May 30, 2021

Categories, Transgender Athletes and Cognitive Dissonance

(This is a copy of a facebook response I made, in response to Eryn Hughes' question about transgender athletes). Categories are an interest of mine. These are strictly My Thoughts Only, and I have no credentials.

It seems to me that at one time, rapid categorization probably conferred an evolutionary advantage. Assessing creatures and objects and categorizing them as dangerous, as unimportant, or as food was crucial to success.

It may be that over time, we are bred to be makers and users of categories. We may be both creators and victims of categories.

As opposed to the time of saber-toothed tigers when people were generalists, in today's world so many people are specialists and survive within an economy that rewards niche categorizations.

We project our categorizations upon others. We seek categories for ourselves, aspirationally. We install categories into our children.

The habit of categorization may have served us well once, but it may not serve "us" well any more. There's a lot of habits our species have left behind. The admixture of categories, competition, and capitalism distort our culture and the playing field.

Whole industries are based on categorization. Money and power flows to the competitors and corporations that thrive within our socially accepted categories. Money ignores the people that don't fit into our categories -- or even worse, power punishes people who challenge our established categories. See Colin Kaepernick.

Our categories are not mere suggestions; we enforce them, and we (socially and economically) punish people who don’t fit into the categories.

I would offer Caster Semenya as an example, (or Mokgadi Caster Semenya OIB as she is known at home). Her performance and even her existence challenge our categories, and so we banish her from organized sport, or insist that she take performance-degrading drugs in the name of sportsmanship. What a contrast to our white Euro cyclists with their performance-enhancing drugs.

At least some solo sports initially present themselves as harmless categories where it's simply the human vs. the clock as in running, swimming, etc. There are still huge economic implications: sponsorship, scholarships, support.

Our categories are social constructs with major capitalist implications, and then we project them onto our children. Children's team sports, which rely on organization and cooperation to get a quorum on the field, mirror adult (corporate, economic) team sports.

Our school system schedules Black and Gold days, and non-participant children are criticized and peer-pressured into the local category which can approach fetishism.

Athletic children have to pick a category and then cast themselves into their category’s lifestyle. Football or baseball? Offense or defense? Short or long distance?

Righty or Lefty? Few will choose switch-hitting. Fewer still will choose switch-pitching, which we don’t have an accepted term for. See baseball’s arcane Pat Venditte Rules for Ambidextrous Pitchers. See, Ambidextrous Pitchers.

To Be Certain, our enforcement of categories and baseball’s tremendous complexity in handling category switchers mirrors our inability to deal with category-bending regarding our most primal impulses, and certainly reflects the issues about transgender athletes.

We don't like to mix/match our categories. Why isn't Serena Williams seen as America's greatest athlete, let alone best tennis pro? Or Simone Biles? And why isn’t the world’s most successful soccer team (the US Women’s Team) paid as well as the American men’s soccer team?

The answer is that our categories include the same racial, gender, and tribal flaws as our culture. Who can say that sport as-we-know-it is pure? Or even only slightly corrupt?

The competition in our organized sports is so fierce that only small differences set the top competitors apart from the merely world-class. Tiny biological differences matter: height or weight in some sports, VO2-Max in others, and the tiniest natural nuances are financially lucrative if they fall within our categories. Otherwise, you’re Caster Semanya.

In the end we seize upon our most vulnerable people to maintain our precious categories. Rachel McKinnon, PhD was the focus of rage and hate as the transgender cyclist who confounded our categories. She became the focus of then-President Trump’s tweets. The notoriety was so great they changed their name to Veronica Ivy.

Can there be any doubt that our generally accepted categories in sport are social constructs? Are we amazed that Caster Semanya, Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams, Simone Biles, and Veronica Ivy are minorities?

Just as we see in the social / political realm, we ignore the people that confound our comfortably acceptable categories.

We assuage our hurt feelings by demonizing the vulnerable non-conformers and by granting victim status to grievants who would maintain the legacy categories, the status quo.

Allan Bakke felt they were kept out of medical school because of a new categorization. Dr. Jennifer Wagner felt that losing to a cross-category competitor was unfair. Society has supported them.

Further, consider the effect of language upon our categories. Benjamin Whorf suggests that we can only think about and communicate about topics that we have words for. We don’t have easy words for Caster Semenya, or Elliot Page, or Pat Venditte, and we’d rather support our comfort than actual people.

At a very basic level, our categories helped; tigers vs chickens, flight or fight, etc. In the face of complexity our categories no longer serve us well; we incentivize ourselves to reject individuals rather than reject a counter-productive social construct, and we revert from enlightenment to tribalism in defense of our precious categories.

I've recently read "Sorted" by Jackson Bird, and I'm currently reading “Sorting Things Out” by Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, and I’d recommend either to anybody interested in categorization and language.

I'd appreciate feedback/ critique as readers see fit.


Flexible Flyer said...

Yo, biology is science too. You know, chromosomes and reproductive organs and so forth.

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