Once again, the Witherspoon assumes their biases are laws

The Witherspoon Institute has once again decided to dictate to us all about the proper, conservative approach to everything. This time, they take aim at National Geographic’s “Gender Revolution”: Bad Argument and Biased Ideology. Of course they’re agin’ them transgenders.

The January 2017 issue of National Geographic is dedicated to exploring what it calls the “Gender Revolution”—a post-Sexual Revolution movement that seeks to deconstruct traditional understandings about human embodiment, male-female sexual dimorphism, and gender. In an article titled “Rethinking Gender,” Robin Marantz Henig cites evolving gender norms as a justification for the Gender Revolution. But Henig’s argument is not only unpersuasive, it’s also based on a radical proposal about human nature that is at odds with both natural law and biblical anthropology.

I started reading this essay enthused about seeing their “natural law” and “biblical anthropology” arguments, both subjects I find to be nonsensical trash, and therefore ripe for mocking. To my disappointment, there is no biblical anthropology anywhere in it, and what ‘natural law’ arguments there are are sadly implicit, and just assumed. It reduces the whole essay to weak whining.

They have only one point to make, and it’s laid out in this one paragraph.

Indeed, this is the crux of the matter that plagues the transgender movement. It is based not on evidence, but on the ideology of expressive individualism—the idea that one’s identity is self-determined, that one should live out that identity, and that everyone else must respect and affirm that identity, no matter what it is. Expressive individualism requires no moral argument or empirical justification for its claims, no matter how absurd or controverted they may be. Transgenderism is not a scientific discovery but a prior ideological commitment about the pliability of gender.

The Witherspoon Institute, that deeply ideological organization, wants to argue that transgender people are wrong because they are ideological. But of course they are! So am I! So are they! If they want to claim that an “absence of scientific discovery” invalidates a whole personal and cultural phenomenon, they’re going to have to burn down the entirety of their archives, because nowhere, including in this essay, do they build a case for their ideology with science. In fact, this is the whole of their defense.

Accepting the claims of transgender ideology requires papering over one’s conscience and making a mockery of the “law written on the heart” that our bodies bear witness to in our complementary design.

They want to claim that there is a “law written on the heart” that makes the gender binary natural and proper and righteous — but they make no scientific (or biblical anthropological, which is fine, because I’d dismiss it) argument for that claim.

Here’s my proudly ideological argument against the Witherspoon’s biases.

The gender binary is a social construct: it is a set of behaviors and expectations for how people should conform within a society. It is built around biological predispositions which are real but not absolute; all we have to do is look at different cultures around the world and see that there different expectations in different societies. Real men don’t cry? Not always. Women are the sheltered, weaker sex? Not always. Men should always “pay” at the “restaurant” when they take a woman out on a “date”? I can’t even begin to unpack all the artificial cultural constructs built into that sentence. They are really trying to impose the standards of Victorian England on all of humanity, which is the kind of thing Victorians did all the time, but isn’t it about time we kicked that bullshit to the curb?

They want to argue that humans aren’t plastic, but are fixed by their biological natures. But we know that isn’t true, because we can see that human beings have thrived in a variety of different cultures without a necessary genetic difference in their makeup. Look at the United States — we have people living here who within the last few generations have come from Vietnam, Ireland, Laos, Nigeria, Peru, Sweden, Somalia, Iran, etc., etc., etc., and they have adapted, and in fact, the conservative American ideology requires that they must conform.

This is what people do. They adapt, they conform, they absorb the expectations of their surrounding culture, especially as children, and they also bring their past experiences into communities and shape their environments. The Witherspoon wants to reify masculinity and femininity to fit their ideological preconceptions, deny the reality of people’s identity, and they reject arguments against that kind of cultural imperialism because, they say, you can’t fit a person’s perception of their identity under a microscope. Well, you can’t fit Christian conservativism under a microscope either, yet you’re sinking a lot of money, time, and effort into propping it up.

Not everyone will be accommodating of your particular views. I am not comfortable, to put it mildly, with Christian conservativism — you don’t get to tell me that I am wrong in my identity, and that I must learn to love faith and oppressive authoritarianism. However, I am personally comfortable with my expected gender role — I have never questioned my conformity to maleness — but I am also capable of recognizing that not everyone else is, and that they would be as unhappy with a world that dictates that they must be a straight heterosexual man’s man as I would with a world that told me I had to participate in gay sex, and like it (although if I’d been brought up through childhood in that world where gender fluidity was more common, maybe I would…which I suspect is one of the ideas that horrifies the Witherspoon).

That the majority of people fall into one of the two broad, culturally accepted definitions of gender is not scientific evidence that these divisions are natural and necessary because, as I said, people are plastic and tend to conform to cultural norms. There have always been individuals who refuse or are unable to meet social expectations, even in Victorian England. The question is whether we punish people by demanding that their identity meet a narrow set of criteria, or whether we accept people for who they are and who they want to be. The former is a formula for widespread misery. The latter leads to greater happiness, although it does tend to piss off the authoritarian prigs who enjoy crushing the joys of others.

I have to confess to sharing a little bit of that latter attitude, because I would greatly enjoy crushing the totalitarian hopes and dreams of the Witherspoon Institute members.


  1. Becca Stareyes says

    The thing that gets me is that apparently this ‘natural law’ is so easily over-written by society that it requires Constant Vigilance to enforce, and yet it is important that not enforcing it causes a giant fuss. One would think such a system without good feedback mechanisms wouldn’t be the optimal solution*.

    * This might be my inner physicist talking.

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    It is based not on evidence, but on the ideology of expressive individualism—the idea that one’s identity is self-determined, that one should live out that identity, and that everyone else must respect and affirm that identity, no matter what it is. Expressive individualism requires no moral argument or empirical justification for its claims, no matter how absurd or controverted they may be.
    I see similarities to a “dictionary” analogy. Where people object to new definitions of old word. Leading to arguments of “words don’t just mean whatever anyone wants it to mean! The word is defined in a dictionary, stick to the rules. definitions can’t just be arbitrary decisions of groups of people to run definitions however they want. harrumph”,
    usually accompanied by some absurd example of redefining Red as Blue.

    One has to point out that the dictionary itself says that it is “descriptive, not prescriptive” meaning the use of words change over time and the dictionary simply records how words are currently being used, not a set of rules regulating the only way to use words.
    In this case the reductio ad absurdum gets even worse, with examples of “this group thinks it’s fine to eat babies, so should we just let them cuz they think it’s okay???”
    As for gender identity, where is the similarity? How does it affect you that person A identifies as a woman, in a body with some anatomic variations?
    another example (while running roughshod) person A tells person B, “Your words hurt me”, Person B replies “No I didn’t”.
    who do you agree with: A, or B? My opinion is that B can never say A is wrong about being hurt by B.

    ugh… going incoherent… need coffee…

  3. Mobius says

    “law written on the heart”

    This seems to completely ignore the fact that some people have different feeling in their “heart”, ones that don’t agree with Witherspoon’s ideas about natural law.

    Which, PZ, I think says pretty much the same thing you said. GMTA.

  4. Siobhan says

    In other words, writing on our hearts is a perfectly reasonable guiding quality for big-picture policy, but only if it’s my heart. My Christian, Euro-Imperial heart.

    I mean I didn’t need any particular reason to dislike moral relativists any more than I already do, but jfc.

  5. raven says

    Witherspoon crackpot:
    …that is at odds with both natural law and biblical anthropology.

    There is no such thing as natural law.
    Fundies use it because it sounds better than “voices in someone’s head”.

    As soon as you see natural law, you know they’ve got nothing.

  6. cartomancer says

    One way I like to point out how culturally relative ideas about gender are is with historical literature. I’ve never been a fan of the whole “Western Tradition” idea, but the epics of Homer tend to attract fairly universal acclaim and have had a profound effect on European culture for thousands of years.

    We open the Iliad with an image of masculinity that many will recognise as quite traditional – Achilles, in a military camp, raging about his spited pride over being denied the choicest female prisoner as part of his portion of the spoils. There’s plenty in the Iliad that is culturally specific to Bronze Age, Dark Age and Archaic Greece, but the general themes don’t really challenge traditional ideas of masculinity very much.

    When it comes to the Odyssey, however, things are very different. We first meet Odysseus in book 5 – weeping on the seashore of the island of Ogygia, the prisoner of the goddess Calypso, powerless to affect his own destiny and longing to see his beloved wife Penelope again. We find out that he does not want to keep having sex with her, but being a goddess she is more powerful than him and he doesn’t seem to have a choice. Another goddess – the messenger Iris – comes to inform him that he is to be let free by the will of the gods. Odysseus is no less an icon of ancient Greek manhood than Achilles (in fact, the invocation of the muse at the beginning of the Odyssey emphasises that this is a story about man, where the Iliad is a story about rage), but in him we see that feelings of powerlessness, victimhood, tenderness and impotence are also part of the male human condition, and nothing to be ashamed of.

    When Odysseus meets the shade of the departed Achilles in book 11, Achilles admits to him that his own brand of angry heroic isolationism really wasn’t worth it. There are better ways to be a man than the empty, dark and mighty heroic ideal. To be fair Achilles himself speculates on this in the Iliad, when faced with the choice between remaining at Troy to face his inevitable end and sailing home early but leaving his heroic reputation in tatters. He knows full well that the ideals of manhood he has signed up to will not, in the end, work out well for him.

    Cultures don’t just come up with and impose ideas of gender norms – they actively discuss, debate and engage with them. They question them, probe the problems with them and, over time, change them to better fit with the nature of their societies. In the Iliad and Odyssey many classicists have seen the fallout of the shift from militaristic bronze-age palace culture to the lawless raiding culture of the Dark Age to the settled, civic, more complex culture of the early city-states. That world doesn’t need violent, selfish, fighting men like Achilles anymore, obsessed with their own glory and reputation. But it does need thoughtful leaders and wise rulers like Odysseus, who have learned when to temper rage and selfishness with a concern for the common good.

  7. says

    …the idea that one’s identity is self-determined, that one should live out that identity, and that everyone else must respect and affirm that identity…

    I guess this is my own bias showing, but it’s surreal to read that sentence presented as some sort of strange, perverted ideology as opposed to a simple description of how being human works. It reminds me of Rush Limbaugh’s rant about how liberals are so hung up on “consent” that they think two men having sex is ok as long as there’s consent, but if a man wants to have sex with a woman without her consent they want to call the “rape police.” How do you respond to someone who’s most fundamental moral intuitions are so completely different from your own?

  8. erichoug says

    I love this part

    …one’s identity is self-determined, that one should live out that identity, and that everyone else must respect and affirm that identity, no matter what it is.

    Yes, that’s exactly right. And?

  9. Siobhan says


    Think I could invite you to write a historical Greek masculinity themed essay on my blag? :P

  10. Snoof says

    the idea that one’s identity is self-determined, that one should live out that identity, and that everyone else must respect and affirm that identity, no matter what it is

    As opposed to the idea that one’s identity is determined by others, that one should live out that identity regardless of one’s own wishes on the matter, and that everyone else must enforce that identity, no matter how reductive, oppressive or damaging it is.

  11. Trickster Goddess says

    If there is such a thing as natural law, it would be something that wouldn’t require human intervention to enforce it. Like, gravity.

  12. rietpluim says

    I’ve hated the term “gender ideology” from the first time I heard it. It is a vile, low, demeaning way to dismiss somebody’s deepest feelings without due argument. No, Witherspoon, no! People living their lives the way that fits them best is not ideology. Telling them to live their lives the way you want is.

    Heartless creeps.

  13. blf says

    I’m tempted to buy a copy of the appropriate National Geographic just to see what what twisted these bigots’s panties, but that would mean giving money to Murdork, so I won’t.

  14. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Asserting a claim does not demonstrate the authenticity of that claim.
    as expected they fail to follow their own advice. The entire critique is all assertion with attempt to demonstrate authenticity.

    The final page of Henig’s article celebrates the mutilation of minor children with a full-page picture of a shirtless 17-year old girl who recently underwent a double mastectomy in order to “transition” to being a boy. Why do transgender ideologues consider it harmful to attempt to change such a child’s mind but consider it progress to display her bare, mutilated chest for a cover story? Transgender ideologues like Henig never address this ethical contradiction at the heart of their paradigm. Why is it acceptable to surgically alter a child’s body to match his[*] sense of self but bigoted to try to change his [*] sense of self to match his body? If it is wrong to attempt to change a child’s gender identity (because it is fixed and meddling with it is harmful), then why is it morally acceptable to alter something as fixed as the reproductive anatomy of a minor? The moral inconsistency here is plain.

    —– * note the use of masculine pronoun for the girl transitioning to boy through surgery; which is the preferred pronoun for the case, but contradicts Witherspoon attitude, hmmm

    again, assertion, with no explanation. The missing part is who asked for the “mutilation”. Morally wrong when unwilling person is forced to undergo such a procedure (like the to change his sense of self to match his body?). Not morally wrong when the subject asks for it to be done. I suspect the latter is what occurred, not the former. The only ‘moral inconsistency’ is in Witherspoonl inconsistency being Witherspoon thinks it immoral, the subject thinks it moral. The person not undergoing such a procedure has no place to decide the morality of the effect.
    >> *edit* –>> its okay “to change his sense of self to match his body”, but not “change his body to match his sense of self”? I suspect he has tried desperately to change his sense of self to match his body and is finally resorting to changing his body to match his sense of self. To force him to change his sense of self to match his body is the immorality YOU are imposing. allowing him to alter his body to match is not.<<

    here’s another analogy (I can do this all day): Handedness. Many kids are ambiguous about which hand is dominant. Witherspoon is saying it is misguided to let the child experiment for a while and decide for themselves which had should be dominant. Better to force them all to be right-handed as all the notebooks and scissors are right handed and define the right hand as the properly dominant hand. There’s your dimorphism right (errr left) there. sheesh
    next, [not the above, further down the original, unquoted here] maybe my reading comprehension fails, but here’s what I see:
    Witherspoon is complaining that by Henig saying something is uncertain, she’s declaring certainty (that the subject is uncertain)…… uhhhhh…me lost track

    He seems to be claiming that Henig is arguing for tolerance (of gender identity), and asking for tolerance is inherently intolerant, so that’s a contradiction, therefore invalidates her argument. ‘Natural law’ tells us to be intolerant; so Henig is a crank. *blech*

    I know, my stomach turned. *belch* *puke* *urp*

    Denny Burk is Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also president of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

    why am i not surprised.

  15. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    The entire critique is all assertion with No attempt to demonstrate authenticity.

  16. naturalcynic says

    Not so difficult questions from the article:

    – Why should society accept a theory of gender that has so little historical adjudication?

    Exactly. Why not look to non-biblical anthropology and find that many societies had places for gender variant individuals?

    – Why not ask probing questions about whether certain milieus are the cause for such newfound experiences in human history?

    Newfound??? Why not refer to history and anthropology for clues about transgender experiences?

    – Why not explore the politicized elements of transgenderism that are backed by an aggressive LGBT movement?

    Why not expect a marginalized group to band together for support?

    – Why omit the contested history behind this movement—that understandings of gender confusion as a pathology to be relieved rather than a norm to be embraced, common until the recent past, are now stigmatized if not erased from history?

    Because it doesn’t work for a minority. Why not accept that many people need vision correction when god created you the way that he thinks is proper?

    – Why the rush to accept the claim that someone is a member of the opposite sex or possesses no gender at all?

    What’s it to you when someone has claims against your strictly binary gender identification?

    – Why does justice require accepting a regime of medicine that mutilates functioning body parts all in the name of gender identity?

    Why does justice mandate your meddling in matters that you won’t understand? And according to the persecution model of Christian identity, shouldn’t justice allow those with a more secular and gender-fluid identity rebel against an imposed norm?

    What happens when “natural laws” conflict. Isn’t there some “natural law” about self-preservation? Knowing the high suicide rates and depression in transgendered individuals prior to transition and the relief and happiness in those who have gone through transition to their identified gender, what is more reasonable.

  17. Siobhan says

    Very telling that surgeries sought out by trans people are so commonly misapprehended as “mutilation.”

    If you don’t want it, don’t get it. It’s that easy. But don’t try to impose your personal squicks on other people. I think flip-flops and gel nails are terrible, terrible things. Which is why, you know, I don’t wear them. Imagine if I created an entire lobby to ban flip-flops just because I dislike them.


  18. Greta Samsa says

    Natural Law?
    We can only assume they’re not talking about the laws of nature, because that would be stupid. I can’t recall a single person remarking on how HRT tablets fly out of the mouth due to the gender-normative force.
    So, they must be talking about Enlightenment natural law, but that refers to the convictions people make in order to maintain their natural rights (of life, liberty, and something else). Another person taking action on their liberty to protect and enhance their life isn’t precisely a violation of natural law.
    Unless they believe that natural law is what people would prefer happen and are willing to label with the phrase, so I suppose natural law now requires that they destroy their offices.

  19. Greta Samsa says

    Siobhan, #17
    It’s some strange mental acrobatics that laser eye surgery, plastic surgery, necessary medical surgeries, and any other surgery which a conservative may get are never seen as mutilation, but anything which would challenge their worldview is.

    slithey, #14
    I don’t know how it’s typically handled, but I use their preferred pronoun the entire way, first because some will decide not to have bottom surgery, but are still members of their own gender, but also because I interpret that they’ve always been a member of their gender, but were misunderstood by their families while being named and given a pronoun set.

  20. says

    I swear of you remove the “god” references you cannot tell if this stuff was written by a TERF or christian conservative…

    Why is it acceptable to surgically alter a child’s body to match his[*] sense of self but bigoted to try to change his [*] sense of self to match his body? If it is wrong to attempt to change a child’s gender identity (because it is fixed and meddling with it is harmful), then why is it morally acceptable to alter something as fixed as the reproductive anatomy of a minor? The moral inconsistency here is plain.

    First of all, using “child” in this context is misleading, intentionally evoking the idea of someone much younger than 17.
    I’m pretty sure those people wouldn’t have any qualms with a married and pregnant 17 year old.
    Second, I’m betting a fiver that the author is not a vehement opponent of neonate routine circumcision, which leads to point
    Three: consent and evidence. We got evidence that allowing people to have their bodies altered is beneficial and that trying to alter their mind is harmful. It’s as easy as that. Question answered, case closed.

  21. Vivec says

    I don’t know, there’s a lot of wacky christian/pagan terfs. r/gendercynical’s tag for them is like “magic moon vaginas” or something because they’re all about like, Diana worship and period blood offerings.

    My point being that bereft of context the “TERF or Conservative” question is way hard to tell, even if you leave the God stuff in.

  22. Siobhan says

    Ya’ll inspired a game I’ll host over on AtG called “Conservative Crank or TERF Quack?” where I quote some transphobic nonsense and have y’all guess as to who said it.

  23. Gordon Davisson says

    slithey tove@14:
    The analogy to handedness keeps occurring to me as well, probably because it was a “thing” when I was in elementary school. Left-handed kids were often forced to “convert” to right-handed (with about as much success as various other “conversion therapies”), but people were starting to wake up to the fact that it worked much better to just get some left-handed scissors for the classrooms, teach left-handed kids how to work around a writing system designed for right-handers, and not worry about it so much.

    My impression is that controversy has pretty much settled down now (at least in the US), but I’m not involved with the school system anymore. Any updates from those who are?

  24. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @19:
    to clarify myself: I too agree that the preferred pronoun to use is the one preferred by the subject. I was just pointing it out, to show the Witherspoonian was contradicting himself by using the pronoun the subject preferred and not the ‘she’, the Witherspoonian was demanding.
    In short, I wasn’t objecting to the use of ‘he’, it’s the one I would have used as well. The Witherspoon’s argument seemed to be railing against it so it seemed inconsistent for them to use it.
    [but who expect consistency from bibbble scholors]

  25. Greta Samsa says

    slithey, #24
    I didn’t mean that you would object to it (I expected that you didn’t, and correctly). I guess that using the other pronoun before sex correction is done is the accepted method generally (or in media), so I guess Witherspoon must’ve been trying very hard.
    I’m surprised too that Witherspoon did it. I suppose the changing times must’ve had some effect on them after all.

  26. CHARLES says

    WT everlasting F is “Biblical Anthropology?” Is it another pretend science like “Biblical Archaeology?” What next; “Biblical Geology” or “Biblical Genetics?” Will there be a pressing need for “Biblical Quantum Physics?”

    slithey #14 Part of my education involved a class taught by a man who believed that left-handedness was against natural law. Mind you he also believed that ball point pens were a passing fad and that we should all practice producing a copperplate hand with dip pens. It probably will come as no surprise to find that he was the “Religious Knowledge” teacher (early 1960’s England) and was rather elderly. His student’s put up with him because he was actually a WW1 winner of the Military Cross and could easily be distracted into tales of derring do. He was actually a fair teacher of RK and gave us a firm skeptical foundation.

  27. cartomancer says

    Siobhan, #9,

    Aww, shucks, I’m getting all embarassed by the invitation. But I’d be happy to.

    Or, rather, I already wrote something before responding to the invitation. Because I had the day off today and somehow my brain shot back to when I was an undergraduate and I ended up in essay-writing mode. Though I haven’t bothered to put in footnotes or a bibliography, because I haven’t talked about anything too deep or specific that a quick google or a glance at a Penguin Classics paperback won’t turn up. It’s a massive topic, masculinity in ancient Greece, but I think I’ve covered some of the very basics.

    Though I finished reading Mary Beard’s book on Roman laughter this morning, so now I think anything I write is crap by comparison…

  28. Jack Krebs says

    I’ve just been reading my copy of this National Geographic: I’m pretty impressed that they tackled the subject. I recommend you pick up a copy if you don’t subscribe.

  29. vucodlak says

    I got bullied a lot as a child. I did what I was “supposed” to do: I told, I ran away, I tried to be friends with the bully.

    The first bully I met wasn’t interested in being friends. He didn’t stop, just because I tried to stay away from him. The teacher sneered at me when I told, said I should “man up” (I was about 4 years old at the time) and hit him back. My parents told me to tell. When I said I already did, and that it didn’t help, they told me to hit back if I was hit.

    I knew it was wrong to hurt people. I do have empathy; I don’t like to see any creature suffering, and especially not people. I can’t stand it. I knew it was wrong to hit.

    But one day, the bully wouldn’t stop. Wouldn’t stop poking, and pulling my hair, and hitting me, and calling me names. The teacher just sat there and watched. And when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I gave in: I picked him up and threw him on the ground, so that he was bleeding and crying. The teacher laughed and clapped her hands. “Thatta boy!” she said.

    I was horrified by what I’d done. If I got mad, and threw my toy on the ground so that it broke, I felt bad for the toy; rather, for what I’d done to the toy. It was a million times worse to do it to a person. It was wrong, horribly so. And yet… I got only praise for it. I was not bullied by that bully again. We even formed a rather uneasy friendship.

    As I said, I got bullied a lot. The lesson I learned that day was repeated over and over. Sure, some teachers were better than that first, but they couldn’t watch us all the time. Bullies learn to be patient when they must be. After all, you can’t really escape them when you’re a kid. They’ll get you sooner or later.

    So I learned to fight back. To hurt them worse. I got in trouble a few times, but it was worth it. The bullies almost always left me alone, after. They often became my friends, or at least allies. When a new bully transferred to the school, and thought the slow-speaking awkward kid with the thick glasses looked like an easy target, my former bullies would say “Don’t mess with [vucodlak], he’s a psycho.” And if they didn’t listen? Violent delights have violent ends.

    The law written on MY heart is one of primal violence. Primal, it that it’s the first response to any threat, fearful thing, or annoyance. That don’t make it right. That doesn’t mean it’s immutable. I learned that violence, and I resist it every day. Even though it’s proven useful to me many times, even though the lesson has been born out time and again, I despise that part of me. I strive to never lash out in violence or hate, but it is undeniably at the core of my being.

    I know the fruits of following my heart: A little boy laying in the dirt, crying and bleeding because I chose to break him. There is nothing laudable or divine in the “the law written on the heart.” If anything is sacred, it is the ability and right to choose one’s own path, regardless of what comes “naturally” to us. I choose mercy, I choose compassion, I choose peace; not because it is what is in my heart, but because it isn’t. The only alternative is to become an instrument of suffering and cruelty.

    The people of the Witherspoon Institute, and their fellow travelers, would do well to learn that lesson.

  30. unclefrogy says

    The people of the Witherspoon Institute, and their fellow travelers, would do well to learn that lesson.

    Agreed but I ain’t holdin’ my breath
    uncle frogy