Undoubtedly you’ve seen the phrase, “assigned male at birth” or “assigned female at birth.” The point is to deny the essential reality of maleness and femaleness — biological sex, that is — and make it a social construct instead.
View It, Then We’ll Analyze It
I want you to see one of the most effective presentations of that mindset I’ve seen. I want you to feel its persuasive force. Then I want to explain why its persuasion is fixed upon imagery and flawed reasoning.
Did you view it? Did it affect your opinion at all? Let’s review what you saw and heard. I said there was flawed reasoning, but let’s not begin there. Reasoning has a lot less to do with persuasion than we might wish it did. Imagery is considerably more powerful, and here we have the moving image of someone who presents in the form of a reasonably attractive woman in several respects, particularly in his hair, made-up eyes and lips, exposed skin, and lack of facial and body hair.
Meanwhile some things about Riley’s appearance are more obviously masculine: the shape of his face, the width of his shoulders (though his hair obscures that), and especially his Adam’s apple. His voice is definitely deep-ish for a woman.
Nevertheless, overall (and especially with so little clothing visible, which you can be sure was intentional) Riley carries himself in a somewhat believably attractive female manner — more so (I would add) in the action of the video than in the considerably less attractive preview picture.
Bucking the Dogma
Of course I know I’m bucking social convention dogma by using the masculine pronoun for him, but I disagree with Riley’s view that maleness is a malleable social construct. I choose to act in accordance with what I believe. He was born male so he is male. That is my conviction.
Do you dislike that? Then you have a choice to make. You could coerce me to into altering my actions to contradict what I believe, or you could force me through social or legal pressure into changing my convictions. Which of those would you want to impose on me, in your efforts to advance “tolerance”?
Or you could do the decent human thing and allow me to act according to my convictions, unless and until I’m persuaded to believe differently. The choice is yours.
Persuasion Theory Says …
But do you see what’s happening now? There are two persuasive dynamics in play now, not just one. Riley comes across as somewhat attractive, whereas I just made a potentially pugnacious statement about trans “dogma” (as I choose to call it). Persuasion theory predicts that you’ll be more inclined to agree with the more attractive presentation, which tilts me toward the losing end, even if I’m right and he’s wrong.
Notice, however, that neither Riley’s appearance nor my pronoun usage has anything to do with the quality of our reasoning. Riley’s appearance is mere image. Imagery is not reasoning. My pronoun choice comes at the conclusion of my reasoning. Conclusions in themselves are not reasoning.
So if you find yourself inclined to agree with Riley on the basis of appearance, or to disagree with me due to my “intolerant” opinion that Riley is still a he, your own conclusions are being thrown off track by the well-studied attractiveness factor. Shake it off! Look for reasoning instead.
Which is what we’ll do now. I hope you’re past the distractions now, and that you’re ready to go there with me.
The Conclusion Is Important
The conclusion Riley wants us to reach is stated at 6:33:
Biological sex has to undergo the same paradigm shift that gender did. We need to start thinking about it as a social construct rather than an inarguable fact. When people say that a transwoman is “biologically male” they use it as a way to attack transpeople. They use it as an excuse to exclude us from bathrooms, locker rooms, and other women’s spaces. It’s just a subtle and more socially acceptable way of discriminating.
I won’t deny the importance of the point he’s trying to make. If “biologically male” belongs inside quotation marks that way — if it’s merely a social construct — then it’s no more real than “gender,” and it’s not suitable as a basis for social policy. So the conclusion is important — except it’s wrong. It certainly doesn’t follow from Riley’s argumentation.
… Except It’s Rationally Flawed
It doesn’t follow because the reasoning is circular. Here is the form of his argument:
- If the way a person is known as male or female is almost exclusively derived through socially observable markers which can be misconstrued and/or altered in their observable appearance, then maleness or femaleness — biological sex — is a social construct in every way, not a real construct in any way.
- A person’s most definitive and least changeable sex markers — chromosomes, gonads, and genitalia — are not socially visible.
- The way a person is known to be male or female is almost exclusively through the kinds of socially visible markers named in (1).
- Maleness or femaleness — an individual’s biological sex — is a social construct in all ways, and not a real construct in any way.
The flaw should be easy to find. Premise 1 assumes the conclusion. It assumes that the social-observability of sex defines sex; which is to say that sex is a social construct, only using different words.
Yep, A Social Construct is a Social Construct
He could have said it quicker and easier: “What others observe to be a person’s biological sex determines that person’s biological sex. Therefore what others observe to be that person’s biological sex is what determines that person’s biological sex. Therefore biological sex is a social construct.” That pretty much covers Riley’s territory. It also places his fallacy in full view.
The contrasting, centuries-old view has been that a person born with a penis is biologically male, and a person born with a vagina is biologically female, and this maleness and femaleness are real. Riley’s counterargument here boils down to, “But that isn’t necessarily how others perceive them in social situations.” I would agree, followed with, “So what?”
The Danger of Persuasively Savvy Deception
The social fact doesn’t overrule the biological fact unless someone stomps his feet and insists that it must do so, and if we then decide to go along with him. Or it might overrule biology if someone does what Riley did: present an argument that persuades people for completely a-rational and irrational reasons, convincing them to agree without resorting to use of either foot-stamping or rational reasoning.
I’ll give him credit for savvy deployment of persuasion theory. The deception is carried off skillfully enough to be dangerous. He will fool many people into thinking he’s making a sound argument. Don’t let yourself be one of them.
Hat tip: Shadow to Light