We often hear these days that we should refer to trans women as women and trans men as men, and that we should use whichever pronoun transgender people prefer. The people who make these claims typically do not say that we should refer to transgender people in such ways because those referential statements are true. Instead, they seem to be saying that we should be respectful to transgender people and that this respect requires the recognition of transgender people as they see themselves. Questions, therefore, concerning the truth or epistemic justification of those referential statements are ignored in favor of some presentation of “respect.”
Timpf pays no attention to truth, meaning. and the accurate application of pronouns as they correspond to a person’s gender because truth does not seem to matter.
For example, Ruth Marcus at the Washington Post recently decried a judge who refused to refer to a trans woman as a woman. Marcus protested that “Even in an uncivil, unyielding era, all of us—certainly federal judges endowed with enormous power and lifetime tenure—should be able to summon the grace to grant her simple request to be described that way.”
Marcus did not argue that the judge should refer to this trans person as a woman because this person is truly a woman. The question of truth did not factor into her reasoning. Marcus simply noted, twice, that this trans person identifies as a woman, and from that fact alone, Marcus claimed that respect and grace require this judge to refer to the trans woman as a woman. Hence, respect is the object of Marcus’s concern, not truth or epistemic justification.
Despite what you might suspect, Marcus’s line of thinking is not held exclusively by those who are on the left of the political spectrum. For instance, the more conservative author Katherine Timpf seems to believe something similar. In a 2016 piece Timpf wrote for the National Review, she stated that she personally considers it a matter of “basic respect” to use whichever pronoun a trans person prefers, adding that she believes “people who choose to use pronouns that might be different from what people might expect should feel comfortable sharing that with others.” Timpf pays no attention to truth, meaning. and the accurate application of pronouns as they correspond to a person’s gender because truth does not seem to matter. Her real concern is with rituals of “basic respect,” even if it leads to her uttering false or misleading statements. Again, respect is the object of Timpf’s concern, and the question of truth or epistemic justification is sidelined.
This attitude toward the truth and how it should be less important than respect might dominate the scope of opinion amongst the chattering class, but I disagree. We should not refer to trans women as women and trans men as men on the basis of respect alone. Instead, our speech and recognition need to be concerned with and directed toward truth. Otherwise, we use language badly and, in doing so, ironically, disrespect transgender people.
USING LANGUAGE BADLY
Why is language good? That seems like a strange question, one I suspect that most people have not thought of before, much less answered. Here is my take on it. Human beings are rational animals. We flourish when we learn truths and grow in wisdom. Hence, it is sensible to say that it is good and rational for us to seek truth and avoid falsity. But almost all of what we know to be true has been acquired through tradition, culture, experience, reason, debate, experimentation, and discovery. Therefore, it is also sensible to say that much of our acquisition of truth and wisdom has developed through human interaction and the expression of ideas. Yet, there is no human interaction and the expression of ideas without the use of language; language is essential and conducive to our pursuit of truth and the growth of wisdom.
Falsehood is contrary to truth; lying undermines the pursuit and cultivation of truth, and that undermines human flourishing.
But just like most things, language can be used badly. For example, if we lie, then we use language to express and cultivate falsehood. But falsehood is contrary to truth; lying undermines the pursuit and cultivation of truth, and that undermines human flourishing. Therefore, lying is a bad use of language. But there is another bad use of language. It is called bullshitting, and it is worse than lying. I’ll explain why, but first, I will clarify what bullshit is.
“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
In Frankfurt’s analysis, the distinction between lying and bullshitting is this: when a person lies, he utters a statement as if it were true, even though he believes it to be false. His goal is to lead people away from the truth. But when he “bullshits,” he neither aims to speak truth nor lead people away from it. According to Frankfurt, the expression of truth or falsity is neither an aim nor a concern for the bullshitter. He aims to speak only to secure some other end, whatever it might be.
Frankfurt continues on to explain why bullshitting is worse than lying:
“Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
According to Frankfurt, both the liar and the bullshitter use language in ways apart from the respect for truth and wisdom, and their cultivation. But bullshitting is worse than lying because the act of lying at least suggests a concern with truth even if truth is disrespected. By contrast, bullshit suggests no concern for truth, or falsity; truth and falsity are not even paid the respect of distinguishment. It is this indifference that makes bullshit worse than a lie.
The question of whether it is true that trans women are women and trans men are men is treated as an impertinent or unnecessary consideration…
The distinction Frankfurt draws is interesting when we consider the issue of preferred pronouns. Recall that under current norms, we are allegedly obliged to be respectful toward transgender people, and that this respect requires the recognition of transgender people as they see themselves. On this obligation, the question of whether it is true that trans women are women and trans men are men is treated as an impertinent or unnecessary consideration; the truth or falsity of the identity claim is not a concern. Instead, the concern is with the attainment of some other end—flattery, cultural capital, the preservation of feelings, or something else. Whatever the end might be, the concern is not with expressing something true or false about transgender people.
Therefore, if we presume that Frankfurt is right, and he seems to be, then saying that trans women are women and trans men are men from some sense “respect” amounts to bullshit, meaning such statements are bad uses of language.
DISRESPECT TOWARD TRANSGENDER PEOPLE
In addition to those bullshit statements constituting bad uses of language, they are also acts of disrespect toward transgender people. When a person utters a statement such as “trans women are women,” it is presumed that he is sincerely expressing that which he believes to be true. If he does not sincerely believe the statement to be true but says it anyway, then he misleads people. That is bad enough, but the bulk of the disrespect comes from the fact that his words constitute a hollow and false act of recognition. He does not actually mean what he says—he is not affirming what he believes to be true. Instead, he is just saying those words to achieve some other end, whatever it might be. That is an affront to authenticity, a basic consideration of respect owed to everyone. It is, therefore, an act of disrespect—in this case, an act of disrespect towards a trans person.
The bulk of the disrespect comes from the fact that his words constitute a hollow and false act of recognition.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that transgender people deserve or are entitled to the recognition of their identities, nor do I deny it. My point is just that if anyone states that trans women are women or that trans men are men, then that should be an act of genuine recognition and not a placating expression, virtue signal, or an empty slogan. He should actually believe that trans women are women and trans men are men if he is going to say so. Otherwise, he is being disrespectful toward transgender people because he presents himself inauthentically and offers false recognition.
That is my argument. Now allow me to answer some rebuttals.
Objection 1: It is cruel to say that we should not refer to trans women as women and trans men as men.
I did not say that. I said that we should not refer to trans women as women and trans men as men from respect alone. Truth matters, and we should only say what we think is true. If you truly think that trans women are women and trans men are men, then nothing I said here challenges your recognition of that.
Objection 2: But trans people are the authorities on their identity. Who are you not to believe them?
A person, whether he is transgender or not, is likely in the best place to tell us what or who he believes himself to be. We might take them as authorities for that question. But the recognition that he is the authority for what he believes about his identity does not entail or even suggest that anyone else is obliged to recognize his professed identity or accept that his beliefs about his identity are true. After all, some professed identities might be false, unreasonable, or incoherent; and if an identity is any of those things, then we need the space to politely decline recognition.
Objection 3: I say that trans women are women and trans men are men, but I say so only to live in peace. It is no big deal. I do not use language badly. I do not disrespect transgender people. I am just trying to get along.
This objection reminds me of Václav Havel’s greengrocer, who posted a sign within a socialist totalitarian state that read, “Workers of the world, unite!” Despite what you might suspect, the grocer did not post the sign because he agrees with its message. In fact, he is rather indifferent to it. The grocer simply wanted to avoid any suggestion that he publicly disagrees with its message because he knows that sanction or trouble could follow. Hence, the grocer’s sign is closer to an act of submission than agreement. He knows what he must do to live in peace. Something similar can be said for Objection 3.
If the person in Objection 3 does not believe that trans women are women and trans men are men but says so anyways, then he is either lying or bullshitting. These are bad acts. Yet, to the extent that he reasonably perceived coercion from repressive or totalitarian actors, such as the state, the public, or his employer, his culpability is mitigated.
That said, I want to be clear: This mitigation does free him or anyone else from all wrongdoing. As Havel himself noted, so long as we choose to put up signs, we do not simply submit to coercion or ideology—we become a part of its system. This is true whether we are talking about socialist regimes or gender authoritarians.
If there is one idea that I would insist upon and summarizes my essay, it is this: Transgender people are entitled to authenticity, not agreement, hollow words, or slogans. Therefore, they are entitled to be free from lies and bullshit, even on matters concerning their identity. That might be hard to accept, but the commitment to truth and authenticity is not easy. In fact, sometimes it is profoundly difficult. We must remind ourselves that it is always worth the trouble.