Umwelt and the Trans Debate

I am human: nothing human is alien to me. Either I want to find out for myself or I want to advise you: think what you like. If you're right, I'll do what you do. If you're wrong, I'll set you straight.

— Terence

“Umwelt” is an extraordinarily cool concept which, I am only slightly embarrassed to admit, I first learned about in an XKCD comic, in a comic that is, alas, now broken in most browsers (see also). XKCD’s tool tip for that comic defined the term:

Umwelt is the idea that because their senses pick up on different things, different animals in the same ecosystem actually live in very different worlds. Everything about you shapes the world you inhabit--from your ideology to your glasses prescription to your web browser.

Accordingly, the same cartoon page would show an entirely (or, occasionally, subtly) different comic depending on what browser and device you used, where you were logging in from, and other things. It was an extremely cool use of the webcomic medium. (An archive of some of the cartoons can be found here.)

What I like about the idea is that it takes some of the insights from postmodernism and poststructuralist theory—that our positioning, identity, context, etc, has an enormous impact on what we see and think and understand—but rather than using it as an excuse to throw out objective reality, it simply uses it as an excuse to throw out an overly simple understanding of it and how it is perceived. It’s not that there is no environment; but every different creature will perceive and miss different attributes of it. We can—with effort, with care, and always partially—understand how some others perceive things. And eventually—with far more effort than almost any of us ever can put in—achieve something like a traditionally-understood “objective” view by joining the views of a great many creatures using different perceptual tools.

None of these concepts are new—as the Wikipedia article on the idea points out, it has ancestors in intellectual history back to Plato and Aristotle, and I certainly don’t understand the idea well enough to distinguish it from its close cousins. I may well be missing what is distinctive about it. But for my purposes, it will do.

You, Sophisticated Reader, are doubtless way ahead of me. I think that both sides—and in this context, it is probably more accurate to say “all of the many sides”—of the trans debate live in different worlds, different umwelten. What they say is a reasonable response to the world they live in. And they interpret the other side as either deceptive or hostile, because what the other side is saying does not fit their own analyses, their own knowledge, their own experience.

Imagine a trans woman. When she transitioned, her best friend from childhood stopped speaking to her because they wouldn’t be friends with a “tranny”. She’s kept her job, fortunately, but she’s had some nasty things said to her at work, and she thinks, all things considered, that she should keep her head down. Several of her friends have had more serious transphobic harassment; one has committed suicide. In her state the legislature is passing various transphobic legislation—bathroom bills, bills against trans women playing sports, etc. Everywhere she looks she sees anti-trans forces on the rise. So when she sees someone going on about “wokeness” and the power of the “trans lobby” it looks ridiculous. They must actually be transphobic; no one else could possibly see the world and come to these conclusions!

Now imagine a cis lesbian. She went on a blind date the other week and found a person who looked very male; when she demured, she was attacked online. Her best friend from childhood stopped speaking to her because they wouldn’t be friends with a “transphobe”. She has to be careful at work: she’s a non-tenure-track professor, and if word got out that she was transphobic, she would almost certainly lose her job. Worse, her academic advisors might turn on her, which means she’d never get another. Several of her friends had gotten seriously harassed for asking questions about the reality of sex (she’s always told that that’s a strawman, but then “sex is real” is literally the sentence that got Rowling canceled); one of her friends seriously considered suicide after an ongoing campaign of harassment. At every university she’s heard of, people with even mild questions about the trans agenda are shut up or fired; now it’s starting in corporations too, and Biden has said he’d sign a bill which will make any sort of distinctions illegal. So when she sees someone going on about how weak and oppressed trans people are, it looks ridiculous. They must want the utter destruction of their enemies and eradication of all questions; no one else could possibly see the world and come to these conclusions!

You might, reader, read these two paragraphs and decide that one or the other is clearly ridiculous. But I think they’re both well grounded. Both of these are, of course, fictional thumbnails, created from a hodgepodge of people I’ve met or read about online. But I don’t think either is a particularly unlikely imaginary person.

You might decide that the troubles of one or the other are their own fault for doing or believing unreasonable things. But please put that aside for now: just think about the psychic, phenomenological world each lives in.

You might think that both people are wrong. But you could equally well say that both are right. That both are seeing the world they see—what’s in their scope of vision—and coming to correct conclusions about the world they know.

This is where I think we live right now in the trans debate. Now I’m not saying that everyone participating in the debate is right even about their own world (actually, given humanity all of them are wrong about something: we live in bubbles, but even about those bubbles we are fallible). And I’m not saying that everyone in the debate is participating in good faith. What I am saying is that each side is seeing something true—not absolutely true, but true in the world that they perceive—and is trying to express it.

Here are two tweets from the past week:

These are not, of course, my imaginary people. But each of my imaginary people would understand one tweet and dismiss the other.

Neither would see that each of those people has experienced unjust and undeserved pain.

How can we sort all this out?

The only good way,1 of course, is by talking to each other. Talking and really listening. Talking and listening to people who we think, at first blush, are simply evil or simply wrong. By wondering what world they are looking at and experiencing. By pointing out mistakes in other’s reasoning while also being willing to see mistakes in our own.

By having a genuine conversation.

I don’t know if, in that climate, this is actually possible. But I think it’s the best answer. So I’m going to try to keep pushing it, while I can.

(Recurring) Notes on practical matters

This newsletter is a part of Confessions of an Autogynephile, an ongoing memoir in the form of a Stack of Sub essays (with occasional bonus politics thrown in, as there is this week), posting once a week, on Wednesdays. If you are interested in reading more, I would be very grateful for comments, responses, and subscriptions. I would be equally or more grateful if you would share it—publicly, on social media, or with friends—since, at the moment, I am known to no-one, having been just (re)born as poor Yorick: so there is no one to promote this newsletter to.  (For what I rather hope are obvious reasons, I will not send a link out to my friends and family!) So please: like, subscribe, comment, share.

If anyone wishes to contact me, I am reachable by email under the handle YorickPenn at gmail, and am on twitter as PennYorick.

Next week: A Review of Two Books on Trans Issues

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Not, to be sure, the only way: one side smashing the other politically and sending them scattering to the winds is a way. But the only good way.