Fighting the good fight

Or: How to use a pen for non-violent combat


I've had a Victor Hugo quote stuck in my head today:

"On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées"

This is far from a direct translation, but I first heard it in English as "the only thing more powerful than all the armies of the world is an idea who's time has come." While there's a certain revolutionary flair added to this translation, the words and messages of Hugo are so steeped in revolution that the context is more or less assumed when reading in French. I also think that the direct translation does a better job of expressing exactly why it is that an idea has the capacity to conquer in ways that the world of violence could only hope to achieve: a good idea is irresistible.

I'm a science-y person, so let's dig into (my best understanding of) the neuroscience behind this. The most reductionist way that I might express an "idea" is as a connection between two neurons in the brain. I have a neuron (or cluster of neurons) in my brain that corresponds to my idea of "pizza", and another that corresponds to all of my understanding of "pineapples". While I'm not happy to admit it, there is a bridge of synapses that connects these two concepts in my mind. Whether I agree with the idea or not, I am forced to reckon with this idea every time someone shouts about whether or not pineapple belongs on pizza. In fact, I've had to contend with this meme over so many different encounters that it has now filtered towards the top of my mental list of "controversial-but-innocuous ideas".

This is an interesting thing to acknowledge, because it really doesn't matter which side of the fence I stand on. One way or another, I'm still building my stance around the core idea of "pineapple as a pizza topping", and I'm still reinforcing that synaptic connection in my brain. I can choose to disagree with the idea every time I encounter it, but negating it doesn't make the idea go away. Indeed, allowing an idea to elicit a reaction within you and having strong feelings either way is adding fuel to the fire. So, now that we're all warmed up with an innocuous subject, let's talk about something important. Let's talk about trans rights.

I will preface this by saying that I choose to identify as a cisgendered, hetero male - one that has done a lot of thinking about what that means, but ultimately: "a dude". I don't think this disqualifies me from talking about and forming opinions on the subject of transgenderism, but at the same time I would like acknowledge that I am speaking from an outsider's point-of-view and that the lives of the people I am speaking about are no more or less valid than my own. Now, let's get into it.

I'd like to start by jumping into the fire and choosing one of the spiciest subjects in the bag: trans people competing in gendered events. I'd like to talk specifically about Lia Thomas and her 2022 record in the 500-yard freestyle swim, mainly because that's the idea that floated to the top of my mind and I know that other people have decided where they stand when it comes to "trans rights" based on this event.

To lay the groundwork for this discussion, there are clear and undeniable differences between sexes in the human genome. These differences are the result of sexual dimorphism, which is a pattern showcased in many (but not all) species of the animal kingdom. These differences are influenced by genes as well as hormones, starting at birth and becoming more significant at the onset of puberty. These are well-established facts, and no educated person would refute them. They are also arbitrarily chosen by the author (me) for the sake of constructing an argument based on biology.

Now, I could have just as easily "laid the groundwork for this discussion" by citing well-established facts about how trans-identifying youth are four times more likely to be the victims of hate crimes and four times more likely to attempt suicide. Basing my case around the basic rights of all human beings and our responsibility to protect young people from harm would help me construct an argument based on sociology.

On one hand, Lia Thomas has a biological advantage that some people would consider to be unfair to her fellow competitors. On the other hand, Lia's success is life-affirming to the collective trans community. So which side do we choose? The truth is, it really doesn't matter.

Like many things that are "up for debate", discussions around trans rights hinge less around "the facts" and more about "which facts are important to me?". This is the basis of what I consider a 'post-truth' world, where a person can actively construct reasonable arguments for totally different conclusions in order to validate their own existing beliefs. Without the common ground of shared experience between people who lean towards social conservativism and social liberalism, there is a tearing of social fabric that results in people choosing to live in totally different universes of their own mental construction. This doesn't happen only along the political axis, but within the arbitrary number of dualistic dimensions on which people base their own identity. Straight or queer, red or blue, vaccinated or no. Defining oneself by what one isn't is how human beings create "outgroups" to use as targets for offloading blame about the difficulties of our collective experience.

When I say that choosing a side doesn't matter, I don't mean to dismiss or invalidate the lived experience of marginalized people. What I mean is that directing your stance towards a fence of division and facing off against another group of human beings standing on the other side is wasted effort. That same effort could be spent tearing down the walls that keep us from working together to address what I consider to be "real problems" - problems that threaten the livelihood, well-being, and survival of the entire human race.

In the face of systematic collapse and extreme wealth inequality, pronouns and sporting events do not matter. I will refer to my friends in any way that I have the capacity for, because making my friends feel okay is important to me. I will congratulate anyone for winning a contest that they worked hard to win, because small wins are valuable in the face of big problems. I will do whatever needs to be done to stay aligned with everyone who values "us" over "me", because the truth is that there is that there is no "them" to face off against. There is only a sea of "me", "myself", and "I", filled with people who only know how to identify by what they aren't.

Do you consider me a friend? If so, then welcome to the good fight. We do not fight against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. The work we do is not the fault of the pagans or the Jews, the Muslims or the Chinese. It is not the fault of the gays, the straights, or anyone who lands somewhere in the middle. It's not the oil barons, or the 0.1%, or your ex. This fight is not your fault, nor is it my fault. It is our fault. It is ours, as a global collective. There is no army that can fight it, because an army needs a fence to know where to point the guns. The "good fight" is not a fight against the "bad guys" any more than being a "man" is about not being a woman. The "good fight" is a fight to be better than we were yesterday, because let's face it. We all need to be better.

Here's an idea: let's try to work together on this one. People love to fight fire with fire, but I think the time has come for something new. And really, whether you're for or against it is irrelevant. In the "us vs. them" world we live in today, collaboration isn't just a good idea - it's an irresistible one.

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