Reason is a powerful aesthetic

I feel like we’re living in a golden age of YouTube vlogging. Every month my link roundup seems to include Lindsay Ellis, Contrapoints, or the like, because they make powerful arguments, and they’re very entertaining. This past month, ContraPoints posted a video called “The Aesthetic”, which I felt was worthy of a longer comment.

The video asks, “What matters more—the way things are or the way things look?”

Justine: I’m not against reason. Reason is a very powerful aesthetic. If you’re a man.
Tabby: What if you’re a woman?
Justine: Oh, don’t be a woman. That’s not a good idea.

A very brief summary for those who don’t watch: Tabby has a “debate” with a TERF on TV, and when the TERF misgenders Tabby, Tabby threatens her with a bat. Later, we have a Socratic dialogue between Tabby and her friend Justine. Justine argues that we live in an age of aesthetics, and that Tabby ought to change her presentation. That means performing femininity to perfection, surpassing even the performance of cis women. But Tabby points to the psychological reality of the gender identity of pre-transition trans people.  There are further arguments back and forth, and the resolution at the end is unclear.

“The Aesthetic” flips the usual script on its head. When people express anti-trans people, they see themselves as standing up for facts over aesthetics. The video shows how requiring trans women to become perfect models of womanhood is clearly about valuing aesthetics over facts.

Readers might also be interested in some additional video commentary by Sarah. Sarah refers to backlash from ContraPoints fans (especially nonbinary fans) who felt the dialogue was too sympathetic to Justine’s point of view, and had the potential to cause harm. Without invalidating the complaints, Sarah explains her own more positive interpretation.

Also of interest is an older video by ContraPoints, “The Left”. Again, it’s a Socratic dialogue between Tabby and Justine, but instead of focusing on trans women, focuses on how leftists present themselves. In the comments of that video, ContraPoints states that Tabby represents a lot of things she thinks is wrong with the leftist strategy, but she tries to portray Tabby very sympathetically, knowing many people in her audience will like Tabby.

And if you want to hear even more about what Natalie Wynn (Contrapoints) really thinks, you can read this great interview with her. She talks about debating the conservative Blair White and losing, not because she was wrong, but because she looked like an awkward guy in a wig. A clip of this debate is shown in “The Aesthetic.”

There’s clearly a lot of stuff going on here, and it’s intimidating to weigh in. If some fans felt invalidated, or saw potential for harm in the video, I don’t think it’s my place to tell them that they’re wrong. I personally liked the video, but as a cis guy, I’m not in a position of precarity. I don’t stand to be harmed by ambiguity.

One criticism is that the video shows real conflicts among trans people, but exposing these inner conflicts to cis audiences could give them ammunition and lead to harm. Without saying that this fear is unfounded, I will say that there is a certain power in talking about transness as the complicated issue that it really is.

I was introduced to the T in LGBT at a conference almost a decade ago, and I remember they gave us glossaries and talked about pronouns. But how far does that get us, really? My real introduction, was when I listened to trans people complaining about trans politics. The variety of trans experiences were no longer just words in a glossary, but real groups with distinct politics and social histories. I came to respect the views of trans people who can navigate those multifaceted politics. At the same time, it became obvious that no trans person can be a representative for everyone. And it’s absurd to think that, of all the things, the general public gets hung up on pronouns. Pronouns are an obvious issue. It’s like cis people are arguing about arithmetic while trans people are doing differential geometry.

I liked the video, because it addresses a common question in social movements: how much do we value being technically correct, vs being aesthetically correct?  This was particularly important in the atheist and skeptical movements, both of which claimed to value truth and reason above all else.  And indeed, reason is a powerful aesthetic (if you’re a man).  But it was just never clear that this produced communities that were particularly good at reasoning.  Many people claim to want the unvarnished truth, but the unvarnished truth is that truth isn’t enough. Truth won’t win you debates. Truth won’t travel nearly as far as an nearly-true soundbite. Unless you’ve really dug into a particular issue, chances are that your own beliefs are composed from such soundbites. You can’t truly value the truth until you admit that you don’t have much of it in your grasp.


  1. Allison says

    What strikes me about all this sort of discussion is how little it has to do with my life and experience as a trans person.

    My motivations are neither “aesthetic” nor reason-based. It’s about feeling comfortable with myself and my life. Nearly every trans person I have talked to says pretty much the same thing: that there was a way that the life they were living wasn’t “real,” or that they felt like they didn’t fit; in many cases (like mine), to the point that staying alive didn’t seem all that worth it. And when we transitioned, things got better. For the first time in my life, I find myself spontaneously saying, “I’m so glad I’m me!” (Usually followed up by me going, “where did that come from???”)

    A cis person once asked me to explain it, and I had to admit, there’s no way I can explain it, even to myself. It just is.

    All these arguments about “aesthetics” and “reason” — and “are trans women really women?” strike me as just various ways to get cis people to think they understand us and accept us, or at least to not try to make life any more impossible for us than it already is. They’re of interest to cis people; to trans people, rather less, I think.

    I also think that the fact that people are putting so much effort into debating this stuff shows just how deep society’s attachment to this “gender” social construct is. If it were about people who prefer construction work to being accountants, or whatever, there wouldn’t be any debate in the first place. It would be about as interesting to society at large as, say, stamp collecting. It’s society’s intense, life-or-death attachment to cis-ness that makes trans-ness an issue.

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