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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Wisdom of the Vikings Part 5: How Best to Profit as a Guest


                                                                                                           Attending a Feast

I would like to feast here.
No man should call
himself clever
but manage his mind.
A sage visitor
is a silent guest.
The cautious evades evil.
Never a friend
more faithful,
nor greater wealth, than
wisdom

Seeking Knowledge

The cautious guest
who comes to the table
speaks sparingly.
Listens with ears
learns with eyes.
Such is the seeker of
 knowledge.


This is part 5 in an ongoing series (the series starts HERE) bringing together the Hávamál (a collection of Norse wisdom poetry) and the still-evolving rules and mores of the Internet, particularly as they are developing in the realm of social media.

In my last few Hávamál posts (the series starts HERE) I have been discussing the subject of hospitality and the applicability of classical Icelandic (Viking) wisdom to the anarchist/minarchist world of the internet. My wacky thesis is that there is a substantial parallel to be explored between Viking society and Internet society. I have mentioned that, in early Norse-settled Iceland, while there was a functional analog to a constitution, their society lacked any official executive arm (the Icelanders had no king) so that all enforcement of laws and collectively decided punishments was left up to local communities. I see this as functionally parallel to the environment of social media, blog com-boxes, and internet forums. Furthermore I am persuaded that online interaction has the effect of undoing some of the socialization we receive growing up in a society which is structured against the unofficial use of violence (check out the Our Computers, Our Selves Episode of Invisibilia for a cool look at some of the ways computers have affected our online interaction). Essentially I think that online interaction makes us a bit more like Vikings.

In this post I want to take a look at the two poems above as representing Viking wisdom for guests. As much as there is an etiquette for hosts, there is also a lot to be said about how to be a good guest, both in terms of ensuring a positive relationship with your host, and also in terms of getting the most out of your experience as a guest. These two poems are in that latter vein.

One of the "fundamental rules of the internet" is don't feed the trolls. Taken as a wisdom aphorism (usually true and a great rule-of-thumb but don't get all letter-of-the-law about it and watch out for exceptions) it is a really great piece of advice. In many online discussions there are those who love to derail the conversation, often by being as offensive or irrational as they can figure out how to be; it is usually wise to ignore such people. But in a viking context don't feed the trolls would mean something more like don't give undue attention to a troublemaker. What we see in the poems above focuses not on dealing with a troublesome guest but on how a guest can/should interact with the host.

"No man should call himself clever but manage his mind" and "The cautious guest who comes to the table speaks sparingly" I take to be good advice on how not to become a troll yourself. The internet is notoriously full of people who have already carved out their own space (Twitter feed, Facebook wall, blog, tumbler, or Reddit thread just to name a few). Often these folks use their spaces to present, and offer discussion on, highly controversial topics (and yeah, this blog is definitely one of those spaces). The wisdom in these two poems is not that you should never speak up or engage critically in such a space. In fact, critical engagement and rigorous debate are often precisely what the host is hoping for. But not always. Sometimes the host is blithely unaware that the people they have invited in view their proclamations, "shares, and pronouncements" as controversial - they do not want to debate and will become hostile if you contradict them however gently. Other times, the host is practically lying in wait for an unsuspecting guest to "spring the trap" with an insufficiently informed position or weak argument. Engaging with them only leads to public humiliation and a breakdown in relationship. But all three of these situations look basically the same at first blush: a controversial headline.

That is where the wisdom of the Hávamál comes in. The wise wanderer on the world wide web will
Just think, this could be you.
take time to determine her surroundings, to get a feel for the environment before jumping in with a rowdy comeback or witty retort. Check out the host's other work, read some of what they have written and look at how they interact with their guests. Do they jump down the throats of anyone who disagrees with them. Does your host's comment history indicate that they could wipe the floor with you rhetorically? Since most internet interaction is ultimately public, remember that your debate, or argument, will be taking place in a public space; even if you know the person well and have engaged with them in meat-space (in greater privacy) to your mutual benefit, they may behave quite differently online knowing that their comments are being read by their own internet followers.

Engage a space, or a host, in the wrong way and you become the troll, regardless of your own intentions. Remember the cautious (wise) guest "Listens with ears, learns with eyes. Such is the Seeker of Knowledge

Of course sometimes being seen as a troll may be the right thing to do. But even then it is better to approach the situation with your eyes open than shut. 



Monday, May 23, 2016

A Christian Defense of the Identities of Transgender Persons Part 5: Positive Arguments


This is Part 5 in a series that starts HERE.

Staying Positive (I have no idea who this guy is)
I'd like to begin by summarizing my argument to date. Using the hypothetical example of Wanda, an individual you (the hypothetical pastor) knew first as "Bob" - who comes to you and announces that she (whom you originally knew as "he") is in fact transgender, has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and has decided to transition to a more female typical body using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and sex reassignment surgery (SRS) among other things - we have been asking whether you ought to affirm Wanda in her female gender identity. I have argued first that there is no logical reason that we ought to deny the possibility of Wanda's claim, and that we ought to trust her. I then took two posts to look at what the Bible has to say on the subject (one looking at directly applicable passages and one looking at passages which might infer a negative conclusion) and I concluded that the Bible does not condemn or disallow the possibility that Wanda is correct. So we have established that Wanda's claim is possible and that it is not contrary to the Bible. But now I want to take a look at whether the Bible might affirm Wanda's claim.

Parallel to my conclusions in Part 3, I don't think that there are any passages in the Bible which directly affirm Wanda's claim. While there were ancient cultures which understood the existence of transgender people to greater and lesser degrees (check out "two spirit people" in several Native American cultures, but there are examples from all over the world) they don't seem to get any attention in the Bible one way or the other. In the absence of direct passages, we move to looking at the indirect implications of Biblical teachings and here there is quite a bit to be found.

1. The fundamental role of Love

Jesus is very clear in teaching that the most basic principle from which all of God's commands are derived, is the dual command to love God and to love our neighbor [Matthew 22] (and since Jesus includes even "enemies" in this category we are talking about loving everyone). One basic aspect of love is that it seeks the good of its object [much of 1 Cor 13, Philippians 2:3, John 15:13, Romans 13:10, 1 John 3:17 etc...]. Of course most Christians are agreed on this. The difficulty comes in figuring out what it means to seek a particular person's good in a particular situation. So far, in parts 2,3, and 4 in this series I have tried to show that, since Wanda's claim is inherently possible and does not contradict any of the direct teachings of the Bible. This, provided we are interpreting correctly, can work as a short cut to letting us know when certain things are or are not good for us. Then, in light of the lack of biblical proscriptions, the responsible choice is to turn to the best science and research we have to ask whether an affirmation of their gender identities is the best for transgender people. Here the evidence is clear and rapidly growing stronger. Transgender children who are accepted and affirmed in their gender identities are as healthy as cisgender children (in stark contrast to transgender children who are raised in non-affirming environments who face horribly elevated risks of suicide, depression, anxiety and other harmful effects). Identity affirming treatments like hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and sex reassignment surgery (SRS) are shown to effectively alleviate gender dysphoria when applied according to WPATH's (the World Professional Association for Transgender Health) standards of care. So affirming Wanda's gender identity is likely to have a positive impact on her mental health and is not contrary to any teaching in scripture. It is therefore the loving thing to do.

Are you asking someone to carry this when God isn't?

2. We are not to impose heavy burdens on people

In contrast to the burdens the Pharisees put on people [Matthew 23:4] Jesus claims that His charge is "light" [Matthew 11:28-30]. In contrast to those who would kill, steal, and destroy, Jesus claims that He came so that we could have abundant life [John 10]. When we look at applying these principles to the situation of transgender people, the application is pretty straight forward. When trans people are not accepted in their communities and/or have the legitimacy of their gender identity claims rejected or denied; when transgender people are subjected to "reparative therapy" and forced to conform to the gender identity and role society has based on their body, the load is far to often, heavy beyond what they can bear. Common outcomes are depression, anxiety, and death. (Check out studies here, and here)


3. Our bodies will all be different one day

Incogneto Jesus on the road to Emmaus
We only get a picture of one post-resurrection body in the Bible, Jesus' body. What is particularly relevant to this conversation is that Jesus' body after the resurrection is significantly different from His body prior to the resurrection. He is able to configure his form so that even close friends don't recognize Him [John20, Luke 24], enters a locked room without anyone realizing it and seems to be able to teleport (or something) [Luke 24, Mark 16]. In theological terms, Jesus' post-resurrection body has been glorified and is significantly different from His own body prior to the resurrection and from the bodies of Adam and Eve prior to the fall. For the great majority of Christians, it is an important doctrine that our bodies are going to be glorified as well as our souls, and from the few hints we have, that glorification seems to indicate a degree of plasticity in the body. Given the fact that the process which brings us (more or less depending on how reformed you are) closer to glorification (sanctification) is happening in the present, it is worth asking whether transgender folk who work to bring their bodies into closer alignment with their gender identity are finding a greater degree of wholeness which would read theologically as part of the sanctification of their bodies.

4. Christian Love is not epistemically arrogant

The second half of 1 Corinthians 13 (verses 8-12) is a reminder that we do not know everything and placed there, it should particularly remind us that we do not need to know everything in order to be loving. I think a lot of Christians feel somewhat paralyzed lately by a combination of the fact that the empirical evidence seems to pretty strongly suggest that transgender people will benefit most from having their gender identities affirmed, and the fact that many popular leaders of the evangelical movement are stating loudly that "transgenderism" is somehow sinful and that affirming transgender folks in their gender identities is paramount to enabling a harmful delusion. I think it is really important to note that when Jesus [particularly in Matthew 23], Paul, James,and John speak about love they prefer the doing of actual, calculable good to others over the preservation of a theological speculation. I am inclined to think that evangelical America is so overwhelmed and with a fear of having the wrong theology that we are often prevented from doing the good that is there in front of us to do. Try bracketing the theological question "Is it sinful to affirm the gender identities of transgender people" for just a second and look at the question "Are transgender people better off when we affirm their gender identity?" Study after study show that they are (check some of them out here, here, here and here). So now bring those theological concerns back in, but bring them in together with the interpretive questions and exegetical complexities I have been raising throughout this series, and I think the picture might look a little different. If we begin by prioritizing love and admit to the complexity of interpreting the "relevant" passages of scripture, the clear call of the Bible is to do that which is best for transgender folk, without ruling out a full and encouraging affirmation of their gender identities.

In Conclusion

This should be a safe and affirming place for trans people
I hope (and on my good days, believe) that Christians of all stripes genuinely want to find the best, most effective way to love transgender people like Wanda. My reading of the current scientific, medical, and psychological data, and study of the relevant theology suggests that while (as my friend Michael Raburn is forever reminding the world) each person and situation is unique, we ought to be wide open to recognizing and affirming the gender identities of trans folk we meet. Before all else, we need to be for them. For their health, for their flourishing, for their dignity, and for their acceptance in our communities. Any conservative Christian will feel legitimately pressed to remind us that actions and attitudes which contradict any clear teachings of Scripture ought to be seen as non-loving for those involved since God has given us revelation in order for us to flourish (though flourishing often does not look like what many people might assume or what our cultures try to portray). As I believe I have shown though, a full affirmation of a transgender persons's gender identity is clearly not in contradiction to any teachings of scripture and, while I would not presume to suggest that there is a one-size-fits-all response to any pastoral or relational questions, a welcoming, caring affirmation of their gender identity is very much on the table and, in my opinion, ought to be the default response of churches, pastors, and individual Christians.


Further Resources

I have mentioned a few of these before but if you are really interested in learning about transgender Christians and theology here are some tremendous resources:

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Problems With Citing Dr. Paul McHugh

This is a black and white
picture of Dr. McHugh
Over the last few weeks (basically since the passage of North Carolina’s HB2) I have seen a particular 2015 Public Discourse Article by Dr. Paul McHugh passed around social media by folks who take the position that we as a society ought not recognized the gender identities of transgender individuals. While that is a position I ultimately disagree with and believe to be deeply harmful to a vulnerable population, I do recognize that there are scientific, philosophical, and theological arguments which can be marshaled in its defense--I think those arguments ultimately fail (I have put forward my own counter-argument to the theological in this series), but some of them are, at least, worth discussion in the abstract. However I think it is important to note that, regardless of your position on the topic, Dr. McHugh’s articles are not useful sources of information for the following reasons.

Credentials: I suspect that McHugh’s popularity on this subject comes from the fact that, on paper, his credentials are excellent on the subject of transgender psychology. Dr. McHugh is a Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who holds his MD from Harvard Medical School, has published significantly in his field, and has a robust history of teaching and practice. So on the basis of his credentials, Dr. McHugh really does merit attention. However the fact is that Dr. McHugh stands practically alone on this topic against other credentialed experts and organizations in this field. Notably, as Mari Brighe points out in her comprehensive article critiquing McHugh, Dr. McHugh’s positions are in opposition to the findings of (among others) the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. In terms of constructive debate and conversation, this means that while it is valid to cite Dr. McHugh as an expert or authority on the subject, it is completely unwarranted to present him as some sort of final word (when dealing with science it is usually problematic to assume that there is a total consensus), and anyone who decides to reference Dr. McHugh in support of an argument or position they are defending should be aware that there are many well credentialed vices which oppose him. While he has a degree of authority on the subject, his expertise must be situated in the context of overwhelming dissent from the medical and psychological/psychiatric establishment. So don’t use Dr. McHugh in an appeal to authority, tactically it will backfire, and more importantly is it a misrepresentation of the overall “voice” of the collective experts in this field. Dr. McHugh is a single, albeit credentialed voice who is considered discredited on this subject by many other experts in the field, so long as he is presented that way, you will avoid misinformation on that count.

Argumentation: Because Dr. McHugh won’t work as a final authority on the subject, any use of his work depends on an analysis of the quality of the arguments Dr. McHugh actually makes. But it is this analysis which makes any use of his work deeply troubling. When writing on the subject, Dr. McHugh routinely cites two specific studies in defense of his conclusions and systematically ignores the many studies which undermine his statements. First, it needs to be said that Dr. McHugh’s failure to even acknowledge the growing body of medical and psychological literature which challenges his thesis causes his case to appear stronger than it actually is and calls his integrity into some question.
More troubling though is the fact that Dr. McHugh fundamentally misrepresents the conclusions of the study he primarily cites (a 2011 Swedish study) and refers to as “the most thorough follow-up of sex reassigned people”. He cites their findings that post-op transsexual people have significantly heightened suicide risks when compared to the general population, and uses that as support for his belief that sex reassignment surgery (SRS) is bad for transgender people. The problem with this use is that the study itself claims the exact opposite. Quoting from the study’s conclusion (emphasis mine): 
Our findings suggest that sex reassignment, although alleviating gender dysphoria, may not suffice as treatment for transsexualism, and should inspire improved psychiatric and somatic care after sex reassignment for this patient group.
In fact, the study concludes that sex reassignment surgery does indeed help transgender folk and is saying that after surgery, treatment providers should be careful to recognize that there are ongoing traumas and stresses that trans people will face and that SRS should be accompanied by ongoing care afterwards. This must be stated as clearly as possible The study Dr. McHugh cites as his primary evidence says exactly the opposite of what he claims it implies. Dr. McHugh is a sufficiently thorough and intelligent scientist that it is hard to see his misrepresentation of this study as anything but disingenuous, particularly given the fact that the study’s primary author, Dr. Cecilia Dhejne, stated in the paper itself that the study would not work as an analysis of the efficacy of SRS (here is an interview with Dr Dhejne where she expresses significant frustration at McHugh’s, as well as other people’s, misuse of her study).

The other study Dr. McHugh routinely references in his popular writing is a 1979 study which he encouraged, based on his already existing distrust of SRS. The problem here is that this study, by Dr. JK Meyer, predates many of the surgical techniques and refinements available today, the study consisted of only 50 individuals (all male-to-female transgender persons), and was seen as controversial and problematic from the outset. Even it its problems were overlooked though (and they shouldn’t be), this leaves Dr. McHugh with a single study in contrast with the conclusions of the collective medical and psychological/psychiatric establishment and a much larger body of work which has been thoroughly examined in a number of comprehensive literature reviews on the subject.


In conclusion, people who take a “conservative” position on questions relating to the gender identities of transgender persons need to stop citing the writing of Dr. Paul McHugh. He is not representative of the contemporary medical or psychological/psychiatric consensus and the support he provides for his argumentation ranges from misrepresentation, to disingenuous, to outright misinformation. In citing him you will only convince those who are not willing to research his claim and those who already agree with you and are merely looking for an “authority” to support what they have already decided to believe. This undermines your own credibility and, to the extent that you speak/write “as a Christian” harms your witness. Please take the time to build your arguments on well researched data, presented with appropriate caveats, limiting the degree of certainty you express to the quality and quantity of the data.
These are also adjectives



P.S. While I have your attention, please stop referring to trans people as “the transgendered” or “a transgender”. Transgender is an adjective (its counterpart is cisgender) used to specify something about an individual person. People aren’t adjectives and, in my experience, transgender people don’t like to be spoken about as though they were. So "Bob is a tall, transgender athlete."







P.P.S. If you find any factual errors in this piece please don't hesitate to point them out to me in comments (it will help if you provide links/citation) and I will evaluate and update this post.