Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ontology and Gender

Part of this whole kerfuffle was that someone said, in response to the question "Are trans women women?" that they supported trans women politically, but weren't sure about the ontological question.

As someone who doesn't believe in the existence of gender, I am profoundly unsympathetic.

As I've said before, I endorse a form of nominalism, which means I believe in the existence of things, but not categories.  Most of the things we talk about are really categories; for example, this shoe is a collection of particles.  The particles exist, the collection does not.  Most things we talk about don't exist.  Gender doesn't, football doesn't, money doesn't, rocks don't, atoms don't.

The thing about categories is that they're always human-dependent.  If we started to take apart my shoe, the point where we stop calling it a shoe is subjective, and decided pragmatically based on human needs.  If we remove everything but the shoelace, we'd call it a shoelace instead of a shoe, because a shoelace is a part that we can buy separately and replace.  If you remove some other combination of parts of the shoe, we might disagree on whether it's still a shoe because practically speaking we don't have to deal with border cases much and thus haven't come to a consensus about them.  You could say that the shoe is "socially constructed" in that there's a social agreement that this category is the best way to think about how stuff in the universe is arranged.

I think this is a fairly useful philosophy, as it makes me immune to all varieties of essentialism in identity politics.  But the primary disadvantage is that it's hard to translate, and sometimes I may even fool myself with poor translations.  See, I know very well that when people talk about whether gender exists, and whether it's socially constructed, they don't mean it in the same way I do.  They're not asking for my opinions on nominalism.

So while I think most things don't exist, maybe there's another meaning of "exist" under which some things exist and others don't.  Maybe there's another meaning of "social construction" under which some things are social constructions (gender, football, money) but others are not (rocks, atoms).  I don't think I quite understand what meaning is intended, and I doubt its coherence, but okay, I can get a feel for it.  "Social construction" appears to mean that other human societies could reasonably use a different category in its place.

When someone says they don't understand the ontology of gender, and are equivocal about whether trans women are "ontologically" women, I can only understand that in translation, and none of the translations are very nice.

Maybe it's a form of gender essentialism.  They think "woman" is a real category (which is a concept I find incoherent).  Although, they're not sure what this real category includes, and in particular they're not sure whether it includes trans women.

Or... maybe it comes from the belief that gender is a social construction.  They think "woman" is a category that can be reasonably changed.  If so, shouldn't the political question and ontological question be one and the same?  By calling the question ontologically uncertain, they're saying that they're not sure whether the changed category of "woman" should include trans women or not.  Or maybe they think the correct change is to abolish gender entirely despite the harm this would cause.

I find all of these translations deplorable, and you can't really excuse them with philosophical sophistication.  Furthermore, like Heather, I am very skeptical when people suddenly become curious philosophers when it's convenient to waffle about trans people.  If you really wanted to talk about philosophy and not just trying to say something politically, you could start with less contentious topics, like the existence of shoes.