Thursday, July 12, 2018

Transgenderism, "Transwomen Are Women," And Meaning-Change Arguments

Had a beer with a colleague yesterday, and was vividly reminded of how dangerous the intellectual / philosophical side of the transgenderism debate is. Dude is very sharp and intellectually honest. He's not a philosopher de jure, but he is one de facto. He's got a skeptical (in the ordinary sense) turn of mind without being Dawkinsian or any such thing. I want to stress that he wasn't cheating--wasn't intentionally trying to obscure the issues, nor to motte-and-bailey, nor any such thing... And still, two or three moves into the argument, honest errors and confusions had become self-reinforcing and overlapping to such an extent that it was really hard even for me--and I'm pretty good at that aspect of things--to sort them out as fast as they were being produced.
   For example, just getting people to keep the following two propositions separate is a job of work:
[A] Some men are female
[B] It would be possible for the meaning of the word 'men' to change so as to make a sentence like 'some men are female' express a truth. 
Those are two very, very different claims, and you've got to keep them separate. [A] is false and [B] is true. And most importantly: the truth of [B] does not make [A] true. (This follows just from: [B] is true and [A] is false; but that's not the only way to see the point.)
   Progressives are arguing that "transwomen are women." Since "transwomen" are men/male, the claim is false. But if the descriptors confuse you, take a paradigm example. Jenner--a "transwoman"--is not a woman. "Transwomen" are not women: 'woman' means adult female person; Jenner is not female; ergo Jenner is not a woman. It's an extremely simple and straightforward point. Of course: if you'd like to pretend that Jenner is a woman, no one's stopping you. It might be polite in Jenner's presence, or it might make you feel good, or you might want to contribute to changing the meaning of 'woman', or whatever...but "transwomen" are not women. And that's, as they say, just a fact.

   As for [B]: it's true, but not relevant. We could start using the words 'woman' and 'man' in new and different ways--just like we could start using any words in new and different ways. But it won't mean that men can be female nor that women can be male.
   Look: cats aren't dogs. We could, of course, start using 'cat' differently, and some ways of using 'cat' differently would eventually make sentences like 'cats are dogs' true in the successor language. But not in our language. Suppose we start using the word 'cat' to be a synonym of the word 'beagle.' (And, to make the thought-experiment a tiny bit easier: we also start using the word 'schmats' as the word for cats.) Now, if a speaker of that language--post-meaning-change--says 'cats are dogs,' then he's said something true. Because beagles are dogs. And, of course, because 'cat', in his language, means beagle. But that does not mean that cats are dogs. Cats aren't dogs, as you well know. We can't turn cats into dogs by calling them dogs any more than we can turn lead into gold by fiddling around with the meanings of 'lead' and 'gold.' And we can't cure cancer with aspirin by changing the meaning of 'cancer' so that it means headaches. If I claim to be able to cure cancer with aspirin, and you take me to court over it, and my only defense is "I use 'cancer' to mean headaches"...I'm done for. And rightly so.
   This all becomes relevant, in part, because transgender ideology runs two lines simultaneously: that (a) transwomen are (really!) women, and that (b) we ought to change the meanings of our terms so that 'transwomen are women' is true. (a) is more for public consumption; that's what they really want. (b) is more behind the scenes--it's what e.g. Haslanger is arguing for with all that nonsense about "ameliorative analysis"--which really means: lying about the meanings of words for the sake of "social justice."
   Look: this stuff is important.
   I don't care at all about this actual topic. But what's at stake philosophically is of crucial importance. If these general principles were to be accepted, it would be the end of rationality. The arguments simply don't work. The principles of reasoning that guide those arguments are wrong, all wrong. If you aren't willing to be even ordinarily critical of these arguments in particular, you ought at least to worry that, were the general principles accepted, those same principles would provide arguments for basically any conclusion you can imagine, no matter how false and horrific.
   Also, this meaning-mongering lies behind all sorts of absurd claims on the left: that all men are oppressors, that all whites are racist, that no non-whites are racist, and on and on. All these arguments basically just come down to making false claims about the meanings of words--e.g. that 'racism' means something about "prejudice + power."
   In the debate about transgenderism (such as it is--it only happens on the right; critics on the left have been silenced), you do often hear people say (inconsistently) that it's just a plea for changing how we use words. It will make those who are said to be transgendered feel better. And it's no skin off our nose. So why not? Oh, be nice! But that's not true. One way to see that it's not true is to see that transgender ideology is committed to substantive conclusions and courses of action--e.g. the elimination of sex-segregated public restrooms and locker rooms, and of women's sports. There are even some radical arguments--which, given the logic of the left, will be mainstreamed as soon as they've won the current battle--to the effect that straight men and lesbians are bigots if they don't want to have sex with "transwomen." (Nobody on the other side of the issue cares about straight men's preferences, of course...but objections by lesbians give them some pause...) So: no. It's simply not true to say that any of this is just about words. That's just the bailey phase of the standard PC motte-and-bailey strategy: when challenged, say it's just a thesis about using nice words. Once that's accepted by liberals eager to avoid being called bigots, then come the substantive demands.
   Stepping back a bit: basically everyone who isn't a radical leftist or who hasn't been browbeaten into submission by radical leftists, or who isn't desperate to be politically correct, knows that males can't be women. It takes a lot of intellectual dishonesty and/or a lot of fancy philosophical dancing about in order to work yourself into enough confusion to doubt that. But none of those fancy arguments work; if followed out in an ordinary way, they all crash and burn horribly. So, whether we stick with common sense or think things through all the way, no woman is male and no man is female. The only perspective from which those truths seem false is from within the midst of half-worked-out philosophical arguments. So: go with what's obviously so...or think the stuff all the way through. But don't just half-articulate some abstruse arguments and then call it a day.


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