As a child I read voraciously but unsystematically, though the books available to me were – with hindsight – a strange mix. I never had much time for horror stories, partly because I did not enjoy being frightened but partly also through a thrawn attachment to fact in preference to fantasy. I could never 'get' Tolkien and as a teenager I quickly pigeonholed HP Lovecraft as a pretentious pseud (a bit of self-projection, perhaps).
One book that really did frighten me at that time was The Three Faces of Eve
, a case study by Corbett H Thigpen and Hervey M Cleckley of an American woman who suffered from what is now called dissociative identity disorder. In everyday parlance, then and perhaps even now, Eve suffered from a split personality. Behind the conventional repressed façade of ‘Eve White' lurked an uninhibited alter ego, named 'Eve Black' in the book, capable of behaving in ways of which Eve White was totally unconscious. The book has a happy ending: under psychiatric treatment Eve recollects and overcomes a traumatic memory, allowing her to form an integrated new self. Echoes of Freud's triad of superego, id and ego leap to mind.
The idea of more than one self inhabiting a single body was, and is, disturbing. It is perhaps even more disturbing when those selves are drawn from categories that are taken in the prevailing culture to be distinct and incompatible – for example, male and female. Among much else, fears like this underlie current debates about gender identity, transgender rights and the issue of self-identification. Can a self be simultaneously male and female? Carl Jung certainly thought so, in a somewhat mythical sense. Can a self retain its identity while transitioning from one state to the other?
These questions were brought into focus for me by watching BBC Scotland’s recent adaptation of Frances Poet's biographical drama Adam
, based on the real-life story of Adam Kashmiry. Adam was born a girl in Alexandria in Egypt but identified from an early age as a boy trapped in a girl's body. Following various traumatic experiences, he travelled to the UK on a tourist visa and claimed political asylum on the grounds of persecution at home. He was transferred to Glasgow and, after years of struggle, finally achieved his goal of gender reassessment and physical transition.
Last year I wrote in Scottish Review
about the dangers of binary thinking (24 June 2020
), arguing that it is often better to think in terms of continuous gradients and cultural fluidity. This remains my view, but I also recognise that binary distinctions sometimes play a valuable role and I want to approach the controversial issue of gender identity through a distinction between physical and social facts.
Very roughly, this distinction suggests that the physical sciences study phenomena which are mind-independent while those studied by the social sciences are in varying degrees mind-dependent. Both physical and social facts are subject to change but the factors of change differ between them.
Physical change is governed purely by physical laws (e.g. geology); social change is influenced, in addition, by human reflection and self-reflection: it depends in various ways on choices made by humans. Social change is driven by factors of different types, some natural (e.g. non-anthropogenic climate change), some human-induced. Among the latter, some changes are intended, some not. Some changes occur as pure accident.
Physical and social facts differ in various ways. Physical facts are grounded in universal laws while social facts may be local and temporary: they describe states that prevail in one society, or section of a society, at one point in time.
Starting from this perspective, one might argue that biological sex is a physical fact (and is, in fact, broadly binary) while gender is a social fact, culturally variable and fluid. But the case of Adam Kashmiry is sufficient to show the limits of this analysis. For some individuals, gender dysphoria is real in a way that goes beyond social convention or any transient emotional phase.
Personal identities involve a mixture of belief and desire. I have beliefs about who I am, and to some extent why I am who I am; I also have desires and hopes about who I may become in future. Beliefs are inescapably linked to questions of truth and falsehood. Some fashionable tropes seem to imply that identity is purely a matter of desire: you can always succeed in becoming what you choose. In any literal sense, this is simply false: you can become who you choose, without limit, only by spinning off into some virtual world (game-playing, perhaps) that avoids contact with the physical world.
All literal real-world self-identifications involve an identity claim which can be judged as true or false. If I claim to be the fastest sprinter on earth, that can be quickly proved false by staging a competitive race. If I claim to be a reincarnation of Napoleon, things get a bit trickier. What does this mean? What possible evidence could be relevant? It is easy to spin fantasy contexts but if I want to avoid a spell on a psychiatrist's couch it may be best not to insist that the claim is literally true.
If I self-identify as the lover of Clarinda, I am plunging into deep ethical waters. I may only mean that I worship Clarinda from a distance, but at its strongest the claim implies that she and I are lovers: Clarinda reciprocates, or has a duty to reciprocate, my love. And this is a question on which Clarinda has a right to express her views, and to be heard.
This brings out a crucial point: many aspects of identity depend on relationships with others, on shared and reciprocated identities, and on social facts about how people understand meanings. They are a matter for negotiation, not unilateral decision. Despite what some advertisers tell us, acquiring a new identity is not like going into a shop and choosing something ready-made off the peg.
Facts and meanings are interdependent. It is a fact that most (but not all) swans are white, and this facticity tells us something about the meaning of 'white'. This is an example of what whiteness is, for speakers of mainstream English. It is a fact that I am male and Scottish (and that I self-identify as male and Scottish). And it is a social fact that most of those around me (family, friends, society and the State) accept and confirm those identities. But the nature and meaning of these facts are not predetermined.
In conversation, Jim and I may agree that he and I are both male and Scottish but we may disagree strongly about whether the same terms apply to a third party, and it may not be clear whether we are disagreeing about facts or meanings. We are in the realm of social facts here. And, as argued above, social facts may be limited in their scope. Facts can and do change over time, and identities and meanings have to be continually re-negotiated.
Dennis Smith is a retired librarian who dabbles in philosophy, watches birds
and does a bit of conservation work in the hope that the planet can still be