my own experience, when the topic arises. It’s never fun, at least when you’re the sort of person who tries to avoid conflict, as most of us are. But it does help.

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