Sunday, 27 July 2014

My submission to Statistics New Zealand on gender identity

Statistics New Zealand are asking for submissions on a new standard for doing statistics on people’s gender identity. There’s a submission form here. I filled it out, and this is what I said – being very brief because I didn’t spot the link where you could send Word documents as submissions until I’d already started filling in my answers in the text fields, which only allow 512 characters per question. The one-word answers on the first couple of questions are where I just ticked a checkbox. Italics are where I quote their words.
Do you agree with the proposed concept of gender identity? [Gender identity is defined as a person’s internal, deeply felt sense of being male or female or something other or in between. A person’s gender identity may or may not correspond with their sex (HRC, 2008). Gender identity is subjective and is self-defined.] Yes.
Do you agree with the proposed definitions of related terms? No. If not, please state the definitions you have concerns about, and how you think they could be improved.
I disagree with the definition of “sex” [the distinction between males and females based on the biological differences in sexual characteristics]. I don’t claim to speak for trans people, but I understand that trans women see themselves as female, not “male but feminine”, and likewise, mutatis mutandis, for trans men. Minds merit more attention than genitals in most contexts. And “biological” is too broad and vague a term. Since humans are living things, everything about us is in a sense “biological”.
Are there any other terms you would like to see included in relation to gender identity?
Rather than simply “sex” I would use the terms “anatomical gender”, “physiological gender” or “reproductive gender” when it is necessary to compile statistics on such things (as it might be for medical purposes). “Gender” and “sex” should both, by default, refer to a person’s identity.
The background paper provides some examples of the approaches different countries have taken to collect gender identity information. Do any of these approaches stand out to you as being suitable for use in New Zealand?
No. The simplest and least cisnormative way to collect information on gender would be to remove the tick-boxes entirely, and instead provide a text field for a short written answer.
Is there any other information relevant to the concept of gender identity that you feel is missing from the background paper?
I feel there should be a discussion on the inappropriacy of “biological” essentialism. Genital configuration and the sex chromosomes do correlate with many other features of human anatomy, physiology and psychology, but that does not make either one definitive of a person’s essential nature – any more than any of those said other features.
If you have any further comments about the concept of gender identity or the information in the paper, please add them here.
Should anyone object to the concept of subjective gender identity on Biblical grounds (Deuteronomy 22:5 “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man...”), please draw their attention to I Samuel 16:7 – “ looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”
A couple of things I would have said but there wasn’t space:
  • In most contexts I can think of where it is necessary to distinguish behavioral or identity gender (or linguistic gender) from anatomical or physiological gender, one also from time to time wishes to discuss sexual intercourse. If you reserve the word “sex” for physiological gender, you can then run into ambiguities due to the fact that “sex” in common parlance means sexual intercourse.
  • Obviously I don’t think it appropriate for Government departments to incorporate the Bible in their documentation. However Biblical fundamentalism is probably the second-biggest source of opposition to getting past the gender binary, after that weird combination of male entitlement and homophobia that says “I should have the right to contemplate having sex with anyone I find attractive, without facing the horrible possibility that she might be in some sense ‘male’ and thus make me in some sense (oh, the horror, the horror!) ‘gay’.” So I decided to include a counter-argument that would give those people pause for thought.

Monday, 21 July 2014

I only have one thing to say about Gaza

Content note: violence
There is a lot of anger coming across my Facebook feed about Gaza. More of my friends are pro-Palestine than pro-Israel, but one of the pro-Israel ones makes up for it by posting nearly as much as all the pro-Palestine ones combined. You know who you are. But it wasn’t him who posted this image:
“We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children.  We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.  We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” —Golda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel
I’ve been saying nothing because I don’t know any more about Gaza than any other New Zealander who follows international news, and saying anything would only mean I’d have to deal with a storm of anger from somebody. But I’m getting the storm of anger anyway. So this is the one thing I have to say about Gaza:
It is morally wrong to fire explosive devices at people just because they are of the same ethnicity, and live near the same place, as the people who have hurt you. Even if they are also politically aligned with those people. It doesn’t make a moral difference whether the explosive devices are mortar rockets or missiles launched from planes. It is human nature to think essentialistically, but neither “Israel” nor “Palestine” is a monolithic entity that is collectively responsible for everything an individual might do in its name. Killing innocents does not redress any wrong, it compounds it.
The death toll in Gaza is in the hundreds, if it’s not thousands by now. I don’t think the death toll in Israel has cracked single figures yet. If you don’t think the number of people you kill is morally important, you are no better than a terrorist. So I am opposed to Israel’s actions. And I’m not swayed by Meir’s little piece of spin. Last I heard, Israel had a highly-trained military force called Mossad. If you want to convince me Mossad couldn’t enter Gaza and take out the individuals firing rockets – by “take out” I mean capture for trial in an international court of justice, but even targeted assassination would be better than bombing the whole place and killing children – then you have a lot of work to do.
But just because I’m opposed to Israel’s actions doesn’t mean I support Hamas. Look, when two groups of people are trying to kill each other you can bet they’re also telling lies about each other as loud as they can. In a movie one of them would be snowy pure and telling nothing but the truth, but real life isn’t a movie. So I don’t believe everything I hear that opposes Israel just because I also oppose Israel in this. But I do believe that young Gazans are likely to know more than me about the situation, and during an earlier outbreak of violence a year or two ago I read a manifesto by some young Gazans that began: “Fuck Israel! Fuck Hamas!”
Violence breeds violence. Two wrongs don’t make a right. These are clichés, but they’re clichés because everyone knows they’re true. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Friday, 18 July 2014

What are the odds? Quite good actually

Content note: rape, rape culture, sexualized victim-shaming
Since a lot of you aren’t New Zealanders, you likely won’t have heard of the things this blog post is about. So a bit of quick background. Back in May, Muhammad Rizalman was arrested in Wellington on charges of burglary and sexual assault. His home country of Malaysia, which he had been serving here as a foreign diplomat, recalled him and refused to waive diplomatic immunity. There followed the political buck-passing match that always fills up the news media around things like this. Then last week the woman Rizalman had allegedly followed home and attempted to rape, Tania Billingsley, had her name suppression lifted and spoke to a TV station about what had happened. Being a feminist, Billingsley used feminist terminology such as “rape culture” in her statements to the media. She called out Foreign Minister Murray McCully for his Ministry’s “incompetent handling of the diplomatic immunity aspect”. Jan Logie, Green Party spokesperson for women’s issues, agreed.
Someone who didn’t agree was a right-wing New Zealand blogger name of Cameron Slater, who goes by “Whale Oil” online. His blog is “Whale Oil Beef Hooked”, you see. You have to pronounce it in a New Zealand accent but listen in an Irish accent, I guess. Shamefully for my country, he’s become a major media figure here. Slater of course supports McCully’s party in Parliament and opposes Logie’s, so it’s hardly surprising he would take a critical view. He wrongly believes that he understands what’s meant by “rape culture” – and that it’s something patently absurd – but that hardly sets him apart from most people at his end of the political spectrum. All that considered, however, his response to the incident is still appalling.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Valuing individuals

I’ve decided to change my blogging style. This year up to now I’ve blogged once every two months, and that really isn’t winning me any readership. (My post trashing The Tao of Badass, on the other hand, apparently is.) This isn’t to say that I’m going to stop doing the in-depth articles. I’m still working on a discussion of social constructionism, and there’s the Imponderable series to finish. But those will now be interspersed between briefer, more bloggy posts. I’m going to commit to posting something every week. On the other hand, I’m not going to do what I used to do on my old LiveJournal, which had entry after entry saying “Sorry, can’t think of anything to blog about today.” Instead, I’m going to find something every week, either online or in my lectures at work, which is worthy of comment. And as I can’t really ask questions in lectures, what with being a staff member instead of a student, that’s likely to be a rich source of commentary.
On Tuesdays I have POLS102, which at Otago is a paper entitled “New Zealand Politics – Introduction”. I say “at Otago” because Dr Bryce Edwards encourages people to tweet in class using #POLS102 as a hashtag, and unfortunately there are lots of people from other universities tweeting with that hashtag in reference to completely different courses. Anyway. Today was an introduction to ideology. About the Left and the Right and how the Left is all about collectivity and the common good, and how the Right is all about individualism and self-interest.
Can people stop saying this, please? It’s bollocks.
Look, I don’t blame Bryce for simplifying things for the first-years. And to be fair he did go into more detail than that, and he used the terms “socialist” and “liberal” more than “right” and “left”. But the idea that Left equals collective and Right equals individual is not a simplification, it’s a falsehood.
Seriously. Look at politics at the moment. Pick a rights issue that’s hot right now, an individual rights issue. The right to marry the person you love. The right to identify as the gender you feel you are, and to change your body to suit if that’s what you want. The right not to be raped. The right to move from one country to another. The right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. On every one, socialists and liberals stand shoulder to shoulder to support the rights of the individual. Opposing them are the conservatives, who champion the interests of collective organizations like the Church and communal abstractions like The Family.
Ah, but that’s social liberalism, you might say. On economic issues the Left really is about the collective good and the Right really is about individual liberties. To which I say: nope. In neoliberal economics, “welfare” is a measure of the total monetary value held by society, which is the same amount whether it’s equally distributed among everybody or concentrated in the hands of an élite. Socialists and social democrats are the ones who care about whether each individual gets a fair share. As for individual dignity, I can tell you from several years’ experience that if you were to design a system with the specific purpose of wearing it down through the sheer weight of bureaucracy, you could scarcely do better than Work and Income New Zealand, which was instituted by the National government of the 1990s so as to stop beneficiaries “ripping off the rest of us” – note again the collectivism of the phrase.
But don’t the Right favour the private sector (individual, freedomish) over the public (state-run, collectivitarianismic)? Yes, they buddy up with what is called “the private sector”, but that term is a preposterous Orwellism. Calling vast international organizations like Coca-Cola or Microsoft “private” makes precisely as much sense as calling an Antarctic midwinter blizzard “toasty”. The honest word would be “corporate”, from Latin corpus “body”, into which, the idea is, the individuals making up the corporation have submerged their personal identities. You could argue without absurdity that environmentalism is about preserving the natural resources of the Earth’s biosphere for the good of everybody rather than letting the selfish exploit it. But most of the real damage is being done by corporations, not individuals; and all of the real suffering is being borne by individual people, who, e.g., haven’t got clean water to drink or fresh air to breathe, or whose homes are being destroyed by the effects of global warming.
A worker is a person.  A corporation is not.
On my Facebook page, where it says “Politics”, I’ve written “I endorse the goals of social democracy but doubt the competence of the state to deliver them.” I’m wary of the power of government, but corporations are worse. And a large reason for my wariness is that since I was a child I’ve been watching governments sell off the responsibilities they were sworn to protect. I believe we can do better. In September I’ll be voting for someone who cares about people, and people’s rights, and people’s freedoms. Someone on the Left.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Last Battle

Up far beyond [Jove]

Goes Saturn silent
in the seventh region,

The skirts of the sky.
Scant grows the light,

Sickly, uncertain
(the Sun’s finger

Daunted with darkness).
Distance hurts us,

And the vault severe
of vast silence;

Where fancy fails us,
and fair language,

And love leaves us,
and light fails us

And Mars fails us,
and the mirth of Jove

Is as tin tinkling.
In tattered garment,

Weak with winters,
he walks forever

A weary way,
wide round the heav’n,

Stoop’d and stumbling,
with staff groping,

The lord of lead.
He is the last planet

Old and ugly.
His eye fathers

Pale pestilence,
pain of envy,

Remorse and murder.
Melancholy drink

(For bane or blessing)
of bitter wisdom

He pours for his people,
a perilous draught

That the lip loves not.