aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Four kinds of statements

Suppose someone said to you, "I'm really a unicorn (or dragon, or werewolf, or whatever)." There are such people. I know one or two. They really believe that their spirit within them is this mythical beast. Others believe that they are really not-so-mythical beasts: lions, for instance, or wolves. How do we evaluate such statements? What if I told you that the person making such a statement is mentally ill? That would account for his belief.

Still, not all bizarre beliefs arise from mental illness. Take the person who says that she is the reincarnation of a Parisian courtesan during the Ancien Regime. Millions of people who are not mentally ill believe in reincarnation. They may be mistaken, but they are not crazy. They are making a metaphysical statement, akin to religious belief. We are under no obligation to believe what they say, but we usually accord them a degree of courtesy to say it, promote it, gather others to celebrate it.

Another kind of statement about oneself is the family legend. My great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Pulliam, swore to his dying day that he voted for his cousin, Benjamin Harrison, for President. Not that Harrison was his first cousin; no, he claimed more distant kinship than that. Still, nobody has been able to prove the connection. Family records are not what we would like them to be, courthouses have lost records in fires (especially during the Civil War), yada yada. Similarly, my wife's family has a story of descent from a Miami Indian "princess." Common law marriage on the frontier, where nobody asked for proof of ethnicity, makes this very hard to substantiate. Yet the story's been around for years. Unlike the disordered musing or metaphysical belief, this is a statement of humdrum fact, even if unprovable. The point is, we would welcome definite proof one way or another, but in the absence of such, we pass along the story and give others' stories the benefit of the doubt. We call it "tradition."

Contrast that with Rachel Dolezal's claiming to be black, or Ward Churchill claiming to be a Native American. Admitting before all else that "black" and "Native American" are social constructs, the precise boundaries of which are a bit hazy, neither Dolezal nor Churchill have any ancestors who are black or Native American, respectively. And they know it. Their claiming to be something they are demonstrably, provably, not, is simple fraud. They gained attention, an audience, jobs, book contracts, even political power from their counterfeit identities. Norton I, the so-called Emperor of North America, might be seen as a fraud, though he never profited much from his posure. More likely, his belief arose from mental illness -- a breakdown suffered after business failures.

So, all four of these statements offer themselves as statements about reality, even about personal reality. Before we go on to evaluate other kinds of statements about reality, let's put some of our most cherished personal realities to the test. After all, when I say, "I have been born again," or further, "God called me to ministry," I am claiming to be describing a real attribute of myself. Millions talk this way. Now, some of them might be mentally ill, and a few might be frauds, but for most of us, this is a metaphysical statement we make in accordance with our religious beliefs. Those of us who share these beliefs accept that these statements are statements about reality, and we have ways of testing these statements which satisfy us. But nobody else is required to believe us. Non-believers are often completely skeptical on this point, and you can't blame them.

Now, let us suppose that somebody says, "I am transgender." What does that mean? I understand this person to mean he or she is not a transvestite, which is a condition where somebody gets a thrill from dressing as the opposite sex, while nevertheless knowing perfectly well that he or she is not that sex. No, the transgender person typically says, "I really am [the other sex]." Some even say, there are three (or more) genders. What sort of statements are these?

They could be considered the fruit of mental illness, and no doubt in some cases, they are. On the other hand, I know some people who seem to be in their right minds, but who nevertheless say these things. And I know people who repeat the line about there being more than two genders (the confusion of "gender" and "sex" aids this confusion), in support of family or friends who are claiming this status. It would seem to be a metaphysical statement, along the lines of professing to be reincarnated or born again. If that is so, then it should also follow that nobody should be required to believe a word of it. Courtesy would require us to allow them their belief and not interfere with it, but when somebody tries to make this a legal status, with rights accruing thereto, I say, Whoa.

On what basis should we accord rights -- real rights enforceable against others -- on the basis of a metaphysical statement? Can people who believe themselves to be reincarnated princesses demand that others curtsy to them or be fined? And if these rights are to be adjudicated in court, what sort of evidence would establish their case? The only evidence for being transgender is internal: "I just know it." This is what was called spectral evidence in the 17th Century, and people were put to death at Salem, Massachusetts, because some people said, "we just know (that so and so is a witch)." They turned out to be frauds, but the court believed them on the basis of their professed belief.

Shall we go back to admitting spectral evidence in court? Is a person to be given rights enforceable against others, including schools, governmental bodies, communities, neighbors, on the basis of what they "just know" about themselves? On the basis of their own internal certitude? What kind of a crazy world would that make?

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