Opinion Columns & Blogs

No, Mr. Williams, you are not an antelope

Walter Williams is one of my favorite nationally syndicated columnists. He has a way of taking complicated issues and making them more understandable by relating them to similar situations that are more familiar and accessible to the average reader. Using parables in this way can be a useful method for making large and complex problems easier to digest, but there is a danger if you aren’t careful that you can oversimplify the situation to the point that you commit the logical fallacy of a false equivalence. That’s when the two things you’re relating to each other are different in some critical respect that you are ignoring, making your point much less valid or even misleading.

I think Williams might have committed that fallacy in a recent column when he compared the phenomenon of feeling like you should be a different gender than you were born as (known as gender dysmorphia) with the feeling that you should be a different species than you were born as (species dysmorphia.) The point he seemed to be trying to make was that if people can be allowed to choose to be whatever they want to be, it’s just as valid for him to claim that he is really an African antelope (and should not be required to pay taxes) as it is for a man to claim that he is really a female (and should be allowed to use a women’s restroom.)

Gender dysmorphia and species dysmorphia do share some common characteristics to be sure, but they also have some very important differences that are very relevant to the larger point Williams seemed to be making about how society should respond to such people.

Maybe the most obvious way the two things are different is that medical science makes it possible, through surgery and hormone treatments, for a person to switch genders. No amount of medication and surgery could turn Williams into an antelope, so his desire is one that could not ever be fulfilled in any meaningful sense. But the difference between changing species and changing genders might be even more dramatic than that. Research into the brain structure of male and female humans is beginning to cast doubt on the idea that men and women are fundamentally different when it comes to how brains are constructed and how they function.

Although it is certainly true that there are general differences in brain structure between a typical male and a typical female, recently developed highly-detailed brain mapping techniques are showing that those differences are not as stark or consistent as has been assumed in the past.

It turns out that if you look closely enough you find that most male brains have some characteristics that are more commonly classified as female traits and most female brains show signs of male traits. In fact, the structural differences between any two individuals of the same gender are greater than the number of typical differences between an average male brain and an average female brain.

That likely means that, mentally speaking, gender identity is not completely determined by biology. Cultural conditioning also probably plays a significant role, so like everything else that has to do with our mental state, gender identity is a combination of nature and nurture.

Therefore it’s not hard to see how the scales could tip one way or the other and an individual could find themselves feeling like they were born with the wrong set of “equipment.” On the other hand, the average human brain and the average antelope brain are starkly different, so it’s a bit ridiculous to put gender dysmorphia and species dysmorphia on an equal footing. It’s like saying a drop of water and a lake are both drowning hazards.

Generally speaking, we aren’t comfortable with complexity, so I understand why Williams wants to dismiss transsexualism by ridiculing it as he did. We tend to be fear and attack what we don’t understand. It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that the debate we are currently having over how the law should deal with transsexuals is so divisive and filled with vitriol. It would be nice if we could approach the unfamiliar with less defensiveness and fear and more curiosity and compassion. But I’m afraid that is about as likely as Williams getting his wish and turning into an antelope.