The Power of words

by Miroslav Imbrišević


In the Old Testament, we read: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” God could make things happen by saying the appropriate words. We also read in the Bible: “In the beginning was the Word.” The idea that words have power is still with us. Take superstition: actors don’t want to utter the title of “The Scottish Play” inside a theatre, because it may lead to disaster. Even today, my mother (aged 87) curses “bad” people who cross her. She condemns them (in her native Croatian) to eternal punishment in Hell: “Be damned, and damned again!” In some cultures, words have magical powers, like spells. The anthropologist S.J. Tambiah tells us: “In Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism the view has been strictly held that in religious ceremonies the sacred words recited should be in the language of the authorized sacred texts.”

I was reminded of the power of the word when I read a post on a philosophy notice board: “I identify as a French philosopher.” The funny thing is that this young thinker actually is French and does teach philosophy at a university. They don’t identify into these categories, nor need they.

But nowadays, to “identify as X” seems to mean “I am X,” rather than “I feel a strong affinity to this group, although I really don’t’ belong.” There are usually strict conditions that have to be met (e.g. having a French passport, a French mother, a PhD or having taught philosophy) if you want to say, “I am X” (e.g. a French philosopher).  [2] If you merely identify as X, in the old sense, a strong affinity with this group is all that is meant and all that is required.

So, when these (mostly young) people say, “I identify as X,” they don’t mean “I feel close to this group, although, strictly speaking, I don’t belong.” Instead, they are saying: “I am a member of this group.” If I have correctly grasped this shift in meaning, then ‘I am X’ and ‘I identify as X’ are supposed to be equivalent.

Instead of saying “I am a Catholic,” I could say “I identify as a Catholic.” As a result, the original meaning of ‘identify as’ gets lost. Somebody who feels close to Catholicism, but who was baptized in the Anglican Church, cannot use this expression anymore. They would have to paraphrase: “I have a close affinity with the Catholic Church, although I am not a Catholic.”

Perhaps this shift in meaning has something to do with identity politics? It isn’t enough to be something or somebody, you also have to identify as this, that or the other.

We encounter this new language in many contexts. More and more people nowadays identify as disabled. [3] But note that if you are not disabled you cannot identify as such. You cannot claim membership. Black people also use the phrase: “I identify as a black member of the BAME community.” [4] Again, strict membership conditions apply, and if you are white and identify as a person of color, you will be called a fraud.

There is an interesting variation in the context of disability. There are people who don’t see themselves as disabled, but at some point in their lives realize that they are or are diagnosed as such. Then they would say, “I identify as disabled.” [5]

So it appears that I am on the right track, and you have to meet certain conditions (actually being X) in order to use the expression “I identify as X,” just as in the claim: “I am X” (a French philosopher). Merely feeling a strong affinity with a group is insufficient for actual membership.

Things are different with people who suffer from gender-dysphoria, which I would argue is a misnomer and really should be called “sex-dysphoria.” A biological woman may say, “I identify as a man,” but, strictly speaking, she doesn’t meet the criteria for being a man. After all, before transitioning, she was a woman. And the same goes for men, suffering from sex-dysphoria. I suspect that in this context, for a long time, people used the phrase ‘identify as’ in the original sense, i.e., “I know I don’t belong, but I feel a strong affinity with group X.” [6]

As the idea that everything is socially constructed took hold in academia and percolated into society (and not just gender, but also sex), some trans people started to use “I am X” and “I identify as X” synonymously. The social construction of concepts suggests that the strict conditions of membership (for group X) don’t always apply. Some concepts which used to be tethered to a material reality and to the accompanying conditions of membership for a class (e.g. biology for the class ‘woman’) could be detached from that material reality. Recall the slogan: “Transwomen are women.” In order to be a woman you don’t need to be born with a female-sexed body.

Note that there is something different between the existential claims of disabled people or people of color, and the claims made by some trans people. Although everything is socially constructed, for the former groups the strict conditions (and the material reality) for being disabled or a person of color do apply, just as they do for philosophers and French people. For this reason, floating the idea of trans-racialism will get you into trouble, as Rebecca Tuvel learned. The same goes for trans-disability. But, for some trans people, these strict conditions no longer apply. I am puzzled by this.

Perhaps different conditions of membership apply for transmen and transwomen when they say, “I identify as…”? Perhaps it is their gender identity which constitutes the condition of membership? Many deny that there is such a thing as gender identity, but even if there is, the conditions of membership for transwomen and transmen (gender identity) would differ from those for women and men (biology). One could ask why that is. If transwomen are women (and transmen are men), then the membership conditions should be the same.

Furthermore, if we think this through, the gender identity claim reduces to this: “I feel a strong affinity with the opposite sex, and I would like to belong to this group.” This is actually what sex-dysphoria means. So we are back at the original meaning of ‘to identify as X’, and the notion that gender identity might be a sufficient condition of membership in the class ‘woman’ (or ‘man’) dissolves.

As always in philosophy, things are a bit more complicated than this. We need to distinguish between first-person claims and third-person claims. Trans-friendly institutions and organizations use the phrase ‘identify as’ to distinguish one set of people (within a class) from another.

The Sheffield Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre advertises positions which are only open to women, but this includes self-identifying women (i.e. transwomen). The Centre distinguishes between women (i.e. adult human females) and self-identifying women. [7]

Smith College is an educational institution for women. On their website we read: “Are trans women eligible for admission to Smith? Yes. We welcome applicants who identify as women, including those who were assigned male at birth.” For Smith College, the new criterion for being a woman is gender identity, not biology. Trans men, who were “assigned female” at birth are not eligible. Smith would probably agree that ‘identifying as a woman’ is the same as ‘being a woman’. But if their literature said, “we welcome all women,” this would not make it sufficiently clear that they include transwomen. For this reason they use the phrase ‘identify as’. It is supposed to include biological women as well as transwomen. So sometimes ‘to identify as’ is used as an inclusion marker.

The strange thing is that the College doesn’t see that their trans inclusion policy excludes all those (biological) women who reject the concept of ‘gender identity’: those females who don’t identify as women, but in their own view simply are women. In other words, Smith has adopted a new condition of membership for the class ‘women’, which might not apply to all women.

A charity in the UK advertises for a job: “As an equal opportunities employer, we particularly welcome applications from people who identify as women and / or LGBTQ+, and / or are from Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.” Note that the groups in the first part identify as X but the groups in the second part are X. Interestingly, when women or LGBTQ+ people identify as X, then they are what they claim to be, but this charity doesn’t believe that you can identify as BAME. You actually have to be BAME.

This makes things very tricky. Sometimes ‘people who identify as X’ means ‘people who are X’ (especially in the trans context), but in the BAME context this charity insists that you have to be X, rather than identify as X. They assume that in the BAME context ‘identify as’ has the original meaning, but in the trans context it doesn’t. This shift in meaning, depending on the context, can be confusing. But it supports my thesis that the material conditions for membership remain stable for the disabled and for BAME people, whereas for trans people they have been detached from material reality and replaced by self-ID.

So when it comes to membership of the class ‘women’ (or ‘men’) we are dealing with two competing conditions for membership: the standard/traditional one (biology) and a new one (gender identity). But, as I have indicated, the latter is based on a sleight of hand. The idea that gender identity now constitutes one of the strict condition of membership (for the class ‘woman’) is mistaken. Transwomen who claim that their gender identity is that of a woman (“I identify as a woman”) are saying that they feel a strong affinity with women. Their mistake is to think that this constitutes a sufficient condition for membership in the relevant class. They assume that their belief in a particular gender identity and asserting “I identify as a woman” makes them into a woman; i.e. delivers membership to the class. [8] It is a modern variation of St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument. And as is the case with that argument, the obvious objection is that the fact that something exists in the mind of a particular individual (identifying as a woman) does not entail anything about what exists in reality.

Looking at the disability and BAME contexts illustrates that the conditions of membership don’t change, even if you say, “I identify as X.” The only thing that has changed is the language. You may say now, ‘I identify as disabled’, but it means “I am disabled.”

The linguistic practice in the context of disability and race is revealing. Here, there is no equivalent to gender identity that would allow people (who don’t belong) to assert that they do belong after all, by thinking or saying, “I identify as X.” When it comes to disability and race, there is wide agreement that strict conditions of membership apply, and merely asserting a particular identity not only will not be accepted, but people will be offended. The actual members of these classes do recognize such a sleight of hand when they see it and resist it. [9]

Perhaps there is another explanation why some people think that identifying as X will deliver membership. Trans activists and their allies might believe in the divine power of the word: Saying it and saying it often will make it so. The problem is that so long as there are other language users, especially women, who insist that you have to meet certain criteria, tethered to material reality, if you want to belong to the class ‘women’, the word will not become flesh, and the power of words will have an influence on some minds but not others. [10]


[1] I have changed the nationality to spare that colleague unnecessary attention.

[2] The conditions for being a philosopher are not as strict as the conditions for being a citizen of a particular country. In philosophy, all of this really started with Kant (whose philosophy, by the way, was very strict). He wrote a PhD thesis in Latin, and he held an academic position. In ancient times you could just hang out at the agora and ask people annoying questions, and that could make you into a philosopher.

[3] This is not the same as suffering from Body Integrity Identity Disorder: where people may want to have a limb amputated or wish they were blind. If they succeed, then they really are disabled.

[4] Black and Minority Ethnic.

[5] See the interviews here.

[6] Many transpeople recognize that they cannot change sex. When they state that they identify as a woman or man, they mean it in the original sense of “having a strong affinity with X.” Increasingly, however, activists shun people for such views.

[7] In contrast, the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre wrote on Twitter: ‘We are looking for self-identifying women to join our amazing helpline’. For them all women (whether biological or trans) are self-identifying.

[8] This only works with concepts that are vague (because there is no link to material reality) and which have no clear-cut conditions of membership or where such conditions have not been formulated. According to the University of Essex, ‘pangender’ “refers to a gender identity whereby a person identifies with a multitude, and perhaps infinite (going beyond the current knowledge of genders) number of genders.” It would be difficult to impossible to determine the membership conditions for ‘pangender’.

[9] Robin Dembroff, to their credit, realizes that transracialism is a threat to gender ideology and recently has tried to describe a substantive difference between transgenderism and transracialism: “Unlike gender inequality, racial inequality primarily accumulates across generations. Transracial identification undermines collective reckoning with that injustice.” This is unconvincing, however, as there is a long history of accumulated injustice against women, perpetrated by men (aka “the patriarchy”).

[10] Debating these issues is often characterized as “violence,” not just metaphorically, but literally. This lends credence to the “magical power of words” explanation.


37 responses to “The Power of words”

  1. s. wallerstein

    There are hundreds or maybe thousands of different categories that I belong to or am.

    I’m 5 ft 10 inches tall, I’m male, I’m introverted, I’m 74 years old, I’m a U.S. citizen, I’m a Chilean resident, I’m heterosexual, I’m Jewish, I’m a leftist, I’m a contrarian, I’m a vegetarian, I’m an early riser, and on and on.

    Some of that information is generally required on official documents and that is arbitrary in many ways. Why do they ask me for my age and not my personality type? Why don’t they ask me if I’m a vegetarian or not?

    Anyway, out of those hundreds of catgories which I belong to, I identify with some. That is, when I consciously define myself to others, I define myself as Jewish, as introverted, as contrarian, but not as a U.S. citizen. I’m not trying to hide the fact that I’m a U.S. citizen: my nationality simply does not matter to me. I have no loyalty to or sense of belonging to any nation. I don’t define myself as male either, although I’m not trans. When I think about who I am or talk about that to others, my sex or gender just isn’t an issue.

    In no way, do I deny the observable facts, that I’m male, that I have a U.S. passport, that I’m an early riser, they simply are not part of the way I see myself. Thus, they are not part of my identity as I use the term.

    As our world becomes more and more complex and globalized, there are going to be more and more categories socially available for each one of us to identify with. Most of us are going to pick some that are on the menu and not pick others, which does not imply that we deny those others.

  2. Charles Justice

    Sexual identity seems to be a far more powerful kind of identity than national, etc., but now with the transgender phenomenon it has made the boundaries between gender less clear and more ambiguous. People who cross-dress and or who consistently identify with the opposite sex exist in all cultures. In some cultures, such as Plains Indians, they even had a special status. In modern cultures transgender seems more like a consumer fad – one can choose which gender to belong to by undergoing the appropriate medical procedures. It definitely seems like a choice, whereas we have come to accept homosexuality and heterosexuality as something we are born into. It seems one is either attracted to the opposite sex or one is not, and same for attraction to same sex. Although the category of bisexuality, to some extent, brings it back to a question of choice. And the homosexual lifestyle – being openly gay, as opposed to staying in the closet – is definitely a matter of choice. (although staying in the closet really means pretending to be heterosexual, and deceiving significant others, such as prospective marriage partners and one’s children, as well as family of origin) I find it disorienting dealing with trans people, and I’m sure others feel the same way. I hope after the dust settles that, as with the Plains Indians, there is some class of special roles that trans people can become attached to, so that they don’t become a focus of abuse.

  3. Psychotherapists tell us that sex-dysphoria usually manifests early on in childhood (from 3-4 years). Now we have an explosion of people during puberty, especially girls, who think they are trans. The referral of girls to GIDS (Gender Identity Clinics) in England rose from 32 [2009-10] to 1740 [2018-19] in a 10 year period. See also the interview with Dr. Korte: This rise in numbers needs investigation. I agree with your last sentiment: there is no place for abuse.

  4. Miroslav

    As usual I will avoid commenting on the sex/gender question other than stating that I agree with the general thrust of what you are saying here. Just a couple of points on semantics which may (or may not) complement your analysis.

    You make a distinction between “I identify as …” and “I am…” and give a specific interpretation of the former.

    I think the expression “I identify as …” can be usefully compared with the expression, “I see myself as …”, which is simply a statement about how one sees oneself (via introspection). You are not necessarily making claims about the literal truth or plausibility of the identification. Nor is it necessarily a claim which you wish to make public in a general sense. You are simply sharing a confidence. “I identify as …”, by contrast, suggests a *public* commitment. It is, as you suggest, often political.

    The expression, “I identify as …”, has various possible meanings. I am suggesting that it could plausibly be interpreted as being equivalent to: “I identify *publicly* as …” The expression could also be taken to have a further connotation, namely that I am not reluctantly but rather *enthusiastically* embracing the identification. It would then mean in effect: “I am happy (or proud or whatever) to identify publicly as …”. These formulations could be taken as statements of fact concerning my inner states and desires regarding both how I see myself and how I wish to be perceived. They could also (on other interpretations) incorporate performative elements, not in the usual mundane sense of performative utterance but something more dubious and metaphysical, relating to the “magical” power of words and thoughts to which you allude.

  5. Nicolas

    “ The strange thing is that the College doesn’t see that their trans inclusion policy excludes all those (biological) women who reject the concept of ‘gender identity’: those females who don’t identify as women, but in their own view simply are women. In other words, Smith has adopted a new condition of membership for the class ‘women’, which might not apply to all women.”

    This is transparently fallacious. It’s obvious they are stating a sufficient condition (identifying as a woman) not a necessary one. Being a woman in your sense, whatever that means, is also sufficient.

  6. It may be peripheral to the main point, but it seems to me that there is some linguistic confusion in this post (and even in the two previous comments) – ironically enough, given the title! I don’t think “identifying as” carries the meaning of “having a strong affinity with”. What does carry this meaning is the slightly different “identifying with”. If I identify with a person, a group, or even a situation, I can mean either that I have a strong affinity with (the person or group) or can appreciate (the situation). Identifying as, on the other hand, carries a more definite sense of identity, as in phrases of the kind “The police have identified the victim as …”.

  7. I think it’s a little trickier than this and depends a lot on how seriously those who advance this sort of thing mean it.

    If, for example, a FtM “trans-man” is *literally* a man, then obviously he has no place in a women’s college. And there are plenty of activists and “allies” who insist that such identity statements *should* be taken literally.

  8. Nicolas

    If they identify as a man why would they want to be in a women’s only college? Seems like a total red herring to me.

  9. “Trans activists and their allies might believe in the divine power of the word …”

    If the expression “I identify as a woman” means and does what they claim it means and does, they have achieved that age-old dream of mankind: the victory of mind over matter (or in this case, biology).

    It’s interesting that it’s not done to say “I am BAME”. Race and ethnicity are in my opinion to a much higher degree social constructs than sex. To give an example: in the US there’s a category called “hispanics” that doesn’t exist where I live. Everybody I know would call these people “white”.

    Apparently it’s easier for the mind to claim victory over matter, than over social constructs.

  10. Thank you Simon, it would be interesting to consult various dictionaries. MacMillan doesn’t quite give us what you claim. – but other dictionaries might.

  11. Thank you Mark! I do like the ‘publicly’ distinction – I think you’re on the right track.

  12. I think you have missed the point: ‘We welcome applicants who identify as women, including those who were assigned male at birth.’ Smith’s definition of ‘woman’ includes transwomen (‘those who were assigned male at birth’). But the overarching criterion for both groups, women and transwomen, is that they ‘identify as women’; this is the necessary condition. So if you are a biological woman, who rejects self-identifying as a woman (many gender critical women do), then you are not a woman, according to Smith. I would like to be present when they interview a prospective candidate you says: ‘I don’t *identify* as a woman – I *am* a woman.’

  13. Not a red-herring at all. The question is whether the effort to reconceive single-sex provisions in terms of gender is coherent or whether it entails absurdities. Goes directly to the question of the coherence of the base conceptions.

  14. Nicolas

    No case of this sort is likely to arise in the real world. It’s patently false that Smith requires that women identify as women in the specifically narrow sense you’ve unilaterally stipulated. You’re making up problems that don’t exist. The only question is whether Smith should accept trans women. I fail to see why they should not and you’re not going to convince me by pretending that this would somehow entail excluding some women. That’s just false.

  15. Nicolas

    Present a realistic hypothetical case, interpreting the policy charitably, where such absurdities would follow. The set of excluded people and the set of people who would consider applying have no overlap.

    Clearly our imaginations diverge on this. I’m sorry I’m not seeing the issue but I’m reading a lot of words purporting to describe a problem that is neither here nor there.

  16. Interesting article – thank you! I liked this statement: “I wish I hadn’t bought into this idea that if you’re saying ‘woman,’ you’re excluding everybody else,” she says. “There are enough people out there who think women’s space is not only unappealing but wrong. There are enough people out there hating on the idea of women seeking community with one another. We don’t need to dismantle women’s space ourselves.”

  17. Guess we don’t see eye to eye on this. I will press on, however, as I think the matter is of great importance. It will determine whether single sex provisions will survive in the future, and I think it is essential that they do.

  18. You still don’t get it. I go by what it says on their website. Such a case (the interview) may very well arise and I bet this candidate would be rejected as ‘transphobic’. I don’t care whether they accept transwomen or not; this essay is about the conditions for class membership.

  19. Nicolas

    Oh I get it. I just think you’re wrong. Your stipulated linguistic distinctions don’t carry any weight in the real world cases at hand. The idea that Smith would ask a female born woman applying as a woman if she identifies as a woman during an interview is pure fantasy.

  20. Nicolas

    Fine. We don’t have to see eye to eye. We also don’t have to stoke more fears than needed. But let’s leave it at that.

  21. I agree with Miroslav. Despite your claiming to get the point, this reply demonstrates that you don’t. It doesn’t matter what people ask or say. The issue is this: *If* we define women in terms of gender identification and mean it literally, does it *entail* that transmen aren’t women and therefore should not be eligible to attend women’s colleges? Of course Smith can be inconsistent and violate its own stated policies. But the issue is the coherence — and rightness — of those policies.

  22. No one is stoking fears. Those of us who are concerned about women’s hard-won prerogatives and rights are alarmed at the pace at which they are being dismantled.

  23. Nicolas, you prove my point. In my example they don’t *ask* her (you made that up), she *declares* it.

  24. Thank you Miroslav. So confident was I that I didn’t even check a dictionary! Looking at Macmillan, the primary definitions are:

    ‘to feel that you can understand and share someone else’s feelings’

    ‘to understand someone’s character or thinking’

    Now I understand that to be something like ‘have a strong affinity with’, but others may disagree. In any case, I don’t think ‘identify as’ gets you those meanings. This is how Macmillan defines ‘identify as’:

    ‘to say that you belong to a particular group or category; to describe yourself as belonging to that group or category’.

  25. I agree with the view that self-declared identity is something less than actual identity. Especially, one can’t impose obligations on others merely on the grounds that I think I am an X and I say I am an X and X’s have such-and-such rights, so I have those rights.

    Nevertheless, lots of philosophers seem committed to the opposite view, namely that authenticity is the basis of ethics and authenticity comes from one’s sense of self-identity. Bernard Williams (often discussed here) may be such a case. The relevance of Williams to transgenderism is discussed in this interesting article.


  26. Simon, you are right, to ‘identify with’ is more common and would have been the obvious choice. But ‘identify as’ gives you a stronger association – but not membership, as I would argue. Interestingly, the earliest example from the Oxford English Dictionary (online) is from 1975, whereas ‘identify with’ goes back centuries. I find the 1998 example interesting. Other dictionaries often give examples from the transgender context, which would confirm that this use is very recent.

    OED identify, v.
    2 d. intransitive. With as. To consider or describe oneself as belonging to a particular category or group of people.

    1975 R. Green in Arch. Sexual Behavior 4 339 If designated female and raised as female, the child will identify as female.
    1987 H. I. Safa in L. Mullings Cities U.S. xi. 261 They identified as working class and came out of a classic working-class tradition.
    1998 Stud. Amer. Indian Lit. 10 22 As is consistent with his alternative gender identity, James William identifies as female.
    2008 Tucson (Arizona) Citizen (Electronic ed.) b2 I’ve identified as a Democrat all my life until this Congress.
    2015 P. Lenihan et al. in C. Richards & M. J. Barker Palgrave Handbk. Psychol. Sexuality & Gender viii. 132 For trans people.., identifying as asexual can sidestep binary, cisgendered prejudice against their sexuality

  27. Thank you for the link Alan. The paper does explain the urgency people feel when they experience sex-dysphoria. It also supports the view that we need to be careful about the claims by teenagers (see Dr. Korte’s video). How much authenticity (Eigentlichkeit) is there? On the one hand teenagers are searching for an identity and they are often confused, on the other hand, they assert absolute certainty (“We love each other, and we are getting married.”). That’s why the High Court in London ruled that it is unlikely that they understand the long-term consequences of taking puberty blockers. But I wouldn’t dispute McCloskey’s claim to authenticity.

  28. zeusboredom

    “This makes things very tricky” — I think that line encapsulates most things that involve humans.

    I was confused through the first nine paragraphs by what I though was very weak reasoning, and then I realized it was about the naughty bits and so understood the gyrations.

    Let me address those paragraphs first. What is said in the Old Testament, or by superstitious actors or mothers, is not something to build any argument upon. Making linguistic arguments is also not a great foundation. Language is beautiful in that a French academic can be Utilitarian and an English academic can be an Existentialist, and use language to express those concepts clearly that are counter to what they passport says. That is the beauty of language and the difficultly of basing arguments on usage.

    Likewise there are some real category errors occurring in comparing “identifying” as a Catholic, black, a French Philosopher, female, etc. There is such a mix of cultural, linguistic and actual claims in every term in that list, that there is support both pro and con for any rhetorical position. I could argue that there are the same tiny percentage of Catholics, blacks, French Philosophers, and females who fail the authors arguments.

    My problem is that there are genuine human concerns here. Mr. Kaufman’s questions about “whether single sex provisions will survive in the future” and “women’s hard-won prerogatives and rights” are important. Likewise, we have fellow humans who, for reasons we may not understand, do not “identify” as the sex/gender that was ascribed at birth. Their human right to be who they are is also important. The tricky part is the very human negotiation of this stuff in various very human circumstances — the results of which may be messy and seemingly contradictory.

  29. When they directly conflict, the human concerns of 50% of the population outweigh the concerns of less than 1% of the population every time. Again *when they directly conflict*, as they do here.

  30. zeusboredom

    I don’t disagree with you on the relative weights of the concerns or that they are in conflict. And yet there will eventually be very human compromises in both directions. There are often concerns of a tiny percent of the population for which some compromise is made.

    If my specific critiques of the article had a point, it was that poor arguments like these do not help move things forward — as they will inevitably move.

  31. Thank you for the opportunity to make things even clearer. The first paragraph, about the power of words, is merely a playful intro to draw the reader in. But this theme frames the essay, because I end with the power of words in the last paragraph. This framing is a literary/rhetorical device. Unfortunately such writing is nowadays frowned upon in academic papers, because editors/reviewers love uniformity and censor any literary ambitions and style. Originally my last line contained a beautify metaphor: ‘the word will not become flesh, and the magical power of words will only *envelop some minds*, but not others.’ [Alas, the editor has the last *word*.] There is no argument in the first paragraph, but it links to the last paragraph, where I present a classic counter to the ontological proof.

    You are talking about stereotypes. Of course, an English academic doesn’t need to be a utilitatrian and a French philosopher doesn’t need to be an existentialist [interestingly, gender critical feminists claim that many trans people cling to gender stereotypes]. It’s not about stereotypes, it’s about membership conditions for a class: someone who claims to be an English academic has to be ‘English’ and has to be an ‘academic’. These categories are tethered to material reality.

    ‘Making linguistic arguments is also not a great foundation.’ I don’t agree. Language is important, because we use it to make claims about us and the world. I don’t think you have grasped my argument. Here is the gist of it: Many concepts are tethered to a material reality (being a philosopher, French, disabled, BAME, etc). You cannot ‘identify’ into these categories, because strict membership conditions apply. Many people claim that being a woman or man is not tethered to a material reality (biology) any more; it is enough to have a deep sense of being X or ‘identifying as X’. I argue that self-Id, by itself, doesn’t deliver membership into a class. This is a resurrection of St. Anselm’s argument. Categories like: being disabled, belonging to an ethnic minority, being French, etc. are linked to a material reality; they don’t just exist in the mind. If self-IDing into the category ‘woman’ would provide membership, then why can’t we do the same for other categories? But people (and their language use) resist such moves. Because they have common sense?

    Category error? I am not comparing apples and pears; I am looking at what certain concepts have in common. Most concepts are tethered to a material reality (except for abstracta). Until recently it was generally accepted that this also holds for the concepts woman and man. Supporters of self-ID owe us an explanation why this doesn’t apply any more. Is there something special about the categories ‘woman’ and ‘man’ [or about trans people?], and what is that?

    I also argue that sex-dysphoria, by definition, tells us that this person is not happy with their sexed body (a material reality). So they reject this material reality and assert that identifying as a woman/man overrides their natal membership and that their sense of self delivers membership into a different category. I find this hard to believe.

    You mention ‘human rights’, let’s not forget that women have rights too. There is a rights clash here and this needs to be negotiated. Self-identifying into the female category affects the members of that category. Entitlement is the wrong attitude here.

  32. zeusboredom

    I think we have diametrically opposed ideas about language here. To you it is about concision, as you say “to make claims about us and the world,” whereas I think it is about expression. We can use “French philosopher” to be specific about nationality and profession, or about the school of philosophy to which they align, or even how they kiss. Language is wonderful, but context is important. Your argument uses “identifying” as a Catholic, black, a French Philosopher, female, disabled, etc. as all being of the same context — I consider that a category error. The context around “identifying” as those disparate things differs in each case in particulars that matter. And those particulars weaken your rhetorical claims.

    Your statement that trans persons are simply “not happy with their sexed body” implies that you just don’t believe them, because I don’t think it’s just about “happy.” Your appeal to “a material reality” would seem indicate that everything to do with sex and gender is completely binary. That every person mentally, biologically, and culturally falls identically into one of two camps — as if some god had said so. This has been false throughout history and clearly persists in being false today, whether we like it or not. The question now is how to we accommodate these fellow humans? I hear you rail against what you perceive as unjust. So what to you propose for these trans people, who like the Catholics, blacks, a French Philosophers, females, disabled, etc. before them, are not going away…

  33. ‘Language is wonderful, but context is important.’ Nobody disputes this, but this isn’t an argument, it’s just a trivial statement. By your logic a good deal in the field of linguistics is based on category errors (as well as a lot of ancient Greek philosophy). Methinks you are wielding the ‘category error’ sword in places where it doesn’t belong. My essay is a contribution to metaphysics, but it uses the toolkit of linguistics to get there. Just because the context for category terms is different, doesn’t mean that we cannot inquire into the membership conditions for these terms and draw conclusions about similarities and differences.

    ‘Your statement that trans persons are simply “not happy with their sexed body” implies that you just don’t believe them, because I don’t think it’s just about “happy.”’ It doesn’t imply that at all – that’s a projection on your part. If you don’t like ‘not happy’, replace it with ‘discomfort or distress’, the definition by the Mayo Clinic: ‘Gender dysphoria is the feeling of *discomfort or distress* that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics.’

    ‘Your appeal to “a material reality” would seem indicate that everything to do with sex and gender is completely binary.’ This doesn’t follow. Further, sex and gender are different categories, although some trans theorists would like to use them interchangeably (Rachel McKinnon/Veronica Ivy). There are a multitude of gender presentations, but sex is binary []. Trans activists argue that sex isn’t binary by reference to intersex people or people with DSDs, but they all have in common that their membership conditions are tethered to a material reality: chromosomal, gonadal, and anatomic. You cannot identify into having a DSD. This does not preclude that people of a certain sex wish to be or identify as the other sex (by taking cross sex hormones, surgery, gender presentation, or none of the above) or as one of the multitudes of genders (the list is apparently endless).

    ‘The question now is how to we accommodate these fellow humans?’ Now this is a sensible thing to say. I agree. Bravo!

    ‘I hear you rail against what you perceive as unjust.’ Well, if you can hear me ‘rail’, then your hearing is better than mine – I can’t hear myself ‘rail’ at all. And I haven’t mentioned anything about ‘justice’ yet. More projection?

    You want me to come up with solutions. In philosophy we diagnose a problem first – this is what I am doing in this essay. Suggesting solutions is a second step, which I have not attempted in this text. But here are some solutions to related problems: 1. Should we follow the IOC and focus on testosterone to facilitate inclusion of transwomen into the female category []? 2. A contribution to linguistics: Can the plethora of made-up (transgender) pronouns be imposed on other language users []? 3. Should transwomen take part in competitive contact sports []?

    The rights clash between women and transwomen (denied by the trans lobby) needs to be negotiated. But the demands of transwomen cannot simply be imposed on women (‘there is no debate’). Unfortunately, this is what is happening in academia, in the workplace, and in wider society. There are solutions to be had, but we would need to heed one of the two central principles of justice: audi alteram partem (listen to the other side). If there is no debate, then we are not listening to the other side.

  34. It’s late in this discussion, but there is a sense in which a linguistic analysis could lead to category errors.

    In some christian churches a piece of bread “really” can become the body of christ.

    People who believe this, aren’t changing the membership criteria for the concepts “bread” or “body”. They believe in transubstantiation, accepting at the same time that everything that can be investigated remains unchanged (examined in a particle accelerator the bread still is, well, bread).

    Perhaps males who say “I identify as woman” aren’t redefining the membership criteria for the concept “woman”. Perhaps they are trying to do some transubstantiation of their own body. Everyone is supposed to believe it, although everything that can be examined (chromosomes etc.) remains unchanged.

    The great thing about transgender ideology is, of course, that it’s so democratic. Everybody can do it. You don’t need a priest or specific rituals – you just say “I identify as a woman”.

    But if you look at this identification as a phenomenon that’s closer to transubstantiation than to something “factual” – the facts that can be examined remain the same – it may be easier to understand why identifying as another race is not done, and why identifying as a medical doctor when you’re a car mechanic is silly.

    A priest who would claim that, this sunday, the piece of bread became the body of the recently deceased Alice Smith, would be ridiculing the idea that bread can become the body of christ. To keep transubstantiation believable and sacred, it *has* to have limits.

    I hope it’s clear I’m not criticizing people with gender dysphoria. I’m only suggesting that a linguistic analysis of self-identification as a woman may lead to category errors.

  35. I did consider discussing ‘transubstantiation’ at some point, particularly because it would provide a great pun. But I chose something else: ‘Catholics have a story about how water changes into wine, but trans activists cannot explain the mystery of changing sex’. (