Maybe False Dichotomies Are Born that Way?

This post is, in some sense, a counterpoint to my Binaries Aren’t Intrinsically Bad post because part of its message is that some binaries are intrinsically bad, but arguably it’s not a counterpoint at all, since those binaries are really two sides of related but different stories.

A false dichotomy is a situation where you lead people to believe that they have to see things in one of two ways, and that those are the only choices.  George Bush’s claim that “You’re either with us, or with the terrorists!” is one such example, where any middle ground is missing.  But it’s worth realizing that sometimes there isn’t a continuum that connects the two extremes that form the dichotomy. If I say, “Which is it, do you like cats, or are you a communist?”, the problem isn’t that I’ve left you with no middle ground, it’s that the idea of any sort of sensible “middle” between these two options is fundamentally flawed, because these two concepts are orthogonal—each can be true or false independent of the other.

When it comes to identity, whether it is sexual orientation or gender identity, some people feel compelled to wonder, “Are you born that way, or is it a choice?”  Most people seem to accept that as a valid question to ask, but I would argue that it’s not—it’s a false dichotomy, and one of the second kind where there isn’t even a middle ground: these are two unrelated propositions, and, worse, the true underlying question, whether we can (or should) change who we are to avoid perturbing other people, is barely addressed at all. To understand why, let’s first ask the same question about some tamer topics and see how it holds up there.

Suppose that at some point growing up I had a bad experience with a particular food, let’s say peppermint liqueur, and now even just the smell of it turns my stomach—to actually drink it would make me gag. It would be absurd to imagine that I have made a conscious choice to gag on peppermint liqueur.  Who on earth would want that experience for themselves, with all of its potential for awkward social situations? You’d be a crazy masochist to want that.  So it seems reasonable for me to say, “I didn’t choose to be a peppermint liqueur gagger”, but it would be absurd to imagine that I was born to gag on peppermint liqueur (and pretty crazy to go searching for a gene to blame it on).

But just because something wasn’t preordained at birth doesn’t mean it is a thing that I can easily change. Maybe I can hide it a little, but whatever causes me to react in this way seems to be locked-in somehow, outside the reach of my will (and, for the sake of our thought experiment, we’ll suppose that no presently known therapy can change it either, even though that might not be true for some food aversions).  Thus, I have a trait that I didn’t actively choose, and I can’t seem to change, even though it isn’t a trait I was born with.

So, “I didn’t choose it and I can’t seem to change it” doesn’t necessarily imply “I was born that way”.  What about the other direction, does “I was born that way” imply “I can’t change it”? I would say obviously not—let’s do a simple example for that one…

There are some people who are born with imperfect looking teeth.  Sure, they were born that way, but their biology is not their destiny.  Orthodontists will happily straighten those teeth for a fee and they’ll be on their way, dental predestiny averted.

The fact that our biology does not always predetermine our fate does not mean that we can always override the cards that biology deals us, or that on those occasions when we can override it, that doing so is necessarily easy enough to be worth our effort.  Inborn or acquired, a trait we have may prove to be beyond our capacity to change by effort of will alone.

But the fact that we can’t change a trait we have at will does not mean that the traits that make up our identities are locked into a fixed, immutable state.

It seems reasonable to assume that at least some of the traits that make up our identities are driven by slow-moving, tectonic forces (themselves driven by deep undercurrents), manifesting as subtle gradual movement in a particular direction, with, of course, the potential for an occasional earthshaking jolt.  We may be no more able to control these aspects of ourselves than the populations of Australia and Hawaii can stop their land masses from drifting towards each other.

The LGBT community, with its embrace of the “born that way” side of the false “born that way or chose it” dichotomy often seems unsure of how to rationalize the experience of women who embrace lesbian sexuality later in life.  To avoid the idea that lesbian women could just choose to turn straight again, they are forced to try to fit the experience of these women into the “born that way” narrative by retconning it, rather than admitting that someone’s identity can evolve, unbidden.

Despite its obvious flaws, the “born that way” narrative remains ascendent. I think the idea of biological predestination lets people feel better.  They can say “I was always going to be gay/trans/right handed/Mormon/an asshole/an introvert/whatever, so there’s nothing I could have done.”  It’s one of those nice, clean, pat answers people like. Sure, it reduces a complex phenomenon to an easy answer; sure, it’s incoherent; and, as we have seen, the second half doesn’t even necessarily follow from the first; but in my experience, most people generally don’t require consistency or logical correctness from the things they believe; they’re looking for comfort and validation.  In a hostile world, they want to be absolved and be told that their present situation is not their fault.

(Actually, that’s oddly dualistic view of things; to say that you and your biology are two separate entities, and that we can lay blame with one rather than the other.  It’s almost like a murder trial where the killer asks to be absolved because it wasn’t he who committed the crime, it was his hand.)

In my model, I say that my identity is what it is because of an unfathomably complex tangle of innate proclivities, acquired traits, external forces, and a healthy dollop of random chance, stirred gently by a poorly understood feedback loop. That explanation is probably less satisfying for some, but for me, it makes more sense, and I like the idea that I am, at least in part, responsible for making me the person that I am, even if I don’t always understand how I did it.

With my understanding, it is at least conceivable that had I made different choices, I might have become a quite different person.   This view is pretty heretical in gay and trans communities, because it implies that there could be courses of action you might take, or have taken, that might affect your chances of ending up gay or trans.

I agree that this explanation might be more politically awkward, but if that explanation turns out to be the true one, truth should really win out over political expediency.  And, really, so what?

This dichotomy exists largely because of people of a conservative/religious persuasion who want to vilify “otherness”. Their mantra is “those people are different from us, but they could chose to conform if they wanted”.  You don’t have to say you’re at the mercy of biological predestiny to refute that—it’s sufficient to say that you’re unable to change your identity by any effort of will.  But frankly, why should I even be willing to try to change my identity by an effort of will to placate these douchebags?  The real response to people who vilify otherness and desire conformity is, “Screw you! It takes all sorts to make a world.”

5 comments so far

  1. Ariel on

    I think you’ve made good points here (and nice to see you writing again). But I think the analogy fails.

    If we acquire something — such as a food aversion or a phobia — it can be overcome. We probably can’t overcome it ourselves, but through desensitization, we can eventually drink that peppermint liqueur or go to the top of the Ferris wheel.

    Both sexual orientation and core sex identity, however, seem not to respond to cognitive behavioural therapy. Attempts at “reparative” therapy have failed miserably.

    I quite agree, however, that pointing to any single cause is simplistic and almost certainly inaccurate. We are the result of complex and ongoing interactions among genetics, epigenetics, and environment.

    • Nebulous Persona on

      Thanks for your kind words, Ariel. I’m pleased to be writing again too (beyond commenting on reddit and such). I didn’t intend to have quite such a huge hiatus, but I also don’t try to force myself into writing. I seem to need right combination of suitable time and motivation, and having something coherent I want to say, and those things haven’t always aligned so well.

      Possibly using a food aversion was a poor analogy, because it was central to my point that the acquired trait be immune to any overt effort on my part to change it, including CBT, hypnosis, drugs, etc. So just imagine that’s how it is.

      I suppose it is possible that if we believe that identity does change and evolve over time, then maybe someone could come up with ways to influence that evolution process, and thus have the potential to change people’s identities, either to turn them gay or trans, or turn them straight. But as you point out, no one can claim much success in doing that so far, and I see no reason to expect them to have any greater success in the future.

      But thinking about your point reminds me that when I was first dealing with things, I thought about the whole “what if there was a magic pill” question, and I concluded that there was absolutely no way I’d accept any cure that would “fix” my gender identity to be congruent with my birth-assigned sex. Maybe my identity is kind of bizarre and messed up, but it nevertheless is my identity, and I’m just not prepared to give up my very self so that some other, different, self may live. You might as well ask me to die so that another person may have my stuff.

      • Ariel on

        About that magic pill, yes, I think others (including me) have reached the same conclusion. If you could take it at birth, fine. You’d grow up as yourself, and that self would be different. But later, no way. Any magic pill would be like having a lobotomy. Our personalities include a core sex identity that doesn’t match the bodies we were born with. That core sex identity is an integral part of who we are.

        You know, I haven’t asked any hard-core “born that way” gays or lesbians what they think about those of us who transition and find our sexual orientation shifting toward the other pole (from wherever we started). I’ve experienced it, and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s a mysterious phenomenon to me, and I haven’t seen any research on it. I have only a crackpot theory as to why it happens in some cases.

      • Nebulous Persona on

        If you’re able to magically change the past, and don’t mind if all your life’s achievements are erased, I think it would make as much sense to arrange to never be born at all. I really don’t want that either. I realize that if I were erased from time, I wouldn’t be there to be bugged by it, but still. If we’re going to allow this kind of magical stuff, it seems actually worse than some magical sort of suicide where I suddenly disappear and yet everyone is somehow configured not to even notice that I’m gone.

        Of course, maybe your idea is not so much the erasing of me, but something that eliminates all future trans people. As I said in my main article, if such a thing were possible, we don’t know for sure that it would have to be done at birth—suppose we find a way to detect gender dysphoria in children and guide them into simply being gay/lesbian (after all, historically, a significant fraction of gender dysphoric children actually do head that way as it is). Would I be okay with that? Eliminating whole segments of our society would, I suppose, allow it to enjoy greater homogeneity, and make various people’s lives easier, but it still doesn’t really feel right to me. Where would we stop? Do we rid also ourselves of the disabled, the poor, the stupid, the zealously religious, the criminally inclined? No, I don’t like that at all. Sometimes I think the right answer is to let the chips fall where they may.

  2. Reneta Scian on

    A very good point… But there is one piece in this I feel so many miss… Diversity. The degree to which different factors affect different people varies. It’s like some sort of Butterfly Affect, however in actual systems causality is never so sensitive to initial conditions. And that isn’t really intrinsically any more helpful and determining whether someone is what they are out of a series of choices, than a set of biological factors. Destiny is a human invention. Diversity just means that things must vary due to chance, and if not for chaos nothing would ever change, or perhaps even that is a false dichotomy. Everything has properties and trajectories, and within certain boundaries those potentials are governed by laws and yet other properties.

    Schrodinger’s Gender/Sexuality/et cetera, or something, where at some point in time you are both transsexual, and cisgender. Where until the point comes that you become transgender you are simultaneous both cisgender and transgender, homosexual and heterosexual just due to uncertainty. Not everyone has the same degree of factors from every source that can affect the outcome. Which essentially means someone who would ordinarily be straight could become gay, where as someone else couldn’t. Without evidence, it’s impossible to know how fluid these trajectories are. What it points out to me at least, is how silly it is to draw conclusions in the absence of science (knowledge).

    Perhaps it is out of laziness that we simplify nuanced concepts into ambiguous, false versions, or perhaps we are born that way? However, If both outcomes are possible then neither outcome is either true, nor false but rather are diverse states of the system. I’d say it’s equally impossible that transsexuality is predestination, as it is that choice is the only way to be a transsexual. Something you eluded to here though spoke to me. And that is, life, existence, our beings, and the world are all much more murky than they appear to be. And in a world that expects clear, definite answers, that reality is never convenient. We have the capacity to see the nuance and reveal how foolish our territorial posturing is.

    Yet, we still live in an age where people are taught in a specific way, with no regards to individual will. In and age were intellectual laziness is a virtue, because of a vestigial emotion/trait. We are moving into an age where the tools to know better are becoming more readily available. Religion is just a part of human nature and is not the only source intellectual dishonesty and laziness. Religion is rooted in the human psyche. Neil DeGrasse Tyson said once while talking about religion’s erosion of the progress of science, “I want to put on the table ‘not why 85% of the Academy of Science rejects’ god. I want to know why 15% don’t. We have to peel away the veneers of security and vestigial characteristics.

    This means challenging everything that is sacred, to literally reveal just how ignorant, irrational, and imperfect we are. And through that, to realize that we don’t have to be. To pear into our own minds, and existence and reveal just how foolish belief and superstition are. To realize the benefit to survival provided by rational thought, rather than mythology. It’s the last and greatest human taboo or vice. We are like toddlers trying to walk, but we need to learn to walk to run. But perhaps the potentiality isn’t between being straight or gay, cisgender or transgender, but just what kind and degree of each we become. Everything is variable, but no two things variable in the same way. Really good writing, I am enjoying what you have to say, and it’s indeed thought provoking.

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