On Secular Arguments and Conservative Atheists

As you may have heard, David Silverman, President of American Atheists, made a splash by attending the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this past week. The publicity was done for Silverman even before he arrived, since the invitation to American Atheists was revoked after outcry by religious conservatives, resulting in the “atheists unwelcome at CPAC” story he was no doubt expecting. Done and done, right?

Not so much, since Silverman apparently went to CPAC anyway, and gave interviews. He seems to think that there’s a hidden enclave of closet atheists in the halls of conservatism, and he’s just the man to draw them out (and also, presumably, to make them dues-paying members of American Atheists).

On one hand, this shouldn’t be a surprise. American Atheists’ outreach under Silverman has been focused not on convincing people of the atheist position, but on convincing people who are atheist-but-closeted to come out and be public with their disbelief. It’s a laudable goal.

Silverman’s also been vocal about making atheism a big tent, and less willing, on that front, to explicitly exclude some of the more hostile wings of the atheist movement. To Dave, as long as we’re all agreed that religion is generally wrong and bad, we’re all working together (or at least, we’re all willing to donate to American Atheists so they can accomplish tasks that we generally agree are important).
Silverman identifies himself as a conservative:

He describes himself as a “fiscally conservative” voter who “owns several guns. I’m a strong supporter of the military. I think fiscal responsibility is very important. I see that as pretty conservative. And I have my serious suspicions about Obama. I don’t like that he’s spying on us. I don’t like we’ve got drones killing people…” In the final analysis, “the Democrats are too liberal for me,” he says.

And he’s got some particular ideas about what conservatism is and means, and how conservatism and atheism can be compatible:

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”
[…]
“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

And looking at all that really makes me want to donate to American Atheists, so that maybe they’ll have enough money to buy Dave a clue.

Let’s start with the “secular argument[s] against abortion.” When I first saw that quote, my response was incredulity. What are these secular arguments for abortion? The ones I could remember hearing were really just the usual religious pro-lifers’ arguments, but with “human DNA” or some other such nonsense copy-pasted where a Catholic might say “soul.” They were as “secular” as Intelligent Design.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that most of the arguments I’ve heard from anti-abortion activists have been secular in nature. I was conflating “secular argument against abortion” with “argument against abortion from a secularist.” Sure, there are all the appeals to Mother Teresa and the Pope and that bit of the Bible where God says he knew you before he formed you in the womb, but once you get past that, it’s mostly nonreligious reasons. Those big signs of misleadingly dismembered fetuses aren’t making any kind of religious argument; that “Abortion stops a beating heart” bumper sticker isn’t making a religious argument, “If she wanted to have sex she should accept the consequences” isn’t a religious argument; “just because the father was a rapist is no reason to punish the child” is not only not a religious argument, but it flies in the face of the whole “sins of the father” notion that’s central (in one form or another) to most Christian denominations. Most of the arguments fall into one of those categories: “ewww, icky,” “it’s murder,” “sluts need to learn a lesson,” or “it’s a person!”

The problems there, then, are twofold: one, those arguments are crap, and two, the vast majority of atheists would agree about their crappiness. Now, recruiting some folks from CPAC into American Atheists might skew those numbers a bit, but the movement as it stands now isn’t exactly welcoming to the notion that abortion is some terrible wrong (and for good reason). Saying “there are secular argument[s] against abortion” and then suggesting that those arguments are better than the secular arguments opposing school prayer or supporting right-to-die and gay marriage1, is at best profoundly misleading.

It is, as I argued elsewhere, exactly the same kind of disingenuous misleading that accommodationist skeptics and the NCSE have engaged in with respect to science and religion. They’ll say “skepticism and religion are compatible,” or “you can be a Christian and still believe in evolution,” but both of those statements are misleading to the point of being insulting. The kinds of religion that are compatible with skepticism are either the ones that are so abstracted into deism or pantheism that they hardly resemble “religions” in any sensible use of the term, or the ones that are almost completely compartmentalized from skeptical criticism. The kinds of Christianity that are compatible with evolution are the ones that are so withdrawn into metaphor that they can square a loving and merciful god with a system of biology where progress is primarily driven by death, and that can accept a savior dying to remove a sin committed by people who never existed.

Similarly, the kinds of conservatism that are compatible with atheism are the ones which reject the social conservative platforms (except ones they can support through bad secular arguments), reject the religious right, and are mostly concerned with fiscal responsibility and personal freedoms (except the freedom of women to control their own bodies, because chicks amirite?). In other words, libertarians. Atheism and libertarianism are compatible? Color me shocked.

The thing is, if Dave Silverman wanted to find those fiscally-conservative-but-socially-liberal(ish) conservative atheists, it seems like CPAC isn’t the place to do it. Sure, they’ll put Rand Paul up on stage, but the rest of the time? This year’s program featured presentations like “Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet,” “Inventing Freedom: How English-Speaking Peoples Made the World Modern,” “More Guns, Less Crime,” and “Healthcare After Obamacare: A Practical Guide for Living When No One Has Insurance and America Runs Out of Doctors”2. Speakers included religious ideologues like pro-school prayer Jim DeMint, anti-gay Ben Carson, and creationist-if-the-money-is-right Ann Coulter. And Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz, of course. This isn’t a libertarian convention full of Eisenhower Republicans outlining reasonable positions to maximize personal freedom and minimize government spending. It’s a convention of rich ideologues who want to be richer, even and especially if it means gutting programs that help the poor. And also, let’s go to war with anyone and everyone3.

Dave Silverman thinks that there are lots of closet conservative atheists, but he’s engaging in a bit of equivocation there. Dave Silverman’s definition of “conservative”–fiscal conservatism, gun rights, personal freedom, supporting military–is not the definition being employed by the first “C” in “CPAC.” CPAC skews more toward the social conservative theocracy that Silverman No-True-Scotsman’d as not real conservatism.

Which kind of brings us to that particular brand of Silverman cluelessness: where has he been for the last thirty years? How does he square his belief in “economic conservatism” with a party that started two off-the-books wars, wants to start more with Iran and Russia, and has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on meaningless votes to repeal Obamacare, countless anti-abortion bills, and fighting gay marriage? Where is the economic conservatism there? Where is the military support in opposing bills to prosecute rapists in the ranks, or fighting against benefits for veterans? How much personal freedom does a person have when they’re working two jobs and still living below the povery line? When their food stamps benefits get cut over and over because the social safety net, and not corporate welfare, is a drain on the country’s resources? When their right to vote is eroded by classist, racist regulations designed to keep Republicans in office?

We either have to believe that Silverman is so blinkered in his politics that he’s bought into a series of mostly meaningless, mostly traditional buzzwords that the GOP likes to throw around as their platform because they sound better than “consistently trying to screw over 99% of the country,” or we have to believe that he’s a savvy, selfish asshole who thinks his right to own as many guns as he wants and his distaste for taxes trumps other people’s right to a living wage and personal security.

The more I try to think he’s one or the other, the more unconvinced I am by either option. The latter suggests that maybe he’s decided that going after rich donors in the bush is worth alienating the women and minorities already in the hands of American Atheists, but if that’s the case, then surely he recognizes that those donors aren’t both going to take the PR hit of associating with atheists and relinquish the control mechanism provided by fundamentalist religion. But if he really believes that “real conservatives” would support atheist causes, why make the appeal to anti-abortion arguments, which is a socially conservative issue?

The fact that it came as news to Silverman that there are anti-gay atheists makes me think he’s probably just profoundly out of touch. He doesn’t have clue one about most political issues that don’t directly affect him, and he doesn’t understand that by actively courting a group that promotes racist, misogynist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, and xenophobic policies, he’s going to alienate a lot of people who otherwise agree with him. Unless those racist misogynist homophobes are bringing tons of money to the anti-religion organization, then he’d probably be better served by trying to make the movement more welcoming to the people who are actually in it. Pandering to assholes while ignoring the complaints of members makes it look like your priorities are less in fostering community among atheists and more in gaining donations for your organization.

The organization should serve the members, not the other way around.


1. They’re really not, by the way. There are lots of people who argue that government shouldn’t be in the marriage business anyway, and that government shouldn’t be expanding, but reducing, its participation in private relationships. You could argue for school prayer on free speech grounds, or point to the fact that there’s no sharp line between “prayer” and other moment-of-silence type activities, or that there’s not always a clear distinction between student-led and staff-led activities, and that school prayer should be subject to the same equal-time principle as religious displays on public land, or interfaith ceremonial prayers at the beginning of public meetings. Frankly, I don’t see how you can assert bodily rights to make a pro-right-to-die argument and reject them when it comes to abortion. Are these arguments good? No, but they’re no worse than the secular arguments against abortion–and in the right-to-die case, they’re essentially the same. Except, you know, men get terminal illnesses too.

2. In case it’s not clear, let me outline briefly the problems that the generally science- and fact-friendly atheist community might have with these presentations. 1) Not according to all climate science; 2) Historians are likely to disagree, and even if true, it happened on the back of slavery and genocide; 3) Not according to all the evidence from the rest of the world; 4) How will an insurance mandate result in fewer people having insurance, and where are doctors going to go to find a more conservative healthcare system?

3. The one exception to all this seems to be that the attendance at CPAC leans more personal-freedom-libertarian than the leadership and speakership, based on the polling results that CPAC has on their main page. But given the stark contrast between what those people cite as priorities (drug decriminalization, isolationism) and what the party’s actual priorities are (attacking abortion, starting wars wherever possible), they look an awful lot like useful idiots, prized by party establishment for their votes and their unwillingness to take said votes to any particular third party, despite not being served by this one. But then, getting people to vote against their own interests has been the GOP platform for decades.

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Biology is always more complicated than you want to believe

I watched a little bit of a kerfuffle today as self-described “science groupie” Gia Milinovich decided to pontificate1 once again on the subject of sex and gender.

I follow a lot of feminists and trans* activists on Twitter, so I see people arguing against transphobic misunderstandings of biology pretty regularly. There are good responses to this line of argument; I always think back to Natalie Reed’s post on bilaterally gynandromorphic chickens and Skepchick Will’s response to the last time Gia pulled this out.

This time I foolishly decided to slip in a couple of remarks. In particular, I responded to this comment:

Which was so wrong it hurt. I pointed out what’s obvious to anyone who’s done ten minutes of reading on complications of gender, or who’s watched fucking “House,” would have:

Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome is a condition where cells don’t respond to androgen hormones, causing 46,XY individuals to present phenotypically as female, down to a (frequently shallow or undeveloped) vagina, breasts, and in rare cases, a fully-developed uterus and other “usual female mammalian reproductive parts.” Swyer syndrome is even more to the point, as those 46,XY individuals, due to undeveloped streak gonads, will develop into women capable even of pregnancy (through fertilized egg implantation) with only an administration of hormones. No “mutilative” surgeries necessary for XY females in either of those cases.

Unless, of course, this argument is circular, and you define female as “people without XY genotypes.” In which case you’d have to do a genetic test before referring to anyone by their gender, because of the sheer number of conditions (chimerism, mosaicism, Turner syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, Perrault syndrome, Triple X syndrome, etc.) that exist in humans which make it difficult to judge someone’s sex chromosome makeup by looking at their phenotype alone. Which is the point I hinted at in that second tweet.

The appropriately-named “Dirt” replied to that second tweet with a link to their blog o’ transphobia, presumably as a way of rebutting my points. I glanced over it, and two things became apparent:

  1. This has little if anything to do with what I was talking about.
  2. SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET.

So an old-school fisking was in order! Oh, was it ever.

  • No one is born transgendered.

Note the complete lack of any support for this bald assertion. Watch it become a theme.

  • Transition is a medical invention of the 20th century created to “cure” homosexuality
  • Transgenderism can ONLY occur via medical intervention.
  • Lots of things can ONLY occur via medical intervention, such as the normal development of people with Swyer syndrome. So what? Medicine is great!

    Oh, here’s a fun game: any time they talk about “transgenderism” in a medical context, swap in “abortion,” just to see where these talking points are coming from.

  • Hormones used for transition can and do change personality AND sexual attraction. 
  • Hormones used for transition are the same hormones made by gonads. “Used for transition” is an unnecessary phrase here. We’ve all experienced the changes to personality and sexual attraction caused by hormones thanks to something called “puberty.”

  • ALL transition surgeries are UNNECESSARY.
  • Except to the people who need them.

  • ALL transition surgeries are barbaric, permanently mutilating once healthy body parts.
  • So are gauged ears and split tongues and tattoos. If it’s not your body, then why do you care?

  • Havelock Ellis, Magnus Hirschfeld  and Richard von Krafft-Ebing first linked homosexuality with inversion, in the early 20th century.
  • Inverts were males and females who were perceived as being inverted, such as female inverts having a “masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom“. In other words those who didnt subscribe to the Gender Straight Jacket.
  • “Old white male researchers lumped a bunch of superficially-similar groups together as a single pathology.” Not exactly breaking news.

  • It was during this time (1931) that Lili Elbe received and died from the first sex reassignment surgery. Elbe was most likely intersexed, as medical evidence at the time indicated. 
  • Hey, acknowledgement of an intersex condition! Surely this will lead the writer to recognize that sex is more complicated than a binary option completely determined by two chromosomes, right?

    Also, this story of Lili Elbe ignores the earlier case of “Dora R.” and fails to note that Lili Elbe died after her fifth SRS operation likely due to rejecting a transplanted uterus. Hey, doctors in the ’30s couldn’t do something that doctors today still can’t do. Guess there aren’t any trans people.

  • Harry Benjamin who was a friend of and highly influenced by Magnus Hirshfeld, was heavily interested in gay male drag shows where according to HB, “many of the customers appeared in the clothing of the other sex“.
  • Harry Benjamin is the father of transsexualism/transgenderism.
  • Even according to that Wikipedia article, Benjamin’s research on transgender issues largely began when Alfred Kinsey asked him to see/treat a male child who wanted to be female. Kind of pokes some holes in those “no one is born transgendered” and transgender being an invention notions. Moreover, it only takes about five minutes of looking into transgender history to learn about overlaps between the transgender and transvestite communities. When cross-dressing was illegal, it’s no surprise that people with similarly interested in it for different reasons would band together.

  • Viewing psychiatry through a Gender Straight Jacketed lens, Benjamin ignorantly assumed transvestites and gay men to be one and the same. 
  • HB believed gay men to all be effeminate.
  •  Most of Benjamin’s patients were female fetishizers he mistook for homosexuals.
  • No citations are given for these assertions. I like the term “female fetishizers” though, because its attempt to be specific and skewering really make it look like an indictment of objectification and the male gaze.

  • Within the first decade of SRS, female fetishizers created an underground snail mail communication system whereby female fetishizers knew beforehand what to say to HB and later SRS doctors that would enable them to be approved for SRS.
  • Marginalized groups found ways around a system that pathologized and marginalized them. So what?

    Also, try playing the abortion game with that one.

  • The main criteria for early SRS (and today still) is homosexuality or behaviour considered to be homosexual.
  • Our sexist, homophobic society doesn’t exactly spoon-feed people the terms or opportunities to sort out their sexualities and gender identities. There’s a lot of messiness as everyone who doesn’t conform to the socially-accepted standard susses things out, largely on their own. The existence of the Internet has certainly made it easier for people to find resources and vocabularies and support networks, but kids and teens who are uncomfortable with themselves and how their desires and bodies and mental images are changing still need to seek out that information. It’s not surprising that some would try to fit their particular issues into familiar terms or contexts, and the contexts for homosexuality are a lot more prevalent than the ones for transgender.

    Also, what “criteria”? Legal? Medical? “Regulatory organizations are slow to adapt to changing cultural and scientific understanding about marginalized groups” is the breaking news headline right under “White Dudes Oversimplify Minorities.”

  • The majority of transitions remain straight white males who have a twisted cock response to clothing labeled “girls” or “womens“. Males known as Autogynephiles or as I call them, Female Fetishizers. Males who fetishize the patriarchal Male Gaze constructed IDEA “woman/femininity”.
  • Again, no citations. And the sign of a solid scientific paper, “terms I just made up myself.” It’s worth linking to the criticisms section of that article, but it’s also worth looking at Blanchard’s approach as discussed in the opening paragraph. It’s all about sex, and specifically, all about attracting a particular kind of partner or achieving some sexual fantasy. That’s not just insultingly reductive (and characteristic of all manner of other homophobic and misogynist ideas about people–see also: any time a right-winger talks about gay sex or slutty clothes), it erases or eroticizes the experiences of transgender children–you know, like the one that introduced the previous cited researcher to the issue.

    It’d be way easier for Dirt if their cited sources weren’t so contradictory to their attempted points.

  • Female Fetishizers carry out transvestism to the Nth degree in search for greater and greater sexual highs.
  • Sure seems like a lot of money and pain and effort to expend just for pursuit of a sexual fetish. I mean, I know people go to extremes, but really? All transgender people?

    Take furries, for instance. There are those who indulge their fetish mostly online. There are those who dress up in animal suits and get together for sexual purposes. There are those who go out in the fursuits in public, trying to live as furries full-time. There are those who get body modification, altering their faces and tongues, getting tattoos, having eyebrow or horn or whisker implants, and otherwise “mutilating once healthy body parts.” You know what there isn’t? A disproportionately high rate of violence against furries compared to other populations. Or if there is, it’s neither studied nor publicized as far as I can tell. It seems that being a furry is a lot less dangerous than being transgender. Despite that, I think you’ll find a lot smaller percentage of furries trying to live full-time or undergo medical interventions than transgender people. Why is that?

    It gets back to the notion that sexuality is a choice: if it were, who would choose discrimination and violence and marginalization? Similarly, if transgender identity is just about some kind of sexual gratification, how many people are really going to weigh the options and decide that getting some jollies off is worth the cost and the pain and the threats of violence and murder?

  • The medical community didnt invest in sex changes until the Kinsey Reports of (1948) and (1953) which concluded at least 10% of the population was homosexual and 37% of males had had a homosexual experience.
  • It’s totally a coincidence that this is also when transgender individuals (pre-surgery!) were achieving some measure of media coverage and were forming organizations. I’m sure Dirt would point the causal arrow in a different direction than I would; Dirt would also neglect to read anything before that linked section of the article, and would handwave away the 30 years of SRS prior to the ’50s as “not investing.”

  • In the early seventies pro consensual pedophilia doctor John Money (notorious for experimenting on the intersexed) coined the term Gender Identity/Gender Roles.  
  • Gender Identity/Gender Roles are socially constructed via patriarchy, NOT organically created in the womb.
  • Money is (in)famous for being the doctor at the center of the case of David Reimer, who was raised as a girl after a botched circumcision, under Money’s direction. But Reimer’s case would really seem to be a blow to Dirt’s hypotheses here. See, Money believed, as Dirt does, that gender identity was an entirely social construct. It therefore followed that if Reimer were raised female, with an apparently female body and female hormones and the like, that Reimer would form a female gender identity. Money reported for years that the case was a successful validation of his belief in the social construction of gender.

    But it wasn’t. According to sexologist Milton Diamond, who worked with Reimer as an adult, the socialization didn’t take, and Reimer stopped identifying as female somewhere around the ages of 9 to 11, and began living as male at 14. As a teen, he was driven into suicidal depression.

    Hm…suicidal depression because your outward gender presentation doesn’t match your self-identification…where have I heard that kind of thing happening before?

    See, if Dirt and Money were right, Reimer should have grown up female with no real trouble2, since that’s how he was socialized, that’s what hormonal instructions his body was receiving. Unless there’s something more inborn or innate about gender, something distinct from hormones and patriarchy. Either gender is social or it’s biological (or, as is more likely the case, it’s a combination of both), but Dirt’s trying to pretend that there’s a sharp divide while trying to have it both ways. In neither way does the case of David Reimer help Dirt’s case.

  • Just as homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973, Gender Identity Disorder was slipped in.
  • If you read the abstract Dirt links here, it actually makes the opposite point:

    Another point of controversy is the claim that the diagnosis of GIDC was introduced into the DSM-III in 1980 as a kind of “backdoor maneuver” to replace homosexuality, which was deleted from the DSM-II in 1973. In this article, we challenge this historical interpretation and provide an alternative account of how the GIDC diagnosis (and transsexualism) became part of psychiatric nosology in the DSM-III. We argue that GIDC was included as a psychiatric diagnosis because it met the generally accepted criteria used by the framers of DSM-III for inclusion (for example, clinical utility, acceptability to clinicians of various theoretical persuasions, and an empirical database to propose explicit diagnostic criteria that could be tested for reliability and validity).

    What is it with pseudoscientists and the inability to read?

  • The Trans Politic was created by straight white males-female fetishizers-using politics to further their pornographic urgers, not so dissimilar to NAMBLA’s political pedophilia via the Gay and Lesbian platform. 
  • Wow, ad hominem much?

  • Transition DOES NOT and CANNOT EVER change a person’s sex.
  • Define “change” and “sex.”

  • Transition is purely a cosmetic and legal “sex change“.
  • Even if it were, so what?

  • Gay males who transition do so out of internalized homophobia, usually within a hyper masculine minority culture amid the larger white culture.
  • Yes, because if there’s one thing we know about the larger homophobic white culture, it’s how non-misogynist and trans-friendly it is.

  • Since gay white male popularity and large media visibility, gay white male transitions have drastically decreased to near nonexistence. 
  • Citation please. Seriously, I spent some time looking for even just a breakdown of transgender prevalence by race, and couldn’t find it. The best I found was an overall summary of LGBT population and an estimate by Los Angeles county of their transgender stats. If these statistics exist, I’d love to see them.

  • In quantity, lesbian transition was largely unheard of until the backlash against feminism rode its Trojan horse-Queer Theory-into academia and then the Lesbian community.
  • Yeah, we’ll ignore the women who lived as men and married women dating back to the early 19th century.

  • A huge phase of feminist backlash is hyper-femininity.
  •  Not until hyper-femininity began reaching new undreamed of heights did dykes begin transitioning in numbers. 
  • As hyper femininity began being hammered upon younger and younger women/girls, Trans Trending among lesbian youth took off.
  • I do not see the thread. Wasn’t there hyper-femininity before feminism? Why isn’t this also due to internalized homophobia?

  • Transitioning children has been rare due to the lack of legal medical grounds to do so.
  • Since the recent publication of the DSM5 which includes transitioning children, the trans kid phenomena has skyrocketed. 
  • “Now that doctors think this treatment might be acceptable, more people are doing it!” What a newspaper this person runs.

  • Trans kids are considered children who do not sport the Gender Straight Jacket.
  • You strung some words together there but it’s a real shame they don’t actually make sense in that arrangement.

  • Trans kids if left alone will grow up in most cases to be healthy gay and lesbian adults.
  • Oh I see, the point of that previous point was to define “trans kids” broadly enough so it encompasses all gender-nonconforming individuals, from homosexual all the way out to trans and genderqueer and whatnot. That way, you can bootstrap this claim, since you’ve already defined “trans kids” to include “kids who never actually identify as trans and are actually gay or bi, but have a non-gender-conforming interest in musicals or softball.”

    Also, note “in most cases.”

  • Homophobic parents are transitioning their children rather than have a gay son or lesbian daughter.
  • Because homophobes are so much more accepting of transgender people. And hormones and surgeries are way less expensive than kicking the kid out or shoving them in the closet.

  • Transitioning children IS an overt attempt to eradicate gays and lesbians in their youth.
  • It’s not doing a very good job.

  • Hormone blockers used to “treat” GI-gender in-congruence in children are dangerous and life threatening.
  • Can I just note the hilarity of that link? It links to another post on Dirt’s blog. Can’t bother to even link an independent article about the drugs. From a cursory look, Lupron’s side effects don’t seem very sinister, and pages for trans youth make the counterpoint that they reduce the need for future surgery and reduce the depression and anxiety associated with gender dysphoria. Of course, that requires you to view transgender people as actual people who can make their own decisions and honestly report their experiences and intentions and motivations, and not as men driven by lust to mutilate their bodies for sexual purposes.

    Ugh, I just realized how that rooted that attitude is in seeing women only as objects of sexual pleasure and not as people.

  • Transition is the ONLY treatment for modern MENTAL illness that barbarically removes or rearranges healthy body parts for its cure.
  • I’d like to see the citation for this one.

  • The GID/GI diagnoses requires the patient be suffering from dysphoria (severe uncomfortableness with the body or how the body is viewed by society).
  • Female fetishizers who make up most transitions NEVER suffer from dysphoria.
  • Well, that omits most of the trans* people I follow online then, because I see them discussing feelings of dysphoria fairly frequently.

  • ALL females suffer from varying degrees of dysphoria.
  • Oh, I see. You’ve broadly redefined “dysphoria” too–or, more accurately, equivocated between “dysphoria” (the opposite of euphoria) and “gender dysphoria,” which is the component of GID diagnosis. Note that Dirt doesn’t link to the Wikipedia page on gender dysphoria, despite liberally linking to Wikipedia in other points. This may be because the opening paragraph states:

    Evidence suggests that people who identify with a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth may do so not just due to psychological or behavioral causes, but also biological ones related to their genetics, the makeup of their brains, or prenatal exposure to hormones.

    Complete with a little superscripted link to an actual peer-reviewed medical journal article on the subject. Curse that evidence, always getting in the way of bigotry and pseudoscience.

  • Yet lesbians remain the prime females receiving transition as a cure for their dysphoria.
  • Children do not suffer from dysphoria, yet those suspected of being gay or lesbian are being labeled trans and transitioned.
  • We’ll ignore all those children cited in your links who experienced gender dysphoria. Also, this.

  • Transition has NEVER cured anyone of their dysphoria.
  • Dysphoria relief from transition is temporary.
  • Dysphoria increases over time post transition.
  • These seem like testable hypotheses. Perhaps it would be good to find and link to studies which evaluated them.

  • Outside of transition, no therapy has been used to ease dysphoria or attempt to cure it.
  • From that Wikipedia article on Gender Identity Disorder again: “Until the 1970s, psychotherapy was the primary treatment for GID. Psychotherapy is any therapeutic interaction that aims to treat a psychological problem. Though some clinicians still use only psychotherapy to treat GID, it is now typically used in addition to biological interventions as treatment for GID.”

    Man, if only Dirt had read that article, they wouldn’t have looked quite so silly.

  • Transition drugs have no serious long term studies and have caused cancer and other complications in trans persons.
  • Considering that “transition drugs” are basically the same hormones prescribed for other types of hormone therapy, this claim is flat-out ludicrous. Yes, there are links between certain hormones and certain kinds of cancer, but not just in trans people (for instance, breast cancer in postmenopausal women undergoing HRT). Some links of note: 1, 2.

  • Once the trans person passes as the opposite sex, there is a perpetual mental fear and stress of being found out.
  • All the troubles that lead the trans person to transition do not magically go away post transition, in fact many more new troubles arise.
  • Certainly none of that is impacted by people believing that transition is done purely for sexual gratification and that trans* organizations are just like NAMBLA.

  • Cis is an organic chemistry term trans persons use misogynistically to attack primarily feminist and separate themselves from non transitioners.
  • “Cis” is a term from chemistry, meaning the opposite of trans (similar to “straight” as the opposite of “queer”). How it’s “misogynistic” is an exercise best left for the reader to decide.

  • Because the trans identity is self created, i.e weak, trans persons cannot fathom critical analysis of any kind.
  • Maybe because the critical analysis is all transphobic pseudoscientific bullshit like what you’ve spewed?

  • No one labeling themselves trans is a feminist.
  • Define “feminist.”

  • The foundation for transition is misogyny, and misogyny is the foundation for homophobia.
  • There’s some truth to the last half of that. But there’s a lot more misogyny in boiling women down to objects of sex and a pair of chromosomes or a particular anatomy than there is in transitioning.

  • Transphobia does not exist.
  • Maybe if you repeat that enough times, it’ll come true.

  • Trans persons attacked or murdered are done so because of homophobia and the foundation of homophobia-misogyny. 
  • I suspect there’s a lot of truth to that, too. But here you are, attacking trans people. Which are you, a homophobe or a misogynist?

  • Transition flourished because female fetishizers for decades have used the gay and lesbian political platform to advance their fetishes and inline with the leaders of the straight white homophobic medical community, hampered and out right destroyed gay and lesbian advancement and lives.
  • Now might be a good time to note the central roles that transwomen like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha Johnson played in the Stonewall Riots and otherwise agitating for LGBT rights. Yep, those “female fetishizers” right there, holding back the gay community.

  • Transition never ends, high dosing of hormones must continue the life of the trans person.
  • This is also true of many non-trans people. Again, talk to a postmenopausal woman or man with low testosterone sometime.

    To feminist reading this, if there is something you feel needs to be added, email or comment me.

    You really ought to add some facts, and remove all the rank bullshit.


    1. Even if we ignore all the complications of biological sex, this leaves a lot of women out of Gia’s category of women: the childless, the infertile, the prepubescent, the post-menopausal, women who have had hysterectomies or infibulations or oophorectomies, or whose sex organs incompletely developed. Gia’s womanhood is an exclusive , essentialist womanhood even before you discuss intersex or trans* conditions.

    2. Of course, given Reimer’s allegations about Money’s abusive treatments, he was probably going to develop complexes regardless. It’s just interesting to watch Dirt try to smear the trans community with Money’s unethical practices when his opinion of gender is the same as Dirt’s. If anyone’s smeared, it’s the “just a social construct” folks.

    The Tendency to See Only What We Want to See

    I’m white, straight, male, able-bodied and cisgendered. While I’ve been in debt (still am, and probably always will be), I’ve never been poor. I have a college education and an underpaying but still middle-class, professional-level job. I live in the United States. I have never known oppression or poverty. I have never been subjected to discrimination on the basis of my race or gender or sexual orientation. The closest I’ve come is a couple of times when I was a teenager, where I was followed around a store by an employee, and in one instance, forced to talk to a manager because of a baseless accusation of vaguely-defined wrongdoing.

    The fact that I was a white teenager meant that such treatment was rare enough that I still remember both instances; the fact that I was a white teenager means that such treatment stopped when I grew older.

    Being a part of the majority means that I can turn it off. All the injustice and discrimination, all the mistreatment and institutionalized bigotry, I can tune it out. It never affects me, at least, not directly. I’m insulated–so insulated that even now, when I try to force myself to see it all, I can only get glimpses and best guesses.

    We talk about imagining what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s a neat metaphor, and one of the most memorable bits of one of my favorite novels, but it’s still just a metaphor. I can try on someone else’s shoes and walk around for a bit, but they’ll never fit me right, and I have the luxury of taking them off and wearing something more comfortable. For minorities? I imagine it’s a bit like having Barbie feet:

    barbie_feet2

    Destined only for heels and wedges.

    Or, perhaps more accurately, bound feet.

    There is only one axis I know of where I fall out of the majority, and that’s religion. I’m an atheist, and I have been for some time now. And since I’ve adopted that label and outlook, I’ve noticed all the little things. All the times I’ve had to bite my tongue at work or at family gatherings or at my own wedding. I’ve panicked about people finding out, and wondered what effects that would have on my life. I’ve noticed all the little ways that my culture legitimizes and benefits religious ideas and people. I’ve seen the assumptions that people blithely make about the religious and nonreligious, the stereotypes and myths they repeat and spread–“you don’t have the right to push your atheism into government and schools” or “if I were an atheist, I’d just rape and murder people” or “aren’t you sad that your life has no meaning” or “what’s the big deal about the Pledge of Allegiance? It’s just tradition.” And I’ve let those slide rather than potentially ending up in arguments or revealing too much about myself. Mostly I’ve seen how blind most people are to all of it, never considering that the Pledge of Allegiance or tax-free churches or “teach the controversy” might be a problem.

    I couldn’t turn that off. It affected me, even if it was mostly because of minor annoyances stacking up over time. And noticing that, noticing that society was structured in ways that inherently privileged religions and the religious, was what got me to start noticing that other groups are privileged in similar ways. And that I belonged to most of those groups. And just as I know how hard it is to get religious people to consider things from my perspective when they’ve absorbed all manner of misinformation from society, I can see how hard it would be for a person of color or woman or trans* person or disabled person or non-heterosexual person to explain to me what it’s like and how it sucks for those little annoyances and injustices to stack up on each other. I know they hear the same kinds of myths and questions–“Black History Month? How come there’s no white history month?” or “what if I go into the girls’ bathroom or locker room and just say I felt trans* for the moment?” or “if I were on welfare, I’d just sit around and have kids too–who wants to work?” or “how can you change the definition of marriage? It’s tradition!”–and I know that those come along with a lot more discrimination and disenfranchisement and danger than I’ve ever felt for being a nonbeliever.

    Which is one of many reasons why it’s so weird to be accused of seeing only what I want to see. Because as a straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered, educated middle-class man, I have the luxury of being able to do just that, if I want. I can tune out the bigotry and the discrimination and believe that the world is a just place. I can believe that equality under the law means that social equality has been achieved, that minorities are just looking for extra rights above and beyond equal treatment, and that the worst injustice one might face now is a single-gender gym or hearing a prayer at a high school football game. I can go about my life assuming that I got where I am because of my own skills and talents, and that affirmative action and social safety nets are just ways of lowering the bar for the inferior and promoting generations of lazy drains on society and criminals. I can trust in the powers that be, secure in my knowledge that even the smallest crime which victimizes me will be treated seriously by the police, and that regulations are burdens on businesses that force them to do things which aren’t popular or profitable–because if they were, the businesses would do them already. I can watch TV and movies and never worry that I’ll be unable to identify with the characters, never worry that every straight white guy on TV will fall into the same stereotypical mold. I can walk home alone at night, or go out drinking and know that the worst consequences I’ll face are a hangover and maybe some crude drawings in Sharpie on my face, and that I’d hardly be blamed for either one happening. If I tuned out all the stuff I’ve begun noticing and reading about over the last several years, the oversimplified, black-and-white, “just world” that in some ways I’m programmed to see.

    But that’s not the world that actually exists. And as a skeptic, I’d rather face a harsh reality than a comforting truth. I don’t want to see people I admired doing terrible things. I don’t want to see people in power abusing that power at the expense of the less powerful. I don’t want to see my bookshelf increasingly clogged with tomes by people I no longer respect. I don’t want to see the ways that I’ve contributed to and benefited from a system that harms people who aren’t like me. I see those those things not out of some perverse wishful thinking, but because they’re real.

    And I wonder about the people who reject complex, ugly reality for facile faith in an oversimplified perception of a just social order, who still call themselves “skeptics.”

    Unskeptical Complaints

    If you’re reading a blog as small as this one, chances are you know about the problem of online harassment of women, trans* people, people of color, LGB people, and other minorities. It’s a problem in just about every subculture with a significant online premise, from the skeptic/atheist community to comic fans to video game nerds to sci-fi/fantasy buffs, and so forth. Different groups are attacking the problem in different ways, but there’s a pretty general understanding among social justice supporters that this is a symptom of larger problems that will only go away if the overall culture changes and the systems of kyriarchy are dismantled. In the meantime, we need to find a way to deal with the trolls, harassers, assholes, and disingenuous arguers that flood various timelines and hashtags. One such stopgap solution is the Atheism+ Block Bot, helmed by Oolon1.

    The Block Bot grew out of various needs in the social justice wing of skepticism/atheism, and the problem of online harassment has grown large enough to garner international attention, which led to a media promotion of The Block Bot on BBC Newsnight. It’s nice to see this issue getting mainstream coverage, and hopefully it’ll lead to more substantial action.

    Skeptic activist Tim Farley took issue with the idea of the Block Bot as a general-usage or all-purpose solution to the problem of online harassment, and there’s a kernel of truth to his complaints. The Block Bot isn’t a perfect solution for everyone, even though it has grown and expanded its scope since its first appearance (I’ve noticed people in the comic fan community using/talking about it, for instance). Most of Farley’s complaints rest on that premise, which is a little like complaining about your toaster because it doesn’t accommodate every kind of baked good. That’s not what it was built for or intended to do. It’s the “Atheism+ Block Bot” for a reason, though the basic principle could be adapted for most groups.

    The issue I had was with his “Problem 5.” That is, his second “Problem 5.” The first “Problem 5” is problematic as well–“blocks have consequences” he says, and I say “so should being an annoying asshole online.” If you’re worried about ending up on a Level 2 or 3 block list, maybe don’t say the kinds of intentionally ignorant, antagonistic, baiting, or bigoted types of things that lead to people wanting to block you en masse.

    Which is where his Problem 5b picks up. Farley takes issue with the point that many of the people on Levels 2 and 3 aren’t “just anonymous trolls that deserve it.” The problem is that his entire objection is built on a mountain of logical fallacies, at least one of which is belied by the example he led off with2.

    The problem isn’t just anonymous trolls. In fact, I suspect it’s rarely strictly anonymous trolls and far more frequently pseudonymous trolls, but that’s pedantry. Anonymity is a convenient shield for trolls and harassers to hide behind, but not everyone feels the need to do so. There are plenty of people on the Block Bot’s lists, and on the various pages documenting this harassment who are perfectly willing to say abusive, offensive, and antagonistic things right next to their real names and faces. Anonymity is a red herring.

    And Farley should know this, since he begins the post by talking about his dealings with Dennis Markuze/David Mabus, who spent decades abusing, harassing, and threatening people on the Internet under a stable pseudonym, and who wasn’t stopped or mollified once his true identity was known. Markuze is a special case, being more prolific, more overtly abusive, and more clearly in need of help than most of the people on the Block Bot’s list, but he’s still a stunning example of how anonymity/pseudonymity is neither necessary nor sufficient for this kind of behavior.

    But Farley’s justification is a stunning example of Skeptics Being Profoundly Unskeptical, which I think I’m going to have to make into a post category for how often I talk about it. Here’s the relevant bit:

    However, just a casual scan down the list of Level 2 and Level 3 blocks reveals people, many of whom I know personally, who are deeply involved in the atheism, skepticism, secularism and humanism movements all around the world. They include:

    • A Research Fellow for a U.S. think-tank who is also deputy editor of a national magazine, and author of numerous books
    • A Consultant for Educational Programs for a U.S. national non-profit
    • A long-time volunteer for the same national non-profit
    • An organizer for a state-level skeptic group in the US
    • A past president of a state-level humanist group in the US
    • A former director of a state-level atheist group in the US
    • An Emmy and Golden Globe award winning comedian
    • A TED Fellow
    • Co-founder of a well known magazine of philosophy and author of several books
    • A philosopher, writer and critic who has authored several books

    These are not anonymous trolls. They are not likely to be arrested anytime soon. Most of these people regularly speak at national conferences to audiences from several hundred to over a thousand people. Starting from the publicly available block list you can click the names to go directly to their Twitter feeds, I see little evidence that these people are attacking, threatening or spamming anyone.

    This would make for a great game of spot the fallacy, wouldn’t it? Farley lists all these qualifications, but none of them are “noted anti-spam crusader” or “longtime anti-bigotry activist,” not that those would be excuses either. See, none of these qualifications are inconsistent with “abusive […] anti-feminists, MRAs, or all-round assholes” or “annoying and irritating”3. It’s possible to be an Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning comedian and also be an annoying asshole who delights in baiting feminists with disingenuous arguments, just as it’s possible to be a Ph.D. biochemist who believes in intelligent design. This is a pro hominem argument, an argument from false authority, that these people’s lofty credentials make them somehow incapable of being bigots, jerks, trolls, abusers, or just antagonistic assholes to specific groups of people.

    The last paragraph there is a doozy of arguments from ignorance and unstated major premises. “I see little evidence” is very different from “there is no evidence,” and the mechanics of Twitter mean that offensive tweets are often lost to the depths of a person’s timeline after a relatively short amount of time. But there’s plenty of evidence that prominent skeptics are capable of being petty, antagonistic, obtuse, bigoted (both in overt and unintended/unconscious ways), and asshole-ish. Some skeptics love poking various hornets nests, some love directing snide comments and thinly-veiled insults at people/groups they disagree with on social media, some keep dredging up sexist/racist/homophobic arguments and tropes time and time again even after hearing repeated responses/debunkings, some hyperbolically respond to the slightest criticisms with howls of NaziCommieStasi witch-hunt inquisitions. Farley’s right, they’re probably not going to be arrested anytime soon, but that’s because being an annoying, antagonistic asshole isn’t a crime.

    The unstated major premises here are that “only anonymous trolls (and certainly not people I consider friends) behave in ways that would merit mass blocking,” which I dealt with above, and “only behavior that is illegal merits mass blocking,” which is the usual response to those complaining about harassment: if it’s not illegal, it’s not really harassment; if it was real harassment, why didn’t you call the police? I’ve responded to this notion, so has Stephanie Zvan, and the fact that Farley is able to spout off with it in such a casual manner shows just how insulated from this stuff he really is.

    There are degrees of harassment. Some of it is criminal, some of it is civil, none of it is pleasant for the target. Blocking someone on Twitter is not a punishment that requires a trial and a sentencing phase. And if you were receiving the same disingenuous arguments, the same JAQing off on Twitter day-in and day-out, you might not see it as all isolated innocent incidents. The dude who wolf-whistles at a woman walking down the street might be just one dude, whistling at just one woman, so that’s clearly not harassment, right? But if it’s the thirtieth time she’s had to roll her eyes at that on her walk to work, it takes a different tone. One guy asking a person of color if they wouldn’t rather wash all the color off and be white, or touching their hair and talking about how much they admire it, might be an act of clueless ignorance, but if it happens over and over, it doesn’t matter to the target that the act is being committed by different people. People get worn down. Why should every person have to deal with each individual ignorant microaggression as if it were the first time they’d experienced it? Why would you begrudge people the option to avoid those microaggressions, even if it’s only in one forum? Don’t other people deserve the same ability to check their Twitter mentions without seeing harassment, insults, slurs, ignorance, and abuse that Tim Farley has?

    The Block Bot is not a perfect solution for everyone. It’s not meant to be. It’s a decent stopgap for the people who are tired of dealing with harassers, abusers, bullies, and assholes. If you think it’s a problem in and of itself, the solution is to change the culture so there are fewer harassers, abusers, bullies, and assholes, not to buy into a set of fallacies that makes you think only anonymous other-people are capable of that behavior, and that being a prominent speaker (or worse, a friend) puts a person above that capacity.


    1. Full disclosure: I don’t use the Block Bot, though I have some of the same people blocked. I do, however, follow the Block Bot and its related Twitter accounts.

    2. Yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition. It’s a myth rule. Get over it It is a thing you should get over.

    3. The actual descriptions of Levels 2 & 3, from here.

    The R Word

    The term “mentally retarded” was coined around 1895. Eventually it became the preferred euphemism to refer to people with various developmental and cognitive disabilities. It was used to replace the then-current clinical terms, which had gained wide use in the general culture as pejoratives. Those earlier terms? “Moron,” “idiot,” and “imbecile.”

    Today, “retarded” is joining those terms, and for the same reason, called the euphemism treadmill. We have something that is perceived negatively by the general public, and so we develop terms to describe it. Those terms eventually take on connotations that denote the generally negative feelings, and so we develop new terms which lack those connotations, and the cycle begins anew.

    And so we have it that “moron,” once a neutral term, is now a common epithet. “Cripple” gave way to “handicapped” gave way to “disabled” gave way to “differently abled,” as each new euphemism took on the negative connotations that caused the rejection of the previous ones.

    I can understand the people on any given side of this issue. There are those clinicians and others trying to develop new terms so as to stay ahead of the pejoration of the previous terms, and that’s fairly necessary in writing academic, judgmentally-neutral papers and reports. There are those who try to reclaim old terms, using them as points of pride or power, which has some limited success. The problem is that words then come to carry two related sets of connotations: when Dan Savage calls one of his writers a “fag,” the result is very different from when a bully does the same thing to a kid on the playground. So the word–at least for a time–becomes taboo for some, or in some contexts, but not always, and that really slows down the “reclaiming,” which is (at least in part) an attempt to strip the word of the oppressive power it has from being taboo. There are those who develop new, more positive euphemisms, which are often subject to even quicker pejoration due to their transparent purpose and their use sardonically–for instance, terms like “handicapable” and the use of the word “special” to refer to those with mental disabilities quickly became dismissively pejorative themselves–to the point where a phrase like “She’s special” can have two very different meanings depending on my tone. This can also create terms with other problems; “African-American” was coined as a euphemism to replace “black,” but the consensus seems to be settling on the latter term, since it is more accurate than the term which suggests that many natural-born citizens are originally from Africa. I suspect this is also a part of why the term “people of color” has experienced some resurgence, probably to replace “ethnic.”

    And then there are those who try to bring clinical terms into common use, using them to escape the same pejoration as the clinicians, but ultimately starting the cycle up again.

    There are some ways to hinder this, I suppose. The more lengthy and multisyllabic and technical a term is, the harder (I think) it becomes to make it into a pejorative. A current preferred term like “developmentally delayed” is unlikely to become a playground insult, but it may still gather that pejorative baggage. Especially since “retard (v.)” means “to delay.” Using a synonym has the obvious danger of making the terms synonymous.

    The problem with all of these positions–developing new euphemisms, reclaiming old ones, etc.–is twofold. First, language is a tricksy thing, evolving in a very similar way to the way organisms do. It’s possible with either to exert some selection pressure, but it’s not entirely clear how language will respond to those pressures. For instance, the term “gay” originally meant “happy” or “carefree,” and gradually adopted sexual connotations (“carefree” turning to “uninhibited.” It became somewhat linked to homosexuality during the life of Oscar Wilde, and became the preferred term by homosexuals during the 20th Century. “Gay” was subtle enough to go under the radar for quite some time, positive, and a better alternative than the more obviously pejorative terms like “queer.” And I’d say it was pretty successfully reclaimed, becoming a point of pride, with the homosexual connotation completely eclipsing the original meaning, and even the more pejorative “sexually uninhibited” connotations of the late 19th century.

    But in the hands of schoolchildren, it has become synonymous with “lame” or “stupid,” due to its association with the perceived negative of homosexuality. “Gay” as a term is now on its second cycle of pejoration.

    I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t try to reclaim words or exercise some control over what words mean and how language changes. I would only caution such people that such change is slow and unpredictable at best, and in many cases eventually leads to new problems analogous to the ones that you’re trying to solve.

    Which brings us to the second prong of the problem: by exerting influence over language: it’s only addressing a symptom of the real problem. The issue of pejoration will occur and the euphemism treadmill will keep spinning until we correct the root of the problem: the social attitude that holds some people to be generally negative or inferior. The reason that we’ve seen the same thing happen to “retarded” that once happened to “moron” isn’t because the words themselves have some kind of power, it’s because people consciously or unconsciously see the developmentally delayed and disabled as less than people. Until people become so familiarized and accepting of their fellow humans with developmental disorders that they no longer see the difference as negative, the cycle will continue.

    Attacking and altering the language we use is a necessary step in these kinds of situations; Richard Dawkins talks about how feminists’ insistence on gender-neutral terminology was a key component of the consciousness-raising aspects of the women’s rights movement. But I think people have a twin tendency to focus on the words more than the attitudes behind them, and to (consciously or unconsciously) blame the problem on the words we use. This ends up making the words taboo, which gives them a power to offend, which only really perpetuates the problem of the connotations which made them taboo in the first place.

    In order to combat prejudice, fear, and hate, you can’t stop at correcting the language of the prejudiced, fearful, and hate-filled. That only creates a class of words that are associated with prejudice and starts off a new set of words down the same path. You have to correct the attitudes alongside the language if you want any kind of lasting change.

    I’d like to see a world where we don’t ascribe greater power to particular arrangements of letters than others, where we don’t use descriptions of differences between individuals as pejorative terms, and where we all accept each other as equals because of those individual differences. I’d like to buy that world a Coke.

    Until then, I suppose we’ll all keep running on this treadmill, naïvely believing that we’re making progress.

    On Labeling

    Mmm...babycakes.I keep running into an issue with labels. It wasn’t long ago that I revised my own from “agnostic” to the more accurate and more useful “agnostic atheist” (in a nutshell, anyway–but this is a topic for a future post). The problem I have is that the relevant parts of my beliefs didn’t change, only what I called myself did. I didn’t have a belief in any gods when I called myself an agnostic, and I don’t have any belief in any gods now that I call myself an atheist. From any objective standpoint, I was an atheist the whole time.

    And this is the substance of the problem: the dissonance between what a person calls himself or herself, and what categories a person objectively falls into. These labels are frequently different, and frequently result in various confusions and complications.

    On one hand, I think we’re inclined to take people at their word with regard to what their personal labels are. It’s a consequence of having so many labels that center around traits that can only be assessed subjectively. I can’t look into another person’s mind to know what they believe or who they’re attracted to or what their political beliefs really are, or even how they define the labels that relate to those arenas. We can only rely on their self-reporting. So, we have little choice but to accept their terminology for themselves.

    But…there are objective definitions for some of these terms, and we can, based on a person’s self-reporting of their beliefs, see that an objectively-defined label–which may or may not be the one they apply to themselves–applies to them.

    I fear I’m being obtuse in my generality, so here’s an example: Carl Sagan described himself as an agnostic. He resisted the term “atheist,” and clearly gave quite a bit of thought to the problem of how you define “god”–obviously, the “god” of Spinoza and Einstein, which is simply a term applied to the laws of the universe, exists, but the interventionist god of the creationists is far less likely. So Sagan professed agnosticism apparently in order to underscore the point that he assessed the question of each god’s existence individually.

    On the other hand, he also seemed to define “atheist” and “agnostic” in unconventional ways–or perhaps in those days before a decent atheist movement, the terms just had different connotations or less specific definitions. Sagan said “An agnostic is somebody who doesn’t believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I’m agnostic,” and “An atheist is someone who knows there is no God.”

    Now, I love Carl, but it seems to me that he’s got the definitions of these terms inside-out. “Agnostic,” as the root implies, has to do with what one claims to know–specifically, it’s used to describe people who claim not to know if there are gods. Atheist, on the other hand, is a stance on belief–specifically the lack of belief in gods.

    So, if we’re to go with the definitions of terms as generally agreed upon, as well as Carl’s own self-reported lack of belief in gods and adherence to the null hypothesis with regard to supernatural god claims, then it’s clear that Carl is an atheist. Certainly an agnostic atheist–one who lacks belief in gods but does not claim to know that there are no gods–but an atheist nonetheless.

    The dilemma with regard to Sagan is relatively easy to resolve; “agnostic” and “atheist” are not mutually exclusive terms, and the term one chooses to emphasize is certainly a matter of personal discretion. In the case of any self-chosen label, the pigeon-holes we voluntarily enter into are almost certainly not all of the pigeon-holes into which we could be placed. I describe myself as an atheist and a skeptic, but it would not be incorrect to call me an agnostic, a pearlist, a secularist, an empiricist, and so forth. What I choose to call myself reflects my priorities and my understanding of the relevant terminology, but it doesn’t necessarily exclude other terms.

    The more difficult problems come when people adopt labels that, by any objective measure, do not fit them, or exclude labels that do. We see Sagan doing the latter in the quote above, eschewing the term “atheist” based on what we’d recognize now as a mistaken definition. The former is perhaps even more common–consider how 9/11 Truthers, Global Warming and AIDS denialists, and Creationists have all attempted to usurp the word “skeptic,” even though none of their methods even approach skepticism.

    The danger with the former is when groups try to co-opt people into their groups who, due to lack of consistent or unambiguous self-reporting (or unambiguous reporting from reliable outside sources), can’t objectively be said to fit into them. We see this when Christians try to claim that the founding fathers were all devout Christian men, ignoring the reams of evidence that many of them were deists or otherwise unorthodox. It’s not just the fundies who do this, though; there was a poster at my college which cited Eleanor Roosevelt and Errol Flynn among its list of famous homosexual and bisexual people, despite there being inconsistent and inconclusive evidence to determine either of their sexualities. The same is true when my fellow atheists attempt to claim Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Paine (among others), despite ambiguity in their self-described beliefs. I think, especially those of us who pride ourselves on reason and evidence, that we must be careful with these labels, lest we become hypocrites or appear sloppy in our application and definition of terms. These terms have value only inasmuch as we use them consistently.

    The matter of people adopting terms which clearly do not apply to them, however, presents a more familiar problem. It seems easy and safe enough to say something like “you call yourself an atheist, yet you say you believe in God. Those can’t both be true,” but situations rarely seem to be so cut-and-dry. Instead, what we end up with are ambiguities and apparent contradictions, and a need to be very accurate and very precise (and very conservative) in our definition of terms. Otherwise, it’s a very short slippery slope to No True Scotsman territory.

    Case in point, the word “Christian.” It’s a term with an ambiguous definition, which (as far as I can tell) cannot be resolved without delving into doctrinal disputes. Even a definition as simple as “a Christian is someone who believes Jesus was the son of God” runs afoul of Trinitarian semantics, where Jesus is not the son, but God himself. A broader definition like, “One who follows the teachings of Jesus” ends up including people who don’t consider themselves Christians (for instance, Ben Franklin, who enumerated Jesus among other historical philosophers) and potentially excluding people who don’t meet the unclear standard of what constitutes “following,” and so forth.

    Which is why there are so many denominations of Christianity who claim that none of the other denominations are “True Christians.” For many Protestants, the definition of “True Christian” excludes all Catholics, and vice versa; and for quite a lot of Christians, the definition of the term excludes Mormons, who are also Bible-believers that accept Jesus’s divinity.

    When we start down the path of denying people the terms that they adopt for themselves, we must be very careful that we do not overstep the bounds of objectivity and strict definitions. Clear contradictions are easy enough to spot and call out; where terms are clearly defined and beliefs or traits are clearly expressed, we may indeed be able to say “you call yourself be bisexual, but you say you’re only attracted to the opposite sex. Those can’t both be true.” But where definitions are less clear, or where the apparent contradictions are more circumstantially represented, objectivity can quickly be thrown out the window.

    I don’t really have a solution for this problem, except that we should recognize that our ability to objectively label people is severely limited by the definitions we ascribe to our labels and the information that our subjects report themselves. So long as we are careful about respecting those boundaries, we should remain well within the guidelines determined by reason and evidence. Any judgments we make and labels we apply should be done as carefully and conservatively as possible.

    My reasons for laying all this out should become clear with my next big post. In the meantime, feel free to add to this discussion in the comments.

    Dear Mr. President,

    Here’s what I did today instead of blogging.

    June 12, 2009

    President Barack Obama
    1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
    Washington, DC 20500

    Dear President Obama,

    I have been a supporter of yours since I could vote. I was a student at Augustana College when you spoke there in 2005, shortly after your election to the Senate. There are things you said in that speech that resonate with me even today, and I hoped even then that you’d turn your intellect and oratorical skills toward the Presidency. When you announced your Presidential candidacy, I was among the thousands rejoicing around the courthouse in Springfield. When you took office in January, I knew it would usher in the amazing changes that you promised over the course of your campaign. The months since have been rocky. I do not envy you your position, trying to save the nation from two mismanaged wars, a faltering economy, collapsing industries, a disgraceful healthcare system, and the threat of a global pandemic. You have done much already to clean up the mistakes of the previous administration and to keep the country afloat despite rough and uncertain waters.

    And over these difficult months, I’ve questioned some of your decisions. I think the nation collectively dodged a bullet when Tom Daschle declined the nomination to head the Department of Health and Human Services, given his history with unproven and often unsafe “alternative” medicine. I’ve wondered why the tax cuts for the wealthy have not been rolled back, why I hear that military tribunals are once again being considered for Guantanamo detainees, and why the government can’t just give some stimulus money directly to the middle class citizens who need it. But through my questioning, I’ve always thought that you had the country’s best interests in mind, and that your actions have been a measured and thoughtful, rather than radical and sweeping, approach to progressive changes.

    But today, I read that your Department of Justice has filed a brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). I realize that this falls well within your repeated statements that you do not support same-sex marriage, but instead support granting marriage protections to same-sex couples under some different name (civil unions). I find that position questionable enough, but I supported you in spite of it—surely, it was better than your predecessor and opponent’s positions on the matter. More recently, you said that you “don’t think it makes sense for the federal government to get in the business of determining what marriage is.” Again, I’d prefer a more proactive stance (and I’m sure your legions of supporters in the GLBT community would as well), but this recent defense of DOMA gives the lie to that noninterventionist position. If the federal government is not in the business of determining what marriage is, then why throw your support behind a federal law which attempts to do precisely that?

    Even that might be forgivable, albeit profoundly hypocritical, were it not for the arguments used in defense of DOMA, which read like hateful right-wing talking points. Your administration compared same-sex marriage to incest and marrying children! That’s one ‘marriage to a pet’ citation away from a Rick Santorum stump speech. Further, the brief argues that same-sex marriage would be prohibitively costly to the country, that DOMA is constitutional in spite of Equal Protection clauses and the Fourteenth Amendment, that homosexuals have the right to marry, as long as they marry people of the opposite sex, and effectively ensures that your administration sees homosexuals as second-class citizens, since they are not “entitled to certain federal benefits.”

    This position, Mr. President, is disgusting, deplorable, and hateful. If the federal government is not in the business of defining marriage, then keep the federal government neutral. Allow DOMA to be overturned, if that is the court’s decision. Don’t engage in doublespeak on this level, claiming to be a friend of gays and lesbians one night and comparing them to statutory rapists another.
    Your previously-affirmed neutrality would be a better option, but still a nonsensical one. I cannot fathom why the right to marriage, a civil institution, would be afforded to some citizens and denied to others. Nor can I fathom how anyone could argue that this denial is not discriminatory. The case against marrying children is based on the matter of consent; children cannot marry because they cannot legally enter into contractual agreements or consent to sexual activity with adults. The case against incestuous marriage is less legally defensible, but can at least be reasonably supported. What is the case against same-sex marriage? Can it be made without falling back on fallacious comparisons to incest or appeals to religion or tradition? And if such a case can be made against same-sex marriage, a case which outlines why two consenting adults should not have the right to enter into a civil marriage contract based on their combination of genders, then why would that same case not apply to civil unions, or any other separate-but-equal rebranding of marriage? If it would be costly or dangerous to allow same-sex couples to marry, then wouldn’t it be equally costly or dangerous to allow them to form civil unions? Why haven’t Massachusetts, Connecticut, or Iowa been undone by those pitfalls? If same-sex marriage would bankrupt the nation, why didn’t it bankrupt California, and why would California not annul the 18,000 marriages which had been conducted during the period of legality? If the financial risk is so great that it warrants the denial of basic civil rights to a minority and the establishment of a second-class citizenry, then why are so many states jumping on the legalization bandwagon?

    I am not homosexual, bisexual, or transgendered myself, Mr. President. My rights are not in any danger, but I am committed to the equal treatment of all persons under the law. I cannot see any reason to deny any consenting adult the right to marry any other consenting adult, and I would hope that a reasonable and intelligent man like you would recognize that the position against same-sex marriage is simply untenable. If it were otherwise, then your administration would not have to resort to defending DOMA with the same logical fallacies peddled by the right wing. It makes me happy to see that other state courts and legislations have recognized the flaws in the anti- equality position, and I feel confident that the vast majority of the United States will recognize same-sex marriage in my lifetime. Progress marches on, as it always has. I only wish you could be leading the parade instead of standing in its way.

    And yes, it’s going in the mail tomorrow. There’s a lot of things I haven’t quite agreed with from this administration, but none of them have caused me to write an actual letter (I did e-mail about Daschle’s appointment as head of Health and Human Services, though). This, however, is utterly outrageous.

    For more outrage, see this and this and this and this and this.


    Update: Well, at least the Bushite rhetoric makes sense, now. Of course, that doesn’t really make it any better.