Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The Tallest Short Man & the Shortest Tall Man

A shaky construct

I wrote most of this post some while ago, but concluded I really had nothing to contribute on the subject, and should probably just shut up. Reading it again, it seems more coherent than I had thought at the time and, even if I still have nothing terribly original to say, writing these posts with the awareness and intention that they may be read by others is the best way I have of getting my thoughts in order. I suppose I'm just one of those people who doesn't know what they think until they say it out loud.

So: there was a lot of fuss a while ago about the politics and practicalities of elective identity, or what some might dismiss as the pursuit of wishful thinking. Frankly, I'd never heard of Rachel Dolezal or Caitlyn Jenner before those social media kerfuffles, but the issues their cases raise are interesting and very much of the moment. Attention spans being what they are these days those Twitter storms will have long passed on, but I have a few belated reflections to offer.

When I was an impressionable lad, the two lessons I learned at university from the brightest, most forward-thinking people I knew (which, it has to be said, didn't include any of the actual teaching faculty) were these:

First, in addition to social class, that one of the main enemies of progress is essentialism i.e. the insistence that any person has a "natural" essence which is generally derived from their biology – particularly gender, race, or sexual orientation (though as a short left-handed person I always wanted to add height and handedness...) – which determines who they are and what they are capable of. Those of a conservative, reactionary cast of mind really like essentialism in the same way they really like class, not least because of the way that, put together, they explain and justify the existing order of society, with the "natural" result that the right people (them) come out on top, for all the right "natural" reasons.

Second, that most, if not all, of these so-called essential qualities are actually as much social constructs as social class itself i.e. they have been invented by humans, generally by imposing rigid frameworks of categorisation onto fluid, complex realities. These categories get embedded into a society's way of doing things, generally giving a significant power advantage to one constituency in its relations with all the others. The job of ideology is to disguise this constructedness, and make the categories and power relationships seem, again, "natural" or, even better, invisible. But, being social constructs, they can be changed by society, given the will, generally by some political means aimed at redressing the imbalance. Thus, just as trade unions give workers collective strength in negotiations with employers, so legislation can make discrimination on various grounds not just bad manners but illegal. Impossible?  No!  Ideological...*

Simple! In fact, although these ideas can be (and often are) dressed up in some truly appalling, impenetrable academic jargon, they amount to little more than debating the scope of "nature vs. nurture", which anyone can understand, combined with a fair-minded and democratic rejection of "making generalizations about" or hanging limiting labels on people. Even those people we find odd, baffling, or even distasteful (Conservative voters, for example).

However, a more extreme version of these arguments seems to have evolved in subsequent years, an explosive combination of some Frenchified academic prestidigitation, an assertive politics of identity, and a trans movement which has taken to its extreme logical conclusion the idea that "biology is not destiny". Now, obviously, if the idea of, say, race is really a construct, then we can and should arrange society in such a way that superficial characteristics such as skin colour are never an impediment to equitable treatment. But the new, extreme position goes further. If a category does not exist essentially, then it does not really exist at all: a person's race is nothing more than an arbitrary label imposed on them by society, and thus – in the most controversial version, that reverses this logic – a matter of choice.

Ah. You don't have to be James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates to see that we have a problem here with the dodgy use of words like "real" and "choice". There is a fallacy here. You can no more choose to be white than I can choose to be tall. (Yet, anyway; who knows what consumer choices lie ahead for humanity?) Race and height may be constructed categories, but to grow up black within a white majority society is a real social fact, and is an experience and a heritage that cannot be faked, bought, or appropriated at will. Well, that's not quite true: the long history of white appropriation of black culture is both hypocritical (my, how beautifully you express your oppression by me!) and piratical (gimme!). But, hey, it's what we do best.

But there is an obvious contradiction here. Do races exist, or don't they? I suppose the answer is that they both do and they don't, like any category. Once created, however arbitrary, a category has real-world effects. In a variation of Parkinson's law, consciousness shrinks to fit the boxes it finds itself in. Take height. What if there was a simple medical procedure  – a pill, say – that would transform your physical appearance overnight?  Go to bed short, wake up tall. Yay! But would you then be tall, in anything but a superficial sense? No matter how much you'd always wanted to be tall, or resented the oppression of tall people? Of course you wouldn't. Your entire physical and social being would have been formed as a "short" person. It would take a complete recalibration over many years to acquire the self-image, reflexes, and attitudes – not all of them positive – that go with a significantly different height, even though this is theoretically merely another random point on the same spectrum. How much more complex, then, if a similar pill could transform one from white to black, or black to white?

Which brings us to gender. Cards on the table: I am a straight, white, grey-bearded male who, despite left-libertarian leanings and a complete commitment to gender equality, finds recent developments on the LGBT scene much more challenging than younger folk do. Which is probably exactly as it should be. Men of my generation were brought up by fathers who feared and did their best to eliminate any signs of gender-wobbliness in their sons. We may have gone on to grow our hair long and flirt with androgyny, but – as any woman or homosexual man who grew up in those years will tell you – this had considerably more to do with male peacockery than feminism or gay rights. But I'm afraid my comfort zone was set in those years, and does not include anything that involves piercings, tattoos, elective surgery, ostentatiously transgressive sex, or even rather too much pink. I concede that I am now, sad to say, The Man. But then so are Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel.

But life, lived properly, is not all about comfort zones. I also happen to have a good friend in the States with a trans-gender child, whom I met last summer for the first time in 15 years, and who had recently undergone gender reassignment. The levels of courage and commitment involved in that – not to mention self-knowledge and sheer, determined optimism  – are not to be dismissed lightly. There is nothing frivolous about it. I was impressed, and felt my ready-made opinions shifting.

Sure, everything I have written above still applies. I just don't know how a wannabe trans-gendered male can ever really identify as a woman, for example, without first having been brought up as a girl; my sympathy is with those feminists of my generation who resent and resist the self-declaration of former "men" as "women", only to find themselves "no platformed" at universities by virtue-signalling zealots. So much for sisterhood! But here we are adrift in that liminal territory where "identity" and "essence" and "biology" and "social construct" and "ideology" all overlap confusingly. And it's hard for us older folks to understand why gender fluidity has become a chosen battleground for so many young people who are, presumably, personally unaffected by the issues. Although I suppose it's not so very different from all the privately-educated radicals from wealthy families agitating for proletarian revolution in our day.

Besides, it's really none of my business. In the end it is the realities we make for ourselves and our contribution to what we might grandly call the Human Project that really matter. My life has been straightforward: pretty much every step along the way has been signposted, approved, supported, and rewarded. Even allowing for my class origins, my height, my handedness, my introversion, my lack of interest in sports, and a certain indefinable arty oddness, as a straight white male I have only rarely felt the sting of rejection or systematic exclusion simply because of who or what I am. Others will have had quite the opposite experience in their lives, whether because of race, gender, disability, or some acute internal hurt or confusion that does not yet have a name. Why on earth should my comfort zone take precedence over theirs, and why would I feel entitled to sit in judgement over them, simply because of who and what I am?

Though I have to say that I'm still not comfortable around those Conservative voters. Especially the tall ones. What is their problem?

A male spectrum, plus outlier...

* Sorry, but I will never tire of that idiotic joke.


amolitor said...

There are some peculiar fringes in the trans community (to the extent of demanding that medical professionals treat the biologically male aspiring woman as a woman which strikes me as the height of madness).

But I am pretty sure, based on no evidence except a broad experience of humans, that the majority of transgender people recognize perhaps with a depressed sigh, that they are something a little different. Not quite something "new" because after all they have always been about. I assume, again based on no evidence, that most trans people muddle along as best they can, taking what joy they find and trying not to step on too many toes along the way.

Mike C. said...

I'm sure you're right (based on no more evidence, etc.), although it is curious to me that sexuality and gender have taken front stage with the young folk like this in recent times. You'd have thought there were more urgent problems to address. It must surely be an expression of some deeper issue in society that "to identify as" X, Y or Z has even become a thing.

Easy to mock, though, more difficult to understand! As I say, my view was changed, somewhat, by meeting my old friend's daughter-turned-son. I rebel at anyone choosing their own pronoun, though, especially if it's "they".


Chris Rusbridge said...

A very nice essay, Mike, ad well worth posting. And darn it, the essay's gone away when I get to the comment box!

Couple of things I remember. I spent 20 years plus living in Australia, through the 70s into the 90s. As you might expect given its appalling past, the treatment of Aborigines was a big issue. I don't think they were entitles to vote or recognised as citizens until well into the last century! So there was naturally a continuous and public struggle as to how to deal fairly with the community and the problems that had grown up. But it always seemed odd to me that the most vocal, self-identified Aborigines were to me visually indistinguishable from the rest of the (very mixed) Australian population. I don't think this was only because there were benefits accessible to Aborigines that weren't available to the rest of the population, either. (And I've been away long enough not to be certain that I'm using socially acceptable terms here, but no offence meant.) Anyway, it led me to be suspicious of the categorisation of those labels.

Secondly, I did meet, and work with over an extended period, a person who changed gender while I knew him/her. Nigel became Nicky. He had a wife and children before the transformation (and lived in Northern Ireland); not sure how long any of those relationships lasted afterwards. One thing that did become clear; you need an inner core of steel to undertake it and live with it, but the emotional cost was very high. It's also certainly not easy for those around, although it was handled very well as far as I could see. It would be interesting to ask her what she felt about that period.

But thinking about the attitudes of my father and his father compared to my own, it's not surprising we're facing these apparently weird issues. No doubt my son and his son will face equally troubling but even more bizarre issues later in their lives. Thankfully we may never know what these are!

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Chris, for these thoughtful comments.

I had a similar reflection to your 2nd para while watching a programme about the "first nation" tribes of the Canadian and American Northwest. The tribal spokesfolk looked distinctly European, especially compared to 19th century photographs of their ancestors (who actually looked oddly Japanese). Well, they don't call it the "missionary position" for nothing, I suppose...

My father was very liberal in his attitudes for a man born in 1918, but had a horror of "effeminacy" that went very deep, and had no doubt been inculcated by his own father, going on back through history. The ch-ch-changes we have gone through since 1960 are astonishing, when you step back and look at them.


Martyn Cornell said...

As the father of a left-hander ...

Mike C. said...


Treasure that child's specialness!


Carl Weese said...

I have some direct experience with an aspect of this. Until nearly sixteen (that was 1965) I was among the smallest, shortest boys in my classes. While sixteen year olds certainly aren't adults, I think we establish a great deal of our personalities by then, like in my case, having decided to pursue photography. Then I grew nearly a foot in a few horrendous months, landing in the hospital with arrhythmia. It took months of exercise and voracious eating to grow into my new 6'4" height. Part of my psychological makeup remains short, not tall. Once in a while I encounter someone who is clearly jealous of my height or assumes I must be proud or vain about it, and this attitude just amazes me, partly because I don't quite fully identify with being tall. The new growth actually forced me to relearn important aspects of my approach to photography because I'd suddenly become conspicuous.

So I think it is unlikely that someone raised as one gender can, by sheer force of will and surgery, fully become something else. Perhaps when someone identifies as a trans-woman or man that's being acknowledged. I know that after more than fifty years of being tall, I've never completely lost the sense of being "one of the little kids."

Mike C. said...


That's very interesting, thanks for the comment. I've heard similar things from kids who were overweight when young, and then lost it in late adolescence; inside, they were always a "fat kid". Funnily (?) enough, something very similar happened to three of my classmates at school. We'd all been at the small end of the class spectrum, then those three suddenly shot up to six foot or over (not quite in months, but relatively fast) -- one of them requiring Achilles tendon surgery, while I barely achieved 5' 6"... It always seemed rather unfair, but you have added a new perspective. Maybe this is why I have remained such an all-round balanced person...