Saturday, December 17, 2016

Attack of the Yeshiva University Faculty


Recently, political commentator Ben Shapiro spoke at my alma mater, Yeshiva University. He mocked transgenders as "mentally ill." Shapiro came under attack by many faculty members in signed a letter to the YU Commentator. Among the signers were some people I respect such as Steven Fine and Elizabeth Stewart. In addition, R. Shalom Carmy, the man my younger brother predicted I would be in a few decades, wrote his own letter.

I have criticized Shapiro in the past over his treatment of Islam. In this case, I do not support treating transgenders as mentally ill for the simple reason that I find the entire notion of mental illness to be meaningless. There is no empirical basis for calling anyone mentally ill. The only difference between saying that transgenders are mentally ill and saying that they are just born that way or that they are pursuing an "alternative lifestyle" is a value judgment. If you think there is something inherently bad about a transgender lifestyle then transgenders must, by definition, be mentally ill to desire to pursue such destructive ends. If, as most westerners today, you find nothing problematic about transgenderism than transgenders are not mentally ill. There is no empirical fact that could change your mind in the absence of a value judgment. What remains of mental illness is the political category of people that cannot be trusted within the framework of the social contract. For example, I could not care less if the people who believe that I am the High Comrade of the Young Elders of Zion should be deemed "mentally ill."  They need to be locked up or preferably sent to gas chambers. Their belief presents an implicit threat to my safety and the only true solution is to eliminate such people. 

The fact that the very concept of mental illness is absurd makes the faculty letter, in turn, very problematic. The signers point out: "Shapiro is not an expert on transgender experience or mental health, and his opinion does not reflect the current understanding of these very serious issues, in which people’s lives are literally at stake." 

I agree that Shapiro is not an expert on transgenderism, but then again no one is. We are dealing with a non-empirical non-rationalist concept so no one can claim any kind of objective knowledge about it. Even transgenders themselves can only describe their own personal experiences, not the wider experience of "transgenderism." 
It is important to keep in mind that psychiatry is not a science. It does not make any empirically predictive claims nor is it united by any kind of consistent methodology. Take any side you wish on the question of the sanity of transgenders and try to construct a test that might even hypothetically be valid. Therefore, an expert psychiatrist is in the same category as an expert theologian. Anyone can claim to be an expert theologian. Therefore, there can be no expert theologians.   

Because we are not dealing with objective physical reality, but only with subjective personal feelings, lives, by definition, cannot "literally" be at stake. If a transgender person immediately walked out of Shapiro's speech went home and blew their brains out, Shapiro would not be responsible in the least. He did not physically cause the death nor is there any reason to assume he conspired to bring it about. If anything, the faculty is endangering Shapiro's life. It is plausible that the government will use this kind of argument to pursue ideological opponents. It should not be too difficult to find a case of someone committing suicide less than twenty-four hours after reading a Shapiro column, giving the government a pretext to arrest Shapiro for murder. (Of course, by this logic, professors can go to jail if a student commits suicide after failing a class.) It would not unreasonable to charge the signers of this letter with state collaboration and conspiracy to initiate violence. Such charges are not physical acts of violence but are violations of the social contract.  

I would like to conclude with a challenge to those who condemn Shapiro. If Shapiro had questioned the sanity of someone, who wanted their doctor to slice off their left pinky because they felt that they were really a "nine-fingered person," would you have denounced Shapiro with equal vehemence? From a purely logical point of view, there is no difference between someone whose happiness depends on surgically altering their hands or their privates to suit their subjective conceptions of themselves. Both cases would be irrational (as would any kind of plastic surgery). That being said, as a libertarian, I accept that humans are not beings of pure logic (more Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments than his Wealth of Nations) and it is their right to pursue their subjective desires as long as they do not initiate violence against anyone. By that same logic, I accept that people will have irrational distastes for certain behaviors and will express them through mockery.         

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