The semantics of gender

Inspired by a recent video from Laci Green, discussing how many genders there are, as well as by a post from Sarah Reynolds, I want to discuss the issue of gender, pronouns, and the function of language, whether gender is a spectrum, and why it is important.

When discussing language, there are really three levels that must be considered. The first is the ‘stuff in the world.’ Philosophers call these things ‘particulars.’ Examples of particulars are ‘that specific chair,’ ‘that specific person,’ and so on. Next, there are the concepts which describe those specific things. Finally, there are the words with which we label those concepts.

Semantics deals with the question of which words label which concepts. In theory, any symbol can be used to represent any concept. However, in order for us to be able to communicate, we need to have a consensus on which symbols (words) to use for which concepts. As a side-note, the other aspect of language is syntax, which deals with the form of language itself.

Now, I maintain that when it comes to gender and pronouns, there are, roughly speaking, four ways in which these terms have been used, or in which is has been proposed they be used:

  1. Gender referring to biological sex. This is not a spectrum, of course, because biological sex is binary (with rare intersex exceptions). It cannot be changed via surgery or chemicals.
  2. Gender referring to the public presentation of male or female sex characteristics. Again, this is binary. It can, however, sometimes be distinct from biological sex. It can also be changed via surgery and chemicals.
  3. Gender referring to masculinity and femininity. This is sort of a spectrum, although I would suggest that a person can have highly masculine and feminine traits, so it is better to see it as a two-dimensional grid.
  4. Gender referring to how you feel about yourself.

As Green pointed out in her video, then, part of the problem of trying to answer the question ‘is gender on a spectrum’ is that different people are probably using the same word to refer to different things. Some of those things are spectrums and some are not. So which usage does language historically display?

Now, it seems that historically, genders and pronouns have been used in the first and second senses. As an example of the second sense, consider Blaire White, a popular transwoman Youtuber, who pointed out that people naturally refer to her as ‘she,’ even though she never asked anyone to do so, because that is how language works. In other instances, people use the terms in the first sense.

However, language has never really used genders and pronouns in the third and fourth senses, historically. We have words for describing people who have a lot of traits associated with the opposite sex (‘effeminate,’ ‘tomboy,’ etc.), but in each case, the gender and pronoun would be assigned in the first or second sense, with an additional term used to describe those other characteristics.

This means that the SJW movement to use genders and pronouns in the third or fourth senses are wrong when they say ‘gender is on a spectrum,’ if they are trying to be descriptive of language. But they are not trying to be descriptive. They are trying to be prescriptive. In other words, they are trying to change the concept which the word ‘gender’ labels. This is a vastly different matter. So let us note a few points:

First, gender dysphoria is a real psychological problem, which can sometimes be resolved through transitional surgery and chemical treatment. However, it remains a disorder. We should not change language to accommodate a psychological disorder.

Second, in the first, second, and third potential meanings for ‘gender,’ gender describes something about how the person fits into the world. You cannot ‘gender yourself,’ in this sense. In the first sense, you are your biological sex, which you cannot change. In the second sense, and even in the third, you can change how you present yourself to the world, but the world still decides whether you are ‘he’ or ‘she.’

This is, I would contend, a good thing, because it makes language more descriptive. If we move into the fourth sense, where we allow people to gender themselves, then ‘he’ and ‘she’ no longer have any useful descriptive function, since all they tell us is what a person thinks of themselves. This is as meaningful as if I told someone to call me a blond, because I feel blond (in fact, I have brown hair with red highlights). It becomes worse when people insist upon using gender neutral pronouns like ‘xe’ or ‘they’ (which is even more confusing since it mixes singular and plural). These convey no information, except that the person insisting on these pronouns is probably definitely an insufferable douchebag. Though perhaps this is more important to know than knowing anything about their gender…

Furthermore, the notion that gender can be ‘fluid’ is not a relevant point. Maybe there are some people who sometimes present male sex characteristics and sometimes present female sex characteristics; those are the only ones who could really claim to be ‘gender fluid.’ But they would be changing genders in the second sense, and doing so by presenting to the world in a different manner. ‘I feel a little girly today’ does not mean that your gender has somehow switched. Nor is gender something that you can really choose. As Reynolds points out, these notions actually minimize the real problem of gender dysphoria, which is not a choice but an affliction. And you cannot self-identify as gender dysphoric any more than you can self-identify as depressed or schizophrenic.

The fourth sense also has an inherent problem in that different people will still disagree as to whether gender is a spectrum, since some people may feel they are part of a two gender system, and some might feel that they are part of a ‘gender is a spectrum’ system.

Finally, does it really matter? After all, language is arbitrary. Well, it does matter, for two reasons. The first we have already covered: trying to move language to use gender and pronouns in the third or especially the fourth senses would decrease the descriptive power of language. Second, it poses problems when dealing with issues of sexual segregation. Although this could be dealt with in other manners, say, by specifying that the segregation is sexual, and not gender-based, it makes such discussions much harder. Two areas where this is especially relevant:

  1. Bathrooms and locker rooms. While bathrooms are less of an issue, since women’s restrooms tend have enclosed stalls, should women really be subjected to watching males getting changed in locker rooms? This is probably something that should be left up to females to decide.
  2. Much more important is the issue of sports segregation. Consider that the Williams sisters, who are probably the best female tennis players of all time, were trounced (6-0 and 6-1) in the same day by a male tennis player who was not even in the top 200 of male competitors. Or consider the high school track runner who currently ‘identifies as a woman’ and thus is being allowed to compete in the girls’ runs rather than the boys – as a result of which, he is winning instead of being middle of the pack. Numerous studies have confirmed that there is extensive sexual dimorphism between males and females in humans. Regardless of how gender and pronouns are used, it is crucial that sports, at least, be segregated by sex. But the current discussion of gender has pushed things to a point where trans people, even if they have not started transitioning, can join the opposite sex’s league, and use their advantages to crush the competition.

Something from nothing?

The notion ‘something cannot come from nothing’ is a common one in science and philosophy. Some believers use it to object to atheists, arguing that the universe must have had a creator. So let us answer this on three levels: first, the religious, then the philosophical, then the scientific.

The religious:

Let us suppose that nothing really can come from nothing. If nothing can come from nothing, then where did god come from? If he ‘always was,’ then the universe could have ‘always been.’ Now, the universe ‘originated’ in the big bang in the form we know it today, but who is to say what came before? We don’t know what there was before, but that doesn’t mean it came from nothing. It just means we don’t know from what it came. We cannot say ‘therefore it was the personal god described by the torah/bible/quran.’ Nor can we say ‘it was the gods described by the hindus!’ Nor can we say ‘it was Ymir like the Norse said!’ No, we can’t say.

And, if god can be a ‘First Cause,’ then why can’t the Big Bang be a first cause? Maybe the Big Bang is the first cause, but this first cause is not a personal god/Abrahamic god, etc.

The philosophical:

In philosophy, this notion is often called the principle of sufficient reason. Schopenhauer won a prize for writing an essay on this topic. But is it really philosophical? No. There is nothing contradictory about the notion of something coming from nothing, or of something being a ‘first cause,’ with nothing to precede it causally (remember, chronological ordering may not even apply outside our physical universe, but causal ordering does). And as Hume pointed out, the only things which are truly impossible, are those which are contradictory.

The scientific:

In fact, the notion ghat nothing can come from nothing is a bit wrong. We can create matter out of light, for example. But in each case, we are changing one form of energy into another. So, scientifically, nothing comes from nothing, and energy is conserved, right?

Well, let’s back up a moment. Yes, those are the laws of science which we observe. However, these are a consequence of the symmetry we observe. Let us look at what this symmetry entails. There are actually many forms of scientific symmetry, and each has its own consequences. This is because of Nother’s theorem, which states that every symmetry in physics gives rise to a conserved quantity. Now, one thing in physics is that it does not change over time. And this gives rise to the conserved quantity we call energy. But that might not apply before the big bang! (The fact that physics looks the same in one place as another gives rise to the conserved quantity of momentum; other symmetries give rise to other conserved quantities).

To put it another way, we cannot know what laws hold outside our universe. Maybe in some meta-ultra-verse, there are other universes with other physical laws, and maybe in the meta-ultra-verse, new universes can start (this seems like the most reasonable assumption to me for unrelated reasons). Or maybe, our universe started along with a paired universe whose energy is negative, so that there is a total of zero energy. Who knows? In fact, in general relativity, the entire notion of energy is very hard to pin down for technical reasons; conservation of energy may need to be replaced by a more precise concept.

A final note on the religious point:

And of course, according to religion, god created the universe from nothing. so apparently, this god could defy conservation of energy (unless he created it from himself, in which case, what made him, and why would this argument not justify the universe being made of something else that was pre-existent?)! Which means that one way or the other, both the religious and the atheists say: ‘Something came about, possibly from something prior to it, and possibly created out of nothing. Maybe it was created, from something already extant or out of nothing, by a god about whom we claim to know something, or maybe it came about due to some mechanism we claim to know nothing about.’ Now, the latter seems much less of an assumption than the former, does it not? In other words, the burden of proof is on the theist here, to prove that their god is the origin/creator of the universe.

In other words: okay, something ‘gave rise’ to the universe – prove it was your god!

In summary:

Either there was a first cause or not. If there was, there’s nothing about this fact to tell us anything more about the first cause. If not, there’s still nothing to tell us what happened causally prior to the start of our universe. In either case, ‘we don’t know without more evidence’ is surely the more intellectually honest option than assuming it must have been the god of some specific religion, or asserting that it must have had additional properties.

My take:

I would suggest that the spontaneous creation of universes is possible in some metaverse, each universe having potentially different laws of physics – and that life can only really exist in an orderly universe which would have many conservation laws, for example, the conservation of energy that we observe. But this is just my take on it. Regardless of the truth, I would need more evidence to conclude that there is a personal creator of the universe!

Study finds women have an easier time making the short list

A study done by Harvard researcher Hiscox has looked at how likely a job application is to make the ‘short list’ of applicants. What they found may be quite surprising to those who have bought into the feminist narrative of a world stacked against women: in fact, applications with women’s names were more likely to make the short list!

They tested what would happen if all references to gender and ethnicity were removed from job applications. From the article:

“We anticipated this would have a positive impact on diversity — making it more likely that female candidates and those from ethnic minorities are selected for the shortlist,” he said.

“We found the opposite, that de-identifying candidates reduced the likelihood of women being selected for the shortlist.”

The trial found assigning a male name to a candidate made them 3.2 per cent less likely to get a job interview.

Adding a woman’s name to a CV made the candidate 2.9 per cent more likely to get a foot in the door.

“We should hit pause and be very cautious about introducing this as a way of improving diversity, as it can have the opposite effect,” Professor Hiscox said.

Now, this suggests that 1. Women actually have an advantage in making the short list (although not necessarily getting jobs), and 2. for Hiscox, diversity is actually about making more women be hired, not about fair hiring processes. After all, if the hiring process were fair, we would only be concerned about the merits of the application, so whether this improved the chances of hiring women or not would be irrelevant. But Hiscox has declared that gender-blind applications go against diversity. It is clear, then, that for Hiscox and those who think like him, diversity really just means fewer men.

The Sanders strategy?

A lot of people on the real liberal left have been concerned about Bernie Sanders. The nature of this concern is basically ‘Why the hell is Sanders still going around with the Dems, and why won’t he help start a new major party, with the #DraftBernie movement?’ And some people are feeling like he’s betrayed the movement he inspired.

Now, when it comes to Bernie pushing the crazy Russian narrative, I agree he’s absolutely wrong. And he’s done a couple other things with which I really have to disagree. However, in terms of his strategy, I do have a suggestion for what he might be doing.

See, in his time as an independent senator for Vermont, he has always worked with the Democrats, even though he’s more liberal than they are. They even had him on important committees. And right now, he is still in a position to influence them. So right now, he has leverage over the Dems, and they have leverage over him.

See, by continuing to publicly appear with them, he’s able to threaten them with stopping this if they try to cut his influence in the senate. Likewise, he may fear losing what influence he has, should he actively support the formation of a third party. There is, therefore, a sort of stalemate between them: they definitely need him, and he feels he needs them in order to retain influence in the senate (although he may also sincerely believe they are a lesser evil to the GOP, which may affect his wish to keep helping them).

My suggestion, therefore, is to work on the third party without him, but don’t be surprised if he joins it or even tries to run for president on it, should we succeed in getting the third party to be large enough by 2020.

And, should this theory be wrong, establishing the third party will need to happen without Bernie’s help. So either way, we need to focus on making the third party work.

‘Whiteness:’ a veiled racist remark

There is a tendency nowadays to speak about ‘whiteness’ as opposed to ‘white people.’ In short, the term is intended to suggest that people of European descent have an inherent culture of supremacy, and to tacitly suggest that these are inherent and essential aspects of being white. After all, ‘whiteness’ certainly sounds like something essential about being white. It is not a phrase like ‘white supremacy’ that adds something to being white. It is just the noun form of the adjective ‘white.’ (As I cannot find out what this process is really called, I shall refer to it as ‘nounification.’ This is unquestionably better than the real term for it anyway).

So why would I label this a racist remark? Well, the thing is, we could do the same thing with anyone: find examples of a culture, ethnicity, or race’s worst exemplars in the past, stereotype them, and apply it to the whole race. But if that race were any but white, we would be called racist for it, so why should there be a difference for white people? Let us try a few here. Keep in mind, these are not accurate portrayals of members of these groups, but stereotypes based on the worst examples among them:

‘Arabness:’ Misogyny, Arab superiority, enslaving Africans (which is still going on today in Libya, and previously the last Arab slave port in Africa did not close until 1946!), imperialism (the islamic empires which sought to conquer North Africa, Asia, and Europe).

‘Blackness:’ Gangs, drugs, and deadbeat dads. Bad grammar (arguably, ‘ebonics’ is actually a dialect of English with its own rules of grammar – but we are trying to look at everything in the most negative light possible here).

‘Chineseness:’ Imperialism and genocide (Khan, for example). Chinese superiority. Suppression of individuality.

‘Hispanicness:’ Drugs, selling out one’s principles for corruption for a few pesos, laziness.

Of course, I do not agree with any of these definitions. However, they are formed by using the same method as the notion of ‘whiteness:’ in each case, we take the worst things done by members of the race/ethnicity, and somehow suggest that this is essential to that ethnicity.

We should, of course, condemn bad things done by any group, white or not, in the past and today. But we should also not suggest that all members of the group are responsible. Indeed, many of the ‘ills’ ascribed to white people were actually ended by white people. White Americans fought to end slavery, both politically and on the battlefield. The UK is the only empire in history to voluntarily put an end to itself. The civil rights movement rightly focused on the black protestors, but was supported by many white people, and succeeded because white politicians were convinced to support it.

Treating a group as a monolith is always a mistake. Trying to suggest that the essential quality of that group is something negative is worse.


Cardinality, infinity, and Cantor’s alephs

As a change, I’m going to try to write a blog in which I bring a mathematical concept to light, in a manner that will hopefully be accessible to everyone. What we will see is that there are different sizes of infinity. This peculiar discovery was made by Cantor, who is responsible for much of the rigor in modern mathematics.

For the sake of this blog, we just need a few mathematical concepts. First, a set. Things in a set are called elements of the set. In fact, precisely defining sets is a more complicated process than one might think, but we can just use the intuitive notion of sets that most people have.

Next, cardinality. This just means the size of a set. For sets with only finitely many elements (aka finite sets), it is very easy to understand cardinality: just count the number of elements. But what about for infinite sets?

To deal with these, we need the notion of a function. A function f from set A to set B is a mathematical device which takes each element of A and assigns it some element of B. Functions can assign the same element of B to multiple elements of A.

If a function f assigns a different element of B to each different element of A, then it is called one-to-one (often abbreviated 1-1). If every element of B gets assigned to at least one element of A, then f is called onto. And if f is both 1-1 and onto, it is called a bijection. Cantor defined two sets to have the same cardinality if there is a bijection between them. Obviously, for finite sets, two sets are the same size if and only if there is a bijection between them. So this makes sense for infinite sets as well.

What is odd is that it turns out there are infinite sets which have different cardinalities, meaning that there is no bijection between them!

To see this, we will use Cantor’s original proof method, sometimes called diagonalization, for reasons that we won’t go into here. Let’s take some set X. Let’s also define a set C whose elements are 0 and 1. Now let P be the set of all functions from X to C. In other words, an element of P is just some way to assign a 0 or a 1 to every element of X. It is pretty easy to see that P must be infinite whenever X is infinite, since P is at least as big as X (for each element x in X, we can define the function which assigns a 1 to x and a 0 to everything else, for example).

Suppose there were a bijection f from X to P. Then we could use this bijection to label each element of P by a unique element of x. We could therefore write the elements of P as px, to denote which element of X is associated with that function.

Now, what we want to do is to make a new function from X to C, which will not be equal to any of these px functions. If we can do this, then our function f is not actually onto P, which would be a contradiction, and hence f cannot exist. Here is how Cantor figured out to do this:

We want to make a new function p from X to C. To do this, we need to find a way to assign a 0 or a 1 to each element of X. We do so by the following rules: if px assigns a 0 to X, we make p assign a 1 to X. If px assigns a 1 to X, we make p assign a 0 to X.

This function p cannot be the same as any of the px functions, therefore, because p and px assign different values to x. That means p is in P, but f does not assign any element of X to p. And this means there cannot be any bijection f from X to P!

This means that not only are there multiple ‘sizes’ of infinity, there is actually no ‘largest’ infinity either. Cantor called these different infinites ‘alephs’ and labeled them with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (called ‘aleph’), together with subscripts to show to which cardinality he was referring. It turns out that there are a lot of interesting facts about these alephs – for example, the continuum hypothesis which turns out to be true in some forms of set theory and false in others! But those require a lot more technical detail than I want to get into here.

Worst. Blog. Ever.

Yeah. I’m about to post the least-popular blog of ALL TIME. Because I know my entire base is going to hate it.

Let me preface this by saying that I despite Hillary Clinton. I want to take every opportunity to attack her. Anything she does wrong, I want to take it, and tear into her, and never, ever let it go, until the Clinton legacy has been wiped from the face of the earth.

But, I can’t get upset, or even oppose, this ‘prison slavery’ thing. And here is why. Please, look at the rational thinking, before you decide I’m a terrible person who is no better than the Southerners who tried to secede so they could practice slavery.

Reason 1: community service

See, people who aren’t in prison are still sentenced to community service. And I know what some will say: ‘Well, you get to choose how you fulfill that service!’ Okay. But really, there are only a few choices. And we could give those choices to people in prison who are required to work. ‘You have five choices: which do you want?’ We could ask them that.

Reason 2: who pays for prison?

Why should law-abiding tax-payers pay for people to be imprisoned?

I recognize that letting anyone make a profit off prison labour is dangerous. So no, nobody should get to do that. But demanding that prisoners be worked so that their imprisonment is not a burden on society… I cannot, in principle, oppose that. Even while I realize that in practice, it can lead to abuses.

Reason 3: Slavery is unconstitutional… for law-abiding citizens

From the start, the constitutional protections are for law-abiding citizens only. The constitution guarantees a person will not be confined against their will, for example. But we imprison people. So, when people point out the anti-slavery amendment, my response is sure, for law-abiding people, regardless of skin tone, but what about the law-breakers?

Think about it: imprisonment would be called kidnapping, if not applied to those whom we consider law-breakers and ‘evil.’ Nobody would go along with it. In fact, one could argue that by imprisoning someone, we are interfering with their right to ‘liberty and happiness,’ because we are certainly imposing on the former, possibly the latter. The point is that punishments are things that violate the rights of the innocent. Period. End of story. We ban cruel and unusual punishments, sure. Saying ‘You must work’ is not cruel and unusual. In fact, pretty much everyone has to work to survive. Ergo, I have no objection to telling a prisoner ‘You work or you don’t get food.’ Because that is how it is for literally every other person (as long as the work required is not beyond their bodily strength).

The fact is, that making prisoners work for food is actually less a change for them (vs. ordinary people), than telling them where they have to live and sleep! We tell everyone they have to work for food, after all, and most people have only a few choices in that regard!

What is ‘cruel and unusual’ is telling an unconvicted person they have to pay for the survival of a convicted criminal. Why the fuck should my labour go to supporting the survival of Jack Murderer?

Reason 4: the new Jim Crow

I know that a book as been written, ‘The New Jim Crow,’ talking about how prison labour is a new slavery for black people. And I’m not trying to specifically refute these claims. However, the fact remains that the problem revealed herein is not that prisoners are worked, but that 1. black people make up a disproportionate number of those workers, and 2. Prisoners being worked are used to give a profit to corporations. In other words, this problem would remain, whether blacks, whites, or an equal proportion, were being imprisoned. And it would remain as long as the profits were being passed on to corporations. The racial element is a result of biased application of the criminal justice system, which is bad (more on this perhaps later), but not an objection to the fundamental idea of prison labour.

So yes, let’s apply laws equally, regardless of race. And let’s stop making a profit for corporations off prison labour. Instead, let’s pay for prison via prison labour, and send people to prison based on legal violations, not skin colour.

Reason 5: no benefit to prisoners

Well, maybe, maybe not. I would argue that getting to get out of their cells is a benefit. I would argue that interacting with others is a benefit. I would argue that getting to perform beneficent acts for society is a benefit, and could even teach these prisoners something about living in society productively when they are released. It could even teach them a marketable skill, and help them avoid future crime.

In other words, the prisoners aren’t necessarily entirely without personal benefit, even if they do not get paid.

The Upshot:

Look, I’d love to bash Clinton for ‘owning slaves,’ as has been popular on Twitter. I really would. I’d love to bash that shithead for every transgression known to mankind. I fucking hate Hillary. She epitomizes all that is wrong in the world.

But I can’t fault her for using prison labour. I want to. I really want to. But I can’t. She is an horrible human being, but prison labour is actually a rare good idea. I’m afraid that on this point, like on ‘gun control,’ I must take a position that disagrees with most of my fellow liberals.