Whales are queering the fish-mammal binary
Cross-posted from Putanumonit
Categories in your head
In physical reality, light with wavelength between 380 and 700 nm passes through your eyeball and activates cells in your retina. In your mind, you perceive colors. This makes it tempting to think that your perception of color is simple a wavelength-detector, but that is not the case.
Sometimes the same exact light waves produce differently-perceived colors. Sometimes you perceive a color whose wavelength is missing. Sometimes you perceive a color that has no associated wavelength at all. And sometimes you eat a mushroom and perceive all the colors at once with your eyes closed. The wavelengths are out there, but the color is only in your mind a is a feature of your mind, not of reality.
This is true of all your perceptions, including things like your emotions, sense of self, and the very reality of objects.
An important feature of perception is categorization — you learn concepts for grouping similar perceptions together. Your categories then affect your immediate perception, downplaying differences within categories and amplifying differences between them. Modern Westerners see the rainbow as made up of 7 distinct colors — up from 3-4 in medieval times and 5 in the 18th century. The rainbow itself, of course, is a continuous spectrum that could be broken up into any number of bands.
A general principle of developing perception is: more discrimination is better. You can better make and enjoy visual art better if you can tell pumpkin orange from safety orange from tiger orange, as opposed to seeing them as the same rainbow stripe. The movie Inside Out taught you that there are only 5 emotions, but you can actually increase the range and granularity of your perception of emotion to understand others and manage your own feelings more skillfully. The more attention you pay to a domain, the more fruitful distinctions in perception you can make.
My friend points out: just because out there are two clusters of biological sex defined by gamete size, doesn’t mean that people’s perception of gender is identical to those. What my friend calls people’s “gendering faculty” is similar to their perception and discrimination of colors, and has a lot to do with the particularities of the society they inhabit — for example whether men in that society grow their hair long or wear kilts.
To continue with the color analogy: it’s basically impossible to make yourself see red as yellow, but it’s not that hard to learn to discriminate and enjoy a hundred subtle shades of orange.
In a famous essay on categories and gender, Scott Alexander explained that it’s not wrong to call a whale a fish if what you care about is where to hunt them and not phylogenetics. Since there’s no ground truth of what a “fish” is, we should call whales fish (or call schizophrenics emperors, or men — women) if it makes life easier for others for social reasons.
People pointed out in response: although the categorization schemata in our brains aren’t the same as categories in reality, we rely on them to track and predict reality. Subverting your categories isn’t costless. It makes inhabiting reality harder. We should figure out how to get the social benefits after accepting reality, not by denying it.
Learning about both the whale’s habitat and physiology shouldn’t make you confused or ambivalent about whether the whale is a fish or mammal. It should increase the number of categories you have to sort animals into: fish (in sea, lay eggs), whale-like (in sea, nurse young), land mammals (on land, nurse young). Adding categories makes you smarter about all animals. Once you learn how whales queer the fish-mammal binary, it doesn’t make sense to keep insisting on that binary.
Let a thousand genders bloom
Today, the phrases “trans men are men” and “I’m a genderqueer femme-presenting bisexual they/them” are associated with the same political tribe and position on gender ideology. This is a result of both strange memetic forces and the necessity of presenting a unified political front on the national level. But philosophically, these two phrases are in contradiction.
As a positive statement, “trans men are men” strongly suggests that there are only two genders and every person is more or less a central example of one or the other — the only question is whether this determination is made on the basis of biology or dress or self-identification. But whichever basis you choose, this binary is contradicted either by intersex people, or drag queens, or detransitioners, or genderqueer bisexual they/thems.
As a normative statement, “trans men are men” can mean “trans men should be treated as men” or “trans men should be perceived as men”. But it’s always at least somewhat the latter, both because trans people (like all people) care a lot about how they’re perceived gender-wise and also because, on a deep level, perception and action are the same thing. On a collective level, asking people to change their behavior by forcing them to flip their perception of gender is a dubious proposition.
On the other hand, treating gender as a multivariate socially-mediated cloud of perceptions that people can learn to discriminate myriad categories in has a lot of benefits.
Everyone already does this all the time. We don’t use our gendering faculty to predict someone’s chromosomes but to predict things like their sexual behavior and interests, and to that end little kids and very old people are also to a large extent a gender onto themselves. We make different assumptions about a slim, flamboyantly-dressed, effeminate man and a bushy-bearded pudgy man in overalls. Reifying more of those categories with common names will make everyone less confused about everyone else’s gender expression. It will also give people more levers to shape other’s perception of them. For example, signaling which sex you’re attracted to via a particular style of flamboyant dress you wear, and thus affecting how they’re treated.
There’s a difference of course between my individual perception of a dozen genders and things that require social agreement, like bathrooms. But if society can go from 3 rainbow colors to 7 we can probably add at least a few genders as well. As soon as new categories become common knowledge people will shape themselves to match them, the way most cis people wear socially-gendered clothing today to be perceived as their desired gender.
Again, when we see someone walking into the women’s restroom and decide if it’s socially acceptable or not we go by their appearance and demeanor, we don’t run to measure their gamete size. Restroom policy should follow from a more accurate common understanding of gender, gender categorization shouldn’t follow from the fact that most buildings today have exactly two types of restrooms.
I don’t want to get too far in the weeds of politics and public norms. If some trans people want to fight against having to conform to any genders whether binary or more granular, or if they want to fight directly for restroom privileges based on self-identification regardless of perception, that’s their fight.
My blog is about personal epistemology. Personally, I think I’ve gained a more accurate picture of the world when I started perceiving “rationalist-adjacent female-attired somewhat-passing demisexual trans women who like hanging out with each other and write great Rust code” as their own gender. I make different predictions about what they like, how they’re seen by others, and how good they are at programming that I would about either men or women — more accurate predictions. I don’t know where it puts me politically on the great contemporary trans debate, but I’m in favor of more genders discrimination.