There’s been a lot of public talk about “identity” lately, stimulated by high-profile cases of transsexuality (notably the athlete now named Caitlyn Jenner) and transracialism (Rachel Dolezal). It needs to be said: most of the talk, on all sides of these disputes, has been obvious nonsense – utter drivel that should not have survived five minutes of thought.
I thought we had reached the limit of absurdity with the flap over Rebecca Tuvel’s paper In Defense of Transracialism, about which it can only be said that while Tuvel seems marginally less insane than her attackers, everyone involved in that dispute has obviously been huffing unicorn farts for so long that oxygen no longer reaches their brains in appreciable quantities.
But that’s in a corner of academia where one rather expects postmodernism to have shut down rational thought. In its own way, the following statement in an exudation of mainstream journalism is much sillier, and has finally pushed me into writing on the topic. I quote it not because it’s a unique error but because it’s representative of a very common category mistake.
Thus should there be a weighty presumption against so blocking people, against subordinating them by substituting our judgments about their identity for their own.
This would seem to be a rather uncontroversial point, based on ordinary liberal arguments in favor of tolerance and respect for the dignity of others.
Ah, yes. So, what then would be amiss if I stood up in a public place and claimed to be the Queen of England? Who are you to substitute your judgment about my identity for my own?
There would actually be two different kinds of things wrong with this claim. One is that I can’t grant peerages – the people who administer the English honors system wouldn’t recognize my authority. The other is that the claim to be “Queen” (as opposed, to, say, “Prince-Consort”) implies an observably false claim that I am biologically female.
These criticisms imply a theory of “identity” that is actually coherent and useful. Here it is:
Your “identity” is a set of predictive claims you assert about yourself, mostly (though not entirely) about what kinds of transactions other people can expect to engage in with you.
As an example of an exception to “mostly”, the claim “I am white” implies that I sunburn easily. But usually, an “identity” claim implies the ability and willingness to meet behavioral expectations held by other people. For example, if I describe my “identity” as “male, American, computer programmer, libertarian” I am in effect making an offer that others can expect me to need to shave daily, salute the Stars and Stripes, sling code, and argue for the Non-Aggression Principle as an ethical fundamental.
Thus, identity claims can be false (not cashed out in observed behavior) or fraudulent (intended to deceive). You don’t get to choose your identity; you get to make an offer and it’s up to others whether or not to accept.
There was a very silly news story recently about “Claire”, a transsexual “girl” with a penis who complains that she is rejected by straight guys for ‘having male parts’. Er, how was “she” expecting anything different? By trying to get dates with heterosexual teenage boys using a female presentation, she was making an offer that there is about her person the sort of sexual parts said boys want to play with. Since “she” does not in fact have a vagina, this offer was fraudulent and there’s no wonder the boys rejected it.
More to the point, why is this “girl” treated as anything but a mental case? Leaving aside the entire question of how real transgenderism is as a neuropsychological phenomenon, “she” clearly suffers from a pretty serious disconnect with observable reality. In particular, those delusions about teenage boys…
I can anticipate several objections to this transactional account of identity. One is that is cruel and illiberal to reject an offer of “I claim identity X” if the person claiming feels that identity strongly enough. This is essentially the position of those journalists from The Hill.
To which I can only reply: you can feel an identity as a programmer as strongly as you want, but if you can’t either already sling code or are visibly working hard on repairing that deficiency, you simply don’t make the nut. Cruelty doesn’t enter into this; if I assent to your claim I assist your self-deceit, and if I repeat it I assist you in misleading or defrauding others.
It is pretty easy to see how this same analysis applies to “misgendering” people with the “wrong” pronouns. People who use the term “misgender” generally follow up with claims about the subject’s autonomy and feelings. Which is well enough, but such considerations do not justify being complicit in the deceit of others any more than they do with respect to “I am a programmer”.
A related objection is that I have stolen the concept of “identity” by transactionalizing it. That is, true “identity” is necessarily grounded not in public performance but private feelings – you are what you feel, and it’s somehow the responsibility of the rest of the world to keep up.
But…if I’m a delusional psychotic who feels I’m Napoleon, is it the world’s responsibility to keep up? If I, an overweight clumsy shortish white guy, feel that I’m a tall agile black guy under the skin, are you obligated to choose me to play basketball? Or, instead, are you justified in predicting that I can’t jump?
You can’t base “identity” on a person’s private self-beliefs and expect sane behavior to emerge any more than you can invite everyone to speak private languages and expect communication to happen.
Racial identity is fuzzier than gender identity becuse, leaving aside “white men can’t jump”, it’s at first sight more difficult to tie it to a performance claim. Also, people who are genetically interracial are far more common than physical intersexes. Although this may mean less than you think; it turns out that peoples’ self-ascribed race correlates very accurately with race-associated genetic markers.
Nevertheless, here’s a very simple performance claim that solves the problem: if you are a man or woman who claims racial identity X, and I do too, and we were to marry, can we expect our children to claim racial identity X and, without extraordinary attempts at deceit, be believed?
This test neatly disposes of Rachel Dolezal – it explains not just why most blacks think she’s a fraud but why she’s an actual fraud. To apply it, we don’t even have to adhere to an “essentialist” notion of what race is. But the test becomes stronger if we note that (see link above) a genetic essentialist notion of race is probably justified by the facts. Among other applications, genetic racial identity turns out to matter for medical diagnosticians in assessing vulnerability to various diseases – for example, if you are black but claim to be white, your doctor may seriously underweight the possibility that you have hypertension.
As a culture, we got to the crazy place we’re at now by privileging feelings over facts. The whole mess around “identity” is only one example of this. It’s time to say this plainly: people who privilege feelings over facts are not sane, and the facts always win in the end. Though, unfortunately, often not before the insanity has inflicted a great deal of unnecessary suffering.