Identity Theft

October 11, 2011

Political Theory


In light of the recent discussion on identity and moral conflicts, I stumbled upon an article that describes one of the more controversial dilemmas of modern day: the topic of gender identity and conformity. As one of the leading debate topics, many argue the origins of sex and gender, as biological or social, and if gender can ever be altered by social influences.  Now the point of this post is far from which side is right and which side is wrong because that debate itself is never-ending. What I want to address are the moral values that clash in this specific situation and then raise a much larger question about humanity in general. 

This CNN article specifically describes a case in which a little boy repeatedly tells his parents that he is a girl. Even though his parents think he is confused, they try to force upon him the idea that he is a boy. Much to their discretion, this boy insists he is a girl and prefers dolls to footballs, and dresses to shorts. The article brings up the question of gender conformity and acceptance, describing how some children feel they are of the other sex and do not agree with nor accept the social role they were given by their parents at birth. In many instances with gender acceptance, parents choose a social role for the child to fulfill and form the child’s sex as male or female.

We have seen in our recent studies the argument of ascriptive identity by Appiah. He references this in more of the ethical sense, but the argument can still be applied to gender roles. The idea of your identity being chosen by another person seems illogical and immoral, particularly in one of the most liberal countries in the world, one in which the individual has the freedom to basically do whatever he or she pleases. The phrase, “Identity Theft” is known to most in another context, but the play on words is of utmost relevance to this topic. From this very young age, your sex and gender, two characteristics that have a lasting impact on your future and can shape the outcome of your life, are determined by someone else. In my eyes, your identity is essentially stolen, hence the title of this post.

Thomas Lober wearing girls clothes and playing with dolls.

The question is about humanity, not specifically the parents determining the sex of their child, but the topic seems to arise most in these conditions. The question of is it right addresses the morality component; can a parent choose to raise a child as whichever sex they choose, or does this situation warrant input from the child? It may be in good intention, but I feel that it steps on the rights of their child. Contingent facts of birth, factors in life that may have turned out differently, over which the child has no control, are determined by the parents, but here I feel there is a misinterpretation of which aspects of life they can in fact control. Determining where to live, the social class the child is born into, these are factors parents can and should control; choosing what sex their child is should not be controlled. Most parents cannot predetermine the sex at conception, so they should not be able to determine this after birth either. Biology, though, has created unique situations such as intersex babies (male and female characteristics) and psychological discrepancies (feeling of belonging among other sex) that place parents in difficult situations: choose a gender for their child and risk potential distress attempting to find true identity, or allow the child to select a gender role and receive criticism.

In the end, if parents have good intentions to protect their child and may prevent the embarrassment of say a boy without male organs, can they raise their child whatever way they want? People like me think it is unethical to determine the identity of others regardless of their age. No one knows themselves better or knows what is best for themselves more than that person. I feel it is a violation of rights to define the being of someone else. Since this is a controversial topic, it is obviously up for discussion: is it ever morally acceptable for one person to choose or force an identity on someone else? Where do one’s rights end and another’s begin?

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5 Comments on “Identity Theft”

  1. Brian Hall Says:

    This is an interesting dilemma that I had never really considered in the case of child vs. parental rights. There are many other more obvious examples of where these two competing interests can lead to controversial situations. These can range from the trivial, i.e. what if someone intentionally or not gives their child an awkward name that could cause social stigma (obviously this can be changed later, so it’s not as important an issue, but still worth considering), to the more serious such as vaccination, circumcision, baptism (or other religious rights), etc. which are all matters where there is a lack of consent on the part of the infant to a potentially permanent (physically, spiritually, psychologically or otherwise) effect on their life. The judgment of the parents is often trusted in these cases to be sufficient in determining what is appropriate for their child’s well-being, and in turn how they should, at least in part, live their life.

    At the risk of getting slightly off topic, I think this news story from a while ago illustrates well the absurdity of how far these things can go:

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35337306/ns/us_news-weird_news/t/ohio-man-accused-tattooing-tots-rear-end/

    In the case of choosing a gender norm for one’s child, it is so little debated, or even acknowledged as being controversial, that I didn’t even consider it a potential point of debate; if someone is born with a penis (to be blunt), should they be raised as a boy? Most of the debate I’ve heard on such topics has focused solely on what specific gender norms should be reinforced (e.g. should we encourage our boys to play war games and pretend to kill people? Is it ethical to encourage boys to be tough and characterize those who develop thick skin late as being “cry babies”?), or whether it’s ok to allow deviations from the norms, how extreme those deviations should be allowed to be, and how often they should be allowed to deviate. The idea that a child should be completely left to develop his or her own gender identity entirely independent of parental expectations is novel to me.

    The difficulty with this consideration lies in its practical application. Is it possible to eliminate all potential sources of gender biasing from a child’s sphere of influence (relatives, media, and peers)? The answer, of course, is no.

    In addition to this, there is certainly something to be said for the opposite opinion. Perhaps it is the parents’ obligation to properly socialize the child into the correct gender from an early age so as to avoid as much confusion or existential angst during development. Figuring out one’s way in the world can be extremely difficult, and without direction, even harder. If society clings to classical conceptualizations of masculinity and femininity, then proportionally speaking, most people will be able to find a role in society that they feel comfortable filling in a way that requires the least effort (if they are socialized into it by parents, media etc.). The downside of this lies in outliers; individuals confused about their gender identity for whatever reason (sexuality or intersex conditions most importantly) will feel ostracized and experience overwhelming difficulty in life as a result.

    Should everyone face a harder time finding themselves on their own (without socialized gender), or should that burden be heaped upon those who fall outside of the norm? It’s really a question of utilitarianism vs. equal distribution, and the answer depends on one’s own particular goals. I personally see parallels to the debate between the utility of capitalism and socialism. It is no surprise to me in a country like the U.S. where capitalism is so deeply rooted that strong gender role values are also present (perhaps it is the Marxist in me that is overly given to these sorts of comparisons?).

    One of the things that can help to resolve this sort of question (or for that matter, any question), is rational scientific inquiry. Certainly there are obvious biological, physical differences between men and women that contribute to separate personality traits independent of social development. In different parts of the world, regardless of the culture an individual grows up in, the vast majority of boys and of girls exhibit similar traits (to each other grouped by sex). Perhaps it would be useful to determine what these traits specifically are, eliminating any socialized aspects that are not universal, as a means of determining what is truly “normal” for a particular gender role. Obviously this has been done to a large extent in pieces for a long time, however the results, to my knowledge, of a massive latitudinal psychological study of an equal distribution of people from all cultures around the world to determine these exact norms has never been undertaken. There’s a controversial Herculean task for somebody out there ready for the taking.

    To sum this up before I start to ramble, there is plenty of media out there relating to gender roles and ethics of conformity vs. individuality in this regard that is worth viewing. In particular, I remember seeing an obscure Belgian movie a while back called “Ma Vie en Rose” that was fairly intriguing. I’m really only tacitly recommending this film, as I honestly can’t remember whether I even liked it, but I do remember that it addresses many of these themes quite well.

  2. Mason Bear Says:

    As the general acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals grow within society questions are raised that ceased to exist several centuries ago. The issue of identity theft is a growing concern as many religions reject the lifestyle that the gay, bisexual, and transgender population leads. Take, for example, a young man who upon coming out to his parents is shipped to “straight” camps designed to force him into a straight lifestyle that is not his own. In the United States one’s rights begin at the age of eighteen and until then are merely a puppet of their parental guardians.

    So, is it ever acceptable to force an identity on someone else? Generally, the question raises negative connotations, but the quick judgement is often unfair. If you were a parent would you seek help, and ultimately change, for your young teen who claims he is a serial killer? If you were a Jew living in Germany during the holocaust would you force your loved ones to assume a different identity in the hopes of them surviving? There is no clear answer. Personally, I believe forcing an identity on someone else is only acceptable if their own identity will bring on harmful action to either themselves or others. In the fight for individual identity a blurry line between helpful action and harmful action are formed.

  3. zekeharris Says:

    This has been a question I feel like that has been asked since human existent. But in my opinion I feel it is the duty of a parent to (more or less) make decisions for their child that they believe if the best for them to survive and live prosperously. I think we all recognize the fact that parents should take care of their children and have say in their lives. This seems like another question of “private vs public” and in such cases of gender role uncertainty may need the government to step in. Although it is true that no one can know you better than you. I also believe it is good to recognize the “mother knows best” theory. While both of these are correct in there own ways I feel that there are just so many factors that contribute to this issue that each side.
    The “privacy” of the home could be used in the parents defense for raising their child in the way they find most suitable. Whether that be in the “normal” heterosexual gender roles that leave no variation or in a way that they do not even tell their child which gender role they should fill. Their are so many variations that one could say the parent is intruding on the child’s right to choose. The rights I believe begin and end in the same place that privacy is recognized for their right to choose.

  4. brianfrankel Says:

    In High School, I had to read the book Middlesex for English. In this book, the main character has a genetic mutation in his genes that causes him to appear as a girl at birth. Consequently, he is raised as a girl all his life, and only slowly does he realize that he is in fact a male. When this happens, he is forced to see a doctor that attempts to make him be a girl once again, as thats how his genitalia define him to be (his condition is such that his male parts are inside his body). In the end, it is this doctor that actually reinforces his being a male and helps him create a new identity that he does become comfortable with. I think that this book exemplifies the fact that no individual other than yourself can define your identity.

    However, I do believe that it is unreasonable to expect parents to not attempt to fit their children into an identity role upon birth. No parent is perfect, and as such no parent can perfectly predict how his/her child will wish to be treated once the child gains a sense of individualism. On the other hand, once a decision is reached by their child, parents should adhere to that decision. While I may not have the experience to back up how I believe parents should react, I do know that in today’s world trying to coerce someone out of their beliefs only escalates that person’s behavior.

  5. mfriedlander92 Says:

    I think that in many cases the parents think they are doing what is best for their child. Because it takes someone so long to figure out who they are, if you have an intersex child, the parents just choose what gender they want to raise their child because it seems easier. Many times this isn’t true and it messes the kids up; however, as long as the parents are not trying to change the gender of the child or force something upon them then I think it isn’t unethical or technically their fault.

    It is hard to tell what your child is going to be like when they grow up and if you have an intersex child, you need to choose at a young age what they are going to be raised. If the child grows up though and feels out of place and like they are a girl in a boy’s body or vice versa I think that it is necessary for the parents to understand this and allow the changes to happen. This is when it becomes unethical, because if the parents choose for the child to be a girl, but they really feel like a boy and act like a boy, and then doesn’t accept the changes within their child because they wanted their child to be a girl then that is not okay. But if they allow the change and accept that then I think that is okay.

    I also agree with Zekeharris that it is a case of public vs. private. Because in the end it is the choice of the parents and I think that they are never intentionally trying to mess up their kids. These cases are so touchy that I don’t think anyone can make a blanket statement saying that the way the parents act is ethical or unethical. In the end it is how these parents deal with the situation and what their intentions are but no one has the right to tell them they are wrong, because “mother does know best.”

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