Biology, Destiny, and the Politics of Dys-

freudI am aware that when Freud pronounced his now-vilified dictum of biological determinism, “anatomy is destiny,” he was referring specifically to sexuality, which is not my subject here–at least not my only subject. However, because I like to be well informed even about my offhand references, I attempted to learn a little more about the Freudian pronouncement than I knew from Psychology 101. So thorough has been the vilification of this idea that my Google search for “Freud AND anatomy is destiny” yielded almost nothing except crowdsourced interpretation, misrepresentation–and a Wikipedia entry about an album by a death metal band. I did find one excellent article that provides both historical context and serious analysis:

Moi, Toril. “Is Anatomy Destiny? Freud and Biological Determinism.” In Peter Brooks and Alex Woloch, eds. Whose Freud? The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000: 71-92.

As is usually the case, Moi’s discussion reveals that what Freud said (and probably meant) was much more complex than both his detractors and his mostly now-defunct supporters have implied. Specifically, she discusses the dangers inherent in mistranslation; she points out that the German word Schicksal (die Anatomie ist das Schicksal) leans more toward fate than destiny in English and that the German is much darker than the English in its emphasis on death and destruction rather than a neutral determinism–fatality rather than fatalism (72-74).  She also reveals that when Freud first made his declaration in 1912, he was referring to sexuality in general (the anatomical placement of the genitals, both male and female). When he repeated the words in 1924, he was indeed referring specifically to sexual difference; however, Moi suggests that Freud was possibly declaring not what woman must necessarily be, but simply that “anatomical differences will give rise to psychological or psychosexual differences” (81).

My point in this rabbit trail is that the 21st-century illuminati have indulged in so much calumny of biological determinism that only minimal understanding remains of how we got where we are and even of what we actually believe.

I’ll say without hesitation that I do believe biology is in many ways destiny. And so do most of those who would shudder in horror at the very suggestion. I’m not referring specifically to external anatomy, which is why I made the subtle shift from anatomy to biology. The latter includes, of course, the anatomy of the brain, but it also includes neurology and genetics, to name only only a few sub-disciplines much touted in current discourse. That discourse is valid insofar as it makes the point that people should be accepted for who they are; and who they are is generally how they were born. But the human species has a very mixed record over history–the present moment included–in our treatment of those we see as the Other.

The most fundamental instinct in species including our own is to punish those with de-fects, dis-ease,  dis-abilities, or other conditions we call dys- (“bad, ill, abnormal”). The most serious and final punishment has taken various forms over the millennia of human history. Ancient and even prehistorical records reveal the widespread practice of infanticide, frequently because of defect or illness. Hitler was only the most notorious proponent of killing defective people of any age. Not far behind outright killing, compulsory sterilization was not limited to the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, which targeted those with physical disabilities and low IQs as well as criminals, “deviants,” and others deemed unfit to reproduce. Notably, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina sponsored the sterilization of more than 7,500 “physical, mental, and social misfits” between 1929 and 1974. Other punishments have ranged from institutionalization of the “feeble-minded” or “morally defective” to the practice of selective abortion, which even the enlightened of 2016 deem ethical and humane.

A less draconian treatment of those deemed defective or otherwise different has been the impulse to fix or cure them. While generally condemning punishment as a solution, twenty-first-century ethics reveals no consensus on this practice. Most agree on the rectitude of extraordinary measures to preserve the lives of severely disabled newborns, even those with conditions diagnosed as incompatible with life. We provide prostheses for people missing limbs, wheelchairs for the non-ambulatory, surgeries for congenital heart defects and cleft palates and lips. We teach life skills to those with intellectual disabilities and provide innumerable and creative therapies for those born with other physical, mental, and developmental disabilities. Not all of these curative efforts receive universal applause, though. One salient example is the use of cochlear implants to establish hearing and language skills in children born deaf. Those who object to this attempted cure see deafness not as a disability; instead, they promote the view that those who cannot hear constitute a cultural minority, the Deaf.

This subtle orthographic change signals a third approach to difference in our culture–renaming and reclassifying. Being deaf is a sign of defect, but being Deaf is a point of cultural pride. The phrase “deaf and dumb” has been unacceptable so long that my current students do not even recognize the original meaning of the latter term; I myself learned only today that both mute and deaf-mute are now considered “objectionable” by the Usage Panel over at American Heritage. The not quite Deaf are hearing impaired, and the blind are visually impaired. The once ballyhooed “differently abled” and “challenged” are now scorned as overly euphemistic and even condescending. However, we have softened the idea of drug addiction to substance abuse, manic depression to bipolar disorder, and mental retardation to intellectual disability. A 2015 article in British Journal of Psychiatry reports on a study of renaming schizophrenia as “integration disorder” to decrease the stigma of psychosis. We are cautioned to view alcoholism not as a bad habit, but as a disease. And of course, no one has problems any more, whether it be with anger or marriage or self-esteem; they are all “issues.”

The renaming frenzy is nowhere so conspicuous as in the LGBT community, which is most currently, I believe, LGBTQ. The mots du jour include transvestite, transsexual, transgender, and trans*. And then there are genderqueer and genderfluid and non-binary–even  genderfuck. Gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder is now officially gender nonconformance, at least at the Institute for Sexual Medicine. Not to be outdone, the rest of us must own up to and apologize for our heteronormativity.

Clearly, the LGBTQ community has endured all the stages in the process I have outlined. Throughout history, they have been killed or tortured or imprisoned, and our current age is no exception. They have endured attempts to cure their sexual orientation through electric shock and other forms of conversion or reparative therapy. Although recent reports that Vice President-elect Mike Pence advocated such therapies are false, he did support in his 2000 campaign for Congress the use of resources to assist “those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” Renaming themselves–even with asterisks and alphabet soup–is an understandable response after being subject to society’s previous methods of dealing with their difference.

The necessary next step in this process is what I call normalization, and it leads me back to my introduction on biology and destiny. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association determined that homosexuality was not a pathology and removed it from the Diagnostic and Static Manual of Mental Disorders. Recent science leaves little doubt that all the gradations on the continuum of human sexuality are determined by biology. Once blamed on weak fathers, domineering mothers, or childhood sexual abuse, homosexuality and gender fluidity are now accepted by a majority of people as variations of what it means to be normal, based on genetics, brain structure, brain function, and prenatal hormone exposure.  Sound reasoning based on these premises has led to the decriminalization of homosexuality, the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in anti-discrimination legislation, and the legalization of same-sex marriage. Although some religious groups and social conservatives oppose these developments, the pendulum is unlikely to swing in the other direction.

In the effort to repent for its past sins towards those it has shunned as Other, our society has in many cases taken a further step and offered compensatory damages. In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly authorized $10 million in actual damages to victims of its eugenics program. Because our national holidays were deemed too Eurocentric, Congress passed and Ronald Reagan signed into law Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in 1983. We have Black History Month and Gay Pride Month. In several schools across the country, boys have been named homecoming queen. Universities have departments and professional organizations publish journals dedicated to disability studies. In 2013, my alma mater, the University of Arizona, announced, “Transgender Studies Faculty Cluster Hire Underway!” I cannot create instructional videos for my classes–one of the items on my 2016-2017 plan for professional development–because I am unable to provide closed captioning (I have had two deaf students in 24 years of teaching). We provide special hate-crime status to offenses against members of select minorities. We have film festivals and parades and benefit concerts honoring those we once criminalized. The destiny of biology has come full circle, and we idealize and glamorize entire groups of people because they were born different. Who can–who would even want to–argue with biological determinism?

The last remaining monsters
That rhetorical question brings me to my dénouement. People on the left (of which I am a proud but not knee-jerk member) are self-styled champions of rights for all–voting rights for women in the 1910s, civil rights for African-Americans in the 1960s, equal rights for women in the 1970s, accessibility rights for the disabled in the 1980s, and legal and civil rights for homosexuals in the 1990s until now. In each of these movements, the rallying cry has been that people must not be deprived of their rights because of who they are: their sex, their color, their abilities, their sexuality–their biology. But those who passionately defend the rights of all have turned a blind eye to the marginalized status of one group. In fact, they have turned upside down their own arguments for tolerance and acceptance and made a cause celèbre out of denying rights to this group because of their purported biology.

Men convicted–or even accused–of sexual offenses are demonized in our culture. They have been locked up, and the key might as well have been thrown away because even after serving a sentence pronounced in a court of law, they will never be free. As of 2015, twenty states require some form of civil commitment (read: ongoing incarceration) for violent sex offenders after their release from prison. All 50 states have a registry for sex offenders–ranging from a minimum of 5 years in Kansas to life in 13 states. In some jurisdictions, even those who have committed such minor offenses as public indecency and misdemeanor sexual assault must register. And the list of injustices goes on. In some places, sex offenders cannot live within a certain distance of schools, public parks, or other places where families might gather. They cannot participate in social media sites including Facebook and Twitter. In 2008, the governor of Missouri signed into law SB714, which provides in Section 589.426:

This act restricts certain activities of sex offenders on Halloween. They are required to avoid all Halloween-related contact with children, remain inside his or her residence between 5 and 10:30 p.m. unless there is just cause to leave, post a sign stating, “No candy or treats at this residence”, and leave all outside residential lighting off during the evening hours.

Clearly, when dealing with sex offenders, society has not progressed beyond the first step in the process I have discussed. The merciless efforts to continue punishing sex offenders long past their criminal sentences result from a persistent if spurious belief that they cannot be cured. According to a 2008 article in Scientific American, the American public, fed on a steady diet of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, believes that 75 percent of sex offenders reoffend. However, the actual numbers are far less; one study found recidivism rate of 14 percent over 5-6 years and 24 percent after 15 years, and others have compiled similar results. Yet public perception remains unchanged: Sexual offenders are hard wired to reoffend, and they cannot be rehabilitated.

In the unlikely event that they cannot be changed–that is, that their sexual nature is biological–can they be renamed? The evidence of intolerance is clear in this area as well, and the renaming is likewise in the wrong direction. Those who were once peeping Toms are now voyeurs, and they can be prosecuted for sexual deviancy in all 50 states. Creepy uncles are now pedophiles. And even children as young as 5 who engage in normal sexual exploration can be deemed sexual predators–a designation that will follow them at least until they are 18.  We have renamed these people–whether because of biology or because they made a mistake. We call them monsters. And we treat them as monsters.

The time has come for a consistency check in the politics of dys-.

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2 Responses to Biology, Destiny, and the Politics of Dys-

  1. Carmalee Scarpitti says:

    Although sex offenders are the most extreme example, the marginalization of those who have been incarcerated, or have a criminal record, permeates our society. In most cases this record follows the person for the rest of their lives. If you think serving a sentence means the person has paid their debt to society you probably don’t know anyone who has a criminal record. For starters, many landlords won’t rent to someone who has a record and many employers won’t hire them. Kind of makes it hard to become a productive member of society.

    As bad as this is for an adult, consider what it means to a juvenile charged as an adult. If you think this only happens in heinous crimes, think again. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the brain is not developed until we are in our mid-20’s NC and NY are required by law to charge 16 and 17 year olds as adults and 9 other states are required to charge 17 year olds as adults. A child can make one stupid mistake and be saddled with a criminal record for the rest of their life.

    In addition to the issues with housing and jobs, a record can limit a child’s career choice, i.e. felons can not hold a medical license, and, depending on the offense, prevent them from receiving financial aid for college (ironically, if they were still incarcerated they could be taking college classes for free.)

    Even though ex-offenders have paid their debt to society modern society continues to exact a heavy penalty from them.

    • Boz says:

      Thank you for this excellent addition to my post, Carmie. You are absolutely right. I didn’t venture too far into this area because I was trying to stick to the “biology-as-destiny” idea. I thought of including the 1970s furor over the XYY chromosome as a “criminal gene,” but I had already gone on far too long by then.

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