Saturday, July 4, 2015

Bigotry: A Pathogenic Meme

Two weeks ago my wife was upset by a post claiming transgenderism is nothing more than a meme. Given that I've had some conflict with my own family on this topic, I've avoided tackling the article, waiting these two weeks to even read the piece. I figured it would be riddled with logical errors and it turns out it is. Also to little surprise is that it is riddled with bigotry. What I failed to expect, but should have, where tricks, for lack of a better word, to make one's claim seem more certain than they actually are.

Perhaps I should start with these tricks. Mainly, this is about the author boasting about how they care about "reality" and/or "truth" and then proceeding to make dubious claims. What concerns me about this is I worry that readers may become less skeptical about the claims being made. If the author cares about reality/truth so much, then certainly the claims they are making are likely to be true, right?

Wrong. It could well be the case that the author is arrogant. They are so sure of themselves that they twist facts, perhaps unconsciously, to fit their conclusion. As I read this post, I see signs of potential arrogance. McHugh brings up an analogy to The Emperor's New Clothes and then states, "I am ever trying to be the boy among the bystanders who points to what’s real. I do so not only because truth matters, but also because overlooked amid the hoopla—enhanced now by Bruce Jenner’s celebrity and Annie Leibovitz’s photography—stand many victims." He doesn't directly say this, but this analogy would imply that everyone knows that transgenderism isn't real, but people just won't say so. Now not only am I going to be even more skeptical of his claims, but I'm finding this guy to be a bit of an asshole.

It is of little surprise that, after he says all of this, he makes perhaps the most critical claim in the entire article:
The most thorough follow-up of sex-reassigned people—extending over thirty years and conducted in Sweden, where the culture is strongly supportive of the transgendered—documents their lifelong mental unrest. (Emphasis mine.)

This is a big claim for those who follow psychological views regarding transgenderism. The American Psychological Association, for example, states, "Many other obstacles may lead to distress, including a lack of acceptance within society, direct or indirect experiences with discrimination, or assault." McHugh is suggesting that this is incorrect; social acceptance is not, in fact, a factor. McHugh, then, is dismissing these alternative explanations through this claim.

My friend who indirectly brought this article to my attention had quoted Christopher Hitchens in a comment on the article. Well, there is another Hitchens' quote that is appropriate for this situation: "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." McHugh, as one can note, did not provide any evidence for this claim. No, instead, he had spent the previous three paragraphs setting himself up as a bearer of truth. On top of this, he perhaps expects us to have a view of Sweden as being a country that is more accepting than ours. While I would agree with such a sentiment, is Sweden as accepting as McHugh claims? And, remember, we can't just look at Sweden today, but we have to look at it in the time-frame of this study he cites, which started back in 1973. Given that he provided no evidence to back this claim, I would have to, as per Hitchens' Razor as quoted, dismiss the claim.

In addition to this, there was a similar claim made earlier in the article that I had overlooked upon my first reading:
Publicity...has promoted the idea that one’s biological sex is a choice, leading to widespread cultural acceptance of the concept. And, that idea, quickly accepted in the 1980s...

Hold on...what?!? Gay rights are only now just becoming accepted (as in like only the past 5 years). Transgender rights are most certainly not to the same level of acceptance. Additionally, as my wife had noted in a Facebook comment on this article, those who are intersex have been, and still are, struggling for acceptance. In other words, this claim is just utter bullshit! Or, as McHugh might say, "nakedly false." If he is so delusional to believe transgenderism was accepted here, in the United States, in the 1980's, there is no way I can take his similar claim about Sweden seriously without evidence.

Getting back on topic, much of this article is riddled with claims that McHugh fails to back up. About the only claim he does back up is about this study that he cites from Sweden regarding a 20% increase in suicide rates amongst sex-reassigned transgendered individuals. I did my due diligence and followed that link. What I noted is that remarks made in the link don't fully match up with what McHugh says in his article. According to McHugh, "Ten to fifteen years after surgical reassignment, the suicide rate of those who had undergone sex-reassignment surgery rose to twenty times that of comparable peers." There are a few issues with this statement. For one, what is a "comparable peer"? Is it someone who claims to be transgender but does not undergo sex-reassignment surgery? From what is written in the study, it would seem the answer is "No." The conclusion states, "Persons with transsexualism, after sex reassignment, have considerably higher risks for mortality, suicidal behaviour, and psychiatric morbidity than the general population." The emphasis there is mine. So this comparison is not against other transgender individual. Given that McHugh fails to back up his claim about Sweden being "strongly supportive," this claim is unimpressive.

Additionally, the authors of the study do not appear to agree with McHugh's position. As they state, "Our findings suggest that sex reassignment, although alleviating gender dysphoria, may not suffice as treatment for transsexualism, and should inspire improved psychiatric and somatic care after sex reassignment for this patient group." Once again, the emphasis here is mine. They note that the sex reassignment has benefits. This should raise the question of why would this be if, as McHugh claims, transgenderism is "nakedly false"?

McHugh also makes misleading claims. At one point he states, "Although much is made of a rare “intersex” individual, no evidence supports the claim that people such as Bruce Jenner have a biological source for their transgender assumptions." Even if this were true, this does not support his conclusion. Absence of evidence, in this case, is not evidence of absence. Meaning, just because people have not been able to find such evidence does not mean such evidence does not exist. It could be the case that we just have not found such evidence yet.

In addition to that error, the claim is actually largely false. While I can agree that no evidence has been found for a specific source, it is incorrect to say that no evidence exists. As an article from Nature states, "Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of [Disorder of Sex Development]." This does not seem rare to me. The article continues:
New technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions. “I think there's much greater diversity within male or female, and there is certainly an area of overlap where some people can't easily define themselves within the binary structure,” says John Achermann, who studies sex development and endocrinology at University College London's Institute of Child Health.

I'd add to this that, according to PZ Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota - Morris, in regards to said Nature argument, "My only quibble would be with that “now”. You’d have to define “now” as a window of time that encompasses the entirety of my training and work in developmental biology, and I’m getting to be kind of an old guy. Differences in sex development (DSDs) are common knowledge, and rather routine."

I'll repeat: DSDs are routine, not rare (though I will note that not all DSDs would be labeled as intersex conditions). It would seem, then, that McHugh is rather ignorant about biology. But even if DSDs were rare, there are implications that McHugh does not bother addressing. As he said, "much is made of a rare “intersex” individual." There is a reason for that. (By the way, what is up with his use of quotations around the word "intersex"?) Take my wife as an example. She has complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS). Essentially, she has an XY chromosome pair, but her cells are unable to respond to androgens, so she developed a female body. But what effect does that have on her brain? This is a question McHugh needs to address, but does not. Does McHugh think my wife has mental issues because she identifies as female though she has XY chromosomes? Does McHugh think androgens are responsible for why someone has a "male" brain?

Actually, thinking about this question myself, this is a hugely important question. I note that McHugh does not actually make clear what he thinks makes a man a man and a woman a woman. He merely speaks of "biological sex" but does not define this phrase. This is not only problematic, but hypocritical given his objection to there supposedly being "no evidence" for a biological source for transgenderism. What is his evidence for a biological source for gender? XY chromosome? Then he needs to explain how intersex people fit into his model; he can't be dismissing them as "rare." As I said, there is a reason why intersex individuals are brought into these discussions; they do not fit into the binary model of sexuality, which should be a clue to people like McHugh that there model may be wrong.

As I had said to my friend, if someone makes the claim that all swans are white and I then show them a black (or, really, any non-white color would do) swan, it is illogical for that person to stick to their claim. The claim has been falsified; they need to back down from the claim. The same holds true here. If the claim is that all people with an XY chromosome are male, then those questions I raised above need to be addressed. This, though, may actually explain why McHugh does not clearly define what he means by "biological sex." It's hard to falsify a non-specific claim.

In the end, I find McHugh to just be a bigot. He doesn't actually make a good case for his position. Rather, his case seems to be largely based on cultural ideas around sex, which is why I find that it is actually McHugh who is victim to "a pathogenic meme."

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