The Dangers of Identity


The 58 year-old woman knows something is wrong with her body, has known since the age of 4. The Cambridge graduate believes both of her legs do not belong to her and dreams of being paralysed from the waist down. Her belief is so strong that she has searched for physicians who would be willing to severe her nerves so she can fulfill her dream of becoming her true disabled self.

There are others like her, able bodied people who feel as if they are living a lie. Psychiatrist Michael First has identified dozens of people who feel the same way. One, Michael Comer, says he has “rejected” his left leg since the age of 6. His feeling that his healthy leg should not be there is so intense that he eventually dropped a concrete block on his leg in the hope that he could damage it to the point where amputation was required. To his great disappointment doctors were able to save the leg.

While the number of healthy people who “identify” as disabled is not great, they have gotten attention to the point where there is a push to recognize the disorder as a legitimate medical condition. The term “Body Integrity Identity Disorder” has as a result entered the medical lexicon. Unsurprisingly, there is now debate in the medical community as to how to respond to these people. Should their “identity” be honored? Or should they be treated as mentally ill? How should doctors respond? If it is a valid medical condition, is it medically ethical to remove a perfectly healthy limb because a patient feels it doesn’t belong?

According to one author in the Journal of Medical Ethics, the answer is a resounding “yes.” In the abstract for his article on the issue Anahita Dua states, " a discourse on how the accepted notion of harm does not apply to apotemnophilia (BIID) is developed to justify the position that amputation is indeed medically the ethical choice”

This is the place we have reached in our society. A person’s feelings are now the most important factor in identity, and these feelings must be recognized by society, no matter how absurd, preposterous or harmful they may seem to others.

There is one question that seems to be persistently ignored. “What if someone’s feelings are wrong?”

I have always considered feelings unreliable. When my children were growing up I had conversations with them about the danger of following their feelings. I asked them, “Is it possible to feel something strongly and believe something deeply and be wrong?” In each of these conversations they both answered in the affirmative. I then asked them a follow up question. “When you feel something strongly and believe something deeply, how do you know if you are wrong or right?”

This is the heart of the matter. We have all experienced times when we were certain of something that later turned out to be wrong. Many of us have experienced adverse outcomes because we acted on mistaken beliefs. We all, if we had been able to listen, would have benefited from outside counsel pointing out the error in our thinking.

And yet here we are, living in a society where the problem is not that someone wants to cut off their leg, but that anyone else would question the desire. How did we get here? How did feelings become the ultimate determinant of morality?

It seems to me that it is the rejection of truth that is the root of our current problem. Turning away from the idea of moral constants, and of moral certainty, has led us to where we are.

There was a time in our society, and in western society at large, when there was a common understanding of right and wrong and a common agreement as to Who it was that defined right and wrong. While there was always debate on the nature of God, there was a near universal agreement that there was a God and that it was He who made the rules.

It was understood that there were good actions and bad actions, good people and bad people, and there was a way to measure and identify each. All of the realms of human existence and relationships could be assessed in the context a transcendent moral law.

These concepts and ideals are being rejected today. In their place a new morality has arisen, individual in nature and focus. Right and wrong are no longer determined by God or a universal code, but instead by each person for himself. Each man and each woman is in charge of their lives, their destiny and their morality. We each get to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong.

With the idea that each person gets to decide for themselves comes another concept, the idea that no person gets to judge the decisions of anyone else. Asserting the right or ability to judge the actions of another carries with it an undesired consequence, the right of others to judge me, and no one wants this.

Deference and “tolerance” become the order of the day. Think you are a Furry beast? Or that your left leg should be removed? Who am I to question it you? Feel like you are a woman born into a man’s body and want your perfectly normal genitalia removed? I must support your belief without question or be damned as an intolerant bigot.

Evidence that we have reached the place where mindless, unquestioning support of the feelings of others is required can be found in the response of the medical community to issues such as transgenderism. Researchers are searching for a medical explanation to the condition, for a biological explanation, for evidence that people are “born this way.”

They forget that being born with something does not make something normal. The vast number of genetic diseases and illnesses speak to this truth. Normal is not defined genetically, but socially. As an extreme example, I doubt that discovering a “Murder gene” would suddenly make homicide acceptable!

So what do we do? How do we respond?

While it is possible that we have reached the point of no return, that society has gone so far over the feelings cliff that reason has been permanently abandoned, I do not believe that absolves me of my personal responsibility. My role remains unchanged. My job is to “speak the truth in love” and accept whatever consequences society decides to hand out.


A Close Encounter of the Furry Kind


A few weeks back we joined several friends and participated in the ALS Walk to raise funds for research into the crippling fatal disease (one of our friends is currently battling the illness.) Thousands of people showed up in support of friends and loved ones whose lives had been impacted by the condition. As we gathered with our friends in preparation for the walk, garbed in our matching blue T-shirts, we noticed another group gathering in completely different attire, a group of Furries.

There were about 50 of them, and their costumes were extravagant. Most wore full body outfits, coming as dogs, cats, birds, and cartoon dragons. (I would say it looked like a convention of college mascots except for the fact that college mascots don’t tend to be anime in appearance.)

When the walk began they were at the front, selfie sticks in hand, paw, or claw, and they all walked together. I assumed that were walking in remembrance of a Furry friend who had died from the disease. After the completion of the walk they again huddled together, arms around each other, in a large circle, hugging and consoling one another.

When we completed the walk my wife and I went over to a nearby food truck to get a drink and some breakfast. While we were in a line one of the Furries got in line behind us. He/she/it had apparently broken off from the herd in search of sustenance. We did a very poor job of trying not to stare at the Furry as we bought our food, after receiving it we stood to the side as the Furry approached the counter. Its full body costume was adorned in white fur, topped with the head of a bird. Its beak was yellow-gold, with black fur around the eyes. On its back were two small wings. A tail went out from behind, arching back and up into the air. I think it was supposed to be a cartoon dragon.

“May I take your order?” said the man in the food truck. “Caw, Caw,” the Furry replied. The obviously confused food truck man repeated his question, and the furry cawed back the same reply. It then turned and walked away. Lisa and I looked at each other, and said in unison, “What the heck?” It was an unforgettable encounter with weirdness.

I went home that night and did what any red-blooded internet connected American would do. I googled “Furries.” In the Wikipedia entry on the subject I found a lot of information including this remarkable sentence-

Some furries identify as partly non-human: 35% say they do not feel 100% human (compared with 7% of non-furries), and 39% say they would be 0% human if they could (compared with 10% of non-furries).

What struck me was the word identify. The word has come to be very important in our culture, and has had a profound impact on our politics and our social interactions. We live in a world where increasing emphasis is being placed on how people see themselves, with less emphasis on what they actually are. 

The Furry phenomenon allows us to step back and consider the ramifications of this societal change. As is often the case, taking a thought or process to its extreme can provide important context. Furry identification as part-animal represents such an extreme of self-identification. One can rightly ask, “How much deference and respect am I required to give to someone who identifies as a dog?”

I have first-hand experience with this scenario. When my son was two he went through a dog stage. He was obsessed with the movie 101 Dalmatians. My wife made him a spotted costume for Halloween and he wore it all of the time. When he wore it he went into full dog mode he would often answer our questions with “woof.” It was cute, but after a while it became annoying.

While we tolerated the behavior in our cute little son, I don’t think anyone would expect us to tolerate the same behavior in an adult. It would be rather difficult to care for a patient who responded to my interview questions with barks or chirps!

As absurd as this extreme is, it is informative. It raises the question, “How far must we go to accommodate identity?” A question I will answer in an upcoming post.