Guest post: Belief in word-magic

Originally a comment by Bjarte Foshaug on Teaching about sexual and reproductive anatomy.

Belief in word-magic is certainly alive and well in the 21st century. In my militant atheist days I frequently ran into some version of the following “argument” (this is going to be pretty philosophically sophisticated, so you better be ready):

1. The word “God” refers to X (X = Life, the Universe and Everything etc.).

2. X exists.

3. Therefore the word “God” refers to something that exists.

Of course by the time we arrived at 3, Life, the Universe and Everything had invariably mutated into a supernatural, intelligent creator of the universe who, by the way, was the father of Jesus, had authored the Bible etc. After all, we had already established that something called “God” existed, and the biblical Yaweh was indeed something called “God”. Never mind that this rather obvious redefinition directly contradicted 1, thus invalidating the argument that got us to 3 in the first place.

But this idea that you can take whatever’s applicable to X and make it applicable to Y by renaming Y as X is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine how modern ideological newspeak could possibly go on without it. We see the same thing with “free will” and pretty much anything to do with “gender”. As I have previously written it’s a bit like arguing that clubs for hitting baseballs (let’s call them “bats₁”) can fly because Chiroptera (let’s call them “bats₂”) can fly. After all Chiroptera prove that things called “bats” can fly, and clubs for hitting baseballs are indeed things called “bats”.

There is a major difference between talking about a specific (kind of) thing whatever you prefer to call it, and talking about whatever it is that people call “[insert name here]”. E.g. in the case of bats₂ we’re referring to a specific order of mammals that just happens (in this particular context and for this particular purpose) to be called “bats”. They share certain anatomical and genetic features as well as a common evolutionary ancestor that they don’t share with any non-bats₂ etc. The fact that people in the English speaking world happen to call them “bats” rests on an arbitrary cultural convention and doesn’t say anything about the actual animals themselves, therefore “Fledermaus”, “chauve-souris” etc. are neither more nor less “correct” ways of referring to them. If English speakers collectively decided to start calling them “abts” or “tabs”, they would still be talking about the same creatures. And, conversely, no amount of (re)labeling other things (clubs for hitting baseballs etc.) as “bats” can turn them into instances of the kind of thing we are talking about, or even make them relevant to our topic. If you change the definition of “bats”, then a statement like “bats can fly” no longer applies. If, on the other hand, we’re referring to whatever it is that someone happens to call “bats”, then all those bets are off, and it’s hard to see how any non-circular/non-trivial statement can be generally true, or even meaningful, on the subject.

Almost all of modern gender apologetics seems to boil down to statements of this latter kind. As far as I’m concerned, being “female₁” means something like having physical traits more representative of egg-producers than sperm-producers within one’s particular species, a “woman₁” is a female₁ human being, the word “gender₁ itself refers to a difference in the way women₁ and men₁ (i.e. people with physical traits more representative of sperm-producers than egg-producers) are viewed/treated in a society, and “feminism₁” is a movement that seeks to end the discrimination of women₁ based on such gender₁ differences.

In the vocabulary of gender apologists, on the other hand, being “female₂” generally means something like thinking or feeling about oneself in ways X,Y,Z etc., a “woman₂” is any person who qualifies as a female₂ (i.e. who does indeed think/feel in ways X,Y,Z etc.), regardless of physical traits, the word “gender₂” refers to a perfectly real and vitally important difference in way people think/feel about themselves, and “feminism₂” is a movement that seeks to end discrimination against “women₂” by validating all genders₂.

However, since there are no clearly identifiable “ways X,Y,Z…” of thinking/feeling that are common to all who call themselves “women” while being distinct from the way those who call themselves “men” think/feel, they might as well say that the definition of “female₂”/”woman₂” is whatever it is that people call “female”/”woman”. As I have previously pointed out, gender apologists are also faced with the awkward fact that there is no way of specifying “ways X,Y,Z…” without – that’s right – excluding [insert scary music] anyone who fails to think or feel the required ways about themselves, thus depriving them of a much cherished stick for beating up “TERFs” and “SWERFs” (who are supposedly alone in the exclusion business).

As I have commented on elsewhere, the real problem arises when some people insist on acting as if we were still all talking about the same thing and demand to have it both ways. One example that strikes me as particularly revealing is the demand that women₂ be allowed to compete in sporting events that are reserved for women₁ specifically to make up for biological differences. Why women₂ would need separate sporting events from men₂ (i.e. people who think/feel about themselves in the unspecified ways P,Q,R… rather than the equally unspecified ways X,Y,Z…) is unclear to say the least. And even if one managed to come up with a reason, it would no longer be true that women₁ were automatically qualified to compete, and we would need some kind of screening process to make sure that only people who really did think/feel the required ways about themselves were allowed to participate.

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