Stupidity Is NOT A Social Construct

Hillary's Selling Point

As we rush headlong into the 2016 election season, it should come as no surprise that armchair pundits are cranking out politically-themed memes at an increasing pace.  It probably also comes as no surprise that Stupid Bad Memes has a decidedly leftist slant, which means that I am far more likely to write about memes sneezed out by right-wingers than I am to cover memes created by liberal-minded folks like myself.  Still, I try to be fair.  If I were to discover a left-leaning meme that misconstrued the opposition’s beliefs or political motivations as badly as this meme does, I like to think I would be fair-minded enough to write about it.  It’s just that…well…I haven’t seen such a meme.  I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist, I just haven’t come across it in my Internet travels.  Until I do, we’re stuck talking about this heap of garbage.

Like a Creationist riding an elevator, this meme is wrong on several levels.  Let’s start with the meme’s opening premise: leftists believe gender is just a social construct.  That’s not necessarily true.  For one, the term leftist could be applied to a broad set of political and social philosophies, not all of which are receptive to the idea that gender roles are socially defined.  Furthermore, the idea that gender is a social construct is not exclusively leftist property.  Let’s parse these ideas a bit and see what, if any, overlap exists between them.

A leftist, or left-winger, is a person who generally advocates for social equality.  He or she believes that social hierarchies create a system of advantage vs disadvantage, and that these structures should be reduced or eliminated as much as possible.  Radical leftists favor no less than the complete overhaul of the social and political systems that maintain the status quo.

What does it mean to say that gender is a social construct?  It means that gender roles are influenced as much by social expectations as they are by differences between the biological sexes – if not more so.  Our idea about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior for each gender evolves from our socialization.  This concept is espoused by many modern sociologists and psychologists, regardless of their political leanings.

Do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that all gender differences are socially constructed (although many conservatives falsely present this as the liberal viewpoint), just that the expectations of genders are socially constructed.  Society determines what is appropriate behavior for boys and girls from an early age.  Early gender socialization informs our expectations going forward.  These expectations have no doubt led to the sociopolitical furor surrounding trans men and women, who don’t fit into a rigid gender dichotomy.  Their rising visibility has forced society to deal with that – in many cases painfully.  But that is a conversation for another meme.

Now let’s leap to the meme’s thrilling conclusion: that Hillary Clinton’s only selling point is her gender.  This is an unabashedly sexist viewpoint to take, but it’s hardly unexpected from the kind of person who would intentionally misrepresent gender socialization as an exclusively leftist philosophy.  Now I don’t intend to spend the remainder of this post extolling the virtues of Hillary Clinton, but I think it is short-sighted and mean-spirited to say that her only claim to legitimacy as a Presidential candidate is the fact that she is a cis-woman.  Many pundits, including republicans, have admitted in no uncertain terms that Clinton is at least qualified for the job of POTUS, and some have offered their support.  Those hardly seem like the actions of people who think that Hillary Clinton’s only selling point is her gender.

I can only assume that when the author wrote SAVAGE AF at the bottom of the meme, he was using the historical definition of savage: primitive and uncivilized.  That’s the only appropriate way to describe this meme.

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This Meme Is Pretending To Be Clever (But It’s Actually Stupid)

Caitlyn v Dolezal

This past week was a perfect storm for idiotic memes. The bizarre case of Rachel Dolezal, the former Spokane, Washington, NAACP President, exploded into public view, providing fodder for stand-up comics and provoking conversation about racial identity.  It was inevitable that somebody would make the connection between Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner, who inspired similar discussions about gender identity, but the truth is that these are separate stories, and deserve to be evaluated through separate lenses.

On a much darker note, the recent murders in Charleston, South Carolina, wrought a slew of memes addressing (and usually butchering) such sensitive topics as race relations, gun control, and mental illness.  In order to avoid belittling the severity of that horrific event, I’ll address some of those memes in a separate post.

Now I feel that there’s a grain of truth to this meme, but only a grain.  Public sentiment has been, on average, much kinder to Caitlyn Jenner than it has been to Rachel Dolezal.  This meme’s sin is suggesting that the two stories are, in essence, identical, and that the varied response from the public smacks of a double standard.

That’s utter nonsense.  The Caitlyn Jenner story is very different from the Rachel Dolezal story, although I suppose the kind of person who would share this meme isn’t interested in subtle yet important distinctions. Still, let’s take a look at what makes these women so different.

You’ll remember Caitlyn Jenner as the transgender woman – formerly known as Bruce Jenner, the Olympic star athlete – who revealed her new look and name on a Vanity Fair cover last month.  For anybody still struggling with the concept, here’s what it means to be a transgender woman:

  • You were born male – that is, having XY chromosomes and male sexual organs, but
  • You more strongly identify with the female gender, so
  • You might undertake certain steps, ranging from hormone therapy to gender reassignment surgery, to come more in line with how you’ve always felt (and of course you don’t have to do any of these).

For the sake of completeness, here’s what it doesn’t mean to be a transgender woman:

  • Transgender women are not mentally ill – although the stress of having to hide their gender identity from their unaccepting peers can lead to mental illnesses like depression.
  • Transgender women are not necessarily gay; they may be into men, women, both, or they may have no particular sexual interest at all.

If you meet a transgender person – male or female – it’s considered polite to refer to that person using the pronouns of his or her adopted gender.  So in the case of Caitlyn Jenner, you should say she and her.  And in case you’re wondering why you have to say she when referring to Caitlyn Jenner, it’s because she wants you to.  How about you not be a dick about it?

Now about this meme: Is Caitlyn Jenner pretending to be a woman?  Well…no.  Caitlyn Jenner self-identifies as a woman.  The way I see it, there’s a real distinction between pretending and self-identifying.  When you pretend, you know that you’re not really the thing you’re pretending to be.  For example, I can pretend to be a police officer, or an astronaut, or a doctor, but I don’t really feel like any of those things.  I can even pretend to be a woman, but I would just be pretending because I am a cisgendered male; that is, I’m quite comfortable being the gender I was given at birth.  Lucky me.  But what if I really did feel like a woman?  What if I knew I wasn’t right as a male, despite what I saw between my legs?  See, Caitlyn Jenner isn’t pretending to be a woman; she’s finally decided to stop pretending that she’s a cis male.

For most people, sex is a binary situation: you are either male (XY) or female (XX).  Gender is not binary, however; it’s a gradient.  There is a whole spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations.  By the way, this spectrum has always existed.  It’s not that we’re inventing new ways for people to be genderqueer to irritate conservatives, it’s just that we’re finally recognizing what has always been part of the human condition.  Well, some of us are.  Anyway…

What can we say about Rachel Dolezal?  Is she pretending to be black?  That’s a much trickier question, isn’t it?

Unlike sex, ethnicity is a genetic gradient.  The metrics we use to identify a person’s ethnicity – skin color, facial features, hair characteristics, etc – are really present in a wide array of beautiful variation among the human population.  It is only socially that we try to divide race into distinct categories.  What’s the difference between a white woman and a black woman?  Genetically, not much at all.  Socially – everything.

Is it possible to be transracial, in the same way that a person might be transgender?  Could a person be born to white parents and raised as white, yet always have the feeling that he or she more strongly identified as black (or Asian, or Native American, etc)?

In a sense, I think that this is possible, although the issue is frought with thorny ethical questions.  A white person transitioning to an identity as a non-white person might be accused of cultural appropriation; that is, adopting the characteristics and mannerisms of a race that has been historically oppressed.  A non-white person identifying as white might not be accepted by either race.  (In honesty, these are the same challenges faced by a transgender person.)

Honesty…that’s the key.  If you want to know why Caitlyn Jenner’s story is more acceptable than Rachel Dolezal’s, you have to examine how honest each person has been with herself and with the public.

Rachel Dolezal now says she identifies as black, but that hasn’t always been her mantra.  At various times she has claimed to be black or biracial (even lying about her parentage).  She also claims to have been the victim of numerous hate crimes; documentation and evidence of these crimes has been sparse.  And of course she advanced to a leadership role in the NAACP based on false pretenses.  There’s nothing wrong with a white person interested in black equality, even working with the NAACP – in fact, I long for the day when all people are interested in racial equality, and organizations like the NAACP are anachronistic and unnecessary – but to lie your way into a position of leadership; well that’s simply beyond the pale, regardless of your racial identity.

Caitlyn Jenner, by contrast, has been very forthcoming about her biological sex and gender dysphoria.  Although she identifies as a woman and prefers feminine pronouns, she is not trying to deceive the public into believing a falsehood.  She is not advancing through the ranks of of a feminist organization on the pretense that she is genetically female.

If you cannot see the difference between Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, then I assert that you are not interested in seeing the difference; presumably because doing so would challenge your belief that the world is simple and everything can be judged by one set of standards.  This is false.  The world is complex.  People are complex.  Even when it seems that there is a clear analogy between two peoples’ stories, it pays to look closer; to examine the details.  You might find out that humans are richly nuanced beings with strange and wonderful and terrible motivations, and then imagine – just imagine – how much more interesting the world will seem.

The Non-Case of Jenner v Galloway

Caitlyn Jenner v Noah Galloway

At least the meme had the courtesy to refer to Caitlyn by her new name.  That’s about all it has going for it.

Some time ago I described a peculiar reaction that occurs in the conservative community whenever somebody of whom conservatives generally disapprove is singled out for special recognition or a reward.  I dubbed this reaction the Obama-Kyle Law: Whenever President Obama speaks favorably of somebody, the honoree will always be compared – unfavorably – to the late Chris Kyle.  Although this is a different situation, I think we’re seeing the same effect at work.  In this case, the role of President Obama is being played by ESPN, the sport-centered network that officiates the ESPY awards, of which the Arthur Ashe Courage Award is one, and the role of Chris Kyle is being played by Noah Galloway (which is not to imply that Galloway is anything like Kyle – I’m just trying to construct an analogy.)

And what of the honoree?  Who is this Caitlyn Jenner, the conservative pariah who pales in comparison to Noah Galloway?

In case you’ve been avoiding the Internet for the past month, allow me to bring you up to speed.  Caitlyn Jenner was formerly Bruce Jenner, an Olympic decathlon gold medalist in the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal.  In April 2015, Jenner came out as a transgender woman – that is, a person who, although being genetically male, identifies more strongly as a woman.  Jenner revealed that she had been cross-dressing and taking hormone replacement therapy for many years, but had subdued her feminine side during her marriage (which officially ended shortly prior to Caitlyn’s coming out).

In June 2015, Caitlyn Jenner revealed her new name and look in a Vanity Fair cover story – a photograph that launched a million memes.  Predictably, there were many detractors, but also many supporters.  And, lest we forget that feminism still has a long way to go in America, there were many commenting on Jenner’s physical attractiveness, as if to remind us all that a woman’s value extends only so far as her beauty.

In any case, Caitlyn Jenner is a she.  That’s the appropriate pronoun.  When referring to Jenner, you should say she and her; not he or him, and for heaven’s sake, don’t say it.  Jenner identifies herself as a woman, and frankly, that’s the only identification that matters.

Now let’s talk about the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.  According to ESPN, the award is granted

to honor individuals whose contributions transcend sports through courageous action. Sometimes that courage is demonstrated over the course of a lifetime and sometimes it is demonstrated in a single act that shines a light on an important contemporary issue.

ESPN goes on to say that there are always numerous worthy candidates, but there is no such thing as a runner-up for the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.  This is important, so pay attention, anonymous meme-maker.  Many websites have already made this clear: there is no indication that either Galloway or any of the other athletes that the outraged Tweetosphere would have preferred instead of Jenner were ever being considered for the award.  Many people believe, for example, that Lauren Hill, the courageous 19-year-old college basketball player who recently succumbed to brain cancer, would have been a more worthy recipient.  And of course everybody is entitled to their own opinion.  For my part, I understand why Jenner was chosen: coming out as a high-profile transgender person is a very bold move, particularly in a nation that is still wrestling with its own transphobia.

Lest you think I’m bad-mouthing Noah Galloway, nothing could be further from the truth.  (Let’s be honest; anybody who thinks I’m bad-mouthing Noah Galloway probably stopped reading three paragraphs ago and has already hit the Comment button to tell me what a liberal commie pinko swine I am.)  I respect and admire Galloway.  Had Galloway been selected to receive any kind of award, I’d probably say “Good for him!” and mean it!  As much as I look up to him – as much as I wish that I had one-tenth of his courage and determination – I’m not going to let my admiration blind me to the facts.  The fact is that Caitlyn Jenner did not beat Noah Galloway to receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

The confusion regarding Galloway’s faux runner-up status seems to stem from a single tweet, originally posted by Gerry Callahan.  Callahan’s tweet included the picture of Galloway shown above and the text:

Caitlyn Jenner wins Arthur Ashe Courage Award. And the runner-up is ….

Was Gerry Callahan privy to the selection process for the Courage Award when he tweeted his opinion?  Probably not, but his comment launched an uninformed firestorm on Twitter and Facebook.  His tweet had just the right mixture of conservative righteous indignation: a war vet is snubbed while a weirdo is awarded – what is our nation coming to!?!  It’s no wonder that it took off like a right-wing rocket; it provided like-minded people the ability to be angry without actually understanding what they were angry about.  In a way, Callahan’s tweet is sort of the antithesis of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award; while ESPN seeks to recognize Caitlyn Jenner for spreading understanding and acceptance of transgender people; Callahan seeks to divert attention elsewhere.  Here’s a very sarcastic Way to go! for you, Mr Callahan, and also to the people who uncritically spread your message.  You are all runners-up in my book.