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adept42 comments on Changing Emotions - Less Wrong

21 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 January 2009 12:05AM

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Comment author: adept42 05 January 2009 04:49:20AM 10 points [-]

You seem premising this post on the idea that gendered behavior is hard-wired into the brain at birth, and I think it would be a good to take a second look at that assumption; after all the name of this site is "Overcoming Bias" isn't it? Your premise is such a common belief in our society that it's easy to overlook, and very few cisgender people (those with the same gender identity as the one assigned them at birth) ever think to question it. However, it's important to acknowledge that there are two different sets of sex/gender traits we observe in different ways: the biologically observable sex of someone's body, and the social set of behaviors associated with each gender; most transgender people like me use "sex" to refer to biological traits and "gender" to refer to social behaviors. There is some evidence that biology can impact some social behaviors we associate with the two genders, but there's nothing close to a complete picture how you go from microcosmic biology to macrocosmic actions. Therefore, since we can only observe gendered behaviors through social interaction the presumption should be each behavior has a social origin; biology carries the burden of proof to prove otherwise on a case-by-case basis.

I'm MTF (post-op, for what it's worth) and my experience has been that gender identity works like any other social identity; it's nothing more or less than a way you want to see yourself and be seen by others. I couldn't explain to you why being a woman works for me and being a man doesn't, but we don't expect anyone else shifting their identity to justify themselves that way. An analogy I like to use is someone changing their religion; we take them at their word when they say a different way of seeing themselves and their place in the world just seems more true to them. However, our society is much less tolerant of people like me who don't want to live with the gender identity assigned us at birth because it conflates sex and gender; in a better world, transgender people wouldn't have to change our physical sex for our gender to be accepted.

Well intentioned and intelligent people can disagree in the "nature vs nurture" debate on gender; it's been a contentious issue in feminist and LGBT theory for at least half a century. However, I would hope you realize the danger of assuming all gendered traits are "hard wired" into the brain; amongst other problems, that can support the idea that the much greater incidence of men committing acts of violence is "natural male aggression" that we can't ever eliminate.

Finally, I'd like to ask a question posed to me by one of my law school professors: "Have you ever dreamed you were a different species, a different race, or a different gender?" In our class, as in every other one where he's taken this survey, far more people said they'd dreamed of being an animal than dreamed of a different race or gender. Why should this happen since being an animal is so much farther removed from our life experience? The answer he proposed is that we work hard to construct a mental barrier defining our gender and racial identities; we never have to try to be human, and so it's easier to let ourselves play with dropping that identity. I don't mean to suggest that we can really sympathize with animals, but I do think we understand what it means to be a different gender or race more than we'd like to admit.