Ignorance, Dunning-Kruger, & Trans Rights

Goodness me. Areomagazine has an “article” up by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay that takes itself far more seriously than it deserves. The intro and premises can be found in the opening paragraph:

The rights and social inclusion of trans people is a heated topic right now and, as usual in our present atmosphere, the most extreme views take center stage and completely polarize the issue. On the one hand, we have extreme social conservatives and gender critical radical feminists who claim that trans identity is a delusion and that the good of society depends on opposing it at every turn. On the other, we have extreme trans activists who claim not only that trans people straightforwardly are the gender they experience themselves to be but that everyone else must be compelled to accept this, use corresponding language, and be fully inclusive of trans people in their choice of sexual partners.

What the hell?

So if you’re paying attention, the premises here are

  1. that “extreme” activists for trans* rights and “extreme” conservatives and (“extreme”?) “gender critical radical feminists” have so monopolized time and attention on trans issues that the positions of these three groups “take center stage” and as a result “completely polarize the issue”.
  2. the anti-trans* side claims “trans* identity is a delusion” and either “trans* identity” or maybe just “trans* rights” must be opposed “at every turn” (though later in the article it sounds as if the authors are being more clear that it is the ability of trans people to identify themselves that must be opposed, and not merely social acceptance and/or legal rights).
  3. the pro-trans* side claims that there must be acts of compulsion which will force acceptance of trans persons’ assertion of gender identity, further force proper use of gendered language, and finally force full inclusion “of trans people in their choice of sexual partners”.
  4. [implied] that 2 and 3 and the extreme views that are currently paving over the discursive landscape, perhaps limiting once-ubiquitous trees to tree museums.

But does the article support any of this? Well, of course not. These are premises. So the authors don’t bother to actually show that any of this occurs. They do mention a few things designed to support one or another of these points, but none of them directly address them or provide anything other than the most indirect support. Ultimately, none of these premises is established in their work. But that’s not the worst part. No, the worst part is that the premises are obviously wrong in several respects and, combined with other errors in the piece, the authors Pluckrose and Lindsay completely undermine any credibility that they might have found useful in speaking on issues of trans* oppression, trans* liberation, and/or the tactics of current trans* advocacy movements.

There’s other fun stuff in the article as well, if by “fun” one means, so wrong-headed, misleading, or just plain ignorant that it gave me a good chuckle. For instance they approvingly site the positions of Professor Jordan Peterson, who was roundly criticized for how his rhetoric impacted students at the University of Toronto, and generally for being a jerk. Words spoken about him and his situation, combined with (Canadian, if it wasn’t obvious) parliamentary consideration of a human rights bill, are presumably taken by Pluckrose and Lindsay as evidence that trans* advocates wish to “force proper use of gendered language”. However they dramatically misrepresent the situation if they believe that this is an instance in which trans advocates (“extreme” or not) are attempting to “compel” use of specific language in a manner that limits existing human freedoms. Unfortunately, we’ll have to get to this in a later post.

Here let’s first address Pluckrose and Lindsay’s fabricated notion that extreme activists have taken center stage, hogging all the attention and crowding out non-extreme thought and opinion. In case they missed it, the hosts of the popular TV show The View have discussed trans people and trans rights many times. I can guarantee the authors that these people get quite a lot of TV time, have disagreed with one another on numerous points in relation to trans* people and topics, and don’t seem to have yet been crowded out of the discussion. Nor are they alone in popular media. If you look at who gets minutes on TV to discuss trans* people, you will easily find Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, and Keith Olbermann. None of these three are trans*, none have advocated compelling pronoun use by force, and none of them have taken the position that trans* identity must be opposed at every turn. I could google famous broadcasters until my fingers were bruised and I bet that there’s not a single host of a major news program who has been on air for all of 2017 and not discussed trans* people and trans* rights on air.

Given that when trans* advocates are on air, they are typically placed in discussion with people hostile to them and when not are at the very least being interviewed rather than having a slot of time for them to say whatever they want, however they want, unquestioned, uninterrupted, and unopposed. A good interviewer takes up 20-50% of the time talking, so even in the lucky event of a one-on-one interview, you’re also giving the (presumably not-extreme) interviewer a significant amount of time to help frame and discuss the issue. On top of that, the trans* advocates most likely to be given interview time are those who are not extreme. It’s hard to imagine how “extreme trans activists” could be said to be “center stage”.

This beginning is a sad one for this piece by Pluckrose and Lindsay. From the very beginning one has to ask if the two are so vastly, vastly uninformed that they truly believe that more attention is paid to the extreme fringes than to other opinions. If they are, that might explain a lot: after all, it is the woefully uninformed who are easily convinced that what they have to say is a very valuable addition to the conversation.

But the alternative isn’t better: if they are aware that there is widespread attention paid to issues of trans* rights, with politicians, newscasters, sports personalities, and many, many more persons giving opinions and thoughts through newspapers, the television and the internet, then they were knowingly lying when they said that the fringe had taken center stage.

Now, they could have tried to establish their premise. Maybe they have a peculiar definition of “center stage” where one person who sends out 3000 tweets to eight followers counts more than the a debate on the floor of the North Carolina legislature where more than 50 elected officials enter testimony and express opinion, and then the thoughts and opinions of those legislators are reported on by 2900 media outlets. Maybe the 3000 “separate” tweets somehow take the center stage away from 2900 media outlets, even if each media outlet has hundreds of thousands of viewers or readers, at least according to some hypothetical conception of “center stage” used by Pluckrose and Lindsay. But if that’s somehow true, if average folk randomly (or even obsessively) tweeting to a small circle is what they meant, they’ve so thoroughly misused the phase “center stage” that anyone even passingly familiar with popular media today would find Pluckrose and Lindsay’s credibility crippled by this misrepresentation.

The truth ultimately contained in this statement isn’t that radical feminists and “extreme” trans activists crowd out the ability of others to speak on, well, any topic. The truth is what the statement indicates about Pluckrose and Lindsay: the authors are appealing to the worst, most thoughtless strain of bothsiderism. The two go out of their way to critique people who hate the idea of trans* rights, and the idea that the history of trans* victimization at the hands of non-trans folks gives license for an authoritarian removal of rights from non-trans people. According to bothsiderism, this ability to criticize two viewpoints who supposedly exist and run counter to each other is intended to imply the authors’ reasonableness and rationality, and ultimately to grant credibility to the authors.

The obvious fallaciousness of setting oneself up as credible merely because one disagrees with positions that are obviously wrong, extreme, and opposite, especially when this is well known as an informal fallacy (the Argument to Moderation in which the Golden Mean is used wrongly), would be bad enough. It of course gets worse when famous fallacies are used as the fundamental basis for an article that brags it offers a “rational” approach to a topic. But it’s even worse than that when in playing the two sides off of each other the authors can’t be bothered to note that if this topic was, in fact, dominated by the perspectives of those three groups, two of the groups still wouldn’t have their perspectives well known by the general public. Social regressives, especially but not only Republican elected officials, right-wing talk radio, and Christian priests/ministers/preachers, get far more time in the public eye than radical feminists or “extreme” trans* advocates. Because of this dynamic, many more people have heard regressive politicians and talk radio hosts rant about how permitting the existence of trans* people is a threat to civilization itself than have ever heard a single trans person argue for just about anything. In many places in the US mega-churches usher in 10,000 to 20,000 people at a time to hear, among other things, sermons on how merely tolerating the existence of trans people leads inevitably to lethal hurricanes.

In short, Pluckrose and Lindsay have dangerously mismapped the discursive landscape, making very real and sometimes even deadly hazards completely invisible to their readers.

But just as when David Brooks does it, people who think about what is actually being said realize that it’s possible to agree with neither polar opposite on a question of opinion and policy and still be badly misinformed and entirely lacking in useful things to say. We can’t assume many readers of this article will think productively about what’s being said, in part because many people feel that transness is so foreign to them that they don’t feel equipped to do critical thinking on the issue and accept what is offered by anyone they consider credible, even when they don’t need any specialized knowledge to prove it false, or at least misleading and unhelpful.

Take, for example, their second premise. They don’t actually quote anyone saying the things they suggest are believed by one “extreme” side. I have no doubt that they could find such quotes if they wanted, but it still would not help them because they simply and utterly fail to show any evidence that they understand why there is such a divide between people who believe that some people are deluded about their genders and others believe the first group are horribly wrong.

Consider the feminists among those who belong (as much as anyone belongs) to anti-trans* faction described by the authors. While there are those who, more or less, would describe trans*-asserted gender identities as false (very few use “delusion”) do so because they believe that gender is sex and sex is gender. To produce sperm is to be male biologically, and I don’t know of any trans* persons who would contest that. The question is whether this is all that it takes to make one a man. There are trans* advocates (yes on freethoughblogs, even) who use the word female to describe trans* women and male to describe trans* men, but this is a considered position. It’s not an inability to understand that some people are born with uteruses. It’s stressing that the social relationships are primary and, since most of the time we don’t know what someone else’s genitals look like and nearly all the time we don’t have first hand chances to examine another’s chromosomes or genome, “male” should be used in a way similar to how “men” is used. It’s a position that is in part a reaction to the victimization of trans* people by non-trans* folk, and it does flow out of reasoning that finds past definitions of male and female inadequate, but it’s not a delusion.

What is on display is a disagreement about definitions, about what words mean and what they communicate (intentionally or not). You could find the most extreme anti-trans* feminists and the most extreme pro-trans* activists and if you got them to adopt a single definition for the purposes of communicating for a day, no one in the room would have trouble actually using the definition correctly. This isn’t about how trans* people are initially perceived. It’s about how they are categorized and how the socially-constructed categories of man and woman and male and female and trans (and many others) are defined. It’s about how people think these words are best used. Frankly, I’ve met many a trans*-exclusive radical feminist who demonstrated more knowledge of these important issues than Pluckrose and Lindsay, so I’m not sure what the authors use to justify thinking they have anything to contribute if they are not more informed than at least one of the factions that they consider to be ruining the possibilities for fruitful communication.

But Dunning-Kruger, I’m sure, has come to their collective rescue on that point. Take their meager attempt to address something vaguely related to the point I made in the preceding paragraph:

Trans activists therefore would do well not to reject the science (NB: not Theory) of gender difference, which seems likely to come down in their favor in the not-too-distant future. Yet many align themselves with intersectional feminist approaches to activism, and thus have taken on cultural constructivist views of gender which deny biological gender differences in the name of gender equality.

First, intersectional does not mean social constructionist (or “cultural constructivist”). One can easily be one without the other(s). This easily displays the falsity of their assertion of causation (“many align…with intersectional feminist approaches … and thus have … cultural constructivist views”), but it also shows that they have only a limited understanding of what intersectionality and social construction actually are.

Consider that they believe that these activists with “cultural constructivist views of gender … deny biological gender differences”. No. They don’t. No one believes that all genital shafts are the same length, and no one publicly asserts that despite believing it false, and certainly no one publicly believes it false but says it publicly specifically because they believe it will aid the advancement of gender equality if they take that false and nonsensical position.

Moreover: if no biological differences existed, then no one would want sex reassignment surgery. The authors are literally assuming that trans people deny that transness could ever possibly exist or that trans medical care could ever have any point at all.

You’ve got to have a pile of ignorance and even more chutzpah to criticize trans people as denying “biological gender differences”.

But, maybe Pluckrose and Lindsay actually meant something else. In fact, if they respond to this criticism at all, I’m near certain that they will assert that obviously that’s too stupid to be what they meant, and since they aren’t stupid, they must have been something else. But what else? What could possibly account for two people (not just one, who might slip up somehow, but two, interacting, with each having a chance to catch errors in the other’s work) together writing a sentence whose only plain meaning is so badly, badly wrong in a piece that is supposed to be thoughtful and rational?

Sarcasm? There are no hints that they were wrong on purpose for comedic effect. There doesn’t appear to me to be any comedy in the piece. Maybe they simply don’t know how to proofread or maybe their editors did a massive disservice to the intent of statements included in their first draft? I’m disinclined to believe that this could all be laid at the feet of editors, since Pluckrose has been defending the piece against criticism since it’s publication and I can’t find any corrections attached to the original piece or in Pluckrose’s Twitter feed.

So bodies – biological gender – obviously have differences and no one has ever seriously disputed the existence of those differences. This is a fact which even Pluckrose and Lindsay should know. So maybe they were trying (and failing) to talk about behavioral differences that fall along lines of sex (biological gender to use their term)? Possible, I suppose. But if that’s what they meant, their writing is pretty damn poor since it’s very far from what they actually said.

Still, they could have written less-than-competently while meaning something like,

Many have taken on social constructionist views of gender which deny that when behavioral tendencies  are expressed as quantities there frequently exist differences between the average value of men’s tendencies and the average value of women’s tendencies.

Of course, that would be much, much more precise than anything that Pluckrose and Lindsay manage to express, and it would still be utterly, stupidly wrong. It would miss literally the entire point of feminism. Of course quantified behavioral tendencies have different averages among men and women. That’s frequently the point of feminist complaints! If you’re too uneducated to realize that trans* advocates and feminists complain about actual gender differences in behavior (on average), then you have no business commenting on feminism or trans* advocacy.

So what could the authors have said that would at least not be so instantly, obviously wrong that merely saying it provides evidence that speakers are not competent to comment on the subject they’ve chosen? Perhaps something like:

Many have taken on social constructionist views of gender which assert that in a truly egalitarian society, nearly all gender differences in average behaviors would fall away, at least for those behaviors which matter socially.

They’ve got a prayer of quoting someone saying something like that. But that’s not at all what they asserted in the first place. Even if this (or something like it) is what they actually meant, there’s no way in fuck you can credit them with the ability to write rationally on this topic, because rational thinking about the statement that they made yields nothing like this. If nothing else, remember that they wrote

deny biological gender differences

That’s in the present fucking tense. They don’t deny the inevitability of (biological) gender differences. They don’t deny the permanence of gender differences. They deny gender differences. Full Stop. Present tense. Meaning right-the-fuck-now, not after the revolution.

Whether talking about current behavior differences, which are the actual subject of feminism as opposed to obstetrics, or current body differences, there simply is no one that denies that body differences and behavior differences exist in the here and now. No one.

It’s hard not to be upset at two people holding themselves out as “rational” on a topic, representing themselves as having something valuable to say, but who say something that so obviously has no potentially accurate interpretation that you have to wonder whether they were consciously lying or whether any two people who took hours to craft an article on the subject could possibly be so monumentally ignorant as to believe that statement true.

Shorter me: If they meant something true, they expressed themselves so completely incompetently that their ability to write intelligently and rationally on this topic is called into serious question, and if they meant what they wrote, they expressed a thing so hopelessly wrong that the fact that they even thought for a moment that was a reasonable thing to say with a reasonable chance of being correct shows conclusively that they are too uninformed to write intelligently on this topic, and too incapable of rationally thinking through their premises and assertions to catch even those errors which don’t require an education in gender to debunk.

I have more to say about this article, but I think this is enough to be getting on with. I still have 2-3 more pieces to do on the history of gun rights and I still haven’t plotted out a good progression for Feminist Friday that allows me to explain the ethical perspectives of different feminists, how that affected their work, and how those perspectives were both products of their times and products of their original thinking, and finally how those ethical perspectives did (and did not) affect later feminists and feminisms. Just selecting which feminists to highlight in different eras is tough, not least because even 200 years ago there’s a hell of a lot of what we would now call intersectionality & confluence among Black feminists and Native American, First Nations, BC Band, Aleut and indigenous feminists. Leaving those feminists til last because of their foreshadowing of modern intersectionality would be right, they had a huge impact on the feminisms of their day and deserve to be located with their contemporaries (even over and above the implications of being last which carries connotations both of less importance and of having been lifted up by the actions of past feminists). Really, the job I want to do on this is more the province of a book than a blog, which makes it even harder to plan and execute. Oy.

So, yeah. More on this later, but not necessarily instantly or even in my next post.

*1: of which I’d not heard until brought up by Trav Mamone who wrote a thoughtful piece in Splice that Trav then linked from their own FreethoughtBlogs space, Bi Any Means.


  1. Siobhan says

    However they dramatically misrepresent the situation if they believe that this is an instance in which trans advocates (“extreme” or not) are attempting to “compel” use of specific language in a manner that limits existing human freedoms. Unfortunately, we’ll have to get to this in a later post.

    Apologies for self-promoting but if you want to save yourself the migraine I took a swing on that on behalf of The Establishment already. 🙂 https://theestablishment.co/when-transphobia-trumps-statistics-f1dd85c79e5d

    What is on display is a disagreement about definitions, about what words mean and what they communicate (intentionally or not). You could find the most extreme anti-trans* feminists and the most extreme pro-trans* activists and if you got them to adopt a single definition for the purposes of communicating for a day, no one in the room would have trouble actually using the definition correctly. This isn’t about how trans* people are initially perceived. It’s about how they are categorized and how the socially-constructed categories of man and woman and male and female and trans (and many others) are defined. It’s about how people think these words are best used.

    *chef finger kisses*

  2. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Thanks for the link, Shiv! (and the praise) I’ve just finished reading it, and am pleased to have done so. For others, if you haven’t read the piece, go get on that. I particularly appreciated this paragraph:

    Of course, absolutely none of these tactics are new to anyone tracking trans human and civil rights discourse. Opponents to human, civil, and trans rights have been fighting dirty for a long time. We can turn back the clock a couple months, a half-year, a few years, and even a few decades. We see the same hogwash again and again and again, whether it’s elevated by academics who haven’t published original research on gender variance in 45 years or raised up again by terminally clueless North Carolinian politicians who use these tactics to pass actively discriminatory bills. It is a discourse that is plagued with twists and half-truths, and what clear evidence exists is tortured on the rack until it says what the anti-trans lobby wants it to say.

    because of the numerous great links that show quite clearly the level of attention paid to regressives, which then further evidences my point that Pluckrose and Lindsay have created a horrible false equivalence by accusing “extreme trans* activists” of taking “center stage” and crowding out other voices.

    Yeah. I’ll get right on the shutting up to make more room for non-trans folks to discuss my genitals and how desirable they are or aren’t in local locker rooms. Should be shutting myself up just after next never.

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