On self-definition and basic decency

Last week, I Facebook-liked a news item about an acquaintance of mine, Y., giving birth. The reason this was national news in Israel is that Y. identifies himself as a male. The article respected this, using the male gender even on the verb for “gave birth”. Two other acquaintances of mine made snide comments on Facebook, culminating in “it’s like they’re trying really hard to show that it’s actually a man who gave birth”.

I can understand this sentiment quite well. Some five years ago, Y. gave me a ride in his car; his self-definition as a male was new to me at the time, and indeed I had never had to deal with this situation before. I knew that Y. wished to be seen and treated as a man, and wanted to respect that, but it took me a lot of effort to start using the male gender for him.1 I remember sitting in the passenger seat, struggling with awkward silences, and trying to figure out how to speak to him, until I finally got a male “you” out of my mouth.

Today I have only minimal difficulty respecting the self-definition of the transgenders. I also expect other people to respect their self-definition, as I expect people to respect self-definition in other aspects of identity. How is the case of Y. different from my self-definition as an Israeli? After all, just as Y’s biological gender contradicts his self-definition as male, so does my American citizenship (from birth, via my mother) contradict my self-definition as Israeli.

There’s something incredibly arrogant, even obnoxious, about refusing to respect another person’s self-definition. People seem to recognize this more easily when it’s an entire group’s self-definition that is in question – Israelis take offense at someone denying our view of Israel, or Jews, as a community with a distinct identity; Palestinians take offense at someone denying their self-definition as a nation. The examples of groups getting furious about others denying their group identity are endless (Basques, Afrikaner, and French Muslims come to mind). Yet the same is also true in reverse – it is awful to be persecuted for belonging to a group you do not identify with, as some Europeans with Jewish ancestors discovered under the yoke of Nazi fascism.

As anyone who has ever had a crisis of identity will know, changing your self-definition is not an easy thing, and few people are able to do it on a whim. If a person whose genetic heritage says “female” or “Jew” decides they are “male” or “Muslim”, you can bet on it being important to them, and you can count on them having come, in some way, to the conclusion that the new label is more appropriate to them as a person. Ultimately, as an outsider, you cannot know better than them which label fits, and presuming to do so – even with excellent evidence – is insulting and degrading. It is to say that their self-knowledge and self-determination is of less importance than your knowledge of their background.

Again, I understand that it’s difficult to adjust to changes in the self-definition of others, even when you don’t know them (as in the case of my acquaintences’ comments about Y.) It is especially difficult regarding transgendered individuals, probably because being openly transgendered is a relatively new thing in Western societies, and because the conventional, ancient view of gender is as a completely inborn, unchangeable property. The idea that gender labels are entirely a social construct – albeit one influenced by a basic biological fact – is a very difficult idea to swallow. I find it counter-intuitive. But I also consider it intellectually undeniable – though I lack the ability to explain it properly and convince you it is so.

Be that as it may, gender labels are just one example, and my main point remains: hard as it is, respecting an individual’s self-definition is just basic decency, and refusing to respect it is indecent and offensive. I have to stress that I am not writing this to condemn or attack anybody. I acknowledge the difficulty involved, and only want to argue for the importance of making the effort to observe this basic, though unconventional, decency. Comments are open if you wish to dissuade me from or berate me for my deviant view of decency – discussion is welcome, as always.


  1. It’s important to note that in Hebrew, there are two different forms of singular “you” – one for males, another for females. The same applies to other pronouns, like “your”, as well as to verbs, like “like” – so I can inflect the sentence “Do you like hamburgers” one way for addressing a male (ata ohev hamburgerim?) and another for addressing a female (at ohevet hamburgerim?), but I have no way of leaving the sentence neutral as it would be in English. []

One thought on “On self-definition and basic decency”

  1. Michael,
    A very well-written, cutting-edge piece. I agree that we define ourselves and those who wish to interact with us must respect that.
    Yes, at times it may take some getting used to, but doing so is the ultimate show of esteem for another’s unique humanity.
    Great post!

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