New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass on the Constitution

Frederick Douglass Ambrotype, 1856 by an unknown photographer, image public domain via Wikimedia CommonsListen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

Early on his career as an abolitionist speaker and activist, Frederick Douglass is a dedicated Garrisonian: anti-violence, anti-voting, anti-Union, and anti-Constitution…

[But] by the early 1850’s, the abolitionist par excellence had come to disagree with Garrison, father of American radical abolitionism, and to agree with Lincoln, proponent of preserving the Union at all costs and of the gradual phasing out of slavery.

So how does Douglass come to make what seems such a counterintuitive change in his views on the Constitution and on the role of violence, voting, and the Union in bringing an end to slavery?… Read the original essay here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Junkyard Idealism

Greater Adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) on a garbage dump in Guwahati, Assam in March 2007, by Yathin sk, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsIn a letter to a friend recently, I was reminiscing about my years working in a salvage and recycling yard. It was founded by an idealistic and action-oriented sociologist right near the edge of the local dump’s garbage pit, now grown to a fairly large operation that employs about forty people. I loved and miss the work: it was dirty, physically demanding, creative, and full of the thrill of treasure hunting, as founder Dan Knapp, my fellow salvagers, and I made all manner of discarded things available for use again. We diverted truckloads upon truckloads of things from the landfill every day, and dug among boxes and bags of trash and pulled out everything recyclable or reusable we could find. We rescued all manner of interesting artifacts; one box of ephemera we sold made it into an episode of PBS’s History Detectives. Being a lover of history, I was thrilled at the discovery and wondered how many other interesting and significant relics we snatched from the dump’s gaping mouth.

I wore steel toed boots and thick battered work gloves and grimy jeans, and scrubbed the filth off old household goods, lifted stoves and tables and dressers and machinery and rugs and other heavy things (I grew very strong there, and learned how to maximize the available leverage in my body), and delicately repaired jewelry, pottery, art, and so on. One of my favorite photos anyone’s ever taken of me illustrates an East Bay Express article from several years ago, where you will find me sitting on one of a row of recycled toilets. We helped young artists and first-time homeowners and collectors and independent businesspeople and seekers of antiquities find interesting and useful things; we also bargained, negotiated, and wrangled with hustlers, hoarders, slumlords, and thieves. While the work was hard and pretty nasty sometimes, it could also be great fun and deeply satisfying, and the comradery we shared was delightful, sometimes intense. Many lasting friendships emerged from this place, including my marriage.

Amy Cools works at Urban Ore, where you can find all manner of household goods, by Stephen Loewinsohn for the East Bay Express

Amy Cools works at Urban Ore, where you can find all manner of household goods, by Stephen Loewinsohn for the East Bay Express

My reminiscing was triggered by a podcast discussion I’d just heard about Thomas Jefferson’s disappointed idealism when so many of his fellow Americans flouted the Embargo Acts of his administration. Jefferson wanted to avoid getting drawn in to the war between Britain and France happening at the time, and to protest the unfair treatment of the newly formed United States as a free and equal trading partner. He also wanted to demonstrate to the world ‘that there are peaceful alternatives to war’, such as withdrawing from trade in protest. Unfortunately, the public would not put up with the resulting deprivation of luxuries and money-making opportunities resulting from the general embargo, and it failed.

The embargo episode discussion reminded me of the idealism of the salvage yard, of its founder and those of us that believed that the work (and some still do!) was mostly about doing our bit to counteract the wasteful and polluting consumer habits of our American culture. We hoped and believed, like Jefferson, that the capacity of ordinary citizens to do the right thing would come through, and we could curb and redirect our acquisitory habits if necessary. Yet, like Jefferson, many of us found ourselves disappointed at the way our fellow citizens would fail to live up to our idealism. Even in the Bay Area, known for its ‘green’ culture, our community still manages to consume so voraciously and produce so much trash, that our operation could hardly seem to make a dent in it, though we recycled, literally, tons of stuff every day. When our team in place at the dump would salvage from the trash pile about to be bulldozed into the pit, we’d find enormous quantities of recyclable and salvageable things thrown carelessly into the garbage, even though there’s a comprehensive local infrastructure for salvage and recycling. Everywhere in this country, even here in this liberal bubble, we still seem to be contributing far too much towards rendering the earth and its atmosphere more inhospitable to life as we know it, because we just can’t seem to find a way to help ourselves.

Now, of course, there’s no way around the fact that waste is one of the byproducts of living, especially for long-lived, intelligent, creative creatures like human beings. And some of the waste seems acceptable: clothes worn out and outgrown; machines which no longer work but contain usable parts; recyclable packaging like glass bottles and tin cans; worn-out books, textiles, and parts; obsolete technology; and so on. But lots of the waste appears just gratuitous: gimmicky toys and games; faddy decor; cheap, poorly constructed clothing and other stuff manufactured for short-term use; trinkets and impulse buy gifts that few like to keep but many buy out of a sense of social obligation or an addiction to shopping; and so on. To this day, when I walk into a department or gift shop I perceive mostly thinly disguised, soon-to-be trash.

We really did believe, as again so many of us still do, that this salvage work has significance, that it’s a part of a general movement, slow-moving as it may be, towards a greener, less wasteful, more environmentally caring way of living in the world. The mission and the work both fit in with and raise local consciousness, and lots of people bring their discards to salvage from, glad to see that much of it would not become trash after all. And the business continues to be a well-known and beloved local institution, warts and all.

I still hope, with my old friends and former colleagues, that the people of the United States and of the world will make more than symbolic changes to better protect our world from the ravages of our mining, agriculture, production, and consumption, and live up to our idealism a little better than the American people of Jefferson’s day. Those disposable grocery bags do little to help if we’re still buying and throwing away at such high rates, cheap clothing, discarded water bottles when clean water is flowing from our taps, boxes from nightly takeout, overly-packaged goods, most kinds of plastics, and generally more stuff than we need. Many are more optimistic than I am about how far we’ve come and where we’re going when it comes to waste, pollution, and the capabilities and effectiveness of modern recycling programs. My husband points out that the efficiency of the Oakland transfer station, which uses well-calibrated equipment to effectively separate out recyclables from trash, and the advanced capabilities of carpet recyclers, who have taken out the guesswork of sorting by compatible fiber content with sensors which can detect it, demonstrate real social progress at least when it comes to waste. And one of my great friends is a techie who closely follows technology news, those just coming out, in development, and still in the working-theory stage. If he’s right, new technologies will resolve most or all of our pollution problems, of both production and disposal, in the relatively near future, so long as we manage to fund, make, and use them before we’ve pushed our human-nurturing environment over the brink of collapse.

I really hope my husband and my tech friend are right. Perhaps we won’t ultimately solve the problem through economic self-control, just as in the days of the embargo. Perhaps technology is the only workable solution. But until we’ve invented our way out of the mess we’re making of the world, we need to keep putting our junkyard idealism to work.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration:

Jenkinson, Clay. ‘Crockett Middle School‘, episode 1169  of the Thomas Jefferson Hour, Feb 21, 2016.

‘Urban Ore: About Us’ business website page

Related Ordinary Philosophy pieces:

Activism is Not Enough: As Long As We Keep Shopping and Don’t Vote, It’s Our Fault Too! Dec 13, 2014 by Amy Cools

Logos‘, Jul 27, 2015 by Amy Cools

New Podcast Episode: O.P. Recommends: Landmark Cases and Injustices, Two Great Works on the Supreme Court

Listen to the podcast episode here  or subscribe on iTunes

This last couple of weeks or so, I’ve been packing in a lot more learning about the Supreme Court, and is it ever fascinating.

It began when I stumbled on Landmark Cases last month, a C-Span series about 12 Supreme Court cases chosen because they had a dramatic impact on the legal landscape in United States history, and because they likewise had a significant impact on the Court itself, as precedent and on its perceived legitimacy, for good or ill….  Read the original essay here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Frederick Douglass the Pragmatist

Frederick Douglass House Parlor, Washington, D.C.

Douglas is a fiery orator, an uncompromising abolitionist and proponent of universal human rights, and even an advocate of using violence if the cause is just, the harms too great, and other means prove ineffective (more on that in an upcoming piece). He criticizes those who ‘shamefully abandon their principles’. And very often, when he encounters discrimination in a hotel, restaurant, or other public place, he reports the incident to the local press.

Yet for all his energetic activism, uncompromising rhetoric, and devotion to principle, Douglass is also a pragmatist, in matters large and small.

To be sure, many of his activist tactics are as idealistic, and plainly appear so, as they are as practical. Douglass’ reports of discrimination, for example, fire up public support for the cause of equal rights by arousing a storm of protest and in turn, raising consciousness and providing examples for use in the political arena.

He’s a pragmatist when it comes to making a living as well: after a decades-long successful career lecturing and publishing, a house fire and an attempt to rescue the Freedman’s Bank from collapse leave Douglass’ finances in disarray. So he takes to the lecture circuit again full time in the 1870’s. In the pre-Civil War era, he makes his living doing what he believes in most: lecturing, debating, and arguing for abolishing slavery and expanding human rights. But in the post-Civil War era, he finds that morals, politics, and rights issues are no longer such profitable topics. So he goes ahead and lectures on the profitable ones, so long as it he can make the talks instructive and wholesome, and link them to more important issues. ‘People want to be amused as well as instructed’ he writes.

He’s a pragmatist when it comes to tactics and the importance of crafting an image. For example, Douglass considers photography a very important, modern tool for engendering mass support through empathy: if people can see and recognize the face of the person behind the ideas, and of one who is a member of a suffering and oppressed people, people will feel the visceral need for change. So, he takes care to become one of the most photographed men in American history.

Douglass’ practicality holds sway in larger issues too. He does not hesitate to change tactics or switch allegiances between organizations or parties if he thinks it would help the cause in the long run. In fact, he is convinced that true, unswerving, uncompromising allegiance to the cause itself requires a reformer to use whatever means necessary, so long as they are not morally wrong, even if they are imperfect or less inspiring or exciting to others than the more uncompromising choice. He has been criticized throughout the years for splitting with the Garrisonians, for siding with Captain John Fremont against Abraham Lincoln in the latter’s recall of Fremont’s emancipation proclamation in Missouri early in the war, for refusing to support or join in on the raid on Harper’s Ferry (though he supports John Brown’s ideas about the validity of armed resistance in general), for evading arrest and possible execution for charges of co-conspiracy in the Harper’s Ferry raid by fleeing to Canada, and for abandoning the Radical Abolitionist Party in favor of the newly formed Republican Party. His critics contend that his practice of often siding with moderate tactics and candidates reveal a lack of commitment and moral courage.

Yet he defends all of these practical choices on the grounds that commitment to the tactics or politics in and of themselves are actually a distraction, since the practice of committing to the ‘pure’ choice in the short run is often an impediment to achieving the ultimate goal in the long run. For example, if he throws his support behind his friend and hero Gerit Smith, uncompromising political candidate of the Radical Abolitionist Party, instead of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate who ran on the more moderate goal of preventing the spread of slavery to the new states, he might be more admired as an uncompromising leader. But he understands what a risky move this would be. The Radical Abolitionists had little chance of winning, but the Republican Party was off to a very successful start, losing its first presidential campaign by a relatively small margin. Since the moderate goals of the Republican Party had a good chance of realization while those of the Radical Abolitionists little to none, Douglass sides with the former. The stakes are simply too high for Douglass to risk losing at this point, even if the risk appears nobler.

In sum, Douglass argues that the truly committed reformer is free to choose the more modest, practical, sure-bet option over the less apparently compromising, more radical option when it appears to be more effective in the long run. That’s because true faithfulness to the mission does not require appearing an effective reformer, it requires actually being as effective as possible. No small part of Douglass’ greatness as an activist and as a person is his willingness to forgo short-term public approval or personal glory in favor of acting in the long-term best interests of his cause. And it appears that history not only validates him as an astute tactician, but as a heroic figure, in part because in hindsight we can more easily recognize the wisdom, integrity, and strength in his pragmatism.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration:

Blassingame, J. (Ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. 4 volumes, and The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 2: Autobiographical Writings. 3 volumes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979-1999

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies, with notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction.. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Varon, Elizabeth. ‘Most photographed man of his era: Frederick Douglass’, the Washington Post, Jan 29, 2016.

Happy Birthday, John Rawls!

John Rawls, image via BBC's Will and Testament blogJohn Rawls, Feb 21, 1921 – Nov 24, 2002, is the great moral theorist who thinks of justice as fairness.

Among his greatest contributions is the thought experiment called ‘the veil of ignorance’. It’s a beautifully simple method for helping to design a just society: imagine you’re to be placed into society with no idea what you would be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed or not and at what kind of job; and so on.

Given that you have no idea what your roles in life will be, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? Remember, behind that veil of ignorance, you’ll have to decide what kind of society benefits everyone the most, since you could end up being anyone. If you were really in that situation, imagine just how fair you’d be. Perhaps, as Rawls imagines, we’d all be far better off if that was really how the world works.


Further reading:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: John Rawls

John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (book preview)

Ordinary Philosophy pieces featuring John Rawls:

Communitarianism, Writ Large

Sources, Influences, Shout-Outs, and all that Good Stuff

What Ordinary Philosophy’s All About: Clarifying the Vision

People in a Public Square, Image Creative Commons via PixabayIt’s been an especially busy few weeks for me: studying, researching, writing, planning for my upcoming traveling philosophy journey and for the expanded future of Ordinary Philosophy. This year so far, I’ve had the great good fortune to meet some inspiring new people: passionate, thinking, active, and creative. I’ve also gotten to know others better as well, and am opening new doors and making new contacts every day. Our conversations have been inspiring me to think more clearly and deeply about my vision for Ordinary Philosophy, about my hopes, dreams, and goals, and about the wonderful people who will work with me to accomplish them in the future.

So I’ve just been looking over my introductory statement about Ordinary Philosophy, and thought it needed some clarifying and expanding. Here’s my vision as it stands now, best as I can describe it, and it’s beautiful to me. I hope it is to you too!


Ordinary Philosophy is founded on the belief that philosophy is an eminently useful endeavor as well as a fascinating and beautiful one, and that citizen philosophers and academic philosophers alike share in making it so.

So why the name Ordinary Philosophy?

The ‘Ordinary’ in Ordinary Philosophy means: Philosophy is not only pursued behind the walls of academia.

It’s an ordinary activity, something we can do regularly whatever our education, background, or profession, from our homes, workplaces, studies, public spaces, and universities. It’s applicable to ordinary life, since it’s about solving the problems we all encounter in the quest to pursue a good, happy, and meaningful one.

It’s about seeking answers to the ‘big questions’ we ask ourselves all the time: ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ ‘What’s a meaningful life, and how can I make mine so?’ ‘What’s the truth of the matter, what does truth mean anyway, and how do I know when I’ve found it?’ ‘What does it mean to have rights?’ ‘How did reality come to be as it is?’, and so on.

It’s also just as much about the ordinary, day-to-day questions: ‘Should I take this job, and will it help fulfill my highest aspirations?’ ‘It is wrong to put my interests first this time, even if it will harm someone else?’ ‘What’s the difference between just talking about other people and malicious gossip?’ ‘Why should I go out of my way to vote?’

And in the end, it’s about living philosophy, about philosophy in the public square, and the stories and histories of philosophy as it is realized, personified, lived out by activists, artists, scholars, educators, communicators, leaders, engaged citizens, and everyone else who loves what’s just, what’s beautiful, and what’s true.

All of this is philosophy.

~ Amy Cools, founder and editor of Ordinary Philosophy

It’s Hard to be Anti-Muslim When You’re Stuck with the Old Testament

Poussin Nicolas - The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, copy, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsThere’s a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country and in many other parts of the world these days: if you don’t look too deeply into history, or at how denominations of Islam differ from each other, or what the political situations are the Muslim world right now, it’s not hard to see why. The bare fact is: the majority of ideologically driven terrorists in the world today are Muslim.

As many are quick to point out, that’s not always been the case: Christians have targeted Jews, heretics, and dissenters for centuries, burning books, homes, entire towns, and people at the stake. Christians defended slavery and racism, and the Klu Klux Klan and the White League’s belief in Jesus did nothing to stop them from beating and lynching; in fact, they may have felt themselves holy warriors of their race, avenging angels of sorts.

But wait a minute! comes the protest. Christians don’t do that anymore: they’ve seen the light and mended their ways. They’ve pondered, learned from their mistakes, and have reformed, which is the whole point of religion, isn’t it?

Well, this is true: not many terrorists are Christian anymore, and the few who are left, such as abortion protesters gone off the deep end, are generally not defended by their coreligionists. And yes, reflection and self-correction are laudable features of religion. As is the effort to realize the love of God in the world, for those who worship the God of love.

But Christians have a problem: the legitimacy of Christ as the Messiah, foretold by the prophets according to the New Testament, is derived from the Old. And the God of the Old Testament is not a God of love, but a God of jealousy and vengeance. At least, for everyone who already worshiped other Gods, or liked to keep their genitals intact thank-you-very-much, or people other than the Israelites if they just so happened to already live where God subsequently decided the Israelites should settle instead.

So as you may expect, as it has always been when adherents of a new religion convinced of their own uniqueness and infallibility sweep in and take over, slash-burn-rape-kill was the order of the day. The Old Testament, other than a few lovely poetic and wisdom-y books and chapters (Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes) is really chock-full of the most God-awful violence and cruelty you can imagine, inspired, condoned, and expressly ordered by the same God Christians worship today.

While his son Jesus is called the Prince of Peace, and his teachings are relatively peaceful (though not entirely), the legacy he inherited of the Father was made plain in the centuries of religious wars and persecutions carried out in his name. But slowly, slowly, sloooooowwwwly, Christianity was reformed, and rejected many of its nastier and more violent aspects, keeping the friendly parts and interpreting away the rest. Or, I think rather, it was forced to do so by the Enlightenment and other humanistic movements in order to stay relevant. Today’s Christians do generally behave very well, and are charitable, peaceful, and tolerant for the most part.

Only thing is, there’s that pesky Old Testament, that Tarantino-like gorefest without the redeeming quality of being tongue-in-cheek. And the Old Testament is so very full of all that awful stuff that’s nearly identical, if not worse, than the most violent stuff found in the Q’uran that inspires and ‘justifies’ Islamist terrorism.

So now that Christianity has undergone that reformation crucial for a future of peaceful enlightenment, what of that Old Testament? Can any of us, of any belief, believe in a future where even those committed to peace can’t let go of the violent relics of the past because they’re foundational myths? Perhaps, perhaps not; we can’t even give up the gun-nut interpretation of the Second Amendment. But until the Christians can give up their violent scriptures, they can’t be taken totally seriously when they demand Muslims give up theirs. And their kids, like me with my Christian upbringing, will continue to think the adults are crazy for telling us to be good while believing in the Old Testament, though sadly some of them will get all too used to those bloody ideas, and learn to believe in them too.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sex, Gender, Surgery, and Freedom

The Olympic Gateway arch and male and female statues at the entrance to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles, California by Robert Graham, public domain via Library of CongressI believe that people should be free to express their tastes, preferences, and personalities without legal limits if little or no harm is done to others by doing so. Not including mere hurt feelings, however: if it did, no one would be free to do much of anything.

Likewise, I believe we have positive moral obligations to respect each other and ourselves, and to do so, we should work to free ourselves from harmful biases and distastes based on cultural, racial, religious, and gender stereotypes and narrow standards of beauty.

But when a popular social practice seems to promote one of these principles while betraying the other, it can be difficult to decide whether it’s right or wrong, good or bad.

Take plastic surgery, Botox injections, and other body-altering elective procedures done for non-reconstructive, ‘vanity’ purposes. I’ve dubbed them cosmetic medical interventions. Last year, I examined the benefits and impacts of these, both personal and social. Many, even most, would consider opting for one of these cosmetic treatments  anything from harmless vanity to helpful in boosting self-esteem, and most would consider it a purely personal matter and no-one else’s business. Yet I found that the social acceptance and increasing prevalence of cosmetic medical interventions can have significant impacts that affect a whole culture. While I didn’t find sufficient justification for banning most of them or even for claiming they’re immoral across the board, I believe I presented evidence and arguments sufficient to show they can cause harm, especially in the aggregate. While cosmetic medical interventions can and do make some individuals happy in particular circumstances, they can present health risks, be disfiguring, become psychologically addictive, and perpetuate gender stereotypes, ageism, racism, classism, and other mindsets that erode respect and tolerance.

And as my examination progressed, an uneasy realization kept nagging at me. Many of my questions and concerns about cosmetic medical interventions could apply, for the same or similar reasons, to sex reassignment surgery. I decided not to include it in that discussion because it’s embraced by so many as an important way to achieve fulfillment, acceptance, and equality for traditionally marginalized transgender people, making it a politically ‘hot’ and delicate issue warranting its own careful examination.

Then not too long ago, I heard this story on NPR about one of two twin boys, self-identified as a girl since the age of three, who became the young woman she identifies as today through sex reassignment surgery. Nicole’s story, while fascinating in its own right, struck me at the moment because of the terminology used: gender reassignment surgery.

That got me to thinking a lot about the issue again. Hmm, I thought, ‘gender reassignment surgery’, that’s a new way of putting it… but wait a minute: isn’t there a glaring assumption, even some contradictions, contained in that phrase?

For one thing, haven’t critics of traditional, binary gender roles been arguing that gender is neither dichotomic nor fixed? That gender is a set of attributes culturally or personally assigned according to sex, transmitted through social practice and the enforcement of norms? If so, how can gender, not just sex, be surgically altered? Sex can be reassigned to a certain extent: physical appearance can be surgically altered to match the general appearance of persons of the opposite biological sex, though we can’t transplant or build functioning reproductive organs (as of yet, anyway). And gender can be reassigned through self-identification, mental state, legal status, social acceptance, and many other means.

But how can gender be surgically reassigned, unless we accept the assumption that gender is tied to sex and an accompanying set of particular physical attributes?

Illustration of fermentation in the Rosarium philosophorum, Frankfurt, 1550, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I recognize that calling it ‘gender reassignment surgery’ is motivated by progressive values. Besides the regressive assumption I perceive in the term, it’s also forward-thinking in its attempt to reflect the best science available about transgender people, and a sympathetic recognition of the difficulties they experience in binary-gendered societies. The term hints at part of what science shows us: the experience of gender is at least partly biological in origin. However, gender is not, as the term also indicates, inextricably linked to how closely one’s physical appearance correlates with the general appearance of males and females. Science reveals that the feeling of belonging to a particular gender is generally correlated with sex, as biologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky explains; however, it’s more complicated than that. We now have the capability of studying the brains of people who seek sex reassignment surgery because they feel their gender doesn’t match the body they’re born with. When transgender people like Nicole from the NPR story, who just know from a very young age that they really belong to a different gender than others perceive, we can actually see that their brains are physically different from the average person whose gender and sex fit the more common binary system. For example, the brain of a young male-sexed person who has felt female for years can look, in some regions, more like the average brain of a female than of a male. And the tenuous link between sex and gender for many people doesn’t end there: physical expression of sex can be ambiguous, with some bodies having genitalia with both male and female characteristics, or not identifiably either, whatever the gender.

Therefore, the phrase ‘gender reassignment surgery’ misses the boat in reflecting the science of transgender experience and its biological origins. But it’s also regressive insofar as it contradicts that valuable, hard-won insight that gender is also cultural. The larger question of who we want to be, as it relates to gender, isn’t determined by the appearance of our bodies and whether that appearance matches one sex or another: it’s also determined by how other people treat us based on the appearance of our bodies and how we present ourselves. And the way other people treat us has as more to do more to do with culturally instilled values and expectations than with strictly biological instincts.

So the NPR story led me to expand my initial questions and concerns arising from my examination of cosmetic medical interventions: is sex reassignment surgery also such a good thing on the whole, for society and for individuals? And to add: might it do more to reinforce gender stereotypes and the notion that our physical appearance determines our fate, than it enhances our freedom and long term sense of self-worth and happiness?

The evidence regarding the latter is very limited, since sex reassignment surgery hasn’t been done on a large scale for very long. There’s a(n) (in)famous study from Sweden from a few years ago that found that rates of suicide and psychiatric disorders were higher in those that received sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy. People of every political persuasion drew wildly different conclusions from this, generally to fit their already held convictions: either that the higher rates of suicide and psychiatric disorder only reveal the stigma that transgender people face, not that transgender people are mentally ill or sex reassignment surgery is bad, or, that the higher rates of undesirable outcomes reveal that sex reassignment surgery is an invasive, painful, and harmful mistreatment of what’s really a cultural and psychological problem.

Stuart (the male Patti) in the new 1492, Cin., U.S.A. U.S. Printing Co., c 1898, public domain via Library of CongressI don’t believe it’s hard for most of us to accept that many opt for cosmetic medical interventions because they feel driven to it by pervasive ageism, sexism, and gender stereotypes. If you’re convinced that you’re too ‘old’, ‘wrinkled’, ‘fat’ ‘flat-chested’, or otherwise don’t match cultural standards of what a beautiful and successful person looks like, than you feel you need surgery in order to be accepted, to succeed, and to be admired. Sometimes, opting for cosmetic medical interventions helps to achieve these goals in come circumstances. In similar ways, some may feel the need for sex reassignment surgery because they’ve been told throughout their life, regardless of how they feel about themselves and what their preferences are, that they can’t wear a dress or makeup, be tough, be cute, play rough, take a leadership role, be forthright and assertive, pursue their real interests, or otherwise express their true personalities because they look like a boy or a girl. And sometimes for these transgender people, sex reassignment surgery helps them to express who they feel they really are, because their new appearance changes the way others perceive them and expect them to act.

Does this mean that we need to accept that sex reassignment surgery, or cosmetic medical intervention for that matter, is the best way to help us achieve the freedom to be who we want to be? Does it help instill in us the values of respect and tolerance for others and for ourselves, regardless of physical appearance? Is it really the key to breaking down gender stereotypes and increasing the freedom to be who we really are?

I have some questions and some doubts.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that our newfound willingness to accept that people have the right to present or alter themselves as they see fit, and to recognize that their reasons for doing so may be good or at least understandable, is a good thing: it shows we’ve become more generous, our imaginations have broadened, and we’ve become more solicitous of other people’s interest in seeking their own happiness than we are concerned with whether their actions conform to our own moral or religious standards. I’m not exploring this issue because I doubt that society is moving towards increased tolerance, respect for diversity, and commitment to increasing human freedom; in fact, I believe that we’ve generally progressed a lot on all of these fronts, and will continue to do so. I’m exploring it because I’m doubtful that sex reassignment surgery is the best solution overall or in the long term to furthering these excellent ends, for the individual and for society.

For one thing, sex reassignment surgery seems to reinforce the idea that we need to look a certain way in order to be a certain way. In fact, it’s very name, like NPR’s term gender reassignment surgery, concedes this. Do we ‘feel like a man’, but ‘look like a woman’? Then to match our own and other’s ideas of what ‘feeling like a man’ should look like, we alter our body: remove the breasts, add a penis, and take hormones to deepen the voice, broaden the shoulders, and increase body hair. Or vice versa.

But why must we concede that changing the way our bodies look is the best way to resolve the disparity between how we look and what we and others expect of ourselves because of it? Sex reassignment surgery and the term gender reassignment surgery seem to concede too much to this assumption, to the point of people feeling that the radical step of extensive cosmetic surgery, with all its associated risks of infection, scarring, and other side effects, is necessary for them to be happy in their own skin. It’s also very expensive, and available mostly to the relatively wealthy and to those willing or able to get into debt, which, like cosmetic medical interventions, adds a classist element, making gender-as-sex expression the privilege of the few. It seems to me that sex reassignment surgery can serve to reinforce the notion that gender is strictly binary because of the way it conforms our bodies to it. So while the overall goal of sex reassignment surgery might be to break down rigid, narrow cultural perceptions of the link between sex and gender, it seems to act more as a concession to them.

Pin-up photo of Hedy Lamarr for the May 7, 1943 issue of Yank, the Army Weekly, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I’m also not so sure about the real freedom of choice that many feel they have when they opt for sex reassignment surgery. Since most of us treat others quite differently according to their perceived gender, for those who feel like they belong to another gender than people perceive them as, the disparity can grow intolerable over time. Thus, sex reassignment surgery can appear to be their only viable alternative. Imagine being treated all the time like a different person than you know you are, and you can imagine the frustration. Perhaps you are an intellectual by inclination, but your family doesn’t fully educate you as a child or encourage an academic career for you as an adult because of their religious conviction that only men are the God-appointed thinkers and leaders of church and home. Perhaps your curvy figure and heart-shaped face lead people to treat you as if you are little more than a ‘bimbo’, a ‘sex kitten’, or on the make (I’m thinking of the brilliant and lovely Hedy Lamarr, actress and inventor). Perhaps you are a biological woman who likes to wear short hair and comfortable, practical, and sturdy ‘masculine’ clothing, who find makeup and ‘feminine’ clothing binding and unsuited to your personality and lifestyle, and you find yourself unable to go about your daily business without people treating you as if you’re not a ‘real woman’ (whatever THAT means!) or as if you are ‘asexual’ or ‘hate men’.

I can imagine these situations, and I’ve experienced some version of all of these myself in my own life. For transgender people, the disparity is more pronounced, and the need for a lasting solution more urgent. In this sense, I not only appreciate the perceived necessity for a solution like sex reassignment surgery, but am deeply sympathetic as well.

Yet the problem here, again, is similar to that I’ve addressed when considering cosmetic medical interventions: while we might be happier as individuals or in the short term by surgically or chemically altering our appearance, is it really a good long-term solution to the underlying problem? Mightn’t we actually be prolonging it by perpetuating and strengthening sex and gender stereotypes through sex reassignment surgery, as we’ve considered? Is it really a good thing to allow ourselves too much leeway by accepting, out of hand, that surgically altering our bodies to fit society’s standards is better than the option of training ourselves and each other to learn to be comfortable with, and even love and appreciate, the bodies nature has given us? It seems that the latter is actually more conducive to creating a world where racism, ageism, and rigid binary sex and gender codes lose their hold on our imagination and moral sense, and a sustainable solution at that, available to rich and poor alike.

Acceptance of the practice of sex reassignment surgery may be a necessary step, even if a flawed one, on the way to creating a society that not only tolerates, but values, increasing diversity in cultural- and self-expression. I don’t believe for a moment that any individual person who opts to have sex reassignment wants to impose their ideas about gender on anyone else; they’re seeking to be true to themselves the best way they know how. And sometimes, for some people, it does the trick. That’s why, like with cosmetic medical intervention, I’m loathe to make the claim that we should ban sex reassignment surgery for consenting adults. But the social outcome of the practice in the aggregate, as it becomes an institution, may undermine the very good it’s trying to do. Whatever the intention, sex reassignment surgery leaves physical scars just as it can social and psychological ones, as our unreadiness, our inability, our unwillingness, or our refusal to accept ourselves and each other as we really are is carved into the very bodies of transgender people.

Perhaps the liberty to choose sex reassignment surgery is what we need right now to break old habits and attain the freedom to be who we know ourselves to be. I hope that this, in turn, will become the freedom from having to change our bodies to coincide with our own and other people’s preconceptions on sex and gender.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration:

‘Becoming Nicole’ Recounts One Family’s Acceptance Of A Transgender Child’. NPR: National Public Radio. Oct 20, 2015

Dhejne, Cecilia et al. ‘Long-Term Follow-Up of Transsexual Persons Undergoing Sex Reassignment Surgery: Cohort Study in Sweden’. Feb 22, 2011

Glicksman, Eve. ‘Transgender Today: Throughout History, Transgender People Have Been Misunderstood and Seldom Studied. That’s Beginning to Change.’ American Psychological Association. April 2013.

Sapolsky, Robert. ‘Caitlyn Jenner and Our Cognitive Dissonance’

Celebrating Frederick Douglass in the Month of His Birth and Death

Frederick Douglass c. 1855, image Public DomainFrederick Douglass was born 198 years ago, as nearly as could be determined, on an unknown day in February 1818, based on an entry in the slave ledger of his first master who may have also been his father; Douglass hears reports throughout his young life that his father was certainly a white man, but who exactly it was is left unsaid. Aaron Anthony’s slave Harriet Bailey was Douglass’s mother, and she died when little Frederick was only about seven years old. Anthony’s daughter Lucretia married Thomas Auld, and upon Anthony’s death, she inherited young Frederick.

From such inauspicious beginnings, a ragged orphan enslaved on a plantation with prospects of little but a life of hard work and enforced ignorance, Douglass becomes one of the world’s most famous and well-respected people. His strong native intelligence and courage allows him to take the fullest advantage of every opportunity that comes his way, to his own credit and to the benefit of us all. After a long and illustrious career as an activist, writer, intellectual, and statesman, he dies on February 20th 1895 and leaves behind a legacy rivaled by few in American history.

I salute your memory, Mr. Douglass; my series on your life and ideas is my little tribute to you. Thanks for all you’ve done for your own people and for the whole human race!

I chose this day to commemorate his life and his death here at Ordinary Philosophy in advance of upcoming events in DC: the National Park Service will host a 2-day birthday celebration for Frederick Douglass on February 12th and 13th, 2016 at his home Cedar Hill and nearby sites in Anacostia and DC. Please visit the NPS website for more information.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Communitarianism, Writ Large

Ordinary Philosophy

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime… If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought…

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