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When denying reality is a great strategy
This is the twenty-seventh piece in Lorenzo Warby’s series of essays on the strange and disorienting times in which we live. The publication schedule is available here. Meanwhile, has a thoughtful response to Essay 25 over at his place.
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This article can be adumbrated thusly: When it comes to the Transcult, the more bonkers the better. Mad beliefs are the point.
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To understand the Trans phenomenon—and so much that has been going on across Western societies—you have to understand this principle: the more bonkers the better.
Religion famously involves adherents accepting weird beliefs on little or no evidence. Folk such as Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists look at this rampant irrationality and conclude that human society would be much better off without religion. Get rid of religion and a new age of human rationality will be born!
The history of “get rid of this thing humans have been doing forever and things will be great” is, well, mixed.
If one takes a more—dare one say— extended phenotype view of religiosity, one may suspect something else is going on. Religion sanctifies norms and makes them more robust. Religion also provides frameworks to deal with being both social and self-conscious beings—aware of our own mortality. After all, how could application of the evolutionary lens lead you to believe that something pervasive in human societies was antipathetical to human flourishing?
The Augustinian approach to interpreting Scripture—that what may be literally false can be figuratively or metaphorically true—makes evolutionary sense. It does so if we define metaphorically true as: it is beneficial for the persistence of your lineage when members act as if it were true.
Religions, especially congregational religions, create communities of believers. Basing beliefs on the realm of the divine—from which there is no replicable feedback—protects foundational beliefs from contradiction while enabling invocation of absolutely trumping authority. This not only strengthens norms by sanctifying them, it also creates a marker of membership: weird beliefs. Willingness to stick to weird beliefs shows commitment to the community or network.
Once one takes the social functions of religion seriously, the New Atheist claim that getting rid of religion would make societies more rational—so more functional—becomes transparent nonsense.
If traditional religion retreats, other ideas and patterns flow into the vacancy. These ideas and patterns have not stood any test of time, and do not represent embedded learning.
The murderous totalitarianisms of the c20th all sought to replace religion. Explicitly in the case of Marxism, indirectly in the case of Nazism.
A Marxist is someone for whom no level of mass murder, no succession of tyrannies, shakes his faith. Faith is grounded in his future vision, a realm from which there is no information. Any Marxist revolution that fails to fulfil that vision is, by definition, not authentic Marxism. Because, if it were authentic Marxism, it would have worked.
This is a rationalising manifestation of faith.
A rather nice description of “wokery” is “the popularisation of Critical Theory.” Critical theory—and all the streams of thought that create “wokery”—flow from Hegel and his pouring of the spiritual into the social. Their claims about, and action within, the realm of the social take on the functions of religion. The imagined future becomes the place of divine authority.
This is why Eva Kurilova finds her religious studies degree strangely relevant as she examines the moral theology of “wokery” and the counterfeit mysticism of gender [identity] ideology. Meanwhile, scholar of religion Collette Colfer identifies activists as the clergy of a gender identity religion, a religion with a moral code, infidels and heretics (critics and non-believers), and apostates (de-transitioners).
Dynamics of belief
Social psychologist Robert Abelson noted two types of belief:
… it is important to distinguish between testable belief, belief about objects within the immediate experience of the person that allow appropriate action and feedback, and distal belief, belief about objects only remotely experienced or not sensibly verifiable.
The correlation between attitudes (evaluative beliefs) and action is low. Many attitudes are circumstantial and transient: adopted on the spot and often not remembered later.
There are factors that lead to commitment to belief: engaging in public commitment to it; suffering for it; explaining it; elaborating it or tracing its origins; defending it. Moreover, whether beliefs are shared (have power in a group or network), distinctive (provide a useful personal marker), extreme (show intensity of commitment), defensible (persuasively strong) and central (fit in with other beliefs) affect adherence and use.
Beliefs subject to reality tests have much stronger filtering against falsity, with adherence revealed by behaviour. Distal beliefs are much more likely to be socially motivated, so manifest in what economists call expressive preferences. Indeed, the less beliefs are subject to reality tests—meaning the lower the error-costs for persons affirming them—the more beliefs can be adopted for status and social-leverage reasons.
People often curate what sources of information they use—and what discounts they apply to various sources of information—to protect their righteous identity as one of the smart and good. The result is media siloing, both from media outlets playing to such righteous identities and from media consumers self-curating their media consumption.
A belief’s social value will facilitate its public affirmation and so commitment to it. Yet consequences for other people, and wider society, may be very different, even disastrous.
What are testable beliefs for one group may be distal beliefs for another. What works one way in a social milieu full of people with high executive function can work very differently in a social milieu with lots of folk with comparatively low executive function.1
Ranking people based on beliefs disconnected from what they can influence personally has become endemic in various networks and social milieux. With the Transcult, we see the elevation of distal beliefs as moral markers extended to treating testable beliefs as if they were chosen for social reasons (e.g. “sex assigned at birth”).
Reality denial signals status-strategy loyalty
In the wider cultural contests convulsing Western societies, evidence and debate matter for persuading the uncommitted and fortifying those already persuaded. Yet success in such argumentative struggles relies on depriving toxic beliefs of their social value while breaking or blocking their propagation mechanisms.
Many people think the obvious denial of biological facts that Gender Identity Theory and the Transcult evince handicaps the trans cause (and Post-Enlightenment Progressivism more widely). This is naively mistaken.
Drawing attention to the mutilation and sterilising of minors has much less effect than it should because the Transcult generates bonkers beliefs as markers—tied to constructed and maintained righteous identities—that demonstrate loyalty and commitment to shared status- and social-leverage strategies.
The more aspects of reality have to be not noticed—as long as they can be not noticed without adverse consequences for the not-noticers—the more useful a separating-out status strategy such not-noticing is. This is the dynamic on which prestige opinions are regularly based. Luxury beliefs—prestige opinions with entry costs—even more so.
So, the more bonkers the better. The more one has to affirm while not noticing, the stronger the commitment, the stronger the loyalty, to a shared righteous identity of being of the smart and the good and their status and social-leverage strategies. This also creates the NPC (Non-Player Character) effect—people affirm The Latest Thing to show their continuing commitment to a shared righteous identity—and the status- and social leverage strategies that go with that righteous identity.
We live in an age of weird, indeed bonkers, beliefs. These require no action for most adherents beyond affirmation, while shunning and shaming those who do not so affirm. And what is more bonkers than the notion that folk have an inner gender psyche that trumps their biological sex? That someone with a penis is a woman? That the surgical and hormonal mutilation of minors represents cutting-edge moral concern?
Truth is a weak commitment signal. Anyone can embrace truth. Only the truly “enlightened”, and normatively aggressive, can make falsity—especially about testable reality—work as a signal.
Genuine expertise deals in complex truths. But that is not the sort of truth at stake here. Genuine expertise is a costly signal in all the wrong ways: it does not scale up.
Your signal has to scale up in ways that work for midwits—especially midwit managers—and lay folk. Falsity can do that just fine. Even better, disconnection from reality makes it so much easier for marker beliefs and linguistic signals to be regularly and conveniently updated.
This is how we end up with some women have penises.
The more you have to not notice (the denial of biology, the travails of de-transitioners, the sterilising of minors)—especially to make the required affirmations (mandated pronouns, here we come)—the stronger is your adherence signal and the more invested in leverage-and-status strategies you become. This extends to arguing how wrong, how transphobic, it is to notice wrongly.
In any situation where there is a positive advantage to being in error, the level of efficient self-deception is likely to be stratospheric.
An outlook which extolls the surgical and hormonal mutilation and sterilisation of minors—a modern equivalent of foot-binding—as being morally cutting edge requires truly heroic levels of not noticing. This is precisely why it has worked so well for generating commitment to shared status-and-social-leverage strategies.
Moreover, the worse a minority’s behaviour is when assessed statistically, the better sacred victims they make: more has to be not noticed. Sex offenders identifying as female and getting transferred to women’s prisons are a particularly egregious case in point.
This works at many levels. Luxury beliefs are an educated elite status strategy. They are not propounded by the sort of people likely to end up in a women’s prison or a women’s refuge. Or to know anyone who would finish up in either of those places.
It’s even better if any not noticing supports the past-as-moral-hell, present-as-moral-purgatory, imagined-future-as-moral-benchmark pattern. Trans—an egregiously morally oppressed group who allegedly suffer extreme violence, who allegedly experience enormous suicide risks, and whose very existence depends on complete and utter acceptance of every last claim—fits well into this pattern.
The Transcult takes a demand to control how others speak and think of them—pioneered by the Jewish lobby and expanded by feminism—to an extreme not previously seen.
Moreover, as children are unpolluted by the past’s moral Hell, their purity means they automatically make better choices than their parents. This fits in with the welfare state’s social-imperial hostility to parental authority. Invocation of mountains-of-bullshit-out-of-molehills-of-truth Theory discounts any parental authority based on being more experienced than children. Experience doesn’t matter: it comes from the past, not the future.
The claim—often advanced by lawyers—that children lack capacity to make these decisions does not resonate with blank-slate egalitarianism. The formed-by-their-own-choices nature of children’s cognition reinforces their greater purity, showing how the benighted past does not pollute them.2
The claim that you have an inner gender soul/psyche that your body has to be surgically and hormonally sculpted to reflect—so it is no longer imprisoned by oppressive biological structures—reflects the underlying gnosticism of the Hegel—>Marx—>Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”) stream of thought.
It fits in with subordinating accuracy about reality—a deeply flawed reality that is to be superseded—to the project of achieving transformative wholeness. It forms part of a revolt against constraint—construing constraint-as-oppression—that pervades this ever-evolving stream of thought and action.
In the cultural struggles over Trans, the big divide is between those who treat “gender” (actually sex)3 dysphoria as psychological dysfunction and those who treat it as an identity. For the latter, to think of such dysphoria as a psychological dysfunction is to commit blasphemy, to mark oneself off as a moral infidel.
Even gender dysphoria is an unfortunate term. Being alienated from the gender (i.e. cultural) expectations of your sex is something experienced by every gay boy or girl, every tomboy, every sissy. It is simply something to be worked through.
What trans folk suffer is alienation from the physicality of their sex. They suffer from sex dysphoria. This is why the older term transsexual is more accurate than transgender.
Collapsing liberal optimism
What looked like the triumph of secular liberalism has dwindled, as Manhattan Institute fellow Leor Sapir argues, into the collapse of liberal optimism. A (highly selective) non-judgementalism has become the new civic religion, protecting and expanding self-esteem—subjective self-satisfaction in the moment. Desire has been redefined as need.
Sapir is right to see this as an apathy that lets loose an unhinged empathy. Unanchored empathy makes it easier to give way in the face of linguistic game-playing and moral grandstanding—things the Transcult adapts and generates and on which it thrives.
This also feeds into the politics of the transformational future. Non-judgmentalism as a dominant value means the past has no moral authority. It provides no sense of what it is to develop into a better person.
Meanwhile, the marginal (and who are more marginal than trans?) are morally elevated as sacred victims. Their escape from the moral hell of the past—and the prison of their biology—must be valorised.
Trans people are holy, because they represent autonomy’s victory over structure, a social alchemy that can only be completed by us all affirming their triumph over the restrictions of biology.
This is the new transubstantiation.
The social-imperial degradations of activism
The history of transgender activism displays—horrifyingly given its trail of mutilated minors—how activists parasitise, exploit, and degrade the chains of trust that social order (including courts) rely on.
Central to the activist core’s institutional infiltration strategies is that they use your vocabulary, but not your dictionary. Key words have exoteric (public) and esoteric (hidden) meanings. They get the rest of us to accept meanings based on the first but later, when convenient, activate the second. This can have a disorienting and demoralising effect.
A major strategy is capturing professional and clinical bodies, often using spurious expertise in bullshit Theory. This is a particularly effective form of what writer Wesley Yang describes as “non-electoral politics of institutional capture”.
Over a period of decades, activists—operating in and through the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH)—sidelined first clinicians then therapists in setting standards for “transgender” care.
The label shift from the previous term transsexual mattered. A term that referenced biology was replaced by one that references Theory. This is how shifting language—so what meant one thing comes to mean another—aids activist politics.
Such capture then feeds into the courts, who regularly defer to (increasingly captured) professional and clinical bodies. Malpractice suits over gender affirmation therapy by de-transitioners can thus be blocked by judges deferring to captured organisations.
Sapir describes well what is unfolding in institutions across the West, but particularly in academia and journalism:
A small number of highly ideological, highly motivated, very well organised activists kind of skilfully setting up a narrative about what is good and bad, just and unjust, and being very, very capable of destroying the professional and personal reputations of people who disagree with them. That is certainly the case with academia.
Since the 1960s, there has been a shift in American government to what is known as adversarial legalism: the use of courts to “manage” the concerns of interest groups. This gives activist bodies elevated roles in policy outcomes, especially through getting judges to shape public policy.
Activist bodies staffed by ideologues without accountability can thereby have a large role in policy outcomes. The US is thus prone to activist capture of policy and institutions, while voters are bypassed. This pattern extends to the Corporate Equality Index feeding into ESG (Environmental, Social and corporate Governance), which affects corporate credit access.
Identities not persons
The term transgender panders to bullshit Theory.
It leads directly to Transing the gay away (as pioneered by the Iranian regime). By turning Trans into an Identity based on feelings, it serves to block researchers exploring in any depth why and how some people feel what they do.
It takes personal complexities and turns them into a performative cardboard cutout. It offers children and adolescents a chimera of Identity into which they are hormonally and surgically fitted. It also consummates an underlying metaphysics. What does a blank slate need to discover? A blank slate creates itself by its choices.
The Transcult turns children into another medicalised product via networked identity comsumerism. A meat-lego, processed person, to be kept afloat on hormones for life. Then there’s the required affirmation of Transness. The demanded not noticing of biology and its constraints.
Including not noticing that is utterly beyond our technical capacities to change someone’s sex. The stigmatising of the wrongful noticing of the mutilated de-transitioners. The systematic denial of biological reality. The vicious mean-girl mobbing of those who refuse to play along.
The Transcult is a reminder of how much horror faith in a transformative future can generate: a reminder written on children’s mutilated and sterilised bodies.
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Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life, Swift, 2021.
Helen Joyce, Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, OneWorld, 2021.
Louise Perry, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century, Polity Books, 2022.
Abigail Shrier, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, Regnery,  2021.
Stephen Smith, Pagans & Christian in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018.
Kathleen Stock, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, Fleet, 2021.
Articles, papers, book chapters, podcasts
Robert P. Abelson, ‘Beliefs Are Like Possessions,’ Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 16, 3 October 1986, 223-250.
Scott Atran, Robert Axelrod, Richard Davis, ‘Sacred Barriers to Conflict Resolution,’ Science, Vol. 317, 24 August 2007, 1039-1040.
Jessica J.M. Barnes, Angela J. Dean, L. Sanjay Nandam, Redmond G. O’Connell, and Mark A. Bellgrove, ‘The Molecular Genetics of Executive Function: Role of Monoamine System Genes,’ Biological Psychiatry, 2011;69:e127–e143.
Laura E. Engelhardt, Daniel A. Briley, Frank D. Mann, K. Paige Harden Tucker-Drob, ‘Genes Unite Executive Functions in Childhood,’ Psychological Science, 2015 August, 26(8), 1151–1163.
Harry Frankfurt, ‘On Bullshit,’ Raritan Quarterly Review, Fall 1986, Vol.6, No.2.
Jo Freeman, ‘Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood,’ Ms magazine, April 1976, pp. 49-51, 92-98.
Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, ‘Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality,’ December 11, 2006. https://ssrn.com/abstract=980844.
Rob Henderson, ‘Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class—A Status Update,’ Quillette, 16 Nov 2019.
Robert A. Kagan, ‘Adversarial Legalism and American Government,’ in Marc K. Landy and Martin A. Levin (eds), The Politics of Public Policy, John Hopkins University Press, 1995, 88-118.
Dan M. Kahan, ‘The Expressive Rationality of Inaccurate Perceptions,’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2017, 40, E6.
Richard E. Mayer, ‘Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning? The Case for Guided Methods of Instruction,’ American Psychologist, January 2004, Vol. 59, No. 1, 14–19.
Stella O’Malley & Sasha Ayad, ‘WPATH’s Bizarre 8th Standards of Care,’ Gender: A Wider Lens, Ep.94, November 4, 2022.
Stella O’Malley & Sasha Ayad, ‘Gender: Philosophy, Institutions and Policy with Leor Sapir,’ Gender: A Wider Lens, Ep.94, September 23, 2022.
Jonathan F. Schulz, Duman Bahrami-Rad, Jonathan P. Beauchamp, and Joseph Henrich. "The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation." Science 366, no. 6466 (2019): eaau5141.
Manvir Singh, Richard Wrangham & Luke Glowacki, ‘Self-Interest and the Design of Rules,’ Human Nature, August 2017.
Josh Slocum, Disaffected Podcast.
Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke, ‘Moral Grandstanding,’ Philosophy & Public Affairs, 2016, 44, no. 3, 197-217.
Daniel Williams, ‘The marketplace of rationalizations,’ Economics & Philosophy (2022), 1–25.
As executive function is almost completely heritable, it readily becomes socially sorted over time, creating social milieus with very different distributions of executive function.
Paulo Friere’s child-centred pedagogy is the product of such pre-Darwinian metaphysics. Every year, human societies are invaded by a wave of ignorant barbarians we call “children”. Effective pedagogy faces that squarely. Destructive, destabilising pedagogy uses children for socially corrosive activism that shows a consistent inability to learn how to teach so as to promote human flourishing. It is a chosen inability, for activist pedagogy is oriented towards constructing and maintaining a righteous identity for its advocates’ and practitioners’ status-strategies and social leverage, not for human flourishing.
Sex is biology; sex roles are the behavioural manifestations of sex; gender is the cultural manifestation of sex. As with everything social, gender is emergent from the biological.