“Biological Sex Is Just a Social Construct” — Savvy Persuasion But Wrong Reasoning

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:

  1. 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.
  2. A person’s most definitive and least changeable sex markers — chromosomes, gonads, and genitalia — are not socially visible.
    Therefore,
  3. The way a person is known to be male or female is almost exclusively through the kinds of socially visible markers named in (1).
    Therefore,
  4. 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

Comments

  1. Skep

    Also:
    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.

    It’s not “merely” a social construct. Social constructs are just as real as biological organs, they’re just different things. You might be tempted to argue that they’re not just as real, because social constructs can be changed and biological realities can’t be, but you’re wrong – it’s a biological reality that polar bears exist, but we could easily change that (in this example, by killing all the polar bears).

    It’s also not the case, as you imply, that social constructs are not suitable as a basis for social policy. Look at money, for example – it’s “only” real in the sense that everyone in society agrees that it can be exchanged for goods and services. Money is a social construct, and yet we have all kinds of monetary policy that I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to get rid of.

    EDIT: wait, where did my first comment go?

  2. Post
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    Tom Gilson

    I don’t know what happened to your first comment. It wasn’t in spam or in moderation. As for this one:

    Who said social constructs are unsuitable as a basis for social policy? My point has nothing to do with that. My point is that if a thing has a reality in itself that is not socially constructed, then calling it a social construct is wrong thinking.

    And I do have a problem with basing social policy on wrong thinking.

  3. Skep

    Here is my first comment again:

    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.

    In what sense are they real? Do you think that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are ontological categories? I don’t; it seems to me pretty obvious that they’re biological categories. And here’s the thing: biology isn’t inherently immutable. The only thing stopping us from changing even someone’s chromosomes is our current level of technology. If we get to the point where we can change everything about our bodies, even our chromosomes, will you change your mind regarding trans people and sex? If not, then why do you think that one’s biology at birth is a limiting factor for the way people choose to actualize themselves, rather than the other way around? In other words, what’s so bad about changing the body to fit the mind?

    Now I know I’m bucking social convention dogma by using the masculine pronoun, but I disagree with Riley’s conclusions about maleness being a malleable social construct, and I’m going to act in accordance with my beliefs.

    You’re not just “bucking social convention” here. Yes, you’re saying things that you believe are true, things that some people disagree with. But the things that you believe are true, when stated in this manner, often cause great emotional distress to the people your beliefs are about. Even if it is the case that trans people are all horribly mistaken about their sexes and genders in a purely factual sense (they’re not), this is like going around telling children that santa claus doesn’t exist. (for the record, the only thing I’m comparing here is the effects – I don’t think that trans people are immature or like children in any way).

    Maybe you don’t care about whether you’re causing great emotional distress. But maybe you should.

  4. Skep

    Tom, did you set up filters so that comments with certain words don’t just go to moderation, but get deleted outright? I think that’s what is happening – in my original comment, I quoted part of your article in which you use terms for genitalia.

    EDIT: now it says the repost is awaiting moderation (comment 3). Your site is so weird 😛

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  6. Post
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    Tom Gilson

    Do you think that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are ontological categories? I don’t; it seems to me pretty obvious that they’re biological categories

    They are both.

    If we get to the point where we can change everything about our bodies, even our chromosomes, will you change your mind regarding trans people and sex?

    If that happened I might say (maybe — I’d have to think about it further) that the person who was once really male is now female. The changeability of a real thing (a “substance,” to use philosophically technical language) does not imply that the substance is not real.

    ? If not, then why do you think that one’s biology at birth is a limiting factor for the way people choose to actualize themselves, rather than the other way around? In other words, what’s so bad about changing the body to fit the mind?

    Now you’re raising a different topic. I have opinions on that but I didn’t bring them up here. I was talking about the error in reasoning by which Riley has tried to convince us that biological sex is a social construct.

    But the things that you believe are true, when stated in this manner, often cause great emotional distress to the people your beliefs are about.

    Oh, Skep, I know that. I am certainly not out to cause distress. I don’t like it any more than you do. Yet I am also convinced that believing and acting upon falsehoods is wrong, and that truth is characteristic of a loving and good God, and in the end therefore truth is better for humans than that which is not true.

    It’s hard, it’s painful, and I know it better than you realize. But I cannot alter my convictions about truth until I am given better reasons than this to show me that I am wrong.

  7. Skep

    Tom #2:
    Who said social constructs are unsuitable as a basis for social policy? You did. Again, you said: 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.

    IfX
    ThenY and Z

    You literally said “IF ‘biologically male’…is a social construct, THEN…it’s not suitable as a basis for social policy.”

  8. Skep

    Tom #6:

    Do you also think that ‘brunette’ and ‘redhead’ are ontological categories?

    Do your convictions about truth apply across the board? If a child asked you whether santa claus is real, would you tell the truth? What if someone on their deathbed asked you whether they’re going to make a full medical recovery? What if nazis knock on your door looking for a jewish family you’re hiding in your basement?

  9. Post
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    Tom Gilson

    Skep @8: Do you really want to get into a completely technical discussion on the difference between substance and property?

    Do you want a completely nuanced and fully worked out ethical theory with respect to truth-telling and all its possible applications? I could recommend a couple of long books for you to read. In the meantime, it would be premature for you to suppose that I’m thinking in black-and-white terms, or that these things can’t be discussed in any terms other than the black-and-white extremes you’re offering here.

    If your purpose is to get me to change my mind, you will have difficulty doing so by asking questions like these. They demonstrate that truth-telling may have different implications in different contexts. There are rare and exceptional circumstances where it’s best not to reveal the full truth. Granted. I don’t think this is one of them.

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  11. Skep

    #9:
    I’m asking you the questions I did in #8 in order to try and get a handle on your stance regarding ontology and ethics. With respect to the second paragraph, I’m especially interested in your ethical praxis; it’s easy for someone to say something like “I’m a rule-utilitarian”, but that doesn’t say much about what someone would actually do. My questions were real-world questions about what you would actually do if you found yourself in those situations, not questions about theory.

    #10:
    Let’s assume for the sake of argument that ‘biologically male’ is a social construct. if that’s the case, then presumably you think that ‘biologically male’ is not suitable as a basis for social policy, and the reason it’s not suitable is becauseit’s a social construct.

    Maybe that’s not what you meant, but that is what you said. If you don’t agree with the above statement, then you should rephrase what you said, because I can only read your words, not your mind.

  12. Post
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    Tom Gilson

    #10 Try this: if biologically male were a social construct then it would not make sense to talk about “biologically male,” because it wouldn’t be any more real than the putative social construct of gender.

    Then try this for both #9 and #10: relax. What I think about this doesn’t really matter that much to you, does it? Suffice it to say for #10 that there are some extremely rare circumstances in which telling a falsehood is worth it for the sake of heading off some extreme disaster. I don’t think this is one of them. Calling someone a pronoun they don’t like has costs, but so does propagating falsehoods about sex and gender. (I think you’re probably completely insensitive to those costs, speaking of people being insensitive — you’ve never verbalized a thing to indicate you care.) The balance of costs does not tip toward telling falsehoods.

  13. Richard Wype

    I appreciate what you’re trying to do with this article, but “his” reasoning was not that persuasive. People have known the truth about this issue literally for as long as there has been human life. Just like how the media seemed to be poised to have a dispositive effect on the 2016 election, but failed, they also will probably fail to convince most Americans that biological sex is just another social construct.

    Personally, I would like to see people stop reacting to mainstream sources of news and propaganda as if they meant anything. Treat them the same way you would treat a dishonest, petulant child to whom you have no relation: ignore them.

  14. Rob

    Two things spring to mind after a quick read thru the comments.

    First is the existence or non existence of the soul/spirit/mind. If these things are fictional and don’t really exist, then we are indeed just moist robots whose chromosomes could in principle be changed from one gender to another, or even to completely different genders. Furthermore, if our identity is ultimately a purely physical thing (e.g. atoms in peculiar arrangements) then we are surely forced by our programming and the laws of nature to think certain thoughts which may be that our gender is really x, y or z.

    On the other hand, if the soul/spirit/mind really exists, then it is surely tied to the body, and therefore my second point.

    My second point is “proper function”. If we are purely materialistic atoms-in-motion beings, then proper function really makes no sense because we ultimately have no end goal or purpose. We just are and we dance to our pre-programmed software and hardware. However, if proper function does exist, because we are purposefully made and have free will (connected to the existence of the soul/sirit/mind) then having a mindful belief that one is male when one’s biology is female is obviously improper function, and arguably a mental or soul/spiritual disorder.

  15. Post
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    Tom Gilson

    Those are very helpful thoughts, Rob. Your “if” conditionals make all the difference, as I’m sure you know. There are plenty of people who would say no to both of them. This is a discussion that can’t be settled without going down into much deeper topics.

    In the meantime, though (and now I’m answering Richard Wype more than Rob), messages like Riley’s can be very persuasive, and have proven effective in other areas like gay marriage and the overall acceptability of homosexuality. They’re not simply going to go away. Even if they did, in the meantime we have young people — even Christian young people — being influenced by them today. What’s obviously wrong to you is not obviously wrong to everyone.

    These messages do mean something: they mean that biological sex is a purely social construct. The fact that these messages are false doesn’t mean that they’re meaningless, it means that they’re misleading people.

    Someone needs to tell them these influences are spurious and they don’t need to be taken in by them. I’m only able to do a small part of that, but I’m doing what I can.

  16. Travis Wakeman

    I think that the “what if we could change the chromosomes too” aspect of the argument to be interesting- because it forces the discussion to confront the true nature of the debate. This is where I think that a good working understanding of platonic forms is essential. The possession of a male or female nature is an inalienable aspect of the individual which neither mental conditioning, nor surgery (even if it included the changing of every individual’s DNA) cannot change.

    The crux of the debate seems to be over whether or not platonic forms exist, and if they do whether or not maleness or femaleness are platonic forms that are inexorably part of the individual.

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