Latest in the Red Flags and Fallacies Series, Terri Murray explains how contemporary views on non-binary genders simply beg the question of two distinct genders. Circular reasoning or begging the question is a fallacy in which the speaker’s conclusion is presupposed in his premise(s).
New semantics seem to be entering public discourse and academia at an alarming rate. From ‘trans kids’, to ‘intersectionality’, ‘Islamophobia’, ‘TERFs’, the ‘Alt Right’ and ‘liberal eugenics’, many new terms have been unquestioningly adopted and incorporated into our everyday vocabulary. With new words come new ideas, and sometimes these neologisms function as Trojan horses. Often, when we accept that proffered neologisms are meaningful (e.g. by using them) we have already granted too much theoretical ground to those who introduced them in the first place.
Take for example the prolific use of the term ‘non-binary’ (as a noun). If someone describes herself as ‘non-binary’, this presupposes that other people, or indeed most people, are binary, which is a conclusion that needs to be argued for, not taken for granted. Circular reasoning or begging the question is a fallacy in which the speaker’s conclusion is presupposed in his premise(s). If nobody is binary because the idea that the human species breaks down into two uniform ‘personality types’ is absurd, then saying that you are non-binary is sort of redundant.
‘Take for example the prolific use of the term ‘non-binary’ (as a noun). If someone describes herself as ‘non-binary’, this presupposes that other people, or indeed most people, are binary, which is a conclusion that needs to be argued for, not taken for granted.’
To clarify, binary gender is the theory that males are uniformly more or less the same in their mental attributes and personalities and females are similarly like all other females in their desires, attitudes and interests. This suggests that men and women, respectively, differ not just in their biological or reproductive natures, but in their personality traits so that they are, respectively, mentally more like other members of their own sex than like members of the opposite sex. Heterosexuality is implicit in this theory because one of the main traits that all women and all men presumably share with members of their own sex is sexual attraction to the opposite sex.
If binary gender is absurd, then saying that you are non-binary is redundant or meaningless, since everyone else is too. The introduction of ‘non-binary’ as though it were a distinct personal identity, therefore, tacitly reinforces the heterosexist gender binary.
Yet the human species is not made up of two big heterosexual personality types. It is made up of biological males, biological females, a relatively small number of intersex persons and a wide variety of individual personalities, including men who like knitting and women who enjoy football. People desire different things (sexually and otherwise), have wildly different attitudes, values, goals and idiosyncrasies, and these do not break down neatly into two ‘types’ according to the genitals they happen to possess.
If the binary is a fiction or a social construct rather than a material reality, then saying that I am ‘non-binary’ is a lot like saying I am non-unicorn. We can talk meaningfully about unicorns because we have been taught the concept, but this does not entail that the word ‘unicorn’ refers to any real existing animal. Likewise, we can talk meaningfully about gender categories (‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’) while recognising that they are social constructs, indeed even ones that we can imitate and ‘perform’ in the same way that we might draw pictures of unicorns and incorporate them into our fairy-tales. This does not make gender (or unicorns) naturally occurring phenomena. Both, however, can be taught.
When we accept a misleading noun like ‘non-binary’ (as applied to persons) we are not being progressive. Rather, we are accepting the unstated conservative premise that the heterosexist binary is innate for most people, and then saying that some small group of people inherently deviate from this norm, because of an innate gender condition. This presupposes that the gender binary (heterosexual ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’) is not learned but intrinsic in the very psyche or mind of all healthy human people. Some (unhealthy) people can’t help the fact that their ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ brain state is mis-matched wiht their physical body, so they should be treated with compassion. Again, this begs the question because it assumes what it needs to prove: namely, that most humans share with members of their own sex one of two universal heterosexual personality types or ‘minds’.
As with conservative religious ideology, this binary theory makes homosexuals into dysfunctional heterosexual males or females, because their ‘male’ or ‘female’ minds are “trapped” in the body of the opposite sex. On the other hand, if we were to acknowledge that there are humans who are intrinsically homosexually orientated, we would be forced to relinquish the (binary) view that all men (or all women) are attracted to the opposite sex and share a similarly gendered mind. Individuals who cannot conform to the heterosexist binary would then not be seen as gendered minds trapped in the “wrong” bodies. This way of looking at human sexuality is ultra-conservative and rooted in patriarchal religion. It is the normative way of comprehending homosexuality in theocratic Iran, which has the second highest rate of gender reassignment surgery in the world, precisely because the religious authorities encourage homosexuals to cure themselves by transitioning.
‘The solution to question-begging neologisms is to actually pose the questions these words beg. In practice, this means not adopting new words until you have scrutinised what they really mean. ‘
But my critics may protest (rightly) that no one ever said that every person who feels trapped in the “wrong” body is homosexual. There may be straight men that wish to live in a woman’s body, and there might be heterosexual women who wish to inhabit a male body. But this only reinforces my point – which is that many people are not comfortable with the gender stereotypes, behavioural expectations, and manner of dress expected of all people of their biological sex. Many heterosexual men may like to dance ballet, or to wear chiffon, or to paint their nails, while many straight women may wish to fight, drink lots of beer, or operate heavy machinery. These very real human desires only confirm my claim that gender is not only a fiction, but a powerfully constraining one too. Not all people are comfortable with the norms expected of persons of their biological sex. Since gender is a fiction, this should not be surprising.
On the other hand, if homosexuality is among the naturally occurring, healthy variants of human sexuality, then the binary was never true in the first place; it was an error. The whole idea that men’s and women’s sexual orientation always ‘matches’ the reproductive function of their genitals (as religious doctrine has always insisted) is just an empirical mistake about human nature. The presence of homosexual individuals in the population lowers the overall reproductive rates (absent the intervention of modern technology). If survival is about cooperation and not only competition, as Darwin himself speculated, then there could be a very good reason for the existence of homosexuality where the rate of population growth outstrips scarce resources. That said, part of human nature is that we use technology and creativity. Humans use reason to influence and direct nature in various ways, according to our needs and what we deem useful.
Ask the Questions & Challenge Unstated Assumptions
The solution to question-begging neologisms is to actually pose the questions these words beg. In practice, this means not adopting new words until you have scrutinised what they really mean. When we deploy new semantics unscrupulously, we might unwittingly allow issues to be framed in particular ways. This is because the terms used are loaded; they contain assumptions that need to be argued for. Unpack the assumptions implicit in words before deploying them in your language.
Just as with questions, words can be used rhetorically, to say things, rather than merely to refer to things. If I ask you, “How should we punish blasphemy?” I am assuming that blasphemy needs punishment and my question is merely about what kind of punishment is appropriate. Before we can decide what kind of punishment is appropriate, we first need to ask whether “blasphemy” really ought to be a punishable offence at all. Don’t just use new words; interrogate them first.