Get Real!

It may seem counterintuitive (that’s academicspeak for downright daft) to take as the main topics of the same book such diverse debates as those over transubstantiation and transgender – and metaphysics? How could that ever leap off the shelves!
So why do it? Why write 40 thousand words on distinctions between levels of reality, on shifting patterns of value and conflicting hierarchies of morals – including a 6 thousand word science fiction story to illustrate the point?
I wrote Trans/Substantiation: The Metaphysics of Transgender because I’ve had the benefit of decades of pondering the truth, and the helpfulness, of our common views on reality (they are various). Although this book started life as an academic essay I wrote for a university RE Department when I was a doctoral candidate, I’ve increasingly felt impelled to share the insight I’ve gained into the potential for a more ecumenically acceptable philosophical framework for the Eucharist – because it might help limit the ridicule, exclusion, confusion, bullying, rejection, pain, scarring, sterility, and suicide, faced en masse or piecemeal by so many vulnerable people in the furious current controversy over trangender.
‘Vulnerable’ is a key word in this book, which portrays no-one as villains. I quote Susan Jeffreys and I quote Judith Butler, Kate Bornstein and P. Califia. They all have wisdom to impart. So many people are both hurt and angry, and angry about others like themselves getting hurt – not just by people like their opponents in this debate (like each other, basically) but principally by nontransgender men. Like me.
So I’m very conscious of my privilege in writing this book, I acknowledge the fact that my ease with academic sources and languages has come from years of tertiary education in the UK and abroad (where I learned the languages) and that my White face has been welcomed by some who would not welcome others – and if I can pass as an assumed middle class heterosexual of Caucasian ancestry that assumption is no less potent for being in error.
Mostly. Because things change. Panta rhe said the pre-Socratics: everything flows. Even mountains. They just do it slowly.
The problem with metaphysics isn’t that it’s unreal, it’s that it’s invisible. How we believe reality to be constructed is so fundamental to our mindset as individuals (actually, as groups) that we fail to see it as a belief at all. Life, the world, the universe – it just is! It is what it is! Where’s the mystery in that?
For a start, that New Agey quote currently mouthed by sharp-suited managers did not originate in some MBA programme (although it’s probably included in several) but in the patient perception of an Ottoman mystic named (in the West) Rumi. The names means Roman, which meant European, which meant (in his case) Turkish.
Things aren’t always what they seem to be. Or are they? That’s a metaphysical debate in itself. The reality of experience, of private perception. As compared with some abstract mathematical public dimension that we, vaguely, imagine to be the realm of empirical science. It’s not. Empiricism isn’t actually theoretical at all. It’s just a measured way of gathering data. Which just gives us data. Not theory, not truth. Data. Then more data. That’s it.
Theory happens when scientists fall asleep, when they take baths, when they are so bored, lolling about their mother’s kitchen as boys that the only thing that draws their attention is the movement of the kettle lid as the steam comes out.
Robert M. Pirisg, the greatest and most misunderstood philosopher of the 20th century (one that actually philosophised, rather than simply repeating the ideas of others, cleverly) provided great clarity in his roman-a-thèse novels. I just shoved that bit of French in to impress you – and I bet it worked. The French wouldn’t be impressed, as roman means novel and thèse is just thesis. So these books tell a story and also teach. Clever. Entertaining. At the same time. It’s called rhetoric and academics (who do it all the time) officially hate it.
There’s a lot of rhetoric in this book because it’s a social pattern of value designed to combat the resistance of static quality (inertia, basically) to new ideas. Because new ideas don’t just force us to confront new perspectives – they force us to confront the ones we already have. The ones we take as self-evident. Like empiricism being theoretical. And we can really resent being told that we may only be partly right. And that they, our utter avowed enemy (because if there’s one thing we’re not it’s one of them!) might be partly right too. Then we might have to give our identity badge back, leave the club, stop giving the handshake.
Don’t read this book if all your online friends and followers agree with you about gender. According a value to voices outside of your echo chamber may be too much for you at this point in your life. Do read it if you are at all concerned that perhaps your views on gender might be hurting someone else and if you’ve recently disagreed with someone on a topic dear to your heart but still respect them. Do read it, also, if you’re fed up going to interdenominational weddings and funerals and seeing the sad sight of half the congregation sat in the pews at communion – or humbly going forward for blessing rather than bread.
Things change. Reading this, you might.

Snowflake2

Trans/Substantiation: The Metaphysics of Transgender is on Amazon, in print & Kindle version with a free online sample (click on my name to see the other version if they aren’t yet linked) and in various formats on Smashwords (premium quality) and many national and international online retailers.

Thanks to Piotr Siedlecki who has released his photo, ‘White Snowflake 2’, into the Public Domain on: www.publicdomainpictures.net

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Triage and Tyranny

1855. You are sitting outside a large medical tent in the freezing winter on the shores of the Black Sea. Future generations will know this is the Crimean War. To you, a young woman from a sheltered background with scant medical training, it is Hell.
Here they come.
The tent behind you is partitioned in three. To the right, the wounded soldiers likely to survive without medical intervention; in the centre, those likely to die without medical intervention; to the left, those likely to die; outside, those already dead. There are three exits from the tent. The word ‘likely’ does not mean very much, but it’s the best that can be done in the circumstances.
As the first one approaches, stretcher supported by brothers in arms, you know that your split-second decision for right or left or centre (or outside) is likely to save some lives and to end others. If you do nothing, many more will die. If you try to save them all, many more will die.
You steel yourself, thrust down your feelings, and begin the first, rapid, assessment.
This scene is an imaginary illustration of very real events that have been taking place just behind the front line in many wars for many years. A complicating factor, and there are many, is that there are only so many doctors and there’s only so much time. So only those most likely to survive will receive treatment. Any time wasted on those to the right or left means more of those in the centre will die – as some will anyway. This necessary categorisation, in these circumstances, is not only life-saving; it is almost certainly a sentence of death. Someone has to do it.
As morality deals with good and evil; ethics deals with right and wrong. Their relationship is complex. The kind of ethical decision-making employed by the young woman in the illustration is today called ‘utilitarian’ – meaning that such decisions are based on their utility, i.e. the good that may come out of them. Several modern philosophers are associated with utilitariansim but the foremost champion of a single ethical imperative outweighing all others is the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Kantian ethics, deriving ultimately from Plato’s Socrates (via a misreading of Aristotle) had great influence in Nazi Germany and, as I show in my thesis, continues to have great influence in the United States of America.
What a horrible thing to say! How can I compare a courageous young woman doing her best to save lives against all odds in hellish circumstances, with Hitler and then with the Land of the Free?
Firstly, as the classicist Prof. Martha Nussbaum shows, Kantian ethics are an attempt to avoid the tragic conflict of opposing ethical imperatives. In other words, the young women sitting outside the tent in the Crimean War avails herself of the clarity of these ethics so that no matter the particularities of each wounded soldier (the one whose blue eyes remind her of her brother, the one who pleads for life because of his pregnant wife, the one who has high rank in the Army) she is able to make a decision based solely on the greater good: saving as many lives as possible.
I cannot fault the exercise of Kantian ethics in those circumstances. Grave problems arise, however, when frontline decision-making becomes the basis of ethical conduct in times of peace.
Kantian ethics rely on the total removal of all other ethical considerations opposing the main imperative. A key part of this process (as modern philosopher Dr Mary Midgley shows) is the reduction of particular people and particular circumstances into universal categories. (Also reduction happens, as I show in this book, by use of language.) So, for example, sandy-haired Private Benjamin Jones, 33, a nonconformist lay preacher and amateur boxer, married and faithful to pretty brunette Nelly Jones neé MacDonald, although in love with his lieutenant, who has three kids (the youngest coincidentally resembling the postman), doting parents, a dog and likes fishing, becomes ‘suppurating wound in the thigh’ and is sent to the left (to die).
The reason why frontline ethics are a problem in peacetime is that the only thing that recommends them is their simplicity. I’m not for a moment saying that triage is simple but Kantian ethics are designed to respond only to the greatest ethical imperative and ignore all the others. As Prof. Nussbaum shows, this is the reverse of Aristotle’s teaching that it is the particulars of each person and circumstance that most surely guide us towards a wise ethical response. Not simple, wise.
This kind of sensitivity to particular ethical situations is recommended by moral philosophers such as Rev. Charles Curran, the American theologian who was in frequent conflict with Pope John Paul II. What concerns me is that it is a sensitivity increasingly under threat as more and more organisations worldwide are affected by American corporate values.
Charitable organisations are especially vulnerable as they often flounder in terms of effectiveness, communication and organisation so a hard-headed person unafraid to make tough decisions may seem like a godsend. The catch is that such decision-making may indeed be tough, for anyone with much humanity, but for those hardly burdened by conscience it is quite simple: set goals, clear obstacles, forward march!
Further complications arise because charitable organisations are full of people who feel it is uncharitable not to think the best of others. So if a candidate for a powerful position shows psychopathic tendencies, these may be interpreted as ‘focussed’ or ‘business-minded’. Freud’s rather innocent example of such tendencies (a girl who likes a boy she met at a funeral hoping for another funeral to maybe meet him again) shows that they are not just shared by the criminally insane. In fact, a recent survey of top companies found that a fifth of CEOs shared these tendencies.
It’s a commonplace in the more smug varieties of chicklit and womens’ magazines to poke fun at males (never men) making up the majority of those on the autistic spectrum; on the other end of the same spectrum psychologists are concerned that women (never females) who make up the majority of those on the psychotic spectrum are not receiving support as the condition is so badly publicised.
Adding all this together with the everyday sexism that still abounds and the trend in the third sector is for organisations to be run by someone high on the psychopathic scale, with immediate subordinates (or support from Head Office) of men who find it easier to stick rigidly to rules than interact with changing human situations (as emotional particularities are so overwhelmingly complex to interpret) and with women in the majority of grassroots workers and many of them self-sacrificing and painfully sensitive to the opinions of others.
On top of all this may be the hothouse effect that occurs when communities are cloistered canonically, isolated geographically or otherwise shrouded in secrecy due to the vulnerability/ naivety of their client group or the difficulty in getting staff. An insistence on ‘professionalism’ may mean that dissenting/ abused employees and volunteers are prevented from expressing anything other than the party line – as the psychopathic boss controls formal communication and informal communication is condemned as ‘gossip’ unworthy of good people, scandalous to the public/ clients and contrary to the exemplary values of the school/ church/ home/ charity/ community. The hallmark of the psychopath is the inability to recognise or feel any remorse for the harm they have done to people, so they move effortlessly from sadistic treatment of an individual to community schmaltz with a beaming face of innocence.
There is much wisdom in the co-dependency awareness movement but what it may fail to grasp is that everyone involved may sincerely believe that they are doing the right thing:
– Laying down the law
– Sticking to procedures
– Self-sacrificing and keeping silent
As we watch in awe the debacle of American democracy, it may help to realise that the unprecedented administration is a symptom, not a cause, of frontline ethics applied in peacetime.
The reduction of complex situations to simple categories of right and wrong, the dehumanising of people, the control of the people by force and censorship of the free speech, these are the hallmarks of military crisis and in such times the Ancient Romans accorded special dictatorial powers to a designated senator (usually a consul). The Ancient Greeks called this person a Tyrant.

funny-hospital-sign

Thanks to Linnaea Mallette who has released her photo ‘Funny Hospital Sign’ into the public domain.