Thinking critically about gender and personal identity

Contemporary political discourse is fraught with complexity regarding many issues that are too often dumbed down into simple phrases or slogans that either ignore or straw-man the opposing positions. This is why I think it is important to encourage and engage in critical thinking when it comes to some of these social issues that (often subtly) touch on deep philosophical waters that most aren’t aware they’ve entered. To take an example, I’m going to briefly run through some thoughts on how we should perhaps try and think more critically about issues of gender identity, while this is meant to be a call to critical thinking and not a positive argument I will at very least be showing how a very common argument you’ll hear on this subject is plainly misguided.

Lets start off by clarifying the most key term here- “gender” the definition of which is going to be extremely important for thinking critically about this topic. Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as follows “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex.” It is always helpful to get definitions from professional resources in the relevant field so here are some source citations from the field of sociology in case you want to fact check me:

Now, a common position you hear when discussing issues of trans legitimacy is that “there are only 2 genders” typically, this sort of view comes from the conservative side. This position is the example I am going to use to illustrate why critical thinking about gender identity issues is a necessity. So, let’s take the claim as it is “there are only 2 genders” this is a rather simple phrase that is usually meant to imply something along the lines of “there are only 2 genders, and whatever gender you are born as is what you are, transgender people are suffering from a mental deficiency thinking they are a different gender” I don’t wish to straw-man but it is usually something along those lines. Here’s where that critical thinking comes in, there are actually a few controversial assumptions about personal gender identity packed into that seemingly simple phrase “there are only 2 genders.” Some of the assumptions being made there include the ideas that: 1) gender is reducible to biological sex 2) there are only 2 biological sexes 3) chromosomes determine sex and therefore a persons gender, to name a few. So to make that claim that “there are only 2 genders” actually carries a fair bit of assumptive baggage about the nature of what gender is and how we should quantify it, and these assumptions are usually exactly what’s in question during the debate.

It is obvious at this point that the seemingly simple claim “there are only 2 genders” needs to be supported by some other facts before it can be established. Personally, I’m a fan of logic and clarity when it comes to evaluating inferences and claims so let’s take a look at a logical syllogism that would establish the conclusion our conservative friends want:

1) Gender is reducible to biological sex

2) There are only 2 biological sexes

3) Therefore, there are only 2 genders (from 1 and 2)

The good thing about this argument as I’ve formulated it, is that it is deductively valid. This means that if the premises of the argument are true then the conclusion is true, inescapably so in fact. Here comes the problem, the argument is unsound due to the fact that both premises 1 and 2 are plainly false. Let’s start with (2) as it is fairly quick and easy to dismiss and then move on to the more controversial premise (1). Premise 2 is just not the case, any professional biological source recognizes that in the case of Homo sapiens (that’s us) there are at LEAST 5 biological sexes: male, female, hermaphrodite, male hermaphrodite, and female hermaphrodite. This is not to say anything of other species, or even anything about gender unless we accept premise 1 which we will tackle momentarily. But it is at least clear from the bare biological data that there are more than 2 sexes and thus universal quantifiers such as “all” and “only” are going to be nothing more than patently false when referring to the exclusivity of 2 genders. At this point, the conservative will most likely retort with something like “well sure those are real biological facts, but those are minority cases.” Hey sure, we agree on that. And it completely invalidates your universal quantifiers of “all” in relation to gender. To bring in some facts and logic, quantifiers like: all, some, every, etc. are often used in logic to denote members of a set. So to say “there are only 2 genders” is tantamount to saying that ” all human beings either belong to the set of male (set M) or the set of female (set F) and there is a third set (MF) that contains all members of sets M and F and so all human beings are contained within set MF.” This is a problematic claim due to the fact that there are human beings who do no fit into either set M or set F and therefore do not fit into set MF. Even if a mere one person did not fit into either set the universal quantifiers would still be invalid so this simply will not do.

We have seen already that the argument I gave supporting the conclusion “there are only 2 genders” is unsound due to the outright falsity of (2) but it gets worse for the conservative side, premise 1 is also false. Most conservatives tend to argue that gender is determined purely by chromosomes and that trans people are simply under some delusion or just in denial of the reality of their X and Y chromosomes. Nathan Robinson from “Current Affairs” magazine has pointed out in his masterpiece article-destruction of Ben Shapiro, that the argument made by the left is that in practice, gender is not reducible to chromosomes. Here’s an excerpt:

The argument made by the left is that this simple story doesn’t account for something important: in the real world, we don’t form our understanding of whether someone is a man or a woman by their chromosomes. Instead, we form it by how they look and act. What people mean when they say that “gender is a social construct” is not that “chromosomes are a social construct” but that in practice, gender isn’t reducible to chromosomes.” -(“The Cool Kids Philosopher” by Nathan J Robinson)

Trans people are not under some delusion that they do not have the chromosomal composition they do, they just realize (or know) that their gender does not match their biological sex. Plenty of trans people report they always knew they were not the gender they were assigned at birth. There are also cases such as congenital androgen insensitivity syndrome in which a person has a female body, female external genitalia, but Y chromosomes in their cells. Example such as this serve to show that always reducing gender to whatever chromosomes a person has simply does not take into account real world factors that play a relevant role in how we treat and refer to people. This is also why definitions are crucial, remember that Merriam Webster definition of gender I presented earlier? Here it is again: “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex.” So we can also see from this definition an important key of how gender is defined and treated, we assign gender based on traits such as “feminity” or “masculinity” not on the presence of X or Y chromosomes. In more arenas than just gender we refer to people based on the social roles they fill rather than pure biology, as YouTuber Natalie Wynn (a trans woman) has pointed out, it would be ridiculous if we refused to refer to adoptive parents of a child as its “parents” when they devote their time and energy to raising the child. We of course know that they aren’t the biological causes of the child but this does not mean it is socially incorrect to treat them as the child’s parents. The same applies with gender, since the biological elements to determining even sex are vague and in some cases inconclusive, those of us on the left argue that a persons choice should be the primary determining factor of their gender. I foreshadowed this earlier when I said these issues get into deep philosophical waters, a simple phrase often used by conservatives to deny the legitimacy of trans people opens up a floodgate of questions about personal identity, social constructivism, and so on and so forth. The simple conservatives story about gender fails to take into account the actuality of how we refer to people in practice. These are all complex issues, which is why it is important we think critically about them instead of taking a face-value opinion to be factual or false. By my lights, it seems rational to allow that the social roles of gender should ultimately be determined by a persons choice of self-identification.

Finally, we have seen that the premises I employed to support the conclusion “there are only 2 genders” should be wholly rejected due to the facts of biological science and well as the philosophical issues of self-identity and social construction. Due to the falsity of the premises, we should reject the conclusion as well a least insofar as being supported by aforementioned premises. What I have written here, has not conclusively made a positive case for a totally progressive perspective on gender issues, that was not the purpose. The purpose was to encourage critical thinking about issues of gender and personal identity in relation to a rather simplistic story often told about these matters and hopefully utilize some tools that will be useful for all discussions of gender, identity, social construction, and so on and so forth. Some of the key critical thinking tools I used that I think are valuable include: defining terms clearly, citing reputable sources, identifying assumptions made by a seemingly simple claims, presenting your opponents argument fairly (at least logically valid), laying out and evaluating the premises of an argument one by one, amongst other things. I hope this short piece is at least helpful to you on the journey towards truth.

(This is an installment in what I hope is a continuing series “Logic and Leftism”)

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