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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 24, 2022

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I have a very smart friend who is also a talented decoupler, who could easily be a very quality contributer here if dealing with Culture War issues didn't make him bleed from the eyes. He is literally the only person I know whose Facebook posts about politics did not make me lose respect for him. Over the years, we have had a number of conversations about contentious CW topics that flirted with the border of Adversarial Collaboration, long detailed discussions handled with fairness, civility, and mutual respect.

Until the topic of student loan forgiveness came up. That discussion was unusually heated. He seemed almost frantic, heated about PPP loan forgiveness hypocrites and just not giving the expected degree of decoupled consideration for arguments about how the loan forgiveness was an overall terrible policy. He seemed personally invested, felt personally attacked, in a way he hadn't in conversations about abortion or gun control.

The thing is, my friend is a teacher. Education is a big factor in his identity. He has taught maybe a thousand students who might benefit from the forgiveness plan. Attacks on that plan are an attack on his class identity. Politics is the mind-killer, and it is a sad fact that a rationalist's Art is most likely to abandon him when he needs it most (or, rather, he will fail the Art). And so my arguments sparked an uncontrolled emotional response that was missing from other, less identity-laden topics.

The second thing is, I've been on the other side of that coin, back when we had our multi-day deep dive into the gun control literature. Gun control hits me emotionally as an attack on my class identity. When I hear a gun control proposal, before I hear a single specific detail or spend a second considering merits, some lizard part of my brain interprets it as "Fuck you, your father, your father's father, and your father's father's father". (Does the word "father" still mean anything to you?) I've begged off having spontaneous discussions about it in person, even with close family, because I don't want to spike myself into rage and other unpleasant feelings. During that deep dive, my excellent friend was so calm, fair and rational that he overrode that concern, and I ended up learning a lot and having a great time.

And I'm thinking about this now, because I notice a similar reaction to the trans discussion downthread. The idea that my children might be brainwashed into taking evolutionarily self-destructive choices, and I can't even attempt to oppose it without facing the full wrath of the modern State, kindles a pre-rational, animal panic/fury response. I find myself getting heated to an unusual degree just thinking about it. I don't think I'm particularly "anti-trans". I was willing to be accepting two decades ago, when I first learned it was even a thing. But something about the thought that the phenomenon might hit my kids triggers an atavistic survival instinct. That reaction doesn't trigger when I consider my son dressing like David Bowie, or my daughter playing sports. It doesn't happen when a peer goes trans. It triggers at the thought of one of the two corporeal incarnations of my DNA and memes getting sucked into a fraught psychological memeplex, and particularly at the thought of them being medically sterilized.

Imagine an alternate world where any time a kid expressed suicidal ideation, government employees would firmly nudge them towards euthanasia, and would jail you as a parent for protesting. That's roughly the level of emotional hit - some part of me considers this an existential threat.

But what are the odds? 0.3%? That's not that much worse than the odds of childhood cancer, or other kind of unexpected death that a healthy mind doesn't overmuch worry about, and deals with gracefully if it comes. But now it's apparently something more like nearly 2%? That hits me in the Papa-Bear-Who-Wants-Grandkids-In-Space-Forever. And it seems very likely that a lot of that is social contagion or could otherwise be wildly reduced with a minimal degree of skepticism towards youth fads.

So, two points. One, I think it might behoove activist types (assuming we're not in pure conflict theory) to try to notice when one of their pushes is hitting this sort of reaction and figure out a path to undermine or alleviate it.

Secondly, a question for the community: What gets you fiercely activated, beyond what you can rationally justify? What CW issues feels like molten hot war to the hilt, where your instincts fight to throw aside all reason and charity? Any thoughts about why?

I think the whole trans right activism has moved very fast, much faster than gay rights activism. Maybe that had to do with all the spadework and heavy lifting already being done on gay rights, same-sex marriage and the rest of it, so trans activism could piggyback on that.

And the first requests were not unreasonable: "we just want to be called the names and pronouns we prefer/we just want to use the bathroom in peace".

I think most people were like my own attitude: eh, if you're 20-30 and you've been wearing women's clothing at home for five years and you simply want to change your name to Susan and use the ladies' loo, fine.

It's when it moved down to "two year olds can have a firm sense of their gender identity" that people started going "Whoa, hit the brakes there, friend!"

And how early do you feel like you can tell that a kid is going to grow up to be someone who lives as a member of the opposite sex?

That's the million-dollar question right there. Here's how I would answer that: As early as toddler age, you can begin to tell that a child is going against the normative gender grain for the culture. For many children they will show it in toy preference, in movements and actions. So that parents who have a little girl will start to notice that their little girl is wanting to play with the trucks more than the dolls, for example.

But that can't tell you that the child is transgender. Usually the earliest you can know comes a little bit later when the child has language. Somewhere between 3 and 4, and sometimes between 2 and 3, a [male] child will begin to say "I'm not boy; I'm girl." So I would say that as early as 2 or 3 you can begin to wonder.

But can you be certain?

I would want us, particularly at this moment in history, to be very humble about our confidence on that question. I think it's a really complicated unfolding phenomenon. I would say I never feel totally confident. But I think that if we really listen to the children, for some children you can know as early as pre-school.

What do you say to Ken Zucker's argument that children this age are flexible, that you can never know?

I would say that I think that there is a subgroup of children who, if we listen to them carefully, will tell us, "I know who I am. And if you let me be who I am, I will be a healthy person. And if you try to bend my twig" — which is what I think Zucker does — "then I will be a repressed, suppressed, depressed person who will learn to do what other people expect of me and I'll hide who I really am."

Especially when it comes to drag shows in libraries and schools, and pat little anecdotes like the one in this article:

Around the corner from the library I tend to each day is the Kindergarten classroom of my co-worker John Paul Kane. A towering presence in a room full of very small children, JP is also a drag performer and one-half of Fay and Fluffy’s Storytime. JP and his performance partner tour libraries, children’s events and Pride festivals sharing stories with kids and their caregivers.

One heartbreaking recollection JP shares with me underscores the importance of a school environment that is open to a range of gender identity and expression. He tells me of a distraught Kindergarten student who eventually opened up to him about what was bothering him:

“I know you know me,” the youngster said. “You know I look like a girl, but I know you know I am a boy in my heart.” Thoughtfully, Kane asked what name and pronouns the child would like him to use. “You can call me by my name and you can also call me ‘he’ or ‘she,’ ‘cause that is still who I am right now,” he said.

“I was deeply touched that the child trusted me to share such a significant piece of themselves with me,” says Kane. “The parents felt relieved that their child was beginning to share their true selves with others they cared about.”

This story could be true. There's no indication of the child's age, and my scepticism is more due to how it's such a handy little story, but maybe it's become polished over many recitals and tidied-up, and the child's words have been 'improved'. It could be true. Or it could be "my friend the drag teacher and his class of gender nonconforming cute moppets, don't you want to make sure no child tries killing themselves, have you seen the suicide statistics for trans kids?" propaganda.

I think there are some earnest and well-meaning people, and a lot more who are pushing a progressive agenda out of the genuinely-held notion that breaking down the binaries and the mystique around sex and all the rest of it will make society a better place.

I think it's natural that we all have strong feelings around protecting children. It's possibly an evolutionary instinct; you can't reproduce successfully and maintain the existence of the species if all your young come to harm.

I always preferred dolls to cars, thought it was cool that one time someone gave me a hot pink t-shirt, and was amused when that first letter my parents received about disability benefits kept calling me "she" ... But none of that made me a girl. And if we're talking gendered stereotypes, I preferred action figures and rough-housing and swords most of all, and was conspicuously annoyed when people intentionally misgendered me (unintentionally was / is kinda neat).

When I was 8-9-ish, my grandpa tried to hide a doll I'd sleep with. This was quite upsetting. Were I 8-9-ish today, and anyone at school found out about these things, would I get the opposite treatment? ... And it's hard to imagine how I'd'veresponded. I think I was both aware enough of the absence of seriousgender identity concerns, and stubborn enough to say so bluntly, but I'm only, like, 75% ish confident in that. And that mostly because I haven't heard anyone who would be doing said hypothetical convincing sound like they'd have any idea how to be convincing to 8-9-ish me.

The especially frustrating part about this whole mess is that I've always wished I'd somehow dodged puberty ever since puberty. But I had to experience a good deal before I could really make that decision, after which it was far too late to do much about it. What's more, I get the sinking feeling that the neurological effects of puberty were relevant to my figuring this out, and to certain ... positive character development? things, and this was never just a physiological dysphoria. Negative character development throughout elementary school also hurt a lot when I became aware of it. As much as I deeply loath what has become of my body, I was at peak a-hole in the couple years before puberty. I like to think I could be reasoned into realizing this and trying to improve, even without getting mindflayed by hormones, but it doesn't seem at all likely that such would actually happen if all this were taking place today. Someone would say "Are you sure you're not a girl? Here: let's put off puberty while you think about it." And that would be it, and I'd probably be even more emotionally incontinent for lack of the trace amounts of prepubescent testosterone or whatever that enabled me to train resistance to crying over minor things.

This whole situation is just so frustrating! Even if I had a mental time-machine, it's not like I could go back to the 90s, chop off my testes, then hand them off to someone who could science up viable gametes just in case I found someone willing to be artificially insemenated by a permachild for some reason other than that I obviously brought the winning lotto numbers back with me. I can't Detective Conan myself smaller now and take advantage of The System™ without contributing to its misuse against children, the majority of whom I'd be quite shocked to discover are any better at resolving this stuff in time than I was. Oh, and the trans activists probably would hate me because it being age-related instead of gender-related pattern-matches to trolls who claim age dysphoria as an excuse for active paedophilia to tarnish trans people by association. (FWIW, I denounce said trolls.)

There really should be more options for helping children with dysphoria, whatever the type. There really should not be a creepy movement to sterilize children based on a short conversation. The information necessary to make a decision like that is not available to humans with our current level of knowledge and technology. As much as I might wish I'd accidentally sat on some dry ice when I was 10, I can't in good conscience support the policies that would have given me what I want when it would have been viable. When we get Medical Omega, maybe things could be different, but for now, I'm not sure there's anything to do for kids like me besides support after it's too late.

(Attempts to prove me wrong are very, very welcome.)