Completing the countercultures

Galleon Goteborg reconstruction sailing by London Bridge
Galleon courtesy George Owens

The countercultures of the 1960s-80s took attitudes to boundaries as their central themes. The monist counterculture—the 1960s youth movement—wanted to eliminate all boundaries and level all distinctions; the dualist counterculture, or religious right, wanted to make them absolute.

Meaningness suggests that oppositions between such mirror-image pairs of confused stances can be resolved by complete stances that correct their metaphysical errors. Specifically, monism and dualism share the mistaken idea that boundaries must be perfectly crisp. Participation, the complete stance regarding boundaries, recognizes that they are always both nebulous and patterned. (I’ll explain all this jargon shortly.)

Below, I apply that conceptual framework to two illustrative countercultural battlegrounds: gender and national borders. These are clear, easy, and important examples because:

  • it’s obvious that they are about boundaries
  • it’s obvious that these boundaries are both nebulous and patterned, so everyone already understands and accepts the complete stance
  • except that, even still now, ideologues sway many people by claiming otherwise
  • gender was perhaps the most important cultural issue in countercultural politics1
  • war was perhaps the most important social issue.

The same style of analysis would apply to many other contentious topics. The aim here, though, is not to resolve any concrete issues, but to show how the framework applies in general.

This may seem academic, because after the countercultural era ended most people rejected its most extreme monist and dualist positions. However, it has continuing relevance to our current culture war, which is partly a legacy of the countercultures. I will also preview the ways subsequent modes of meaningness have moderated and complicated the monist/dualist conflict.

Additionally, monism and dualism are confusions of meaning that everyone sometimes falls into personally. Even if this page had no relevance to contemporary politics, seeing how monism and dualism played out decades ago may help understand them psychologically.

Boundaries are nebulous yet patterned

Confused stances are defensive responses to nebulosity. “Nebulosity” is the unstable, uncertain, fluid, complex, and ill-defined nature of all meanings. These properties often seem unwelcome. The lack of any solid ground makes it difficult to build a durable personal identity, social structure, or political movement.

Confused stances are attractive because they deny nebulosity, and attempt to fixate meanings: to nail them in place so they will behave themselves. That is impossible, so the confused stances are all factually wrong and harmful. The culture war “values” issues are exceptionally nebulous, which makes the denial especially counterproductive here.

I have suggested that monism and dualism are the central themes of the two countercultures. These two confused stances concern boundaries: both physical boundaries and the boundaries between categories. Monism denies boundaries and distinctions; dualism fixates them as perfectly sharp.

Boundaries are generally nebulous; they represent real patterns, but are not objectively fixed. So, monism and dualism are both wrong.

Mandelbrot fractal
The boundary of the Mandelbrot fractal is literally infinitely complicated

Boundaries are not merely existent and nebulous, they are complicated. If you imagine putting one under a metaphorical magnifying glass, broadening out and fuzzing the line, you would see the elaborate swirling patterns of sameness and difference in the vicinity: both within and without.

Close to the boundary, it becomes impossible to say which side some items are on. Some also pass through freely; whereas others are stopped. Typically boundaries are selectively permeable.

Both monism and dualism deny complexity, which is part of their appeal. They promise simplicity and clarity. But they can do that only by hiding the variability and ambiguity of reality. It is this complexity which the complete stance recovers.

However, they are both also partly right. Monism recognizes that boundaries are never absolute; dualism recognizes that they are important, and can’t (and shouldn’t) be wished away. It would help cool the culture war if each side could concede what is right in the other’s fundamental stance.

Complete stances neither deny nor fixate meanings. They recognize both nebulosity and pattern: the fact that meanings are, to varying extents, also reliable, distinct, enduring, clear, and definite.

I call the complete stance with regard to boundaries “participation.” It is simply the recognition that boundaries are always both nebulous and patterned. That combines the valid insights of both monism and dualism; which is what makes it “complete.” (The title of this page is a slight pun: ideally, I would like to see the complete stance finish the war between the countercultures; in theory it could do that by including what is right in both of them.)

At an individual, psychological level, the fundamental method for resolving a confusion of meaning is to look for unacknowledged nebulosity; to notice why it is unwanted; to watch how patterns of meaning are fixated and denied in order to avoid recognizing nebulosity; and to work out what it would imply if this nebulosity were acknowledged as inherent and unavoidable, but not a defect in the fundamental nature of reality. “This nebulosity is not a cosmic problem”—maybe not much of a problem at all!—is a summary of all the complete stances. The fluid mode extends this method from the individual to the social and cultural level.

Nebulosity and pattern are both obvious everywhere, so the complete stances are obviously right (and the confused ones are obviously wrong). However, the confused stances are more appealing, so we keep returning to them.

The seeming clarity of the confused stances is particularly appealing—ironically—when you feel stressed and therefore confused. The culture war is stressful; when you feel confused and threatened by challenges to your “values,” you retreat to a simple, extreme view that you know is wrong, but that seems defensible in its absolutism.


Second-wave feminism emerged during the countercultural era. It focussed initially on workplace equality, and broadened into a general equality movement. The theme of equality—sameness—resonated with the monist counterculture. The two joined in an alliance which evolved into the mainstream left.

Second wave theorists mostly argued that gender was a lie: an imposed and arbitrary social and cultural fiction with no basis in reality. They denied the existence, or at least the legitimacy, of any difference between male and female—sometimes even at the crudest biological level. Even to this day, there are gender-studies professors who claim that it has no physiological or genetic basis whatsoever.

Symmetrically: dualist theorists insisted that men and women are properly, essentially, immutably, and totally different; and that society and culture must reflect and enforce the boundary between them. Even to this day, there are religious leaders who claim that on October 27th, 4004 B.C., God decreed the gender roles of 1950s Topeka Kansas as universal and eternal.

During the countercultural era, when we tried hard to reject rationality, these extreme claims seemed somehow plausible. Once the era ended, the spell broke. Gender can’t be wished away, nor is it ever an entirely hard and fast division.

On average, the sexes are distinct from each other in many ways, but individuals of each sex span the range of variation. Men are diverse; women are diverse. Most men are obviously men and most women are obviously women. Some people don’t fit neatly into either category, for various reasons. There is no essential characteristic that makes someone definitely male or female, masculine or feminine. Most people are reasonably comfortable with the somewhat-different expectations contemporary society and culture have for men and women. A minority find them burdensome. No one conforms to them perfectly consistently—nor can, nor should.

This common-sense understanding, that gender is a strongly patterned but nebulous distinction, is the unexciting core of a complete stance. Most people now accept it—implicitly, at least. Both countercultural approaches are obviously wrong. Despite some irritations, the mingled ambiguity and definiteness of gender isn’t a big problem for most people most of the time.2 It’s mostly only professional ideologues and committed amateur culture warriors who still promote absolutist monist or dualist views.

Since the end of the countercultural era, subculturalism and atomization have further complicated the meanings of gender. The lesbian sex wars split countercultural second-wave feminism into numerous subcultural third-wave sects, which took diverse stances on the metaphysics of gender, with further contributions from LGBTIQA movements. In atomization, intersectional fourth-wave feminism lost coherence, and deploys whatever shards of contradictory, shattered subcultural ideologies are convenient in the moment. I will discuss these developments later in the book.

And what of the fluid mode, which supposedly reflects the complete stance? I’ll give a brief account here, which may seem incomprehensible at this point; the fluidity chapter should make it clear.3

Let’s go back to the metaphor of putting a boundary under a magnifying glass to see the details of its complex nebulosity. On the micro scale, gender manifests in a pattern of interaction between specific people in a specific situation at a specific time. Observed carefully, one sees that what counts as a masculine or feminine way of interacting is a continually renegotiated, ongoing accomplishment of the participants. This does not mean it is arbitrary; indeed, it is responsive to the particulars of the situation in exquisitely fine detail. It is also, usually, so routine that it goes unnoticed. It is only when it breaks down that the nebulosity of gender comes momentarily into consciousness—before participants more-or-less skillfully repair the breach and restore its ordinary smooth operation.

This micro-level continual re-accomplishment necessarily orients to macro-scale universalist ideologies. In no social situation can we be entirely unconscious of numerous, diverse theories of what all men and women always are, or always ought to be. We can never act without some awareness of how our actions will be interpreted as meaningful according to those accounts. However, our micro-scale activity—what we say, how we say it, our body language—is never governed by any of these ideologies. They are social facts we have to work with, but not systems of rules we could conform to, even if we wanted to. Besides their extensive contradictions with each other and with obvious realities, they are not specific enough to guide action in concrete situations. They require extensive interpretation in order to become relevant. Yet we cannot choose not to perform that interpretation.

Because gender is patterned, we can never be perfectly free of it—as many second-wave feminists hoped. Because it is nebulous, we can never perfectly embody it—as many religious conservatives hoped. Between these extremes, there is an open space, in which we can take a comfortably playful attitude to choice. We all continually construct gender together; we may as well enjoy making it a collaborative work of art when we can.

Although almost no one maintains a hardcore monist or dualist gender ideology consistently, there’s always a tug toward them, because they simplify thinking. When trying to win an argument, it’s always tempting to say “well, there’s no real difference between men and women, so…”; or “despite shared humanity, men and women have totally distinct proper roles, so…”—and people do say both these things frequently. It would be helpful to accomplish a cultural consensus that we don’t believe these things, so we should stop saying them and acting as though we did.

That would help clarify specific conflicts, because monism and dualism obscure the practicalities. Although some gender issues are important practically, the culture war imposes imaginary additional meanings to co-opt them as ideological battlegrounds, fought from essentialist monist or dualist positions, making them into Giant Referendums On How The Other Tribe Is Wrong About Everything.4 In the 2016 trans bathroom controversy, for instance, this was clearly deliberate: an engineered conflict, designed to increase ideological hostility among voters.

Dropping monism and dualism would still leave plenty of room for disagreements; but they would have to be argued on specific, practical grounds, instead of abstract, metaphysical ones. The complete stance itself answers no practical questions. It leaves open issues such as “what constitutes workplace equality” and “who uses which bathrooms.” However, it points out that these issues don’t have to be so goddamn serious, and that the big-picture ideologies are all quite childish and silly.

Trans issues have come to new prominence in American politics in the past couple of years, with the “TERF wars” and court battles over bathroom use. Trans people are also theoretically interesting for forcing metaphysical questions about gender boundaries: what does it even mean to ask whether they are male or female?

Most people are willing to admit that trans people have some characteristics of both genders, but many also insist that the essential determinant is one particular characteristic. That’s the “real” one. What makes that one special?

Some dualists5 would like to point to some physical characteristic, like maybe the Y chromosome, as essential. But what basis is there for that? The Bible has nothing to say about chromosomes; this can’t be a religious claim. Y chromosomes correlate statistically with penises, social dominance, and various other typically-masculine characteristics. However, there are some people with Y chromosomes whom everyone believes from birth to be female, because there’s no indication—physical or mental—of masculinity, apart from the chromosome itself. And vice versa.6

Some monists would like to say that, since there no differences between men and women other than what is oppressively imposed by culture and society, you are whatever gender you say you are, and everyone must agree and treat you that way. Just as progressives were coming to a consensus on this point, it got complicated by an apparent analogy with Rachel Dolezal, who is trans black. Her career as an NAACP chapter president and university Africana Studies teacher was disrupted when her white parents pointed out that she was born white, with blue eyes and blond hair, and has no black ancestors. She continues to insist that she is really and essentially black because she self-identifies as black, and feels black on the inside.

Some social justice activists agree that she is, indeed, authentically black, and transracial identity is totally valid. Most do not. Many transgender people have written essays arguing that any claimed parallel between transracial and transgender identity is spurious. I’m sympathetic politically, but philosophically I think this is a hard case to make.7

Recognizing that gender can’t simply be wished away, I think it is reasonable to balk at the idea that someone is of a particular sex simply because they say so. On the other hand, recognizing that there is no objective fact about what sex anyone is, I think it is reasonable to agree that anyone who passes as a particular sex might as well be treated as being that sex for most purposes. Further, as far as those who present androgynously or as “none of the above,” we might do well to say “whatever!” and let them get on with it. One is entitled to disapprove of “deviants dressing wrong” privately, if that is your opinion, but eccentric attire is rarely adequate grounds for public censure. (“This nebulosity is not a cosmic problem!”) In all three cases, insisting that there is some Ultimate Truth of gender that must be obeyed is metaphysically unsupportable, and also seems petty.

It would help if we could agree that gender is a private matter, thereby restoring part of the public/private boundary that the countercultures destroyed. Although the public/private boundary is necessarily nebulous, other people’s ways of doing gender are mostly none of your business. This is obvious as a criticism of the right, but it applies equally to the left. For example, some leftists are harshly judgemental of women who choose to be supported by their husbands; this is wrong.

Sovereignty, borders, and war

The concept of a sovereign state was invented in the systematic era. Its Westphalian model is an epitome of dualism. It holds that there are precisely-defined, permanent borders between states. Every square inch of land is part of exactly one state, and shall remain so eternally. The government of a state holds sway uniformly at every point within its borders. It has no right to exert any influence beyond its state borders.8

This is highly unnatural; choiceless era kingdoms worked quite differently. Borders were mostly vague and shifting, and while the king’s rule may have been absolute in the capital, his power faded gradually, informally, with distance. The main job of a king was to meddle in the affairs of neighboring kingdoms, which led to wars and/or border adjustments.

The Westphalian system was invented to prevent war.9 The First World War marked the end of the systematic era, and the beginning of the era of crisis and social breakdown. Not only did Westphalian sovereignty fail to prevent the World Wars, it arguably caused them.

The dualistic Cold War profoundly shaped the countercultural era. Opposition to the Vietnam war—a proxy battle of the Cold War—was one of the main drivers of the monist (hippie/student radical) counterculture. The Reagan administration’s anti-Soviet military buildup was one of the main drivers of the dualist counterculture.

A monist approach would eliminate national boundaries. Wars are between states; without countries and borders between them, there could be no wars. Lennon’s lyrics for “Imagine” express this view; his last line, “the world will live as one,” is the epitome of monism. I do say he was a dreamer: countries and borders cannot be wished away.

Nor are they ever entirely hard and fast divisions. Many states attempted isolationism in the mid-20th-century, but it is impossible. Only North Korea even pretends now, and it is heavily dependent on China.

Beginning around the end of the countercultural era, which coincided with the end of the Cold War (1991), diplomats and international institutions quietly revised the system of international relations, to reflect the obvious reality that states and borders are patterned but nebulous. The European Union (1992) developed a model for blurred sovereignty, with borders that remain existent but enormously more permeable than previously. The World Trade Organization (1995), and the series of treaties it sponsored, greatly increased both the permeability and complex selectivity of borders. The Rwandan (1994) and Bosnian (1995) genocides changed the minds of many anti-war leftists, and de facto established the principle that the great powers have not only the right but the responsibility to intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign states to prevent humanitarian catastrophes. As dualists had always insisted, bad guys are bad and can’t be wished away; and wars can be fought for noble causes. More recently, failures in the Middle East have convinced many rightists that—as monists had always insisted—many wars cannot be won by military force.

Maybe it counts as success that in the current politics of the developed nations, global trade and immigration have mainly replaced war as the political issues concerned with borders.

This new era of international relations remains a work in progress, and probably always will. It has gotten many details wrong; but the principle that national borders are both nebulous and patterned is significant progress. As with gender, the meanings of national boundaries must be continually renegotiated, and interpreted in specific situations with reference to multiple ideologies. Almost everyone now does accept that national boundaries are both necessary and necessarily permeable. The Westphalian framework lingers as a ritual fiction; or as a subordinated system to which the new de facto non-systematic international relations are meta.

Popular ideologues sometimes talk as if totally open or closed borders were feasible options. And even the more careful pundits often frame the fight as quantitive: a more open border, or a harder one? Such rhetoric appeals to monist and dualist sensibilities, but is unrealistic, unhelpful, and nearly meaningless. Workable answers concern the complex pragmatic specifics of how borders operate. Which people, goods, services, money, and armies are allowed to cross, for what reasons?

Later in Meaningness and Time, I will discuss how the subcultural, atomized, and fluid modes regard nation-states.

  • 1. I’ve suggested tentatively that the culture war may be primarily about reproduction, with the rest mere decorative obfuscation. And, regulating gender roles seems to be mainly an indirect way of regulating reproduction.
  • 2. The word most is important. Suffering can be extreme for those who accept the nebulosity of their gender, but find it rejected by others; and for those who recoil from, and cannot accept, the nebulosity of their own gender, or that of people they care about.
  • 3. This account draws heavily both on ethnomethodology and on Kegan’s account of “stage 5” as context-responsive non-systematic activity that is meta to multiple formal systems.
  • 4. I’ve taken this trope from Scott Alexander’s “Five Case Studies On Politicization.”
  • 5. Gender essentialists include both some conservative Christians and some radical feminists, who have allied on many sexual deviance issues since the mid-1970s. I have to admit I find this very funny.
  • 6. The biochemical mechanisms that typically result in either a “male” or “female phenotype” are extremely complicated and currently not fully understood. There is definitely no single “master factor” that determines maleness or femaleness in humans.
  • 7. All the attempts I read actually argued instead that claiming to be black when you were born apparently white is morally wrong, because you aren’t really black; whereas claiming to be female when you were born apparently male is not morally wrong, because you are really female. This simply assumes by fiat the conclusion it then claims to prove.
  • 8. The Westphalian scheme has never been descriptively accurate—never mind prescriptively adequate—even for the core European countries that invented and adopted it. The Channel Islands and Andorra are two entertaining anomalies. The Channel Islands are legally part of Duchy of Normandy, which has not existed for many centuries. They are not part of the United Kingdom, although they are self-governing possessions of the British Crown, and Queen Elizabeth II is their Duke. (Not their Duchess. I imagine there is an excellent reason for this.) Islanders are legally both British citizens and EU citizens. The Channel Islands are legally part of the British Islands, but not part of the British Isles (please don’t confuse these!). They are not members of the European Union, but remain part of the European Community, which hasn’t existed since 1993, but which continues to grant them important legal trade rights from beyond the mortal veil. There’s much more, but it starts to get complicated. Andorra is legally a Parliamentary Co-Principality, with the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell in Spain as Co-Princes. It is not part of either France or Spain. The President of France, ex officio Prince of Andorra, is a reigning monarch, unelected by his or her subjects (but elected by the French people). Then it gets complicated.
  • 9. It takes its name from the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the catastrophic Thirty Years War—Europe’s worst before WWI, with many millions left dead.


Jain Logic

Coincidentally, just the email announcing this post arrived, I was reading an article on Jain logic. It sounds a lot like the Complete Stance:

“Anekāntavāda is not simply about syncretisation or compromise between competing ideas, as it is cooperatively about finding the hidden elements of shared truth between such ideas… Anekāntavāda also does not mean compromising or diluting one’s own values and principles. On the contrary, it allows us to understand and be tolerant of conflicting and opposing views, while respectfully maintaining the validity of one’s own view-point: ‘epistemological respect for view of others’, Anekāntavāda, thus, did not prevent the Jain thinkers from defending the truth and validity of their own doctrine while simultaneously respecting and understanding the rival doctrines.”

“Our experience of the world presents a profound paradox which we can ignore existentially, but not philosophically. This paradox is the paradox of change. Something changes and therefore it cannot be permanent. On the other hand, if it is not permanent, then what changes? In this debate between ‘permanence’ and ‘change’, Hinduism seems more inclined to grasp the first horn of the dilemma and Buddhism the second. It is Jainism that has the philosophical courage to grasp both horns fearlessly and simultaneously, and the philosophical skill not to be gored by either.”


"Such rhetoric appeals to

Abel Molina's picture

“Such rhetoric appeals to monist and dualist sensibilities, but is unrealistic, unhelpful, and nearly meaningless”

I’d agree that is not helpful rhetoric for a listener trying to get an understanding of the fine details of policy, but popular political talk is definitely a place where that listener is not going to find such talk about any topic. Conversations at say the think-tank level would perhaps be the appropriate place for someone interested in learning or getting involved in an issue at such a deep level^.

However, I think such talk about “open”/”closed” borders could be helpful and meaningful for a large part of the audience. To take an example that’s particularly clear, one can consider the context of the current US presidential election. I’d say that the vast majority (say at least 80%) of people that have a strong personal concern related to a process that happens at the border would align with the D candidate in the case where they want that situation to be less restrictive, and with the R candidate in the case where they want it to be more restrictive. I claim as well that it is rare for people to have strong concerns about more than one or two of the things that happen at the border. Then, simple talk of “open/closed” borders is generally useful at clarifying for an uniformed audience which party stands for their interest as far as their border-related concerns are involved.

^One could wish for a future where popular political talk goes into more detail, takes more nuanced views, and predict this would result in better outcomes of political processes. I think there is definitely room for improvement in that direction, but also that the number of issues is large enough to limit by itself how much time can be spent discussing details.

Can there be peace in the war of metaphysics?

Not to pick on one small point out of a generally great post, but:

It would help if we could agree that gender is a private matter, thereby restoring part of the public/private boundary that the countercultures destroyed.

I don՚t think it is, or at least, this is a naive-liberal position, which is to say, it՚s not a bad rule of thumb for the practical conduct of life, but it isn՚t very analytically deep.

In fact gender is a social performance and there is something irreducibly public about it, which is why it is such a field of contention. If it was really private, nobody would care, but in fact the battle is all about the social sphere. Trans people are demanding to have their gender of choice publicly acknowledged. Gay marriage is definitionally about achieving a formal legal recognition of a relationship. Some proponents like to say “if you don՚t like gay marriage, don՚t have one”, but I find this argument disingenuous – in fact, gay marriage proponents want to have their relationship acknowledged, which does in fact require changes in behavior from everyone, not just the participants. (This is one of those weird points where the radical tinge to my way of thinking gives me more sympathies for the reactionaries՚ arguments, if not their position).

More deeply, I think it՚s a mischaracterization of the 60s/70s social movement to say that it “destroyed” the public/private boundary. At least in its own framing, the goal was exposing the already-existing fact that the political is a pervasive aspect of all social relationships, even ostensibly private ones. This viewpoint seems to mesh very well with your own point about how gender and other aspects of social standing are renegotiated in micro-interactions – to me, this is essentially the same as saying that the personal and the political are deeply intertwined, that we participate it in ordinary life whether we like it or not. The current hoo-hah about “microagressions” is stupid in many ways but I think it is grounded in this fact and an attempt to grapple with it.

I feel like I am getting tedious on this point (but am nevertheless right).

Dropping monism and dualism would still leave plenty of room for disagreements; but they would have to be argued on specific, practical grounds, instead of abstract, metaphysical ones. The complete stance itself answers no practical questions. It leaves open issues such as “what constitutes workplace equality” and “who uses which bathrooms.” However, it points out that these issues don’t have to be so goddamn serious, and that the big-picture ideologies are all quite childish and silly.

Again, this strikes me as completely right in a practical sense but also somewhat naive. These clashes of value systems are real conflicts and they can՚t be so easily wished away. Politics despite its ugliness and messiness and stupidity is how the battles are fought, (I speak as a reformed anarchist who also used to think that the world would be much better if people would just be reasonable and cooperative, that is, other than they really are).

Now, maybe it is possible to get people to relax from their rigid metaphysical commitments and take a more pragmatic attitude that would allow setting such disagreements – that sounds like an admirable and not inconceivable goal. I think that was part of the original American dream – to get free of the fruitless
religious and political struggles of Europe. But this is hard: there are often real material interests colliding; eg women and minorities have an interest in the promotion of universalist (monist?) values while certain white male ex-majority members may be for similar reasons rigidly dualist and nationalist. These two groups are not motivated to agree with each other, getting them to relax their ideologies and be pragmatic is hard and may not be in their short-term interests. That is to say, for people like that their ideology is not silly, it’s the flag under which they are fighting for something that is of seemingly vital importance.

Hm, so maybe the question is not, are understanding nebulosity and achieving a complete stance good – they clearly are. Rather, it is: how do you motivate people in that direction, how can they become as passionate about that as they do their less-evolved ideologies?

Yes, exactly

I agree with basically all of this :-)

So, the take is that Victorian dualism had hardened the public/private boundary to an unreasonable, unworkable extent. This persisted at least as a social convention, a little bit weakened, into the 1950s mainstream. Some in the monist counterculture explicitly sought to dismantle it altogether—which is actually infeasible as well as wrong. However, I do think they succeeded in taking it further than was optimal. (Putting this in quantitative terms for simplicity, which is misleading.) I covered that in some detail in “The personal is political.”

So, the public/private boundary is necessarily both nebulous and patterned, and the question is how it should best operate in detail. And that needs to be fought over in minute detail to get a good answer—because a quantitative approach is misleading and inadequate.

the personal and the political are deeply intertwined

Hence the Mandelbrot illustration :-)

But, to take the trans example, I’m inclined to think that (on the one hand) it’s wrong to hassle anyone for doing gender however they do, and it’s polite and decent to make some effort to keep track of pronouns; and (on the other) that it’s unreasonable to demand that everyone publicly say “oh, yes, we totally agree that you are really, truly male/female” or else they are Literally Hitler.

Maybe this is naively liberal in the old-fashioned sense. But part of the benefit of a public/private distinction—to borrow Kling’s framework—is that it gives everyone more freedom [libertarian concern] without causing anyone harm [progressive concern], and it promotes decency [conservative concern].

These clashes of value systems are real conflicts and they can՚t be so easily wished away. Politics despite its ugliness and messiness and stupidity is how the battles are fought

Absolutely! Except I want people to go straight to the underlying interests, instead of talking about “values,” which are not truly what is at issue, and confuse the discussion. So, for instance, I suggested that a major underlying practical issue may be family structure—as many social conservatives say explicitly, and many progressives refuse to believe. It would be better to fight about that explicitly instead of the “values” that are indirect proxies for it. Maybe sensible compromises could be found—whereas it is taboo to compromise “values.”

getting them to relax their ideologies and be pragmatic is hard and may not be in their short-term interests

Maybe… I’m suggesting that both sides ought to recognize that they have lost. Even in the short term, they’d do better to look for pragmatic solutions. (Getting to this might require a better quality of leadership than has recently been manifest…)

how do you motivate people in that direction, how can they become as passionate about that as they do their less-evolved ideologies?

Yes! So, I think this is the right question to ask. (The probably-next thing I post will be about that; it’s also the one where I discuss your anti-politics essay briefly.)

It’s a dumb and obvious and naive question. But everything in this book is dumb and obvious and naive. I’m just pointing out that people keep adopting stances that they know are wrong, that are obviously wrong, because they have short-term emotional payoffs. And suggesting that there are ways to learn to do that less.

The alternatives (“complete stances”) are also obvious, and obviously right. So a natural response is Is that all?? That’s obvious! To which I can only say: Yes; so maybe you should think about why you keep doing obviously wrong things instead?

I think we basically agree on

I think we basically agree on almost all important points. Not sure why I am compelled to find the parts I have problems with and pick on them, but it՚s what I do I guess. Hopefully it is at least somewhat useful to you.

I don՚t have a much of a problem with the alleged obviousness of your ideas. Even old truths need repeating and translating into modern idioms. If I do have one general complaint, it՚s that sometime I feel you are taking complex cultural history and overschematizing it. And that might be because some of my own oxen are being gored.

Maybe this is naively liberal in the old-fashioned sense. But part of the benefit of a public/private distinction—to borrow Kling’s framework—is that it gives everyone more freedom…

Let me be clear, I agree with naive liberalism as a practical political philosophy. I like freedom and the idea that people ought to be able to do what they want in their private spheres and all of that. No question. Liberalism needs to be defended in the real practical world – that՚s why I bother spending time on Trump, who represents a genuine threat to the liberal order.

But as a theory it is weaksauce, and suffers from the similar structural flaws as other parts of the received culture that I think you՚ve fought against in the past. For one thing, it overprivileges individuals, and as part of that makes freedom and choice into these sacred untouchables. It requires people to be more reasonable than they really are. In your terms, it ultimately relies on a false metaphysics, and so can՚t be the cure for itself. Freedom is a wonderful thing, but I don՚t think it can be an unexamined primitive in a theory of behavior or politics; it՚s sort of like having god in a theory of physics.

I want people to go straight to the underlying interests, instead of talking about “values,” which are not truly what is at issue, and confuse the discussion.

That is an interesting idea. Although often the confusion seems to go the other way. Eg arguments about what bathrooms trans people are allowed to use is obviously not really about bathrooms and is avoiding the real issue, which is values, isn՚t it?

I mean there are no material interests at stake here, it՚s purely a fight over the nature of gender and boundaries and the corresponding metaphysics. The very existence and nature of God is somehow at stake, and weakening the gender boundary undermines the very foundations of reality. So it is, in that sense, a material interest, people feel their way of life is threatened, and to some extent they are right.

The other side also has metaphysical propositions at stake, but because I agree with them more it՚s harder to say what they are and why they are so powerful. This idea that people deserve to be what ever gender they say they are is almost a parody of the notion of the autonomous self (see above).

Anyway, I read you as saying people shouldn՚t do this; you want to relax the grip that these rigid and wrong metaphysical systems have on us. I can՚t disagree with that. Maybe where I differ is that I think these ideas are very tightly bound up with the fundamental structures of thinking and society, so they can՚t be easily dismissed just because they are wrong, the hold they have on people and vice versa is not so easily broken.

Here՚s a strong thesis that I just made up: Fundamental changes to metaphysics only happen in conjunction with social or political revolution (see the sixties, or the protestant reformation). Since political revolutions are rarely successful, replacement of metaphysical attachments is also pretty damn hard.

Further agreement

I am compelled to find the parts I have problems with and pick on them, but it՚s what I do I guess. Hopefully it is at least somewhat useful to you.

Yes, thank you very much!

If I do have one general complaint, it՚s that sometimes I feel you are taking complex cultural history and overschematizing it.

This is very probably right. If there is anything I can say in my defense it is that the schematization is somewhat unusual, so it may reveal some partial insights, at the cost of suppressing other partial truths.

For one thing, [classical liberalism] overprivileges individuals, and as part of that makes freedom and choice into these sacred untouchables.

I agree. I hope I’m not doing that here. This is why I find it useful to apply Kling’s framework of also respecting traditionalist and progressive worldviews (both of which downplay individual liberty in favor of collective interests). My personal tendency is tilted somewhat in the libertarian direction (because I’m a weirdo and would like to not get flak for that), so I’m working hard to acknowledge and incorporate the other two perspectives. Maybe I’m not going far enough with that.

Eg arguments about what bathrooms trans people are allowed to use is obviously not really about bathrooms and is avoiding the real issue, which is values, isn՚t it?

Well, I actually don’t know what it is about. I do strongly suspect it is not “values.” I don’t think it has anything to do with God. (Does the Bible say anything about trans people?) However, I think we ought to be empirical about this and admit we can’t derive an answer from first principles!

Social conservatives would say that it’s about “family values,” I expect, but what does that mean? What do trans people have to do with families? This is not a rhetorical question, it is a genuine one, for which I don’t know the answer. I don’t think social conservatives know the answer either. They’d say something about “traditional values” blah blah, and maybe mention God, but it wouldn’t add up to anything coherent or substantive.

If one wanted to get an answer to this, looking into meaning of homophobia would probably be the place to start. (I would guess gay and trans run together in the minds of social conservatives, although that’s another empirical question.)

I came up with a new theory of homophobia by reflecting on the Weeden et al. analysis of social conservatism (“reproductive strategies 1, 2, 3” in my terms). I might write about that sometime. It’s purely conjectural—but it explains homophobia in terms of pragmatic considerations of family structure, not what God spozedly said in an ancient book, or “tradition,” or “values.”

I basically just don’t believe in “values”; I think they are vague post-hoc justifications for whatever concrete social desires you have. I think people abandon them at the drop of a hat when their interests change.

“Family values” means “I want to have the sort of family I want, and I don’t want anyone getting in the way of that.” I find it helpful to try to put myself in that headspace, and then imagine how gay or trans people could be a threat to my having that sort of family. Then many of the previously-insane-sounding things social conservatives say suddenly make sense. (But this is not empirical—the hypotheses generated this way would need to be tested in order to have confidence in them.)

I think these ideas are very tightly bound up with the fundamental structures of thinking and society, so they can՚t be easily dismissed just because they are wrong, the hold they have on people and vice versa is not so easily broken…. replacement of metaphysical attachments is pretty damn hard.

Yes. So, the main part of the Meaningness book, when/if I actually write it, is supposed to be a practical manual for getting yourself out of confused stances. How effective that can be, I don’t know. There have been reports from the field that the tiny fraction I have completed has been helpful for some readers.

This is a comment addressed

J Anon's picture

This is a comment addressed at both “mtraven” and David Chapman, regarding several statements in the above article and the comment by mtraven. Most of it is aimed at mtraven. Parts of the beginninng and the end are aimed at Chapman.

Anyway, from mtraven: “This idea that people deserve to be what ever gender they say they are is almost a parody of the notion of the autonomous self”

I think the core of your perception of this is that you:
-perhaps do not understand what is actually going on with gender-nonconforming people.
-do not understand the distinction between “sex” and “gender”(which is chapman’s issue, and some of his confusion at feminists who say gender is fake)

First, a little clarity: Sex=common biological dimorphism associated with male or female. Naturally there’s gray areas as mentioned already by Chapman.

Gender=cultural/social baggage associated with sex. These range from things that have some vague relation to muscular development differences associated with sex, to things that have nothing to do with likely differences between sexes and just box people into certain personalities or ways of expression.

The two terms have become conflated heavily in the last.. 20? years, which is the source of much confusion. Obviously language cannot be pinned down, but for the sake of clarity and referring to concepts clearly that we don’t have other agreed-upon signals for, I’ll use sex/gender in this consistent manner.

1)There are people who have “gender dysphoria”, a medical/mental issue, which is often treated by “transitioning” their sex. So mostly female dimorphism->shifting to male. Their gender performance may or may not be completely irrelevant, there are “femme” FtM transgender people, “butch” MtF transgender people, etc.

From what I understand, a significant chunk of these people take on more “typical” gender behavior associated with their “desired” sex because it allows them to “pass”, that is, get by in society without people questioning them, harassing/bullying/attacking them, and making their life awful. So a trans woman who maybe doesnt really give a shit about makeup puts it on anyway because it makes her life easier.

2)There are people who don’t really care about their sex but just want to act in ways that are not considered befitting of their gender. Some of them are people who have dysphoria and instead solve it with behavior rather than with physical changes. Others just do not want anything to do with some number of aspects of “traditional” femininity or whatever.

Thus, let us look at your claim again:

“This idea that people deserve to be what ever gender they say they are is almost a parody of the notion of the autonomous self”

The central issue is that harmless behavior should not be restricted based on sex. The only reason it is is because of “gender” as an inconsistently enforced social construct. People would not have to “claim” anything if gender was not made to be an issue in the first place.

You changed your body? You behave in X irrelevant way and not Y irrelevant way? Ok, that’s irrelevant to my happiness.

But instead, we somehow have situations like:
-I’m a gender ambiguous person, whichever bathroom I go to I have a high % chance of facing harassment.
-I’m a transgender person who “transitioned” their body. If I go to the bathroom for my original sex, I won’t fit in visually and will be harassed. If I go to teh bathroom for the other sex, I may still be harassed based on ID indicating sex or signs that I have transitioned.
-General nonsense related to gender, double standards, etc thrown whichever way, hitting people who are nonconforming and conforming.

Regarding pronouns: What purpose, really, does referring to someone as a particular pronoun serve? It is fairly useless as personality/employment/etc becomes less and less restricted by sex. The only time knowing someone’s sex is even relevant is if you are considering sex with that person for a relationship involving reproduction or simply sex for pleasure.(also, I hate homonyms, lol)

Aside from that, whether you call someone by whatever pronoun is completely irrelevant for your own use, so its only purpose is “What is polite to this person?”, which has never been only a trans issue anyway, unless you would like to ignore all the times men were called girly etc as insults, women were called manly, etc etc. If the person has dysphoria or associates with this vaguely-agreed-upon group of vaguely-similar-personalities(or whatever) we call “gender”, then whatever, there is no rational basis for not doing what they want, especially since you were already doing that for almost everyone anyway. People who you couldn’t tell the sex/gender of right away have always existed, recent social freedoms have just highlighted the issue of not having a gender-neutral single pronoun.

Obviously people can have issues figuring out if someone has X genitalia for aforementioned purposes, but that’s an issue with communication and not your aforementioned position “Why are people breaking out of irrational sex-based-restrictions and harmlessly behaving as they want?”, which is all “people being whatever gender they want” is. The communication issue regarding reproduction needs to be solved separately.

To bring this to Chapman:
“I think it is reasonable to balk at the idea that someone is of a particular sex simply because they say so”
The idea that gender cannot be “wished away” is kind of bizarre to me- while it is unlikely that people will stop pairing pronouns and other small things with genders, it is easy to conceive that the serious societal attachments to sex would only be things that are actually physically relevant(health treatment etc), and the rest is just people enjoying the personality of vague conceptions of being “manly” or whatever.
People aren’t asking to be a particular sex- they’re making themselves a different sex if they want to(and can afford to), what’s going on is they’re asking for different gender treatment. Because gender treatment is irrational/useless/arbitrary(Pink for girls, blue for boys- even though it has changed repeatedly historically, etc etc), this is entirely reasonable and requires no “balking” because nothing logical is being refuted.

Now, there are some earnest issues related to this- for example, does being a lesbian refer to sex or gender? Does it mean you are sexually attracted to female gender as in behavior, or female sex, or some degrees of both are required? I believe for most people it is sex, but apparently for some people it is gender, and basically questions like this have been confused because of sex/gender word issues, so they are not really being discussed accurately yet, so this mismatch of two+ versions of “lesbian” causes confusion/hurt.

In conclusion, words are incredibly obnoxious.

Sex and gender are complicated

Thanks for the comment! These issues are extremely complicated, as you point out.

It may (or may not) be relevant that I’ve studied gender theory in considerable depth (although mostly in the late 1980s, and theory has changed somewhat since then). It may (or may not) also be relevant that I’m personally gender dysphoric and non-conformist.

I can’t speak for mtraven, but I know him personally, and from his politics blog, and he is an anti-authoritarian leftist. So, I’m reasonably confident that he is supportive of trans people’s issues.

I don’t think either of us are ignorant, confused, or unsympathetic about any of the concepts or issues you discuss. We’re both probably in strong agreement with most or all of your positions.

Going beyond that statement would take us deep into the outer reaches of gender theory, which probably none of us wants to take the time for.

I see. Well, I'm sorry to

J Anon's picture

I see. Well, I’m sorry to have preached to the choir. I was having difficulty ascertaining how much you actually understood from your post, but I suppose that may be because of your attempt to have a narrative style that doesn’t step on toes of either “tribe” too much.

Yeah I'm basically a liberal

Yeah I’m basically a liberal who believes everybody should be able to do whatever the hell they want if they don’t frighten the horses or harm other people, including whatever gender stuff they like.

The comments above were trying to get at the limitations of that point of view. It’s a pretty good framework, but it’s based on a very individualistic model of humans work that is not really accurate. And you can see this pretty clearly in the various conflicts over trans issues. If being trans was a matter of individuals pursuing their own thing, that would be easy, but in practice it seems to be about ensuring that all the gendered machinery of society be adapted in new ways. Which is why it is such a political football.

My own preference would be that it was not, and people could just do whatever they liked, but that is not in fact how society seems to operate.

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This page is in the section Countercultures: modernity’s last gasp,
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