Gender Nominalism and Cats

My whole family had a pretty eventful summer from a medical point of view.  The most serious ailment happened to our cat.  He had a urinary blockage caused by crystal formation.  This is apparently rather common with male cats.  Basically, they form crystals in their urine.  These crystals clump together and get stuck in the urethra preventing any urine from leaving the bladder.  If the cats are not treated quickly, their bladders can burst like a water balloon and they die.  Luckily, we noticed a change in our cat’s behavior and I took him to the vet and he seems to be doing OK.  He’s on a special new diet and I had the joy of medicating a cat for a couple weeks, but he is acting like himself again.

The trick going forward is that some cats are prone to crystal formation and blockages.  That means that this could happen again at any time.  We’re keeping our fingers crossed that our cat is not one of the cats that is prone to this and we won’t have to deal with it again.  But, the vet assured us that if it does continue to happen, there is an option.  The option is called a perineal urethrostomy.  The way this procedure was explained to me is that the vet would cut off the cat’s penis and scrotum and then widen the urethra so that it is similar to a female cat’s urethra.  Apparently the reason that male cats are prone to this and female cats aren’t is because male cats have a longer and narrower urethra.  This surgery solves that problem.

The vet said that the surgery makes no difference to the cat.  It won’t change his behavior or require any special accommodations.  But, I can’t help thinking that we would be giving our cat a sex change.  I know that a real sex change is much more complicated than removing a penis.  I know this surgery isn’t actually a sex change, but the possibility of my cat having a perineal urethrostomy has made me think about sex and gender in a way I never have before.

I should back up a bit here.  I don’t like giving pets human names.  When I was a kid, I had a neighbor with a dog named Toby.  Now I can’t help thinking that Toby Maguire has a dog’s name.  More recently, I met a dog with the same name as my daughter.  Every time the dog’s owner gave the dog a command, I started to get defensive because I thought the dog’s owner was talking to my daughter.  Plus, names indicate a bunch of things to other people, from gender to age to familiarity to ethnicity.  Since I don’t care about my pets’ genders or ethnicities, and I presume that neither do they, there’s no need giving them names that indicate such things.  I’ve had cats named Ding and Dong.  I had an iguana named Guppy.  But, most of my pets are just called what they are (A fish is called Fish, and cat is called Cat, etc.).

I have had three (sort of) exceptions to my no human names for pets policy.  About fifteen years ago, I moved into a new place and there were two cats living there, Amber and Sasha.  My roommate wasn’t a cat person, so I happily adopted them, but didn’t change their names.  The really weird thing was that Amber was a male cat and Sasha was a female cat.  Whoever named them either didn’t know or thought giving a male cat a female name and a female cat a male name would be funny.  Either way, whenever I brought the cats to the vet, I had to correct them multiple times.  The third exception is my current cat, Calisi.  My daughter picked the name.  She had a teacher who had a cat named Khaleesi, after the Game of Thrones character.  My daughter has never seen or read Game of Thrones, but she liked the name.  Since we were getting a female, and Khaleesi is a fictional character, we figured it was OK.  Of course, it turns out our cat is male, not female, so we changed the spelling and kept the name.

As I said before, I don’t care about my pets’ gender (I suppose that’s not completely true.  I did specifically buy a male beta, but only because there is blatant sexual dimorphism in betas and the males are much prettier.)  It’s something I never really thought about at all.  The only reason I corrected the vet was in case the different anatomy might affect treatment in some way (Of course I am confident that the vet would have figured it out without my correction, but better safe than sorry.).  As far as I’m concerned, all non-human living beings can be referred to as “it” without any negative consequences.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with gender nominalism.  Well, while talking to the vet, I had a momentary Singerian* lapse and wondered what Calisi would think if we had to do the surgery, which meant trying to put myself in his place.  My little felinification (or is it catopomorphism?) thought experiment made me realize something surprising.  While I can’t be positive, since it was imaginary, I think my reaction to a perineal urethrostomy would be the same as undergoing any other medically necessary amputation.  It’s not something I would ever want to go through, but it is better than dying.  That was it.  I feel like society puts pressure on us to think of the penis as somehow different than other body parts.  But in my little thought experiment, it didn’t seem relevantly different.  When I came back up to the human level, it seemed that the penis is still not relevantly different.

When I say the penis is not relevantly different, I do understand that it is a unique organ.  I’m not saying something along the lines of, “It’s OK if I lose my penis, I still have my feet.”  What I’m saying is that, if it were a life threatening situation, I could lose a hand, a foot or a penis and still come out of it being me.  I would find the loss of any body part extremely distressing, but as long as it didn’t change who I am, I would learn to deal with it.  Being lobotomized would be relevantly different, because in that case, even if my body remained alive, I would be gone.

The next step is where I really began thinking about things differently.  When I thought about it, I realized that I honestly feel the same about people, when it comes to gender, ethnicity, etc., as I do about pets.  The only reason I call women “she” and men “he” is to avoid insulting anyone.  There are more than 7 billion people on the planet and there are fewer than five whose gender, ethnicity etc. make any difference at all to me.

This seemed strange when I first thought it, but I can’t quite figure out why.  I’ve known a bunch of people in my life.  Some claim to be men, others women.  Some claim to be gay, others straight.  Some claim to be Italian and others Polish.  It’s not like I’ve ever, nor have I ever wanted to, verify their claims.  Why would I?  On some level, I simply trust other people to identify themselves the way they want to be identified.  And, on another level, I just don’t care.  I don’t mean that in any kind of cold, calloused way.  I just mean that outside of myself and my wife it doesn’t make any difference to me how people identify themselves.  I do care in the sense that I generally wish happiness to others, so I hope that people identify in a way that makes them happy, but that’s it.

I guess the reason it seemed strange to me at first was that people do seem to care about how others identify themselves, even when those people have no relationship with each other.  There is a weird societal pressure to care, or at least have an opinion, but I can’t come up with any reason why.  People cared so much that Renee Richards had to have the New York State Supreme Court intervene to allow her to play tennis.  People claimed that they were afraid she was cheating.  She was only identifying as a woman so she could beat the easier competition.  But, come on, that’s a bad episode of Bosom Buddies, not real life.  I’m fairly certain that no one would undergo gender reassignment surgery just so they could enter a competition against women.  That’s not even close to realistic.  I’ve never met Renee Richards, and I’ll bet most, if not all, of you haven’t either.  Why should I have an opinion on her gender?  It doesn’t effect me or her.  If she’s happy being Renee, good for her.

So, the upshot of my cat getting sick was that I realized that I’m a gender nominalist.  I’m probably an ethnic nominalist and a bunch of other types of nominalist as well.  I’d never have given it much thought if not for wondering how my cat would feel about losing his penis.  It seems a strange path, but there you go.


*For those who don’t read much philosophy, this is a reference to Peter Singer.  He is a Utilitarian philosopher and probably one of the most read philosophers since World War II.  His most famous work is Animal Liberation where he argues (sort of**) that the suffering of animals is an important part of the Utilitarian calculus.

**I say sort of because his arguments are awful and his most controversial premises are always assumed rather than defended.

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