Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Social Construction Workers

Dan Savage's sex-advice column for February 8 was a compendium of brief answers he gave to questions submitted by live audiences recently.  This one caught my attention.
Why are liberals okay with people self-identifying their gender but not their race? Aren’t both considered social constructs?

“If race and gender are both social constructs,” Evan Urquhart writes at Slate, “and if both have been built around observable biological traits, then what is the crucial difference that makes a felt gender identity a true one, but a felt racial identity fraudulent? The short answer is that most trans people and their allies suspect that transgender people are born that way.” (Read the rest of the essay here.)
The full trifecta: neither the questioner, Savage, nor Evan Urquhart, know what they are talking about, especially with regard to "social construction."  Urquhart gets a point or two for recognizing that social constructs are "built around observable biological traits," and also for not freaking out over comparisons between "racial identity" and "gender identity," but goes wrong from there.  And even "observable biological traits" is wrong, come to think of it.  Social constructs include language, religion, nationality, etc., none of which are built around observable biological traits.  I'm not sure how sexual orientation would fit in there either; probably it doesn't.  (It involves observable external biological sex -- whether one is male or female, and whether one's desired sexual partners are male or female -- and there's a common mythology about homosexuals as physiological sexual variants, to which I'll return.  But you cannot always or even usually tell a person's sexual orientation by looking at them; false positives and false negatives abound.)

As for "most trans people and their allies suspect that transgender people are born that way," well, it may be that this is what most trans people and their allies suspect (!), but there is no evidence that it's true, and Urquhart knows it:
I say that we “suspect” trans people are born that way because the science isn’t in, yet. When Caitlyn Jenner spoke vaguely of female brains in male bodies it was because there isn’t any clearer terminology that can be employed to speak about this hunch, but it persists in the minds of many trans people and their allies anyway. We do have increasing evidence for specific genetic and epigenetic differences between gay men and straight men that result in homosexuality, but so far scientists have yet to investigate the rest of the letters in LGBTQ as thoroughly.   For now, even those who are most familiar with this topic can’t say for sure what being transgender is, and what might cause it. There are, however, circumstantial reasons to believe it may also have a genetic and/or epigenetic basis. For one thing, many trans people report feeling that their assigned gender didn’t match their inner conception of their gender from earliest childhood. We also have evidence of individuals who dressed, acted, or passed as the opposite sex across many cultures and many historical eras. This, paired with the evidence that sexual orientations are innate, not learned, leads us to hypothesize that gender identities function similarly.
Urquhart is wrong about the evidence for a biological basis for homosexuality; he's also evidently ignorant of the history of "female brains in male bodies," which used to be a popular conception for male homosexuality.  (He presumably hasn't noticed either that the scientific "evidence" about inborn homosexuality is about sex/gender, not sexual orientation.)  Despite the ongoing scientific efforts to prove otherwise, however, there aren't "female brains," and a fortiori there aren't female brains in male bodies: the brain in a male body is a male brain.  Whatever differences have been claimed have been differences of degree, not of kind, just as with racial differences.  To assert otherwise is like claiming that a tall woman has a male height in a woman's body.  (Given the amount of hassle that tall women get, though, many people might accept that metaphor.)

Urquhart says that "science continues to be done that supports the idea of gender differences within the human brain, while the possibility of such differences existing between races has been roundly rejected."  This isn't true either.  Scientists continue to try to prove innate racial differences no matter how consistently such work is discredited, and popular media (and the public) are just as fond of the idea as they are of the idea of innate gender differences.  That scientists continue to try to find innate sex/gender differences, even though they consistently fail, says more about scientists' culturally-inculcated prejudices than it does about the validity of the idea, just as with race.

As it happens, the word Jenner used was "soul," not "brain," which is even less helpful for Urquhart's argument.  People do talk casually about the soul as if it were something that is known to exist, independently of the body, but it's not a scientific concept (for what that's worth).  Even if there is such a thing as the soul, we know nothing about it, and can't assign it a sex/gender, a race, a nationality, a political party, or any other trait.  It's not illegitimate to use the word as a metaphor, but it can't be used to prove anything.  As with height, just because there's a word for it, that doesn't prove it's a Thing.

Probably most gay people and our allies do believe that sexual orientation is inborn, but they're wrong too, so the same belief among trans people and their allies isn't evidence for anything.  In general, a conviction that one was born with a certain trait doesn't prove that it was in fact inborn. Nor, contrary to the equally widespread and equally false belief spread by Dan Savage and others, do civil rights depend on whether a given status is inborn, learned, or freely chosen.  (Or a social construct, a term which plays no role in civil rights legislation.)

Dan Savage's questioner probably was just trolling, though the troll was effective because it pinpointed basic incoherences in what trans people and their advocates say about gender.  Urquhart's article addressed chosen "racial" identity, occasioned by the controversy over Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who passed as black for several years.  As far as I can tell, though, Dolezal has not claimed that she was truly, essentially black (a black brain or soul in a white body?), or applied the other rhetoric typical of the transgender community and its allies; Urquhart doesn't, at any rate, report that she did.  (According to Richard Seymour, "Dolezal did not claim to be ‘trans-racial’; she claimed to be black, and still does.")  Trans people aren't claiming to choose their gender identities: as Urquhart says, they see their identities as innate and unchosen, forced on them by their genes or brain structure.  The term "self-identify" is unfortunate, though, since it does imply that some kind of choice is being made.  Yet the verb "identify as" has become normative, even epidemic, in LGBTQ discourse.  It's all very well to "identify as," but what are you really?  Are you Betty Jo Bialowsky, or are you Nancy?

So what about "racial identity"?  I can't see how it could be inborn, any more than any identity could be.  Identities are labels, names, and as such are cultural products.  However, many people do believe in inborn racial identities, and that someone's "felt" racial identity can be inauthentic.  There was controversy during Barack Obama's first presidential campaign, over whether he has really African-American because despite his Kenyan father he wasn't descended from slaves or because he was raised in African-American communities.  (He grew up with his white mother and her white parents.)  Leave aside the merits of these claims; I want to point out that they separate biology from racial status and identity as radically as transgender separates biological sex from sex/gender status and identity.  It would follow from these criteria that a white-appearing descendant of Thomas Jefferson's slave Sally Heming who grew up in an African-American community would be African-American, regardless of what she looked like, while a first-generation black Nigerian immigrant would not.  If you add to that a belief in the existence of the soul as a distinct and separate substance, then a person could plausibly claim to have a black soul in a white body.  And what about "mixed-race" people?  Do they have black brains and white brains in their bodies, fighting for supremacy?  Do they have "mixed-race" brains?  Or what?

People who invoke social constructs in these debates overlook something important in "social construction," namely the first word in the term.  "Social construction" doesn't mean that an individual can choose an identity (or whatever) at will.  If anything, it means the opposite.  "Social construct" means that there is more or less a consensus in your society about what it means to be (for example) a man or a woman.  There is a very great range of variation among actual individuals, so the social construct is often at odds with reality, and people learn to overlook the variation in order to maintain their stereotypes and the cultural solidarity those stereotypes support.  But the whole point of social construction theory is not that people "choose" identities, but that much of what feels natural to them is really learned, acquired, accepted -- not by conscious choice but by absorption of what they see around themselves as they grow up.  Which, come to think of it, undermines Urquhart's argument that gay or trans people's conviction that we can't remember having been otherwise, can't remember learning or choosing to be the way they are, constitutes evidence in favor of the conviction.  The whole point of social construction theory is that what feels natural and innate very often is not.

What this means is that recognizing that a trait is a social construct doesn't license individuals to choose another one.  Consider language.  Though the language I speak is a social construct, my inability to understand a language I don't know is not the result of false consciousness or a closed mind.  Though there is a great deal of variation within any given language, an individual speaker can't stray too far from the socially constructed norms of the language without becoming incomprehensible to others.  One can move around within the realm of one's language, passively acquiring or actively adopting variants that signal class, locale, gender, or other difference.  But that is exactly the point: by doing so, one signals the social meanings associated with those variations.  We can, and should, challenge the prejudices that devalue certain linguistic variants, but in doing so we'll come up against powerful essentialist beliefs about the nature of those variants.  If you say "ain't," for example, you are signaling to language bigots that you are an ignorant, uneducated, low-class person.  By nature.

As far as I know, though, no one has so far claimed a 'felt racial identity' at odds with the one assigned them by society.  It doesn't appear that Rachel Dolezal did.  Quite a few people are claiming a 'felt gender identity' at odds with the one they were assigned, but as we've seen, their rationales are not convincing.  There's no reason to believe that any gender identity is inborn.  This doesn't have to be a problem, just as it doesn't matter whether sexual orientation is inborn.  It seems that people react differently to claims about racial identity than they do to claims about gender identity, and that's an interesting problem in itself.

It seems pretty clear to me that people generally invoke biology and culture, social construction and essentialism, as expediency requires.  But that's not unusual when vexed issues are being discussed.  Perhaps it's a mistake to take them literally, since they aren't interested in rationality or evidence: they 'reason' backwards from their conclusions, to put a sheen of reasonability on what they believe for no reason, or for bad reasons.

I'm not sure that social construction theory is compatible with the political needs of trans people, or of gay people.  To assert an identity is essentialist, even when the identity is clearly not genetic or epigenetic: nationality, religion, etc.  This doesn't mean that trans people are wrong, nor that they must prove that gender identity is inborn before they can affirm the identities they have constructed and chosen.  But it is wrong to make claims about nature or cause that have no evidence to back them up; making false statements isn't good on general principles, and it's imprudent to hang political demands on grounds that don't exist and may be disproven, let alone on bad science that has already been discredited.