Hale: The thing about definitions | AspenTimes.com

Hale: The thing about definitions

David Hale
David Hale
David Hale

Plato’s dialogue the Symposium appears to be a long discussion of  gender and sexuality. However, there is a subtext; it is impossible to find perfect definitions. Plato seems intent on showing that if no definition is going to garner universal assent, then anyone can argue any position they like via different definitions. Thus, on face value, there are many seemingly absurd conclusions in Plato’s dialogues. Some of these absurdities are: true knowledge is unknowable (Theaetetus), being is nothing (Sophist), writing is poison (Phaedrus). There are more.

When it comes to sexuality and gender, I find this age old conundrum of definitions at work still. For example, take the The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It specifically excludes “gender identity disorder not resulting from physical impairments.” The precise meaning of this exclusion is being debated before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

As the story goes, Kesha Williams, a transgender woman, was jailed in Fairfax County, Virginia, for six months. She was housed with men and denied hormone treatments. She is suing under the ADA, which might be surprising considering the ADA’s explicit gender exclusion.

However, overruling a previous full 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that threw out Williams case on an eight-to-seven party-line vote, a 4th Circuit Panel recently re-instated the suit on a two-to-one vote stating “a transgender person’s medical needs are just as deserving of treatment and protection as anyone else’s” (Reuters 10-9-22). U.S. Circuit Judge James Wynn, an Obama appointee, stated on behalf of the majority (of two), “gender dysphoria” is not the same as “gender identity disorder.”

Google defines gender dysphoria as “a condition or feeling of not identifying with your birth sex” (definition accessed 10-10-22). Sidestepping the negative connotations of labeling questions of gender identity as “disorders,” I am persuaded that one must know they have the identity disorder before they can have the dysphoria that results from it.

Judge Wynn may be correct; there is a difference, one of succession, but the existence of the one is predicated on being a member of the class of the other, not the other way around. Not all rectangles are squares but all squares are rectangles. Such a subtle argument comes down to which way you to choose to argue, and, unfortunately, that is probably going to be a partisan decision supported by some kind of political rationale.

The definitions of “disability,” “disorder,” and “dysphoria” play into recent discussions here at home.

According to a recent Aspen Times article (10-3-22), the Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) is offering a “toolkit” to faculty and staff in order to help them understand “transgender, gender expansive, and LGBTQ+ students.”

The rationale given by Anna Cole, chief of student and family services for the RFSD, is that these students are more likely to feel “isolated, less supported, and subject to bullying than any other students.” This statement is backed by various studies showing that students who are not cisgender are much more likely to consider suicide.

In a casual Google search, I saw numbers that say students who question whether they are hetero-normative are 45% to 60% more likely to have suicidal thoughts. But, even here, we can find dissent. Philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Camus have argued that thoughts of suicide or existential angst can drive moral accountability and life changes for the better.

How do you define dysphoria? How do you define suicidal thoughts? What are you trying to accomplish?

Arguing about definitions is always a rabbit hole, like Plato trying to define sexuality in the Symposium. Plato ends the dialogue with a myth — as he does sometimes. He retells the myth of the hermaphrodites, a myth previously told in Hesiod’s Theogony.

The hermaphrodites were a mighty precursor to humans, “titans” if you will. They were comprised of both the male and female sexes. They were so powerful they sought to overrun Olympus itself, home of the gods.

When they were on the verge of prevailing, mighty Zeus rose from his throne and threw a lightning bolt, which split the hermaphrodites in two. He then condemned the newly cloven beings to spend all of their vast energies searching for their other half, thereby ensuring the safety of Olympus.

Homo and hetero, Greek for same and different, words as abstract as you can get. Some people find love in those definitions. Others find conflict and hate. One way or another, they are only definitions.   

David Hale earned a joint Ph.D. from the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology in Philosophy, Religion and Cultural Theory. He is a lecturer in philosophy at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. He lives in Snowmass, where he works full time as a contractor and lives with his wife, Susan, dog-child, Bodhi, and their cat, Black Kitty.